A very basic introduction to English grammar, spelling, punctuation, and usage, ala LeeB. With a peek at the structure of some forms of poetry included, just for fun.
This is a work in progress – something I have been meaning to add to my site, for my own reference, for ages. It’s late on Tuesday evening, I am not long home from work, and the prospect of language, this language, my language, excites me, as always. There’s a lot to consider and we begin here, with baby steps…
The section on grammar and expression could be a particularly useful guide for those engaged in professional writing.
The section on Poetics may provide a simple reference for those with an interest in poetry and its form, fit, and function.
In this section (jump to):
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English grammar – a primer
1. What are the eight parts of speech?
Nouns: name people, places, things, qualities, or concepts.
Verbs: express action or being
Pronouns: substitute for nouns and function as nouns.
Adjectives: describe, qualify or modify nouns or pronouns.
Adverbs: modify verbs, adjectives, other adverbs or groups of words.
Prepositions: show relationships between a noun or pronoun and other words in a sentence.
Conjunctions: link words or groups of words.
Interjections: express feelings or attitudes.
2. If the key part of a sentence subject is a noun or pronoun, what is the key part of a predicate?
Answer: The verb
The caterpillar ate
He broke it
Anger grew in their hearts
3. What test can we apply to determine whether a verb is finite or non-finite?
Test 1: Does the word require a change in form when a third-person subject changes from singular to plural?
Yes = finite verb: she writes, they write.
No = non-finite verb: woman writing, women writing.
Test 2: Does the word require a change in form to show the difference in present, past and future?
Yes = finite verb: she writes, she wrote, she will write.
No = non-finite verb: The woman writing is/was/will be an awkward stylist.
Finite verbs carry inflections; for example, they can take an s to show agreement with a subject in the third person singular in the present tense: I walk (first person), you walk (second person), she walks (third person)
4. Transitive verbs can be expressed in passive and active voice, but intransitive verbs cannot. Why?
Because only verbs taking a direct object (transitive verbs) can be changed from active to passive voice.
Gerry faxed the data. active voice
The data was faxed by Gerry. passive voice
Take the action of the verb and place it in a question with what or who.
broke broke who/what? yes; it VT
rose rose who/what? No VI
Only transitive verbs (those taking a direct object) can be changed from active to passive voice.
5. What is the difference between a phrase and a clause?
A phrase is a group of two or more related words that lacks either a subject or a predicate or both. A phrase may contain a verb, but the verb will be non-finite (infinitive, gerund, present participle, past participle).
A clause is a group of two or more related words that contains both a subject and a predicate. A clause contains a finite verb.
6. Why can a phrase not be a sentence?
Because a sentence is a group of words that:
- has a subject
- has a finite verb
- is punctuated with an initial capital letter and some form of end punctuation
(a sentence is also sometimes described as comprising a complete thought)
and a phrase does not contain a finite verb
A sentence is a group of one or more words that expresses an independent statement, question, request, command, or exclamation, and that typically has a subject and predicate, as in Lee is here. or Is Lee Here? In speech it displays recognizable, communicative intonation patterns and is usually marked by preceding and following pauses.
7. A clause can be a sentence, but only a certain type of clause. Which type?
An independent clause
8. How can we tell a sentence from a sentence fragment?
has a subject
has a finite verb
is punctuated with an initial capital letter and some form of end punctuation.
A sentence fragment is a group of words that does not meet these criteria but is punctuated as if it were a complete sentence.
9. Why do pronoun reference problems occur?
Because, as a result of imprecise placement of the pronoun, its antecedent may become confused with others. The pronoun should be placed close to its antecedent and care should be taken to ensure that it refers to only one antecedent. Additional precision is gained by ensuring that pronouns and antecedents agree in person and number. Antecedents should be clear, not simply implied.
10. What is the relationship between case and punctuation?
Nouns take apostrophes to indicate possession. Pronouns in the possessive case are already indicating possession, and thus do not need to take an apostrophe: yours, hers, his, its, ours, theirs.
11. What is a squinting modifier?
A modifier is a word or group of words that modifies another word or group of words. The most common types of modifiers are adjectives and adverbs.
A squinting modifier creates ambiguity by having the potential to modify what it precedes as well as what comes after it. For example:
The people who were renting the house temporarily vacated it.
Punctuation, spelling and usage
- A full stop is used to show the conclusion of a sentence. Define a sentence.
