Improve Your Grammar Skills to Write Better

Published on April 6th, 2013 by | Category: Writing

In My Early Life Winston Churchill wrote of his English lessons at school

‘Not only did we learn English parsing thoroughly, but we also practiced continually English analysis. Mr. Somervell had a system of his own. He took a fairly long sentence and broke it up into its components by means of black, red, blue and green inks. Subject, verb, object: Relative Clauses, Conditional Clauses, Conjunctive and Disjunctive Clauses! Each had its color and its bracket. It was a kind of drill. We did it almost daily. . . Thus J got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence — which is a noble thing.’

It is possible that after the exercise which rounded off my last article you are looking for flaws in that quotation. If, however, you feel that ‘ordinary’ is out of place there since ordinary sentences do not usually impress you by their nobility of structure, let me point out that here Churchill was contrasting the learning of English with the learning of the more esoteric Latin and Greek. With your increasing skill in finding flaws, you might, however, point out that Mr. Somervell never broke up a sentence with colored ink of any kind, but merely showed by means of colored inks how he had broken them up. You may note, too, that, without the dash preceding it, ‘which’ is a noble thing’ would be wrongly attached to ‘sentence’ instead of ’structure’. With the dash, however, it begins to suggest that the noble thing was ‘getting the essential structure into his bones’.

It looks then that almost daily practice in analysis even with the use of colored inks does not bring with it a guarantee that you will always be able to find the words that fit the facts.

Most of the readers of this article will have been taught in their schooldays by men and women incapable of breaking up sentences as Mr. Somervell did and with no intention of ever learning how to do so, for grammar is no longer regarded as one of the main pillars of education. There was indeed so strong a reaction against the teaching of grammar a few decades ago that a whole generation of teachers grew up who cannot remember having a grammar lesson in their lives.

The argument about the teaching of grammar still goes on, but I am not going into the details of the controversy here.

Here, however, are a few paragraphs from a newspaper article that appeared when I was writing this article:

‘Alone the English-speakers have escaped the toils of grammar which enslave all Europeans. A splendid writer on languages, Sir Douglas Busk, estimates that a foreigner can learn the whole of English grammar in the same time that he can master the four regular French verbs, which are merely the first step in the appalling complexity of French grammar.’

There’s a lot of truth in that statement.

One of the strange things about grammar, however, is that people who have not been taught grammar in a formal kind of way think they have missed something important. They feel that there has been something lacking in their education. That, at any rate, is the impression I have with students. Are they right? Would some knowledge of English grammar improve their ability in the writing of English?

It all depends on how they are taught it and on their teacher’s idea of what grammar is all about. You have been doing grammar exercises even though they have not been called that and even though you may not have realized that they were exercises in grammar. Every time you are reading a sentence in order to find out if it expresses the writer’s meaning exactly, you are involved with some aspect of grammar and that aspect can be denoted by the question, ‘Which word goes with which?’ If there are two referents for ‘it’, for example, the sentence in which that ‘it’ occurs has a shaky grammatical structure. Practice in the detection and elimination of these technical hitches is of far more use to you than any formal lessons in grammar and you don’t need to know the meaning of such grammatical terms as ‘nominative absolute’ or ‘mis- related participle’ in order to write clear sentences.

There’s another thing that makes it difficult for me to recommend a course of English grammar to you. And it is that English grammar is being rewritten. Most of the grammar books at present on the market are old-fashioned because they still show the influence of the days when Latin was a major subject in the grammar and public schools of this country and much of the grammar taught in English classes was Latin grammar masquerading as English. At present there’s a team of experts busy in London writing a modern grammar of modern English, but they are not expecting to have finished their job for some years yet.

Fortunately commonsense gets you a long way in this field. By all means get hold of a simple English grammar and study it, but if there is anything in it that does not sound like common- sense to you, don’t worry your head about it.

There isn’t room for me in this article to give you a skeleton-key to English grammar, but I will now give you a few points to bear in mind.

You’ve heard of the ‘parts of speech’. Note the of speech. That implies that words get names like adjective, noun and so on because of the way they are used. This is important. A word has no grammatical quality at all except when it is connected with other words. I ask you what part of speech ‘hammer’ is — and you’d be naive if you replied except with the question: ‘In what connection?’ or something like that. In the following sentences ‘hammer’ is doing two different things:

You’ll need a claw-hammer for that job. Hammer the thing out!

In this article, I referred to a programmed learning book called Effective English. Do you recall the sentence I quoted from it? Here it is:

‘One of the easiest ways to show lack of ability as a writer is to make mistakes in the agreement of subjects and verbs.’

