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 linguistRandolph 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.
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.
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 be commanding (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. A subjunctive 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's singing almost 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.
Acting lessons 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 everyoneagrees 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.
Bottom line? You can usually avoid splitting infinitives if you want to, but the only reason to do so is that there are a few holdouts who think it's wrong. If you're worried about being judged by a stickler, you can avoid split infinitives, but if you have a chance to defend yourself, talk to the sticklers about the silly Latin origin of the rule, and don't let them tell you that splitting infinitives is forbidden.
Personal pronouns stand in for nouns. They're like stuntmen. When nouns feel overworked, they call for pronouns--words like he, it, she, we, they, and so on. The noun to which a pronoun refers is called its antecedent. Because pronouns don't get the same recognition as the big stars, they're a little temperamental. It's their way of getting even.
Squiggly was late. He forgot to set an alarm.
The tree fell because it had been attacked by bugs.
Grammar Girl is happy that she remembered to bring an eraser.
Pronouns are vital. Try not using one for an hour, and you'll see. I use them constantly, as you can tell by these sentences.
Because pronouns come in different "shapes" and are used for different reasons, some official grammar language is necessary. Ready?
1-13 PRONOUNS AND THEIR CASES
Pronouns are bunched together into three cases. (I don't know why the word case is used. Categories would work just as well, but officially they're called cases.) Think of each case as a suitcase; it packs all the similar pronouns together.
Subjective Case--the doer of the action; the one who acts
She ate fifty hot dogs.
(She did the eating, so she's taking the action.)
Objective Case--the receiver of the action; the one who sits back and lets it all happen to her (or him)
The judge gave her the prize.
(Her received the prize and is the receiver of the action--giving.)
Possessive Case--shows ownership
Her dog threw up on my shoes.
(Her indicates the dog belongs to a previously mentioned female.)
First person tells the story from the point of view of the person who is talking. You're being told the story by one person, and you're in that person's mind.
I often wonder what my dog is thinking.
Second person directs the text to you, the reader. It's usually used in nonfiction, such as this book.
Try not using a pronoun for an hour. See if you can.
Third person observes the story from the outside. The narrator can let you know what is happening in different people's thoughts and can follow different characters.
Sarah hates cats, so she was surprised to find one in her room.
Authors often write novels in first person or third person; they rarely use second person.
You and I Are Going to the Beach
Some pronouns will work only when they are in charge (subjective case), and other pronouns will work only when they can be lazy and just receive the action (objective case). Subjects are the ones initiating action in a sentence, and objects are the ones having action taken on them. For example, I is exclusively a subject pronoun, whereas me is exclusively an object pronoun.
I threw the beach ball.
(I is the subject taking the action.)
Squiggly threw me.
(Me is the object getting thrown.)
On the other hand, you has to stand in for everyone! You gets called to the set whether the scene needs a subject or an object.
You threw the beach ball.
(You is the subject taking the action.)
Squiggly threw you.
(You is the object getting thrown.)
You also fills in for one person or many people (i.e., it's a singular and a plural pronoun). If I say "You should go to Disneyland," I could be talking to one person or a group of people. You could be standing in for Squiggly alone or Squiggly, Aardvark, and their families.
1-14 POSSESSIVE PRONOUNS: YOURS, MINE, AND OURS
Whether you've seen the remake from 2005 or the original from 1968, you know what the title of the movie Yours, Mine, and Ours means. Ownership. It means all those kids belong to one another and to both parents.
Grammarians like the word possessive (which seems more selfish than the word belonging, but I am not here to judge).
Some possessive pronouns can stand alone, such as mine, yours, his, hers, ours, and theirs. Some people call these strong possessive pronouns.
Some possessive pronouns (such as my, your, his, her, our, and their) need a noun. Some people call these weak possessive pronouns , and other people call them possessive adjectives.
If you go back and look at the last chart, you'll notice that his is on both lists. His is both the strong and weak possessive form of he, meaning you can write both The cat is his and That is his cat. The same is true of its, although it would be rare to write a sentence using its as a strong possessive pronoun.
