Basic Written English
by Bill Ball, Rhea Williams and Tony Scott
Before we can write we have to learn to read, and before we can read we have to learn to speak. That is the normal order of events from the time we are born to about the age of four. Indeed, that is how the language came into being all those years ago. In other words, the language came before the grammar, and not the other way round. It is important to remember this simple fact, because it is the spoken word that fashions the changing language, and not the grammarians, who in reality can do no more than list the rules as they exist in their own lifetimes. Popular usage (that is, speech) has always had the final say and it always will, much to the understandable annoyance of those of us who love the language and want it to remain as it is. It is true that many of the changes that have taken place in the language (particularly over the past 40 years or so) have been changes for the worse. For this reason, it is essential that we all do our utmost to discourage the intrusion of anything that might be detrimental to the language as it exists today. That is one of the main aims of the Queen's English Society.
What is basic written English?
For our purposes, basic written English may be regarded as lying somewhere between the informal language of everyday conversation and the formal language of the legal profession and those who draft our legislation. Basic written English is that which is not open to serious criticism when judged by the standards of current good usage. In other words, it is English which is in accordance with the rules and customs of today.
The tools of the trade
Before we can even begin to write acceptable English, we need to have some knowledge of the basic components of the language: the tools of the trade, as it were. Just as any skilled workman needs his tools to enable him to carry on his trade, so too does the writer. The writer's tools are the thousands of words that make up the language, even though to start with he will need only a fraction of them. But it is how he uses those words that determines whether he is writing what may be loosely termed 'good English' or 'bad English'. Words on their own are only one of the components of the language, although they are of course the most important. The words must be made into readable sentences, and within those sentences there will be groups of words that are called phrases and clauses. We shall look at all these elements a little later on, together with the paragraph, spelling and the use of the dictionary, and punctuation.
In the meantime, we cannot stress often enough that the writer's strongest ally is his ability to read. The more he reads, the better his writing becomes; and the beauty of this is that it does not matter what he reads: books, newspapers, pamphlets, advertisements, or articles on his computer. Someone once said that reading maketh a full man. It is certainly true that reading is absolutely necessary from the outset if we are to have any chance of becoming writers of good English.
What is a sentence?
The basic unit of writing is the sentence. But what is a sentence? Over the centuries, grammarians and other writers on language have set down hundreds of different definitions of a sentence, many of which were too complicated to be of any real use. Briefly, we need to know just three things. Firstly, a sentence is a group of words that is complete in itself and expresses a statement, a command, a question, or an exclamation. Secondly, a sentence always begins with a capital letter and ends only with a full stop (.) or a question mark (?) or an exclamation mark (!). Thirdly, every sentence must contain or imply a subject, (the person or thing we are talking about) and a predicate ( which is simply what is said about the subject). Here are four simple sentences which should help to make this clear:
She is going to the dance tonight. (statement)
Stop here. (command)
Have you seen my book? (question)
How old he is looking! (exclamation)
In the first sentence, the subject is 'She' and the predicate is 'is going to the dance tonight'. In the second, the subject (which is implied or understood) is 'You' and the predicate is 'stop here'. In question sentences and exclamation sentences, part or all of the predicate may come before the subject. In sentence 3, the subject is 'you' and the predicate is 'have seen my book?' In sentence 4, the subject is 'he' and the predicate is 'is looking how old!' However long a sentence may be, it can still be divided into its two parts, subject and predicate:
A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
The subject is 'A bird in the hand' and the predicate is 'is worth two in the bush'.
There is one type of word that must appear in every sentence. It is the 'doing' or 'being' word that is called the verb. The grammarians call such verbs 'finite verbs', which for our purpose are verbs that have subjects. In 'John goes to work', for example, the verb is the doing word 'goes' (with John as subject) and in 'Mary is a swimmer' the verb is the being word 'is' (with Mary as subject). The main non-finite part of the verb is known as the infinitive. It does not have a subject, and in English it is usually preceded by 'to' (to go, to run, to speak etc).
