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Grammar A-Z

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Adjectives

An adjective is a word that describes or modifies a noun, or sometimes a pronoun. It can come before the noun—e.g. “the friendly dog”—or after the noun and a linking verb—e.g. “that cat looks grumpy.” Adjectives can also be used as complements, where the adjective is necessary to complete the sentence—e.g. “the situation made me angry.”

When more than one adjective describes a noun, they should be placed in the correct order: adjectives describing quantity come first, then those describing opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, material, and purpose. This sounds complicated, but it’s a rule that English speakers tend to understand subconsciously.

For example, for most of us, “he drove a blue big truck” sounds wrong, whereas “he drove a big blue truck” is correct. Adjectives that fall into different categories don’t need a comma between them, whereas those of the same type do.

For example, in the phrase “the dull, tedious old man,” as “dull” and “tedious” are both opinion adjectives, they are separated by a comma, whereas “old” is an age adjective, so there is no comma needed between it and “tedious.”

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Adverbs

Adverbs modify a verb, an adjective, or another adverb. Their purpose is to express one of the following qualities:

  • The manner of an action or adjective: “they spoke loudly” or “the room was garishly blue”
  • The degree of an action: “I completely disagree”
  • A circumstance such as location or time: “they work_ locally_” or “I will see them tomorrow
  • Frequency: “it’s my favorite restaurant, so I go there often
  • Confirmation or negation: “this hat certainly is a good choice” or “I would never wear that hat”
  • Making a comment on the situation: “happily, the lost puppy was found”
  • As a conjunction between two clauses: I was late to work; consequently, I was fired.

Most adverbs are formed from adjectives with the suffix “-ly” added, e.g. “quiet” becomes “quietly.” Adjectives ending in “-y” change to “-ily” for the adverb form—e.g. “happy” becomes “happily”—and adjectives ending in “-ble” change to “-bly”—e.g. “tangible” becomes “tangibly.”

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Articles

Articles are a small group of terms which come before nouns. The English language has three: “the,” “a,” and “an.” “The” is known as the definite article, and makes the noun specific, while “a” and “an” are indefinite articles and mark the noun as generic. “An” is used when the noun begins with a vowel sound.

For example, “the car” refers to a specific car, likely one that has been referenced previously, whereas “a car” could refer to any car. Often, when a subject is first introduced in a text, the indefinite article will be used, while the definite article will be used for later references.

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Capitalization

We should all have been taught the basic rules of capitalization: use a capital letter for the first word of a sentence and for proper nouns, such as names, days of the week, cities, and countries.

There are, however, a few slightly more complicated rules. For example, most job titles are capitalized when used as titles—i.e. when they immediately precede the person’s name—but not when used to refer to the position in general: “President Roosevelt,” but “Roosevelt’s second term as president.”

It’s also common to capitalize the first word of a quote when the word begins a complete sentence.

Sally asked her father, “What are we having for dinner tonight?”

But if the quote does not form a complete sentence, don’t capitalize.

He replied that he had “no idea” what they would cook.

When referring to the titles of books, films, and other artistic works, it’s common to capitalize the first word plus all nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Articles, conjunctions, and prepositions should be lowercase. However, different style guides have different specific rules for capitalization.

  • As You Like It
  • A Tale of Two Cities
  • Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
C

Clause

The unit of grammatical organization that ranks just below a sentence, a clause is a group of words that contains a subject and a verb and may contain other related words. It can form a sentence by itself, but doesn’t always; there can be multiple clauses within a sentence.

Here is a main clause which forms a sentence by itself: Amy likes dogs.

This sentence is two clauses joined by the conjunction “but”: Amy likes dogs but she doesn’t like cats.

In the above example, both clauses could function as complete sentences on their own and are therefore independent or main clauses. A clause that wouldn’t work on its own is called a subordinate clause.

For example: Because she has allergies, Amy doesn’t like cats. The first clause here, “because of her allergies,” is subordinate, as it would not form a complete sentence by itself.