Who, I ask you, is looking for an easy way of showing lack of ability as a writer?

The implication of that twisted statement is that that particular mistake is one of the commonest. That is not my experience. Nobody who is far enough advanced as to read this article is likely to make that mistake once in several thousand sentences. I estimate that over the years I have found that mistake occurring only about once in something like 30,000 sentences written by students. When it does occur, it is more like a slip of the pen than a sign of lack of ability as a writer. Lack, of ability to reread carefully is more likely.

Here is the sort of thing I mean:

‘The main reason for these changes are the easy availability of transport nowadays.’

The mistake should be obvious to you reason — are instead of reason — is.

The main reason for this kind of mistake is that the right version sounds like a tune in which a wrong note has been played. You’ll hear that note in the following version of the sentence that precedes this one:

‘The main reason for such mistakes is that the right version sounds like a tune in which a wrong note has been played.’

One expects ‘mistakes — are’. Our inner speech, perhaps, feels more comfortable with ‘mistakes — are’ than with ‘mistakes — is’. The neighboring plural forces the mind away from the singular subject. Take this example:

‘One of the main reasons for these changes are the large numbers of cars on the roads to-day.’

‘Reasons’, ‘changes’, ‘numbers’, ‘cars’, ‘roads’ — what chance of survival has a little singular ‘is’ in so plural a context.

I like to keep partitions between singulars and plurals when I write. Look back at the quotation from the newspaper article earlier in this article. There ‘which are the first step’ jars slightly on my ear. I am possibly too sensitive about this, but I’d rather put it like this — ‘which together form the first step’. In the context of that article, however, it jars rather more because I know very well that the first step is the mastering of the four regular French verbs, not the verbs themselves. Here we have another example of the failure of the grammar to echo to the sense.

The upshot of all this is that I do not think that you’ll find much difficulty in avoiding ‘the easiest way’ of showing your lack of ability in the writing of good English.

Do I need to tell you that every fully expressed sentence has a subject and a verb? If I do, you should be reading a much simpler article than this. I think I ought to point out, however, that the word ‘sentence’ is used in some peculiar ways nowadays.

Good morning!

That can be regarded as a sentence.


That can also be regarded as a sentence.

The fully expressed grammatical sentence, however, does have a subject, which is either a noun or a pronoun, and a verb which completes the statement.

Snakes hiss.

Hardy wrote.

These are sentences — the shortest, in number of words, that you can get, in the sense in which I am using the word ‘sentence’ here.

On the other hand
snakes hissing


Hardy writing
are not sentences.

Nor are

while snakes hissed


when Hardy was writing.

I think that the only substantial difficulty in English grammar is that of distinguishing between words that look like verbs, but are not verbs and those that look Like verbs and are.

I’ll try to clear it up for you.

The first step is to realise that a word has no grammar unless it is in a context. When you see v after a word in a dictionary, do not take it to mean that the word is a verb, was a verb and always will be a verb; it means no more than that in English speaking and writing that word is generally used to do what we might call verb- work. That is to say, in contexts it has normally been used in that way. The context is usually verbal — with, of course, the usual referents that give language meaning. There may be a context of real things, however, as when the word table’ appears on a card placed on a table in an infant class-room as part of a reading-lesson. There the surrounding context shows the word to be a noun. Not so, however, in the context; ‘I table the following motion . . . .’

The next step is to be absolutely clear in your mind that the grammatical terms — noun, adjective, verb, and so on — are not the names of the words but of the functions the words perform in sentences. The real meaning of the sentence ‘Hammer is a noun’, for example, must be ‘In this context the word ‘hammer’ is doing that kind of work we think of as noun-work.

Look at the various uses of the word ‘hiss’ and its derivatives in the following sentences and phrases:

1. Nothing could be heard but the hissing of the rain.

2. He did not so much speak as hiss.

3. The steam hissed; someone cleared his throat. No one left- no one came.

4. The hissing kettle on the hob.

5. The hiss of steam from the locomotive.

In 1.‘hissing’ is a noun; in 2. it is the same as ‘speak’ and that is part of a compound verb ‘did not speak’; in 3. ‘hissed’ is a verb; in 4. ‘hissing’ is an adjective; in 5. ‘hiss’ is a noun.

The first three are complete sentences; the last two are not.

If 5. is not a complete sentence, what about the following paragraph, is it wrong?

The hiss of steam from the locomotive. Cries of porters. The hooting of taxis. The clatter of a porter’s barrow. And through it all from the loud-speakers the brash voice of a woman announcer.

