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Basic English Grammar For Dummies

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You want to send a letter to your aunt. She is very strict about proper grammar and spelling. This is what you write:

  • Dear Aunt Louise,
  • I wanted I would like I want to thank
  • Thank you for you’re your’
  • Thank you for the presant pressent gift.

By now, the notepaper is a mess, and so are you. If this sounds like your life, you are not alone. Many people struggle when they must write or speak formally. Fortunately, help is on the way. In fact, it is already here, in the book you are reading.

English grammar is not a mystery. It is a set of traditions and patterns of language handed down through the years. Anyone can learn the rules of Standard English. Basic English Grammar For Dummies explains what you need to know. With practice and the information in this book, you can express yourself confidently and correctly. Even Aunt Louise will be pleased!

About This Book

As I wrote this book, I followed For Dummies traditions. I also made some patterns myself. Every time I introduce a grammar term, I italicize and explain it. If I write noun, for example, I tell you a noun is the name of a person, place, thing, or idea. Do not be afraid! In Basic English Grammar For Dummies, I use very few grammar terms. As often as possible, I explain what you need to know in normal, nonteacher language. I also underline some words or phrases that you should pay close attention to.

To help you pick up important points quickly, I frequently place information in lists. Every item in a list begins with a little check mark. The key idea appears in boldface (extra-dark type). Examples illustrate every rule. Keep an eye out for these examples, centered alone on a line. If I mention an idea but do not explain it immediately, I direct you to a chapter that contains more information.

Although this book focuses on grammar, I could not resist throwing in some vocabulary builders. A strong vocabulary makes your writing more interesting. Look for gray boxes, called sidebars, if you want to learn new words. If your vocabulary is already in good shape, ignore the gray boxes and go right to the text.

Foolish Assumptions

I do not know who you are, but I have already spent some time with you — the reader I imagine. When I write, I keep you, the reader, in my mind. I imagine you holding a yellow For Dummies book or an e-reader. This is how I see you:

That is everything I assume about you. Have I described you accurately? I hope so.

Icons Used in This Book

Flip through Basic English Grammar For Dummies. Many little drawings appear in the margin. Those pictures are called icons. Icons alert you in these ways:

tip This icon signals a shortcut or an extra bit of information. A tip is a whisper in your ear, helping you master a grammar rule.

warning This icon tells you where errors often pop up, so you can avoid mistakes.

quickquiz For every topic, you find a few questions labeled with this icon. Take the quizzes to check whether you have mastered the material. Answers follow every quick quiz. (No peeking allowed.)

remember Key ideas appear with this icon.

Beyond the Book

Like me, you probably spend a lot of time on the Internet. I have placed extra material there, to add to what you find on the screen of your e-reader or between the paper covers of Basic English Grammar For Dummies. Here is what you get, all for free:

  • Cheat Sheet: Yes, I know you are honest. You do not cheat on tests or at work. You could use a little help sometimes, though. The Cheat Sheet lists essential information from this book. Print it out and tape it to your desk or put it in your pocket. Glance at the Cheat Sheet at when you want to refresh your memory about key grammar rules.
  • An extra Part of Tens: All For Dummies books, including this one, end with the Part of Tens. Two chapters in this book explain ten ways to improve your writing skills and ten mistakes that wreck your sentences, respectively. You can read an extra Part of Tens online at That one lists ten ways to polish your writing. With this online Part of Tens, you move beyond grammar and into style. You see how to create sophisticated sentences. Like designer clothing, well-made sentences attract positive attention.
  • Articles: I love language, and I have more to say about every topic in this book. Plus, the rules of Standard English are not carved in stone. They are changing right now, adapting to new means of communication such as smartphones, tablets, and the like. Fortunately, the Internet gives me space for in-depth discussions of old grammar rules and reports of new developments. Look for articles that tell you a little bit more about parts of speech, parts of a sentence, new media, and other topics. For example, do you know how to combine words and images for a presentation? Would you like to learn whether to capitalize school years, seasons, and historical eras? Check to find articles on these topics, and more.

Where to Go From Here

You do not have to read Basic English Grammar For Dummies in order. Nor do you have to read the entire book. You can, of course. If you do, you will be my favorite reader.

