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A Short Course on Some Grammar and Punctuation Basics
Put simply, in order to write clearly and effectively, you have to know what the heck
you are doing with punctuation and the building blocks of the sentence. The “I don’t
know. It just kind of feels right” approach will not take you very far. In order to use
punctuation as a creative tool, you have to understand and be able to recognise “the
parts of speech” and “the parts of a sentence.”
The Basic Parts of Speech
(functional explanations of each appear throughout, but for now …)
animate things (people, animals, insects, etc.), inanimate things (material objects),
places, activities. E.g., Camilla, sledgehammer, Mumbai, murder.
are replacements for nouns. They come in three types/cases:
Subjective or nominative (they name, nom) e.g., I, you, he, she, it, we, they.
Objective or accusative (they stand accused by the subject and verb, poor things) e.g.,
me, you, him, her, it, us, them.
Possessive or genitive (I don’t have any cute way for you to remember “genitive,”
unless you know Latin, but my inclination is to make a joke about Jean Genet, the
French writer, but that wouldn’t help either) e.g., mine, yours, his, her/s, its, our,
their/s. The /s notes that possessives can stand before nouns to indicate possession or
in the place of noun complements. E.g., Those are her bullets v. Those bullets are hers.
words of activity or being which nouns can do or be. E.g., shoots, scores, am, is, have,
am going, will shoot, have gone.
modify nouns. E.g., pretty, tall, independent, rough.
modify verbs. E.g., quickly, slowly, independently, roughly.
indicate the relationship of their object to the rest of the sentence. The relationship is
generally one of time, place, logic, or manner. E.g., on, at, over, under, to, in, by.
indicate, quite literally point to, nouns. They can be definite (the) or indefinite (a, an).
Usually stand-alone exclamations: Ouch! (or nowadays, colloquially, F*&k!, OMG!)
(I’ll also include):
so similar to articles are demonstrative and/or possessive adjectives – e.g., these, those,
any, that, his, her, our.
The Parts of a Sentence
The core of a sentence is known as an independent clause. In its most basic form, it is
made up of a noun subject and an appropriate verb for that noun subject:
Jane goes. (Yes, we are going to have fun with Dick and Jane.)
• Technically, that “verb appropriate to it” is called a predicate, because it
predicates, causes, or quite literally is the action of the noun subject.
From s - v one can build a sentence; for instance, immediately one can add an object:
Jane opens the door.
An object is a noun which is appropriate to the verb (here something that can be
opened) and which makes sense in relation to the subject. (Yes, Jane can open a door.
She is about to slam it shut, too, after she screams obscenities at her brother, Dick ).
• Technically, the object is called the direct object, because it is directly the
thing to which the subject and verb are related. It is not to be confused with the
indirect object, which relates to the direct object and indirectly to the verb, often as a
destination. (Oy, here we go with confusing terminology. )
Jane gave Dick the plans.
The plans are still the thing given, so it is the direct object of the s-v. But the plans are
given to Dick. He becomes the indirect object of the sentence, the object to whom or
which the direct object is given.
To the object of a sentence, one can add what is called technically a complement.
A complement is really just an adjective or something which is adjectival, something
that modifies and otherwise adds description to the object or subject; for instance,
Jane considers Dick incompetent.
(yay, The OC! Just trying to keep it fun )
One can also have a subjective complement:
Jane is sixteen. Jane is pretty. Jane is a girl.
s - v - sc
- v - sc
s - v - sc
Object complements are easy to grasp grammatically. They are really just adjectives
that modify the noun that happens to sit in the position of the grammatical object in the
Subjective complements are similar. They are words (usually adjectives or nouns) that
come after the verb, but which modify the subject of the sentence.
Simple modifier of nouns are called adjectives. When they come before the noun, they
are just plain old adjectives, and lovely for it:
The shiny gun shoots small, steel bullets.
adj - n(s) - v - adj - adj - n(o)
[n(s)=noun subj. n(o)=noun obj]
When the adjective comes after the verb and after the object, it is called a complement,
a subjective complement or an objective complement, depending. Why is this
distinction of before or after worth remembering? Cocktail parties and impressing
your friends with your erudition mainly; however, being able to distinguish between
parts of speech (noun, adjective), and grammatical position and function (subjective
complement, objective complement) is important for being able discern the main
independent clause of a sentence, its constitutive parts, its beginning and end (so
what?), which is in turn important for understanding not only how to build on to that
core, but also for the type of punctuation that is absolutely necessary for that building
Notice that grammatical objects and subjective complements crop up with different
types of verbs. Remember your French, avoir and être, to have and to be? There is a
similar kind of thing in English – to start with, at least. Subjective complements
describe the being of a subject. They can be nouns (girl) or adjectives (pretty) and
modify (further, but importantly, describe) the subject. They aren’t objects on their
own, or at least not direct objects, grammatically speaking, in the sentence. Things
that one can have—candy, eyewear, a million dollar bank account and a villa in
Anguilla—are objects, nouns. Things that one can be—stunning, brilliant, Paris
Hilton’s lover (ick)—are subjective complements.
