Thursday, May 28, 2015

Grammar Basics: What Every Writer Should Know

Like every other vocation, writing comes with a plethora of technical terms—everything from past perfect continuous tense to non-defining relative clauses. Unlike many other vocations, however, writing is a task that can be performed with next to no knowledge of its technical aspects. In other words, you don’t need to know what a grammatical article is in order to use one correctly. Most people do this instinctually.

That’s not to say that a knowledge of the technical aspects of writing isn’t useful and important. Generally speaking, the more thorough a person’s knowledge of grammar, punctuation, and all of the technical details of writing, the more precise, legible, and skilled their writing will be. But such detailed expertise is not necessary to write a good story. That’s why I usually refrain from using technical writing terms in my blog posts: it’s not so important that you know what a present participle or a gerund is, it’s just important that you know how to use verbs that end in –ing.

But there is a minimum level of knowledge that every writer should have if they want to write for a living. You don’t need to be able to diagram a sentence, but most editors will expect you to know at least the following terms and what they mean:

Basic Sentence Structure: Subject, Verb, and Direct Object

I’ve gone over the basics of what makes up a sentence before: a subject, a verb, and (often) a direct object. Every writer should know what each of those terms means and be able to identify them in a sentence.

The subject of the sentence is the thing that is performing an action.
The verb is the action that is being performed.
The direct object is the thing that is being acted upon—the thing that the verb is affecting.

        Koharu         sipped          her sake.
        Subject           Verb        Direct Object

Remember that not all verbs require a direct object.

       Haruto     slept.
       Subject     Verb      (no direct object needed)

If a sentence does not have that central subject and verb, then it (usually) isn’t a sentence—it’s a sentence fragment.


An adjective is a word that modifies a noun, like so:

     Koharu was an intelligent woman.

Adjectives can be colors (the blue car), qualities (the adorable baby), materials (a wooden sword), nationalities (a Japanese car), ages (the seven-year-old girl), and more. The limiting factor is that they will always describe a noun.


Adverbs (the use of which is discussed here) are words that modify pretty much everything but nouns. They can modify verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, phrases, and even entire sentences. They usually end in –ly, but not always.

     Modifying a verb: Haruto spoke quickly.
                                   Koharu visited yesterday.    
     Modifying an adjective: Haruto thinks that he is extremely clever.
                                            Your overly worried sister doesn’t think so.
     Modifying an adverb: Haruto spoke very quickly.
     Modifying a phrase: Koharu drove us nearly the whole way. (Modifies the phrase “the whole way.”)
     Modifying a sentence: Eventually, we all decided to go together.

Prepositions and Prepositional Phrases

A preposition is a word that describes the location, direction, time, or possessive quality of a noun or action. Some examples:

     Location: Your coat is in the closet.
     Direction: Haruto drove to the store.
     Time: We’ll eat after the lecture.
     Possession: We’re going to meet the President of Japan!

A prepositional phrase is simply a preposition and the words it is linking to the rest of the sentence.

     My book was on the shelf.
     The creatures came from outer space.
     I’ll get this done before I clock out.
     The Queen of England won’t be there, sadly.

Tense and Perspective

You should know which tense and which form of perspective your story employs and be generally familiar with the most common tenses and perspectives. You can find a handy rundown of tense and perspective here.


A pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun or noun phrase. Examples include I, you, she, this that, these, who, what, whose, mine, his, and so many more. There are a good ten or so categories of pronouns, which I don’t expect everyone to learn—just know what a pronoun is and the basics of how to identify them.

Now, again: I’m not saying that you would not be well-served in studying your grammar and punctuation—all the elements of writing, really—to a greater depth than what I’ve covered here. But at the very least, every writer should know the terms above and how to identify the parts of speech that they refer to. Instinct and experience can make up for a lack of detailed knowledge, but they can’t make up for the basics.

Remember what Uncle Iroh taught us all: learn the basics, as they are your greatest ally.

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