“The greater part of the world’s troubles are due to questions and grammar.”
This is what Michel de Montaigne, a French philosopher of the Rennaisance, once said.
And boy, was he right!
We would not be able to understand each other without grammar. I could not possibly help you with your English if there were no grammar rules. Language itself would not exist without grammar.
Fortunately, grammar exists.
It is that invisible magic that allows you to understand English native speakers and read these words. It is the very reason why this post has been written: to give you all the tools you need to learn everything about English grammar and see how mastering it will help you become a fluent user of the language.
But what exactly is grammar?
Let’s have a look.
What Is Grammar?
Grammar is the set of rules that controls the sounds, words, phrases and sentences in a language.
It is the system of a language, and it gives language structure.
In other words, everything that happens within a language is ruled by grammar:
- phonology (how a language organizes its sounds)
- morphology (how words are formed and what the relationship between them is)
- syntax (how sentences are structured in a language)
- phonemics (how humans produce and perceive sounds)
- semantics (what words mean)
- pragmatics (how context contributes to meaning)
All these things are controlled by the grammar of a language!
To put it simply, every time we speak, write, read or listen to something, we are using one or more components of the grammar of a language.
You will often hear that grammar is the glue that keeps the language together, or the skeleton that allows it to have a shape.
Some people will say that grammar is boring, while for others (like me), grammar is a passion.
The truth is that no matter how passionate (or not) you are about grammar, you need to learn it in order to be fluent in a language, even your own.
The Importance of English Grammar for Learners
When it comes to learning a foreign language (like English, in your case), grammar is very important for many reasons:
- Learning grammar rules pays off. If you had to memorize every single sentence in the English language, you would go crazy. By learning a set of core rules (like word order or when to use each tense), you will have a series of templates to use in order to create an infinite number of sentences as you learn more words.
Have a look at the next examples, which all have the same sentence structure:
He is a good student. (Subject + Verb + Object)
My parents bought a red car. (Subject + Verb + Object)
None of my friends will be having a birthday party. (Subject + Verb + Object)
The man in the yellow hat and the blue jacket has found a pink tiny house by the lake. (Subject + Verb + Object)
- Grammar will help you communicate. By learning English grammar, you will be able to speak in English correctly and avoid making mistakes. This will allow you to say what you really want to say and help other English speakers understand what you mean.
- Grammar makes a difference. It does not matter how many thousands of words you know in English—if you do not know grammar, you will not be able to use them. Learning grammar is what will let you go from beginner to fluent.
- Proper grammar will make you look smart. Imagine writing a cover letter only to discover you have been rejected because of the dozens of mistakes you made. The same letter, if written properly, could land you the job. The same goes for school and university classes, talking to strangers on the street or ordering food. Learn grammar, look smart!
- Grammar will take you places. Of course, you can travel the world not knowing a single word of English, but isn’t it more fun and enjoyable if we travel to an English-speaking country and we can understand what is going on around us? This would be impossible without grammar.
- Grammar will improve all your major language skills. The four major language skills are speaking, writing, reading and listening. Add vocabulary and grammar to them, and you will get a whole language. All these six language components are interrelated (related to each other), so when you get better at one, you get better at all of them. Use grammar to your advantage and boost your language skills to the max.
- Grammar saves lives. I’m not kidding! The difference between “Let’s cook, mom” and “Let’s cook mom” can be quite lethal (enough to cause death). The same happens with the very famous example: “Let’s eat, grandma” and “Let’s eat grandma.”
What Are the Elements of English Grammar?
Every grammar consists of a series of elements that are its building blocks.
These elements, put together, form the language you and I use every day.
There are many ways of categorizing (diving into categories) the elements of English grammar. The following division is just one example of many, but one that will help English learners make a solid map of English grammar in their minds.
Note that you do not need to memorize these elements of grammar. I am starting with these because they will help you get a better understanding of what grammar is and the journey you have ahead of you to learn it.
If all these categories are intimidating to you, I recommend printing the article (you can get a PDF of it at the top and bottom of this post) and taking it one step at a time.
Later in this post, you will learn how to study English grammar effectively. Stay tuned!
Core sentence elements
Every word in a sentence has its own function.