I realize, however, that you are busy. You probably want to select just what you need. To get started, take a close look at the Table of Contents. Mark off topics that interest or puzzle you. You should also take a look at the table at the end of Chapter 2, which presents common grammar issues and tells you which chapters explain them. Read the chapters you have selected.

Another way to personalize your approach to grammar starts with the quizzes in each chapter. Try some. If you get every question right, feel free to skip that section. (Also, take a moment to pat yourself on the back for a job well done.) If the quiz stumps you, spend some time in that section of the book. Read the explanations, and glance at related material in other chapters.

If you are facing a specific task — a school report or a work presentation, perhaps — turn to Part V. There you find information about common writing formats. Check out the online material, too.

No matter which path you choose to follow through Basic English Grammar For Dummies, you will arrive at the same place. You will be a stronger, more confident writer and speaker.

Part I

Getting Started with Basic English Grammar


webextra For Dummies can help you get started with lots of subjects. Visit to learn more and do more with For Dummies.

In this part …

check.png Identify the elements of proper English.

check.png Explore the format of everyday writing tasks.

check.png Become familiar with common errors.

check.png Learn when breaking the rules of Standard English is acceptable.

check.png See how to take advantage of computer programs that check your spelling and grammar.

Chapter 1

Getting a Grip on Grammar

In This Chapter

arrow Surveying the basic elements of grammar

arrow Watching out for punctuation and spelling

arrow Coping with everyday writing tasks

Lots of people groan when they hear the word grammar. They think that grammar is just a long list of picky rules. Who cares if you say had gone or went? Why worry about the choice between I and me? These issues can seem silly. Wouldn’t it be better to spend time searching for a cancer cure?

Yes, grammar is often picky. Certainly, the world needs more than grammar — much more! Yet proper language does matter. Rightly or wrongly, many people judge your intelligence and ability based on the way you speak and write. Better jobs and higher grades often go to those who follow the rules. In this chapter, you survey key elements of Standard English — grammar, spelling, and much more.

Getting to Know the Elements of Proper English

When you bake a cake, you need all the right ingredients. If you forget one, the cake is tasteless. English has a number of ingredients, too. You cannot ignore any if you wish to express yourself correctly. Here are the ingredients of proper English:

These are the main ingredients that cook up proper English.

Building Language, Block by Block: Parts of Speech

According to one survey, the English language includes more than one million words. All those words can be sorted into one of eight boxes: the parts of speech. Take a look at the Big Eight:

Not every box has the same number of words in it. The interjection container is light. The noun and verb containers are huge. The other boxes fall somewhere in between.

Just to give you an idea how these parts of speech look within a sentence, here are some examples. The parts of speech are underlined and labeled:

You may ask, “Why should anyone bother labeling parts of speech?” Good question! Most of the time, you think about the meaning of a word, not its part of speech. Most of the time, your writing is correct. However, some important grammar rules depend upon knowing the difference between one part of speech and another. For example, an adjective is a word that describes people, places, or things. An adverb is also a description, but it cannot do an adjective’s job.

Take a look at these examples. Pay close attention to the underlined words:

In Part II, you find in-depth information on every part of speech. Well, every part of speech except for interjections. An interjection is a word that briefly comments on the rest of the sentence. Ouch, wow, and oh are interjections. I do not provide in-depth commentary on interjections. They have no depth! They simply add a little interest to your conversation.

tip Every dictionary tells you the part of speech of the word, usually right in front of the definition. Some words may have several labels, because they change their identity in different sentences. For more information on how to understand every part of a dictionary definition, see Chapter 21.

Making Sentences

A judge sentences criminals to prison. There, criminals must follow many rules. You may feel that English sentences are prisons, too. So many rules apply to them! I am just kidding. English sentences are definitely not prisons. They are structures to hold your thoughts. They help your reader pick apart one idea from another. Take a peek at this paragraph:

going to the beach bad idea no pets allowed want take the dog he does not bite you know kind and friendly he is to the park instead

Oh, my! In that paragraph, all the ideas are jumbled together. It resembles a closet with no hangers. The clothes are impossible to find.

Take another look at the same paragraph, this time with proper sentences:

Going to the beach is a bad idea. No pets are allowed. I want to take the dog. He does not bite. You know how kind and friendly he is. We should go to the park instead.

