English Grammar (Writing Centre)

 

Grammar refers to the set of rules, or constraints, that help standardize how we write and speak. Though there is hardly such a thing as “proper English,” a basic understanding of rules and conventions can help elevate your writing, making it more professional, logical, and compelling. Even in the case of creative writing, as Pablo Picasso said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

Here, we have compiled a short list of grammar issues that may arise as your write. We have made special note (*) of subjects that may be of special interest to English language (ESL/EAL) learners.


Articles* 

Articles (determiners) are used to introduce nouns. In English, they include a, an, and the. To use articles correctly, a student must understand the difference between count and non-count nouns, as the is definite while a and an are indefinite.

A & An are used to refer to non-specific or non-particular things. Non-count nouns never take indefinite articles (e.g., “a beef is on the table”).

The is used to refer to specific or particular count or non-count nouns.

Clauses

Understanding clauses is an important part of punctuation, especially comma usage. Malless and McQuain, in The Elements of English, explain that “a clause is any group of words that includes both a subject and a verb (predicate).” Clauses can be dependent (subordinate) or independent.  

If you want to determine whether or not a clause is independent, ask, "can this phrase stand alone?" For example, "because I like it" wouldn't stand alone as a sentence, so you can see how it would be considered a dependent clause. 

Comma Usage2

The table below explains six simplified rules for comma usage. When in doubt, use a search engine to clarify a specific issue or ask a tutor—be sure not to put commas “wherever you would breathe or pause.”

Instance Example
When coordinating conjunctions are used between independent clauses "I like my dog, and I like to go outside with him."
After introductory phrases (often adverbial phrases) "In the morning, I think of coffee."
To set off non-essential (non-restrictive) information "The ship, tall and wide, was a force to be reckoned with."
To separate elements in a list  "I ate apples, bananas, and oranges."
To clarify multiple adjectives modifying the same noun
"The big, fat horse came to town."
Often before or after a participle or infinitive phrase. (A participle, which can be past or present, is a verb-like adjective.)
"To be big, you need to eat."
"He ran down the road, laughing as he went."

Commonly Confused Words / Homophones

Commonly confused words are often homophones, words that share a common pronunciation but, according to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary, differ in meaning, spelling, or derivation. Here are a few of these words that we should make a note of right away: 

Here (location) Hear (sound)  
It’s (contraction of it is) Its (possessive determiner/pronoun)  
Your (possessive determiner) You're (contraction of you are)  
Two (2) To (a preposition) Too (also)
There (indicating location) Their (pronoun denoting ownership) They’re (contraction of they are)

Refer to the University of Richmond’s Commonly Confused Words page or Merriam Webster’s List of Commonly Confused Words for more comprehensive lists. 

Comparatives and Superlatives* 

The system of English comparatives and superlatives (larger, largest) differs from those languages that, like French (plus, le plus), include words that would be represented in English by more and most (or by inflection).

Degrees of Comparison (Adjectives) 

Positive Smart Big Attractive
Comparative Smarter Bigger More attractive
Superlative Smartest Biggest Most attractive

Compound Verbs

English features many compound verbs, including negative forms, that can prove difficult to EAL learners. See Grammar Monster's guide for more information. 

Multiword Verb Type Example
Prepositional
Check out the dog
Check that guy out
Phrasal
Line up at the door
Read up on it
Auxiliaries
Might do it
Will laugh

Conjunctions3

There are two types of conjunctions (words that link words, phrases, or clauses together) in English. Coordinating conjunctions connect two words, phrases, or clauses of equal “rank.” Subordinating conjunctions, on the other hand, “subordinate” dependent clauses. A comma typically goes before a coordinating conjunction. Refer to the examples below for clarification. 

 
Example
Example in a sentence
Coordinating Conjunction
For, and, nor, but, or, yet, so
He left the castle, for there was nothing left for him there.
Subordinating Conjunction
Because, while, which, since, as
I like bananas because they are yellow.

Count & Non-Count Nouns* (Languages that differ structurally: Romanian, Polish, Bulgarian)

Count Non-Count
  • Names, people, animals, objects (finite)
  • Select concepts (like ideas)
  • Abstractions (hate, love, evil)
  • Foods (beef, corn, cream)
  • Substances that cannot be counted (air, cement, scenery)
  • Groups of things (clothing, furniture, luggage)

The contextual distinction between these two types of nouns is important, as articles are used before count nouns, while non-count nouns often take no article at all. Note that a definite article is sometimes used to refer to a specific instance of a non-count noun. For example, one might say, “I don’t usually like beef, but I like that beef.”

Purdue Owl and the Wilmer Writing Center offer more comprehensive guides (from which the table above was adapted) on the subject. 

Gender

You might be familiar with Romance languages, which evolved from Vulgar Latin. In these languages, all words are either masculine, feminine, or neuter (this, of course, refers to grammatical gender).

In these languages (and Slavic languages), objects and people are not differentiated, so the distinction between who/whom and that/which deserves special attention in English.

Modifier Placement 

As you can see in this guide from Trent University, dangling constructions are often split into squinting, dangling, and misplaced modifiers. The authors of the Broadview Guide to Writing (6th ed.) take a different approach, making a note of dangling participles, infinitives, infinitive phrases, and preposition phrases. Refer to the table below for an explanation of these subjects, along with examples. 

 
Definition
Examples which (in this case) take the form of participle phrases (PP), infinitive phrases (IP), prepositional phrases (PrP), or adverbs (Adv).
Misplaced Modifier
a modifier that is ambiguously placed or too far from the word it modifies
Needs work: He worked to plug the hole with several men. (PrP)
Corrected: He worked with several men to plug the hole. (PrP)
Dangling Modifier
a modifier that refers to a subject that is omitted from the sentence
Needs work: Walking down the street, the sun shone brightly. (PP)
Corrected: As I was walking down the street, the sun shone. brightly (PP)
Squinting Modifier
a modifier (often an adjective or adverb) that could be interpreted as modifying more than one word
Needs work: Running often makes me sore. (Adv)
Corrected:
  1. Often, running makes me sore.
  2. When I run too often, I get sore.