Each language has different sentence formation and word order rules, but when it comes to core sentence elements and their functions, pretty much every language in the world includes the same:
- Subject: This is the person, animal, thing or place performing the action in the sentence.
- Predicate: This expresses the action of the sentence. It includes the verb and it can include other core elements.
- Object: This is a pronoun, noun or noun phrase on which a verb performs an action. Objects can be:
- direct (they receive the action of the verb directly),
- indirect (they are the recipients of the action) and
- prepositional (they are governed by a preposition).
- Complement: This is a word, phrase or clause that is necessary to complete the meaning of a sentence. It is normally divided into:
- subject complements (they follow a linking verb and complement the subject of the sentence) and
- object complements (they follow a direct object and complement it by describing it).
- Adjunct: They are parts of the sentence that can be removed without affecting the rest of the elements of the sentence or its meaning.
Phrases and clauses
When we arrange words in a sentence, we are building phrases and clauses:
- Phrases: They are a group of words that go together and express some kind of concept. English includes, among others:
- noun phrases (a noun and its modifiers, e.g. the black bottle),
- verb phrases (a verb and its modifiers, e.g. were waiting patiently),
- prepositional phrases (they are governed by a preposition, e.g on the table),
- gerund phrases (they start with a gerund, e.g. walking in the morning) and
- infinitive phrases (they start with an infinitive, e.g. to study English).
- Clauses: Clauses are very often mistaken for sentences. Sometimes, a sentence indeed has only one clause, but it can also have two or more. Clauses are groups of words that contain a subject and a predicate. Clauses form sentences when they are put together. They can be:
- independent (they can exist on their own. They are what we normally call simple sentences, e.g. She likes the taste of cheese) and
- dependent (they cannot exist on their own, so they need an independent clause in order to form a complete sentence, e.g. even though she likes the taste of cheese).
- An example of a complex sentence (which contains at least two clauses) is Even though she likes the taste of cheese, she hasn’t eaten any since 2012 (where Even though she likes the taste of cheese is the dependent clause, and she hasn’t eaten any since 2012 is the independent one).
Parts of speech
“Parts of speech” is a fancy expression to mean what every word functions as in a sentence.
Depending on what a word is and what it functions as in the sentence, it can be classified as one (or more) of the following categories:
- Nouns: These are the names of people, animals, things, places, ideas and concepts.
- For example: father, dog, cup, school, love, infinity.
- Pronouns: These replace nouns.
- For example: she, her, hers, herself, everything, no one.
- Verbs: These express an action or state.
- For example: go, goes, went, has gone, was going, has been gone.
- Adjectives: These modify and describe nouns, pronouns and other adjectives.
- For example: intelligent, green, bored, exhausting, infinite.
- Adverbs: These modify a verb, an adjective or another adverb.
- For example: very, well, quickly, bad.
- Prepositions: These are normally placed in front of a noun or pronoun to form a phrase (see the previous section) that modifies a word in the sentence.
- For example: on, in at, before, about, from.
- Conjunctions: These join words, phrases and clauses together.
- For example: and, or, but, because.
- Interjections: These are words that are used to express emotions.
- For example: Oh!, Wow!, Hey!, Oops!, Gee.
Very often, words that are by definition in one category (for example, a noun), can belong to another category in certain contexts (like an adjective, for instance):
Mary loves history. (History is a noun here.)
Mary is a history teacher. (History is a noun functioning as an adjective here.)
Word order refers to the internal pattern of a language.
Different languages use different patterns.
Understanding the word order pattern of a language is very important for learners because that is how you build grammatically correct sentences. This is not only important because you want your sentences to be grammatically correct, but also because if your words follow the wrong order, they can sound confusing, be difficult to understand or mean something different from what you intended.
The word order pattern of English is SVO, which stands for Subject + Verb + Object.
This simply means that in order to build a basic grammatically correct sentence in English, you have to put the subject first, then the verb and finally the object/objects/modifiers if there are any:
My dad is smiling. → My dad (S) is smiling (V). (S + V)
My dad loves cheese. → My dad (S) loves (V) cheese (O). (S + V + O)
My dad wrote you a letter. → My dad (S) wrote (V) you (O) a letter (O). (S + V + O + O)
My dad thinks you hate this weather. → My dad (S) thinks (V) you (s) hate (v) this weather (o) (O). (S + V + O, where the object is a clause with the pattern S + V + O).