This one is easier to understand, isn’t it? The extra words, capital letters, and punctuation are like hangers. They organize your thoughts into complete sentences. In doing so, they sort out ideas the way hangers sort out clothing.

tip Complete and proper sentences are not always necessary. When you speak with your friends, for instance, you may use half-sentences.

Read this conversation. Imagine that Joe and Barbara are speaking to or texting each other:

These comments work well because Joe and Barbara are not in a formal situation. To find out when formal English is necessary and when conversational English will do, turn to Chapter 2. For more about grammar and texting, see Chapter 18.

When you do want to create grammatically correct sentences, you must pay attention to several issues. The sections that follow briefly show you these issues.

Action or being words

Every sentence has at least one word that expresses action or being. That word is a verb. In these sentences, the verbs are underlined:

  • Candice loves her engagement ring. (loves = action word)
  • Duke ate every dog biscuit in the box. (ate = action word)
  • She will be pleased with your work. (will be = being words)
  • Were the lights on? (Were = being word)

Selecting the right verb form is important. Glance at these examples. Notice the underlined verbs:

  • WRONG: You was wrong.
  • WHY IT IS WRONG: The verb form was does not pair properly with you.
  • RIGHT: You were wrong.
  • WHY IT IS RIGHT: Were is the verb form that matches you. (To learn more about this topic, see Chapter 9.)

  • WRONG: The mayor speaked to voters yesterday.
  • WHY IT IS WRONG: Speaked is not correct in Standard English.
  • RIGHT: The mayor spoke to voters yesterday.
  • WHY IT IS RIGHT: Spoke is the irregular verb form you need in this sentence. (For more information about irregular verb forms, see Chapter 10.)

  • WRONG: John studying for his exam.
  • WHY IT IS WRONG: The verb form studying is not complete.
  • RIGHT: John is studying for his exam.
  • WHY IT IS RIGHT: Now the verb is complete. (See Chapter 9 for more about these verb forms.)

As you see, you can make many mistakes with action and being words. Verbs are complicated! Do not panic. The chapters I mention in the preceding examples explain the rules you must follow.


In a sentence, someone or something does the action or exists in the state of being. That word is the subject. Notice the underlined subjects in these example sentences:

  • Cindy arrived at ten o’clock. (Cindy = subject)
  • We had sandwiches for lunch. (We = subject)
  • The sandwiches were delicious. (sandwiches = subject)
  • Do you like peanut butter? (you = subject)
  • It is smooth and sticky. (It = subject)
  • Jelly and jam go well with peanut butter. (Jelly and jam = subjects)

Most times, you know who or what you want to write about. The subject, in other words, is usually easy to select. When the subject is a pronoun, errors often occur. Examine these examples. The underlined words are important:

  • WRONG: Him and John failed the Latin test.
  • WHY IT IS WRONG: Him cannot be a subject.
  • RIGHT: He and John failed the Latin test.
  • WHY IT IS RIGHT: He is a proper subject.

  • WRONG: Are youse ready?
  • WHY IT IS WRONG: Youse is not the plural of you. Youse is not a Standard English form.
  • RIGHT: Are you ready?
  • WHY IT IS RIGHT: You is Standard English. You is both singular (one) and plural (more than one).

  • WRONG: Us friends should stick together.
  • WHY IT IS WRONG: Us is not a proper subject.
  • RIGHT: We friends should stick together.
  • WHY IT IS RIGHT: We is a proper subject.

Chapter 4 explains which pronouns work as subjects.

Pairing subjects with verbs can also cause trouble. Check these examples. Pay attention to the underlined words:

  • WRONG: Mr. Smith and Ms. Jones has been promoted.
  • WHY IT IS WRONG: Has been promoted pairs up with one person. In this sentence, you have two people, Mr. Smith and Ms. Jones.
  • RIGHT: Mr. Smith and Ms. Jones have been promoted.
  • WHY IT IS RIGHT: The verb have been promoted matches well with Mr. Smith and Ms. Jones. Both are plural (more than one).

  • WRONG: The list of grammar rules are too long.
  • WHY IT IS WRONG: The subject of the sentence is list, a singular word. It cannot pair with are, a plural verb form. Did you focus on rules? Rules is not the subject of this sentence. It is part of a description, of grammar rules.
  • RIGHT: The list of grammar rules is too long.
  • WHY IT IS RIGHT: The singular verb form, is, pairs correctly with the singular subject, list.

