I thought I’d posted about this before, but I can’t find it now, so apparently not. Over the years, I’ve created a number of grammar summary sheets, and started seriously thinking about this when I was in Korea for the second time in 2015-16. Through my time as an ESL teacher, I’ve noticed that some grammar points keep coming up over and over. The challenge, then, is to get these onto one piece of paper in a coherent way.
By any understanding, English grammar is based on nouns and verbs, with nouns starting with people, things, places and times, and verbs starting with being, having and doing. Extra information then covers which one(s), whose, how many, how much, describing, how and why (and more).
So, my first sheet looks like this:
Theoretically, all (or most) of these can be translated into other languages. I started with Korean, with help from my co-teacher at the time. Some things don’t quite match up – 이다, 있다 and 하다 cover most of same ground as be, have and do, but carve up the territory differently, and modal verbs work very differently – for example, Korean has two different constructions equivalent to English can for ability and can for permission.
Note that while Korean doesn’t use countable and uncountable nouns like English does, there are still ways of saying thing(s)/stuff, how many and how much. Back in Australia, I consulted with a Chinese-speaking colleague, who was generally defeated by these concepts, as they’re just not used in Chinese.
Of course, we’ve got more words relating to each concept, so the challenge then is, how few or how many words cover the maximum possible ground, and how many words can I fit into the available space?
This is, clearly, not all of English grammar, but it is certainly a lot to fit onto one sheet of paper.
English grammar is built around nouns and verbs. Every standard sentence contains a noun phrase and a verb phrase, a noun phrase contains a noun and maybe other things, and a verb phrase contains a verb and maybe other things. Nouns and verbs make up about half of any extended text. Nouns start with people, places and things, and verbs start with be, have and do. Crucially, nouns divide into singular countable, plural countable and uncountable, and verbs divide into plain present form (V), third person singular present form (Vs) and past simple form (Ved to start, then V-ps).
There are two ways to group nouns. The first conceptually groups a person and people, a thing, stuff and things, and a place and places. The second grammatically groups a person, a thing and a place; people, things and places; and stuff.
Although the is the most common word in English, I have started with a because the can be used with any noun, whereas a is a crucial test of singular countable nouns. There is also enough space on the page for this, that, these and those; can, can’t, will and won’t; and who, what, where, when, how and why.
A subject noun phrase and a predicate verb phrase are pretty much obligatory in a standard English sentence (though there is a handful of other grammatical forms which can replace the noun phrase as the subject). What comes after the verb in the verb phrase can vary in terms of obligatoriness, the range of grammatical forms that can be used and the roles they play.
The next sheet introduces object and possessive forms of pronouns, adverbs (which can stand alone), prepositions (which head a prepositional phrase) and conjunctions/coordinators.* All these can be used in various combinations. Basically, a verb can be followed by zero, one or two pieces of obligatory material (one or two objects and/or one complement) and any number of pieces of optional material (adjuncts).
*Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum, in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, thoroughly re-analyse adverbs, prepositions and conjunctions and re-classify many adverbs and subordinating conjunctions/subordinators as prepositions. I can’t quite shake old habits yet.
On the following sheet, extra (usually optional) information in various grammatical forms can be added to any noun phrase to answer the questions which one(s)/whose? how many/much? and describe it. Adjuncts, on the other hand, answer questions like how?, how much?, how many times?, how often?, how long? and why?
The last two sheets in this series organise subject noun phrases into three groups – singular countable, plural countable and uncountable – and link them to their required verb forms (which only applies in present tenses and the past tense of be), and then add more words in each category.
[note: slightly edited versions substituted 15 May. I knew I’d change something in some of these!]
The challenge in creating these sheets was to balance the minimum amount of information at each stage and the maximum amount of information I could fit onto one page at that font size. It’s possible to fit more information – the smallest font size I use is 12 point; I could use 10 point, but that would probably reach the stage at which complexity overwhelms usefulness.