Understanding the role of grammar in a language is sort of like learning how to bake. Just by looking at a cake, we cannot know how to bake one. We need to learn the steps to bake the perfect cake. Grammar is like the recipe that helps us to prepare perfect sentences.
Simply put, grammar is a system of rules or patterns that define how we structure sentences. Scott Thornbury, a famous English language expert says that grammar is actually a process, he calls it ‘grammaring’.
When we learn a new language, it is often difficult to focus on communicating ideas and forming accurate sentences at the same time. We need to practise to develop this ability. Here are a few tips for improving grammar to help you get it right
- Watch that verb
Every sentence has a subject (I, we, Jack or Jill) and a verb to go with it. Remember that your subject and verb are friends. They must always agree with each other.
2. Add those articles
Articles are everywhere – ‘a’, ‘an’ and ‘the’. Most nouns need them!
- Add indefinite articles (a, an) before all singular countable nouns.
He baked a cake for his mother’s birthday.
- Use the definite article ‘the’ when you want to be specific.
I want the red cake that’s in the shop window.
(I want that specific cake and no other)
- Add articles when talking jobs and specific geographical features. Famous monuments and buildings need articles and musical instruments too!
She wants to be a baker and learn how to play the piano.
She has been to the Himalayas and the Sahara desert.
Let’s go with her to visit the Taj Mahal.
It’s a good idea to notice when and how articles are used while you read or listen to English. The more you notice, the better you will be able to use them. If you’re not sure about whether to use an article with a word, refer to an online dictionary to help you.
3. Pick your prepositions
Learning more about preposition patterns will help you master these little words. We use prepositions to show a relationship between two or more people, places or things. There are over 100 prepositions in English! They show a relationship in space (position) or time.
|I put the cake
| the oven and waited
|it was baked.
- Most prepositions are single words, but some come in pairs and groups.
I placed the hot cake in front of the window.
- Prepositions also combine with adjectives, verbs and nouns.
This is his third attempt at baking a cake. (noun + preposition)
Are you interested in some cake? (adjective + preposition)
I thanked him for the cake (verb + preposition)
One of the important tips to improve grammar and vocabulary is to pick a preposition a day and read more about which other words it forms groups with. You’ll learn about all 100 in no time!
4. Don’t get tense
The way to handle tenses is ‘calmly’. We need tenses to talking about time; what we’ve done in the past, present and future. We wouldn’t have stories without the past tenses. How would we talk about habits and facts without the present tenses? And what would life be without future predictions?
There are two important things to know about tenses:
- Meaning and use
- Structure and form
The latter point, we’ve all learnt in school with grammar books and exercises. We only need a quick brushing up. Thanks to the internet we can do that anytime, anywhere. Just type in the name of the tense e.g. present perfect tense and you have range of resources at your fingertips.
It’s important however to focus on when to use each tense, which often students tell me they didn’t focus on in school.
For example, we need to use the past perfect when we have two actions in the past. The past perfect is used to talk about the earlier action.
I had finished all the cake by the time my friends arrived.
Another interesting example is the future with ‘will’. It is used to express a spontaneous decision that is made quickly and in the moment.
Oh no! I didn’t know you were coming! I will make a cake right away.
Tenses take on a new meaning when we look at them in this way. One of the ways to improve grammatical accuracy is to understand how we can use the tenses in different situations and contexts. So, let’s look at tenses differently from now on!
5. Face your fears
Grammar is here to help you, not to make your life more difficult. Use it as a tool to help you write and speak better. A simple 3 step process will help you tackle grammar.
Choose a single element of grammar that you want to focus on each week e.g. present perfect tense or definite articles. While you watch movies, listen to music, read books and newspapers, or when you speak with fluent speakers make mental or physical notes of how the tense or article is used in different situations.
Identify how and why it was used in that situation. Did the actor use the present perfect to talk about an experience? Did the narrator in the documentary use an article when describing the different geographic features?
It’s a good idea to reflect on your own problems with a specific grammar point. Do you use it while speaking or writing? Do you use it correctly? Recording yourself speaking is a good way to identify errors.
Once you’ve gone through steps 1-3 you are in a good position to apply what you’ve learnt. Speak more, without worrying about errors getting in the way. Write more and have a friend, who is good at English, give you feedback. These are some of the ways to improve grammar and sentence structure. With a little bit of practice and a lot of confidence, you will definitely be able to use grammar correctly.
We may love grammar or we may hate it, but we definitely cannot do without it!
Carter, R. & McCarthy, R. 2006 Cambridge Grammar of English Cambridge
Thornbury, S. 2005 Uncovering Grammar Macmillan
Articles: Indefinite and definite
Verbs and prepositions
Adjectives and prepositions
Tenses: Past, Present, and Talking about the future