Are you unsure about what the rules of grammar are? Are you getting told to fix up your grammatical errors, but you aren't sure what they are? In this article, we're going to give you the ultimate grammar guide to get you through high school!
English Grammar is tricky and complex. What makes it harder is that many students weren’t taught at school. But don’t worry, Matrix has your back! In this Toolkit, we’re going to give you the grammar answers you’ve been waiting for.
Now you know what we’re going to look at, let’s start by discussing what English grammar is.
Grammar is the rules that govern a language. English grammar is the set of rules that govern English and its various dialects.
What we know as grammar is actually two things:
English grammar is particularly tricky because, unlike many other languages, English has a very mixed heritage. Our words have their roots in Latin, Greek, and, mostly, French. Meanwhile, our syntax is largely derived from old Germanic. Complicating things, our way of considering grammar is taken from Latin.
This makes understanding English grammar difficult because we have many exceptions to the rules of word and sentence formation (for example, this why some words are conjugated by adding -ing, -ed, -s to show tense, while others take an irregular form – we say ‘ran’ and not ‘runned*’)
What we will do in this article is explain the rules that are fundamental or that students most commonly struggle with.
Grammar is important as it allows us to communicate ideas to one another in a consistent and intelligible way. When we speak or write, we speak in an idiomatic manner – that is, we use forms that we recognise as native speakers – that enables other native speakers to understand our meaning. When we break the conventions of English, our meaning gets corrupted or lost because others cannot follow it.
If we want to communicate informatively, persuasively, or imaginatively, we need to communicate in a manner that our audience can understand. To do this, we must follow the rules of grammar.
Having a solid grasp of grammar will enable you to communicate effectively and succinctly. When you write your essays, speeches and creatives in Year 12, knowing how to communicate appropriately is essential if you want good marks.
So, let’s look at the key grammatical rules you need to know.
Please note: Sentences marked with * are not grammatically complete sentences.
An apostrophe – ‘ – is a punctuation mark that indicates either possession or if the word is a contraction of two words (To learn about contractions, read here).
We use an apostrophe to denote whether a noun possesses something, be it an object or quality. When we want to denote possession, we place an apostrophe before an “s” and after the noun – ‘s
Let’s look at how possessive apostrophes are used on singular nouns:
The cat’s collar.
The child’s choice.
A mother’s bravery.
Possessive apostrophes are also used on plural nouns ending in -s. Rather than it preceding the noun, the convention in Australian written English is to place the apostrophe after the “s”:
The ants’ nest
The parliamentarians’ constituents
The state’s libraries’ book collections
Using possessive apostrophes correctly is an integral part of clear English communication.
Articles are the words that we place before a noun to denote whether it is a specific or generic object. In English, we have two types of article:
We use the definite article to refer to a specific object. Using a definite article tells the reader which object it is.
The indefinite article refers to a general or non-specific object.
Can I ride the bicycle? This refers to a specific bicycle and suggests the speaker is wanting to ride a particular bike.
Can I ride a bicycle? This can refer to any bicycle and can mean that the speaker is asking if they can ride any bicycle, or they may be questioning if they are allowed or able to ride a bike.
Some nouns do not take articles, they are known as non-countable nouns or mass nouns (in Australia we tend to refer to these as mass nouns). Mass nouns are things which cannot be divided up into parts or represent non-concrete or abstract things:
A good rule of thumb is to think if you are talking about general or broad things. You can’t refer to all things with a specific word – “The.”
In addition, names don’t take articles (but there are some exceptions, such as referring to cars: “I’ll take the Porsche for a spin”). So, the following categories of words won’t take an article:
Finally, to make things more confusing, there are quite a few words that are both mass and count nouns. For example:
If you are unsure of whether a word is a count or mass noun, look up its definition in a reputable dictionary like the Collins, Macquarie, Oxford, or Cambridge dictionaries.
Capitalisation – the use of an upper case letter to begin a word – indicates whether a word is a proper noun or the start of a sentence (or both).
Capitalisation is very important as it allows us to understand what sort of objects or things the words represent.
When we start a new sentence, we capitalise the first word to indicate the first word of a sentence. This is especially useful when we start a new paragraph.
However, proper nouns are used to indicate an individual person, place, institution.
Proper nouns do not take articles except in specific circumstances. See the entry on ARTICLES, above, for details.