A sentence is an entity containing one or more words expressing a statement, question, command, or exclamation. It usually contains a subject and a predicate: Lee was here. Was Lee here? When written, it is usually punctuated with an initial capital letter and some form of end punctuation. When spoken it is usually preceded and followed by a pause.
- How might question marks be misused?
They may be used to indicate uncertainty (of quantity, for example) where a word such as about would be more appropriate.
Neither should they be used to convey sarcasm or irony:
He was a very funny (?) fellow.
- How might exclamation marks be misused?
They might be over used. Instead of being persuasive and emphatic they may then appear to be shrill or hysterical.
Using them to convey amazement, sarcasm, or irony, should be avoided.
- How can commas be used to prevent ambiguity in sentences?
By providing a pause between two different parts of the sentence, to avoid confusing the intended message.
- What is a comma splice, and how does it differ from a run-on or fused sentence?
A comma splice occurs when a comma is used to separate two independent clauses, whereas run-on or fused sentences simply throw independent clauses together without any type of punctuation.
- What function does a colon perform?
The colon is used primarily to link a clause to a word, phrase or another clause that amplifies, exemplifies or summarises it.
- How might a semicolon be misused?
The semicolon is a unit of punctuation internal to a sentence that usually separates two independent clauses linked in meaning.
It may be misused by using it when a colon should be used.
- What is the relationship between the apostrophe and the grammatical concept of case?
With singular nouns, the apostrophe plus an s is placed at the end to indicate possession. With plural nouns, only an apostrophe is placed at the end to indicate possession.
- What is the difference between a dash and a hyphen?
The dash allows for a stronger pause than the comma, and can be used to achieve a number of purposes: to show abrupt changes in tone or thought; to show hesitation or suspense; to emphasise appositives or modifiers; to follow an introductory series and final series and explanation (single dash).
A hyphen is a unit of punctuation used to link parts of a compound word or syllables of a word.
- Most parentheses, brackets and quotation marks share a characteristic that is often associated with editing errors. What is it?
They should be used in pairs.
- How might an ellipsis be misused?
An ellipsis is a unit of punctuation consisting of three fullstops used to show deletion of material in a sentence, interruption or suspense.
An ellipsis might be misused by distorting the meaning in the source passage.
- What are homophones, and why do they sometimes cause problems in spelling and usage?
Homophones are words that sound the same but are spelt differently and mean different things – e.g.: there / their / they’re
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of readability scores?
Flesch-Kincaid Grade: rates texts according to levels of education, from 1 to 16.3. Most widely used.
Flesch Reading Ease: rates texts from 100 (very easy) to 0 (extremely difficult). Usually when we talk about high readability scores we are talking about difficulty. With the Flesch score, the opposite pertains.
SMOG: Simple Measure of Gobbledegook Index.
FOG: Frequency of Gobbledegook Index. Measures number of syllables and complex words (words that contain three or more syllables).
- Useful for refining style and for helping writers develop a more plain English style.
- Seem to provide a precise and scientific means of matching text to the capabilities of the reader or audience.
- Make a writer more aware of the semantic (word choice) and syntactic (sentence construction) aspects of their own writing.
- Have helped to improve general level of communications in fields such as law, medicine, business and academia: writers in those field apply the concepts to their own work; stockholders understand financial documents more easily; relatives of patients can more easily understand consent forms, and academics write more influential articles.
- Most only take into account that which can be easily measured: semantic (numbers of syllables of words or whether a word appears in a “familiar words” collection) and synctactic (sentence length) factors.
- Most necessarily concentrate on the text, not the reader, and not all readers at the same time. Some readers, for e.g., may be experienced in the subject matter which means they will comprehend it more effectively.
- Motivation patterns and intensity of readers are not factored in (a boy interested in cars may read an auto manual with more enthusiasm than others).
- Word length (the semantic dimension) is not always a foolproof guide to difficulty or ease of writing. Some short words are obscure and only readily recognized by a reader with an esoteric insight, where some longer words are simply made up of constituent parts, such as prefixes and suffixes at the start and finish of simple words.
- Synctatic complexity is not always directly correlated to sentence length:
I couldn’t answer your email. There was a power shortage.
I couldn’t answer your mail because there was a power shortage.
The coherance of the last sentence is improved by the use of transitional expression.
