Humans are the only animals capable of communicating with more than single sounds. Human sounds are joined together in multiple ways to present literal and implied meaning.
Literal meaning is the face value of a word or sentence — what it represents. Implied meaning is gained through context, intonation, gestures and facial expressions, and word choice.
There are rules which determine the structure of human languages and communication. In other words — grammar.
Analysis of Latin, Greek and Sanskrit languages during the 1780s lead to the discovery of speech and writing patterns. Sir William Jones noted that the grammar of these languages was fully formed in every aspect.
Like vocabulary, grammar goes through changes over time. None of these changes over the last three thousand years are described as improvements or deteriorations; they simply show that grammar is constantly evolving.
Whether is is by random chance or selection, one of the things that is true about English - and indeed other languages - is that the language changes. — Joshua Plotkin
All languages experience change, but today we focus on English, from its evolution through to the influences of globalisation.
As we go, we might as well examine some of the more confusing parts of English grammar and vocabulary.
First Step: A Crash Course in How English Grammar Evolved
Originally, the Germanic language was made up of three main dialects:
- East Germanic — which is now extinct
- North Germanic — still spoken in Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden
- West Germanic — the foundation several languages or variants including Dutch, German — and English.
West Germanic people migrated to Brittania in 5 C.E. bringing, of course, their language with them.
Further to this, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes also arrived, speaking similar languages, all of which were versions of West Germanic.
Approximately two hundred years after the influx of West Germanic peoples, the story of the English language, and England itself, begins.
Owing to the range of dialects, it was soon apparent there was a need for communication between the different groups. A common language was developed and was referred to as English, derived from the name Angle.
Soon after this, the island of Brittania became known as England.
So, the emergence of England as a country in and of itself coincides with the foundation of the English language.
Etymology is fascinating.
Although English was essentially a melting pot of tribal languages, its grammar rules were strictly from West Germanic, owing to the fact the language already had a functioning and complete system of grammar.
Naturally there were other significant influences to the evolution of the English language — namely Latin and French. Words and phrases were adopted or rejected; expressions considered to be cultivated were borrowed from other tongues. What we have now is a unique and elaborate language spoken throughout the world by two billion people.
And that figure is growing as more people set their sights on learning.
Second Step: The Building Blocks of English Vocabulary
For people learning English as a second language, the study of new words is more than memorising lists. You need to understand the function of each word and its meaning in context.
Each word is part of a specific group under the general heading of 'parts of speech'. Individual words fit together like blocks. They often have different characteristics and behaviours and have to be arranged in a certain way to convey a particular idea.
Nouns: the Biggest Group
In school, we learn that nouns are naming words. They are the names of people, animals, things, places, feelings, qualities or actions.
If you can see it, touch it, or talk about it — it's a noun.
They're classified as common or proper.
Proper nouns, like your name, have to be written with a capital letter at the start. They are titles or specific names: the Prime Minister, Sydney, Pacific Ocean or Doctor Brown.
Capitals are used for significant periods of time or events as well, for example, World War II or Melbourne Cup.
If you want more explanation about when to capitalise, or any other aspects of grammar or rules described below, have a look at this page.
Verbs (and Predicates): Controlling the Action
The main function of an English verb is to describe an action — either a physical action (run), a mental action (consider) or a state of being (to exist).
One of the most challenging aspects of learning English grammar would have to be the conjugation of verbs. In ESL classes, this can be especially confusing for students whose native language does not contain similar rules.
Within the verb conjugation rules, verb tenses are a particular source of frustration for non native English speakers.
If you're learning English, there are twelve regular tenses to remember. These are needed to show when an action has, is, will or is going to happen. Along with these, there are an extra four special tenses, only used in certain grammatical contexts.
More about verbs later.
Adverbs and Adjectives: Adding Depth to our Sentences
These two parts of speech are describing words. Put simply, adverbs describe verbs and adjectives describe nouns — though in reality it's a little more complex than that.
Consider this sentence: She took a breath as she peered out.
Do you long for more information? More depth? Can you visualise what's going on?
Is this sentence better?
Afraid, she took a shuddery breath as she peered tentatively out the window.
Now, with the descriptives, we know much more:
- What was her state of mind?
- What is she peering out of?
- How did her breath sound?
- How did she peer?
Descriptives are essential for clear communication, however, have you heard the proverb: too many cooks spoil the broth?
Afraid and really scared, she shakily took a shuddery, quaking breath as, terrified, she slowly peered tentatively out the dusty, cracked window.
Beware! Too much of a good thing makes your sentences unwieldy and hard to comprehend. Instead of increasing your fluency in spoken or written English, the overuse of descriptives can have the opposite effect.