Clauses are units of grammar that sit below the sentence in terms of organisation. Sentences are made up of several different clauses.
Below is a word tree illustrating the different parts of a sentence:
As you can see, a clause is the smallest unit of grammar that can express an idea.
A typical clause is made up of a subject noun and a predicate. A predicate is the part of a clause that includes a verb and information relating to the subject noun.
For example, In the sentence “Raj went to school.” “Went to school” is the predicate and “Raj” is the subject.
There are different types of clauses:
Comma usage is tricky. Students often throw commas into sentences in the wrong places. It is important that students learn the rules regarding when to use commas.
There are quite a few rules about how commas should be used.
The most common rule is for listing. When listing a series of three or more things, phrases, or clauses we separate them with commas. For example,
Mary wrote using full-stops, semi-colons, colons, exclamation marks, and commas.
Commas are also commonly used to separate clauses. So, it helps to have an understanding of what clauses are and how they function.
Sentences are composed of clauses; a clause is a unit of grammar that is below a sentence. You can read about clauses, here.
We use commas to show relations between clauses. To remind you, the main clause types are:
Now that we know what clauses are, we can see how commas are used with them. Here are the most common rules for commas:
Use commas to separate independent clauses that are separated by these seven coordinating conjunctions: and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet.
The sentence was incomplete, but the student still used a full-stop.
Use commas after clauses, phrases, or words that precede an independent clause.
Because the sentence was incomplete, she added an independent clause.
Use a pair of commas in the middle of a sentence to present subordinate clauses that are not essential to the meaning of a sentence. Use one comma before the subordinate clause and one after to indicate its conclusion.
The sentence, which lacked punctuation, lost the student marks.
The student worked hard. In their case, however, it wasn’t enough.
Use commas to separate multiple adjectives that describe the same noun. However, don’t separate the final adjective and noun with a comma.
It was a concise, grammatical sentence.
It was a concise, grammatical, sentence.* This is called a comma splice. A comma splice is when a sentence or clause is split unnecessarily by a comma.
Using commas unnecessarily will make a sentence very confusing for the reader.
Use a comma near the end of a sentence to separate coordinating ideas or to indicate a pause or shift.
She was ungrammatical, not lazy.
Use a comma to shift between the main statement and a quotation (known as a speech tag).
The teacher said, ‘You must use commas!’
Conjunctions are words that connect clauses together, co-ordinate clause, or introduce clauses.
There are three types of conjunction:
The different conjunctions can be found in this table:
|Coordinating conjunction||Subordinating conjunction||Correlative conjunction|
|Table: The different conjunctions|
As soon as
No matter how
Not only….but also
Contractions are words where two words have been shortened into one. We mark contractions by using an apostrophe.
In English, we have many contractions that are commonly used.
Most contractions combine a pronoun with a form of the verbs “To be” – am, are, is – “To have” – have, has, had – and the auxiliary verb “will’.
Some examples are:
When writing formally, you should not use contractions.
Ellipsis is used when you truncate a quotation by shortening it and replacing the missing text with three periods (…)
When you use an ellipsis, make sure your sentence is still grammatical.
Mood is a quality of verbs used to convey whether the verb expresses a fact, command, question, condition, wish or possibility.
There are five major moods and several minor moods.
The major moods are:
The minor moods are:
Participles are words that are formed out of verbs and then used in a similar manner to an adjective or nouns, or as part of a verb phrase.
Participles are used to describe nouns, noun phrases, verbs, and verb phrases.
There are two sorts of participles:
Participles used in Verb Phrases
When a participle is combined with an auxiliary verb, it becomes part of a verb phrase.
For example, we might say:
John ate his dinner when Judy arrived.
This states that John consumed his whole dinner at some point around the arrival of his friend Judy.
If we want more specificity in our sentence, or we could signifying that this was an ongoing action by using a verb phrase including a present participle:
John was eating his dinner when Judy arrived.
If we wanted to signify that John had his dinner interrupted, we would include the past participle of the verb “to be” – been:
John had been eating his dinner when Judy arrived.
Participles used as Adjectives
Sometimes we want to describe a noun by an action it is doing or has been subject to. This allows us to be specific about the nouns we are discussing. When we do this, we use participles to describe the noun:
John’s failed exam paper was on top of the pile.
Judy’s amazing exam paper was in the teacher’s hand.
Participles used as Nouns
When we want to use an action as a noun in a clause or sentence, we use a participle. We only ever use present participles when we do this.