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Colon

The colon is a punctuation mark that directs you to the information following it. This information illustrates or amplifies the clause which preceded the colon.

It is commonly used to introduce a list.

We have three options for dinner: pizza, pasta, or soup.

It can also introduce a quotation.

As Shakespeare wrote: “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

Finally, the colon can separate two independent clauses, where the two clauses are related and the writer wants to place strong emphasis on the second clause.

There is no doubt about it: his illness is severe.

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Comma

The comma is one of the most common punctuation marks—and one of the most commonly misused. There are many rules regarding where and when it should be used, or not used, but in basic terms, it indicates a small, soft pause within a sentence.

A common use of the comma is separating clauses, parenthetical elements, or items in a list, as in the below examples.

  • Separation of clauses: I wanted to go to the park, but I had no time.
  • Parentheticals:** This cat, which is sitting in the garden, is called Fred.**
  • Listing:** Sarah went to the shops for bagels, pesto, tomatoes, and peppers.**

If you’re struggling to work out whether to use a comma, a common piece of advice is to read your sentence out loud. Where you naturally feel inclined to pause is where a comma is likely to be placed. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it can be a helpful way to think about it.

For further advice, see our articles on how to use commas before or after and, but, and because.

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Conjunction

A conjunction is a word used to connect words, clauses, or sentences. Conjunctions can be composed of a single word such as “and,” “but,” or “so,” or multiple words, such as “as soon as” or “so that.” The latter are called compound conjunctions.

They can also be categorized by type. Coordinating conjunctions— “for,” “and,” “nor,” “but,”, “or,” “yet,” “so”—join clauses or words of equal importance. You can use the acronym ‘FANBOYS’ to remember them. For example: Andy’s been busy all day, but he’s still got energy.

Subordinating conjunctions—”because,” “so that,” “until,” “although”—connect a main and a subordinate clause. For example: We’ll carry on dancing until the party ends.

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Exclamation point

The exclamation point is used to add emphasis or show strong feelings. It can be used to denote an interjection—“Fantastic!” or “Boo!”—or an imperative—“Watch out!” It’s generally found at the end of short sentences, though can also indicate emotions like surprise when added to longer ones: "They were the footprints of a gigantic hound!"

It’s very useful to convey friendliness in informal situations, such as text messaging or social media, but can look unprofessional elsewhere. The more formal the outlet you’re writing for, the more sparing with exclamation marks you should be. It’s becoming common in informal writing to use multiple exclamation points for additional emphasis, but in professional contexts—never!

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Hyphen

Not to be confused with the dash, which separates clauses or parenthetical elements, the hyphen is used to connect the elements of compound words or phrases.

A common form of this is compound adjectives—when two words are working together to function like one adjective. For example: “These are vegan-friendly cakes.” Note that compound adjectives are typically only hyphenated when they come before a noun. After, it would be “These cakes are vegan friendly.”

There are also compound nouns, which are typically connected by one or more hyphens, such as “father-in-law,” “merry-go-round” and “check-in,” as well as compound verbs such as “double-check.” Unlike adjectives, compound nouns and verbs are always styled the same regardless of where they are placed in the sentence, though they aren’t always hyphenated.

There are some cases where compound words that used to be commonly hyphenated no longer are: “e-mail” has almost universally become “email.” If you’re unsure about a particular word, consult a dictionary.

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Noun

A noun typically denotes a person, a place, or a thing. It can function as the subject or object of a sentence.

Nouns can be split into two rather self-explanatory categories: countable and uncountable nouns. Countable nouns are things that you can have more than one of: “one apple,” “two cars,” “three countries,” and so on. Uncountable nouns include concepts, abstractions, and things that can’t be pluralized: “air,” “happiness,” “heat.”

Another form of noun is the proper noun. These start with capital letters, and refer to distinct, individual people, places, or things to distinguish them from anything else. In other words, individual names, such as the name of a particular person, city, or day of the week: “Michael,” “Chicago,” or “Thursday.” Any noun that isn’t proper is a common noun.

