Grammar is the way in which words are put together to form proper sentences.
A group of words that contains a verb and either forms part of a sentence or is a complete sentence in itself. For example:
I went to the bank and drew out some money.
See also main clause, subordinate clause, relative clause, conditional clause, coordinate clause and examples of clauses.
A word that is used to link other words or parts of a sentence, such as and, but, or if. Learn about the different types of conjunctions.
Formal speaking and writing typically has more complex grammatical structures and more conservative or technical vocabulary than everyday English. It’s used in official communications and speeches, business reports, legal contexts, academic books, etc. For example:
The defendant was unable to give any alternative satisfactory explanation of how he financed the purchase, apart from unspecified loans from individuals not available to give evidence.
The tense of a verb tells you when a person did something or when something existed or happened. In English, there are three main tenses: the present, the past, and the future.
The present tense (e.g. I am, she works, we swim, they believe) is also called the present simple or simple present. It’s mainly used in the following ways:
to describe things that are currently happening or that are currently or always the case (I love chocolate ice cream; my parents are in New York this week; he has fair hair and blue eyes; some birds eat worms and insects).
to talk about something that exists or happens regularly (she goes out every Saturday night; it always rains here in winter; I start work at 7.30 a.m.).
to refer to a future situation in certain cases and in some subordinate clauses (the bus arrives in London at 6 p.m.; I’ll make us some coffee when we get home).
The past tense (e.g. I was, he talked, we had, they worked) is also called the past simple or simple past. As its description implies, it’s used to talk about things or situations which happened in the past, that is, before the present time of speaking. Its main uses are as follows:
to refer to an event or situation which happened once and is now finished (I met Lisa yesterday; we ate a huge breakfast this morning; they walked ten miles that day; you told me that before).
to describe a situation that lasted for a longer time in the past but is now finished (he went to college for four years; my family lived in Oxford in the 1980s; I loved her for ages but never told her).
to talk about an event that happened regularly or repeatedly but is now over (she called for help over and over again; we ate out every night last week; I phoned him three times today).
The future tense (e.g. I shall [or will] go; he will talk; we shall [or will] have; they will work) is used to refer to things that haven’t yet happened at the present time of speaking, but which are due, expected, or likely to occur in the future. Here are the main situations in which the future is used:
to give or ask for information about the future (you will be in California tomorrow; how long will the journey take?; OK, I’ll write that report on Thursday).
to talk about things that we think are likely or possible to happen in the future, but which aren’t completely certain (I think she’ll retire soon; he won’t [will not] stay married to her for long; you’ll never lose
to refer to conditional situations, namely things that will or may happen if something else occurs (if it’s hot I’ll go swimming later; you’ll get stressed out if you work all the time).
to make promises or threats, or to state decisions at the time of speaking (Fine, I’ll call you soon; Are you going into town? We’ll give you a lift; I’ll never speak to you again).
The future tense is formed with will (or shall) and the infinitive of the verb without ‘to’. Learn more about when to use will or shall.
A comma marks a slight break between different parts of a sentence. Used properly, commas make the meaning of sentences clear by grouping and separating words, phrases, and clauses. Many people are uncertain about the use of commas, though, and often sprinkle them throughout their writing without knowing the basic rules.
Using commas to mark off parts of a sentence
Commas are used to separate a part of a sentence that is an optional ‘aside’ and not part of the main statement.
Gunpowder is not, of course, a chemical compound.
His latest film, Calypso Dreams, opens next month.
In these sentences, the role of the commas is similar to their function in non-restrictive relative clauses: they mark off information that isn’t essential to the overall meaning. Using commas in this way can really help to clarify the meaning of a sentence. Take a look at this example:
Cynthia’s daughter, Sarah, is a midwife.
The writer’s use of commas tells us that Cynthia has only one daughter. If you removed Sarah’s name from the sentence, there would still be no doubt as to who was the midwife:
Cynthia’s daughter is a midwife.
If you rewrite the original sentence without commas its meaning changes:
Cynthia’s daughter Sarah is a midwife.
The lack of commas tells us that the name ‘Sarah’ is crucial to the understanding of the sentence. It shows that Cynthia has more than one daughter, and so the name of the one who is a midwife needs to be specified for the meaning to be clear.
If you aren’t sure whether you’ve used a pair of commas correctly, try replacing them with brackets or removing the information enclosed by the commas altogether, and then see if the sentence is still understandable, or if it still conveys the meaning you intended.
Using commas to separate clauses
Commas are used to separate clauses in a complex sentence (i.e. a sentence which is made up of a main clause and one or more subordinate clauses).
The following examples show the use of commas in two complex sentences:
|Having had lunch,||we went back to work.|
|[subordinate clause]||[main clause]|
|I first saw her in Paris,||where I lived in the early nineties.|
|[main clause]||[subordinate clause]|
If the commas were removed, these sentences wouldn’t be as clear but the meaning would still be the same. There are different types of subordinate clause, though, and in some types the use of commas can be very important.
A subordinate clause beginning with ‘who’, ‘which’, ‘that’, ‘whom’, or ‘where’ is known as a relative clause. Take a look at this example:
|Passengers||who have young children||may board the aircraft first.|
This sentence contains what’s known as a ‘restrictive relative clause’. Basically, a restrictive relative clause contains information that’s essential to the meaning of the sentence as a whole. If you left it out, the sentence wouldn’t make much sense. If we removed the relative clause from the example above, then the whole point of that sentence would be lost and we’d be left with the rather puzzling statement:
Passengers may board the aircraft first.
You should not put commas round a restrictive relative clause.
The other type of subordinate clause beginning with ‘who’, ‘which’, ‘whom’, etc. is known as a ‘non-restrictive relative clause’. A non-restrictive relative clause contains information that is not essential to the overall meaning of a sentence. Take a look at the following example:
|Mary,||who has two young children,||has a part-time job in the library.|
If you remove this clause, the meaning of the sentence isn’t affected and it still makes perfect sense. All that’s happened is that we’ve lost a bit of extra information about Mary:
Mary has a part-time job in the library.
You need to put a comma both before and after a non-restrictive relative clause.