The most astute readers will also have realized that sentences can be made in which her doesn't need a noun, such as He went with her. Again, if you look at the chart, you'll see that her is both an object pronoun and a weak possessive pronoun. In the sentence That is her cat, it's being used as a possessive pronoun and needs a noun. In the sentence He went with her, it's being used as an object pronoun and doesn't need a noun.
Gerunds and Possessive Pronouns
You remember gerunds, right? They are those verbs we talkedabout in section 1-9 that become nouns by adding an ing. Gerunds usually need a possessive pronoun.
Aardvark thought him singing was atrocious. (nope)
Aardvark thought his singing was atrocious. (yup)
The first sentence sounds wrong, but there are situations when choosing between a possessive pronoun and an objective pronoun changes the sentence.
We didn't know that was his singing.
That sentence means we couldn't tell if what he was doing was singing or making some other kind of noise.
When we use an objective pronoun, the sentence means something different.
We didn't know that was him singing.
Now the writer is saying it could have been someone else singing. It was definitely singing; the writer just didn't know who was doing it.
Here's one last set of examples.
Do you mind my leaving?
Do you mind me leaving?
In the first example, with the possessive pronoun my, you want to know if the reader is bothered by your action of leaving. Leaving is the thing you're asking about.
In the second example, with the objective pronoun me, you want to know if the reader is bothered by you when you are leaving. That's why gerunds usually take possessive pronouns: when you use a gerund, it's usually the action you want to know about, not the person or thing.
1-15 INDEFINITE PRONOUNS
Indefinite pronouns, such as everyone and anybody, represent an indefinite number of nouns. They often sound like a lot of people but are usually treated as singular.
Everyone is wondering what Squiggly is doing here.
Anybody can see that the skating rink is closed.
1-16 DEMONSTRATIVE PRONOUNS
The words this, that, these, and those are called demonstrative pronouns when they are acting like nouns and you can imagine pointing at something when you use them.
That is the ticket I lost.
Those are my favorite shoes.
These words can also be adjectives when they come right before a noun.
That ticket had been lost for days!
1-17 RECIPROCAL PRONOUNS
The reciprocal pronouns are each other and one another. They refer to the members of a larger group.
Squiggly and Aardvark gave each other coffee mugs.
The chess team gave one another high-fives for winning the tournament.
1-18 COMBINING PRONOUNS: THREE DOESN'T HAVE TO BE A CROWD.
For some reason, people who know how to behave when they are alone get flustered when other people show up in their sentences. Don't let company in your sentences make you go all atwitter.
I know none of you would ever say "Me love Squiggly" instead of "I love Squiggly."
Yet throw in a third party, and I bet some of you would say "My brother and me love Squiggly."
My brother and me love Squiggly is wrong for the same reason that Me love Squiggly is wrong: you're putting an object pronoun (me) in the subject position. The correct sentence uses the subject pronoun in the active (or subject) position.
My brother and I love Squiggly.
Writers can have the same problem when two or more people become the object in a sentence. Would any of you really say "Father loves he"? I hope not! You'd correctly say "Father loves him." But again, you get a little sister, and suddenly everyone forgets how to construct a sentence. It's not Father loves she and Squiggly. Remember: object pronouns go in the object position. Father loves her and Squiggly is correct.
Just Between You and Me, You and I Know How to Have Fun Sometimes even people who can deal with crowds in their sentences get confused when you shows up.
The reason it gets a little tricky when you combine other pronouns with you is that you is both a subject and an object pronoun. You love Squiggly, and Squiggly loves you. You and he should go scuba diving, and I went scuba diving with you and her. They are all correct.
So now that we've got you straight, we can move on to between you and I and figure out why it's wrong.
I'm going to have to talk about prepositions before we've officially covered them. If this makes you uncomfortable, hum loudly or cover your ears while you read this next short section. Then, once you've read about prepositions later (see section 1-30), you can reread this section (without the humming) and be assured that you are one with prepositions and pronouns.
