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Concourse 2


Wheels within wheels

If you have never studied the grammar of English, try this site's short Simple Grammar of English.  It is designed for learners of English but that's what you are in this case.

The term 'grammar' describes the whole system of a language and is often defined to include pronunciation and the ways that various words classes can be described and analysed.  Here, however, we are going to focus on the sentence and how it works.  This is generally called the study of Syntax.
The second area we'll look at slightly more briefly is called morphology and that is the study of how words change with the grammar of the sentence (for example, changing catch to caught for the past tense or adding un to the beginning of a word to make its opposite).

means how sentences fit together.  For example, if we take a sentence such as This man wants some coffee, we can break it down into its three main parts and look at each one separately.  Each of those parts can also be broken down, like this:
this man wants some coffee
This is called parsing a sentence.  Later in this section, you'll learn how to do it.

Subjects, Verbs, Objects and Complements


In the English sentences:

  1. The man kissed the woman
  2. The woman kissed the man

we only know who did what to whom by the order of the words.

The subject comes first in both sentences so we know that is the doer of the action.  The object follows the verb so we know that is the receiver of the action.  If we reverse the order, we reverse the sense.

In sentence 1 the man is the subject of the verb kiss the woman is the object of the verb
In sentence 2 the woman is the subject of the verb kiss the man is the object of the verb

Usually, of course, we can understand what is the subject and what is the object of a verb by the meaning of the sentence:

  1. Peter drank the water

Cannot (sensibly) be changed to:

  1. The water drank Peter

Here's a little test.
Identify the subjects and the objects of the verbs in this story and then click on the story for the answers.

case structure 1

In the example above, the subjects, verbs and objects are quite simple but they can be more complicated.
For example, in this sentence:
The old fisherman with the blue hat slowly rowed his ancient wooden boat which he cared for carefully into the middle of the river.

Here we still have:

  • the subject:
    The old fisherman with the blue hat
  • the verb:
    slowly rowed
  • the object:
    his ancient wooden boat which he cared for carefully

Because the elements of the sentence are groups of words rather than individual items, it makes sense to refer to them as phrases: the subject noun phrase, the verb phrase and the object noun phrase

In grammar books, you will often see the term nominative (case) to refer to the subject and accusative (case) to refer to the object.  Most learners of English don't need to understand these terms (but you do).
We have now identified two of the three cases in English (the third is the possessive or genitive which does not concern us here).



walking alone in the country last week

Now that we can identify the subject, the verb and the object, we can look at the final bits of the sentences we have used so far.  These are the complements and they come in many different guises.  For example:

  • into the middle of the lake
    is a prepositional phrase complement because it tells us where he rowed
  • very expensive
    is an adjective phrase complement because it tells us about a noun or pronoun
  • alone
    is an adverbial phrase complement because it tells us how he walked
  • in the country
    is another prepositional phrase complement because it tells us where he walked
  • last week
    is another adverbial phrase complement because it tells us when he walked (and prepositional phrases can do that too)
refers to how words change because of the grammar.  In the example above, you can see that we have the verb want but, because the subject of the verb is this man, we have to add -s to the verb.  We can also, for example, add -ed to the verb and then we have a past tense: This man wanted some coffee.
If we have more than one man and more than one thing as an object, as in, e.g., These men want some bananas, we make other changes:
changes to these [this is a determiner: it tells us how many or which]
changes to men [an irregular plural; usually in English, we make plurals by adding -s or -es to the noun.  This is called an inflexion]
takes no -s [we say it has no inflexion]
the determiner some stays the same
takes an -s to show that it is a plural noun [another inflexion]
Morphology doesn't stop there.  There are a two other significant changes we can make to words which do not depend on the grammar of the sentence.  For example, we can:
Change the word class by making the adjective fresh into the adverb freshly, or the verb speak into the noun speaker.
Change the meaning by making the opposite of happy as unhappy or the reverse of install as uninstall.
For more, follow the link below to word formation.
test Task 1: Look again at the two paragraphs above and focus on the words in red.  They are all terms we use when we are describing grammar.
Click here to test yourself to see if you can remember what the words mean.


Tree diagrams

Tree diagrams are a traditional way of illustrating the structure of a sentence and they can get quite complicate.  Here we will deal with fairly straightforward examples.

write Task 2: Look again at how we parsed this sentence using a tree diagram:
This man wants some coffee
and try parsing this sentence:
The driver kindly delivered the car to my door.
Click here when you have written your answer.

so what

So what?

So quite a lot.  Three important things, in fact:

  1. In order to be able to make grammatically correct sentences in any language, it is important to recognise how they are constructed.  In order to be able to help people to do that, you need to know how to describe and explain the language.  Now, for simple sentences at least, you can.
  2. To construct any sentence you have to know where things go.  In English we usually put the subject first, then the verb and then the object.  We also put the adverb before the verb in many cases (kindly delivered, not delivered kindly).  We also say a beautiful house, not a house beautiful and three cars not cars three.  Be aware that different languages handle this sort of thing differently.
  3. The other thing you need to know is how words in the language change:
    1. To make present tenses (so we can distinguish between they make and he makes, and between we are going and I am going)
    2. To make past tenses so we can distinguish between I come and I came, she smokes and she was smoking)
    3. To make future tenses (so we can say things like I will go, I am going to go and I am leaving tomorrow)
    4. To make plurals (so we can produce the match-the matches, the car-the cars, the mouse-the mice and so on)
    5. To make other words so we can form kindly from kind
    6. To insert the right modifier (so we can distinguish between a car, the car, my car and some cars)
    7. To use prepositions (so we can distinguish between to my house, on my house, next to my house) etc.