- Redish argues that they do not take account of the actual behaviour of readers, and that ‘usability testing’ which involves observation of the readers using texts, and then testing for what helped or hindered understanding, is far superior. This would differentiate the age-group and life experience of the reader.
- There is the possibility that the writer will begin to “write to the formula” rather than consider the actual content of the text.
Readability scores, at best, provide an oversimplification, and frequently a serious distortion. However, in all their flawed glory, they can help us to become more self-aware of our writing, and perhaps challenge us to recast our sentences.
Morphology: The study of the formation and variation of words.
Syntax: The study of the formation of sentences
Sentence model 1: grammatical intent
Simple sentence: a sentence containing one independent clause.
Compound sentence: a sentence containing two or more independent clauses.
Complex sentence: a sentence containing one independent clause and one or more dependent or subordinate clauses.
Compound-complex sentence: a sentence containing two or more independent clauses and one or more dependent or subordinate clauses.
2. Are simple sentences always shorter than compound-complex sentences?
Yes. A simple sentence contains only one independent clause.
Sentence model 2: communicative intent
Declarative sentence: sentence used for making statements
Interrogative sentence: sentence used for asking questions
Imperative sentence: sentence used for issuing directives
Exclamative sentence: sentence used for expressing exclamations
3. How does a declarative sentence differ from an interrogative sentence?
A declarative sentence is used for making a statement where an interrogative sentence is used for asking a question.
Sentence model 3: distribution of emphasis
Left-branching sentence: a sentence with a modifying clause at the beginning, with the main clause last.
( Can help build tension, anticipation, giving more impact to main clause).
Mid-branching sentence: a sentence with modifying material placed between subject and verb.
(Can help to place particular emphasis on modifying material).
Balanced sentence: sentence material balanced between two clauses.
(Good for setting up contracts, showing relationships and paradoxes).
Right-branching sentence: a sentence with the main clause at the beginning, and a modifying clause last.
(Main idea is stated first, which is readers’ conventional expectation).
4. What is a strength of the left-branching sentence?
It can help build tension and anticipation, giving more impact to main clause.
5. Identify at least two techniques of recasting.
Recasting: technique for breaking up lengthy and/or obscure sentences and rewriting sentences to make them easier to understand.
- Restricting the number of ideas in sentences to one or two only.
- Finding conjunctions (and, but) between clauses and then separating those clauses into separate sentences (‘cutting up snakes’).
- Eliminating parentheses and intermediate punctuation, such as semicolons.
- Replacing complex sentences with a number of simple ones.
- Restructuring information relevant to an entire passage as a heading.
- Eliminating pronoun reference problems by restating nouns.
- Eliminating noun/verb/adjective confusion by using synonyms.
- Substituting a more personal style in a passage by using pronouns.
6. Why are paragraphs important?
Paragraph: a sentence or group of sentences conveying a separate idea and set off in document layout by spacing and/or indentation.
- They create discipline for writers by ensuring there is a logical framework or pattern of progression for the ideas being expressed.
- They make the task of reading a passage of writing much easier. The indentations or spacing provide cues to the reader about the flow of ideas, and make the passage more ‘digestible’.
7. Give at least two examples of three different types of transitions.
Transitions: words that help the reader move from one idea to another.
Showing a summing up of a situation: Eventually, finally, at last, previously, thereafter, as things stand, to sum up, in other words
Showing time sequence: Now, presently, currently, at the moment, the situation now is, as I see it now, eventually, finally, meanwhile, soon, lastly, last of all, subsequently, prior to
Showing position: First, firstly, in the first place, secondly, lastly, ultimately, to begin with
Showing states of mind: Being of sound mind, without giving a thought for her own safety, not quite being aware of what was going on
Showing development of a concept: More particularly, specifically, more broadly, going beyond that, in general, on the whole
Showing contrast: On the other hand, on the contrary, despite all that, even though that is normally the case, nevertheless, in contrast, to take the opposite case, turning to the opposing point of view, looking at the other side, but, instead
Showing reservation or qualification: In spite of, notwithstanding, having said that, while that is true to a certain extent, if and only if
Showing concession: Granted, granted that, to be sure, no doubt, it is true that, it would be foolish to deny that
Showing consequence: Consequently, accordingly, hence, thus, therefore, so, as a result, because of this, the payoff for this is
Showing comparison: Similarly, in the same manner, likewise, in the same vein
Showing place: Outside, in front, behind, alongside, here, there, nearby, near the lake, up on the roof
Showing conclusion: To sum up, finally, hence
Showing addition: In addition, also, furthermore, besides, moreover
Showing actual and potential examples: For example, for instance, to take as an example, consider, imagine, in summary, to wrap things up, to illustrate, that is
Showing particular attention: Specifically, in particular, of particular note, turning our attention to, more to the point
