The Basic Grammar Rules of English

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It often seems like there are too many English grammar rules to keep straight — and they’re always changing. Even grammar sticklers argue over them sometimes. (When should you use an Oxford comma, anyway?) But if you master the foundational rules of English grammar, you’ll find that the trickier ones aren’t so hard to remember after all.

Grammar Rules for Parts of a Sentence

You already know that a complete sentence, also known as an independent clause, can stand on its own. But what makes a sentence complete, and how do the parts of a sentence work together? Once you figure out the rules for writing sentences, you’ll never mix them up again.

Subjects Are Vital

Every sentence must have a subject: the person, place, animal, thing, or idea that's performing the action in a sentence. For example:

  • Morocco boasts some of the most fabulous resorts.

  • That coffee shop features the most tantalizing aromas.

  • Her hair changes color every week.

Predicates Express Action

The rest of the sentence is called the predicate. It expresses the action the subject is taking or shares something more about the subject. For example:

  • Morocco boasts some of the most fabulous resorts.

  • That coffee shop features the most tantalizing aromas.

  • Her hair changes color every week.

Subjects and Predicates Must Agree

Some of the most basic and important English grammar rules relate to subject-verb agreement, meaning that a singular subject must have a singular predicate (and a plural subject must have a plural predicate). For example:

  • This book is filled with intrigue and interest. (The singular subject this book and the singular verb is agree.)

  • Mark and Abby appear excited to start this new adventure. (Both the plural subject Mark and Abby and the plural verb appear agree.)

Use the Correct Sentence Type

We use punctuation to establish what a sentence is trying to do, but the verbs have to help out as well. Be sure that you're using the correct sentence type, as there are four to choose from.

  • declarative - ends with a period to make a statement. (She walked down the runway.)

  • interrogative - ends with a question mark to ask a question. (Where did she walk?)

  • exclamatory - ends with an exclamation mark to express strong emotion. (She did a great job on the runway!)

  • imperative - ends with a period or exclamation mark to issue a command. (Follow her down the runway!)

Direct Objects Provide Information

When direct objects are involved, the reader understands more about the sentence. For example:

  • She assembled her workstation. (What did she assemble?)

  • He hates fighting. (What does he hate?)

  • Eric loves Ariel's Taco Shack. (What does he love?)

Indirect Objects Receive Action From Direct Objects

Direct objects pass the action they receive from verbs onto indirect objects. For example:

  • James gave Katherine a new diamond necklace. (To whom did James give the necklace?)

  • I made my dog homemade biscuits. (For whom did you make the biscuits?)

  • She baked her husband some chocolate chip cookies. (For whom did she bake the cookies?)

Grammar Rules for Capitalization and Punctuation

A complete sentence is only as good as the punctuation that separates it from the next complete sentence. Mastering capitalization and punctuation rules makes your writing easier to read — and while there are a few to remember, they’re pretty straightforward.

Capitalization Is Key

All sentences must start with a capital letter. Additionally, proper nouns (such as names of people, names of places, most words in a title, companies, days of the week, holidays, first word of a sentence inside quotation marks, and so on) are typically capitalized. For example:

  • Mary went to the library to read her favorite magazine, Writers' Haven.

  • Did you read the new Sherlock Holmes book?

  • Let's board a jet and fly to Italy.

Every Sentence Needs Terminal Punctuation

Finish your sentence with a terminal punctuation mark at the end of it. These include a period, exclamation mark, or question mark. For example:

  • Give me your money.

  • I told you to run!

  • Can you believe the nerve of that man?

Colons and Semicolons are Not Interchangeable

It seems like colons and semicolons function in the same way — but they don’t. Use a colon when writing a list of items, introducing a long, direct quote, or separating two clauses when the second one further explains the first. For example:

  • In my duffel bag, I have: t-shirts, blue jeans, hiking boots, and a bar of soap.

  • Nora Roberts once said: "Magic exists. Who can doubt it, when there are rainbows and wildflowers, the music of the wind and the silence of the stars?"

  • She had everything she needed: friends who would never let her down.

You need a semicolon only when connecting two independent clauses (instead of a coordinating conjunction), or when separating items in a list that already includes commas. For example:

  • I brought my duffel bag; however, I didn't really need it.

  • This is crazy; I'm going back.

  • I've visited Santa Fe, NM; Denver, CO; Austin, TX; and New Orleans, LA.

Commas Have Specific Purposes

It can be hard to remember all the rules for commas. The basic rule of thumb is that commas separate parts of a sentence, whether they’re items in a series or clauses and phrases in a sentence. For example:

  • I was scared to leave, despite the fact that I needed to, but I resolved to be brave.

  • If you take all my money, then I will make you pay.

  • For Christmas, she'd like a new pair of Nikes, a laptop, and a corkboard for all her college memories.

Parentheses Add Information

Use parentheses to enclose words that clarify other parts of a sentence. They contain information that's not essential to the main point, making them full of supplementary (but interesting) information. For example:

  • I was scared to leave (despite the fact that I needed to) but I resolved to be brave.

  • If you take all my money (whether you mean to or not), I will make you pay.

  • For Christmas, she'd like a new pair of Nikes (which she really doesn't need), a laptop (a MacBook, no less), and a corkboard (for all her college memories).

Apostrophes Only Indicate Missing Letters and Possession

People love their apostrophes, but they really only have two uses: noting when letters are missing in a contraction and showing a noun’s possession. For example:

  • This is the writers' haven; it's also Melissa's favorite place on Earth.

  • Don't steal Melissa's dream.

  • You're a grand ol' flag.

Be a Grammarian for Life

In a land of BRBs and LOLs, be a member of the crowd that doesn't solely rely on spellcheck and autocorrect. For more ways to fine-tune your grammatical knowledge, check out: