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Grammar Girl Presents the Ultimate Writing Guide for Students
By Mignon Fogarty, Ewin Haya
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2011 Mignon Fogarty
All rights reserved.
Parts of Speech
IN THESE NEXT few chapters, think of me as your grammar guide, intent on demystifying grammar. I'm a practical person — I've given people batteries and socks as birthday presents. That is what I want to give you, the things everyone will use — the batteries and socks of writing.
In order to do that, we need a common language between the professionals and us. If I quickly spewed out terms like antecedents, future progressive tense, and subjunctive verbs, you'd probably run away screaming, but you do need to know some of these terms and what they mean. I promise to explain these words (and their usefulness) and, if I can, give you other words to use in their place.
To begin, you need to know the parts of speech, the function of different groups of words. In Chapter Two, you'll use this knowledge to put together sentences. After that, punctuation. Then the world is your oyster.
Or your pizza.
I prefer pizza.
A noun is a person, place, or thing. Things can be concrete, like rocks, or abstract ideas, like courage or purpose. Nouns are divided into two types: proper nouns and common nouns.
Proper nouns name specific people, places, or things, such as Grammar Girl, Mississippi River, and Golden Gate Bridge. They are names. On the other hand, common nouns name general people, places, or things. The words girl, river, and bridge aren't capitalized because they are common nouns that don't name any one individual person, place, or thing.
To learn how these general capitalization rules apply to specific words, such as nicknames, planets, seasons, directions, and dog breeds, see Appendix section A-1.
1-2 PLURALS: NOUNS, NOUNS EVERYWHERE
You have one computer, but you'd love another one. Easy — at least on paper. Add an s. Ta-da! You have two computers (or more). Magic!
It's fairly easy to make nouns plural. The last letter or letters of the word determine what you need to do.
Usually, you just add s.
When the word ends in ch, s, sh, x, or z, add es.
When the word ends in y, look at the letter before y. If it's a vowel, add s.
If the letter before y is a consonant, change the y to i and then add es.
Words that end in o don't follow specific rules; some words take an s to become plural and other words take an es to become plural. You have to memorize the spellings.
Making Abbreviations Plural
Add s to make abbreviations plural, but make sure it's a small s, not a capitalized one (and don't use an apostrophe). The rule is the same regardless of whether the abbreviation has periods.
See section 3-34 for how to make single letters plural.
Tricky Nouns: Mouse? Mice? Meese?
With some nouns, you just have to know what the plural is, such as mice (for mouse), teeth (for tooth), deer (for deer), knives (for knife), children (for child), and oxen (for ox). Some of our words retain qualities of Latin or other languages they came from, so their plurals aren't formed in a standard way. Examples include appendices (plural of appendix), phenomena (plural of phenomenon), and bases (plural of basis).
If you're not sure what the plural form of a word is, go to the dictionary. The dictionary is your friend — honest. It will give you the plural of the word if the plural isn't standard.
Check It Out
Rarely, language experts will say you can choose between two acceptable plural forms of a noun. For example, when you're talking about a computer mouse, the plural can be either mice or mouses, and although most people who work with plants prefer the plural cacti, most dictionaries say either cacti or cactuses is fine. Index becomes indices when you're writing about math or science, but in other cases it is usually made plural as indexes; and although buses is the preferred plural of bus, you can also go with busses. When in doubt, check a dictionary. The first plural form listed is the one that is most common.
1-3 VERBS: READY, CAMERA, ACTION
We have our people, places, and things — nouns — established, but they're not doing anything. We have to get those things, people, and ideas moving. Enter the verb! Verbs add movement to your writing. Like nouns, verbs come in different categories.
1-4 TRANSITIVE AND INTRANSITIVE VERBS
The first way you can put verbs in groups is to separate them into transitive and intransitive piles. There's an easy way to remember those names, which I'll get to in a minute.
Transitive verbs take their action on something — the object. If you remove the object from these sentences, they don't make sense:
He will lay the book on the table.
(Lay is the verb; the book is the necessary object.)
She gave the pearl to the wizard.
(Gave is the verb; the pearl is the necessary object.)
Intransitive verbs don't need an object; they can take action all by themselves. No object is necessary in these sentences:
The Quick and Dirty Tip to remember what these names mean is to think of a transitive verb as transferring its action to the object. Both transitive and transfer start with the prefix trans.
