Using knowledge about syntax and grammar to improve own text

Learning outcome: After completing this module the student should be able to use their knowledge about syntax and grammar to improve their own texts.

What is grammar?

It doesn’t have to be very complicated. We can say that grammar is the set of rules that helps us putting words together in meaningful sentences. In English it is not only important to write the words correctly, but also in the right order. Syntax is about that order.

Usually we write digitally and use the spell check on our text program. Microsoft office provides a curly red line for spelling mistakes and a double blue line for grammatical errors. Many others use the same system. It is a very good help. But it is not fool proof. Our languages are so complicated they can fool the computer programs. We therefor need to know something about grammar and spelling.

4.1 Word classes

Word classes is the way we sort words that are used in similar ways in sentences into the same groups. The two most important are nouns and verbs.
Nouns are the names for things; it could be material things, places, living creatures or immaterial things: rock, Istanbul, Polly and love.
Nouns can change to tell us something about number: one rock- two rocks. Immaterial things like love cannot be counted.
Names of people, places etc don’t change. When we write, we start these names with a capital letter: Anna, Barcelona, New York and Ibrahim.
Verbs tell something is happening or somebody does something: Jump, rain, scream, fall, bite, change and know.
Verbs can change to tell us when something happened:
I jump (today)
I jumped (yesterday)
I have jumped (for an hour)
I will jump (tomorrow).
We call this “tense” Past tense is something that has happened, present tense is things that are happening now and future tense is something that will or may happen in near or distant future.
In English the verbs in present tense get an -s in the end if linked to one noun or the pronouns he, she it: “The girl jumps” but “the girls jump”, “he smiles” but “I smile”.
Other word classes are:
Adjectives (describe the nouns): pretty, sick, wet, blue
Adverbs (describe the verbs): quickly, well, awfully
Prepositions (describes where something is): under, next to, on, inside
Determiners (introduce the nouns): a, the, some, my, that
Conjunctions: (tie together words or sentences): but, and, for, because
Pronouns (instead of saying the noun): she, I, you, us, it
And there are even more, like numbers. And all words belong in a word class:

Source of image: Flexible education Norway
I walk happily in the rain wearing My red boots
pronoun verb adverb prepo-
noun verb deter-

Why is this useful to know? Many words look and sound similar, but they mean different things. Knowing your grammar helps you write more professional looking texts.
Do you see the difference between: “I walk happy in the rain wear my red boots” and “I walk happily in the rain wearing my red boots”? They look very much alike, but you clearly understand that the writer of the first sentence is not a native speaker.
Knowing the grammar can also help us with the correct punctuation.

4.2 Syntax

We also need to put the words in the correct order. For example, we usually put the main noun before the verb, but the adjective before the noun. “The girl smiles” and “The nice girl smiles”. In English the order is particularly important when there are more nouns in the sentence: “The girl smiles at the boy” is different from “The boy smiles at the girl”. And putting the words in a random order, like “The girl the boy at smiles” makes no sense at all.


4.3 Punctuation

Punctuation is the art of using symbols to help the reader understand your sentences correctly. Punctuation is a part of the grammar system.
The most important punctuation marks are:

Name Symbol Used for
Period . Marking the end of a sentence
I am finished here.
Comma , Separating similar items in a sentence or making a distinction
We ate bread, butter, jam and cheese.
Igor, who was taller than Nina, picked the apples.
Question mark ? Indicating that the sentence is a question
You ate all the pudding? Are you sure?

Other frequently used symbols are:

Name Symbol Used for
Brackets () Setting something apart in the text, often an extra description
I got my shoes (the red ones) from the bag.
Slash / Separating elements, indication that something is instead of something else or dates
They had cake and/or butter.
Quotation marks “” Indication that a part of the text is a quote or an example
“Give me my hammer” said Thor


4.4 Asking for help

Finally. We are never alone with our writing. There is every reason to ask somebody to help review your text. If you are in a work situation you have managers and co-workers who want you to do a good job. In private life you might have family or neighbours. Since you are doing this course you probably have a course facilitator or mentor. Don’t be afraid to ask somebody to look at your text. A hot tip is to be specific: “Can you please look at the structure?”, “Am I communicating clearly?”, “Can you please help checking my grammar and spelling?” or even “Can you understand my handwriting?”. People are usually nice and eager to help. And even professional writers ask for feedback and help proof-reading their texts.
But you can also be your own good helper. Keep on writing that journal and try to improve your own, personal texts. The very best of luck to you.