Different types of sentences in English use different orders. For example:
- Negative sentences follow this order: Subject + Negated Verb + Object.
- For example: My dad doesn’t like cheese. → My dad (S) doesn’t like (Negated V) cheese (O).
- Questions follow this order: Auxiliary (helping verb) + Subject + Verb + Object, or Verb + Subject + Object.
- For example: Does your dad like cheese? → Does (A) your dad (S) like (V) cheese (O)?
There are other word order rules to remember, like the fact the adjectives almost always come before the noun. After you have mastered the grammatical rules for word order, you can start getting into the unwritten, informal rules that just sound right, like how you would say “peanut butter and jelly,” not “jelly and peanut butter.”
It’s important to start learning English word order from the very beginning.
This will help you produce correct English and avoid misunderstandings and weird sentences like:
*My dad cheese likes. (This is grammatically incorrect.)
*Cheese my dad likes. (This is grammatically incorrect.)
Cheese likes my dad. (This is technically grammatically correct, but it’s probably not what you were trying to say.)
Notice how the last sentence is grammatically correct, but even with word order rules in place, it makes no sense.
This is due to the fact that we can produce incorrect English if we don’t take things like semantics or pragmatics into account. In this case, cheese is not a living entity, so it cannot possibly like anything or anyone.
English Tenses and Aspects
Tenses are one of the most important grammar topics for learners of English.
Thanks to tenses, we are able to change the time during which the action in the sentence takes place.
Grammatically speaking, English only has two tenses (the present and the past), with the future being formed by using the auxiliary verb will.
However, for the sake of simplicity, we will say that English has three tenses: the present, the past and the future.
Each tense has four subcategories called aspects: simple, progressive/continuous, perfect and perfect progressive/perfect continuous. They specifically tell us about the duration of the action described by the verb.
By putting together tenses and aspects, we get 12 results, which are what we normally call the 12 English tenses:
- Present simple (I drink tea every day.)
- Present continuous (I am drinking tea at the moment.)
- Present perfect (I have drunk three cups of tea today.)
- Present perfect continuous (I have been drinking tea since I was six.)
- Past simple (I didn’t drink any tea yesterday.)
- Past continuous (I was drinking tea when you arrived.)
- Past perfect (I had drunk all the tea before my mom came back.)
- Past perfect continuous (I had been drinking tea for two hours when he noticed me.)
- Future simple (I will drink tea when I get back home.)
- Future continuous (I will be drinking tea by then.)
- Future perfect (I will have drunk all the tea when you arrive home.)
- Future perfect continuous (I will have been drinking tea for a couple of hours by the time she arrives.)
You may think mood refers to our feelings, and while you are not totally wrong, grammatical moods are much more than that.
A grammatical mood tells us about the intention and tone of the speaker or writer.
The most common way of categorizing English moods is the following:
- Indicative mood includes all kinds of statements of facts and their negative alternatives:
- I love cheese.
- I don’t love cheese.
- Interrogative mood is the one we use when we ask questions:
- Do you like cheese?
- Are you obsessed with cheese?
- Imperative mood is the one that includes commands and requests:
- Give me some cheese!
- Please, buy more cheese!
- Conditional mood is used when we talk about real or imaginary situations that depend on a condition to take place:
- If you don’t buy more cheese, I will be sad.
- I would have cried if you hadn’t bought that cheese.
- Subjunctive mood refers to the uncertainty or unreality of what we say. Because of that, it is normally used when talking about wishes, desires, emotions or unreal/very difficult conditions:
- If she bought cheese, I would be very happy.
- I wish you bought some cheese!
If we put these six elements together, we get a complete map of the English language.
However, in order to master all these components, we need to draw some kind of path on that map.
The next section will show you the whole path, together with all the stops you should make along the way.
How to Study English Grammar: A Guide for English Language Learners
The following steps will help you get started in your English grammar learning path.
Enjoy the ride!
Step 1: Start with Basic English Grammar
Your first step will obviously be starting to learn basic English grammar.
English grammar is extensive, and you will be learning it at every level, from the beginner stage all the way to fluency.
- Start by learning the most basic English grammar rules. These include forming the plural, learning the personal pronouns and the verb to be in the present simple, among others.
