A Crash Course in GrammarbyKillerMuffin©
"I can't write." I see and hear that a lot from the widest variety of people. They don't like it or they "can't" do it. College students are the worst. After public speaking, expository writing has got to be the most hated class. There's a simple reason why. Once something has been written down someone else comes along and puts red marks all over the page. At least that's the way it's been since we all signed up for Kindergarten. It always seems to be wrong. Our grammar that is.
English grammar is, by international consensus, the worst grammar to get a handle on. It's hopelessly complicated and even more intricate. Most languages follow a tried and true formula. You put the subject of the sentence in first, then you add the object, and then you slap on the verb. You're done. Compounding is done by a nice series of "ands" or "buts." English, well, we have to do things the hard way.
Part of the problem with English is that we don't really understand our own grammar. I don't know how they do things in places where English isn't around to torture people, but around here, they just don't teach grammar well. It's difficult, darn it. It's not fun either. If you had someone write up a list of mind-numbingly boring things, grammar would be in the top three. If you'd rather be sticking your pencil through your eyeballs, you're not going to pay much attention when they're throwing words like "modifiers" and "clauses" at you. What in the heck is a "dangling participle" and who cares unless it's attached to somebody's body?
If grammar wasn't so important I wouldn't be bringing all of this up. People stuck with English as the language have to use it whether they like it or not. Face it, if you don't have some sort of grammar you're either completely incomprehensible or, worse, considered stupid. The key to using grammar with confidence is to understand grammar. Oh don't sink down in your chair and make gagging noises, it's not that bad, really.
So, what's grammar? It's the recognized conventions in stringing words together to form a spoken or written thought. Okay, one more time in English. Grammar is the vehicle that you use to make people understand what you're saying to them. Okay, okay, you try to make people understand what you're saying to them.
The good news is that English grammar is relatively simple. Yeah, yeah, I know I said it was hopelessly complex, but that was just so you'd nod your head and think, "yeah, this chick knows what she's talking about!" Really. It has a few basic principles that never change and that's where understanding should begin.
Grammar is really like a car. You've got a few things involved in a car, you've got a driver, an engine, passengers and the junk on the floorboards, your radio, and a few other cool accessories. Grammar has a few things involved with it, too. It's got a subject doing the driving, a predicate powering the sentence, an object along for the ride, and some really cool modifiers like adjectives and adverbs that really accessorize your ride.
The first big thing is the subject. That's what your sentence is about. Usually we call this a noun, but sometimes it can be a noun phrase. What's the difference? A noun is one word a noun phrase is two or more. Jimbo and Bubba or students, teachers, and lunch ladies. You get the idea. This is the driver of your little vehicle. Your subject decides where to go and turns the wheel so that the engine and everything else along for the ride cruise around in an understandable and hopefully legal way. Speeding is a bad thing. Especially when there's a nice police officer behind you. This part is easy, you got a handle on that. Subject, noun, yeah!
The next one is a little harder. It's called a predicate. No, don't beat your head on the desk yet, there's another word involved. Verb. A predicate is always made up of at least one verb. Not all verbs are predicates, mind you, but all predicates are verbs. This is your powertrain. It's the engine and transmission of your sentence. It's the powerhouse because it does all of the action. Exactly! A predicate is the action part of the sentence. It's also the transmission, too. You know in a car the transmission harnesses the engine's power and directs how it's transmitted to the wheels. You've got first gear when you need a lot of torque and power. You've got like overdrive when you need to cruise down the highway at high speeds and you don't need a lot of power to keep you moving because the laws of physics are already doing that for you. A predicate works the same way. It sets the tone of your sentence. It can have a lot of raw power, pure torque running to the axles. Orlando strode inside and took his seat. Or it can just hum along and not do a whole lot. Orlando slunk inside and slumped in his chair.. All you have to do to harness the power of your engine is pick your predicate with some thought to its tone.
Sometimes you want to run down to the local watering hole and drag your buddies with you. Or you just never clean the floorboards and you accumulate a mound of, well, let's just call it cargo. Your sentences do the same thing. Lazy bastards. We call this cargo an object. Not because it's made up of objects– yuck, have you looked at the floor mats?-- but because in your sentence the object receives some action. Not that kind of action. It receives whatever action the verb is doing. You know, like Orlando threw the chair. Orlando is the driver. Threw is the engine. Chair is the guy in the passenger seat who keeps stiffing you on gas. Chair is the object of the sentence that received the action, threw, from the subject, Orlando. Orlando drove the car, threw was the engine that moved it, and chair was the cheapskate pal you keep driving around town. Easy, right? Well, sometimes the object isn't just a single word. It can be a phrase. Objects are generally always nouns. Orlando can throw a chair, a desk, and his books.
