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Grammar Basics

 Grammar Basics

A photo of single words on magnetic strips scattered on a white background

©TimHesterPhotography/iStock/Thinkstock. Used under licence. All rights reserved.

Have you been told that you need to work on your grammar? Do you get confused by terms like "pronoun," "conjunction," and "phrase"? Have you lost marks on an essay because of run-on sentences or subject/verb agreement, but don't know what you did wrong?

You're not alone!

Many people⁠—including people who grew up using English every day⁠—struggle with the rules of grammar.

This guide is here to help. We have very basic explanations of the major parts of speech, some common errors people make, and resources you can consult to learn more and practice your writing skills.

Resources
These resources cover many elements of grammar, and can give you a general overview of the major parts of speech and grammar rules:

What's a verb?

Verbs express actions...
           Fatima will come to my home for dinner tonight.
...events...
           The party happened on Friday.
...or states of being.
           My teacher is very nice.

Verbs have tenses (past, present, future, etc.) so that we can refer to actions, events, or states of being at different points in time.

They are also written/spoken differently depending on the subject, or the person/thing the verb relates to.

Common mistakes

Watch out for these common verb errors when you proofread your writing:

Verb tense switch: changing verb tense when you're discussing actions, events, or states of being that happen in the same time frame.

a red X - the sentence is incorrect By the time I arrived home, my mother is cooking dinner.
a green checkmark - the sentence is correct By the time I arrived home, my mother was cooking dinner.

Subject/verb agreement: using the wrong form of the verb for the subject.

a red X - the sentence is incorrect He go to school every day.
a green checkmark - the sentence is correct He goes to school every day.

How do I know it's a verb?

If you're not sure how to find the verbs in a sentence, try changing the time frame. For example, if you are writing about the present, change your sentence so that you're talking about the past; if you're talking about the past, change it to the present or the future. Whatever words change when you do this are your verbs!

When she went to the door, no one was there.
When she goes to the door, no one is there.

 

Resources:

What's a noun?

Nouns name people, animals, places, things, and abstract ideas.

My dog ran away yesterday, and now my life is full of sadness.
Bill Gates is the founder of Microsoft.
The security guard examined the passengers' passports.
My vacation in Missouri was fantastic.

Nouns can be plural or singular:

Are you going to eat that hot dog?
Are you going to eat all of those hot dogs?

They can also be possessive, or show ownership, which is typically done by adding -- 's to the end of noun:

Emily's children are out of control.
We are going to cancel Friday's meeting.

Common mistakes

Watch out for these common noun errors when you proofread your writing:

Plural/Singular Confusion: not using the correct form of the noun for the sentence, or switching between plural and singular.

a red X - the sentence is incorrectMy grandmother bakes cookie every week.
a green checkmark - the sentence is correctMy grandmother bakes cookies every week.

a red X - the sentence is incorrectStudents should study every day. This helps a student keep on top of their material.
a green checkmark - the sentence is correctStudents should study every day. This helps students keep on top of their material.

Improper Apostrophe Use: using apostrophes when you don't need to, like when you are making a noun plural, or leaving them out when you do need them.

a red X - the sentence is incorrectThe puppy's ran all over the room.
a green checkmark - the sentence is correctThe puppies ran all over the room.

a red X - the sentence is incorrectMy mothers handbag was stolen last week.
a green checkmark - the sentence is correctMy mother's handbag was stolen last week.

How do I know it's a noun?

If you can make a word plural by adding -- s to the end, put -- 's at the end to show possession, or put "a" or "an" in front of it, then the word is a noun.

I have won awards for my apple pie recipe.
                            ♦
I won an award for my apple pie recipe.
My apple pie's recipe won an award.
My pie recipe calls for six apples.
I have won awards for my recipes.

Resources:

What's a pronoun?

A pronoun replaces a noun or other pronoun so that our speech or writing sounds     less repetitive.

           Judy went to the store and then Judy went to the vet.
           Judy went to the story and then she went to the vet.

Because nouns can play many different roles in a sentence, the same noun may be replaced by different pronouns depending on its function.

           She sent them her party invitations.
           They all replied within two weeks.
           Many could come, but some could not.
           She didn't know which snacks to serve them.
           Everyone enjoyed themselves at the party.

Common mistakes

Watch out for these common pronoun errors when you proofread your writing:

Pronoun agreement errors: using the wrong type of pronoun to replace a noun.

a red X - the sentence is incorrectFatima went to she doctor.
a green checkmark - the sentence is correctFatima went to her doctor.

