Several times, I have attempted to write a grammar summary, partly to refine my own thoughts, partly for the use of my students and partly for the interest of anyone else. I few weeks ago, I had the thought of confining myself to paragraphs of approx 250 words, which I am now calling ‘Microgrammar’. (One of my job tasks is to edit passages of 240-260 words for students of translating to translate into another language.) So here are the first six paragraphs. I tried some of these out with my students during the week, and one of them said he understood ‘most’ of it.
Note that terms in bold will be explained at greater length later. My major reference is Huddlestone and Pullum’s A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar. In particular, their terms determinative, coordinator and subordinator are not used in the majority of English grammar references and textbooks.
1 Sentences – subject and predicate
Almost every English sentence is built around two words or groups of words which tell us
who or what the sentence is about (the subject), and
something about that person or people or thing or things (the predicate).
Almost everything else gives us more information about one or both of those parts, or joins those parts into sentences, or sentences into longer forms of speaking and writing.
There are two basic ways of referring to someone or something:
noun phrases like a person or people, or a thing, stuff or things, and
pronouns like I, you, we, they, she, he and it.
This immediately affects the verbs we use.
Singular countable noun phrases (a person, a thing),
most uncountable nouns (stuff) and
she, he and it
match with is, has and does
plural countable noun( phrase)s (people, things),
some uncountable noun phrases and
we, you (whether you refers to one person or to two or more people) and they
match with are, have and do.
I matches with am, as well as have and do.
So the basic grammatical patterns of English are:
Terms like noun and verb (word classes) tell us what these words are, and terms like subject and predicate (functions) tell us what role they play in this sentence.
2 Word classes – nouns and verbs
Nouns and verbs are the two biggest and most important word classes in English. Word classes are groups of words which have similar meanings and grammatical characteristics. Some words are (more) typical of their word class (thing~things and do~does), while others are unusual in some or many ways (person~people and is~am~are).
We can identify word classes by
• the meaning, if we know,
• the form(s) they have in this sentence, or can have in other sentences,
• what other word groups they combine with to make larger units (phrases) in this sentence, or can combine with in other sentences, and
• where in this sentence they appear and what role they play there (functions), or can in other sentences.
• name people, things, places and times, but also abstract ideas,
• have a singular and plural form, which is usually made by adding s (thing > things),
• combine with determinatives (a, the, this, that, these, those, my, your …) to make noun phrases, and
• function as the subject of a sentence, the object or complement of a verb or the object of a preposition.
• usually show existence (be), possession (have) or action (do),
• usually have a plain present form (do), a Vs form (does), a Ving form (doing) and a V-ps form (did), and may have a separate V-pp form (done),
• can combine with adverbs (typically not and always, usually … never), and
• usually function as the most important word (head) of the predicate.
3 Nouns and pronouns
Most nouns are countable and have a singular and plural form, which is usually made by adding s (thing > things). These are called regular plurals. A few very important nouns change in other ways (person > people) or don’t change at all. These are called irregular plurals.
Stuff is a typical uncountable noun. We can have one thing or two things, but we can’t have one stuff or two stuffs. Most simply, it’s just stuff. Most uncountable nouns are mostly like singular countable nouns; especially, they agree with the same verb forms – a thing/stuff is/has/does – but a small number are mostly like plural countable nouns – things/clothes are/have/do.
Some nouns are always countable and others are always uncountable, but most can be used in both ways. Many are usually countable and others are usually uncountable, and some are about equal. The question is not ‘Is this noun countable or uncountable?’, but rather ‘Is this noun countable or uncountable in this sentence?’.
Some grammar books group pronouns separately from nouns, but there are enough similarities to group them together. The first seven pronouns are I, you, we, they, she, he and it. She, he and it are mostly like singular countable nouns and most uncountable nouns – she/he/it is/has/does. We and they are mostly like plural countable nouns – we/they are/have/do. You can refer to one person or to two or more people, but always agrees with are/have/do. I has its own verb form am.
Most verbs are regular. They have a plain/plain present form, a 3rd person singular present form which is made by adding s, a gerund-participle form (also called a present participle) which is made by adding ing, and a past simple/past participle form which is made by adding ed. There are a few spelling and pronunciation rules, but generally that’s about it. The most common completely regular verb is look:
However, about 100 very common and important verbs (and some very uncommon ones) are irregular. Their past simple and past participle forms change in other ways, or do not change at all. The three most important verbs in English are very irregular:
There is no general pattern for irregular verbs. You have to learn each one separately.
Can and will are in a sub-group of verbs with only seven others called modal verbs. They do not have Vs, Ving and V-pp forms, and are used in very different ways. Among other things, they must always be followed by another verb in its plain form:
5 Building a sentence – complements, objects and adjuncts
There are strong rules and less choice about the meaning and grammar of the subject and verb of a sentence, but there is more choice about what comes after the verb, either as essential information (usually a complement or object) or extra information (an adjunct).
Using verb be, we can add many pieces of personal information as a complement:
Using verbs eat and drink, we can first add meals and kinds of food and drink, from general categories to specific items, as an object:
We can then add much more extra information about how often, where, when, who with, how and why as an adjunct:
6 Word classes – adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, coordinators, subordinators
The information added in the previous section introduces four of the five other word classes of English. (The first three are nouns, verbs and determinatives.)
happy, sad, angry, scared, hungry, thirsty are adjectives
not, always, usually, often, sometimes, rarely, never, quickly, slowly, very are adverbs
at, in, on, by, with are prepositions, and
and, or are coordinators (also called coordinating conjunctions).
• usually modify nouns and describe people, things, places, times and ideas,
• are usually related to nouns and verbs (hunger ~ hungry, thirst + y),
• often have comparative and superlative forms (happy, happier, happiest), and
• are usually found in two patterns: the happy girl (attributive) and The boy is sad (predicative).
• usually modify verbs, adjectives and other adverbs, and provide information about how often (always, usually …), how (quickly, slowly) and how much (very). Many how adverbs are made from adjectives by adding –ly (quick + ly and slow + ly), and
• can usually move around in a sentence depending on what they are modifying and how much emphasis you want to place on them.
• usually show relationships of place where (at home) and time when (at (time)),
• are usually short and don’t change form, and
• are usually followed by a noun phrase or pronoun.
• join equivalent words (a knife and fork), phrases or sentences. The first three are and, but, or.
The final word class is subordinators, which are usually used in patterns like I know that she is happy, I don’t know if he is sad. The first three are that, if, whether.