Improving Your Grammar
Our page Grammar: An Introduction explains that grammar is the way in which sentences are constructed. It describes the different types of words in English, and how these are put together into sentences. This page builds on that, to describe some of the more complex issues in English, and particularly those that are often used incorrectly.
It also provides some tips to help improve your grammar. It will therefore help you to write with more fluency and confidence, and make fewer grammatical errors.
First, Second and Third Person, Singular and Plural
Our page Grammar: an Introduction introduced nouns, or naming words, and verbs, action words.
Both nouns and verbs may be expressed in different forms, depending on the point of view of the speaker.
These forms are known as the first, second, or third person.
First person is where the speaker is talking about themselves, using the form I or me.
Second person is where the speaker is talking directly to another person, using the form you.
Third person is where the speaker is talking about someone else, using the form he, she or it.
These three forms may also be in either the singular or the plural (one person or several). For example, the first person plural is we or us, and the third person plural is they.
Similarly, other nouns and verbs may also be used either in the singular or the plural.
- A singular noun is a word for just one thing. For example, cat, dog, or child.
- A plural noun is used for more than one thing, such as cats, dogs, children.
Forming plural nouns
Forming a plural noun from a singular is sometimes straightforward.
Many are simply the singular form with an added ‘s’ on the end, for example, dog/dogs, car/cars and monkey/monkeys.
In other cases, the same approach is used, but the spelling changes slightly, to add an e before the s. This form is used chiefly when the singular word ends with a vowel or vowel sound. For example, tomato/tomatoes, pony/ponies.
Others take a slightly different form with an alternative suffix, such as child/children.
Some are simply irregular, for example, deer/deer, mouse/mice, or goose/geese. Unfortunately, with these, there is no substitute for knowledge.
Singular and plural nouns may also take different verb forms, especially with irregular verbs.
For regular verbs, such as to walk, or to talk, the form varies only slightly:
I walk, you walk, he/she walks, we walk, you walk, they walk.
However, irregular verbs, such as the verb to be, take very different forms:
I am, you are, he/she is, we are, you are, they are.
The incorrect use of the singular and plural, and especially not matching the verb and noun, is a common grammatical mistake.
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.'
In the first sentence, the word is (the singular verb) is being used for a plural (lots of singers).
Instead, the use of is and are should be consistent within both the sentence and the whole paragraph.
The verb form must relate to the noun with which the verb is connected.
Indefinite and Definite Articles
Two other items of grammar that are often used incorrectly are indefinite and definite articles.
Both definite and indefinite articles are associated with nouns, but have very different meanings.
The indefinite or general article is a (an). It indicates any person or thing, such as a boy, a horse, or an anorak.
The definite article is the. It indicates somebody or something specific, a particular example of the noun being used, such as the girl, or the beach ball.
In general, in writing, you need to be consistent with your use of the definite and indefinite article. To use the boy in one sentence and a boy in the next is confusing to the reader. It will not be clear if you mean the same boy or a second boy. If you use a different article, the implication is often that you are talking about a different person or object.
Contractions and abbreviations are words or phrases that are shortened into a different form.
Contractions are new words formed by taking out one or more letters from another word. Examples include didn’t for did not, can’t for cannot, and it’s for it is.
Abbreviations include any short form of a phrase, although they often take the initials of the main words in the phrase. Examples include RSPB for The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, or WHO for World Health Organization.
Acronyms are new words made from abbreviations. The key difference between acronyms and abbreviations is that acronyms are pronounced as a word, rather than a set of initials. Examples include NASA and AIDS.
In formal writing, you should avoid using contracted or abbreviated words.
There is one exception: it is fine to use them in dialogue or directly reported speech. At all other times use the full word(s) such as cannot, 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”.
Tips to Help with Grammar
Grammar is usually learned as you learn a language. However, that does not mean that every native speaker has perfect grammar. In English at least, children are generally taught grammar in school to formalise their learning, and ensure that they understand the rules of the language. However, grammar is still hard, and not always intuitive.
Some tips to help improve your grammar include:
Try reading your written work out loud to yourself.
Most of us 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. This is often easier to appreciate in spoken language than when something is written down.
Ask a friend to read your work over
It may help to ask a friend or colleague to read your work. Non-native speakers should always do this before submitting any formal work. It is often easier to spot errors in someone else’s work, because you do not know what they intended to say.
Use the tools available to you
If you use a computer, most have a 'grammar check' built in. Grammatical errors are automatically highlighted. 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.
Computer doesn’t always know best
Computers work from a set of rules. The built-in grammar check is good, but it is not infallible. You need to use your common sense and knowledge of grammar to decide whether the computer’s suggestion is acceptable, or even right.
However, even if the computer is wrong in grammatical terms, it may be highlighting a point that could be confusing for your reader. Even when you are happy with the grammar, it may be better to rephrase the sentence for clarity.
A Lifelong Skill
The use of good grammar is a skill that you can develop and use throughout your life.
If you are having problems using grammar correctly, you can try reading a basic grammar book or completing grammar exercises. You may also want to test yourself using one of the online grammar quizzes available.