Between is a preposition, just as at, above, over, and including are prepositions. Because prepositions usually either describe a relationship or show possession, they don't act alone; they often answer questions like Where? and When? For example, if I say "Keep that secret between you and me," between describes where the secret isto be kept. If I say "I'll tell you the secret at dinnertime," at describes when the secret will be revealed.
So, instead of acting alone, prepositions are part of prepositional phrases. In those example sentences, between you and me and at dinnertime are prepositional phrases. And it's just a rule that pronouns following prepositions in those phrases are always in the objective case. You have to memorize it. When you're using the objective case, the correct pronoun is me, so the correct prepositional phrase is between you and me. (If it helps, you can remember that the Jessica Simpson song "Between You and I" is wrong, so wrong.)
Most grammarians are often sympathetic to people who say "between you and I" because it's considered a hypercorrection. You might feel funny writing between you and me, but be brave; be strong. Between you and me, we know we're right!
1-19 REFLEXIVE PRONOUNS: DANCING WITH MYSELF
Some people seem afraid to use the word me. Another hypercorrection that avoids me (like incorrectly saying between you and I) is throwing myself into a sentence when you are unsure or want to sound refined.
Let's dissect what's wrong with this sentence: Please call Aardvark or myself with questions. Once more, you've run into the problem of having multiple people in the sentence.
Step back and consider how you would say the sentence without Aardvark. Obviously, you would say "Please call me with questions," not "Please call myself with questions."
You use me because the objective case (me) receives the action of being called.
Adding Aardvark doesn't change anything. It's still correct to say "Please call Aardvark or me with questions."
Myself is what's called a reflexive pronoun. Just think about looking into a mirror and seeing your reflection. You'd say "I see myself in the mirror." You see your reflection, and myself is called a reflexive pronoun.
Other reflexive pronouns are himself, herself, yourself, itself, ourselves , and themselves. A reflexive pronoun can only be the object of a sentence; it can never be the subject. You would never say "Myself stepped on Squiggly," so you would also never say "Aardvark and myself stepped on Squiggly."
The reflexive pronoun is the right choice when the subject is mentioned again in the sentence. For example, you can use myself when you are both the subject and the object of a sentence: I see myself playing maracas or I'm going to treat myself to a mud bath. In both cases, you are the object of your own action, so myself is the right word to use.
Reflexive pronouns can also be used to add emphasis to a sentence. (In case you care, they are then called intensive pronouns.) For example, if you saw a stuntman crash on the set, you could say"I myself saw the horrible crash." Sure, it's a tad dramatic, but it's grammatically correct. If you want to emphasize how proud you are of a song you wrote, you could say "I wrote the song myself." Again, myself just adds emphasis. The meaning of the sentence doesn't change if you take out the word myself; it just has a different feeling because it lacks the added emphasis.
1-20 THEY AS A SINGULAR PRONOUN: THE SINGLE LIFE
Let's say you're writing a sentence that starts When a student succeeds ...
At that point you're probably confused about how you should finish the sentence when you're talking about one unknown person.
Which of the following would you use?
he should thank his teacher.
she should thank her teacher.
he or she should thank his or her teacher.
they should thank their teacher.
It's either an awkward sentence or an incorrect use of plurals with singulars--it's a "tear your hair out" situation!
Honestly, I don't think there is a perfect solution, and I would like to avoid the question because I know that no matter what I say, I'm going to make someone angry. Many grammarians have a hard time agreeing on this as well.
I will state for the record that I am a firm believer that someday they will be the acceptable choice for this situation. English currently lacks an appropriate word, and many people are already either mistakenly or purposely using they as a singular gender-neutral pronoun. It seems logical that rules will eventually move in that direction.
Some grammarians, including me, already allow people to use they and them as a singular pronoun when the sex of the subject is unknown.
But not everyone agrees. At this point, since Grammar Girl isn't especially brave, I usually ask myself if there is any way to avoid the problem. Most of the time it's easy to simply make the original noun plural. You could say When students [plural] succeed, they should thank their teachers. Sometimes more extensive rewriting is required, and if necessary, I'll do it. I would rewrite a whole paragraph if it meant I could avoid the problem.
