Every animal communicates, but only humans use more than individual sounds. We string them together in complex patterns that give meaning, both overt and implied - through context clues.
Overt meaning is what a word or sentence represents; implied meaning is conveyed by word choice, tone, and body language.
Human languages have a structure that is defined by rules for every aspect of communication. This collection of rules is identified by the blanket term: grammar.
Sir William Jones first recognised patterns of speech and writing, sometime during the 1780s, while analysing Latin, Greek and Sanskrit. He found these grammars to be fully formed; complete in every aspect of their language.
Grammar has developed in the last three thousand years, but it has not improved and it has not degenerated. It has merely changed.
Slow and constant change, without improvement and without degeneration, is a characteristic of grammar in all languages. - Christopher Mulvey
Be that as it may, the English language is our focus. Let us explore it, from development, through evolution, to the impact of globalisation on our native tongue today.
Along the way, we will study tricky aspects of English grammar and vocabulary.
Day One: The Evolution of English Grammar
The inception and development of the English language coincides with the establishment of England as a country in its own right.
In the Fifth Century C.E., a contingent of West Germanic people arrived on an island named Brittania.
Their fundamental Germanic language was comprised of three distinct dialects: North, East and West.
The East Germanic tongue is now extinct.
The North Germanic languages are currently spoken in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Iceland.
West Germanic is the foundation of English, German, Dutch and any variants of those languages.
The Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes all spoke a similar language – relatively close versions of West Germanic.
Proof of our language's roots is found in words that start with a silent k, such as: knee, knife, knack, and knot.
The story of English (and England) starts about two hundred years after our Germanic forefathers settled in.
Their individual dialects evolved in response to the need for communication amongst the tribes. Soon the word English – a derivate of the name Angle, came to represent their common vernacular.
Not long after, the island they occupied became known as England.
Can you guess that name's etymology?
The West Germanic language already had a complete grammar system. As the tribal languages melded into our beloved English, the grammar rules simply transferred from the old tongue to the new.
Through other influences, mainly French and Latin, the English language in turn adopted, rejected and further cultivated aspects from other tongues to create the unique and distinctive speech that nearly two billion people worldwide can speak.
And millions more, like you, strive to learn.
Day Two: Parts of Speech and How to Use Them
You, who are learning English as a second language, make a conscious effort to study each word's function and the meaning it gives to the idea you are trying to convey.
If we think of vocabulary as the building blocks of language, it is critical to understand differences from one type of 'block' to another, and how they should be arranged for maximum effectiveness.
Nouns are naming words.
Anything you can see, touch or talk about is given a name.
Nouns can be either common or proper.
Your name is a proper noun. So are names of mountains, buildings, rivers, tunnels and monuments.
Proper nouns and titles are capitalized. That is why our queen is called The Queen. Every doctor in every English-speaking country is addressed in English as Doctor, or Dr. and our teachers as Mr., Mrs., Miss, Master or Mistress.
Important moments in time are capitalised, too. The Ice Age happened a long time ago, but World War II survivors are still alive today.
For more rules on when to capitalize a noun, you can refer to this page.
Be it Verb or a Predicate
Verbs have several functions in the English language, the main one being to describe actions.
Verbs can also tell us about mental activity like thinking, or represent a state of being.
Verb conjugation and usage is one of the most difficult aspects of English grammar for Esl students, especially English learners whose native language verbs never change forms.
Besides conjugation – changing verb endings to match pronouns or nouns, verb tenses are a particular challenge for non native students of English.
The English language has twelve common tenses to indicate when action happens, if it has yet to occur, or if it is already complete. There are a further four special tenses, to be used only in certain grammar constructs.
We will talk more in-depth about verbs later on.
Check for ESOL classes here.
Adjectives and Adverbs
These words are describers. They add depth to our communications and help us visualize what is being talked about.
Curious, he chewed his food thoughtfully as he pondered the question.
This sentence contains a descriptive to a noun and to a verb.
Can you find them?
Imagine this sentence bare of any extra information:
He chewed his food as he pondered.
With this basic sentence, we have no idea what his state of mind is – indicated in the first sentence as curious.
We have no clue what he is pondering. Maybe he is just wondering if he has enough milk for his morning tea.
We have no indication of his mood.
The use of descriptives is essential for good communication but, as the idiom goes: too much of a good thing can be bad.
Many who learn English as a second language tend to saturate their speaking and writing with descriptives.
Warning! Liberally sprinkling such words throughout your spoken or written English can reduce your fluency by making your sentences too cumbersome to speak clearly.
Prepositions and Conjunctions
Prepositions are words that describe a relationship between a noun/pronoun and some other word in the sentence.