Conjunctions and Prepositions: Tiny but Important
Words, like because, but, although and and, are conjunctions. Their job is to connect two words, phrases or clauses that are related.
My English pronunciation is improving because I practise with a native English speaker.
Both ideas are related and are joined by the conjunction 'because'.
A preposition links nouns, pronouns or phrases to other words. They mostly describe position, time or the way something is done.
My English dictionary is in my bag. I need to practise before my test.
Exploring and describing the scenery of the country you live in is great for preposition practice.
Determiner: A Tinier Word to Introduce a Noun
These words may be small, but they are significant. Determiners help us understand the specifics of the noun in terms of importance or quantity. Examples are: a, the, an, every, few, and that.
"Pass me a dictionary, please," implies there are many dictionaries, and you just want one of them.
But: "Pass me that dictionary, please," implies you want a specific dictionary.
Which determiner to use, if any, is an ongoing issue for many students when they start learning English (or even for those at an intermediate level).
Comprehension relies on the correct use of determiners in speech and writing.
Third Step: Words with Multiple Functions
Learning English grammar requires perseverance — and grappling with new vocabulary is not much better. Especially when many words have double functions like before and after
These words are just two of the many English words with multiple functions, depending on word order:
- conjunctions — if the clause they depend on precedes or follows 'before' or 'after'
- prepositions — if 'before' or 'after' is placed in front of a noun or pronoun.
- adverbs — if they are not connected to a pronoun or noun, and are independent of a clause
What examples can you think of where 'before' and 'after' fit these scenarios?
It's a Noun. No, it's an Adjective!
Are you doing grammar lessons online, or working with an English teacher?
'Grammar' and 'English' are usually both nouns, however, in this sentence, they are functioning as adjectives because they describe the lessons and the teacher respectively.
Think of some more examples.
This Time it's an Adjective! Sorry, it's a Noun.
It works the other way around too — adjectives sometimes take on the role of a noun.
For example: The old and the young were assisted to evacuate.
Usually old and young are classified as adjectives — old man, young boy — but in the sentence above, 'old' and 'young' are used to name groups of people.
Nouns are 'naming words'.
A helpful rule worth remembering is: if you use an article (the, a, an) before an adjective, it can be used as a noun. Try it out!
Verbs can have Double Functions Too
Remember, there are sixteen tenses in English, so don't expect to learn how to conjugate and use regular and irregular verbs all at once.
Adding to your challenge is the fact that some verbs have double functions depending on their use:
- auxiliary and modal
- linking and action
- smell, appear, grew, became — all examples of verbs that have both linking and action functions
- transitive and intransitive
- Tom demonstrated his kind nature.
- Penny demonstrated at the rally.
Which is which in this last example?
(Hint!) Afte the subject-verb part of the sentence, ask what? Or who? If the sentence answers either of these questions, it's transitive.
Fourth Step: English Grammar Clauses
English learners, by necessity, put considerable effort into ensuring their sentences are accurately structured for the best possible fluency.
Native speakers of English, however, learn grammar and how to use it naturally, through hearing and speaking every day. This informal learning starts well before primary school.
Once English grammar becomes ingrained, you will be able to focus on other skills.
Modifying Verbs and Nouns: Prepositional Phrases
In Step Two, you discovered that a preposition is a word that describes position, time or method. But sometimes you want a little more information.
A prepositional phrase is a series of words consisting of a preposition and its object.
When speaking English or writing in English, many non native English speakers find the accurate use and placement of prepositions to be challenging.
Here's a hint: preposition is the prefix pre-, meaning before, and position. The literal meaning is 'before position' or before the word.
Remember this, and you'll have less trouble with how to use a preposition.
Groups of Words to Show Action: Phrasal Verbs
Let's go out for dinner.
I'll ask around to see who else wants to come.
Phrasal verbs, like the two examples above, are most commonly used in less formal conversational situations. You'd be better off not using them during a job interview though.
Using slang is a great way to improve your English, but it's best left to friends.
Business or Standard English is recommended for official communications.
A Preposition and its Object
The object of a preposition is the noun, verb or word group that follows the preposition.
For example: I sat at the kitchen counter. ('counter' is the object of 'at', 'kitchen' gives more information about the counter.)
The words 'who' and 'whom' can be especially confusing — but it will always be 'whom' that follows a preposition.
As an English learner, it is also easy to stumble over 'if' and 'whether' — they are interchangeable in a question, but after a preposition, stick to 'whether'.
Clauses: Four Types
The general definition of a clause is a group of words containing at least one verb or verb group and a subject.
A clause falls into one of four categories:
An independent clause can stand alone. The other clauses have different conditions and functions.
Coordinating Conjunctions — How to Use Them
Conjunctions connect two clauses or thoughts; coordinating conjunctions connect two independent clauses.