Rewriting is almost always possible, but if it isn't, then you have to make a choice. If I'm writing a formal document, I'll use he or she. For example, When a person wins an election, he or she should thank his or her volunteers. Admittedly, it's a little awkward, but if you're already using formal language, I don't think it's too distracting.
It takes a bold, confident, and possibly reckless person to use they with a singular pronoun today. If you do it, you'll be in the company of such revered authors as Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, and Shakespeare. But if there's a chance that one of your teachers would think you are careless or ignorant of the "rule," then don't.
The Quick and Dirty Tip is to rewrite your sentences to avoid the problem. If that's not possible, ask your teacher if they (look at me being brave!) have a preference.
If not, use he or she if you want to play it safe, or use they if you feel bold and prepared to defend yourself.
1-21 IT IS I, GRAMMAR GIRL
How should you respond to the question "Who is there?"
It's proper to respond, "It is I."
When people call me and ask, "May I speak to Grammar Girl?" I properly respond, "This is she."
The traditional grammar rule states that when a pronoun follows a linking verb such as is it should be in the subjective case. That means it is correct to say "It is I" and "It was he who dropped the phone in shock when I answered 'This is she.'"
When pronouns follow these non-action verbs, you use subject pronouns, such as I, she, he, they, and we.
Here are some additional correct examples:
Who called Squiggly? It was he.
Who told you about it? It was I.
Who had the phone conversation? It must have been they.
Now, the problem is that 90 percent of you are almost certainly thinking, "That all sounds really weird. Is she serious?" Well, yes, I'm serious. That is the traditional rule, but fortunately, most grammarians forgive you for not following the rule because it sounds stilted and fussy, even to us.
So if you're the kind of person who prefers to be proper (or you want to mess with people), it's fine to say "It is I," and if you prefer to be more casual, it's fine to say "It is me."
If you have a teacher who demands the correct use of a subjective pronoun after a linking verb, then that is what you should use.
1-22 RELATIVE AND INTERROGATIVE PRONOUNS
Finally, there are two more classes of pronouns:
Relative pronouns (that, which, who, whom, whose) introduce subordinate clauses, which you will learn about in chapter two.
Here is a tree that fell on my car.
She is the girl who won the spelling bee.
Interrogative pronouns (what, which, who, whom, whose) introduce questions:
Who went to the party?
Which car did you take?
1-23 ADJECTIVES AND ADVERBS: MODIFIERS
You have your nouns, verbs, and pronouns, but how do you add color and texture to those words? With modifiers, of course! They describe or make something specific.
Adjectives and adverbs are modifiers--the parts of speech that describe nouns, verbs, pronouns, and in some cases one another.
An adjective describes a noun (or a pronoun) by telling you which one, what kind, or how many. The words can be as vagueas this, huge, and some, or they can be as specific as soft, twelve, and wet.
Aardvark threw some pillows at Squiggly.
Aardvark threw a square pillow at Squiggly.
The adverb works harder than the adjective. It can describe verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, clauses, and whole sentences. You can easily remember the connection between adverbs and verbs because the word verb is inside the word adverb. Then note that adverbs are busy like verbs because they modify a bunch of other things too. Something that is active (like an adverb) can cover a lot of ground (other parts of speech).
Squiggly deftly dodged the pillows.
(The adverb deftly modifies the verb dodged.)
Squiggly quite deftly dodged the pillows.
(The adverb quite modifies the adverb deftly, which itself modifies the verb dodged.)
Squiggly dodged the unusually hard pillow.
(The adverb unusually modifies the adjective hard, which modifies the noun pillow.)
The adverb tells you where, when, and how (how often and how much). An adverb can be as vague as now, then, sometimes, and hardly, or it can be as precise as inside, today, coldly, or hourly.
Adverbs often end in ly, but not always.
1-26 WORDS THAT CAN BE ADJECTIVES OR ADVERBS
Just to make things a little confusing, there are some words that can be adverbs or adjectives depending on how they are used in a sentence. You can always tell the difference by noting what the word ismodifying. If it's modifying a noun, then the word is an adjective; if it's modifying something else, such as a verb, then the word is an adverb.
