For language students, learning the rules of grammar is one of the most boring parts of language learning. Grammar is not easy to learn, let alone master. Writers, editors, and proofreaders must make a lifelong commitment to learning the rules and determining when the rules should be broken.
The rules of grammar are designed to help us communicate clearly, both in our speech and in our writing. The rules of grammar shape the structures of any language from the smallest to the largest unit. When proper grammar is absent, writing is sloppy, inconsistent, and difficult to read. To put it bluntly, we need grammar to make sense.
When a writer hasn’t bothered to learn the rules of grammar, it shows. The prose doesn’t flow smoothly or naturally, punctuation marks are strewn about haphazardly, and there’s no sense of clarity. Sentences are jumbled, words are misused, and paragraphs are disorganized. It’s a mess. The work is lazy and sloppy. Nobody wants to read it.
We’ll take you through key grammatical rules guiding writing in English Language. Let’s consider a few in this article.
Rule 1. Use concrete rather than vague language.
Vague: The weather was of an extreme nature on the West Coast.
This sentence raises frustrating questions: When did this extreme weather occur? What does “of an extreme nature” mean? Where on the West Coast did this take place?
Concrete: California had unusually cold weather last week.
Rule 2. Use active voice whenever possible. Active voice means the subject is performing the verb. Passive voice means the subject receives the action.
Active: Barry hit the ball.
Passive: The ball was hit.
Notice that the party responsible for the action—in the previous example, whoever hit the ball—may not even appear when using passive voice. So passive voice is a useful option when the responsible party is not known.
Example: My watch was stolen.
The passive voice has often been criticized as something employed by people in power to avoid responsibility:
Example: Mistakes were made.
Translation: I made mistakes.
Rule 3. Avoid overusing there is, there are, it is, it was, etc.
Example: There is a case of meningitis that was reported in the newspaper.
Revision: A case of meningitis was reported in the newspaper.
Even better: The newspaper reported a case of meningitis. (Active voice)
Example: It is important to signal before making a left turn.
Signaling before making a left turn is important.
Signaling before a left turn is important.
You should signal before making a left turn.
Example: There are some revisions that must be made.
Revision: Some revisions must be made. (Passive voice)
Even better: Please make some revisions. (Active voice)
Rule 4. To avoid confusion (and pompousness), don’t use two negatives to make a positive without good reason.
Unnecessary: He is not unwilling to help.
Better: He is willing to help.
Sometimes a not un- construction may be desirable, perhaps even necessary:
Example: The book is uneven but not uninteresting.
However, the novelist-essayist George Orwell warned of its abuse with this deliberately silly sentence: “A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field.”
Rule 5. Use consistent grammatical form when offering several ideas. This is called parallel construction.
Correct: I admire people who are honest, reliable, and sincere.
Note that are applies to and makes sense with each of the three adjectives at the end.
Incorrect: I admire people who are honest, reliable, and have sincerity.
In this version, are does not make sense with have sincerity, and have sincerity doesn’t belong with the two adjectives honest and reliable.
Correct: You should check your spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
Note that “check your” applies to and makes sense with each of the three nouns at the end.
Incorrect: You should check your spelling, grammar, and punctuate properly.
Here, “check your” does not make sense with punctuate properly, and punctuate properly doesn’t belong with the two nouns spelling and grammar. The result is a jarringly inept sentence.