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A sentence is a single complete thought.
I hate fish.
The single complete thought is “I hate fish.”
Now, we’ll make it a bigger sentence:
I hate fish because I break out in a rash.
Still a single thought. Still a sentence. You’re just explaining it a bit more.
You don’t do this:
I hate fish because I break out in a rash and all sorts of terrible things happen because I really hate eating fish and did I tell you about the time I ate a fish and it really turned out badly?
That’s called a run-on sentence and it is terrible. Write your thoughts one at a time, each in their own sentence.
A sentence usually has at least two things: something spoken about and something said about it.
John is being spoken about and ran is what is being said about John.
However, there is such a thing as a one-word sentence, usually used in fiction or casual writing:
Do you like cats? Yes!
He hit the ball. Hard.
Home. That’s how Kansas felt to her.
Let’s talk about paragraphs
A paragraph is a bigger thought than a sentence but is all one thought.
“I hate fish because I break out in a rash when I eat it. One time, I was in Hawaii and ate a fish, and I had to run to the pharmacy to get medication. Let me tell you: I hate fish!”
This is a complete thought on the subject of “disliking fish.” It’s a bigger thought that just “I hate fish.” But it’s all the same idea, and that’s a paragraph. It’s all the same big thought.
Let me show you how it wouldn’t be done:
“I hate fish because I break out in a rash when I eat it. One time I was in Hawaii, and ate a fish, and I had to run to the pharmacy to get medication. Let me tell you: I hate fish! One day I was wearing pants and didn’t like the color. So I decided it had something to do with my dislike of fish. I started only buying pants that were not anywhere near the color of a fish, but then I came to realize, fish come in every color imaginable. So now I don’t wear pants!”
Look at what happened: the reader is completely confused, with two different big thoughts joined together. First, it’s about hating fish, and then, there’s this whole separate idea about pants.
If I had just split the ideas out into two paragraphs, it would have made sense.
I recommend keeping your paragraphs short. Long paragraphs are boring and difficult to follow. Ideally, keep your sentences short as well.
Put a space between your paragraphs
This seems like something very simple, but in emails, I often see paragraphs written without any spaces between them. Just press the big Enter key on your keyboard to make one, nice, fat space between the paragraphs.
Clauses (stay with me here)
You can skip this part, but you might find it helpful.
Simple sentences are good, but sometimes they can be a bit boring. So, we might want to make them more interesting by adding more.
To do this, we join groups of words that are each “mini-sentences,” into one sentence to make a more complex, richer thought.
Each of these groups of words is called a clause. Clause comes from a Latin word meaning “a brief statement.”
Clauses are a source of considerable confusion for people, and that’s not their fault. It’s been made very confusing.
I’m going to try and make it very simple: There are two main types of clauses – those which express their own complete thought, and those which rely on another clause.
Clauses that express their own complete thought are called independent clauses. Clauses which rely on another clause are called dependent clauses.
Let’s start with a simple sentence:
I love cats.
That is a complete thought, but you want to say a bit more. So you add “because they are so cuddly.”
I love cats because they are so cuddly.
“Because they are so cuddly” depends on the other clause. It can’t stand on its own. It’s a dependent clause.
Let’s go back to a simple sentence:
I love bicycles.
In this case, you want to add that you dislike motorcycles. So you add “I dislike motorcycles”:
I love bicycles, but I dislike motorcycles.
These are two independent thoughts, each independent clauses. They can stand on their own. To make the writing understandable, they are joined by a conjunction, a word that joins clauses (the word but).
That’s it. End of lesson. If you want to study more about clauses, get a good grammar book. But I do not want to kill you with this information. I want you to live.
The following is very basic information. But even though it may be taught in school, it’s not well understood by many. So here is a quick look at the basic parts of grammar.
You can skip it if you know your grammar well. You can also skip it if you just don’t care to read it.
Words are like Lego blocks of the language
Words are incredibly cool. The English language is like a giant Lego® set, where you get to choose what parts you want to use to create the effect you want.
Let’s imagine we are back in time, when cavemen were trying to communicate. For example, they wanted to tell each other about someone (Caveman John), what he did (hit), and to what or whom his action was directed (lion).
The caveman hit the lion.
That is a complete, grammatically perfect sentence.
