This website is to help learners of English (or anyone who is interested) understand English sentence structure.
Every language has different ways of putting words together in sentences. An important part of learning a new language is learning new ways of making sentences.
If your language is not related to English, you will notice that English has a totally different way of making sentences. In order to comprehend, speak and write in English, it is helpful to understand how English sentences are formed.
Once you learn to recognize the basic parts that make up a sentence, the patterns of English sentences will start to become clear, and creating your own sentences will become easier.
When we speak our own language, we don’t normally think about grammar, but we are still able to make grammatically correct sentences – or at least put words together in ways that are acceptable (or ‘feel right’) to the people we are speaking to. Even young children can make grammatically correct sentences without ever having studied grammar. This is because at a very early age they learn not only the basic words and sounds of their language, but also the common grammar patterns – the ways that words can be combined – in their correct forms – in phrases and sentences.
All languages have different ways of putting words together and making sentences. Certain combinations of words are acceptable and others are not. The phrases ‘the red car’, ‘an old man’ and ‘a good idea’ are examples of one grammar pattern: article + adjective + countable noun. The combination ‘the car red’ is not acceptable in English because the pattern article + noun + adjective is not an English grammar pattern (though it is a grammar pattern in some languages).
Children somehow sense the patterns in the language(s) they grow up with, and intuitively use them as they try to speak like the people around them. Unfortunately, this remarkable ability diminishes over time, and adults find it much harder to sense and learn the patterns in a new language, even when they are immersed in it. This is especially true if the new language is very different from their own. School children also have trouble learning the grammar patterns (or rules) of a new language if they are not hearing and using it every day.
When people learn the words of a new language but not its grammar patterns, they often produce sentences that native speakers would not consider correct. Below are three sentences from English language students. You can probably see which student has a better knowledge of English grammar.
1 I live here during five years.
2 I have been living here for five years.
3 I living here five year.
To a native English speaker, or anyone knowing sufficient English grammar, it is clear that only the second sentence (2) is ‘correct English’. Sentences 1 and 3 ‘feel wrong’ because they contain either unfamiliar grammar patterns or grammar patterns used in unfamiliar ways.
In sentence 1 I live here fits a familiar grammar pattern but this pattern (present simple tense) is not used in English to describe the length of time something has been happening. Also, in English we don’t use the preposition during when describing a length of time.
In sentence 3 the only verb in the sentence living (present participle or –ing form of verb live) has no auxiliary verb but follows the subject I. This is not a pattern used in English; I am living , I was living, I have been living, or I had been living are possible, but if the speaker started living here five years ago and is still living here, only I have been living or I have lived are acceptable. Also five year sounds wrong because we are accustomed to hearing numbers followed by plural nouns.
Sentence 2 contains no unfamiliar grammar patterns – only familiar and appropriate English grammar patterns, which is why it feels right to English native speakers.
Do native speakers know the grammar of their language?
When people say they don’t know the grammar of their language, they probably mean that they can’t explain its grammatical ‘rules’. In fact everyone knows a lot of grammar, but we may not be consciously aware of it because this knowledge is mostly subconscious. To speak a language fluently requires a huge amount of grammatical knowledge (of how to put words together in their appropriate forms in sentences that convey meaning clearly). Without knowing the common grammar patterns of our language, we would be left with just words, and be able to communicate only simple ideas, like *‘Hungry food want now,’ but unable to convey complex thoughts, or fully understand most speech or writing.
When we speak, listen, read or write, or just ‘feel’ whether a sentence is right or wrong, we are drawing on unconscious knowledge gained mostly during childhood from hearing (and speaking) countless sentences and phrases. We don’t remember all of these, but what remains deep in our subconscious memory are the patterns used again and again within these sentences and phrases – recurring combinations of words, patterns of phrases, statements and questions, appropriate word forms and endings, and so on. Somehow we are able to access this information whenever we use our language, although it comes to us through feeling or intuition. Sentences with patterns that all match those in this hidden memory bank feel right, and those with different, unfamiliar patterns feel strange or wrong. Children instinctively try to produce language that feels and sounds like the language they hear around them. Adult learners can also do this, but it does not come so naturally, and they often produce sentences with patterns from their first language or other patterns that native speakers would not use in the same situation.
