Grammar Basics

Start here if you aren't sure about the basic elements of grammar: the different types of words and how they function, as well as the different ways in which you can put words together.

Table of Contents
I. Parts of Speech (aka the different kinds of words)
II. Putting Words Together
    phrase sentence run-on sentence
    sentence fragment

III. More about Verbs
Active vs. Passive
IV. Miscellaneous
Direct Object vs. Indirect Object
Noun Declension


Parts of Speech

a person, place, or thing. Can be the subject or object of a sentence. Ex: cat, horse, mother, Denmark

a word that replaces or stands for ("pro" = for) a noun. Ex: he, she, it

an action word. Ex: sit, laugh, screw

a word that describes or modifies a noun. Answers the questions "how many," "what kind," etc. Ex: happy, suicidal, red, dangerous

a word that describes or modifies a verb. Ex: carefully, quickly, wisely. Also sometimes modifies an adjective. ("She was very tall." 'Very' is an adverb modifying 'tall,' which in turn is an adjective modifying 'she'.) Adverbs usually, but not always, end in "-ly". (However, not every word ending in "ly" is an adverb: "friendly," for example, is an adjective.)

(literally "pre-position") a word that indicates the relationship of a noun (or noun phrase) to another word. Examples of prepositions are to, at, with, for, against, across. (Ending a sentence with a preposition)


Putting Words Together

an expression (can be a single word, but usually more) which contains a single thought but is not necessarily a complete sentence. Words make up phrases; phrases make up sentences. By some definitions, a phrase cannot contain a verb.

A phrase beginning with a preposition. Heh, heh. You could have figured that out, right? Example:

I am sitting in the bushes.
"I am sitting" is a complete sentence unto itself; it contains a subject ("I") and a verb ("am sitting"). The phrase "in the bushes" is a prepositional phrase ("in" being the preposition) that expands upon the basic concept.

the basic unit of writing. A sentence should have a subject and a predicate. The subject is the noun to which the sentence's verb refers; the predicate is the verb plus whatever other parts modify or elaborate on it. Example:

My mother sings.
"My" is a possessive pronoun; "mother" is the subject (noun); "sings" is the verb.

There are several types of sentences. The major ones are:

The majority of sentences are declarative. A declarative sentence makes a statement. This sentence is declarative, as are the previous two.

An interrogatory sentence asks a question. Do you understand that? Which of these sentences is an example?

An imperative sentence gives a command. Ex: "Shut up and kiss me." Note that an imperative sentence does not require a subject; the pronoun "you" is implied.

A sentence that is too long and should be broken into two or more sentences. One sentence should present one basic concept; if it presents more than that, it may be a run-on. A large number of "and"s, "but"s, and similar joining words is one warning sign of a run-on.

A phrase that is acting like a sentence but is incomplete. Examples:

My favorite color.
This is not a sentence because it contains no verb.
Walking very slowly.
This is not a sentence because it contains no noun.
On the table.
This is not a sentence because it contains neither a verb nor a subject.

Sentence fragments are acceptable as answers to direct questions:

"Where is my sword?" "In the bushes."


More about Verbs

A verb is active when the subject performs the verb. A verb is passive when the subject is the recipient of the verb. In general, passive verb construction is considered "wimpy" or nonspecific.

Xena was watched by the villagers. 
Xena is the subject of the sentence, but the verb is "watch" and Xena is not doing the watching; therefore the verb is passive and "the villagers" is the object. This construction is not ideal.
The villagers watched Xena. 
Now the villagers are the subject, Xena is the direct object, and the verb is active. This is better than the previous example.

To conjugate a verb is to state the form the verb takes for each person. For example, to conjugate the verb "to have" (in the present tense) you say "I have, you have, he/she/it has, we have, y'all have, they have."

I assume we all know what past, present and future are. Most verbs take different forms depending on tense. For example, "I eat" is present, "I ate" is past and "I will eat" is future.

In addition, every verb has a past participle (p.p.). Use a form of "to have" plus the p.p. to indicate nonspecific past events.

Example: The p.p. of "to eat" is "eaten." For a specific event, use "ate": "Yesterday I ate an apple for lunch." For something that happened in the past at an unspecified time, or over a period of time, use "have" plus the p.p.: "I have eaten many apples in my lifetime." For double-past (talking about something that happened before something else in the past) use "had" plus the p.p.: "Yesterday Xena offered me an apple for dinner, but I had eaten one for lunch, so I had an orange instead."

Most (but certainly not all!) past participles end in -en, e.g. eaten, spoken, ridden.



An object is a noun that is the recipient of the verb in the sentence. It's easier to demonstrate than to explain:

Xena grabbed her sword. 

Xena is the subject, because she performs the verb. "Grabbed" is the verb; "her" is a possessive pronoun; the sword is the direct object because the grabbing is performed upon it.

Xena put her sword on the table. 

Xena is the subject; "put" is the verb; the sword is the direct object; the table is the indirect object.

Tells whom the speaker (or writer) is speaking (or writing) about. The majority of stories are written in the third person singular: "Xena woke up. She was hungry, so she started a fire and made pancakes."

Some stories (notably "If on a winter's night a traveler" by Italo Calvino; also all those "Choose Your Adventure" books we loved when we were kids) are written in the second person: "You look around and see Xena approaching. You reach for your sword."

A good number of stories ("Catcher in the Rye," all the Sherlock Holmes novels, etc.) is written in first person: "I woke up to find Xena had abandoned me again. 'Gabrielle,' I said to myself, 'this is the last straw.'"

The plurals are: first person "we/us," second person "you" (or "y'all"), third person "they/them."

Irrelevant in English; declension is the noun analog to conjugation. In many other languages (e.g. Latin), nouns take different forms depending on how they function in sentences. (See What English Doesn't Do.)

To parse a sentence means to take it apart and identify each element in the sentence. In my mom's day, diagramming sentences (literally drawing a diagram that shows how each word and clause functions in the sentence) was a standard part of elementary education.


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Joan the English Chick
Last updated 15 June 2001