But it’s boring, so the cavemen added a bit more. They added a word to show where the lion was hit (on), and added more about where the action was directed (head).
The caveman hit the lion on the head.
And now that is a perfect sentence, with more added to it.
What if the caveman said this, instead?
On lion caveman head hit on.
It wouldn’t make much sense, would it?
Who said grammar should be confusing? It’s not. You use grammar right now, without even thinking about it.
Words can sound alike but have different meanings. This can make the language confusing. For example, “they’re” sounds like “there.” These confusions are a source of a lot of mistakes.
Words can also be used together to mean something completely different than what you would expect. For example, “give it a shot” means to “try.” These are called idioms and are a source of vast confusion for people, especially foreigners.
How words are used is called the parts of speech. A word can change from one part of speech to another just by the way it’s used in the sentence. For example, in “you run to the store” and “he had a good run,” “run” is being used in two different ways, even though it’s the same word.
So, now let’s look at the parts of speech.
Words are used to name things. These are called nouns
“Noun” comes from a Latin word meaning “name.” Nouns name people, places or things.
fish, house, man, New York.
If you’re naming something specific, you capitalize it.
Tom, Paris, Germany
If it’s not specific, you do not capitalize it:
man, city, country
(Incorrectly capitalizing nouns is a common and very ugly error.)
Nouns can name one thing (singular) or name many things (plural).
boy (singular), boys (plural)
Words can take the place of nouns. These are pronouns
Pronoun comes a Latin word meaning “in place of a noun.”
Pronouns take the place of a noun (words like I, he, him, her, they, or that).
You know all the pronouns. You use them all the time. It’s the word taking the place of a noun in a sentence.
If you didn’t have pronouns, writing would look awkward:
Alex likes cars that Alex can drive fast.
Alex likes cars that he can drive fast.
Different pronouns are used in different situations. Not understanding the pronoun and its different uses is the cause of most major grammar errors. I’ll get into that a bit later.
Words can show action or existence. These are verbs
Verb comes from a Latin word meaning “to speak.” Verbs show action.
swim, love, run
Verbs can also show how something or someone is existing. These are called be verbs because they are all different forms of the word be (be, is, were, am, are, was).
“Hey, how are you?”
“I am okay.”
“Oh good, I was worried that you were not okay.”
Verbs can be used to show that something is happening in the past or present. This is called tense, from a Latin word meaning “time.”
He runs (present).
He ran (past).
To show the future, you add another verb that shows something will happen in the future. Joining two words together creates a compound, which means two or more things combined. So we call it a compound verb:
He will run (future).
I am going to be a rock star (future).
The way a verb changes when it is used in different ways is called conjugation.
Words can give more information. These are adjectives and adverbs
In grammar, “modify” means to give more information about something. Adjectives and adverbs are modifiers – words such as “beautiful,” “ugly,” “fast” or “faster,” used to give more information about another word.
An adjective modifies a noun. An adverb modifies a verb or another adjective, and often ends with “ly.”
Beautiful woman (adjective).
Really beautiful woman (adverb).
She runs fast (adverb).
Adjective comes from a Latin word meaning “added to a noun”; adverb comes from a Latin word meaning “added to a verb.”
Prepositions show relationships
Prepositions are often misunderstood, but they are very simple.
Prepositions show relationship between other words in the sentence. By “relationship” is meant how other words in the sentence are connected to each other.
Is the cup under the table, over the table, or beside the table?
Do you see the idea of relationship there? The cup is related (connected) to the table by being under it, over it, or beside it.
Preposition means “positioned before” because often (but not always), they are placed before the word to which they are showing the relationship.
Words like on, over, under, beside, above, and with are all prepositions.
(Yes, it really is that simple.)
Conjunction comes from a Latin word meaning “joining together.”
Conjunctions join words or groups of words.
If we didn’t have conjunctions, writing would look very awkward.
Bill Tom went to the mall.
Tom went to the mall bought an Xbox.
Heather liked the boat not the car.
Here are the same sentences, with conjunctions:
Bill and Tom went to the mall.
Tom went to the mall and bought an Xbox.
Heather liked the boat, but not the car.
There are different types of conjunctions, such as: and, also, either, or, neither, though, yet, but, however, for, that, because, since, therefore, then, if, and unless.