Complexity: the above doesn’t exhaust the rule. Not every verb, obviously, is
an avoir or an être. “Jane goes,” for instance, in the first sentence. She can
walk, run, give the cop the finger as she drag races in a car she just hot-wired in
the Yorkdale parking lot, and so on.
So, another way that grammarians classify verbs is by calling them transitive or
intransitive. This labeling is used to name how the verb functions in a sentence,
rather than trying to make a pronouncement on the kind of verb or the category of verb
that something is in English. Transitive is a label suggesting that this kind of verb
makes a transition to something else. It makes a transition between the subject and the
object. No surprise, intransitive ones don’t make that transition to the object.
Transitive: takes an object.
Intransitive: doesn’t. It can take something that simply complements the subject or
just take nothing at all. For example,
Jane fled (intransitive)
Jane fled the scene (transitive).
Hey do presto, the same verb becomes either transitive or intransitive depending on
what else follows in the sentence, i.e., whether there is an object or not.
• Taking a Moment to State the Obvious, but I’ll Need it for Later:
Nouns: Yes, yes, “person, place, or thing,” but they can also be a “class, concept,
quality or even an action.”1 “The investigation continued,” for instance. “The
investigation proceeded without a hitch.”
More importantly, as we keep an eye on grammar, nouns can be singular (box) or plural
(boxes, toys) or collective (government, herd, class), which are plural but function
grammatically as singular—just to make you crazy. But think of it this way: if the
plural thing functions as a unit, then it is collective, but singular. “The family is
dysfunctional.” “The herd was lost.” “The whole battalion went AWOL.”
(Yes, British English is different here, but pay it no mind. I’m not trying to be a
rampant North Americanist. It is just that British English is no longer the adopted
international standard. There are only 60 million of them and 332 million North
Americans. We ruuuule, man. Hoo hoo!
Pronouns function grammatically in the same way as nouns, subject or object.
I, you, he, she, it, we, they versus me, you, him, her, it, us, them.
Possessive pronouns are pronouns in the possessive or genitive case. They fall into
Her gun shot through his leg and into their shoulders. They were playing Twister.
Mine yours his
Formal definitions of grammatical terms, when footnoted, are cited or paraphrased from William E.
Messenger and Jan De Bruyn, The Canadian Writer’s Handbook, Second Edition, (Scarborough, ON: PrenticeHall Canada, 1986), in this case, page 33.
The leg shot was mine; the shoulder, yours.
• And would you please notice that none of these has an apostrophe!
• While you are at it, notice that “none” (no one) is a singular noun, so the verb
is singular! Same deal with “each,” “one,” “any” (short for “any(one).”
Nouns can be subjects or objects:
The ball sat on the ledge.
Pronouns can be subjects or indirect objects:
He gave me the test scores.
Verbs: Another name for the verbs when it appears in sentences is “predicate.” Verbs
predicate (make something happen or bring something and another thing necessarily
together). Verbs also have tenses, which have interesting technical names you
probably won’t remember:
Jane drives quickly
Jane drove quickly
Jane will drive quickly tomorrow
Jane is going to drive quickly
Jane is driving now
Jane was driving
Jane has driven
Jane had driven
Jane will have driven
Jane is going to have driven
Jane has been driving
Jane had been driving
Jane will be driving tomorrow
Jane is going to be driving
Future Perfect Progressive
Jane will have been driving
Jane is going to have been
Perhaps the following kind of horribly cheap logic and grouping works well enough:
simple, complex, and mess.
Why would I ever say it this way? Because most of you can conjugate verbs in all
these tenses without knowing the names. Fine. Knowing that they are in the present,
past or future is the first important thing; however, recognizing that verbs can have
one, two, or a few parts to them is probably the more important thing for figuring out
punctuation and more complex structures, such as subordination, verb phrases, etc.
(which we’ll get to, below). For now, and at risk of being an English prof who is
teaching you totally incorrect but potentially useful things …
simple (I drive).
Complex (I am driving)
simple (I went).
Complex (I had gone).
Mess (She had to have gone)
simple (I will).
Complex (I will fly).
Mess (I will have flown [by tomorrow]).
A tense distinguished by the presence of modals or modal auxiliaries, indicating, as the
name suggests, a different mode for each verb. These are the would, could, should
types: I would go, if … I could have gone, but … We might be going later. I can go.
The complex tenses (Jane is driving, for instance), modals (Jane could drive), and the
total messes of something like the future perfect progressive (Jane is going to have
been driving) underscore that verbs can have lots of parts. They have participles and
Present Participle: driving, as in I am driving.
pushed, as in I pushed or I had pushed the car.
What, then, is the difference between the simple past and the past participle? Nothing,
ultimately, but the participle becomes more recognisable when you get into the more
complex and messed up tenses: I had pushed. It had to have been pushed.
The participle is the action part of the verb. So what is the other part?
It is the auxiliary.