All finite verbs have 'tenses', or 'times', and the doing or being action expressed by the verb may be thought of as taking place in three different times: past, present, future. Here are three simple examples:
I saw (past tense)
I see (present tense)
I shall see (future tense)
The tenses of verbs do not cause us much trouble, and we usually are able to make the necessary adjustments without much thought. One thing should be noted, however. The verb is not always just one or two words. In the following examples the full verbs are underlined:
- We shall be going home tomorrow.
- They have been playing for two hours.
- She should have finished her homework by now.
The grammar books say that the verb must 'agree with its subject in number and person'. 'Number' explains itself. If the subject is regarded as one (singular), the verb must be singular. If the subject is more than one (plural), the verb must be plural. Verbs are said to have three 'persons', as follows:
First person: I (singular), We (plural)
Second person: You (singular and plural)
Third person: He, She, It (singular), They (plural)
If the subject is in the first person, the verb must be in the first person (I am. We are). If the subject is in the second person, the verb must be in the second person (You run). If the subject is in the third person, the verb must be in the third person (He, She, It swims. They swim).
We have said that every sentence must have a verb. Each of the other words that are used to make up a sentence will fall into one of the other types of word that are often referred to as parts of speech. The main parts of speech (including verbs) are as follows:
Nouns (used to identify people, places or things)
Adjectives (used to 'describe' nouns)
Adverbs (used to 'modify' other words, mainly verbs)
Pronouns (used mainly to avoid repetition of nouns)
Prepositions (used to show their relation to other words)
Conjunctions (used to join words, phrases and clauses)
Interjections (are exclamations such as Bravo! and Oh!)
Here's one for our younger visitors. Try to place the words on the right into a proper sentence. The solution is on the next page. NO PEEPING!
It is important to note that many words have more than one function. That is, they can be one part of speech in one context and a different part of speech in another. In 'Where is my book?' for example, the word 'book' is a noun. In 'I will book a table' the word 'book' is a verb.
When we are reading, speaking or writing, we do not consciously break down a sentence into its parts (subject, predicate, noun, adjective etc) and you may be wondering why we have bothered to mention them. The main reason is that, as your writing improves and you feel encouraged to consult books on grammar and usage, you may well find it useful to have some basic knowledge of these words in advance.
The same can be said of clauses and phrases which again we are not normally conscious of when we read or write. A clause, like a sentence, must have a subject and a predicate of its own. A phrase is a group of words without a subject or a predicate. The best way to explain the difference between clauses and phrases is by illustration. Here are three sentences, with comments:
- The man is a teacher.
- The man who lives next door is a teacher.
- The man who lives next door is a teacher at my school.
In the first sentence there is one verb only ('is') and therefore only one clause (the sentence itself). In the second sentence there are two verbs ('lives' and 'is') and therefore two clauses, 'who lives next door', and 'The man is a teacher'. In the third sentence there are again the two clauses that are in the second sentence, but with 'at my school' tagged on at the end. These three words at the end have some meaning of their own, but as they do not contain a finite verb they cannot be called a clause. They are what are known in English grammar as a phrase, which is something that has meaning but is neither a single word nor a clause.
Until about the middle of the 1960s, the English tests and exams in many schools invariably contained the dreaded command,'Analyse the following sentences into clauses....' In 1945 a writer on language, Gordon Humphreys, had this to say in his book 'Teach Yourself English Grammar'.
"Practice in the analysis of sentences can develop an appreciation of the well-constructed sentence and assist in detecting the faults of a loose sentence. It takes you into the workshop of the language. You see how the sentence works."
That may be so, and sentence analysis could be of some interest to the experienced writer. But, as we have already mentioned, we do not consciously break down a sentence into its parts before (or after) we write it. As we become more experienced at writing, our ear will tell us whether the sentence sounds right or not. In other words, it is more important to 'hear' a sentence than it is to analyse it.
In this section we have briefly shown how the English sentence is made up. Sentences then have to be put into paragraphs, unless what we are writing is short and paragraphs are not required.
This Guide is continued on the next page.