Do learners of English need to study grammar?
Fortunately, it is also possible for older learners to develop a feeling for what is grammatically correct in a new language without having to grow up using it. Millions of people have grown up in non-English speaking countries and have still managed to achieve a high level of spoken and written English. However, most of them did not gain their grammatical knowledge (or feeling) simply from listening to and speaking English.
Adults and even most teenagers rarely possess the incredible sensitivity to language patterns they had as young children. They may automatically ‘pick up’ some common patterns in a new language, especially ones that are the same or similar to those of their language, but different and complex patterns usually require more than just exposure. To integrate new grammar patterns, most learners need to become consciously aware of them by observing a number of examples and having the opportunity to practise and use them in their own sentences. The order in which grammar patterns are learned is also important. Common fundamental patterns should be learned and integrated before more complex ones (which are mostly combinations of simpler basic patterns).
Is it more difficult for some people to learn English than others?
It is generally thought that it easier to learn a language from the same language family as your own, rather than one from a different language family. This is because related languages not only share many similar words, but also have similar grammar patterns (as well as some different ones). English is a member of the Indo-European family, and speakers of languages from this group (especially the more closely related languages, such as those from the Germanic and Latin language groups) will notice many familiar features and patterns in English, such as verb tenses, articles, subject verb agreement and recognisable patterns of complex sentence structure. They may not be able to name and explain these features, but they would ‘feel’ vaguely familiar, and consequently be easier to learn.
Unfortunately, this is not so for most speakers of non-Indo-European languages, which have completely different grammar systems, and construct sentences in totally different ways. Learners from these linguistic backgrounds will find very few familiar patterns in English – and many new and complex ones. Speakers of Indo-European languages that are only distantly related to English will also find English grammar challenging. For millions of people in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere, who want to learn English, but have not grown up surrounded by it (or another closely related language like French or Spanish), the patterns of English grammar are unfamiliar, often confusing and difficult to learn.
Nowadays in most countries children study English grammar at school, which can be very helpful, but not all students benefit greatly from their grammar lessons. English grammar is complex; there are countless patterns (or rules), and without a solid grasp of the fundamental patterns of clause and sentence structure, memorising isolated rules can seem tedious and pointless. Consequently, the study of grammar, which is supposed to simplify the language learning process, sometimes appears to complicate it and only add to students’ confusion.
Can you learn English without learning English grammar?
While most people agree that studying grammar is an important part of learning a new language, many find it challenging and boring. Some find English grammar so difficult, tedious and/or frustrating that they don’t even attempt to learn it and just try to communicate as best they can with the English words they know. With practice their listening and speaking skills usually improve, and in time a reasonable level of fluency can be achieved. Common words and phrases and simple grammar patterns can be acquired from conversation, but less commonly used vocabulary and complex grammar patterns, especially ones very different from those of the learner’s first language are less likely to be integrated without some form of study. Without a sufficient understanding of English grammar, they often create sentences that contain English words that are arranged with the grammar patterns of their own language. Examples of this are Germish (English with German grammar), Spanglish (Spanish English),Chinglish (Chinese English), Japlish (Japanese English), and so on.
Since languages closely related to English have recognisably similar sentence structure, speakers from most European countries are usually able to create sentences that are at least understandable to English ears – if not grammatically correct. However, language produced using completely foreign grammar patterns is often much harder to understand for English speakers, especially if it contains detailed or complicated information.
Is it important to learn sentence structure?
It is possible to convey simple ideas by putting words together little or no knowledge of grammar. However, communicating complex ideas requires complex sentences. Since the speech of native speakers and most written texts contain long complex sentences, gaining a good understanding (conscious or subconscious) of how sentences are constructed is a vital part of learning a language. It helps learners read, understand, and communicate in their own speech and writing.
The word grammar is very commonly used, but it has different meaning to different people. There are many opinions and much disagreement on what it is – or what it should be.
In language learning, grammar can be seen as the organizational system for putting words together in their appropriate forms. Students learn grammar in order to help them better understand written and spoken language and create sentences similar to those of native speakers.