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Numbers

There are two ways to express numbers in writing: as numerals—“7”—and as words—“seven.” Style guides vary on when to use which form, but one common approach, recommended by the AP style guide, is for the numbers one to nine to be written as words, and 10 and above as numerals.

You can go against this rule for the purpose of consistency when listing different quantities of the same thing: “I have three apples and 12 oranges” looks wrong because it’s inconsistent. “I have three apples and twelve oranges” would be better. And when dealing with numbers in the millions or higher, it can aid clarity to express them as a combination of numerals and words, as in “50 billion.”

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Object

An object is the entity—a noun, noun phrase, or pronoun—which is affected by the action of a verb. There are two types of objects: direct objects and indirect objects.

A direct object is directly affected by the verb.  In the clause “Ian ate the pizza,” the pizza is the direct object.

An indirect object can be used alongside a direct object and typically refers to the recipient of the action or for whom the action is done. For example: “Ian gave the pizza to Barbara.” Here, the pizza is still the direct object, and Barbara is the indirect object.

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Paragraph

Paragraphs are the main organizational subdivisions of written text. Each paragraph is a group of sentences, or sometimes one long sentence, dealing with the same theme. They are separated from the previous and following paragraphs by either a space above and below or by indenting the first line of each paragraph.

In traditional publishing contexts, the typical paragraph would be between three and five sentences long. However, for the internet, shorter paragraphs of two or three sentences are preferable: they look more attractive on phone screens and have been shown to keep readers’ attention better.

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Parentheses

A parenthesis is a word or phrase that isn’t essential for a sentence to be grammatically or factually complete, but which is added to give some extra information. It is separated from the rest of the sentence by commas, like this, dashes—like this—or round brackets (like this).

Which is preferable depends on the style you’re following, though the AP style guide recommends that you choose dashes over brackets where you can. In American English, em dashes are preferred (—), while in British English, you’d use an en dash with a space on either side ( – ).

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Period

The simplest and easiest of all punctuation marks, the period is placed at the end of a sentence. If a sentence ends with a different punctuation mark, such as an exclamation point or question mark, the period is omitted. If a sentence ends with a quote, in American English, the period is placed “inside the quotation marks.”

In British English, however, note that the period may go either outside or inside the quotation marks, depending on several factors. This can be a big point of contention between writers who’ve learned the different styles of English.

Periods are also often used in abbreviations, such as a.m. and etc. The period denotes that some letters have been omitted, so any abbreviated word—such as both the D and the C in Washington, D.C.—needs a period. However, some style guides would disagree in these cases, as using periods to denote abbreviations is becoming less common. It’s always worth checking your outlet’s style guide!

If a sentence ends in an abbreviation, the abbreviation’s period also serves as the end-of-sentence period.

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Person

Grammatical person is a way of categorizing words according to whether they refer to the speaker, the addressee, or a third party. In English, pronouns are categorized by person.

  • “I,” “we,” “me,” and “us” are first-person pronouns
  • “You” is used for second person
  • “He/him,” “she/her,” “it,” and “they/them” are used for third person.

The only other part of the English language affected by person is singular verbs in the present tense, where “-s” or “-es” is usually added for the third person form—so we say “I eat” and “you eat,” but “he eats.”

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Plural

The plural form of a noun is used when referring to more than one of the thing in question. Countable nouns have both singular and plural forms.

The plural form is most often made by adding “-s” to the end of the singular, as in “dog/dogs.” Singular nouns ending in “-ch,” “-sh,” “-s,” and “-x” should have “-es” added to make the plural, as in “couch/couches” and “tax/taxes.”

For singular nouns ending with a consonant followed by a “y,” change the “y” to “ie,” as in “lady/ladies.”

There are plenty of other exceptions, including nouns that stay the same in the plural—“fish,” “sheep”—and some, known as plural nouns, which can only be expressed as a plural, such as “trousers” and “police.”

