The Benefits of Knowing Grammar Cold

When I write descriptions, I write the same sentence over and over. It makes me think of the guard scene from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”:

King “Make sure the prince doesn’t leave this room until I come and get him.”
Guard “He’s not to leave the room even if you come and get him.”
King “You just stay here and make sure he doesn’t leave the room.”
Guard “Until you come and get him, we’re not to enter the room.”
King “You stay in the room and make sure he doesn’t leave.”
Guard “We don’t need to do anything apart from just stop him from entering the room.”

Thus, writing takes me a long time. I wondered if I knew English Grammar cold, I’d be able to compose the ideal sentence structure on the first try. (Spoiler alert – nice try, but no.)


An 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.

sentence

 

2. Compound Sentence – created by gluing two sentences together.

conjunction

 

3. Complex Sentence – applies a modifier to the subject or predicate.

modifiers

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“.

Author: Liz Hayes

Liz Hayes is the author of “How To Write Faster”. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and children, where she works as an analyst for a think tank inside the capital beltway. She is fascinated by medieval reenactment and writes fanfiction under the penname Uvatha the Horseman.