Grammar and Usage

English grammar- and usage-related links and learning materials

Grammar: What It Is and Why It Is Important

The mere word strikes terror, or maybe just boredom, into the hearts of English students everywhere. Who wants to spend endless hours learning all of those abstract, difficult (and often illogical or obsolete) concepts that so often seem to have nothing to do with the “real” English we speak every day? I’m pretty sure that as a student I would rather have spent all that time reading, so I sympathize with that attitude. But ultimately it is important and valuable to learn the rules of the language. Essentially, that’s what grammar is: a system of rules governing how we put words together to express ideas. There are more precise terms for certain aspects of linguistic rules, such as usage (conventions about how specific words and expressions are used) and mechanics (rules specific to the written language, such as punctuation and capitalization). Technically, these areas are considered distinct from grammar, but for purposes of organizing the content of this website, all such topics fall into the loose general category of “grammar.” (Katherine Wikoff wrote a detailed discussion of her take on these distinctions that you can read here.)

The question of the value of grammar often comes up with my students. As a true believer, I usually start by acknowledging that the rules of English grammar are often inconsistent, illogical, and outdated. And I admit that I don’t always follow the rules perfectly when I speak or write—nor do I expect them to. But there are compelling reasons for taking the time to learn these things:

1. The rules of grammar help us make our meaning clear to both ourselves and our audience. The sloppier someone’s grammar is, the sloppier their thinking usually is, and the more potential for confusion or misunderstanding exists. Without careful attention to the way you put your words together, expressing complex, nuanced ideas becomes extremely difficult. Conversely, if you’re skilled at putting words together, you can inform, entertain, and inspire.

2. The rules of grammar ensure that we share a common language that everyone who speaks it can understand. As evidenced by the spectacular evolution and fragmentation of languages throughout history, when people don’t have the same clear standard to follow, they end up being completely unable to understand each other.

3. The rules of grammar keep us connected to the rich literary traditions of our language. There is so much to be gained from reading the work of brilliant and thinkers who wrote hundreds of years ago, just as they wrote it. If we don’t learn the rules we’ve inherited, that becomes impossible.

4. The process of learning the rules teaches you to pay close attention to your words. It’s easy to become careless and haphazard in our speech and writing, but practicing these rules forces you to become more aware and more precise. Even if you don’t remember all of the rules you learn, and even if some of them are usually ignored these days, this process makes you a better communicator. The hours I spent learning sentence diagramming in sixth grade and common errors in tenth grade, though often tedious, gave me a great foundation for understanding how to speak and write well. (I was also lucky to have excellent English teachers.)

All of that being said, the rules of grammar aren’t sacred and eternal. Some of the evolutionary changes in language make good sense, and often we want to break the rules for specific rhetorical or stylistic reasons. But when you’ve mastered the rules, you can break them so much more effectively.

Okay, lecture over. I hope you find the information about English grammar that I’ve compiled on this website, and the much vaster resources I’ve linked to, useful. Please feel free to contact me if you have questions regarding any of it.

Grammar Navigation Menu

Parts of Speech: Word classes; different kinds of words (nouns, verbs, etc.)

Sentence Analysis: A system for identifying the main elements of a sentence (subjects, verbs, phrases, clauses) and how they relate to each other

Common Grammar Errors: An overview of the kinds of grammar errors made by English speakers, with explanations, examples, and links to further information

Subject-Verb Agreement: Rules about consistency of number (singular or plural) between subjects and their verbs

Parallelism: Rules about how to maintain consistent form in lists and other parallel structures

Usage: Conventions about how specific words and phrases are used

Punctuation: The use of punctuation marks to clarify relationships among words in a sentence

Exercises & Quizzes: Exercises and quizzes to practice and test your understanding of the rules of English grammar

Grammar and Usage Resources

The list of books and list of online resources below reflects both my twenty years of experience as a tutor and recent research. The resources listed here cover a wide range of grammar topics and are primarily intended for native speakers. See the ESL section of the site for resources appropriate for teachers and students of English As a Second Language.

To find detailed information about the usage of specific expressions, often the most convenient and useful method is a simple Google search for the expression (in quotation marks to limit the search to those exact words), along with a word like idiom to specify that you’re looking for information about its usage (e.g., “out of the frying pan” idiom).

Online Resources

Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL) is one of the Internet’s most popular resources for students and teachers of English, and for good reason. Under the “General Writing” tab it has extensive resources covering grammar, mechanics, and many other topics. See the separate Exercises page for an excellent set of exercises to go with OWL’s lessons.

The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, is a classic reference book covering essential points of English grammar, usage, and writing. An early version can be downloaded in various formats from this page on the Project Gutenberg website; a searchable version of the third edition is available on Bartleby here.

The Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogerty, gives practical, easily digestible advice on grammar and writing. Although her website Quick and Dirty Tips covers a broad range of topics unrelated to English, it is a great source of information for students of English.

The websites for the Oxford and Cambridge dictionaries, traditional authorities on the English language, both feature grammar sections. (As an American, I’ll just mention that these are British institutions whose standards sometimes differ from those of American English.)

EnglishClub has a large collection of teaching and learning resources, including exercises, along with a discussion forum. Grammar Monster‘s ad-heavy design isn’t very pleasing, but the site does contain a wealth of useful information and grammar tests on many topics. Grammar.com also contains a lot of free information, though its design is clearly intended to encourage users to purchase its e-books.