- Continue by studying parts of speech and sentence formation. Thanks to this foundation, you will be able to produce a lot of new sentences as you learn new words and grammar rules.
- Next, learn how to make negative sentences and questions. This will make your sentence bank triple in the blink of an eye.
- Go on to learning about English spelling and punctuation. You will want to start writing pretty soon, and you want to make sure you do it correctly, even if everything you write is short, simple sentences.
- Once you have done all this, try to find some reliable resources for English grammar lessons and exercises. The possibilities here are huge, so choose resources that you really enjoy.
At this point, you will realize that English can be learned practically everywhere, from books and websites to apps and private lessons.
Don’t get too stressed about this at the beginning. Remember that you are only starting your journey, and you will have time to visit all the different steps as you improve your English.
These first grammar topics should give you a solid base to help you start other “bigger” topics such as:
- Phrasal verbs and idioms
- Word formation
- Active and passive voice
- Direct and indirect speech
And much more!
For now, focus on the steps presented in this guide. You can start with these bigger topics when you finish with these first steps.
Step 2: Study the Tenses in English
Tenses are crucial (very important) for every speaker of English, whether they are beginners or native speakers.
You should start by learning the simple tenses: present simple, past simple and future simple.
Knowing just these three tenses will allow you to place events all throughout the timeline.
After this, study the present continuous, the past continuous and the present perfect.
With these three tenses, you will be able to get more specific when you speak or write and express your thoughts more easily.
Once you have learned these six basic tenses, you can continue with the rest.
You do not have to learn all of them at once, though. Try to include them slowly into your learning sessions, always one at a time.
The order I find is most helpful for students, after the first six, is the following:
- Future continuous
- Past perfect
- Future perfect
- Present perfect continuous
- Past perfect continuous
- Future perfect continuous
There are several resources you can use to learn and practice English tenses.
The most commonly used ones are:
- Grammar and exercise books
- Online resources
The trick here is to keep things varied. Try to use different resources and mix things up.
This way, you will avoid getting bored when studying this topic that many students find dull (not interesting).
Step 3: Practice with English Grammar Exercises
Doing English grammar exercises is possibly the best way to strengthen your knowledge and put yourself to the test.
Grammar exercises are super useful for English learners of every level, especially because:
- When you do grammar exercises you are putting into practice the grammar rules you have learned, which helps you remember them better.
- You can do grammar exercises on your own, whenever you want, wherever you want.
- Grammar exercises normally include their solutions, so you will get immediate feedback about how you are doing.
- Grammar exercises can take the boredom out of the grammar equation. Some of them are fun and entertaining enough to make you forget you are actually studying a foreign language.
Learning grammar can indeed be fun and entertaining. Just ask learners who are already using FluentU to become grammar masters.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
You read that right: personalized language learning lessons!
You can use the hundreds of FluentU videos available to create the perfect grammar learning lesson for yourself.
Every video includes contextual subtitles. This means that whenever you see a word you do not recognize, you can just hover your mouse over it and you will get an explanation in context.
Say you want to know more about that word. Easy!
Just click on it and an interactive flashcard will pop up. Flashcards include grammar info about the word, its definition, sample sentences with audio and a list of videos in which the word or topic in question is also used.
Once you have learned everything about your word or grammar topic, you can do some exercises and take a quiz.
FluentU is completely personalized, which means that you will only get exercises and quizzes related to the words and topics included in the videos you decide to watch.
Last but not least, FluentU has a built-in video dictionary.
Search for specific words or grammar topics to get a list of flashcards, expressions and videos containing them.
Learning grammar has never been easier than it is with FluentU, and now you can give it a try completely for free!
There are many more resources you can also use to boost your English grammar:
- Books and workbooks
- Online resources
- Flashcards and Spaced-Repetition programs
Try to use two or three different types of resources. This will keep things fun and help you make the most out of English grammar exercises even if you are learning by yourself.
Step 4: Sign up for English Grammar Lessons
Once you have acquired the basics of English grammar, it is time for you to take some English grammar lessons.
Defining English grammar lessons can be a difficult task, so to simplify things, we will say that an English grammar lesson is every English grammar study session you have.