Faulty pronoun reference: writing a sentence in which it is unclear what a pronoun is replacing.

a red X - the sentence is incorrectIf your dog does not eat its food, get rid of it.
a green checkmark - the sentence is correctIf your dog does not eat its food, get rid of the food.

How do I know it's a pronoun?

If you can replace a word with something more specific, there's a good chance that word is a pronoun:

           He studies there then.
           Saeed studies in the library at noon.

Resources:

What's an adjective?

An adjective modifies a noun or pronoun by describing...
           I got a beautiful coat for my birthday.
           My surly cat scratches everyone he meets.

...identifying...
           I don't like this song.
           Which assignment should I do?

...or quantifying it.
           Many people take the LRT to work.
           A few people laughed when he tripped.

 

Common mistakes

Watch out for these common adjective errors when you proofread your writing:

Double comparisons: using two comparative adjectives to modify the same noun.

a red X - the sentence is incorrectToronto is more farther than Ottawa.
a green checkmark - the sentence is correctToronto is farther than Ottawa.

Much/many and less/fewer confusion: using much or less to modify countable nouns, and many/fewer to modify non-countable nouns.

a red X - the sentence is incorrectYou have so much books!
a green checkmark - the sentence is correctYou have so many books!

a red X - the sentence is incorrectI have fewer money than you.
a green checkmark - the sentence is correctI have less money than you.

How do I know it's an adjective?

If you can add --er or --est to the end of it, or put "very" in front of it, chances are you're looking at an adjective.

Resources:

What's an adverb?

Adverbs modify verbs...
           I quickly put on my shoes.
...other adverbs...
           The dog ate extremely messily.
...adjectives...
           The roses are very beautiful this year.
...phrases...
           The rapidly drying paint was very hard to clean.
...or clauses.
           Unfortunately, the manager is away today.

Basically, adverbs provide information about how, when, where, how much, and/or why something is done.

Common mistakes

Watch out for these common adverb errors when you proofread your writing:

Misplaced adverb: usually, adverbs are placed near the word(s) they are modifying; doing otherwise can confuse the meaning of your sentence.

I only like you. [I feel no other emotions for you]
I like only you. [I like no one except you]

Only I like you. [I like you, but no one else does.]

Adjective/adverb confusion: using an adverb to modify a noun, or an adjective to modify a verb, adverb, other adjective, phrase, or clause.

a red x - the sentence is incorretHe drives very bad.
a green check mark - the sentence is correctHe drives very badly.

a red x - the sentence is incorrectThe pie tasted strangely.
a green check mark - the sentence is correctThe pie tasted strange.

How do I know it's an adverb?

If a word explains how, when, where, how much, and/or why something happened, it's likely an adverb. Another trick is to look for words that end in --ly.

Resources:

What's a preposition?

A preposition shows the relationship between a noun, pronoun, or phrase and the rest of the sentence.

This relationship can be temporal (related to time)...
           I read my textbook for twenty minutes.

...spatial (related to space)...
           He threw the ball through the window.

...or logical.
           She wrote an email about her vacation request.

Common mistakes

Watch out for these common preposition errors when you proofread your writing:

Improper preposition use: using the wrong preposition for your sentence.

a red x - the sentence is incorrect I've been studying here since three hours.
a green check mark - the sentence is correct I've been studying here for three hours.

 

 

Resources:

What's an article?

An article modifies a noun. In other words, it's an adjective! There are two types of articles:

Indefinite articles indicate that you are referring to one item out of a group:

I brought an apple for lunch.
I got a book from the library.

Definite articles indicate that you are referring to a specific noun:

The apple was bruised, and I didn't want to eat it.
I dropped the book on my foot.

Most nouns can have a definite article attached to them, but indefinite articles only pair with countable nouns. Uncountable nouns do not need an article.

There was a bad rainstorm yesterday.
There was bad weather yesterday.

Common mistakes

Watch out for these common article errors when you proofread your writing:

Misuse of articles: using an article when you don't need one, or forgetting to use one when you do

a red x - the sentence is incorrect Please close door.
a green check mark - the sentence is correct Please close the door.

a red x - the sentence is incorrect She wrote her notes on a paper.
a green check mark - the sentence is correct She wrote her notes on paper.
a green check mark - the sentence is correct She wrote her notes on a piece of paper.

 

How do I know it's an article?

This one's easy: look for "a," "an," or "the." Those are your articles!

Resources:

What's a conjunction?