1-27 LINKING VERBS WITH ADJECTIVES AND ADVERBS: THE MISSING LINK
Remember linking verbs from section 1-5? When you're dealing with sensing verbs, such as taste, smell, look, or feel, you have to take a minute to decide whether you're describing the noun or the verb.
Consider the different meanings of these two sentences:
It's correct to say "I feel bad" when expressing an emotion. You just hurt your friend's feelings, so you feel bad about it. Bad describes your state of mind. It's an adjective describing the pronoun I. Remember to test the sentence by replacing the verb with a form of to be. I am bad works, so you know feels is a linking verb in the sentence.
When you say "I feel badly," the adverb badly describes the action verb feel. Since the action verb feel can imply "to touchthings," feeling badly can imply that something is wrong with your sense of touch.
I know that people think they need to describe how they feel, so they use an adverb by mistake. It's those pesky linking verbs that cause such confusion. Don't fall into the sinking linking-verb quicksand.
Use adverbs with action verbs. For example, if you gave a horrible speech, you could say, "I spoke badly," because spoke is an action verb. You can tell that because speaking is an action, and the test sentence I am badly doesn't work.
With sense verbs, first test whether they are linking verbs or action verbs. Then use my adjective-adverb Quick and Dirty Tip:
Good Versus Well
A simple question can send people into a panic: How are you?
Do you say "I'm well" or "I'm good"?
Isn't it safer to shrug?
You needn't panic any longer.
"I'm good" is what you're likely to hear, but some grammar nitpickers will tell you that well is an adverb (and therefore modifies verbs) and that good is an adjective (and therefore modifies nouns), but the situation isn't that simple (and people think brain surgery is complicated!).
The wonderful news is that it's perfectly acceptable to say "I'm good."
The nitpickers don't understand that the linking verb is the key, but you do.
Adjectives describe nouns and pronouns. I is a pronoun. Am is a linking verb. Adjectives follow linking verbs. Good is an adjective.
I am good is good!
(Adjectives actually have a special name when they follow linking verbs in this way; they're called predicate adjectives. See section 2-2.)
I can hear some of you insisting that you were taught to use well, as in "I am well."
Well can be both an adverb and a predicate adjective. When you say "I am well," you're using well as a predicate adjective. But it's better to use well when you're talking about your health. So if you are recovering from an illness and someone is inquiring about your health, it's appropriate to say "I am well." If you're describing yourself on a generally good day and nobody's asking specifically about your health, a more appropriate response is "I am good." But watch out! This is something a lot of people don't understand, but they think they do and get all upset about it. Be prepared to be corrected no matter what you say. And then you can impress people with your knowledge of linking verbs and action verbs.
1-28 COMPARATIVES AND SUPERLATIVES: HOW BIG IS BIG?
Sometimes you need to compare one noun to another noun or one verb to another verb. Comparing is the job of adjectives and adverbs.
You already know how to use an adjective for one noun and an adverb for one verb.
It was a peculiar choice.
Squiggly chose the tall tree.
Aardvark ran fast.
When you're comparing items, you need to notice whether you're comparing two things or more than two things.
When you compare two items, you use what's called a comparative.
You can remember that comparatives are for two things because comparative has the sound pair in it, and a pair is always two things. It's not spelled like pair, but it sounds like pair.
For comparatives, use more before the adjective or adverb, or the suffix er on the end of it.
more peculiar (It was the more peculiar choice, given the limited options.)
taller (Aardvark chose the taller tree of the remaining pair.)
faster (Squiggly ran faster than Aardvark.)
When you compare three or more items, you're using a superlative . You can remember that superlatives are for more than two things because superlative has the word super in it, and when you want a whole bunch of something, you supersize it.
With superlatives, use most before the adjective or adverb, or the suffix est on the end of the adjective or adverb.
most peculiar (It was the most peculiar choice of the day.)
tallest (Someone else had already chosen the tallest tree.)
fastest (Bob ran fastest.)
But how do you know whether to use er or more? est or most? Generally, the way you choose depends on how many syllables the word has.
