Grammar is the structure that underlies meaning in language. When, as very young children, we learn our first language, we discover its grammar literally by instinct; our brains are “wired” for this. As adults we may be largely unconscious of this structure, but they remain firmly installed in our minds. Otherwise, we simply couldn’t speak coherently or understand the speech of others.
The purpose of this site is to enable you to acquire a conscious, analytical understanding of the structure of English grammar. Many people are anxious about their writing (and often their speaking) because they think of grammar as consisting of a list of rules too long to remember and too arbitrary or complicated to understand. But once you see how sentences are put together, the rules turn out to be far easier to remember and apply because they are attached to a coherent, and, in fact, rather simple framework.
But well beyond correctness, a conscious knowledge of grammar becomes a kind of comfortable ghost in your mind, helping to sustain your reading and writing. It’s just there, mirroring your instinctual knowledge, so that you can perceive immediately, most times without words, the relationships between sentence components.
The Two Components of Grammar
Grammar has two basic components: syntax (also called sentence structure) and morphology. Syntax (from a Greek word meaning “putting together”) refers to the ways in which words can be combined in sentences. That’s the main subject of this web site. Morphology (from a Greek word meaning “form”) is concerned with word-formation, as in book, books; we, our, us; go, went, gone. Since this site is designed for people who are already fluent speakers of English, I will need to say much less about morphology.
The Syntax section contains eleven pages, designed to be studied in sequence. In these I describe the components of syntax and the ways they interrelate. For anyone who is anxious about studying grammar, I’ve tried to make my explanations clear, easy to follow, and, I hope, pleasurable.
The Reference page contains summaries, in alphabetical order, of the elements discussed on the Syntax pages. In addition, I’ve listed and explained a number of terms used in other studies of grammar, and have supplied details about pronouns, verbs and sentence types.
Working on Syntax
Practice sentences, with answers and notes, are available as free downloads for most of the Syntax pages (there are links at the end of each page). Working on these is to my mind the best way to verify, and actually solidify, your understanding of the material on a page.
Don’t be frustrated if you don’t grasp the material on a page after a single reading. A closely guarded secret of good readers is that they often read things several times in order to understand them and then don’t tell anyone they’ve had to do so.
Ron Rower received his Ph. D. from Columbia University and has taught literature and writing courses for over forty years, in universities and colleges in the United States and Canada. Now retired from teaching, he writes about poetry and is working on an interpretation of fairy tales and their relationship to more sophisticated literary works. He lives in Montreal with his wife, an Australian pianist.
If you have questions or comments about any of the material presented on this site or about anything connected with grammar, please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will respond directly. Questions and responses may be edited and posted if they promise to be of general interest, but no one’s identity or email address will be revealed.
My own understanding of grammar is that of a literary critic and not of a specialist in grammar: that is, it’s solid but not exhaustive. Therefore, during the preparation of this site I frequently consulted two admirable texts: A University Grammar of English, by Randolph Quirk and Sidney Greenbaum (Fifth Impression: Longman, 1976) and The Oxford Companion to the English Language, edited by Tom McArthur (Oxford University Press, 1992).
The design and development of this site is a gift from my good friend Penny Conlon. Anyone who knows anything about web design will appreciate how much work the gift entailed as well as how efficient and elegant the site has turned out to be.