No, it is not wrong to write like that. It depends on what effect you want to produce. There is not a single verb in the whole lot, and yet if it produces the effect you want there is nothing what soever wrong with it. You won’t be able to produce the effect you want, however, if the reader gets the impression that you couldn’t write a complete sentence if you tried.

Now for an easy exercise.


Below you will find some groups of words. They are all printed as though they were fully expressed grammatical sentences. Some of them are; some of them are not. Which is which? For comments on them scroll down and see the end of the article.

I. Where you find the greatest concentration of traffic.

2. These telephone interruptions! Three times in the last five minutes!

3. There will be rain within the next half-hour by the look of it.

4. The convoy winding its way up the mountain road.

5. After I finished this job.

6. Taking time off to go to the football match.

7. When he spoke about the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable.

8. Leaving the road, he struck off up the rocky hill-side.

9. League football has suffered in recent years from the rowdiness of a handful of spectators.

10. The necessary organization, the Government has now disclosed.

11. The son of a store-keeper in Plymouth, he had an intimate knowledge of the provisioning of ships.

12. An American tourist, detained on the charge of illegally crossing the border.

For a simple outline of English grammar, try HOW WORDS WORK (Chatto and Windus 5s.). In it I describe traditional English grammar in the context of modern commonsense.  It is written for 12—14 year olds, but if you came up through school in the non-grammar days, you need not be ashamed of having a grammatical age of less than that.


1. This is not a complete sentence. It has indeed a subject — ‘you’ and a verb ‘find’, but it is also introduced by what is called a ‘subordinating conjunction’ — ‘where’. Since it has its subject-verb combination, it is more than a phrase; it is a clause. If the complete sentence were: This is the area where you find the greatest concentration of traffic, it would be an adjective clause limiting the meaning of the word (noun) ‘area’.

2. These are exclamations and could be regarded as complete sentences, but they are not the fully expressed grammatical sentences I have been speaking about. There’s no verb in either of them.

3. A complete sentence. The subject is ‘rain’• and the verb ‘will be’. The word ‘there’ is peculiar when you begin to think about it. It does little more than indicate that the verb is going to precede the subject.

4. Not a complete sentence. ‘Winding’ is adjectival. ‘Winding its way up the mountain road’ is an adjective phrase. If you substitute winds’, ‘is winding’, ‘was winding’ or ‘wound’ for ‘winding’, you would have a complete sentence.

5. Similar to 1. But in any sentence in which it might occur almost certainly an adverbial clause of time.

6. Neither subject nor verb here. In the com plete sentence: I am considering taking time off to go to the football match, it would be a noun phrase, the object of the verb ‘am considering’. If the sentence were, I am thinking of taking time off etc., there would be some argument amongst grammarians. They would all agree that it is a noun phrase. Some would say it is the object of the preposition ‘of’; others would say it is wrong to separate ‘of so completely from ‘think’ and that therefore the phrase is the object of ‘think of’. This fine difference need not cause you to lose sleep.

7. Similar to 5.

8. A complete sentence with ‘he’ as the subject And ‘struck’ or ‘struck off as the verb.

9. A complete sentence. Subject: league foot ball; verb: has suffered.

10. Not a complete sentence. It would be com plete if something like this were added

‘will be under the control of the Treasury.’

In such a case there would be a comma after ‘disclosed’. Note, however, that ‘the Government has now disclosed’ is just about as near as you could get to a complete sentence without actually being one.

11. A complete sentence. Subject: he; verb: had. ‘The son of a store-keeper in Plymouth’ might be called an of ‘he’. Compare these two sentences:

Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond series, was a keen golfer.

John Smith, the son of a store-keeper in Plymouth, had an intimate knowledge of the provisioning of ships.

The two phrases after the subject in those sentences are known as ‘noun phrases in apposition to . . .’

Old fashioned grammar would describe ‘the son of a store-keeper in Plymouth’, in the sentence given, also as ‘a noun phrase in apposition to’ the subject of the sentence. There is a suggestion in the sentence about John Smith and the one about ‘he’, however, that his knowledge of the provisioning of ships was connected with the fact that his father was a store-keeper in Plymouth. There is no such direct connection with Ian Fleming’s golfing enthusiasm and his writing of the James Bond novels. The old grammar took no account of that kind of difference. This is one example of the kind of thing that justifies a re-writing of the grammar of English and which also makes some sense of the statement that the rigid application of grammatical rules will not help you either to think or to write more clearly.

12. The word ‘detained’ is adjectival e.g. ‘the detained tourist’, and the whole phrase ‘detained on the charge of illegally crossing the border’ is an adjective phrase limiting the meaning of ‘tourist’. What you have here then is in effect a noun and an adjective; no verb.

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