Master the Basic Rules of English Grammar

Learn these 12 must-know rules and avoid the most common English grammar mistakes

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By Barney Meekin · January 25, 2024 · 10 minute read

English grammar rules — like the grammar of any language — can be complicated and hard to understand for language learners. Luckily, you don’t need to understand every rule to communicate well. You’d be surprised how far you can get with a good understanding of the basics.

In this article, read about the 12 basic English grammar rules that — if you master them — will help you avoid the most common grammar mistakes.

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What is grammar?

Grammar is the structure of a language — the system that helps us create meaning from the combination of words and sounds.

In this article, we’ll talk about grammar rules. But 'rules' is misleading. They’re not rules like the rules we have in games or sports because nobody made English. It developed naturally over many, many years, and the grammar rules we have now are our way of explaining how to use English.

Like all languages, English is consistently evolving. The grammar rules we have now reflect English in its current state. So when English changes in the future, the grammar rules will change too.

Do you need to study the rules of grammar?

This question is controversial. Some language experts say no, and others say yes. When native speakers learn a language, they do so without studying grammar. So it’s definitely possible that you could become fluent in English without studying grammar — if the conditions are right.

But for most language learners, studying grammar is a big help. Don’t be afraid of grammar. Think of it like a recipe. Sure, you could make an Italian dish without a recipe. You add some salt, some basil, a little sugar, and see how it tastes. If it’s bad, you can throw it away and try again. Through trial and error, you’ll make something delicious eventually. But if you follow a recipe, you know exactly what ingredients to combine. You’ll get to the delicious meal much more quickly.

Grammar’s the same. Through trial and error, you can learn grammar naturally through communicating. It can take a long time, but it’s possible. Learning some grammar rules — like following a recipe — helps you master grammar more quickly.

Twelve basic English grammar rules

Here are some basic English grammar rules that will help you speak English clearly.

1. Make your subjects and verbs agree.

If your subject is singular, your verb needs to be singular too. And if your subject is plural, the verb needs to be plural. For example, 'She walks' is a singular subject and verb, and 'They walk' is a plural subject and verb. They always need to match.

2. Be consistent with your tenses.

Don’t mix tenses in a sentence or a connected group of sentences. For example, if you use the past tense at the start of a sentence, use the past tense until the end. Mixing and changing tense mid-sentence will confuse your listeners and readers.

3. Choose the right articles.

Use 'a' before words that start with a consonant sound and 'an' before words that start with a vowel sound. Use 'the' when you talk about something specific or something you previously mentioned. For example, "I saw a cat" versus "I saw the cat we spoke about yesterday."

4. Use complete sentences.

A full sentence has a subject (who or what the sentence is about) and a verb (what the subject is doing). 'He lied' has a subject and a verb so it can be a full sentence.

Sentences should also include complete thoughts. For example, a phrase like 'While running' isn’t a complete thought, but "While running, I started to feel sick" is.

5. Capitalize where needed.

Capitalize the first word of a sentence and proper nouns (names of people and places).

6. Use the right pronouns.

Make sure your pronouns ('he,' 'she,' 'it,' 'they,' and so on) agree in number and gender with the nouns they replace. For example, in the sentence, "Every student must do his or her homework," instead of repeating 'every student' again before 'homework' ("Every student must do every student’s homework") you can use 'his or her' because it matches 'every student'.

7. Add the right preposition.

Prepositions (such as 'in,' 'on,' 'at,' and 'by,') show the relationships between the words in your sentences. They indicate time, place and direction, among other things. Getting these wrong confuses your audience. For example, "The book is on the table" and "The book is in the table" have very different meanings.

8. Link your ideas with conjunctions.

Conjunctions (like 'and,' 'but,' 'or,' 'yet,' 'so') are linking words that connect words and phrases. Use them to create complex sentences.

You might have heard people say, "Never start a sentence with a conjunction," but it’s safe to ignore that rule. (If you look through this article, you’ll find lots of places where I ignored it). This incorrect rule comes from some misleading teaching in schools in the past.

