Grammar: An Introduction

See also: Spelling

Grammar is the system and structure of a language, or of languages in general. It therefore covers syntax, or how sentences are put together from words and phrases, and the functions of particular words.

Grammar is different in different languages, although some may have some common features. For example, many European languages share similarities in sentence structure.

If you do not use correct grammar and punctuation, your meaning will be unclear or ambiguous. Grammatical mistakes also slow down reading. They may distract readers from the meaning and messages in your writing. Understanding how to put sentences together using correct grammar is therefore crucial for good writing.

Types of Words: Nouns

Nouns are naming words. They are words for things, including both objects and feelings.

Nouns may be abstract or concrete.

  • Concrete nouns are words for things that you can see, hear and/or touch, such as cat, dog, child, wall, car and so on.

  • Abstract nouns are words for things that cannot be seen or touched, such as feelings or emotions. Love, hate, and jealousy are all abstract nouns.

Proper nouns are the names of people, places or companies, such as Mary, John, Volvo, and London. These are always capitalised.

An Alternative to Nouns: Pronouns

Pronouns are words that can be used to replace nouns. They are generally only used once a noun has already been used in the text.

They include he, she, they and it.

For example:

Mary walked slowly into the park. She sat down on the grass and watched the children playing on the swings.

Types of Words: Verbs

Verbs are ‘doing’ words: they are used for actions.

Examples of verbs include walk, do, eat, fetch, and carry.

Verbs are expressed in tenses; past, present or future. The tense of a verb is its setting in time.

For example:

  • Mary walked (past tense)

  • Mary walks (present tense)

  • Mary will walk (future tense)

There are also other, more complex tenses not covered here. An important point is to be consistent in your use of tense. Decide whether you are explaining an event in the past, present or future and then be consistent in the use of that tense until there is a good reason for changing.

The incorrect use of tenses is one of the most common mistakes of grammar. For example, consider the following sentence:

“Marianne describes the new techniques, how they varied in approach and attitude”.

The verb describes is in the present tense but varied is in the past tense. The correct form of the sentence could be either:

“Marianne describes the new techniques, how they vary in approach and attitude” or

“Marianne described the new techniques, how they varied in approach and attitude”

Either form is correct here. It is simply a matter of choosing which is more appropriate for your meaning.

Quick activity:

Try spotting the mistakes of verb tense in the following sentence:

A sentence is a collection of words which conveys sense or meaning and are formed according to the logic of grammar.

The correct sentence should be:
A sentence is a collection of words that convey sense or meaning and is formed according to the logic of grammar.

Types of Words: Adjectives and Adverbs

Adjectives and adverbs are both describing words. Adjectives describe nouns and adverbs describe verbs.

Examples of adjectives include lazy, hot, cool, happy, and deserted.

Adjectives usually come before the noun, for example, the happy dog, the deserted beach. When two adjectives are used to describe one noun, they are set apart with the use of a comma.

For example:

  • The lazy dog.

  • The hairy, lazy dog.

Adverbs or adverbial phrases describe verbs, and usually, but not invariably, follow the verb.

Examples of single-word adverbs include

Mary walked slowly but Peter ran away quickly.

An adverbial phrase is a phrase that is used as an adverb. For example, in the sentence Peter ran towards the park, ‘towards the park’ is an adverbial phrase because it describes Peter’s running.

Fronted adverbials

Adverbs and adverbial phrases usually follow the verb they describe. However, you can also place them before the verb, as a separate clause in the sentence. For example,

Slowly, the cat stretched.
In a leisurely way, he got out of bed.

In these two sentences, the adverb or adverbial phrase (in italics), is at the start of the sentence.

Other Types of Words: Prepositions and Conjunctions

It is worth mentioning two other types of words that you may come across: prepositions and conjunctions.

  • Prepositions show the relationship between a noun or pronoun and another part of the sentence or clause.

    For example, in the phrase ‘The man on the platform’, the preposition is on, because it shows the relationship between the man and the platform.

  • Conjunctions link together two parts of a sentence. They sometimes, but not always, describe the relationship between them.

    Examples of conjunctions include and, but, and because.

    Anne walked slowly down the road, and the children ran ahead of her.

    Anne walked slowly, but Lily ran.

Using Conjunctions

You may hear or read that conjunctions often replace a full stop, and therefore make two shorter sentences into a single sentence.

However, in business or academic writing, the reverse may be true.

It may be better to have two shorter sentences and avoid the use of conjunctions. Note, though, that where the conjunction describes the relationship, its use may be unavoidable.

Putting Words Together: Sentences and Sentence Construction

A sentence is a collection of words that convey sense or meaning, and is formed according to the logic of grammar.

The simplest sentence consists only of a noun and a verb. For example, in the sentence “Mary walked”, Mary is the naming noun and walked is the action verb.

Quick activity:

Write two examples of nouns and verbs, and then combine them to form sentences.

Most sentences have a subject noun and an object noun. For example, in the sentence “Mary walked towards the hotel”:

  • Mary is the subject noun (a person or thing performing the action of walking)
  • the hotel is the object noun (a person or thing towards which the action is directed).

Information: Pronouns as object or subject

Note that some pronouns take different forms depending on whether they are being used as the subject or the object of the sentence.

For example, consider the sentence:

Mary walked towards Peter

Both Mary and Peter could be replaced by pronouns.

However, Mary would be replaced by she, and Peter by him, rather than he. The sentence Peter walked towards Mary would become He walked towards her.

In other words, he and she are the subject pronouns, and her and him are the object pronouns. It and they do not change their form.

Quick activity:

Write two sentences using a subject noun or pronoun and an object noun or pronoun.

More complex sentences also have other elements, including adjectives, adverbs, prepositions and conjunctions.

Quick activity:

Take your two sentences using a subject noun and an object noun and extend them using other forms of words:

  • Add at least one adjective and one adverb to your first sentence.

  • Add a preposition or a conjunction to the second sentence.

Note: you may need to add other words as well!

In Conclusion

Grammar is a very complex subject, and it is hard to do it justice in a single webpage (or even two). Whole books have been written about it.

This page describes the main elements of grammar in English. Other European languages have similar roots, and therefore similar conventions, although the placing of verbs and nouns may vary. However, in other languages, there may be very different elements of grammar. It is wise to have at least a broad awareness of grammar before you start writing in any language.