For those more interested in getting assistance in correcting grammar errors in their own writing than in studying grammar, Grammarly is a highly rated tool.

Books

Oxford English Grammar is a thorough, detailed reference book that covers even very abstract topics. This has been on my shelf for as long as I’ve been teaching English, and I refer to it whenever I want to understand a topic more deeply or have questions that are difficult to answer.

Amazon | Parnassus | Powell’s

Oxford Modern English Grammar has the advantages of being more concise and cheaper than the book above, and it’s also available as an e-book. Though it may have some minor flaws, it is an excellent resource for the vast majority of teachers and students.

Amazon | Parnassus | Powell’s

Michael Swan’s Practical English Usage is another favorite reference tool of mine. It covers every question about grammar and usage that you didn’t know you had—until it randomly comes up when you’re writing something. Note that there is a more expensive version that apparently contains a code for online access to the book’s contents. The third edition is also available as an e-book.

Amazon | Parnassus | Powell’s

Here are some other books I’m not directly familiar with that seem to be popular and highly regarded:

The Only Grammar Book You’ll Ever Need: Cheap and also available as an e-book (and currently free via Kindle Unlimited)

Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation: Also available as an e-textbook; note that more extensive practice exercises must be purchased separately

Cambridge Grammar of English is available in CD-ROM format, which is useful for looking things up quickly.

Complete English Grammar Rules: Examples, Exceptions, Exercises, and Everything You Need to Master Proper Grammar (Farlex): Also available as an e-book

A Glossary of Grammar Terms

The terms below are commonly used in learning the rules of English grammar. Study them as flashcards on Quizlet here.

action verb: a verb that expresses a physical or mental action rather than a state of being

active voice: a sentence structure in which the subject performs the action expressed by the verb

adjective: a word that modifies a noun or pronoun

adverb: a word that modifies a verb, adjective, or other adverb

antecedent: the noun or pronoun to which a pronoun refers

article: a type of adjective that shows if a noun is specific or non-specific (a, an, the)

auxiliary verb: a “helping verb” that adds information to the main verb

case: form of a pronoun that reflects its function in context (nominative, objective, possessive)

clause: a group of words containing a subject and predicate pair

conjunction: a word or phrase that connects words, phrases, clauses, or sentences

coordinating conjunction: a “FANBOYS” conjunction that is used with a comma to connect two independent clauses

count noun: a noun that has singular and plural forms

dependent clause: a clause that does not express a complete thought, so it needs an independent clause to form a complete sentence (also called a subordinate clause)

diction: choice of words in writing or speaking

direct object: a noun or pronoun directly affected by the action of a verb

FANBOYS: acronym that stands for the seven coordinating conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so)

gerund: an -ing verb that acts as a noun

idiom: a fixed expression in common use

independent clause: a clause that expresses a complete thought and can stand alone as a sentence

indirect object: a noun or pronoun affected indirectly by the action of a verb (often a person for whom the action is performed)

infinitive: a tenseless verb form that usually begins with “to”

interjection: a word or phrase that expresses an emotion or reaction

intransitive verb: a verb that does not take an object

irregular verb: a verb whose past tense and past participle are not formed with the suffix “-ed”

linking verb: a verb such as “to be” that expresses a state of being rather than an action

mass noun: an uncountable noun that does not have a plural form

modifier: a word or phrase that describes another word or phrase

nominative case: the form of a pronoun used as a subject (or predicate nominative)

noun: a word that names something (person, place, thing, idea, or action)

object: a noun or pronoun that receives the action of a verb or that follows a preposition and completes the prepositional phrase

object of a preposition: a noun or pronoun that follows a preposition to form a prepositional phrase

objective case: the form of a pronoun used as an object of a verb or preposition

participle: a tenseless verb form used with an auxiliary verb or as an adjective or noun

passive voice: a sentence structure in which the subject is affected by the action of the verb

past participle: a participle showing completed action, usually with the suffix “-ed”

perfect tenses: tenses that show the completion of an action before the main occurrence in a sentence; they use a form of “to have” + a past participle

phrase: a group of words that does not contain a subject or predicate

possessive case: the form of a pronoun that shows ownership or association

predicate: the part of a clause that includes that verb and tells about the subject

predicate nominative: a noun or pronoun that follows and completes a linking verb (usually “to be”) and renames the subject; also called a predicate noun

prefix: a letter or group of letters added to the beginning of a word that change its meaning

preposition: a word that connects a noun or pronoun to another word by showing direction, location, position, or relation

present participle: a participle showing continuing action, ends with the suffix “-ing”

progressive tenses: tenses that show an ongoing action; they use a form of “to be” + a present participle (also called the continuous tenses)

pronoun: a word that stands for or refers to a noun

sentence: a group of words that contains an independent clause and expresses a complete thought

subject: the noun or pronoun that a predicate tells about

subordinating conjunction: a conjunction that introduces a dependent (or subordinate) clause; it creates an expectation of additional information

suffix: a letter or group of letters added to the end of a word that change its meaning

tense: the characteristic of a verb that shows whether the action is in the past, present, or future

transitive verb: a verb that takes an object

usage: the way in which a word or phrase is customarily or correctly used

verb: a word that shows an action or state of being