This page continues from Grammar: An Introduction, which covers sentence construction and tense.
Singular or Plural Words
The incorrect use of is and are, the singular and plural, is a common mistake of grammar.
What is wrong with the following sentence:
"There is lots of good singers in the choir."
The sentence should read:
"There are lots of good singers in the choir."
The word is (the singular verb) relates directly to the plural noun singers. The use of both is and are should be consistent not only within a sentence but throughout the whole paragraph, stemming initially from the first sentence and relating to the noun with which the verb is connected.
Indefinite and Definite Articles
Two other items of grammar are often used erroneously - indefinite and definite articles.
A (an) is the indefinite or general article (indicating any person or thing, a boy, a horse, an anorak).
The is the definite article, (indicating somebody or something specific: the girl, the beach ball).
To use the boy in one sentence and a boy in the next is confusing to the reader who will not be certain if you mean to indicate the same boy or a second boy. The reader is compelled to stop and work out the logic of the sentence and will be distracted from the message.
In formal writing, contracted or abbreviated words such as can't, couldn't or it's should only be used in dialogue or directly reported speech, for example if you quote someone's work. At all other times use the full word(s) such as can not, could not or it is.
He said "I can't swim"
is correct because you are directly quoting speech. However, if reporting this statement you would write
“He said that he could not swim”.
Conjunctives or 'Joining Words'
Words such as and, or, but are called conjunctives because they join parts of sentences. These are perhaps the most well-known and frequently used conjunctives but other useful 'joining words' include:
Words such as these are useful for simplifying and shortening sentences which are so long and complex that the reader might find them too cumbersome to comprehend.
Tips to Help with Grammar
Grammar is usually understood by commonsense; it is inbuilt into the language as you learned it.
It is quite possible to use grammar effectively without knowing the rules in a formal way. Many people can hear when a collection of words is a logical sentence because it sounds complete. If there is a grammatical error the sentence will not read correctly. When listening to speech you do not have to stop and think about whether it contains a subject and a verb. Therefore, reading your finished writing aloud is a good habit to acquire.
If you find it hard to spot grammatical mistakes, try asking a friend to read your work aloud and to point out any mistakes.
If you use a computer, most have a 'grammar check' facility and any grammatical errors are automatically underlined with a green, wavy line. If you are unsure how to correct the error, use the right click on your 'mouse' and an alternative way of writing the sentence will be displayed. However, bear in mind that the computer is not always right and use your common sense and knowledge of grammar to decide whether the computer's suggestion is acceptable.
The use of good grammar is a skill that you can develop and use throughout your life. If you experience problems with grammar, you might try reading a basic grammar book, completing grammar exercises, as well as testing yourself using the various online grammar quizzes available.