A native speaker of English might remember the coordinating conjunction by the mnemonic FANBOYS.
As you continue to learn English, you will begin to include these words fluently as you speak or write.
Fluency with your English language skills requires you to both understand all the rules and use them naturally in everyday situations.
Fifth Step: Using Verb Tense as a Time Reference
Not every foreign language makes use of verb tenses to show when an action actually occurs.
What's more, many other languages do not insist particular pronouns have specific verb forms.
There is some debate around English verb tenses and whether they're actually used. Some linguists argue that the grammar rules for verbs lean more towards aspects than tenses.
Whatever the outcome, the best references to time in English sentences are what we know as verb tenses.
Most verbs in English conjugate in the same way, making this part of learning English grammar a little easier.
English does have a number of irregular verbs, which are the cause of some issues. However, on the plus side, this group of verbs all conjugate using the same method.
The mood in a sentence is also marked by verbs.
Each of the five moods in English has its own function and require a particular sentence construction. Functions include requesting, expression of possibility and instructing; verb tenses play an important role in each one.
Sixth Step: Style Elements
When it comes to sentence construction, there are certain elements that must be adhered to, according to the author of one of the most influential style guides, William Strunk Jr.
The biggest taboo is the run-on sentence.
When two or more independent clauses are not joined correctly, the result is a run-on sentence.
Stephen King, the prolific American author, is often quoted on his aversion to adverbs and adjectives — the less the better.
Many words become overused, and then misused. One such example is the current use of literally. Look it up.
The best way to improve your speaking skills and writing skills, and become a model, even to native English speakers, is to ensure you use descriptives sparingly.
Make every word earn its place in your sentences.
Voice: Active or Passive?
As you continue to learn English, you may notice that the subject and object in a sentence is reversed. The overt meaning is the same, but the style is unusual.
The poem, Waltzing Matilda, was written by Banjo Patterson.
This word order style is referred to as passive voice. The effect is that it makes the poem more important than the poet.
Generally, however, the person should be more important.
Thus, the correct sentence should read: Banjo Patterson wrote the poem, Waltzing Matilda. This way, the poet is the subject, and the poem is the object.
Try finding other sentences written in the passive form, and practise changing them to the active form.
Passive sentences are not incorrect, though, but it's good to be aware of the differences.
Other English grammar rules, however, were made to be broken — not ending sentences with prepositions and avoiding one-sentence paragraphs are just two of these.
Seventh Step: Practise that Grammar
The more English grammar you understand, the better your language use and fluency will become.
Learn the Variations in Verb Tense Conjugations
Whether you are writing or speaking, applying the negative form of a verb can be tricky. This increases if you want to use an irregular verb.
Practising regularly is the only way to get around this.
Word Order in Sentences
For fluent spoken English, sentences that are concise and clear, with minimal adjectives and adverbs, are the best ones.
If the rules around word order in English seem complicated — that's because they are. Spend time internalising them, so you can use them without thinking about it.
Get your Punctuation Right
Punctuation is often the forgotten element in English lessons.
Errors in punctuation are rife — native English speakers and English as a second language learners alike. It seems an oversight that English courses don't offer comprehensive instruction on accurate use of punctuation.
For people who are learning English online, look for websites that emphasise punctuation in equal measure with other grammar skills.
Check the University of Bristol site to start with — it's full of practice opportunities.
Which Word is the Right One?
Homophones, homonyms and homographs — the English language is full of these tormentors.
Words that sound the same but have different spellings and meanings, like practise and practice. (Hint: the first is the verb, the second is the noun.)
Words that are spelt the same, with the same pronunciation, but at least two different meanings, such as express and bright.
Words with the same spelling but different meanings and different pronunciation — wound, minute.
Test your knowledge with online vocabulary quizzes.
The Hottest Tip for Learning English Grammar...
... use your language skills at every available opportunity.
It's that simple.
Don't overthink the rules — just get out there, find yourself people to speak to, and go for it.
Try Superprof's formula for fluency success — abundant learning, frequent speaking, constant challenging.
Small Achievable Steps for English Grammar Success
A philosopher once said, 'Half of good philosophy is good grammar.' — A.P. Martinich
There is a fundamental difference between the focus on language development for a native English speaker and that of a non-native English learner. In the former, grammar is not always explicitly taught, but 'picked up' through exposure. In the latter, there is almost an over-emphasis on grammar, often at the expense of spoken skills and pronunciation.
In life, we don't necessarily need to fully understand how something works to be able to receive the benefits.
You may feel you do not require the knowledge of whether a verb is transitive or not to be able to conjugate it and apply it to your speech.
However, foundational knowledge will help your English skills grow and knowing how a language works and why rules are there is beneficial.
Find a private tutor from Superprof and learn English online.