The word article sounds like something incredibly complicated. But articles are really easy.
Articles are used to communicate whether you’re referring to a specific thing or a general thing.
If it’s a specific thing, it’s called a definite article. If it’s not specific, it’s an indefinite article.
A boy (indefinite article).
An astronaut (indefinite article).
The boy (definite article).
There are only three articles in the entire language: a, an, or the.
An is generally used before words starting with a, e, i, o and u. A is used before words starting with every other letter.
The final part of speech is the interjection, which comes from a Latin word meaning “placed between.” It’s a word (or words) placed in your writing to show emotion. An exclamation mark often follows an interjection, but not always.
Ouch! That hurt!
Whoa! Where did you get that hat?
Oh no. I forgot my homework.
So, the parts of speech are:
And that’s all you have to know for now about the parts of speech.
In grammar, there is the idea of “possession” (ownership), and it’s often misunderstood and leads to major mistakes.
Possession can be actual possession, or the idea of possession.
Bob owns – possesses – the car.
The house’s lights were bright.
The house has lights, but it’s more like the idea of possession.
Some more examples:
His bicycle. Her car. Their house.
There are two ways to show possession: using a pronoun that shows possession (such as his, her, their, your, its); or by using an apostrophe (‘). I will explain apostrophes later in this book.
Not understanding possession is the cause of many embarrassing writing mistakes.
Right now, I just want you to get the idea of possession. Later, I’ll discuss in more detail how to avoid these mistakes.
The subject: who or what is “verbing”
The subject is who or what is doing the action in a sentence. This is a very, very simple concept.
Keep it simple.
Bill went to the mall.
Bill is the subject. Went is the verb.
Since verbs can also show state of existence (the be verbs), you can also have a subject look like this:
Bill is happy.
Bill is the subject. The verb? is.
He had a great time.
She had a better time.
They had a fantastic time.
He, she and they are all subjects in these sentences.
Not understanding what a subject is also causes people to make mistakes. More on that later.
What is doing the action and what is getting the action
This section might be a bit difficult for some. If you can’t get it, don’t worry, as I will give you simple rules later to avoid mistakes. However, it’s worth understanding, so try to follow along with me.
When a noun or pronoun does the action, it’s called the subject. When it’s receiving action, it’s called the object.
Bill hit Tom.
Tom is receiving the action of being hit by Bill. Tom is the object (poor Tom).
Now, certain pronouns are used when receiving action (her, him, it, me, them, us, and you). These are called object pronouns.
Certain pronouns are used when doing action (he, I, it, she, they, we, and you). These are called subject pronouns.
Not understanding this fact will cause you to make silly mistakes. However, you don’t have to learn complicated grammar rules to figure this out. It’s common sense.
Look at this sentence:
Bill hit he.
That looks totally wrong, doesn’t it? You’re using the wrong pronoun. Instead, it should be:
Bill hit him.
John loves I.
“I” is used for subjects, like “I love John.” It is never used as an object.
To make the sentence correct, you would use an object pronoun:
John loves me.
Bill loved her.
Bill hated them.
Not understanding where the action is directed explains why people make this common mistake:
She and him went to the mall.
The wrong pronoun, him, is being used. She and this guy, together, are actually the subject, simply joined by a conjunction.
Him is only used for showing who is receiving an action.
It should be:
She and he went to the mall.
If you understand the idea of the “object” in grammar, you will avoid many mistakes.
But again, if you don’t care or can’t understand this concept, I have some tricks later on that will help you.
This is a basic overview of grammar and will give you a foundation on which to build more knowledge in your own time.
English is, in my opinion, a great language. And understanding where it came from can be helpful. So enjoy this brief and simple history lesson. It’s not vital, so you can skip it. But you might find it useful (and even interesting).
How it all started
Many thousands of years ago, there were tribes of people in a large area east of Turkey. These tribes all spoke a very similar language.
These tribes moved to or invaded places to the east and to the west. To the east, they went into Persia (modern-day Iran) and India, and their language became the basis of the Iranian and Indian languages.
In the west, their language became the basis of almost all of the European languages we speak today. Because it went to Europe and as far east as India, this original language is called “Indo-European” (there’s a map at the end of this book if you’re curious to know more).
