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Five fundamental principles of English grammar

 The essential keys to successful communication in written and spoken English

    While there are plenty of detailed rules of English grammar, the five absolutely fundamental principles, as originally summarized by Andrew Rossiter, put the whole of English grammar in a nutshell.
  Whether writing English or speaking English, the same principles apply, though not always in the same way. Correct use of English depends on observing these five principles, which can be thought of as the five building blocks of English grammar.

The five building blocks of English grammar

1. Principles of word order
2. Principles of punctuation
3. Principles of tense and aspect
4. Use of Determiners
5. Use of Connectors

1. Word order

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 (inflections)  to indicate the relation between words. The meaning of an expression (sentence or other) is principally determined by the order in which words 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 by George Orwell.
 1B1 The policeman was giving instructions to a man in a small car.
If we change the word order, in most cases this will change the meanings of the sentences. In these next examples, the change of meaning is extremely obvious.
    1A2. My good friend George is reading a book by Orwell.
 1A3. My good friend  is reading George a book by Orwell.
 1B2. The policeman was giving instructions to a small man in a car.
 1B3. The  man  in a car was giving instructions to a small policeman .
These 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 the vital parameter for interpreting the meaning of the sentence.
 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. The following examples,which still use the same words as those above, are unitelligible. We might use the amusing English word "gobbledegook" to describe them ! Not even a computer could determine with certainty what was really meant.
 1A4. A good Orwell book is reading by my George friend.
 1B4. Was the car to a policeman instructions in small a giving  man .
For more on word order, go to ► The Importance of word order.

2. Punctuation  

Punctuation is another main element of syntax. In written language, 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  , . ; : ? ! and ".
 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.
 2B42  People who live in London are often very stressed.
 2B51  He's won first prize !
 2B52  He's won first prize ?
Example 1 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 statement.
  For examples 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.
For more on this, go to English punctuation

3 Tense and aspect  

Tense and aspect 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 ought to understand what you mean. 
Tense and aspect situate a statement in its time context. They indicate  if 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 most important.
 3A11. I am a student at Oxford.
 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. 
For more on this, go to  Use of verbs in English

4 Use of determiners  

Determiners 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 ! Unless there is a pre-defined context, the word "Car" by itself is almost meaningless (unlike the word "Look !" in section 3 above).  It needs to be "determined".
 If you say "Car " to someone out of any context, you will perhaps get the reply. "What car?" or "Which car?"... or even "How many ?".  The 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 electric car !
 4C   The car over there !
 4D   A car with a powerful engine.
 4E   Five !
The correct use of determiners is vital for forming meaningful statements or questions. There are several different types of determiner.  
For more on determiners, go to
► Nounsarticles,  quantifiers,  numerals,  possessives , or demonstratives.

5 Use of connectors  

Connectors are the vital link words that relate words, phrases or clauses to each other.


    A phrase is a group of words that has no meaning when used out of context, for example the day before or with help from my friends  or I really like.
    A clause is a group  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 apples.  or  I feel unwell   or  He drank too much wine.

Connectors can express three different types of relation between the units that they link. These can be relations of  coordination, of subordination, or of correlation.  
Coordination is a relation between words, phrases or  clauses that is expressed with coordinating conjunctions, most commonly and, but, or, nor or yet.
Subordination 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
Correlation is expressed through the use of correlating conjunctions, notably either... or  or both... and
Examples of  coordination:
 5A  I like strawberries and cream
 5B  I like strawberries and cream, but I don't like fish and chips.
Examples of  subordination:
 5C  He loves tea because he's British.
 5D  I know a singer who lives in London
 5E  He told the policeman that he'd lost all his money.
 Examples of  correlation:
 5F  You can choose either the red one or the blue one
 5G  Either we wait till it stops raining, or we go now.

Prepositions as connectors

Though we do not usually call them "connectors", prepositions are also connecting words. They connect two words or word groups, and indicate the relation between them, and in this respect they are essential functional elements in a sentence.
    The cat is on the table  and the cat is under the table mean two quite different things.

The 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.)
For more on connectors subordination and coordination, go to
    ► Conjunctions, relative clauses, conditional clauses, and conjunctive adverbs

These five key principles of grammar provide the fundamental framework 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 being "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.

Return to  English grammar index .
► See List of terms - a glossary of grammar terms
Find the right grammar book. Check out this short guide to the best English grammars, classed by type and purpose.

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Here is just a very small sample of articles in graded English to read on
Advanced level English (B2 - C1)
Nevada and its Extraterrestrials
Who killed Martin Luther King ? with audio
Henry Ford, the man who changed America with audio
America's drive-in movie theaters
Just who are the English ?
JRR Tolkien - The man behind the Hobbit
Short story : A few good reasons  with audio
More short stories  with audio
Intermediate level English (B1 - B2)
Alcohol, prohibition and Al Capone
George Washington, America's first president  with audio
No more Fish 'n' chips ? Britain's fast food.
New life for Big Ben  with audio

► Click for  Full grammar index
Selected main grammar pages
Verbs: the present tense
Verbs : the future
Past tenses
Phrasal & prepositional verbs
Gerunds, participles and -ing forms
The infinitive
Irregular verb tables
Nouns, pronouns, adjectives
Noun phrases
Adjective order in English
The possessive
Sentences & clauses
Relative clauses in English
Conditional clauses in English
Word order in English
Reported questions in English
Language and style 
Word stress in English    with audio
The short story of English
More resources
Reading resources: advanced 
Reading resources: intermediate
Crosswords and word games

All about Britain - institutions, tourism, life


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