Grammar is something that many take for granted.
Over the years, we develop an "ear" for what sounds
right. This is one of the reasons that reading our writing out
loud can be a powerful proofreading tool. Often, we can hear when
something sounds wrong, even if we don't see it when we write and read.
It is not possible to teach grammar with simple tips or
suggestions. The purpose of Grammar Quick Tips is to
provide ideas about how to look at our writing. In many cases,
some different ways to think about our work will help us better
English is a complex language. Many good writers
cannot explain all the details and intricacies of their work. Good
writing does not need to explain itself. For some people,
improving our writing is all about simplifying the way we express
That is what Grammar Quick Tips is all about.
Those of us that are not confident in our ability to write long, complex
thoughts in complete, readable sentences can be good writers if we just
follow the KISS principal: KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUDENTS.
Many of us do not enjoy reading long, complex
sentences. Sometimes, good writing is "hidden," because
ideas are presented so clearly that the "writer" becomes
"invisible." In school, most teachers prefer to see
students express their ideas in a manner that indicates understanding,
not literary greatness. Isn't this true with most things you read?
Most of us are not ready to "write for the ages."
Remember, poor writing that is not clear is extremely
hard to read and understand. It is not possible to help someone
improve their writing if everything is expressed as an incomplete, incoherent thought. If we learn to express our thoughts to the best
of our ability in clear, readable sentences, then someone can help us
rewrite those ideas in different styles and levels of complexity.
Most of us will do just fine in school and in every
other writing situation is we don't worry about being literary geniuses
and quit trying to impress people with the way we use language.
These Grammar Quick Tips are meant to help writers get back to
the basics when they proofread, edit, and revise their writing.
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Complete Thoughts, Complete Sentences
Sentences consist of a performer (subject or noun) and
action (predicate or verb). This pattern is critical to effective
communication. It is so critical that we can even recognize it
with nonsense words such as: The widget raddied.
We can see the "widget" is the performer
(subject or noun) and "raddied" refers to some type of action
(predicate or verb). In this case, "widget" was singular
and "raddied" was in a past tense. Even using
these nonsense words, most of us recognize this. Suppose we
- Two widgets raddy. Plural of widget, more than one
performer and the action is in the present.
- The blue widget and the white widget raddy. More than
one widget (performers) and the same action.
- The widget raddies and trinkles. One
widget (performer) and more than one action.
- The blue widget and white widget raddy and trinkle.
More than one performer and more than one action.
When writing, editing, and revising, be sure that each sentence has
at least one performer (subject or noun) at least one action
(predicate or verb), and that the sentence indicates whether that action
is happening now (present tense) or previously (past tense) or at a time
yet to come (future tense).
Simply having a performer and an action, however, is not enough. When
a sentence has words like: when, after, because, as soon as,
before, since is not complete unless it finishes the though
- "When I arrive" is not a complete thought.
"When I arrive, I will complete the job" is.
- "After I leave" is not a complete thought.
"After I leave, he will also depart" is.
- "Because of the rain" is not a complete
thought. "Because of the rain, the game was canceled"
- "As soon as he leaves" is not a complete
thought. "As soon as he leaves, I will also go"
- "Before I pay this bill" is not a complete
thought. "Before I pay this bill, I will check the
- "Since I am not being paid to do this" is not a
complete thought. "Since I am not being paid to do
this, I will only work on this project when it relaxes me"
Always check your writing to be sure that each thought is expressed
as a sentence. Sentences contain performers (subject or nouns),
actions (predicate or verbs), and indication of when (past, present, future
tense). These statements must be complete thoughts. Be
careful when you use the words: when, after, because, as soon as,
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Simple, Compound, and Complex Sentences
A clause is a group of related words having a performer (noun) and
action (verb). Clauses can substitute in a sentence for any
single-word noun, pronoun, adjective, or adverb.