Depending on your preferences, study techniques and even financial situation, English grammar lessons can take place in very different environments.
Let’s start with an obvious comparison: learning by yourself vs. learning in a classroom vs. learning with a tutor.
Each of these options has advantages and disadvantages, but broadly speaking, every learner will be in one of these three situations:
- Learning by yourself is comfortable. You can do it everywhere, choose your own materials, practice by using the resources you really like and, most importantly, save a lot of money. Very often, students who choose to learn by themselves make use of online grammar lessons and language learning courses.
- Some students are not able to learn by themselves. They lack motivation or simply want a more social learning environment. They tend to choose English lessons in classrooms, so they can interact with the teacher and the rest of the class.
- People who choose to learn with a tutor might be “in a hurry.” They need to learn English and its grammar for their jobs, or are planning to move to an English-speaking country, so they need a more intensive and personalized way of learning. This is the most expensive option of the three, but if we choose the right tutor, it can also be the most efficient.
Whether you are learning by yourself or in a classroom/tutor environment, you will notice that depending on the resources you (or your teacher/tutor) use and how they are used during your sessions, English grammar lessons can come in many forms.
I will not bore you with a ton of unnecessary details about all the ways in which students and teachers do their grammar lessons, so I will only give you a couple of ideas for what to do with the tools you have:
- Authentic learning. Authentic learning is a learning approach in which the learner takes an active role. Rather than memorizing, learners experience and apply what they learn. This technique works very well in classrooms because it involves exercises such as role-playing, group discussions, group projects and giving and receiving feedback, among others.
- Rote memorization. Rote learning is based on repetition. The central idea is that the more you repeat something, the faster and better you will be able to remember it. Many language learners use this technique when learning by themselves. An example can be learning the present simple rules by heart (memorize them) by reading them over and over again. Rote memorization can also be practiced with the use of flashcards and mnemonics.
- Spaced repetition. Spaced repetition is related to rote memorization because it uses the concept of repetition. However, spaced repetition does not make the student repeat a word or grammar rule a thousand times during a grammar learning session. Spaced repetition brings old words and rules back to the learner at specific intervals, which helps them remember them in the long run (in the end).
Flashcards are one of the main methods for practicing the spaced repetition technique. There are also online English courses and programs—like FluentU—that make use of this way of teaching in order to maximize the learners’ results.
- Learning through writing. Writing is a language skill that many language learners tend to ignore. The truth is that writing can be an amazing tool to learn English grammar because learners can apply all the knowledge they already have and put all the theory into practice. This kind of learning method is normally used in classrooms and by tutors, and it provides learners with valuable feedback they can learn from.
Whatever learning technique you use and whichever learning environment you choose, make sure you feel comfortable and have fun while learning.
Learning on your own does not mean it has to feel like a chore (something you have to do, even if you do not want to). By using the appropriate methods and resources, everyone can learn English grammar and enjoy their English grammar lessons.
Step 5: Learn from Your Mistakes with English Grammar Checkers
Grammar checkers are tools you can rely on to find mistakes you do not see when writing.
They are designed to find different kinds of errors as you write, so they give you immediate feedback you could not have otherwise (unless someone is correcting your writing later, which can take days or even weeks).
There are now thousands of great grammar checkers available, but they tend to have the same main features:
- They find spelling errors and give you correct options (for example, if you write “tenager,” the checker will underline the word and suggest teenager as the correct word).
- They tell you when you might have made a grammar mistake and offer possible solutions (for example, when a word should be in the plural but you wrote it in its singular form).
- They normally have an autocomplete option (which analyzes what you are writing and gives you possible endings for your word or sentence).
- Many include additional features such as a dictionary, a translator, a text editor and sometimes even a plagiarism checker.
As a learner of English, you are the perfect candidate to use a grammar checker.
They have a lot of advantages and can help you in many different ways. Here are some examples:
- They will save you time. Since they tell you where and what your grammar errors are, you can correct them directly without having to reread your text several times. However, remember to always proofread your writing by yourself at least once. The computer is not always right!
- They will give you immediate feedback. You will get to know your mistakes as you write, and if you keep track of them and analyze them, you will know the grammar areas you need to work more on.
