When I’m working on prose, I find myself writing a sentence over and over, I think of the guard scene from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, in which the same sentence was repeated about fourteen times, in various forms.
- These included:
- Make sure the prince doesn’t leave this room until I come and get him.
- He’s not to leave the room even if you come and get him.
- You just stay here and make sure he doesn’t leave the room.
- Until you come and get him, we’re not to enter the room.
- You stay in the room and make sure he doesn’t leave.
- You stay here until I get back, and make sure he doesn’t leave.
I was generating countless versions of the same sentence, so writing was taking me a long time. I hoped that knowing English Grammar cold would help me find the ideal sentence structure on the first try.
Overview of English Grammar
1. Simple Sentence – A complete sentence consists of [ Subject ] [ Verb – Object ], where the subject is the active noun, and predicate is everything else.
2. Compound Sentence – created by gluing two sentences together.
3. Complex Sentence – applies a modifier to the subject or predicate.
Modifiers – We usually think of modifiers as single words. (“The red sweater was scratchy.” “The fire burned fiercely.”) but phrases can also be modifiers. A phrase that modifies a noun may be thought of as an adjective, a phrase that modifies a verb, an adverb. Modifiers come in a variety of structures, from short phrases to dependent clauses (complete sentences) that are “glued” on.
Prepositional – describes the relationship of something in the main sentence to something else, often in terms of space or time. (“near the pond” “after the battle“) The phrase is “glued” with a subordinate conjunction. (“Colonel Mustard killed someone in the library, with the pipe, during dinner.“)
Relative Pronoun – provides further information about the Subject or Object. The phrase is “glued” with a relative pronoun like that, which, who/whom. (“I got the assignment from a boy who was in my class.“)
Infinitive – a verb phrase in which the verb is an infinitive. “I want to see the movie.” “His desire to climb Everest was ambitious.”
Label – assigns a name or a label to a noun or verb. (“Some kind of insect, it might have been a cricket, chirped.” “He ran, a no-holds-barred pace you might call a sprint.“)
Participial – a phrase based on a participle, an adjective made from the -ing form of a verb: (“Knowing what we know now, we wouldn’t have done that.”)
- Writing research has found that knowledge of grammar doesn’t improve writing speed. It may even make it worse. So what’s the benefit of studying the grammar of complex sentences? None.
- I studied things I wrote before I studied grammar. I discovered I’d done every subordinate conjunction, every relative pronoun, every comma around a dependent clause correctly. If you’re a native speaker of English, you already know this stuff, even if you don’t know the names of all the parts.
- And finally, “Don’t split an infinitive” and “Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.” These are real rules in Latin, not in English. “Who are you staying with?” or “To boldly go where no man has gone before“.