Main clauses have a performer (noun) and action (verb) and
express complete thoughts. Sentences can be created by connecting
two main clauses with one of seven conjunctions: and, but, or,
for, nor, so, yet. We can omit the conjunction by using a
semicolon (;). NEVER CONNECT TWO MAIN CLAUSES WITH A COMMA (comma
Subordinate clauses have a performer (noun) and action
(verb), but do not express complete thoughts by themselves. To
complete the thought, a subordinate clause depends on or is connected to
a main clause. This can is introduced by a:
- Relative pronoun: who, that, which
- Subordinate conjunction: if, although,
- Connective adverb: why, whenever, before
Simple sentences contain one main clause and no subordinate
clauses. These tend to be short, easy to read, and direct.
Examples of simple sentences include:
- Joe ran.
- We are driving to Houston for the game.
- Some fans will boo.
- Haste in writing can make students spend more time revising their
- To be very honest about it, I know very little about the intricacies
of formal grammar.
Compound sentences contain two or more main clauses and no subordinate
clause. This means that each clause expresses a
complete thought. All main clauses are joined by either a
semicolon or one of seven coordinate conjunctions: and, but, or,
nor, for, so, yet. Examples of compound sentences include:
- We do not practice together; we practice apart.
- Joe would like to finish his paper ahead of time, so we suggested
he start his research tomorrow.
- Brett practiced golf swings, he prepared fully for the big match,
and then he crushed his opponents in the tournament.
- I can give students the tools they need, but I cannot force them
to write good papers.
- To assure success this semester, they have agreed to work with the
Writing Lab, and we will review each and every draft together.
Complex sentences contain one main clause and at least one
subordinate clause. Sometimes, the subordinate clause is in front
of the main clause. Other times, it is behind the main
clause. We can also place subordinate clauses inside of the main
clause. Examples of complex sentences include:
- When you enter the stadium, you must have your ticket prominently
displayed. (Note: subordinate clause is in front
of the main clause)
- If at first you don't succeed, keep trying to reach your
goals. (Note: subordinate clause is in front of
the main clause and the "you" subject of the main clause
- He took his football and went home when is was clear his team was
going to lose. (Note: subordinate clause is after
the main clause)
- John Witherspoon, who has never started a game before, will make
his debut at quarterback. (Note: subordinate clause is
inside of the main clause)
- These Grammar Quick Tips are meant to show you that some
thoughts are incomplete. (Note: subordinate
clause is after the main clause)
- He did not get an "A" because he had the audacity to
think that he deserved it. (Note: 2 subordinate clause
are after the main clause, one is "nested" in the other)
Complex sentences can be confusing when the subordinate clause sits
inside a main clause. If in doubt, get help or rewrite sentences
so that the meaning is clear. Even to people with a great deal of
experience with the details of formal grammar can become confused when
writing or reading these types of complex sentences.
Are you starting to see the benefits of KISS (Keep It Simple,
Students!)? The "classic" example of a difficult to
identify main clause is represented by the following: but,
alas, it's the best we grammarians can do.
Remember, the writer has choices -- when we are not confident in our
work, one option is to edit, revise, or rewrite a sentence so that the
meaning is clearer. Think about this. Wouldn't you prefer to
read simpler, clearer sentences? How do you think your teachers
feel about this?
Compound-complex sentences contain at least 2 main clauses
(this makes them compound) and at least one subordinate clause (this
makes it complex). Grammar Quick Tips is not meant to be a
grammar text -- let's illustrate this with examples.
- If Joe has made up his mind, he should write his decision out to
document his choice, and then he should give copies of his rational
to all parties involved.
- The Writing Lab helped me edit and revise my work, but my English
professor knew that was what I was going to do because I told him so.
- The Website indicates that he was never officially hired, but he
likes to post comments in the message board.
- Our policy is to not refund money; however, if you have any
questions or concerns, please call me so that we can refuse the
- If the computer network works well when the technicians are there,
it will occasionally function when you are working with clients; it
will cease functioning at all when you are training new employees.