I am going
s - aux - participle
We had gone
s - aux - participle
It had to have
s - aux - infinitive - participle
The three reasons that I am mentioning auxiliaries and participles are these:
1) when looking for s – v structures, whether of independent or dependent clauses, or
when trying to figuring out whether something is a verb phrase or a full clause, don’t
forget to include the auxiliary when searching for the verb;
2) the auxiliary is part of your clue for figuring out the tense in which you are writing.
And why do you want to figure that out? So that you can keep all the verbs of your
various clauses and phrases of the same sentence and between sentences in the same
3) the participle on its own, without an auxiliary, can form certain types of phrases.
On the one hand, recognising the participle is one potential clue for recognizing
whether you are looking at a phrase or a clause; and on the other hand, recognising
whether you are looking at a clause or a phrase makes a difference with sentence
structure and punctuation. More on that, below.
A Further Note on Tense: Parallelism
When you expand the basic s – v into a more complex sentence with multiple verbs,
different phrases, etc., you need to make sure that the verbs for a subject stay in the
same tense and same form. This is known as verb parallelism:
Jane puts up her hand, answers the teacher’s question, then gloats as her rivals
When you are using a complex verb form, generally the auxiliaries and modals are
mentioned once at the beginning of a series of verbs and thus govern all of them:
We would have been driving to the airport tomorrow, checking our bags, and
flying off to Aruba with our lottery winnings, had the police not tracked us
down and charged us with the robbery of the bank on Main Street.
These occur when a participle is used as an adjective in a sentence and thus
describes a noun:
Suddenly finding herself alone in the Legislature, Jane grabbed the Mace,
- participle -
thus participial phrase
] [ s -
which is an object that has to be present for Parliament to convene.
+ dep cl
Notice that the participial phrase is in a subordinate position to the main, independent
FYI: when participles don’t just modify a noun but actually become the noun subject,
then they are called gerunds. Nice, whatever, I know. But the larger point about
participles and gerunds will come later on, when I deal with punctuation and sentence
errors. Enter the famous dangling participle and dangling gerund. But more on that
below, simply grouped under “dangling modifiers.”
These are the things that drive learners of English as a second language around the
bend, because the correct selection of prepositions in relation to verbs and nouns
appears to have no logic other than whimsy or, more politely, convention. And,
truthfully, idiomatic usage is the large part of what governs preposition selection.
Prepositions are linking words or structural connectors. Coming after a verb or noun,
they introduce the answer to questions, such as “where?” “which? “what?” “whom?”
to the car wash.
The man in the booth looked at Dick with a piercing glance and wondered
whether Dick was the boyfriend of Jane or the brother.
correlative conj (cc) v
“In the booth” and “at Dick” are what are called prepositional phrases, of which you
will see more, below, when we deal with phrases v. clauses. The nouns, “booth” and
“Dick,” become the objects of the preposition in the sentence. Notice that “in the
booth” relates to the subject of the sentence, “man.”
When the prepositional phrase modifies a noun, it is termed adjectival. Adjectives
When the prepositional phrase modifies a verb, it is termed adverbial. The
prepositional phrase “at Dick” is adverbial because it modifies where one “looked.”
Partial List of Common Prepositions2
Messenger and De Bruyn, 123.
on top of
Notice: prepositions are not only single words. They can be compounds. For
instance, as “in” is a preposition, so “in front of” and “in order to” and “in
relation to” can also be prepositions. I have tended to include the root or
governing preposition in this list, such as “in,” which takes the lion’s share of
combinations, but not all the compounds individually.
Question: Is it correct or incorrect to end a sentence with a preposition?
Answer: It depends on your anxieties about formality, which people
sometimes dissolve into issues of class, and whether you want to claim more
influence and importance to the Anglo or the Saxon roots of English.
I grew up with a whole passel of folks who would scream across the school cafetorium,
“Barry and I are skipping chemistry and going to Sunshine’s for potato skins. Do you
want to (pronounced: djawanna) come with?” As “being cool,” which was
synonymous with “being one of the gang,” was the seat of all my anxieties (I’m over
it!), I figured that I should emulate such speech, only to be severely reprimanded at
home: “From where do you come, young man, the Shtetl?” (a Shtetl is the Yiddish
name for a village in eastern Europe. No opera, no ballet, no paved roads. Just a lot of
who-knows-what? Hay and mud and various things eschewed in our modern North
American culture of assimilation).
In German, the Saxon root of English, prepositions often do go at the end of a
sentence: “Kommen sie mit?” “Are you coming with?” The “me” or “us” is implied
and the verb is “mitkommen”. In English, and particularly upper-class English, the
pronoun had to be filled in and was in a sense fused to the preposition as a unit: “Are
you coming with us?” “With whom are you going?” “This is the restaurant about
which I was telling you, and these are the potato skins about which people are
raving”—to which one could also add, “and here is 19th-century corset into which I
have laced my speech,” also known as “here is the steel rod which is stuck up my youknow-what.” Tone and formality ultimately guide whether to end or not to end a
sentence with a preposition in your writing.
Expanding the Basic Sentence
Adjectives modify nouns:
Pretty Jane drives. Girlish-by-design Jane drives a pink Barbie-car.
Adverbs modify verbs:
Jane drives quickly.
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