To be able to use English grammar correctly is a skill. And like any other skill it must be developed over time through repeated practice. This is the only way to become a strong English speaker.
This article will run over exercises in English grammar that you can do. But first let's unpack our topic a little: what exactly is grammar?
A Broad Definition of English Grammar
Grammar is the set of structural rules governing the composition of clauses, phrases and words.
You can learn more about English Grammar clauses in this dedicated blog post.
This definition, while elegant, does not detail every aspect of what we consider to be 'grammar'.
There are several pieces we can break grammar into, such as:
- Syntax – the rules that govern the structure of sentences
- specifically: word order and punctuation.
- specifically: word order and punctuation.
- Morphology – the study of words, how they are formed and their relationship with other words.
- Semantics – the study of meaning in language
- Pragmatics – the way context contributes to meaning
- Phonetics – the sounds of human speech
- in the case of sign language, the equivalent aspects of signing to spoken language.
- Phonology – the study and organisation of sounds in a language.
Unless you are a linguist specialising in the study of the English language, you will only need to worry about syntax and phonetics in your language learning journey.
Without knowing it, you may have already dabbled in Pragmatics as well. Has your English teacher ever asked you to 'guess' the meaning of words, based on the context around them?
For those who study English language grammar in-depth, predicates pose some real problems. To begin, there is a disagreement on what exactly a predicate really is.
Some believe that a predicate is one of two main parts in a sentence.
Others believe that the predicate is the main verb and any auxiliary verbs in a sentence.
Whether they are verbs or parts of sentences, these parts of speech are difficult to grasp and use correctly for those hoping to learn English grammar as a second language.
For example, what tense should we use for a current or ongoing action? What about already completed actions? What about when we make statements which are generally true?
At some point early on in your language learning journey, you will need to identify and use verb tenses correctly. This is especially true if you take an exam such as IELTS or CAE (Cambridge Assessment of English).
Take the following sentence:
Most of the students in my English class are female.
Here we use the present simple tense because we are describing facts that are generally true.
I did well in the IELTS examination.
In this case, simple past denotes a completed action.
Next examples: I am going to my General English course.
The use of subject + to be + verb+ing is known as the present progressive or the present continuous. This can be used for two meanings: Either 1) you are in the process of going to your English course right now, or 2) you intend to go to your English course at some point in the future.
Here is an easy well to tell the two apart: if another verb follows 'going to', that phrase signals future intent. If no other verb follows, it is an ongoing action.
Composing Negative Sentences
Say you are not going to your English class today. Or you don't think you scored well in the IELTS exam.
In cases like these, you will have to write a negative sentence, which requires some more notes to get the word order correct.
Negating an expression is not always as easy as simply inserting 'not' into any sentence.
When verb constructions become more complex, care must be taken in placing the negative in the right place in the sentence. Without correct word order, your English will not sound fluent.
I did not get a good score on my ESL exam.
In the past simple the auxiliary verb, in this case 'did', goes before the negation. The verb 'get' is the main action of the sentence, so it is kept in its infinitive form.
Again, in the sentence 'I am not going to business English today', the negation is placed in between the auxiliary and main verbs, this time in the present continuous.
Every verb tense conjugates differently, however, therefore writing and speaking in the negative form can be complex - especially if you consider contractions.
Contractions are simply shortening two words and combining them together, usually by using an apostrophe. They frequently occur in both spoken and informal written English, especially when using negatives. An example of some negative contractions are 'don't', 'can't', 'haven't'. These tricky things can confuse even advanced English learners.
Read more about English language style and form on the Superprof blog.
Conjunctions and Descriptives: Brevity is Key
Many people seem to believe that the key to great writing is creating long, flowing sentences with descriptive language - rife with conjunctions.
Speakers of American English are often the most guilty of this language error.
The following was taken from a police report in America:
A male suspect was observed fleeing in a northerly direction at a rapid rate of speed, and we were in quick pursuit, but we were unable to apprehend the individual.
While word order rules have been followed here, the example breaks implicit English grammar rules of limiting conjunction use and not introducing too many points within a single sentence.
Speaking English comprehensibly and fluently involves using short and concise sentences. ESL/EAL learners especially should focus on speaking in short, grammatically accurate sentences.
Returning back to the police report, let's rewrite it using proper grammar:
The suspect was seen fleeing north. We were in pursuit, but were unable to apprehend him.
The revised sentence is much shorter and the sequence is split into two complete sentences, making the language much simpler to understand.
Learners of English ought to strive for expressions that inform, rather than overwhelm. Try these exercises to help you perfect word order and sentence structure in English.
Proper Punctuation is Important
When ESL students learn English grammar, teachers often fail to emphasise the importance of using correct punctuation when writing English sentences. To demonstrate, the following examples highlight the catastrophic and comical changes in meaning we can see when we forge to use punctuation correctly.
A woman without her man is nothing.
As such, this sentence suggests that women must have a man with them, otherwise they are of no value. However, if we add a bit of punctuation...
A woman: without her, man is nothing.
The sentence now has the inverse meaning, that man is of no value unless there are women around!
Let's eat Grandma!
Suggests that we should eat our beloved grandmother as a snack! While
Let's eat, Grandma!
Kindly invites Grandma to the table to eat with us. Do you still think that punctuation isn't important?
Thankfully there are many resources available for practicing punctuation use. For example, the University of Bristol's page has plenty of practice exercises and quizzes on the topic.
Finding Just the Right Word!
We've already said that you must use English concisely to be understood. English learners must also note they must be accurate with their choice of content words in English.
In France, there is a term - le mot juste - which means 'just the right word' for the moment. That's what we need to speak fluently! Let's find out how we can get there...
English vocabulary can be very confusing, will all the homophones, homographs and homonyms. Pronunciation does not always tell you how a word is spelled and vice versa! Sometimes words with the same pronunciation have two or three different types of spelling! Correct use of every word must be learned through repeated practice.
These words, in particular, have very confusing double meanings!
Very subtle differences in spelling often completely change the meaning of the word. For instance, try this once:
Those studying English as a second language could stand a ___________ of their vocabulary coursework.
Is the correct word lightening or lightning?
The second is a bolt of electricity that hits the earth, so the first is correct, stemming from the verb 'to lighten'.
The best way to learn these subtle spelling differences is to practice and test, repeatedly.
You will touch on these words in your ESL lessons, however, doing extra study at home can help accelerate your learning!
Practice Your Grammar!
There are many exceptions to spelling and pronunciation rules in English, which can make it a very difficult language to master! However, the best way to slowly and steadily improve your English to practice at every opportunity in your day-to-day life.
Do not concern yourself with overly complex descriptions of language, such as those that linguists use!
Remember, most native English speakers don't even know what a conjunction is! But they still use them habitually due to repeated practice as a child. You, too, can learn to master English through repeated practice.
Our formula to achieve fluency: learn abundantly, test yourself minimally, and speak frequently.
If you can follow that advice, your proficiency will surely grow.