- I only make minor decisions around here, such as where we go to
lunch, whom we invite, and what food we eat; my boss makes the big decisions,
such as how we can persuade the home office to pay for lunch and how
to submit the invoices for reimbursement.
- Where I go to play and how I travel to get there are my business;
what I do while I am here is nobody's business.
- We need to ask that you provide us with a copy of the agreement;
we will need to verify the authenticity of the contract.
Can you see how sentence structure changes when we move from simple,
to compound, to complex, and then to compound-complex sentences?
Remember, good writing does not need to be explained. If the
sentence patterns start to become more difficult to recognize, can you
think of ways these statements could be rewritten?
Many of us would prefer to read simple or compound sentences rather
than longer complex or compound complex sentences. How
to structure sentences is up to the writer. If you prefer to work
with smaller "chunks" of information -- that is fine.
When we write, aren't our ideas more important than the complexity of
Visualizing Sentence Patterns
Perhaps for some of us, it is easier to identify sentence patterns
without the definitions and explanations. Here are some
examples. Main clauses will be in regular type and subordinate
clauses in italics.
- Simple sentence: I left.
- Compound sentence: I left, but I know Helen.
- Complex sentence: I left before Helen came in the
- Compound-complex sentence: I left before Helen
came in the room, but I know she was there.
- Simple sentence: Joe drove to the fair.
- Compound sentence: Joe drove to the fair, and he had
- Complex sentence: Joe drove to the fair after the
- Compound-complex sentence: Joe drove to the fair after
the session ended, and he had fun because he was relaxed.
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Pronouns must agree in person, number, and gender with the nouns they replace. A pronoun's case must also match the way
the pronoun is being used in the sentence (i.e. subject, direct object,
indirect object, etc.) Pronouns must be consistent with the
nouns they replace in terms of:
- Person. First person (I, we); second
person (you) third person (she/he, they, one)
- Number. Singular (it, his/her); plural
- Gender. Masculine (him); feminine
(her); Neuter (it).
Demonstrative pronouns point out and include the
that, these, those. These pronouns must agree in number with the
noun that follow.
- Singular: this memorandum; Plural: these memorandums
- Singular: that show; Plural:
The type of pronoun used (case) must be appropriate for
its functions in a sentence.
Nominative case is the form of a noun or pronoun used in the subject or predicate nominative.
More simply, it is only an issue with personal pronouns (I, you, he, she, it, we,
they) and the forms of who. The word "who" is in the
Objective case is the form of a noun or pronoun used in the direct object, indirect object, object of preposition, object complement, and subject of an
infinitive. It is only an issue for personal pronouns ( me, you, him, her, it, us,
them) and the forms of who. The word whom is in the objective case.
Possessive case of a noun or pronoun is used to show ownership or association.
Most all nouns and indefinite pronouns show possession by ending an apostrophe plus
"s" (for more, see Punctuation
|First Person (speaking for yourself)
|Second Person (speaking to someone)
|Third Person (speaking about someone)
||he, she, it, who, whoever
||him, her, it, whom, whomever
||his, her, hers its whose
|First Person (speaking for yourself)
|Second Person (speaking to someone)
|Third Person (speaking about someone)
||they, who, whoever
||them, whom, whomever
||their, whose, theirs
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Agreement -- Subject & Verbs
Subjects and verbs must agree in number -- singular
subjects need singular verbs, plural subjects need plural verbs.
Remember, nouns that end in "s" or "es" are usually
plural, but verbs ending in "s" or "es" are usually
singular. Some verbs remain the same regardless of whether they
singular or plural. In this case, it does not matter how many
they are referring to - they remain the same. (i.e. wait, must)
nouns identify people, things, or concepts as a group.
Examples include committee, management, group, audience, equipment,
staff, and company.
- The audience disagrees with the author's final plot
- The group helps those in need.