Now we get to the cool stuff. Now we take your ride and we modify it. Add a system, a moon roof, some racing slicks, some window tint and you've got a fabulous sentence. What? You think I'm going to do that stuff for your car? There's tons of modifiers that you can use to tweak your sentence, but I'm only going to deal with three different kinds. You've got adjectives, adverbs, and prepositional phrases. Have you heard of those words before?
Adjectives are those things that make the driver comfortable. The leather bucket seats, the leather wrapped steering wheel cover, the cool sunglasses. Adjectives modify nouns. That means they change nouns a little bit. You can have a student or you can have a sleeping student. It's the same noun, but the second one was modified a little, something more in line with reality, right? Now you can have the leather bucket seats of adjectives or you can have a seat cover that keeps sliding down. The luxury adjectives are the phrases. An adjectival phrase is a group of words that you slip in front of a noun to modify it. She has champagne taste and he has an eat at McDonald's budget. Or you can bypass the leather and go for a vinyl bench seat special. She has expensive taste and he has a cheap budget. I think you can see the difference.
Adverbs are the meat of your modifiers. Everyone has heard of an adjective and they usually know what they do. Most people have heard of adverbs, but couldn't spot one without a sign. An adverb is a word that modifies everything but a noun. Usually they end in -ly. Here's a few examples, see if you can pick out the adverb. Slowly drifting clouds. Screamed loudly. Adverbs add the music to your grammar. Now you can pick what kind of system you want in your vehicle. You can run the top of the line Blaupunkt with more watts per channel than the sun puts out, or you can pick the AM radio and listen to Lawrence Welk. She screamed loudly. Yawn. She screamed glass-breaking, ear-drum piercing loudly. A little better. Your choice in tunes, 10-CD disc changer or an 8 track.
Now prepositions are where the rubber meets the road. They tell your sentence where it's being driven. On, over, to, after, in, of, under, at, or any one of a dozen places in relation to the road. Prepositions are extremely easy to understand because you've got two parts to it. The preposition itself, which is merely the beginning word that indicates the position of the following word. It'll make more sense in a minute. Then there's the object of the preposition. It's not the same thing as the object of the whole sentence. The object of the preposition is just the word that indicates what we're in relation to. Like a good tire, preposition are imperative to keeping your sentence on the road. See, prepositional phrase: on the road. Cool huh?
Some cars you share the road with are huge. You've got SUVs, trucks, and those monstrous 18-wheelers that blow past you in a rush of diesel stench. Compound sentences are the big diesels of the grammar world. You've got a 500 cat engine lugging up to 80,000 pounds of cargo down the road at 70 miles an hour; you might want to know a little bit about it. A compound sentence is exactly what the word implies, more than one. I went to the store and bought some film. That's a simplistic compound sentence. You've got the driver, "I," and two engines, "went" and "bought." There's a lot more to it than that, of course, but a compound sentence is a sentence and a phrase or another sentence hitched together with a conjunction of some sort. Our fifth wheel in the previous case was a word "and." Sometimes we use punctuation. Now punctuation can get a little tricky. If you slap together a complete sentence and a phrase you can use a comma to do it. I am a gorgeous, incredibly smart woman, noticeably vain, too. Noticeably vain is what we call a dependent clause or a phrase. It needs to have the first part of the sentence in order to make sense. Now if you slap together two complete sentences, we call those independent clauses, then you have to use a conjunction or a semi-colon. It looks cool, but a comma is wrong. Like when a tire blows off a big rig and slams into someone's windshield, a comma splice is bad news. I am such an egotistical woman; everyone loves me anyway. Easy, right? Just look to see how many complete sentences you have and you'll know whether or not to use a comma or a semi-colon.
In the space of a few minutes I gave you a crash course in how to drive a car. Whoops. I mean in how to use basic English grammar. It's not nearly as hard as English teachers make it out to be. Who ever diagrammed a sentence in real life anyway? My boss never once said Muffin, copy these, file these, mail these, and diagram these sentences by two o'clock or you're fired. Understanding what you're using is a good way to begin understanding how to use it. Now, there's a lot more to grammar and punctuation, but the basics aren't that hard at all. We only have three basic parts to a sentence, the subject, the predicate, and the object. We have a few things to spiffy up the sentence so maybe you can sell it to a used car lot for more than a few hundred bucks. Modifiers are good for making things look classy. We also have the ability to slap sentences together and make them compound. Otherwise "See Dick Run" would be classical literature.
And if Mrs. Sullivan is reading this, you don't know me, I wasn't in your class, and I'm not even from your state. I'm from, er, New Zealand. Yeah. It's great down here.