My English books are behind my computer.
My books are on my desk.
This page can tell you more about prepositions.
A conjunction connects two related ideas.
My reading comprehension is good but my listening skills are poor.
Both ideas expressed in this sentence relate to English skills. They are joined by a conjunction.
Words that give a measure of something, such as: a, an, the, some, and those all help you determine which specific items are being discussed.
Hand me those IELTS answer sheets, please.
Those indicates a specific pile of exam answer forms the speaker would like to have given to him.
Omitting determiners – or using the wrong one is common mistake made by English learners.
These words are vital to English comprehension. Without determiners, we cannot know exactly what the speaker is talking about.
Here is a great lesson on determiners and how to use them.
These are the major parts of speech. Next, we will discuss double-function words.
Day Three: Double-Function Words
We all know how tricky English grammar can be. English vocabulary is at times even more treacherous!
The words before and after might have been among your earliest English language acquisitions.
Did you know they can serve three separate functions, depending on where in the sentence they are positioned?
When they precede or follow the clause they depend on, they are conjunctions
When they come before a noun or pronoun, they are prepositions
When used independent of any clause and away from pronouns and nouns, the two words are considered adverbs.
Can you make up sentences in which before and after fill their various functions?
Nouns as Adjectives
Are you an English teacher or an Esl student?
In this sentence, English and Esl – although generally nouns, both function as adjectives, describing the teacher and the learner, respectively.
Have you encountered an instance when a noun was used as an adjective during your lessons?
Adjectives as Nouns
If nouns can serve as adjectives, then adjectives can also serve as nouns.
The rich should help the poor.
The words rich and poor are typically used as adjectives, but in this case, they are used to name entire groups of the population.
Remember that nouns are naming words.
The general rule is that, if you can put an article in front of an adjective, it functions as a noun.
Double Function Verbs
Learning to conjugate and use regular and irregular verbs in all sixteen tenses is quite a challenge.
To make the situation more complicated, some verbs can be: both linking and action, transitive and intransitive, modal and auxiliary, depending on how they are used.
This is a partial list of verbs that can be both linking and action:
Can you write a linking and action sentence for each one?
You should also be aware that some verbs can be transitive or intransitive, depending on usage.
Tony demonstrated his proficiency in business English.
Cathy demonstrated at the protest.
Which one is transitive?
The best way to find out if a verb is transitive is to ask what? Or who? after the subject-verb portion of the sentence.
Now that we've learned all about double-function words, let's put them to use.
Day Four: Grammar Clauses
Speakers of other languages put a great deal of thought into exactly how to structure sentences in English for maximum effect.
By contrast, most of native English speakers' grammar learning happens in the course of everyday use of the language, before they enter primary school.
Let's level the table by boosting your knowledge of English grammar!
A preposition is any word that expresses the relationship between two words – generally the one before and the one after it.
A prepositional phrase is a group of words that contains a preposition.
For those learning English as a second language, prepositions can be challenging to use correctly, both in writing and in speaking English.
Remember: the word preposition is a combination of the prefix pre- and the word position, making the literal meaning of it: before the word.
Knowing that should help you remember how to use prepositions.
Let's shove off, then!
We'll have to sort it out, won't we?
These are examples of phrasal verbs, commonly used during informal conversation.
While trendy, such vernacular is not recommended in more formal situations – say, if you are interviewing for a job.
Many people who study English particularly enjoy using slang phrases, such as those above.
More appropriate would be to use business English or Standard English during any official transactions.
The Object of a Preposition
Many an English learner gets confused over the use of who and whom.
A similar stumbling block is the proper use of if and whether.
Which one follows a preposition?
For concise answers about prepositions and prepositional phrases, you can refer to this page.
Four Main Types of Clauses
- the independent clause
- the dependent clause
- the relative clause
- the conditional clause
In general, a grammar clause is a group of words that contains at least a subject and a verb.
Beyond that, further explanation is necessary to recognise the various clauses and how to use them.
Using Coordinating Conjunctions
Coordinating conjunctions join words, phrases and independent clauses.
For, or, and, but, yet, and nor are all examples of coordinating conjunctions.
As you delve deeper into English grammar, you will be able to include these terms into your spoken English more and more naturally.
Your fluency in the language depends on you not only understanding all of these rules but internalising them and incorporating them into your everyday English speaking.
Check out these ESL classes online on Superprof.
Day Five: Marking Time with Verb Tenses
Some languages around the globe do not require verb tenses to indicate when an action occurs.
Nor do they demand a different verb form for each specific pronoun.