Writing is John’s worst nightmare.
Judy loves studying.
The subject of a sentence is the main, or initial noun. A subject noun on its own is the smallest possible sentence.
A predicate is the part of a sentence that tells us something about the subject (its state, what it’s doing, etc).
The dog barks. (verb only predicate)
The dog was blue. (verb-adjective predicate)
The blue dog ate food. (verb-direct-object predicate)
The blue dog barked at the thief. (verb-prepositional-object predicate)
Prepositions are parts of speech that connect nouns and verbs and show us the relationships between them.
There are a wide variety of prepositions depending on the relationship they make clear.
Prepositions tell us:
The common prepositions are:
|Table: Common propositions|
Prepositions combine with nouns to act as prepositional phrases.
In some instances, you can use a prepositional phrase to begin a sentence. This immediately tells the reader information about the independent clause to or remaining sentence that will follow.
In some instances, you can use a prepositional phrase to begin a sentence.
The above sentence uses a prepositional phrase to tell readers that it is only sometimes appropriate to begin sentences with prepositional phrases.
Plural agreement occurs when the number of the noun, be it singular or plural, matches the number of the verb.
For example, “we are running” combines a plural noun, “we”, with a plural verb phrase “are running”.
It would be wrong for us to say, “I are running”* or “we is running.”*
A good test is to ask yourself if the verb is in the plural form and if the noun numbers more than one. If they don’t match appropriately, rewrite the sentence so that they do.
Pronouns are words that stand in the place of a noun. There are different types of pronouns:
When we use personal pronouns they have three cases, like all nouns, nominative, objective, and possessive.
|Table: Personal pronouns and their cases|
|Subjective / Nominative Case||Objective/ Accusative Case||Possessive / Genitive Case|
|3rd Person (male)||He||Him||His|
|3rd Person (female)||She||Her||Hers|
|1st person (plural)||We||Us||ours|
|2nd Person (plural)||You||Your||Yours|
|3rd Person (plural)||They||Them||Theirs|
Punctuation refers to the symbols that we use to signify different things in a sentence.
We only have a handful of different punctuation marks in English.
|Table: Punctation marks|
|Parenthesis (Curved)||( )|
|Parenthesis (Square)||[ ]|
|Quotation marks||‘ ‘|
|Double quotation marks||” “|
Let’s look at the purpose of these punctuation marks and the rules governing their usage.
Apostrophes are used to denote ownership and possession or to mark contractions.
Apostrophes used for possession appear at the end of a noun and are, usually, followed by an “s”.
When the noun is plural and ends in “-s” the apostrophe should fall after the “-s”.
The teachers’ rules.
The boys’ toy.
You can read more about APOSTROPHES here.
Apostrophes for contractions don’t follow a consistent rule. They can be used to shorten a singular word or combine two words:
Cannot ⇒ Can’t
Do not ⇒ Don’t
You can read more about CONTRACTIONS here.
Colons are used to present a list.
In his pockets, John had: a pen, a pencil, a rubber, five dollars in change, and a small poodle.
Colons can also be used to replace a semi-colon if there is a very strong relationship between the independent clauses.
I don’t like running: it gives me sore feet.
Commas have many rules and are used for a variety of reasons.
Em-dash, En-dash, and Hyphen
These different dashes are often confused.
Hyphens (-) are used to connect compound words, denote numbers, or spell out words.
Em-dashes (—) are used to denote a strong break in a sentence. They are often used like, or to replace, parentheses in a sentence and enclose words, phrases, or clauses.
The students — not a single one of them — had done their homework.
The old woman — alone — could solve the riddle.
Straighten your collar — like that.
En-dashes (–) are used to denote inclusive numbers dates or things.
Turn your book to chapter 4 and read pages 44-59.
The course runs from April 4-7.
Do not use lockers numbered 6-12.
Exclamation marks are used to convey surprise, anger, or other strong emotion or to convey that a person is angry.
“Look at that!”
“Put that down!”
“That’s a terrible essay!”
“The police were very heavy-handed!”
Exclamation marks always remain inside the quotation in citations.
Parenthesis (curved and square)
There are two types of parentheses that we use; curved ( ) and square [ ].
Curved parentheses are used to contain citations, extraneous information in a clause, or an aside or remark.
Dolan states that it is a badly written book (see page 277).