Comparisons involving words with one syllable or three or more syllables follow clear rules. We'll get to tricky two-syllable words in a moment.
One-syllable words use the suffixes er or est on the end. For example, smart has one syllable, so you might say "I am smarter than my sister, but I'm not the smartest in the family." It would sound odd to say "I am more smart than my sister, but I'm not the most smart in the family."
Sometimes people ask about fun. Technically, it's not an adjective, so you shouldn't use "funner" or "funnest." See the Grammar Girl website for a full explanation.
Words with three or more syllables use more or most in front of them. For example, with the four-syllable adjective spectacular, you use more or most, as in "That is the most spectacular painting I've ever seen!" Spectacularer would be wrong (and difficult to pronounce).
The adjectives tricky and careful have two syllables, so do you say trickier or more tricky? Carefulest or most careful? (Answer: trickier and most careful.)
With two-syllable words, sometimes you use the suffixes, other times you use more or most, and in some cases you can use either one. The box on the next page has one rule you can follow.
If you have a two-syllable adjective that doesn't end in y, ow, or le (if it's not yowlier), you'll need to rely on your ear or your dictionary.
Less and Least
The comparisons so far have all involved a greater amount of something. When you're talking about not as much, you use less and least in front of adjectives or adverbs, no matter how many syllables the words have.
For example, you might admit, "I am less athletic than my best friend," or, if you're using an adverb, you could lament, "My sister is the least grammatically oriented person I know."
Less Is More
When comparing, choose the simplest way to say something. Sure, writing "The students on the track team run least slow" is correct. But the clearer way to write this is "The students on the track team run fastest."
Know When to Stop
Some adjectives can't be topped. You can't be the most last, the bestest student, the onliest person left on the planet (although if you are, no one will know, so you can make up your own grammar rules). Here are some adjectives that shouldn't be made comparative or superlative:
Sometimes you will hear these words used "improperly" in idioms such as deader than a doornail.
1-29 ARTICLES ARE A TYPE OF ADJECTIVE: DEFINITE AND INDEFINITE ARTICLES
Articles--a, an, and the--appear in front of nouns, making the noun specific or nonspecific. They are a type of adjective.
A and an are called indefinite articles.
The is called a definite article.
The difference is that a and an don't say anything special about the word that follows.
For example, think about the sentence I need a bike. This means you need any bike, not a specific one.
On the other hand, if you say "I need the bike," you want a specific bike, or perhaps you want the only bike that is available. (Still, it's a specific bike.) That's why the is called a definite article--you want something definite. That's how I remember the name.
Whether you use a or an depends on the word that comes next. You use a before words that start with a consonant sound and an before words that start with a vowel sound.
Squiggly wanted a bike.
Aardvark wanted an owl.
Remember it's the first sound of the next word that determines whether you choose a or an, not the first letter of the next word.
Squiggly waited for an hour.
Aardvark was on a historic expedition.
An hour is correct because hour starts with a vowel sound. People seem to most commonly get tripped up by words that begin with the letters h, u, and o, because sometimes these start with vowel sounds and sometimes they start with consonant sounds. For example, it is a historic expedition because historic starts with an h sound, but it is an honorable fellow because honorable starts with an o sound.
Squiggly had a Utopian idea.
(Utopian starts with a consonant y sound.)
Aardvark reminded him it's an unfair world.
(Unfair starts with a vowel u sound.)
Usually you put an before words that start with o, but sometimes you use a. For example, you would use a in the following sentence:
She has a one-track mind.
(One-track starts with a w sound.)
Initialisms beginning with consonants that sound like vowels also require an.
an FM radio
an LSAT study guide
an NFL football team
Other letters can also be pronounced either way. Just remember it is the sound that governs whether you use a or an, not the first letter of the word.
1-30 PREPOSITIONS: OVER THE MOON
Remember the example from section 1-18 when I told you that I'd explain prepositions later? It's later now! Prepositions. You've heard of them. You've used them. Maybe you've even misused them. But what are they?
