Here are 11 rules of grammar to help you reach more bravely into the scary world of sentence construction and accurate communication.
Every human language starts an active sentence with the subject, or the "doer." In English, the verb (what's being done) follows the subject. If there is an object (the receiver of the action), it comes after the verb. The formula looks like this: S+V+O. This rule is the foundation of the English language.
Here are some examples:
Mary walked the dog.
The dog liked Mary.
I did not like the dog.
Sometimes you want to link two ideas with a second S+V+O combination. When you do, you need a coordinating conjunction. The new formula looks like this: S+V+O, COORDINATING CONJUNCTION+S+V+O.
Coordinating conjunctions are easy to remember with an acronymic mnemonic device:
FANBOYS are used when connecting two ideas as one in a single sentence, but don't forget the comma.
I do not walk Mary's dog, nor do I wash him.
Mary fed her dog, and I drank tea.
Mary feeds and walks her dog every day, but the dog is still hyperactive.
The serial or Oxford comma is the most controversial of these 11 rules of grammar. Some want to eliminate it altogether while others just don't know how to use it. The serial comma is the last comma in a list, usually appearing before "and." The serial comma comes after "dog" in this sentence:
Pets R Us has lizards, dogs, and birds.
Commas separate units in a list. In the above case, each unit only has one part, so it's easy. Where people get confused is when the units are bigger, but the rule still applies:
Pets R Us has lizards and frogs, dogs and cats, and parakeets and macaws.
Notice that the serial comma comes before "and" but not the last "and" in the sentence. The "and" that follows the comma is only there because it sounds better. Grammatically, "and" is irrelevant. Only units matter.
A list of grammar rules has to include the scariest of punctuation marks. It might look funny, but don't be afraid of the semicolon; it's the easiest thing in the world to use! Say you want to connect two ideas but can't figure out or can't be bothered to use a coordinating conjunction. The two ideas can be separate sentences, but you think that they are so closely connected; they really should be one. Use a semicolon.
Mary's dog is hyperactive; it won't stop barking or sit still.
My heart is like a cup of Lapsang Souchong tea; it's bitter and smoky.
Mary has to walk her dog every day; it is the most hyperactive dog anyone has ever seen.
The simple present is the tense you use for any habitual action. The things you always do or do every Tuesday are described with the simple present, which just means you pick the first form of any verb.
Mary likes dogs.
I don't walk Mary's dog.
Mary and I drink tea every Tuesday together.
The present progressive tense is for anything that is happening right now. All of the progressive tenses are easy to spot because their verbs always end with "-ing" and get a helping verb. A helping verb is just so we know who and when we're talking about. In the present progressive, the helping verbs are the present tense conjugations of "to be."
I am drinking Lapsang Souchong tea.
The barking dogs outside are driving me crazy.
Mary is playing with her hyperactive dog.
When we talk about the past, we have to add an "-ed" to regular verbs to make the second form. Irregular verbs are tricky and have their own sets of rules. Drink, for example, turns to "drank." Most of the time, though, "-ed" will do.
I drank a lot of Lapsang Souchong tea yesterday, but Mary didn't.
The dogs stopped barking two seconds ago, and I am feeling better.
Mary played fetch with her hyperactive dog.
Practice makes perfect with the perfect tenses. Here are three rules to finish the 11 rules of grammar. If you remember these, you'll be well on your way to perfection.
The present perfect can be confusing for some, but it is one of the most important rules of grammar. When people talk about things that have already happened but consider the time in which they occurred to be unfinished, they use the third form of the verb with a helping verb. The helping verb for the present perfect is the present tense conjugation of "to have."
I have drunk three cups of Lapsang Souchong tea today.
Mary's hyperactive cur dog has bitten me three times so far.
Mary has walked her hyperactive poodle 100 times this week.
Unfortunately, the only way to know the third forms of verbs is to remember them.
Present Perfect Progressive
When the action as well as the time is considered unfinished, the verb loads up on third form helping verbs ("to be" and "to have") and changes to the progressive form.
Western countries have been waging wars in the Middle East for thousands of years.
I have been drinking tea all day.
Mary's dog has been barking like crazy since it was born.
When two things happen in the past, we have to mark which one happened first. The one that happened first changes to third form and gets the helping verb, "had."
By the time I drank one cup of Lapsang Souchong, Mary's dog had barked a million times.
I had not yet eaten breakfast when Mary walked her dog.
Mary couldn't stop laughing; her dog had bitten me again.