She went to Sydney (in Australia) for a holiday.
Judy fell asleep at her desk (she’d been studying far too hard).
Square parentheses are used to denote a correction to a quotation where relevant information is included in the square parentheses.
“Judy told him” ⇒ This happens when, “Judy told [John]” what to do.
Periods (or full-stops) are used for two purposes:
Question marks are used to write questions or enquiries.
“Have you finished the assignment?”
“Do you like horror films, Judy?”
When citing, question marks always remain in the quotation marks.
Quotation marks (and double quotation marks)
Quotation marks come in two varieties (single —‘ ‘ — and double —” “). Quotation marks are used to signify dialogue or cited text.
We have two types of quotation mark so we can differentiate between citation and cited dialogue or referred speech.
“My favourite song off Pagan’s new album is ‘Silver’.”
“I heard John say to Judy, ‘I desperately need your economic notes.’ But she refused to share them.”
“Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 151’ should be taught with caution.”
You can use either quotation for dialogue or referred speech, but you need to be consistent throughout your piece of writing after the first instance (“He said, ‘do this.'” or ‘He said, “do this.”‘)
There are specific rules for the order of punctuation for use in quotation marks. These rules can be found here.
A semi-colon (;) is used to connect two independent clauses or to separate dependent clause or noun phrases in a list.
My assignment was increasingly late; my anxiety grew each day I failed to start it.
Judy disliked grammar: she had nightmares about learning it; broke out in hives thinking about it; and failed every test that included it.
His favourite Shakespearean characters were: Fallstaff, Henry IV parts 1 & 2 and Henry V; Tamora, Titus Andronicus; and The Gravedigger, Hamlet.
Quotation marks are used to signify dialogue, citations, or referred speech.
When we cite text, there are rules that govern the order of punctuation that we must follow:
Syntax refers to the conventions that govern the order of parts of speech in a sentence.
In English, we like to have information presented in a direct and active fashion whereby the subject of the sentence precedes the verb and the object the subject acts on.
This is known as SVO syntax.
There are many different ways we can arrange sentences — changing the syntax — to make the meaning in them interesting.
The most common forms of Syntax in English are:
These sentences have a subject-verb and subject-verb-object form
These sentences have more than one subject or verb.
Complex sentences contain at least one dependent clause of some kind.
These sentences contain at least two independent clauses and more dependent clauses.
This is just an overview of English syntax. Syntax is actually quite complex and is governed by quite a few rules and exceptions. You can find a comprehensive explanation of syntax here at the Purdue University Online Writing Lab.
The tense of a verb tells us when something occurs. The three main tenses in English are the Past, the Present, and the Future.
In addition, there are continuous and perfect tenses that tell us whether an action is completed or ongoing.
The past, or simple past, tels us that something has occurred or existed in the past.
It can be used:
To reflect a thing that has only occurred once:
He learned about tense yesterday.
To convey that something occurred for a long time and then ceased:
She studied grammar for her whole life.
To represent that something occurred several times but has now ceased:
They studied together every day for a week.
The present, or simple present, is used to describe common occurrences, ongoing actions, or a future situation.
It is used for:
Things that are always true or currently happening:
She enjoys studying.
He has great study habits.
Discussing things that occur regularly:
They study every night.
The HSC is always in Term 4 of Year 12.
Discussing future occurrences:
I’ll study linguistics when I get into university.
The teacher arrives at 8:55 AM.
The future tense is used to refer to things that are expected to occur in the future. These things may or may not actually occur.
The future tense is always formed with will or shall and the infinitive form of the verb, but without “to.”
The future tense is used in several different situations:
Asking for or providing information about the future.
You will get good marks.
How long will you study for?
Discussing things likely to happen in the future, but may not happen.
I think I’ll pass the exam.
She’ll never fail English, she studies too much.
Conveying that things are conditional on other events or circumstances.
If I get my homework done, I will go out.
You’ll get anxious if you don’t study.
To promise or threaten things or make decisions.
Do you need help? I’ll help you study.
If you argue, I won’t give you feedback again.
The continuous tense signifies that actions continue for an amount of time:
As you can see, the continuous is formed with the auxiliary verb to be and the present participle of the main verb.
The perfect is used to signify that an action or thing has been completed by a particular point. Like the continuous, there are three main perfect tenses:
As you can see, the continuous is formed with the auxiliary verb to have and the past participle of the main verb.
