Spelling and Grammar

English grammar, particularly the rules for how to punctuate sentences correctly, can refer to unfamiliar or very specific terms. Some of these traditional terms are explained below.

Parts of speech

How a word is used in a sentence is its “part of speech.” Words can change their part of speech based on how they are used in a sentence. There are eight parts of speech:

1. Verb – the “action”

The verb says something about the subject of a sentence and asserts an action, event, or state of being. No sentence can be without a verb.

Examples with underlined verbs:

  • I sing songs of joy. (action)
  • I sang several songs. (event)
  • I felt joyful then. (state of being)
  • I was feeling even better than before. (compound verb)

2. Noun – the “thing”

The noun is a name for something; most nouns name a person, place, thing, animal, or abstract idea. Only nouns can take an article (a, an, the). Nouns can have different roles in a sentence, but their most important job is as the “subject”, because every sentence has to have one.

Examples with underlined nouns:

  • Nick gave the lesson. (noun as the subject)
  • Nick gave the lesson again. (noun as the object)
  • Lessons can be difficult. (plural noun as the subject)

3. Pronoun – the “replacement”

Pronouns are words that replace or stand in for a noun or another pronoun. They are useful in writing because they reduce repetition. They change based on number (singular or plural), gender (masculine or feminine), and case (subject or object).

List of the personal pronouns:

  • I, You, He, She, It, We, You, They (subjective)
  • Me, You, Him, Her, It, Us, You, Them (objective)
  • Mine, Yours, His, Hers, Its, Our, Your, Their (possessive)

Other common pronouns:

  • This, That, These, Those (demonstrative)
  • Who, Whom, Which, What (interrogative/relative)
  • All, Another, Any, Each, Everything, Few, Many, Nobody,
  • None, One, Several, Some, Someone (indefinite)

4. Adjective – the “description”

An adjective is a word that modifies a noun or pronoun. It further identifies, describes, or quantifies the word it modifies. Most adjectives come before the word they modify.

Examples with underlined adjectives:

  • It was a difficult question. (adjective)
  • The question was difficult. (predicate adjective)
  • Four different questions came up. (compound adjective)

5. Adverb – “how it’s done”

An adverb is a word that modifies a verb or an adjective. In a sentence, an adverb can also modify a phrase or a clause. An adverb indicates the manner, time, place, cause, or degree of an action or another description. It is helpful to think of an adverb answering the questions “how, where, when, or how much.” Many adverbs end in the letters “-ly”, but not all of them do.

Examples with underlined adverbs:

  • I urgently needed to call. (adverb modifying verb)
  • I felt extremely rushed. (adverb modifying adjective)
  • I went and saw him today. (adverb modifying verb)

6. Preposition – the “relation”

A preposition connects nouns and pronouns to other parts of a sentence. Generally it indicates a relation in space, time, or logic between its object and the sentence. A preposition starts a “prepositional phrase”, which can then act as an adverb or adjective phrase depending on what it modifies in the sentence. The linked noun or pronoun becomes what is called an “object” of the preposition.

Examples with underlined prepositions:

  • I stayed under my desk in the office. (linking nouns)
  • It was uncomfortable for me. (linking a pronoun)

7. Conjunction – the “link”

A conjunction makes a connection between words, phrases, and independent clauses. The “coordinating” conjunctions are the words: And, But, Or, Nor, For, So, and Yet. A coordinating conjunction is used to join nouns, phrases, and independent clauses (i.e. complete sentences).

Other conjunctions, called the “subordinating” conjunctions, are used to join dependent clauses (NOT complete sentences). Some common subordinating conjunctions are the words After, Although, As, Because, Before, How, If, Once, Since, Than, That, Though, Until, When, Where, Whether, and While.

A few special conjunctions, called the “correlative” conjunctions, exist only as pairs of words. The most common of these are the pairs “either…or”, “neither…nor”, “not only…but also”, and “whether…or.”

8. Interjection – the “exclamation”

The interjection is a special word which is simply added to a sentence to convey an emotion. It has no grammatical relationship to the other parts of the sentence; in other words, it could be removed with no effect on the correctness of the sentence. It is generally followed by an exclamation mark. It is also rare in academic writing, except in direct quotations.

Some interjections are:

  • Ouch, Oh no, Hey, Eh, Ah, My God
  • All curse words, used by themselves, are interjections.

Below is a short introduction to the terms used in English grammar to describe how sentences are made from smaller pieces.

Parts of a sentence

1. The Subject (who is doing?) and the Predicate (what is being done?)

Every complete sentence has two parts: the “subject” and the “predicate.” The subject is what (or whom) the sentence is about, while the predicate describes something about the subject. An easy way to find the subject in any sentence is to isolate the verb, and then form a question beginning “who” or “what” before the verb. The answer is the subject of the sentence.

The subject can be a noun, a pronoun, or in some cases, an entire phrase or clause.

Examples with underlined subject:

  • The boy ran down the mountain. (Noun as subject)
  • I wanted to run too. (Pronoun as subject)
  • Running down hills feels good. (Phrase as subject)
  • What do you say to that? (Inverted position of subject)

The Predicate is the rest of the sentence which is not underlined in the above examples. The verb is always part of the predicate.