Collective nouns typically are considered
singular. When collective nouns are used to refer to several of a
group individually, the accompanying verb should be plural.
- The staff whisper among themselves as the donuts are
- Management argue among themselves before committing
to the new budget proposal.
Plural in Form, Singular in Meaning
Some subjects are plural in form, singular in meaning,
and take singular verbs. Examples include:
- Economics is an important class to those that study
- Hives is one way to show stress.
- The news is always disturbing.
- Research and development is my area of specialty.
Some subjects are plural in form, singular in meaning
and take plural verbs. Examples include:
- The premises have been thoroughly searched.
- Our thanks go out to each person that contributed to
- While he inherited a lot of money, his savings were
spent a long time ago.
Expressions of time, money, and quantities, when
thought of as single units, take singular verbs. Examples
- Twenty five dollars is too much money for a simple
- Four hours is enough time to see everything at the
- Twenty acres of lakefront property has become
available on Squirrel Lake.
Compound subjects are linked equally with
"and." They take a plural verbs. Examples include:
- Jack and Jill have gone up the hill.
- What he does and what he says are two different
Note: Nouns or pronouns in the subject that
are introduced with phrases such as: along with, in addition to,
including, rather than, accompanied by, as well as are not equal to
the subject. They are subordinate to and require a plural
verb. Examples include:
- The vice president, accompanied by his staff, is
going to the seminar.
- The vice president and his staff are going to the
Either/Or, Neither/Nor, Not Only/But Also
Look at both halves of statements with either/or,
neither/nor, not only/but also to see if subjects are separate
elements. Usually, subjects with either/or and neither/nor take a
When one subject is plural and the other subject is
singular, the verb should agree with the closest subject. It is
best to write these types of statements with the plural subject
- Either John or Jerry is responsible for this
- Not only running but also bicycling is being
considered for our exercise program.
- Neither my report nor the reports from the field
staff are correct.
Agreement -- Viewpoint, Voice, Tenses, Mood
It is not necessary for all viewpoints, voices, moods, and tenses to
have agreement from sentence to sentence. Skillful writers use
these devices to enhance their work. There should be general
agreement, however, within the parts or clauses of sentences. If
the sentences themselves read consistent in terms of viewpoint, voice,
tenses, and mood; the writer will usually be given the "benefit of
Viewpoint -- mine, yours, or other person(s)?
- First person. The writer refers to themselves (I or
me) or to themselves and at least one other person (we, us).
- Second person. The writer is "talking"
directly to one or more persons (you).
- Third person. The writers is "talking"
about people, things, or ideas (he, they, one).
It is perfectly acceptable to switch viewpoints in writing. In fact,
when writing long pieces, this might be the only way to keep the text
interesting and clear. Have you noticed how Writing Quick Tips
uses changes in viewpoint? The key is not whether or not viewpoints
change -- focus on whether the changes have a purpose and whether the
parts of each sentence are consistent.
Let's look at some examples:
- Inappropriate change of voice (second & third person).
All students should submit their first drafts before Friday and you
should also be ready to defend your thesis.
- Restructured (second person). You should submit your
draft on Friday and you should also be ready to defend your thesis.
- Restructured (third person). All students should
submit their first drafts before Friday and they should also be
ready to defend their thesis.
Voice: Active Versus Passive
When we talk about verbs having "voices," we are referring
to whether or not the performer (subject) is actually doing the action
- Active-voice. The performer (subject) acts.
- Passive-voice. The performer (subject) does not act
-- it just sits passively and receives the action (verb).
Sometimes it is easier to see something than to explain it.
Let's look at some examples of active and passive voices.
- Passive: The UW-Whitewater's Code of Conduct was
established by the Board of Regents years ago.
- Active: The Board of Regents established the
UW-Whitewater's Code of Conduct.