A conjunction links words...
           I'll have the soup and the sandwich, please.

...phrases...
           My mother and her best friend will have salads.

...or clauses.
           Call me when you're ready to order dessert.

There are three kinds of conjunctions:

A coordinating conjunction links two words, phrases, or independent clauses.

I tried to have a shower, but there was no hot water.
Roses and irises are my favourite flowers.

A subordinating conjunction links an independent clause to a dependent clause.

After I had studied for three hours, I took a nap.
I had to start my homework over again when my dog ate it.

Correlative conjunctions connect two equal grammatical items (nouns, phrases, etc.), and always come in pairs.

Both Fred and his mother are coming to dinner.
She will either take a class or work for the summer.

Common mistakes

Watch out for these common conjunction errors when you proofread your writing:

Overuse of conjunctions: using more than one conjunction to join two clauses.

A red x - this sentence is incorrect Although I was tired, but I kept working.
A green checkmark - this sentence is correct I was tired, but I kept working.
A green checkmark - this sentence is correct Although I was tired, I kept working.

Conjunctions play a big role in sentence structure, so check out the "Sentences" tab for more information on how to use conjunctions correctly.

 

Resources:

What's a phrase?

A phrase is a group of linked words without a subject and predicate.

There was a hush over the dark room.
Small dogs often bark the loudest.

Even though phrases are a group of words, collectively they can function as a verb...

She was bored, and decided to do something outrageous

...a noun...

She loved finding rare and inexpensive antiques at rummage sales.

...an adjective...

We had to prune all of the trees damaged in the storm.

...or an adverb.

Her voice shook when she spoke to the room full of people.

Common mistakes

Watch out for these common phrase errors when you proofread your writing:

The major errors that people tend to make involve treating a phrase like a sentence instead of a group of words that are part of a sentence.

In other words, using a phrase by itself results in a sentence fragment or incomplete sentence.

a red x - the sentence is incorrect Eating a cheese sandwich.
a green check mark - the sentence is correct The boy eating a cheese sandwich started to choke.

Resources

What's a clause?

A clause is a group of grammatically related words with a subject and predicate. There are two types of clauses. Click each link below to learn more about them:

Independent Clause

 

Dependent or Subordinate Clause

 

Common mistakes

Watch out for these common clause errors when you proofread your writing:

Sentence fragment: A sentence fragment is an incomplete sentence. An independent clause by itself is a complete sentence, but if you use a dependent clause by itself, you have a fragment.

A red x - the sentence is incorrect Because she was tired.
A green check mark - the sentence is correct She could barely keep her eyes open because she was tired.
A green check mark - the sentence is correct Because she was tired, she decided to stay home that night.

How do I know it's a clause?

Beclause there's a subject and a predicate (sorry, couldn't resist the chance to make a pun!). Basically, there will be a verb, and a someone or something that is "doing" that verb.

 

Resources:

What's a sentence?

A complete sentence is a complete idea. It starts with a capital letter, ends with a period, exclamation mark or question mark, and contains at least one independent clause.

There are four main types of sentences. Click each one below to learn more about them:

Simple Sentence

 

Compound Sentence

 

Complex Sentence

 

Compound-complex Sentence

 

 

Common mistakes

Watch out for these common sentence errors when you proofread your writing:

Sentence fragment:  A sentence fragment is an incomplete sentence. For example, using a dependent clause by itself would be a fragment.

A red x - the sentence is incorrect When the fever broke.
A green check mark - the sentence is correct. Saadia's parents were relieved when the fever broke.
When the fever broke, Saadia was finally able to sleep.

Run-on sentence/comma splice: A run-on sentence happens when you have two or more independent sentences, but no punctuation and/or conjuction separating them. A comma splice is a run-on sentence with a comma where there should be a period, question mark, or exclamation mark.

A red x - the sentence is incorrect I stayed inside all day it was raining.
I stayed inside all day because it was raining.
I stayed inside all day. It was raining.

A red x - the sentence is incorrect Rebecca sat in her car for almost an hour, when it stopped raining, she went inside.
Rebecca sat in her car for almost an hour. When it stopped raining, she went inside.
Rebecca sat in her car for almost an hour, and when it stopped raining, she went inside.

How do I know it's a sentence?

There are three signs that something is a complete sentence:

1. It starts with a capital letter.

2. It ends with a period ( . ), question mark ( ? ) or exclamation point ( ! ).

3. It has at least one independent clause (in other words, a clause with a subject and verb and no subordinating conjuction).

 

Resources:

Videos

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