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Compact Oxford English Dictionary for Students

Top 10 Grammar Tips

Grammar is the way in which words are put together to form sentences. Here are ten easy-to-remember tips which will help you to brush up your grammar and make your writing clear and accurate.

You'll find more detailed advice in the dictionary's centre section and special notes, and there's also a quick-reference grammar jargon-buster.

You could also try testing yourself, with this quick quiz.

1. Getting pronouns right (more about pronouns)

You should use the pronoun I, along with other subjective pronouns such as we, he, she, you, and they, when the pronoun is acting as the subject of a verb:

    He went to bed.
    We waited for the bus.
    Clare and I are going for a coffee.

As I, together with Clare, forms the subject of the last sentence above, then you should use the pronoun I rather than the pronoun me.

TIP: an easy way of choosing the correct pronoun is to see if the sentence reads grammatically without the additional noun:

I am going for a coffee. [not Me am going for a coffee.]

2. Getting pronouns right (more about pronouns)

You should use the pronoun me, along with other objective pronouns such as us, him, her, you, and them, when the pronoun is acting as the object of a verb or preposition:

    Danny thanked them.
    The dog followed us.
    Jake spent the day with Dave and me.

As me, together with Dave, forms the object of the last sentence above, then you should use the pronoun me rather than the pronoun I.

TIP: an easy way of choosing the correct pronoun is to see if the sentence reads grammatically without the additional noun:

Jake spent the day with me. [not Jake spent the day with I.]

3. Matching up subjects and verbs

Correctly matching up singular or plural subjects with singular or plural forms of a verb is part of the process called agreement. This is easy in simple sentences:

He admits that he is worried. [singular subject (he) and verb]
They admit that they are worried. [plural subject (they) and verb]

But more complex sentences can be trickier:

    More than one in ten health club members admit to joining a gym for social reasons.

Although at first glance, the subject of the above sentence (more than one in ten health club members) may appear to be singular, it is in fact plural (= 'more than one'), so you should use the plural verb admit.

TIP: try replacing the subject of the sentence with an appropriate pronoun (in this case the plural pronoun they):

They admit to joining a gym for social reasons. [not They admits to joining a gym ..]

4. Matching up subjects and verbs

Correctly matching up singular or plural subjects with singular or plural verbs is part of the process called agreement. The following examples use singular verbs (in red) because the real subjects of the sentences (also in red) are in the singular, even though they are followed by extra elements:

    The little girl, together with her friend Kerry, was busy filling her bucket with sand.

    Your booking form, accompanied by a cheque, needs to reach us by Monday.

    Campbell, together with the region's chief administrators, has made the case for increased funding.

TIP: an easy way to check that the subject matches the verb is to think of the sentence without the extra element:

The little girl was busy filling her bucket with sand. [not The little girl were ..]
Your booking form needs to reach us by Monday. [not Your booking form need ..]
Campbell has made the case for increased funding. [not Campbell have made ..]

(But note that 'The little girl and her friend Kerry' forms a plural subject, so takes a plural verb: The little girl and her friend Kerry were playing on the beach.)

5. Matching verbs to collective nouns

Collective nouns are nouns which stand for a group or collection of people or things and include words such as audience, committee, police, crew, family, government, group, team, and many others.

Most collective nouns can be treated as singular or plural, with either a singular or plural verb:

The whole family was at the table. [singular verb]
The whole family were at the table. [plural verb]

But there are a few collective nouns, such as police, which are always used with a plural verb:

She's happy with the way the police have handled the case. [not...the police has handled the case]

TIP: look up collective nouns in the dictionary if you're not sure whether to treat them as singular or plural. Special cases such as police have 'treated as pl.' in brackets before the definitions.

6. That or which?

Using that or which depends on the type of relative clause that follows these words. In the sentence below, it is correct to use which rather than that because it introduces an example of a non-restrictive (or non-defining) relative clause:

    A list of contents would have made it easier to steer through the book, which also lacks a map.

This kind of clause gives extra information that could be left out without affecting the structure or meaning of the sentence and is introduced by which, who, or whose.

TIP: don't introduce a non-restrictive relative clause with that; always use a comma before beginning the clause.

The other type of relative clause is a restrictive (or defining) relative clause. This gives essential information about a noun that comes before it. It can be introduced by that, which, who, whom, or whose:

    She held out the hand which was hurt.
    She held out the hand that was hurt.

TIP: you don't normally put a comma before a restrictive relative clause, and in less formal contexts you don't need to use that or which:

    They passed the house that they once lived in.
    They passed the house they once lived in.

7. Less or fewer?

People often don't know when to use less and when to use fewer. Here's how to get it right.

TIP: use fewer when you're referring to people or things in the plural (fewer things, fewer people, fewer women, fewer cars):

    People are buying fewer books.
    Fewer people are smokers these days.

and less when you're referring to things that can't be counted (less time, less air, less money):

    It's a better job but they pay you less money.
    People want to spend less time in traffic jams.

8. Participles

Participles are often used to introduce subordinate clauses, which give additional information about the main part of the sentence (the main clause):

    Her mother, opening the door quietly, came into the room.

Here, the subject of the subordinate clause (in red) refers to the subject of the main clause (her mother) and the sentence makes sense.

In the next sentence the subject of the subordinate clause (in red) does not match the subject of the main clause. The intended meaning is 'when [the writer or another person] went for a swim, they found that the water was freezing', but the sentence technically means that it is 'the water' (the subject of the main clause) which is 'going for a swim'.

    Going for a swim, the water was freezing.

When the subject of the subordinate clause doesn't match the subject of the main clause in this way, this is called a 'dangling participle' and is regarded as incorrect because it causes confusion.

TIP: change the sentence to make a person the subject (rather than 'the water') so that the participle (going) matches the subject of the main clause, as in these possible rewordings:

    Going for a swim, I found that the water was freezing.
    Going for a swim, Helen found that the water was freezing.

9. Subjunctive

The subjunctive is a special form (or mood) of a verb that expresses a wish, a possibility, or a hypothetical situation instead of a fact. You should use it in formal written contexts, although it's acceptable not to use it if you're writing or speaking informally.

In the following sentences the verbs wait and were are in the subjunctive. The ordinary forms (called the indicative) would be waits and was:

    It was suggested she wait till the next morning.
    If I were you, I'd get my life back on track.

TIP: subjunctives are often used after if, as if, as though, and unless:

    He treats Rick as though he were an idiot.
    No queen could do much about a king's adultery unless she were queen regnant.

10. Double negatives

A double negative uses two negative words (in red below) in the same clause to mean a single negative:

    We did n't see nothing. = We saw nothing.
    She never danced with nobody here. = She didn't dance with anybody here.

This isn't good English and should be avoided, although you will find double negatives used in other languages.

TIP: to get it right, just use a single negative:

    We did n't see anything.
    She never danced with anybody here.

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