You can still see Indo-European in many basic words, such “mother, “father,” “brother.” These words are similar in all major European, Indian and Iranian languages because they share the same roots.
Pretty interesting, eh?
Now, we move up in time and come to English.
English is a German language
Many people don’t realize that English is actually related to German. It’s a Germanic language.
Two thousand years ago, the Romans conquered the island of Britain and took over. They prospered as Romans for about 400 years until the Roman Empire started collapsing.
The fall of the Roman Empire was not a pretty time. Soon, the people of Britain found themselves surrounded by a lot of Germans who had moved into the island (often peacefully, sometimes not so peacefully). These Germans came from northern Germany, and were mostly members of tribes, called the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes.
Over time, these German tribes established seven kingdoms in the area known today as England, which is the southern part of the island of Britain (the northern part being Scotland, and the major western parts being Wales and Cornwall).
The language of the German tribes became Old English, and you wouldn’t understand it if it was heard today. It’s an old form of German.
Now, prior to invading England, these German tribes had picked up Latin words from Romans over hundreds of years of interaction with the Roman Empire. So it may surprise you to learn that many of the Latin words in English are not necessarily from when the Romans conquered England. They were often part of the German language of the tribes that came to England.
These seven German kingdoms lived relatively peacefully, until getting into all sorts of nasty fights with invading Vikings from Denmark, who conquered and started putting Danish words into our language; and then several hundred years later another unfortunate thing happened when a region of France invaded England.
So now the poor Englanders were ruled by French-speaking people, and French became the language of the upper classes in England.
Finally, England threw the bums out after all sorts of nasty conflicts, but now the language had words from French, Danish, and, because England was a Christian country, from the Latin used in church (called Ecclesiastical Latin, which means “church Latin”). And, because England was a trading nation, we continued to pick up words from other cultures, even Arabic (such as “orange” and “scarlet,” both of which come from Arabic).
Then things got even more interesting when England started conquering other countries and words were brought in from wherever the English happened to go.
So it’s a pretty rich language! Interestingly, there are many words in English that have almost the same meaning but have a different “feel,” depending on their source. Words from German feel more “earthy” and “real.” Words from Latin feel more sophisticated. For example, “go” is from German, while “depart” is from Latin. Both mean almost the same thing, but they feel different.
The grammar police
Now, about 400 years ago, the grammar police got involved. They wanted to make rules for this language because it was so non-standard. However, they did something that confused things quite a bit: Because they knew Latin (the language that all well-educated people knew), they put Latin rules of grammar into the language.
In Roman times, the common people spoke Vulgar Latin (vulgar here means “common,” not “nasty”) and the well-educated spoke Classical Latin.
Classical comes from a word meaning “the highest rank,” and Classical Latin was very complicated and definitely the “highest rank” of Latin. The belief at the time was that learning it taught rich young Roman boys how to think. It was really hard.
The normal people didn’t care, as they just went on their happy way and spoke Vulgar Latin. You could, however, immediately tell who was a member of the upper class when they spoke: their speech was a grammatically perfect form of Latin that was very different from Vulgar Latin.
Well, the grammar police forced rules from this complex Classical Latin into English. There is a major problem with this idea. Latin is Latin – a dead language. It’s not English, which is a constantly changing language with a different structure.
Forcing Latin rules into English has made grammar incredibly confusing. English is not Latin: it’s a mixed-up Germanic language – like a mutt dog – that has bits and pieces of many different cultures in it.
Why you still need to understand some grammar
English grammar may sometimes be silly and poorly understood by most. But at least having an understanding of the basics is important. Remember what I said earlier about playing a sport and breaking the rules: you will irritate others. Grammar establishes the basic rules of good speaking and writing, and just like anything with rules, you need to follow them.
However, hopefully I’ve made you feel a little better about having some difficulty with grammar. It’s really not your fault.
Steve Jobs, the leader of Apple Computer, created moans and groans from English teachers across the world when he came up with the marketing slogan “think different.”
To some, it’s a grammatical catastrophe.
However, most people don’t even know why the grammar might be wrong (and it may not be wrong, if you believe Steve Jobs’ explanation, which I cover much later in this book).
Jobs was no fool – he was fairly well educated and knew his grammar. He was just trying to get your attention (and it worked).