Prepositions create a relationship between words. They're usually short words like to, from, and under; but they can also be longer words such as through, during, and between. It's been said that prepositions often deal with space and time (which always makes me think of Star Trek). For example, the prepositions above, by, and over all say something about a position in space; the prepositions before, after, and since all say something about time. There are a whole slew of prepositions, too many to name one by one, so let's just clap for them at the end of this section.
1-31 ENDING WITH PREPOSITIONS: MYTH-UNDERSTOOD
Have you ever felt that no one understood you? That others had a label for you that didn't fit? That you knew where you belonged, but people kept insisting on placing you elsewhere?
Welcome to the world of the preposition--a part of speech that often wants to be at the end of the sentence but has to deal with people who were taught that prepositions aren't allowed there.
Those people are perpetuating a myth because nearly allgrammarians agree that it's fine to end sentences with prepositions, at least in some cases.
Here's an example of a sentence that can end with a preposition:
You can't say "What did you step?" You need to say "What did you step on?" to make a proper sentence. If you leave off the on, the sentence doesn't make sense.
I can hear some of you thinking, "What about saying, 'On what did you step?'"
Now, I'm all for rewriting, but have you ever heard anyone talk that way? No!
Yes, you could say "On what did you step?" but not even grammarians think you should. It sounds awkward.
On the other hand, some sentences that end in a preposition can be rewritten so that they make sense, say what you want, don't sound convoluted, and don't end in a preposition. Go for it!
The bottom line is that many people think it's wrong to end a sentence with a preposition, so I wouldn't advise doing it in critical situations. Let's say you have a teacher who hates prepositions at the end of the sentence. Try your hardest not to use a preposition there. Rewriting is your friend.
What is ice cream made of? (acceptable)
What are the ingredients in ice cream? (better)
Sometimes you just want to get a good grade rather than fight against silly grammar myths. (But a teacher may also be impressed that you've thought about grammar and writing enough to know a grammar myth.)
Even though it's sometimes allowed, don't get carried away; you can't always end sentences with prepositions. When you can leave off the preposition and it won't change the meaning, leave it off. Here's an example of a sentence you have probably heard:
Oh, the horror! That is one of the instances where it's not OK to end a sentence with a preposition! The problem is that Where is she at? doesn't need the preposition. Where is she? means the same thing, so the at is unnecessary.
1-32 PREPOSITIONS IN EXCESS: GO OUT OF THE DOOR, HOP ACROSS TO THE SIDEWALK, AND SPIN OFF INTO SPACE
You won't find unnecessary prepositions only at the ends of sentences. People often throw an extraneous preposition into the middle of a sentence, and they shouldn't. Instead of saying "Squiggly jumped off of the dock," it's better to say "Squiggly jumped off dock," it's better to say"Squiggly jumped off the dock." See? You don't need to say off of the dock; off the dock says the same thing without the extra word. (An exception is a couple of. That's the right way to say it; it's considered an idiom.)
1-33 PREPOSITIONS AND PHRASAL VERBS
Here's another situation where you can end a sentence with a preposition:
Up is a preposition, and there it is at the end of the sentence. Why is that OK?
I hope he cheers has a different meaning from I hope he cheers up.
I hope he cheers whom? The football team? His grandmother?
It's difficult to rewrite the sentence:
Up cheers he I hope. (I hope not!)
So why is the original sentence correct? Because it has a specific meaning. Cheer up is what's called a phrasal verb--a set of words (a phrase) that acts as a single verb unit. A phrasal verb can have a different meaning from the way the words are used individually. For example, the verb cheer up specifically means to become happier, not to shout upward. Given that cheer up is a unit--a phrasal verb--some people don't believe you've ended a sentence with a preposition when you say "I hope he cheers up." They'd say you've ended the sentence with a phrasal verb.
And you'd say, modestly, "Yes, thank you, I know."
When a phrasal verb is transitive (it does its action to something or someone), you can often split the two parts of the verb, but you usually can't when the verb is intransitive (it doesn't act on anything):
The chicken on the field held up the game.
The chicken on the field held the game up.
(The phrasal verb is split, but the sentence is still OK.)
He dropped out of school.
He dropped school out of.
