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 second nature, 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, enjoyable.
The Correctness and Punctuation sections are there to support your writing.
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 (or assume that everyone already does this).
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, and editorial assistance for this site is a gift from my good friend Penelope 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.
Hi Dr. Rower,
I have a quick question for you.
I’m trying to understand how the independent clause “the mayor took the oath of office” is being modified by the dependent clause “two days after he won the election.” In particular, what function does “two days” play in the following sentence.
Here is the sentence. Two days after he won the election, the mayor took the oath of office. What I’m not certain about is if “two days” is an adverbial noun modifying the verb took with “after he won the election” then modifying “two days”, or are they both modifying the verb separately. If you omit “two days” the sentence structure is clear.
In the following sentence, are two days being modified by after he won the election, or are
Hi, John, Your first alternative is correct. Regards, Dr Ron
Thank you sir,for your great effort, which you have taken to enlighten the others to improve knowledge.
From Sri Lanka
You are welcome, Sirimewan. I’m glad you found the site.
Hi Ron, It’s Marguerite from 1969 — Spadina Avenue, Alan and Clare, etc.
I don’t do Facebook, but it was super cool to find you on the web. I was just writing about Thanksgiving in Brazil, and it flew through my mind that you had said something about “the real Thanksgiving”, (referring to the US version — and I bristled).
I’ve been living in Sweden for over thirty years now — teach English at Volvo Trucks — fly airplanes with my boyfriend.
Those were fun days on Spadina — full of new adventures for a kid from Richmond Hill, and I’m happy to notice that you’re still living in Canada. Good choice! These are scary times.
Dropped by Alan’s a couple of years ago (my cool nephew lives in Kensington)– he was till living on Willcocks in Toronto! Not too mobile, but pretty much his old self, otherwise.
Dear Dr Ron Rower,
I stumbled on your website last night. I found that it is a detailed, insightful, and thought-provoking website. It is truly a treasure trove. You are truly passionate about teaching grammar. I think that I have found Nirvana when in it come to learn more about English grammar. That being said, I am a Native English speaker from the United States, specifically Florida, and I have a degree in Linguistics. Anyhow, I want to run this by you; I have stumbled on this book, Words on Words: A Dictionary for Writers and Others who Care about Words by the late John Brenner, a couple of years ago at the library of my alma mater: Florida Atlantic University. In a section of his book, he classifies five types of the sentences(the four we know): simple, compound, complex, compound-complex, and complex-complex sentence. That being said, I am happy to say that I now own a copy of the book, Words on Words written by the late John B. Bremner, which was extremely extremely affordable. I love his entry on sentences that I have decided to put the whole entry(including complex-complex sentence) here below and see what you think of it.This topic should be discussed, shared or spread in the grammar and linguistic communities and/or circles because I do believe that the late John Bremner has a very compelling case in introducing a complex-complex sentence. I say this because I have seen evidences of these types of sentences in books. I have always wanted to construct sentences like these. It is good to know that there is a name for such construction. It is safe to say that John Bremner was the only one(so far) to have identified it, described it and put it in his book. Almost all grammarians and linguists are not aware of this sentence construction or type. I can attest to that. Also, it does shed light on the fact that there is so much to learn about the grammar of the English language or any languages for that matter. I love it!!!
From John Bremner’s book:
A sentence is a grammatical unit that conveys a complete thought and contains a subject and a predicate, either or both of which may be understated but understood. Sentences are principally classified as simple, compound, complex, compound-complex, complex-complex. Thus:
-A simple sentence consists of one independent clause: “He knows almost nothing.”
-A compound sentence consists of two or more independent clauses connected by a coordinating conjunction: “He knows almost nothing and he doesn’t want to study.” and “He knows almost nothing and he doesn’t want to study but he may change.”
-A complex sentence consists of an independent clause and one or more dependent clauses: “He knows almost nothing because he refuses to study.” and “Because he refuses to study, he doesn’t know he should.”
-A compound-complex sentence consists of two or independent clauses and one or more dependent clauses: “He knows that he should study but he doesn’t want to.” and “He knows that he should study but he doesn’t think that he has a chance of passing.”
-A complex-complex sentence consists of an independent clause and a dependent clause that is subordinate to another dependent clause: “He got mad when I told him that he should study.”
I do have to mention or point out that the late John Bremner had forgotten to put commas around the coordinating conjunctions in the compound sentence examples and compound-complex sentence examples. I do not know if he did that intentionally or mistakenly.
Before I had this book in my possession, I attempted to create a complex-complex sentence and here is what I came up with: “Now, the popular kids were pursuing those that once pursued them that they had rejected in the past.”
I ran this sentence by people who are grammar experts like you, Nancy Sullivan, who is the author of Essential Grammar, who said that the second dependent clause of my sentence”that they had rejected in the past” was awkward because she was trying to figure out which clause it was modifying. She created her own version:
-“Now, the boy was buying cars that needed parts that were difficult to find.”
And Diane Larsen-Freeman, who is one of the co-authors of the book, The Grammar Book. She too constructed her own complex-complex sentence:
-“The thief stole the car that was parked near the stadium where the World Series is being played.
Here is one created by Peter Master, author of Systems in English Grammar:
-“When John was a student taking courses at the university from which all his family members had graduated, he met a woman whom he had first seen from the dormitory window one night as the moon was coming up over the quad.”
I also saw another example of a complex-complex sentence from a forum:
-“The man who saw the horse that was grazing in the field was sitting on the fence that enclosed the farm.”
Here is another example of a complex-complex sentence that another grammar expert provided for me, which contains an independent clause with a relative clause subordinated to a nominal clause subordinated to an adverbial clause(independent clause + adjective(relative) clause + noun(nominal) clause + adverbial clause):
-“I understood them clearly when they said that they would stop any cars that did not display a permit.”
I want to know what you think of this and is it possible for you to create your own complex-complex sentence(s) based on your understanding of it?
Could you also construct one that would contain all three of the dependent clauses: Noun clause, Adjective clause and Adverbial clause?
You are probably a very busy person, so take your time in answering them if can. I am not trying to pressure you. Also, feel free to share this with other people.
Let me know what you think. I hope to hear from you.
I do have other grammar questions to ask you, but I’ll start with this one.
Hi, Caleb, Sorry to be so very long in answering: the site had been hacked. I see no reason to identify sentences as “complex/complex”: you can fit any number of subordinate clauses in a complex sentence. Regards, Dr Ron
Excellent site, Ron. I remember from the old days your interest in grammar.
I can’t adequately express how happy I am to have found your website. I am just beginning my search for tools to help me master (or at least greatly improve) my grammar, and I think I just hit pay dirt!
Hi David, as the administrator of this site, I’m so pleased that you’ve found it helpful. Ron is delighted also. Thank you for letting us know.