- Passive: The pages in Writing Quick Tips
are designed to help students earn better grades on their
- Active: We design the pages in Writing Quick Tips to help students earn better grades on their
- Passive: The fire alarm should be pulled only
in case of an emergency, such as a fire.
- Active: You should pull the fire alarm only in
case of an emergency, such as a fire.
- Passive: The recommendation to expand the summer
session course offerings has been approved.
- Active: The Student Council has approved the
recommendation to expand the summer session course offerings.
- Passive: Our quarterback was injured by an
overly aggressive linebacker.
- Active: An overly aggressive linebacker injured
See how the active-voice sounds stronger? Because
it implies action, active-voices command the reader's attention.
Passive voices are useful, however, when the writer wants to
"hide" the "performer" in a sentence or wishes to
make a courteous statement with a softer command.
In general, it is important to be consistent. Good
writing does not switch voices within a clause or sentence.
Many that study second languages find that memorizing
the various tenses is a challenge. Most native speakers choose appropriate verb tenses without giving the matter much
thought. To illustrate this, let's look at some examples.
Simple Active Voice
Progressive Active Voice (action in progress)
- Present. I deserve to receive an
- Past: I deserved to receive an
- Future. I will deserve to
receive an "A" at the end of the semester.
- Present perfect. I have deserved to
receive an "A" during my studies here.
- Past perfect. I had deserved to receive
an "A" prior to failing the exam.
- Future perfect. I will have deserved
to receive an "A" when I submit this paper.
Simple Passive Voice
- Present. I am studying today.
- Past: I was studying until you
- Future. I will be studying all
- Present perfect. I have been
studying all day.
- Past perfect. I had been studying
for 2 hours until the fire alarm rang.
- Future perfect. I will have been
studying here for 4 years before I receive my degree.
- Present. The information is
explained in lecture.
- Past: The information was
explained in lecture last week.
- Future. The information will be
explained in lecture
- Present perfect. The information had been
explained in lecture even before it was assigned as a reading.
- Future perfect. The information will have been
explained in lecture before the final examination.
Tenses will not always agree within sentences or from
clause to clause. When referring to different time frames, use the
appropriate tense for the time frame being referred to. When
writing about different times frames, you must use different
tenses. Don't change tenses without a good reason -- this looks
awkward at best. Readers (teachers) are sure to
As a general rule, always express a subordinate-clause
verb in the present tense when it is used to express a general
principle. For example:
- Chancellor Jones ruled that student
organizations are responsible for the conduct at their social
Sentences express one of 3 "moods" and, no,
none of these refer to the writer's state of mind.
- Indicative-mood sentences state a fact or ask
- Imperative-mood sentences give commands.
- Subjective-mood sentences state conditions
that are unlikely or contrary to fact, express doubt, state strong
preference or demand, make concession, demonstrate need, or show
For most of us, subjective-mood sentences are
trickier to work with. To show subjective mood, use a plural verb
with a singular subject. To express present time, use the past
tense. To express past time, use the present tense.
Instead of using forms of "to be" verbs, show subjective
mood with the single word "be."
suggestions are counter to virtually EVERYTHING covered in Grammar
Quick Tips, some examples are in order.
- If lack of ability were the problem, I
would not have asked you to do the assignment.
(subjective-mood version of: Lack of ability is not the
- If I were a millionaire, I would not
accept this job. (subjective-mood version of: I am not a
- If I were you, I'd delegate that task to
someone else in the group. (subjective-mood version
of: I am not you)
- I demand that he leave the classroom
immediately (indicative-verb mood would be: he leaves)
- That he trusts the counselor is the
key. (not a state of fact nor a command, empresses a necessary
- I would recommend that she be reappointed
as soon as possible (not a fact nor command, expresses a wish or
- If I accept this challenge, I will
expect a bonus (subjective-mood version of: Probable
-- I may do it)
- If I accepted this challenge, I would
expect a bonus (subjective-mood statement that it is
unlikely I will accept the challenge)
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