Some verbs can be transitive or intransitive depending on how they are used.
They cheered. (intransitive)
They cheered the team. (transitive)
1-5 ACTION VERBS AND LINKING VERBS
The next way you can put verbs into groups is to sort them into action verbs and linking verbs. Action verbs are exactly what they sound like: they describe actions. Verbs such as run, jump, and swim are action verbs.
Linking verbs describe a state of being. The action isn't so rugged, but more thoughtful, connective, or complicated. Linking verbs aren't about actions as much as they are about connecting other words together.
The verb to be is the basic linking verb. The word is is a form of the verb to be. If I say, "Squiggly is yellow," the main purpose of is is to link the word Squiggly with the word yellow.
Other linking verbs include seem, appear, look, become, and verbs that describe senses, such as feel and smell. There are at least sixty linking verbs in the English language.
Of course, it can't be as simple as action versus linking verbs. You wouldn't need me if it were.
The complication is that some verbs — such as the sensing verbs — can be both linking verbs and action verbs. A Quick and Dirty Tip to help you figure out whether you're dealing with a linking or an action verb is to see if you can replace the verb with a form of to be. If so, then it's probably a linking verb.
He smells bad. (He has a bad odor.)
He is bad. (He is ill-behaved.)
In the above sentence, smells is a linking verb because if you replace smells with the word is, the sentence still makes sense. Bad describes the noun he, not the verb smells or is.
Now see what happens when smells is an action verb.
He smells badly. (His nose isn't working.)
He is badly. (This doesn't make sense.)
Replacing smells with is doesn't work, so you know you have an action verb. Badly describes the verb smells, not the noun he.
1-6 VERB TENSES: LIVE FOR TODAY
People say, "Live for today, forget about yesterday, and ignore tomorrow." But if everyone did live in the now, I wouldn't get to invite you to explore the exciting world of verb tenses.
Fortunately, people dwell on the past and plan for the future; history, for example, by definition, happened in the past. Verbs reflect time, which is why we need tenses.
Verbs come in three varieties — present, past, and future. Today, yesterday, and tomorrow.
Kilroy is here.
Kilroy was here.
Kilroy will be here.
But that's not all. Each verb tense can then be spliced into more categories.
Simple — the end of the action is unknown or unimportant. Things are simple when time isn't important.
The captain swims. (simple present)
Perfect — the action has ended or will end; it is complete or will be completed. It starts. It ends. It's known. It's completed. Things are perfect when you know everything about them.
The captain has swum. (present perfect)
Progressive — the action is ongoing, progressing, or will be ongoing; it is continuous. We have no idea when it will end; it's incomplete.
The captain is swimming. (present progressive)
Perfect Progressive — the action progressed for a while before it ended or before it will end.
The captain has been swimming. (present perfect progressive)
For your reading pleasure, here's a handy chart with all the major verb tenses:
These three sentences are all in the simple present tense, but if you consider them, you may notice that they seem different:
I want chocolate. (state present)
Put the chocolate in the bowl. (instantaneous present)
She eats chocolate. (habitual present)
People who describe language, such as the British linguist Randolph Quirk, also noticed that these sentences are different and gave them categories — the names you see next to the sentences.
Simple present tense verbs can describe a state (wanting, thinking, feeling), an instantaneous action (an instruction, a brief action), or a habit — an ongoing or repeated action (sneezing, editing, reading).
Do you need to know the category names to write well? No. But it's fascinating, and being aware of the different categories can keep you from getting confused when you see a simple present tense verb doing something besides its simplest "Jack walks" job.
Since we're talking about tenses, what's up with past tense verbs like drew, went, and flung? They're called irregular verbs. Why aren't the past tense forms drawed, goed, and flinged? Your two-year-old cousin probably thinks they are! That's because kids absorb the rules for forming regular verbs first because regular verbs are the most common verb form.
Regular verbs follow a pattern: you make them past tense by adding d or ed.
Present Tense Past Tense
Irregular verbs don't follow that pattern; they are holdovers from the past. Believe it or not, rules for conjugation (a fancy word for "working the verb") were even more complicated in the olden days. Let's not even talk about it.