Tense agreement occurs when tenses are used consistently throughout a piece of writing. It becomes difficult to follow writing when the writer switches between different tenses unnecessarily.
For example, if we write:
Julia confuses her teachers, she wrote in different tenses.*
The statement is confusing because we are using the present tense “confuses” and the past tense “wrote”. It becomes hard to figure out when things are occurring.
However, if we write:
Julia confuses her teachers, she writes in different tenses.
Then Julia’s teachers are the ones who are confused. Not us, the readers.
It is important that students pay attention to their writing to avoid these common mistakes. It is much more difficult for students to change ingrained habits after they have been developed. Developing a healthy reading practice will help students with their grammar.
Verb conjugation refers to the way how a verb changes to show person and tense.
Consider the following tables.
Conjugation of the verb “to be”:
|First person singular||Second person singular||Third person singular|
|I am||You are||He / She / It is|
|First person plural||Second person plural||Third person plural|
|We are||You are||They are|
It is important that when you change between singular and plural form of a verb that you have agreement between any auxiliary verbs and nouns.
The boy is good.
The boys are good.
The boys is good.*
The boy are good.*
You can read more about plural agreement, here.
Verbs conjugate for tense differently depending on whether they are regular or irregular verbs.
Regular verbs follow a consistent pattern in taking suffixes when the verb is modified to express a different tense:
Consider the following conjugation of the verb “to destroy”
|Simple present||Simple past||Simple future|
|Present continuous||Past continuous||Future continuous|
|Am destroying||Was destroying||Will be destroying|
|Present perfect||Past perfect||Future perfect|
|Have destroyed||Had destroyed||Will have destroyed|
|Present perfect continuous||Past perfect continuous||Future perfect continuous|
|Have been destroying||Had been destroying||Will have been destroying|
An irregular verb does not follow a consistent pattern of conjugation. Irregular verbs are quite common in English. Unfortunately, you will need to rote learn the different conjugations for each verb.
To give you an example of how an irregular verb is conjugated, let’s look at the verb “to drive”
|Simple present||Simple past||Simple future|
|Present continuous||Past continuous||Future continuous|
|Am driving||Was driving||Will be driving|
|Present perfect||Past perfect||Future perfect|
|Have driven||Had driven||Will have driven|
|Present perfect continuous||Past perfect continuous||Future perfect continuous|
|Have been driving||Had been driving||Will have been driving|
It is important that when you pick a tense to use in your writing that you use it consistently throughout.
To learn more about TENSE AGREEMENT, read this.
Voice describes the relationship verb and the subject and object. There are two voices:
Students often overuse the passive voice.
We normally write in the active voice where we use the following order:
Subject –> Verb –> Object
To understand, let’s look at an active sentence:
The girl wrote the novel.
In this sentence, “The girl” – the subject – “wrote” – the verb – “the novel” – the subject. When we read this, it is very clear who is doing what.
The passive version of the sentence is:
The novel was written by the girl.
In this sentence, “The novel” is the subject. Rather than a simple verb, we have an auxiliary verb and the past participle of the verb wrote: “was written”. Then, rather than just the object, we have a preposition “by” preceding the object “the girl.”
While this is grammatically correct, it is confusing. This is because the girl is really the subject of the sentence as she wrote the novel.
You need to be active and direct when writing for an audience. You should do the hard work for them. Here’s what we mean.
In a passive sentence, we transpose the subject with the object and change the form of the verb and add an auxiliary verb “to be” like “is” or “was.” We then need the preposition “by” to show agency.
When you read a passive sentence like this, it takes a bit longer to process. In addition, it is not immediately clear who wrote the novel.
To make things more confusing, with a lot of sentences we don’t actually need an object for a complete sentence. For example:
The novel was written.
In this sentence, we don’t know who wrote the novel. The prepositional phrase at the end of the sentence carries key information. Removing it illustrates the peril of passive sentences.
If we were to take our simple passive sentence:
The novel was written by the girl.
And add more information to make it complex, it can get even more complicated:
The novel about a fantasy kingdom at war with dragons was written last January in the heat of summer when the girl who had a dragon tattoo had finished studying at Stanford and broke up with her boyfriend.
While correct, this labyrinthine sentence makes it difficult to figure out what is the subject and the object of the sentence.
Want to learn more about the arcane mysteries of English grammar? Fantastic!
Here’s a list of great resources for you!
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