(You can't split this intransitive phrasal verb and still make sense. Of school is a prepositional phrase, not an object.)
1-34 PREPOSITIONAL PHRASES: IT'S JUST A PHASE!
Prepositions often answer questions like Where? and When? They usually either describe a relationship or show possession. They don't act alone--no solo careers for prepositions. Prepositions act as part of prepositional phrases.
Keep that secret between you and me.
Between describes where the secret is to be kept. If I said "I'll tell you the secret at dinnertime," at dinnertime is the prepositional phrase, and at describes when the secret will be revealed.
1-35 CONJUNCTIONS: AND THE WINNER IS ...
Sometimes you have so much to say that you can just go on and on. What connects your thoughts? Conjunctions.
A conjunction connects words, phrases, and parts of sentences. Common conjunctions are and, but, and or.
There is more to conjunctions than what we'll deal with here. We'll save the more complicated uses for later when we talk about creating sentences and using punctuation. For now, let's focus on the simple conjunctions.
1-36 COORDINATING CONJUNCTIONS
I like to think of coordinating conjunctions as organizing (or coordinating) the sentence or phrase--sort of like a fashion stylist choosing pieces to coordinate the right outfit, or a coach with a whistle coordinating team members for a play.
Coordinating conjunctions are the FANBOYS of language. They all have fewer than four letters.
For And Nor But Or Yet So
Putting Coordinating Conjunctions to Work
To help build a sentence, conjunctions join other words, phrases, or clauses that have the same construction. You'll get what I mean by "the same construction" in the examples below.
Squiggly was often distracted by this or that.
(This and that are both single pronouns.)
Squiggly went to the store and bought some chocolate.
(Went to the store and bought some chocolate are both verb phrases.)
Squiggly went to the store, and Aardvark wondered when he would return.
(Squiggly went to the store and Aardvark wondered when he would return are both clauses or sentences that could stand on their own. You'll learn more about clauses in section 2-4.)
Note that an entire clause (including a verb) can follow a conjunction.
Parallel Construction and Conjunctions
In every example above, a coordinating conjunction properly joined similar parts of a sentence. This is called parallel construction. Parallel construction is even used in simple lists.
Aardvark bought a tie, shirt, and a hat for Squiggly.
(wrong because the list items are different.)
Aardvark bought a tie, a shirt, and a hat for Squiggly.
(right because each list item is a noun with an article.)
Squiggly wishes for a bicycle, the tent, and for a kite.
Squiggly wishes for a bicycle, for a tent, and for a kite.
Squiggly wishes for a bicycle, a tent, and a kite.
Squiggly wishes for a bicycle, tent, and kite.
1-37 CORRELATIVE CONJUNCTIONS
Certain conjunctions are codependent; they don't like being alone, so they combine with other words to form correlative conjunctions such as the following:
both ... and either ... or neither ... nor not only ... but also
"Either be friends with Aardvark or
I'm not playing," Grammar Girl insisted.
Now neither Grammar Girl nor Aardvark
is on Squiggly's team.
Aardvark is not only a great player
but also a great negotiator.
1-38 SUBORDINATING CONJUNCTIONS
At a job, your subordinates are the people who work for you, the people who are under you on the organizational chart. In grammar, subordinate clauses work for the main clause in a sentence. They can't stand alone. Subordinate clauses are headed by subordinating conjunctions such as because, before, if, since, though, when, whenever , and while.
Aardvark left the room whenever Squiggly turned on polka music.
Squiggly warned Aardvark before he turned on the music.
You'll learn more about how to use subordinating conjunctions in the Phrases and Clauses section of the next chapter (section 2-4).
Yo! Do you know what an interjection is?
Um, not really.
Yes, you have a problem with that?
Well, how can you say you don't know what an interjection is?
As you can see, interjections (the underlined words above) are short words or phrases that reveal emotions, offer reactions, insert pauses, and demand attention. They are also sometimes called exclamations.
Sometimes they are at the beginning of a sentence. Sometimes they stand alone as a one-word sentence.
Text copyright © 2011 by Mignon Fogarty Illustrations copyright © 2011 by Erwin Haya