Pronouns also have plural forms: “we’ and “they” are plural pronouns.

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Preposition

A preposition is a short word, usually placed before a noun or pronoun, that serves to establish its relation to another word in the sentence. Common prepositions include “after,” “at,” “by,” “for,” “from,” “in,” “on,” “over,” “to,” “under,” and “with.”

The relationship established by a preposition can be one of position—“I sat _on _the chair”—direction—“They walked towards the door”—or time—“She arrived in the morning.”

Prepositions can also be used with verbs to form phrasal verbs—short phrases which work like a verb—such as “check out,” or “fall in love with,” all of which must be followed by an object. Phrasal verbs are often idiomatic and not related to the literal meaning of the verbs they include: there’s no literal falling involved in falling in love.

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Pronoun

A pronoun is a word that functions like a noun and which is used to stand in for a noun that has previously been established.

There are several types of pronouns, the main ones being personal pronouns—“I,” “you,” “he,” “she,” “we”…—their object forms—“me,” “you,” “him,” “her,” “us”…—and possessive forms—”mine,” “yours,” “his,” “hers,” “ours”…

There are also demonstrative pronouns—“this,” “that”…—and relative pronouns—“who,” “which”…

The purpose of pronouns is often to avoid repetition. Consider: Mel drove to the shops but had to drive back home because Mel realized Mel had forgotten Mel’s purse. This sentence is horribly repetitive. With pronouns, it reads much nicer: Mel drove to the shops but had to drive back home because she realized she’d forgotten her purse.

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Semicolon

One of the more often misunderstood punctuation marks, the semicolon occupies a role halfway between that of a comma and a period. It’s most often found between independent clauses in place of a coordinating conjunction.

Clive regularly works in the shed; he’s rarely in the house.

In this case, the semicolon could be replaced with a period, but the it draws a connection between the two clauses. It could also be replaced with a comma followed by the conjunction “so.”

The semicolon can also be used to draw a clear distinction between items in lists when some individual list items have internal commas.

I keep my stationery, tools, and documents in the top drawer; shirts, T-shirts, and pants in the middle drawer; and socks, underpants, and bedsheets in the bottom drawer.

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Sentence

A sentence is defined as a group of words, consisting of at least a subject and a verb, which form a complete meaning. That meaning can be a statement, question, exclamation, or command.

A sentence begins with a capital letter and ends with a period, question mark, or exclamation point.

An average sentence is 10 to 15 words long. But it’s a good idea to vary the length of your sentences in order to make your writing more interesting to read. Too many long sentences can confuse readers; too many short sentences can seem choppy.

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Subject

The subject is best defined as the main actor of a sentence. It’s the person or thing that performs the action described by the main verb. In more grammatical terms, it’s the noun or pronoun that governs, and determines the person of, that verb.

For example: **The dog barks at the postman. **In this sentence, “the dog” is the subject—the entity doing the barking. Because it’s a third-person subject, the verb “barks” takes the third-person form.

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Tense

The tense of a piece of writing refers to when the action in question is taking place. Verbs in the English language technically only have two tenses, past and present. For example, the present tense verb “play” changes to “played” in the past tense. If we want to express this in the future tense, we add another present-tense verb: “I will play.” Various other additions create other tenses.

A common mistake writers make is inconsistency when it comes to tense. Look at this sentence: Not only is cycling good physical exercise, but it will also improve your mental health. The change of tense mid-sentence is jarring. This version reads better: Not only is cycling good physical exercise, but it also improves your mental health.

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Verb

You can’t have a sentence without one of these! A verb is a type of word that expresses an action or a state of being.

There are two types of verbs. Dynamic verbs such as “go,” “run,” and “expand” describe an action or a change of state. Stative verbs such as “be” and “like” describe a state of being, where nothing changes. Look at this example:

Now that I have learned a lot of grammatical terms, I am a happier person.

Here, “have learned” is a dynamic verb phrase, and “am” is a stative phrase.