9. Clarify your sentences with commas.

Commas make your sentences easier to understand. Use them with coordinating conjunctions (such as 'but' and 'and') when connecting independent clauses, after introductory phrases ("After waking up, she found the house was empty"), to separate items in a list, and to separate information that isn’t essential to the meaning of a sentence ("The man, who’s a doctor, was arrested last night").

10. Use apostrophes only for possessive nouns and contractions.

Use apostrophes to show possession ('John’s dog') and to indicate a contraction (for example, 'isn’t'). For possession, add apostrophe 's' to the end of a noun. Use an apostrophe in place of the missing letter(s) for contractions.

11. Switch word order for questions.

When you ask a question, you need to switch the order around. The auxiliary verb (for example, 'do,' 'have,' 'is') comes before the subject. For example, in a non-question sentence, the auxiliary verb comes after the subject ("She is coming to the party"). But in a question, the auxiliary verb comes before the subject ("Is she coming to the party?").

In 'wh' questions, the question word (who, what, where, when, why, how) goes before the auxiliary verb. For example, "When is she coming?"

12.Give clear commands and instructions.

To make a command, you need an imperative sentence. These start with a verb and don’t include the subject, like in the sentences “Get up!” or “Be quiet.”

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Four common English grammar mistakes

Because grammar is so complicated, it’s easy to make mistakes. Here are some common mistakes you should watch out for.

1. 'Its/It's' and 'Your/You're'

If you’ve ever got these mixed up, you’re not alone. Even native speakers get these words wrong when they write.

'It's' is a contraction for 'it is' or 'it has,' but 'its' is a possessive pronoun showing something belongs to 'it.' Similarly, 'you're' is a contraction for 'you are,' while 'your' shows possession. They look the same and sound the same, but be careful not to make these mistakes in your writing.

2. 'There,' 'Their,' 'They're'

These words sound the same and look the same too, but they have very different meanings. Some native speakers struggle with these when writing also. 'There' refers to a place, 'their' is a possessive pronoun, and 'they're' is a contraction for 'they are.'

3. Run-on sentences

Run-on sentences make your writing difficult to understand. They happen when you don’t link two or more independent clauses (complete thoughts) properly. "I love to read, I read every day" is an example of a run-on sentence.

To correct it, there either needs to be a period in place of the comma ("I love to read. I read every day."), or the word 'and' should be inserted after the comma ("I love to read, and I read every day.").

4. Sentence fragments

Sentence fragments look like sentences but they aren’t. That’s because they are missing either a subject or verb, or they don’t form a complete thought. For example, "Even though he was tired" is a sentence fragment because it isn’t a complete thought — it needs a main clause. On the other hand, "Even though he was tired, he went to see his friends" is a complete sentence since it forms a complete thought.

5. Misplaced modifiers

Modifiers are words (usually adjectives or nouns) that add more detail or description to a sentence. You need to put modifiers close to the word they modify. When they’re too far away from the word they modify, the meaning becomes unclear. Here are some examples:

Incorrect: He got home and sat on the sofa soaked in rain.

Correct: Soaked in rain, he got home and sat on the sofa.

Correct: He got home soaked in rain and sat on the sofa.

In this example, the modifier is “soaked in rain.” Because it’s next to “sofa” in the incorrect sentence, it sounds like the sofa is wet with rain, which doesn’t make sense. The modifier needs to be closer to what it’s modifying: “He.”

Incorrect: Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first people to climb Mount Everest in 1953.

Correct: In 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first people to climb Mount Everest.

In this example, the modifier is “in 1953.” In the incorrect sentence, it sounds like they were the first people in the year 1953 to climb Everest, not the first people of all time.

Incorrect: I saw a sheep walking home from the station.

Correct: Walking home from the station, I saw a sheep.

In this example, the modifier is “walking home from the station.” It should be modifying “I” but in the first sentence is modifying “a sheep.” This leads to lots of confusion.

Master these basic grammar rules

The grammar rules in this article aren’t the most complicated. They’re the basics. But by mastering these basic rules, you’ll be able to communicate well in any situation. You’ll give yourself a solid foundation to build your English knowledge and skills, and you’ll also avoid making some of the most common English grammar mistakes.

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