To find out more about matching singular subjects to singular verb forms and plural subjects to plural verb forms, check out Chapter 11.

Complements and descriptions

Your thoughts are rich and varied. You want to say more than “Mary is” or “I run.” Some elements, called complements, complete ideas. Take a peek at these example sentences. The complements are underlined:

  • Mary is happy.
  • Deborah mailed the letter.
  • Cathy and Drew are always nervous in the dentist’s office.
  • Give Jean her pizza.
  • Did you tell Barbara the secret?

Usually, complements fall into place correctly. Pronouns can cause problems when they act as complements. (Have you noticed that pronouns are troublemakers?) For more information on complements, check out Chapter 12. To sort out pronouns, see Chapter 4.

Your writing would be very boring without descriptions. Notice the underlined descriptions in these examples:

  • Every morning I run through the park.
  • Pink paint covered the bumpy wall.
  • Silk thread is more expensive than cotton thread.
  • Wind in that area blows the fallen leaves away.
  • The book of speeches helped me prepare for graduation.
  • Singing, the choir entered the church.

As you see, descriptions come in many shapes and sizes. Chapter 6 explains what type of description is best for every situation.

Small but Important: Punctuating, Capitalizing, and Spelling

Punctuation marks, capital letters, and spelling may seem unimportant. Do not overlook these little things, though. They add more to your writing than you may expect. Take punctuation, for example. Some years ago, senators in a state government debated the placement of a comma for several hours. With the comma, the law had one meaning. Without it, the law was completely different! This section gives you an overview of punctuation, capitalization, and spelling.


I once saw a television show in which something similar to this conversation took place:

  • Angel (waving a thick stack of paper): I am writing a book.
  • Angel’s friend (looking at the first page): What is this? I cannot read it. There is no punctuation.
  • Angel: Oh, I will worry about that stuff later.
  • Angel’s friend: I do not think so! You need punctuation now!

Angel’s friend is right. You cannot read without punctuation, the little marks that show the reader where to pause, when someone is speaking, and so on. These are the basic punctuation marks that you should know:

  • Apostrophe: This is a little curved hook above the line. An apostrophe, along with the letter s, shows possession:

    • Ellen’s car (Ellen owns the car.)
    • the boys’ locker room (The locker room belongs to the boys.)
    • my cousin’s shoes (My cousin owns the shoes.)
    • the Vice President’s staff (The staff belongs to the Vice President.)
    • states’ rights (The rights belong to the states.)

    Apostrophes also shorten words:

    • Annie doesn’t ice skate. (Here, doesn’t is short for does not)
    • I’m excited that vacation is finally here. (I’m is short for I am.)
    • Olivia couldn’t go on the roller coaster. (In this sentence, couldn’t is short for could not.)
    • Isn’t that lemonade too cold? (Isn’t is short for is not.)

    To learn more about apostrophes, turn to Chapter 14.

  • Period, question mark, exclamation point: These three punctuation marks signal the end of a sentence. A period is a little dot. It follows a sentence that makes a statement. A question mark is made from a curve and a dot. It follows a sentence that asks a question. An exclamation point is a vertical line and a dot. It shows emphasis — the punctuation mark that shouts. Look at these punctuation marks in action:

    • Mary’s socks are blue. (The period ends the statement.)
    • Are Tim’s shoes blue also? (The question mark ends the question.)
    • No, they are not! (The exclamation point adds emphasis.)

    To learn more about these three important punctuation marks, see Chapter 13.

  • Comma: This little curved hook starts on the line and reaches below. A comma tells the reader to pause. Notice the commas in these sentences:

    • Katie, my friend, is visiting from Chicago.
    • Katie arrived yesterday, but she has to leave tomorrow.
    • Chicago, which is in the state of Illinois, is a large city.
    • Tim, have you ever visited Chicago?

    If you read these sentences aloud, you can hear the short silences that appear at each comma. If commas trouble you, check out Chapter 15.

  • Quotation marks: Quotation marks are pairs of curved marks that appear above the line. Their most common job is to mark off the exact words that someone said or wrote. Notice the quotation marks in these examples:

    • “Be quiet,” said the librarian.
    • The children cried, “We were not very loud.”
    • “In the library,” replied the librarian, “any noise is too loud.”