Every language has its own grammar. To communicate in a language, people need to share not only an understanding of the meaning of the words, but must also know how to arrange words appropriately into sentences (and larger texts) to convey the intended meaning.
For language students, grammar traditionally involves learning syntax (word order), morphology (word forms and prefixes, word endings, etc.) and word classes (parts of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions, etc.).
Syntax is the study of patterns in phrases (groups), clauses and sentences. This includes how subjects, objects and verbs etc. are arranged in sentences, such as: I love you, not I you love; and patterns of phrases, like a blue dress (determiner-adjective-noun), not a dress blue (determiner- noun-adjective). It also includes how individual words can combine, for example arrive at or arrive in but not arrive to; and take a photo – but not make a photo or do a photo.
Morphology is the study of word forms (for example: do, does, did, done, or photograph, photography, photographer, photographic), and morphemes – the smallest units of meaning. Words are made of morphemes. For example, the word unbreakable has three morphemes: un–break–able; the word going has two morphemes: go–ing. Many English words have only one morpheme, for example walk, surprise and difficult, but they have several different forms. For example, walked and difficulty each have two morphemes (walk-ed and difficult-y), and unsurprisingly has four morphemes (un-surpris-ing-ly).
Learning the parts of speech is useful for English students because words do not just have meaning, sound and spelling; words also have grammar – how they can fit together with other words in a sentence. Nouns, verbs, conjunctions, etc, have very different roles in a sentence, and knowing a new word’s part of speech gives a learner some idea of how to appropriately use it.
Some people believe grammar also includes other aspects of language such as spelling, punctuation, style, phonology (sounds and sound patterns of a language), semantics (how meaning is expressed), and pragmatics (how language is used).
In this website the focus is on the syntax, the different parts of speech, and basic morphology. This is not the full story of English grammar, but an understanding (conscious or unconscious) of how sentences are constructed is a vital part of being able to understand and communicate effectively in English.
The word pattern is very common in English to describe things that happen again and again predictably over time. For example, different parts of the world have different weather patterns; and if you know the weather patterns, you can have a vague idea of what to expect at a certain time of the year.
The patterns in a language are natural have developed (and slowly change) over time. They were not made by authorities but by the speakers of the language who copied the language of people around them and the language they heard as children.
Languages share some of their patterns with languages they are related to or have shared close contact. For example, in English, French and Spanish, the plural form of a noun is made by adding ‘s’.
English native speakers sometimes say: “I don’t know the rules of English grammar,” or “I don’t know English grammar,” yet they generally have no trouble speaking, reading and writing English. This sometimes makes people learning English think that perhaps learning grammar is not important: ‘If native English speakers don’t know it, why should I learn it?’
Native English speakers might be able to explain the ‘rules’ but they (unconsciously) know the English grammar patterns, so they can ‘feel’ what is right and what is wrong (usually), even though they often cannot explain why.
In fact all native speakers have a great deal of grammatical knowledge of their language – but this knowledge is unconscious, so they are often unaware that they have it. As children, they not only learned the sounds and words of their first language, but also unconsciously ‘picked up” its sound patterns (pronunciation and intonation) and grammar patterns – how words are put together to make sentences (syntax or sentence structure), and which word forms, endings and so on are used in certain situations (morphology).
Native English speakers can automatically put words together into meaningful statements and questions without the need to think about what is correct. This is possible because they have become familiar with the all the common English grammar patterns, so that grammatically correct sentences and combinations of words ‘feel okay’, and grammatically incorrect combinations feel strange or wrong.
If you don’t know the grammar patterns of a language, you may be able to communicate simple ideas, but will probably have trouble communicating complex ideas, and have more difficulties understanding what people say.
When you are trying to have a conversation in a foreign language, you don’t have much time to think about grammar. But if you are familiar with the basic grammar patterns of the language, you should be able to make sentences that are good enough for communication.
Don’t worry too much about grammatical errors. Everyone makes mistakes when they speak a foreign (or second) language. Native speakers don’t expect non-native speakers to speak perfectly (because whenever they hear English spoken by a non-native speaker, it is normally quite different from the English of native speakers. In fact they would be very surprised if you spoke perfect English.)
A knowledge of the basic English grammar patterns will help you understand English and make it easier for people to understand you.