Omission of the Predicate*

Null-subject languages (like Arabic, Chinese, Greek, and Japanese) permit a subject to be assumed. In English, aside from the imperative form (“You Get over here now”), an explicit subject/predicate must be included. 

Parallel Structure

Parallel Structure, or parallelism, has a profound effect on composition. In their book, the Elements of English, Malless and McQuain explain that parallel structure is a manner of balancing the words, phrases, or clauses in a sentence. Purdue Owl’s guide on the subject suggests paying special attention to elements in a list or separated by a conjunction. Examples are given in the table below. 

Phrase  
Needs work: He likes to read (infinitive), write (infinitive), and skiing (participle).
Corrected: He likes to read, write, and ski (infinitive).
Clause
Needs work: He said that she would run, that he would jump, and I will be going home.
Corrected: He said that she would run, that he would jump, and that I will be going home.
Word Types
Needs work: I like monster trucks (noun), fire trucks, and in the sky (prepositional phrase).  
Corrected: I like monster trucks, fire trucks, and the sky (noun).

Possessives (Genitive Case)5

In English, genitives generally function as follows--keep in mind, the genitive case does more than describe ownership:

Possessive Pronouns
Possessive Determiners
Possessive Pronoun
My
Mine
Your
Yours
His
His
Her
Hers
Its
Its
Our
Ours
Your
Yours
Their
Theirs
Possessive Determiners (sometimes called adjectives)
The Preposition “of”
Example: "The future of the world..."
“Whose” as the possessive form of who
Example: “Whose dog is that?”
Possessive Nouns
Made by adding ‘s

Pronoun-Antecedent & Subject-Verb Agreement

Subject-Verb Agreement

In English, verbs must agree in number with their subject. This may sound simple, but this page by Towson University describes how the introduction of clauses, compound subjects, collective nouns, and indefinite pronouns into a sentence can complicate proper subject-verb agreement. 

Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement

Pronouns in English must agree in both number and gender with their antecedent (the noun or pronoun that is renamed). Compound subjects, collective nouns, and indefinite pronouns also affect the relationship between pronouns and antecedents; therefore, the information in the table below is relevant to both these forms of agreement. 

Instance
Relevance
Example
Extraneous Phrases/Clauses
When looking at agreement, it is important to determine what a verb or pronoun is being referred to. Therefore, you must take special care to identify subjects/antecedents.
Needs work: A bag of eggs are on the table.
Corrected: A bag of eggs is on the table.
Needs work: The pack of dogs look angry.
Corrected: The pack of dogs looks angry.
 
Indefinite Pronouns
Indefinite pronouns can be tricky as it is sometimes difficult to determine which pronouns are singular and which ones are plural. Review this list of singular and plural pronouns for clarification.
Needs work: One should never give their opinion.
Corrected: One should never give his/her opinion.
Collective Nouns
Generally, collective nouns are deemed singular when they are acting as a unit and plural when they refer to independent individuals.
Needs work: The class passed in its tests.  
Corrected: The class passed in their tests.  
Compound Subjects
Compound subjects take a plural referent.
Needs work: Jon and Sally raised her hand.   
Corrected: Jon and Sally raised their hands.   
Compound Subjects Separated by Or/Nor
The referent of compound subjects joined by or/nor agrees with the nearest pronoun.
Needs work: Neither the dog nor its masters liked eating its supper.    
Corrected: Neither the dog nor its masters liked eating their supper.   

Sentence Fragments

As you might imagine, this term refers to a “fragment” of a sentence (a phrase or dependent clause) that has been made to stand alone improperly, usually because of misplaced punctuation. According to Purdue Owl’s page on fragments, the easiest way to resolve such an error is to remove the unnecessary punctuation. Review the examples below for further clarification.

Fragment: In the morning. I woke up.
Correction: In the morning, I woke up.
 
Fragment: He won the game. Smiling as he scored.
Correction: He won the game, smiling as he scored.
 

The Plural Form4

The following table summarizes the rules for pluralizing nouns in English. 

Instance
Rule
Example
Regular Nouns
Add an -s.
Dog/Dogs
Noun ending in ‑s, -ss, -sh, -ch, -x, or -z
Add -es. (Some words require the doubling of an -s or -z.)
Plus/Pluses
Nouns ending in -is or -o
Change the ending to -es. (Exceptions like photo exist.)
Mosquito/Mosquitoes
Nouns ending in -s or -z
These sometimes require a doubled consonant.
Blitz/Blitzes
Nouns ending in -f or -fe
F is often changed to -ve.
Leaf/Leaves
Nouns ending with a consonant before a -y
Change the ending to -ies.
Party/Parties
Nouns ending in -on
Change the ending to -a.
Phenomenon/Phenomena
Keep in mind that some nouns do not change when they are pluralized (like sheep), and others are irregular (like mouse).

Notes

1Much of this information has been adapted from Babington, Doug, et al.'s The Broadview Guide to Writing (6th ed., 2016).

2These rules were adapted from The Elements of English and "Purdue Owl’s Extended Rules for Using Commas."

3The information here was adapted from Malless and McQuain’s The Elements of English (2nd ed.).

4This list was adapted from Grammarly’s “Plural Nouns: Rules and Examples."

5The contents of this table were adapted from Babington, Doug, et al.'s The Broadview Guide to Writing (6th ed., 2016).