    To use quotation marks properly, you must follow many rules. Turn to Chapter 16 for everything you need to know about quotation marks.


Have you ever seen a very old piece of writing? Capital letters show up in strange places. The Declaration of Independence is more than 200 years old. In the middle of one sentence, you see a famous phrase:

the pursuit of Happiness

These days, happiness would appear in lowercase (noncapitals). The Founders of the country could place a capital wherever they wanted. You do not have the same freedom. You must follow the rules. Glance at these situations, which require capital letters:

  • Speaker or writer: The pronoun I always refers to the person who is writing. It is always capitalized. Check these examples:

    • When I am asleep, I do not snore.
    • Gene and I love to sail on the lake.
    • Do I have to pay extra for my suitcase?

    By the way, poets sometimes place the pronoun I in lowercase. Poets break rules whenever they wish. Outside of a poem, however, use a capital letter for I.

  • First word in a sentence: A capital letter begins every sentence. The letter serves as a signal that one sentence has ended and another has begun. Read these examples:

    • Nana sings to the baby. She has a terrible voice! The baby does not mind. He loves her anyway.
    • Palm trees grow in my yard. Warm weather suits them. Rain storms water the trees. They require little care.

    tip Are you curious about numbers? You cannot capitalize 22 or 15 or any numeral. So what happens when a number appears at the beginning of a sentence? Good question! The answer is that you should not begin a sentence with a numeral. If you need a number there, use the word:

    • WRONG: 22 people live in that building.
    • RIGHT: Twenty-two people live in that building.
  • Names: I am Geraldine Woods, not geraldine woods. Nearly all names require capital letters. (Some companies choose lowercase letters for products. The iPad is an example of a name that does not begin with a capital letter.)

Of course, these are not the only rules that govern capital letters. Turn to Chapter 17 for more information.


In silly television shows, spell is a magic word. In grammar, spell is also a magic word. Spelling — placing every letter in the right spot — is important. Take a close look at the following paragraph. Can you identify five misspelled words?

Jenny enjoys sewing. She pushs the needle into the cloth with her thum. Tina, who is makeing a new skirt, offen chats with Jenny wen they sew.

Before you check your answers, think for a moment. The preceding paragraph contains proper sentences. It clearly states the facts. Yet it is not a good piece of writing. The misspelled words turn a good paragraph into a bad one. Here are the correctly spelled words: pushes, thumb, making, often, when.

In Chapter 21, you find some rules for English spelling. Unfortunately, many, many English words do not follow those rules. To check your spelling, you may need help from the dictionary. Chapter 21 also explains how to understand and use the dictionary.

tip Many words sound the same but have different spelling and meaning. Other words are nearly alike in appearance or sound, but their definitions are not alike. Check Chapter 22 for help with these confusing words.

Facing Everyday Writing Tasks

Do you spend a lot of time sitting at a desk? If you do, you probably face writing tasks such as these:

When you face an everyday writing task, you should understand the rules and traditions that apply to it. Chapters 18, 19, and 20 tell you everything you need to complete your writing work easily and effectively. Explanations of the newer forms of communication — texts and slide presentations, for example — appear in these chapters also.

tip Sometimes it is fine to bend the rules of grammar and to use informal language. For example, would you send this text to a friend?

Would you accompany me to the cafeteria at your earliest convenience?

Or, is this your reply when your friend asks, “Who’s there?”

It is I.

If you answered “yes,” you probably eat alone and receive very few phone calls. With friends, proper grammar may turn a fun social occasion into something more formal. To find out more about when proper English is required and when you should relax the rules, see Chapter 2.

Chapter 2

Language in Action

In This Chapter

arrow Choosing the correct level of formality

arrow Using computer programs and smartphone apps to improve your writing

arrow Identifying your grammar strengths and weaknesses

English, like every language, has plenty of rules. In some situations, you must follow all the rules. In other situations, you can break a few rules. Yes, I am a grammarian. Even so, I believe that some rules are meant to be broken in some situations.

In this chapter, I explain when proper English is necessary and when it is not. I also explain how to use computer and smartphone programs to improve your command of English. Finally, in this chapter you find a checklist, so you can make a personal grammar improvement plan.