fundamental principles of grammar in English
and spoken English
the essential principles of successful communication
While there are plenty of detailed rules of English grammar (see
Grammar rules index
, there are actually five absolutely fundamental
principles that must be understood and observed if one wishes to
and unambiguously in English.
Whether one is writing English or speaking English, the same
principles apply, though not always in the same way. Correct
use of English depends on observing these principles.
five key principles
1. Principles of word order
2. Principles of punctuation
3. Principles of tense and aspect
4. Use of Determiners
5. Use of Connectors
Word order is the most important element of what is known as syntax
. English is an "analytic language
; this means that it does
not use a
lot of word endings to indicate the relation between words. The
relation between words is
principally determined by the order in which they are placed. The most
fundamental rule is that in a basic declarative statement, the subject
comes first; it is followed by the verb, and then by the objects and
adverbial phrases, if there are any.
1A1. My friend is reading a good book
1B1 The policeman was giving instructions to a man
in a small car.
we change the word order, obviously we change the meanings of the
sentences. In these next examples, the change of meaning is extremely
1A2. My good friend George is
a book by Orwell
1A3. My good friend is reading George
1B2. The policeman was giving instructions to a small man
in a car.
was giving instructions to a man .
examples in which the original word order has been changed are still
completely grammatical, and use identical words. They also still have
meaning and are still logical sentences. So the fact that they are
still grammatical, logical and unambiguous demonstrates that in these
examples, word order is a vital factor for interpreting the meaning of
Most often, changing the order of words
in a sentence will not produce another meaningful statement; it will
produce ambiguity or nonsense. Communication is therefore impossible.
good Orwell book is reading by my
a policeman instructions in small to a man giving .
Punctuation is another main element of syntax. In
punctuation takes the form of a number of
"punctuation marks" that are used in many different languages. In
written English, the essential marks of punctuation are , .
; : ? !
In spoken English
punctuation is indicated by the means of
pauses, stressed words
, and inflexions
of the voice (intonation).
In very simple declarative statements, punctuation is not usually
essential to the understanding of the statement. But as soon as the
statement becomes even a little bit complex, punctuation may be vital.
The examples below illustrate this.
2A1. My brother is called John
2B21 Let's eat Grandma !
2B22 Let's eat, Grandma !
2B31 Doctor I have problems with eating
sore feet and hair falling out.
2B32 Doctor I have problems with eating, sore
feet, and hair falling out.
2B41 People, who live in
London, are often very stressed.
who live in London are often very stressed.
2B51 He's won first prize !
2B52 He's won first prize ?
above (2A1) does not need
punctuation. It is understandable without it, as in the example.
However when it is written with correct syntax, it requires a full stop
(British English) or a period (American English) at the end of the
2 - 5
, some punctuation - a comma or
a question mark - is essential. Example 2B21 would only be said by a
cannibal ! Example 2B22 could be said by anyone who is having dinner
with their Grandma. The differences implied by the presence or absence
of a comma in Examples 2B3 and 2B5 should be evident. As for
examples 2B4, the
first example is just incorrect. It implies that all people live in
London, which is not true.
are the most import parameters applying to verbs
and verbs are fundamental to all statements. A verb is the only type of
word that can stand as a meaningful sentence in its own right (i.e. out
of context). For example, you can say "Look
out of any context, and people will understand what you mean.
situate a statement in its time context. They
a statement is
referring to past time, present time or future time (Examples
3A11 - 3A13), and if the statement is referring to a single instant
action, a repeated or regular action (3B21) , or a progressive or
ongoing state or action (3B22) . Referring to past time, verb forms
also distinguish between historic action (the preterite - 3B31) and the
way in which a past action defines the present state or situation
(present perfect - 3B32). There are other parameters concerning the use
of verbs, notably voice mood and modality; but tense and aspect are the
3A11. I am a student at
3A12 I was a student at Oxford
3A13 I will be a student at Oxford.
3B21 He eats fish and chips !
3B22 He's eating fish and chips !
3B31 I saw that film yesterday.
3B32 I've seen that film.
are used in conjunction with nouns
In English sentences, nouns do not
often stand alone; and a noun standing by itself is pretty meaningless.
To check this for yourself, just say "Car
to someone !
there is a pre-defined context, the word "Car" by itself is almost
meaningless (unlike the word "Look
section 3 above). It needs to be "determined".
" to someone out of any context, you will
perhaps get the
reply. "What car?
" or "Which car?
or even "How many ?
reply now has meaning, as the word car
is defined by an interrogative determiner. You may now reply,
using a variety of different determiners or determining phrases, as in
these examples :
4A My car !
4B That car !
4C The car over there !
4D A car with a powerful engine.
4E Five !
correct use of determiners is vital for forming meaningful statements
or questions. There are several different types of determiner.
Connectors are the vital link words
that relate words
to each other.
is a unit of words that has no meaning when used out of context,
example the day before
or with help from
is a unit of words that conveys meaning, because it contains a subject
and a predicate
A simple sentence is a clause; a complex sentence will
contain more than one clause. Examples: I like
or He drank too
can express three different types of relation between the units that
they link. These can be relations of coordination
is a relation between words, phrases
expressed with coordinating conjunctions, notably and, but,
is a relation between clauses
that is expressed through the use of subordinating conjunctions,
relative pronouns, and some subordinating adverbs ; for
example because, if, although, who, when, that
is expressed through the use of correlating conjunctions, notably either...
or both... and
strawberries and cream
5B I like strawberries and
cream, but I don't like fish and chips.
Examples of subordination:
tea because he's British.
I know a singer who lives in London
He told the policeman that he'd lost
all his money.
Examples of correlation:
choose either the red one or the blue one
Either we wait till it stops
raining, or we go now.
correct use of connectors is vital for establishing the hierarchy and
the relation between the different units in a chain of clauses (for
instance a document or a speech.)
These five key principles of grammar provide the fundamental
for the production of coherent grammatical and unambiguous English.
They are, as it
were, the fundamental principles that must be mastered in order to
write or speak English in a way that can be recognised as
"English". In this respect, they are just a start; but they are the
foundation on which most of the other rules of English grammar - the
rules of application - are built.