Over time, conjugation rules got simpler and most verbs were regularized. Today, English has fewer than two hundred irregular verbs, but they are some of the most common ones you use.
Present Tense Past Tense
See Common Irregular Verbs in Appendix section A-4 for more examples.
1-7 SUBJUNCTIVE VERBS: IF I WERE A RICH GIRL
Most people don't realize it, but verbs can be as moody as cats. Verbs can becommanding (imperative mood), matter-of-fact (indicative mood), or doubtful or wishful (subjunctive mood).
Don't talk to me! (imperative)
Squiggly ate too much. (indicative)
I wish I were a rock star. (subjunctive)
The mood of the verb to be, when you use the phrase I were, is called the subjunctive mood.
Let's talk a bit more about the subjunctive mood, since it's the most confusing mood. Asubjunctive verb is used to communicate such feelings as wishfulness, hopefulness, and imagination — things that aren't real or true. For example, when the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz sings "If I were king of the forest," he is fantasizing about all the things he would do if he were brave. He's not courageous — he's just imagining — so if I were is the correct statement. I were often follows the word if, because if often means you are wishing or imagining.
In a subjunctive sentence, the verb is often also accompanied by a statement using wishful words like would or could.
If Aardvark were famous, his face would be on the one-dollar bill.
Verbals may seem to have been designed to confuse you. Verbals feel like verbs, but they act like something else in a sentence. There are three types of verbals: gerunds, participles, and infinitives. Gerunds act like nouns, participles act like adjectives, and infinitives can act like nouns, adjectives, or adverbs.
If you add ing to the end of a verb and use that word as a noun, it's called a gerund. For example, take the verb act and add ing to get acting. You can use it as the name of a profession — a noun:
Acting isn't as easy as it looks.
Acting is a gerund in that sentence; it functions like a noun. Here are two more sentences with gerunds:
Aardvark'ssingingal most deafened Squiggly.
After you finish this book, you will want everyone to read your writing.
If you add ing to the end of a verb and use that word as an adjective (see section 1-24), then it's called a participle. Let's use acting again.
Actinglessons helped Aardvark land the lead role in the school play.
Acting is a participle in that sentence; it functions like an adjective by describing the noun lessons.
Adding ing to regular verbs makes present participles, and adding d, ed, n, en, or t to regular verbs makes past participles.
The fallen leaves made a striking pattern.
An infinitive is a combination of the word to and a bare form of a verb: to go, to run, to split, and so on.
To act was his secret desire.
(infinitive as noun)
It is his time to shine.
(infinitive as adjective: to shine modifies time)
He sprinted the last 10 yards to secure the win.
(infinitive as adverb: to secure modifies sprinted)
Splitting Infinitives: Splitsville
I know it may come as a surprise, but I, Grammar Girl, am not that adventurous. My idea of fun? Splitting infinitives. Sometimes I split them when I don't have to just because I can. Yeah, that's my idea of fun!
To understand my thrill, you have to know that some people believe it's against the "rules" to split an infinitive. I consider it my calling to dispel that myth.
Blame Latin for the logic behind the 19th-century rule about not splitting infinitives. In Latin there are no two-word infinitives, so it's impossible to split one. Early on, many English teachers decided that because infinitives couldn't be split in Latin, they shouldn't be split in English either.
But notions change over time, and today almost everyone agrees that it is OK to split infinitives, especially when you would have to change the meaning of the sentence or go through writing gymnastics to avoid the split.
Here's an example of a sentence with a split infinitive:
Squiggly decided to quickly remove Aardvark's cats.
In this case, the word quickly splits the infinitive to remove: to quickly remove.
If you try to unsplit the verb, you might actually change the meaning. For example, you might say
Squiggly decided quickly to remove Aardvark's cats.
Now you've left the infinitive intact, but instead of saying that Squiggly quickly removed Aardvark's cats (zip zip) while Aardvark stepped out for a minute, you're saying Squiggly made a decision quickly.
You could rewrite the sentence without the split infinitive and not lose the original meaning.
Squiggly decided to remove Aardvark's cats quickly.
That could be an even better sentence, but from a grammatical standpoint, rewriting isn't necessary.
Excerpted from Grammar Girl Presents the Ultimate Writing Guide for Students by Mignon Fogarty, Ewin Haya. Copyright © 2011 Mignon Fogarty. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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