Special Cases:

  1. An imperative sentence (a sentence that gives an order) has the understood subject of “you,” though the word does not appear in the sentence:
    • Stand on your head. (the subject is understood “you”)
  2. Compound subject or compound predicate:
    • Words and music go well together. (2 subjects)
    • We listened and sang at the same time. (2 predicates)

2. Direct Objects – “whom or what?”

The direct object is a part of the predicate which completes the meaning of a verb, and generally will be that person or thing which is receiving the action of the verb. A direct object can be found by isolating the verb in a sentence and placing the question “whom?” or “what?” after it.

Examples with underlined direct objects:

  • I sing the song. (singular direct object)
  • I learn rules. (plural direct object)
  • I invited her to the dance. (direct object as person)

3. Indirect Objects – “to whom” or “for what”

The indirect object is, in most cases, the recipient of the object. Usually it answers a question in the form of “to/for whom?” or “to/for what?”

Examples with underlined indirect objects:

  • I sang her the song.
  • I told them the rules.

Helpful tips:

All objects, whether direct or indirect, take the “objective” form of a pronoun (for example, “me” instead of “I”). For the list of objective pronouns, see the above section on the parts of speech.

4. The Phrase

Although the word “phrase” is often used to refer generally to a set of words or a fragment of music, it has a very specific grammatical meaning. A phrase is a set of grammatically linked words WITHOUT a subject and a predicate. A phrase cannot stand alone as a sentence. The most common kind of phrase is a “prepositional phrase”, which consists of a preposition and an object.

Examples with underlined prepositional phrases:

  • I sang the song to her.
  • She hid under the desk.

Phrases are very common in sentences, because they are very useful in adding information. Phrases can act the role of a subject, an object, a verb, an adjective, or an adverb, even though they contain more than one word.

5. The Clause

A clause is a group of grammatically related words which DOES contain both a subject and a predicate.

There are two types of clauses. The first is the “independent” clause, which is called this because it can always stand alone as a sentence. All the example sentences listed so far in these pages are independent clauses.

The other type of clause is called a “dependent” clause. These clauses are so called because they cannot stand alone as sentences; they leave out information which would be included in an independent clause.

Dependent clauses can act as adjectives, nouns, or adverbs.

Examples with underlined dependent clauses:

  • I need a word which helps me to remember. (adjective)
  • Whoever said that didn’t know the answer. (noun)
  • I’ll tell you when I come back from the room. (adverb)

6. The Fragment

A fragment is the grammatical word for anything that is not a complete sentence. Usually it is a mistake which will be corrected in proofreading.

Fragments can be understood and classified using the terms already described here. A fragment could be a subject without a predicate…

  • The boy with the red jacket. (no verb)
  • …or it could be a predicate without a subject:
  • Gave me the time of day. (no subject)

It is also common to accidentally make a fragment from a dependent clause which has no independent clause to go with it. Using the previous examples, it is clear that there is missing information needed to make a complete sentence:

  • Which helps me to remember. (dependent)
  • When I come back from the room. (dependent)

In these cases, you can correct a sentence either by joining it to an independent clause (usually the one next to it) or by replacing the conjunction which starts the clause with the subject. For example:

  • It helps me to remember. (replacing “which” with “it”)
  • When I come back from the room, I’ll see it. (adding the independent clause “I’ll see it”)

Verb tenses

Simple Present

Simple Past

Simple Future

I study English everyday.

Two years ago, I studied English in England.

I am going to study English next year.

If you are having problems, I will help you study English.

Present Continuous

Past Continuous

Future Continuous

I am studying English now.

I was studying English when you called yesterday.

I will be studying English when you arrive tonight.

Present Perfect

Past Perfect

Future Perfect

I have studied English in several different countries.

I had studied a little English before I moved to the U.S.

I will have studied every tense by the time I finish this course.

Present Perfect Continuous

Past Perfect Continuous

Future Perfect Continuous

I have been studying English for five years.

I had been studying English for five years before I moved to the U.S.

I will have been studying English for over two hours by the time you arrive.  

Passive and active voices

Verbs are also said to be either active (The executive committee approved the new policy) or passive (The new policy was approved by the executive committee) in voice. In the active voice, the subject and verb relationship is straightforward: the subject is a be-er or a do-er and the verb moves the sentence along. In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is neither a do-er or a be-er, but is acted upon by some other agent or by something unnamed (The new policy was approved).

There is nothing inherently wrong with the passive voice, but if you can say the same thing in the active mode, do so (see exceptions below). Your text will have more pizzazz as a result, since passive verb constructions tend to lie about in their pajamas and avoid actual work.

We use the passive voice to good effect in a paragraph in which we wish to shift emphasis from what was the object in a first sentence to what becomes the subject in subsequent sentences.

The executive committee approved an entirely new policy for dealing with academic suspension and withdrawal. The policy had been written by a subcommittee on student behaviour. If students withdraw from course work before suspension can take effect, the policy states. . . .

The paragraph is clearly about this new policy so it is appropriate that policy move from being the object in the first sentence to being the subject of the second sentence. The passive voice allows for this transition.