The point is not whether or not he did a bad thing. The point is that you should know yourself when the grammar is bad, and if you’re going to make mistakes, at least do them knowing you’re making a mistake.
The problem: People hate grammar
You say “grammar” to someone and they want to run for the hills, because grammar is generally taught so poorly. It’s full of complicated rules that often don’t make much sense. (In the United States, it’s not even “grammar” anymore – it’s often part of a hodgepodge subject called “Language Arts.” I still don’t understand what that term means.)
But what is grammar? The word itself comes from the Greek graphein, meaning “to draw or write.” It’s the rules of writing and speaking.
Grammar should not be intended to make you feel stupid, or to allow someone else to feel smarter than you.
You must write well to do well in this world, whether you’re selling, waiting tables or mowing lawns. If you’re selling, you’d better have a good grasp of the language; if you’re waiting tables, you need to write so that the cook understands the food order; if you’re mowing lawns, you need to be able to send an understandable invoice to your customers so you get paid.
Imagine this: You’re playing a sport and you keep breaking the rules. People will get upset with you. The same goes for the rules of grammar. People who know the rules will get upset, even just a little bit.
But do you need to know grammar?
You need to know a bit of grammar, but there’s a lot of information you don’t need to get started writing well. If you have the basics, you’ll be okay. A lot of good writing is common sense.
I’m not going to pound you to pieces with grammar. I’m going to lead you gently through correcting the biggest mistakes I see regularly and explain why these are very bad mistakes. I’m also going to help you with a bit of “re-education,” to help clean up a lot of junk you may have learned along the way.
Then, as you go along in your life and career, you can look up questions you have online or in books to clarify a point. There’s a lot that I haven’t covered in this book. But that’s not the point of my effort here. My point is to get you working in the right direction, and then leave the rest up to your own ability.
If you have forgotten your basic grammar (and many have), there’s a section in this book that will refresh you.
You acquired this book because you want to be better in some way, and I respect that. So I’m not going to beat you up. I’m going to help you.
This book is written for the average English writer who has difficulty knowing how to write well. It can also be used by students in middle or high school, or for those studying English as a Second Language. That’s why the language in this book is very, very simple.
It is not designed for people who already know how to write well, or for those who already have a solid understanding of the rules of grammar. They might get a book such as The Elements of Style (along with the excellent companion, On Writing Well).
The problem people face these days is that they can get anything they want off the internet, but most reference sources are often too complicated for the average person.
So, I have used simple language throughout this book, with the hope that it is useful to the broadest audience possible. I’ve specifically made things less complicated, and this does mean that I have skipped over some things that people highly educated in grammar will howl over. Well, this is not written for highly educated people. If you are highly educated in grammar, you don’t need this book.
(If you’re adventurous, there is a section at the end of the book where I get into more detail, but I don’t want to lose you along the way with anything complicated.)
I wrote this book because modern-day writing has become terrible. I see many errors in all forms of writing, from simple emails to school papers.
In an online world, you write all the time and are judged by how well you write. You may post a message on Facebook, send a message on a dating site, use email, or write a blog. You don’t want to look poorly educated.
One can suppose that good writing has been lost for a number of reasons. I won’t speculate as to why, although I suspect it has a lot to do with the generally poor state of education these days.
Unfortunately, I can’t teach you how to become a great writer. The best way to learn to write well is to read well-written books (or even magazines and online articles), write a lot, and ask for help when you need it.
I can, however, help you with tips that I learned along the way myself, from stern-faced English teachers, fellow writers, and a lot of study. I love this language, and I’ve spent my life learning about it.
Am I a great writer? Not really. I’m decent, and I still make mistakes myself. I’ve done something, however, that not many people get a chance to do: While I am a professional CEO, I’ve spent a great part of my career doing professional writing. I started my career as a technical and marketing writer and later, became a fairly well-known writer in the online world. One thing I learned early on was to have no shame. I would take anything I had written to the smartest writer I knew and ask him or her tear it to pieces. I learned a lot that way. Practice makes (nearly) perfect.
I hope this books helps you to become a better writer. However, I know that my work is not complete and I’m always looking for feedback. Email me from my website and let me know your thoughts, or where you could use some help. I consider this book a “living document” and will continue to update it from time to time.