Linguists are currently debating about whether the English language actually uses verb tenses, and if so, how many.
Some contend that grammar rules for verbs are actually aspects rather than tenses.
Debates aside, what are commonly known as verb tenses are the best indicators of time in the English language.
To make the aspect of English grammar easier, verbs mostly conjugate the same way.
Irregular verbs tend to pose a problem because they deviate from the norm. However, even irregular verbs in English provide a fail-safe: they all conjugate the same way.
Fortunately, the list of irregular verbs in English is relatively short.
In addition to indicating time and action, verbs can indicate the mood of a sentence.
There are a total of five moods, reflected in their own, specific sentence construction, with verb tenses playing a crucial role in each.
Mood constructions in the English language lead us to study other aspects of expressions in English.
Day Six: Aspects of Style
According to William Strunk Jr., the English language demands certain elements of sentence construction never be ignored.
Among the most prominent is how to avoid run-on sentences.
A run-on sentence consists of two or more independent clauses with no punctuation.
Another prominent American English author, Stephen King, advocates an economy of words: using fewer adjectives and no adverbs, if you can help it.
His point is proven in today's misuse – and overuse of the adverb literally.
This is but one instance of adverb misuse that underscores the directive of America's pre-eminent author.
To improve your English, avoid using descriptives to excess, be they adverbs or adjectives.
Active and Passive Sentence Construction
As you study English, you may find that reversing the subject and object of a sentence gives your text an unusual style.
Perhaps you feel more comfortable using it because your native language grammar follows that form.
The movie was acted by Tim Huddleston.
This is a passive voice sentence construction that makes the movie more important than the actor.
The rule is: the person is more important than anything else.
Thus, listing the actor's name as the subject and the movie as the object is the correct way to write this sentence.
You can practise your arrangement of English words by rewriting this sentence.
English teachers in America as well as English courses in London & the rest of the UK, and Esl teachers around the world recommend that their students include Elements of Style in their English language study materials, alongside their dictionary and thesaurus.
In those pages you will find guidelines for proper English that are not necessarily covered by any grammar rule.
In spite of all the timeless style recommendations in that book, there are some grammar rules you can break.
Let us now test your overall knowledge of English grammar.
Day Seven: The Best Grammar Exercises
As you learn to speak English, you will find that understanding grammar will improve your ability to use the language.
Every Verb Tense Conjugates Differently.
Writing or speaking, especially using the negative form of any verb phrase can be complex, even more so if you are composing a sentence using an irregular verb.
It pays to practise this aspect of grammar.
On Sentence Structure
To speak English fluently, you should use short, concise sentences with as few adjectives and adverbs as possible.
Word order rules can sometimes be complicated. To become fluent in English, you must internalise these edicts and use them in your spoken and written English.
Proper Punctuation is Vital
Oddly enough, English courses seldom emphasise the importance of punctuation.
Punctuation errors being so prevalent in the language, obviously English teaching should include in-depth instruction on how to use these marks effectively.
Fortunately, if you are learning English online, you can find many sites that promote the proper use of punctuation.
The University of Bristol has such a page. It is loaded with practice exercises and quizzes that address punctuation.
Using the Right Word
The trouble with English words is that so many of them sound exactly alike! Some of them are even spelled the same.
Effect and affect is just such a word pair. One of them suggests a quality that expresses outward; the other is one that works inwardly.
Affect is generally used as a verb.
Effect can be either a noun or a verb, but is mainly used as a noun.
To sharpen your vocabulary skills, you can test your vocabulary knowledge of the most frequently confused word pairs.
The Best Grammar Exercise
The best way to work your English language skills is to use them at every available opportunity.
You should not concern yourself too much over whether any given word is a preposition, a conjunction or an abomination of the language.
Our formula to achieve fluency: learn abundantly, speak frequently, and challenge yourself constantly.
English Learning in Daily Doses
Grammar is a demonstration of the complexity of the human mind; it is something that evolved as we evolved; it is a product of nature, not of culture. - Daniel Everett
During native English speakers' early education, emphasis is placed on proper pronunciation, and reading and writing skills. Grammar learning happens as a matter of course.
On the other hand, Non native English speakers delve deeply into grammar rules, sometimes at the cost of developing speaking skills and sacrificing pronunciation altogether.
One does not need to understand fundamentals of electricity to enjoy its benefits.
To learn English, you don't need to know whether a verb is transitive or intransitive in order to conjugate it and use it correctly.
Maybe it is not necessary to know why some words serve more than one function in order to speak English properly.
But, if you want a strong foundation for your English language skills, then your English learning must include knowledge of every aspect that binds it together.
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