8. Give at least two examples of rhetorical patterning.
Rhetorical Patterning: structuring of ideas in formulaic patterns of words
Alliteration: using a number of words beginning with the same sound
Anaphora: repetition at the beginning of phrases, clauses, or sentences
Antistrophe: repetition at the end of a phrase, clause or sentence
Antithesis: The contrast of ideas, often in balanced or parallel form
Archaism: An out-of-date expression, chosen to evoke an association
Asyndeton: Omitting conjunctions to create a progressive effect
Climax: Arrangement of words in progressive sequence, leading to a dramatic conclusion
Hyperbole: Extreme exaggeration
Irony: Saying one thing and meaning another in order to criticise; often sarcastic, often conveyed through spoken inflection.
Litotes: Deliberate understatement
Metaphor: One word or idea standing for another
Onomatopoeia: Imitative sounds
Paradox: Apparent contradiction
Paraprosdokian: Surprise ending of a sequence or phrase
Syllepsis: Use of a word (usually a verb) in relation to two or more other words for unexpected effect.
Synecdoche: One word to suggest another word or more general concept
- Why would you choose to use words that were derived from Latin rather than Anglo-Saxon?
Word choice: strategy of choosing words on the basis of their historical origin. Generally speaking, English words of Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian origin tend to be shorter than words of French, Latin or Greek origin.
You might choose Latin to delineate certain types of characters: a higher density of Latinate words might indicate intelligence and moral seriousness, or expose formality or hypocrisy, where lower density may indicate lesser intelligence or humble birth. When using language in this way, care should be taken to ‘write to express, not to impress’.
- ‘A nominalisation is simply replacing a verb with a noun and a verb.’ True or false?
False. Nominalisation is not simply a phenomenon where nouns replace verbs. It can also involve replacing adverbs and adjectives with nouns and noun phrases.
Nominalisation: a noun that is formed from a verb. Also known as an embedded or buried verb, and can involve replacing adverbs and adjectives with nouns and noun phrases.
We undertook a comparison of photocopiers.
We compared photocopiers.
Nominalisations often occur in passive constructions.
Nominalisation Verbal Expression
arrive at a conclusion conclude
arrive at a decision decide
bring to a conclusion conclude
conduct an investigation into investigate
make a decision decide
show a preference for prefer
Examples of recasting where nominalisation can also involve replacing adverbs and adjectives with nouns and noun phrases:
Nominalisation Recast wording
The liveliness and We appreciated our
sophistication of the guest’s lively and
speech of our guest sophisticated speech.
was the focus of
When you have When you speak,
the opportunity to speak clearly
speak, make sure
that your speech is
delivered with clarity.
- What ‘verbings’ would you consider acceptable, and what ones would you take exception to?
Verbing: a process of turning a noun into a verb
I would consider telephone, film, fax, impact, itemise, and prioritise as acceptable.
I would, however, take exception to diarise, action, agenda, input, and courier.
- What techniques can be used to reduce the impact of abstract language in sentences?
Abstraction: the tendency to use general, non-concrete terms, when writing and speaking.
To reduce its impact be specific; avoid generalisation, give more weight to concrete expressions.
- rephrasing (“in other words”)
- giving examples
- using analogies or metaphors
- using colloquialisms, or slang, where appropriate.
Note that abstraction can be useful at times, for instance; when providing an overview, or formulating a general rule in reaching a conclusion.
Circumlocution: literally means talking in circles – long-winded ways of expressing simple concepts
- Are clichés ever acceptable?
Cliché: a trite or overused word or phrase.
Clichés do not comprise a major usage problem when used sparingly, to add colour or humour, but should be avoided.
- What parts of speech are involved in the formation of tautologies?
Tautology: a redundant expression, or a way of saying something (unnecessarily) twice.
(This section dedicated to that great purveyor of ‘very unique’ phenomena, Sandra Biritz!)