Some practice for you

write Task 3: In this table, try to parse the sentences on the left, identifying all the parts and how the words change.
Click on the eye open to reveal the answers.  Later, there are links to the guide to the area of grammar concerned on this site.  If the sentence puzzled you, you should go to the guide for some help.
All the guides open in a new window so simply shut them to return to this page.

He bought some fresh apples in the market
eye open
They were going to open the parcel and look inside
eye open
I had an hour to spare so I read the newspaper
eye open
Notice that you cannot reverse the clauses without changing the meaning to nonsense (I read the newspaper so I had an hour to spare).
She wants to come to the movie with you
eye open
I hate making mistakes
eye open
They must go now
eye open
must go
When I came, he left
eye open
when i came
Notice that it is possible to reverse the clauses (He left when I came) but that the conjunction, when, moves with its clause.
The window was broken by the children
eye open
window was broken
Grammatical accuracy is often useful
eye open

some notes

  1. He bought some fresh apples in the market
    This is very like the second example in this page.  We have a typical Subject - Verb - Object pattern (most sentences in English follow that).
    some is a modifier which we can put before a plural or a noun which describes a mass (like, sugar, information etc.)
    fresh is an adjective in the usual place
    in the market is a simple prepositional phrase Prepositions are often followed by nouns.
  2. They were going to open the parcel and look inside
    This is an unusual tense form.  It's called the future in the past.  They are going to is the future but They were going to refers to a past intention (that didn't happen, usually).
    going to
    is usually used to talk about intentions and it's followed by the simplest form of the verb, the
    is a verb here and it is followed by an adverb telling us where.
  3. I had an hour to spare so I read the newspaper
    This is called a compound sentence because it consists of two potentially independent clauses.
    There are two parts:
    I had an hour to spare (the first main clause)
    so I read the newspaper (the second clause)
    The two clauses are said to be coordinated by the conjunction so.  Often, we can reverse the clauses and retain the meaning.  In this case, we can't however.
  4. She wants to come to the movie with you and
    I hate making mistakes
    Both of these sentences contain two verbs: want and come and hate and make.
    The difference is that some verbs in English are followed by the verb with -ing (called a gerund) and some by the verb with to before it.
  5. They must go now
    must is an example of a special kind of verb called a modal.  Modal verbs are auxiliaries and do not usually stand alone.  For example, I can means very little without a context but I can swim carries meaning.
  6. When I came, he left
    This is not a simpler version of 3. above.  It is an example of subordination, not coordination.
    We have two clauses:
    The main clause: he left
    The subordinate clause: when I came.
    The second clause tells us about his leaving and cannot stand alone.
  7. The window was broken by the children
    This is called a passive because we can leave out by the children and it still makes sense.  We are focused on the object of the verb break and we may not know who broke it.
  8. Grammatical accuracy is often useful
    This is an example of one way English makes subjects of verbs bigger and more complete.  We simply add an adjective before the noun.  There are other ways to modify nouns.
test Task 4: Look again at the notes above and focus on the words in red.  They are 10 more terms we use when we are describing grammar.
Click here to test yourself to see if you can remember what the words mean.

more help

More help

Of course, this short guide can't possibly cover more than a little of this huge subject but it has introduced you to some very important terms and concepts.  This site contains lots of grammar guides and the most useful ones for you will be listed in the initial plus index.
You can go there for much more detail but don't try to do it all at once.  Do what interests you or what is urgent at the moment (because you are teaching it tomorrow!).

For more about the issues covered above, try:

guide topic description
on tenses this will give you a rundown of the forms and names of the tenses of verbs in English
on verbs this will tell you about the three main types of verb in English and what they do
on the sentence this explains and gives examples of the four main sentence forms in English
on prepositions find out here about the different sorts of preposition English uses
on the future in English the future is a problem area for students because English has no proper future tense
on conjunctions these words join sentences together and are very helpful for making meaning
on the passive this structure is difficult for learners, especially those whose languages are very different
word formation for more on morphology


Grammar books

There are lots of good grammar books and, if you are at all serious about teaching, you'll need one or two.
There are two sorts:

  1. grammar books intended for learners
    These will be easier for you to access and will be enough at the beginning.  Good examples are:
    Foley, M & Hall, D, Pearson, 1988, Longman advanced learners' grammar
    Swan, M, Oxford University Press, 2005,
    Practical English Usage (3rd Ed.)
  2. books intended for more serious study and for use by teachers
    These are the places to go for the inside story but they are more difficult.  Good examples are:
    Leech, G and Svartvik J, 3rd edition, Longman, 2003, A Communicative Grammar of English
    Lock, G, Cambridge University Press, 1996,
    Functional English Grammar

Click here for a more complete list.


Web resources

You have already found a good one!
There are lots of websites intended to help people understand aspects of English grammar.  Many are wrong, many just lists of interesting (or otherwise) facts and some are plain confusing.  Beware sites that prescribe by saying That's wrong!, This is right! and so on.  They are often written by people who have an axe to grind and are rarely reliable.
Make sure you have a decent grammar book as well so you can cross-check for accuracy.

There are a number of grammar exercises and lessons for learners on this site.  Click here to go to them.