- Your spelling and punctuation will be on point. Checkers also check spelling, punctuation, word order and cohesion (how words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs fit together in a correct and logical way). They will help you learn how to write correctly and will make sure the text flows well (has continuity, makes sense).
- Many checkers include grammar explanations. You will be able to learn or review the rules you have broken immediately, so you can improve your grammar while you write.
Step 6: Apply the Grammar You Learn
Grammar rules alone will not help you improve your English if you do not actually use them in your daily life.
There are many ways to use English on a daily basis that will not take a lot of effort on your part.
Here you have some ideas:
- Think in English. Even if your English is still very basic, try to have conversations in your mind. Describe what you see, think about your grocery shopping list, tell yourself a joke… The sky is the limit (there is no limit to what you can do)!
- Start journaling. Journaling can be an amazing way of getting to know ourselves. There are no rules except for the ones you decide on. Your journal is your personal space. If you journal in English, you will additionally be practicing your grammar, vocabulary and writing skills.
- Use post-its. Post-it your house! Write the names of different objects in English and stick the post-its all over your house. Every time you use an object or see a post-it, you will remember what it is called in English.
- Translate your social media. All those apps, programs and websites you use on a daily basis probably have an English version. Change the settings into English for a superb immersion experience.
- Engage. Chat with people in English, give your opinion in forums, answer other users’ questions… Try to engage in English conversations (whether in real life or online) as often as you can.
Apart from these general ideas, there are some tips you can use in order to improve specific language skills:
- Watch movies, series and videos to improve your grammar and listening comprehension. You can use YouTube, Netflix or any other video resource you might enjoy. I really recommend using FluentU, because it allows you to create your own personalized learning sessions.
Additionally, you can also use FluentU’s English YouTube channel. FluentU’s English YouTube channel takes videos like movie trailers and scenes from TV series and transforms them into engaging and entertaining English lessons.For instance, you can learn how to use 10 powerful English verbs with the movie “Spider-man:”
If you like learning on YouTube and watching English movies, imagine having the two of them together! Subscribe now to FluentU’s English YouTube channel so you don’t miss any new videos!
- Read in English. Reading is a skill that helps improve every other aspect of the language. Read on a daily basis, at least for 10-15 minutes, to improve your vocabulary and grammar. Then use what you have learned when you have a conversation or need to write an assignment.
- Listen to podcasts and audiobooks. Understanding native speakers can be quite difficult at the beginning, but if you listen to English often, your brain will start to catch up. Listening practice will improve your speaking and grammar skills if you do it actively (while paying attention).
- Write in English every time you can. If you feel journaling is still too challenging for you, there are other options to start with. Write your grocery shopping or to-do list in English, send text messages in English (you can add the translation if the other person doesn’t speak English), write short texts every day and make yourself use the grammar rules you have learned, etc.
- Talk a lot. Try to speak English as much as you can. Talk to yourself in the mirror, find online friends and video-chat with them… And if you already live in an English-speaking country, try to only use English in your everyday conversations, even if it is just a simple Hello or Have a nice day!
The possibilities of using English in our daily lives are practically endless.
Apply these tips or come up with others yourself. The most important thing is that you have direct contact with English every day.
Step 7: Keep Building on Your Knowledge
I have heard many times that you never finish learning a language, and I totally agree.
We do not even know everything about our native language, so we cannot possibly expect to learn all the English there is.
But that does not mean you will never be fluent.
If you keep on learning your grammar, doing your homework and using English as much as you can, you will indeed become fluent very soon.
Learning English grammar requires practice, making mistakes, learning from them and moving on.
Use this guide to have an easy start, and then continue learning grammar as your English level goes up.
Be proud of every little step you take and of every success, however small.
I am sure one day you will look back at this post and think “Wow! I have come so far!”
Grammar is one of the most important components of every language.
It would be practically impossible to become fluent in English without learning its grammar rules.
Learning a language is a journey, and grammar is the best pair of boots you can use to make it.
This guide has given you an overview of what English grammar is and how you can use it to your advantage.
Now it is your turn to apply what you have read and become the next fluent user of English.
Stay curious, my friends, and as always, happy learning!
Francisco J. Vare loves teaching and writing about grammar. He’s a proud language nerd, and you’ll normally find him learning languages, teaching students or reading. He’s been writing for FluentU for many years and is one of their staff writers.
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