Tautologies usually have these types of structures:
Adjective + noun
Adverb + verb
Noun (as adjective) + noun
Adverb + adjective
a distance of four metres four metres
absolutely essential essential
basic essentials essentials
basic fundamentals fundamentals
completely surrounded surrounded
equal halves halves
finally ended ended
new beginning beginning
natural instinct instinct
very unique unique
- Under what circumstances does it make sense to use euphemisms?
Euphemism: a pleasant word used to disguise an unpleasant reality.
It makes sense to use them when attempting to spare the feelings of others (as, for instance, when discussing death, or bodily functions.)
- What differences, if any, are there between technical language and jargon?
Jargon is technical language used amongst specialists in certain areas, and may be used to exclude others. When used in this manner it may be called gobbledegook, doublespeak, or bureaucratese.
- ‘What you sneeringly call “political correctness” I call using language in a fair and humane way.’ Discuss.
It’s rude, patronising and offensive (and often illegal) to categorise people according to criteria that are irrelevant in a given situation. However, some critics have seen some non-discriminatory language as examples of political correctness — that is, absurdly euphemistic language that, in going to great lengths not to offend, becomes ludicrous and self-parodying.
Adverbs apply to:
Verbs drives badly
Adverbs extremely quickly
Adjectives very happy
Phrases almost off the road
Clauses precisely where she landed
Sentences Naturally, I’ll be there.
Case: a characteristic of nouns and pronouns showing the roles they play in sentences. (Is it object or subject? Is it being used to show ownership or possession?)
There are three types: subjective, objective, and possessive
Mood: a characteristic of verbs showing attitudes towards action or intention. There are three types: indicative, imperative, and subjunctive.
Indicative: used to make a statement or ask a question (this is the most common type)
Imperative: used to give commands or make requests
Subjunctive: used to express a desire or wish or plan that may be unlikely or at least conditional
Here is an em dash test—it seems to work ok—what a surprise.
relative pronouns: who, whose, whom, whoever, whomever, which, that, what, whatever
Definite article: the
Indefinite Article: it, an
A form of 13th C Italian verse
Main English types: Petrarchan, Shakespearian, and Spenserian.
All have 14 lines, normally in Iambic pentameter.
“Iambic pentameter is a commonly used metrical line in traditional verse and verse drama. The term describes the particular rhythm that the words establish in that line. That rhythm is measured in small groups of syllables; these small groups of syllables are called “feet”. The word “iambic” describes the type of foot that is used (in English, an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable). The word “pentameter” indicates that a line has five of these “feet”.”
Two groups of lines: one of eight (octet or octave); one of six (sestet), with a marked pause and turn in thought (volta) between.
The octave may be divided into two quatrains, and the sestet into two tercets.
The rhymes of the quatrains are normally abba
The sestet may have two or three ryhmes, arranged in a variety of ways; commonest being cde, cde.
Three quatrains and a concluding couplet
Normal rhyme scheme of abab, cdcd, efef, gg.
(A compromise between the Petrarchan and the Shakespearian)
Five rhymes like the former, and three quatrains and a couplet, like the latter.
Quatrains are typically linked by carrying a rhyme over from one to the next, thus:
abab, bcbc, cdcd, ee
“Haiku are short, brilliantly vivid poems containing visually complete descriptions of moments in a poet’s experience. In the space of their original 17 Japanese syllables, haiku express worlds of profound emotion and philosophical insight.”
They are distinctly Japanese in cultural flavour and were developed in the 17th C.
They have a spiritual aspect. They contain images of nature, such as the cherry blossom, and may allude to the inherent sadness in life’s transient incompleteness.
They exhibit an appreciation of nature, seasonal change, the transience of life, and feelings of love and loss.
The term haiku, which denotes a free-standing autonomous hokku poem, was the invention of the late 19th C poet Shiki.
The rules of formal haiku:
They contain 17 syllables, made up of three phrases of five, seven, and five syllables.
They are divided into two parts standing in contrast (or reversal) with each other.
They might start with a traditional image such as cherry blossom, full moon or dew, then re-focus to a “lower”, perhaps clashing, image.
Emphasising the shift in tone, a ‘cutting word’ usually sits at the end of one of the phrases.
(Such word sounds did not themselves contribute meaning but acted both to divide the poem into two rhythmic halves and to set up a contrast between the poem’s two parts).
A seasonal word (kigo) was another prescriptive component of haiku.