Sunday, 29 January 2017

English 101 - The Very Basics

What You Need To Know

I shouldn’t even need to be mentioning this stuff in a blog about writing. That’s what I think. However, the amount of utter rubbish I see published informs me otherwise. Now that self-publishing is really a thing, lots of people of whom we would never have heard before are deciding to be authors. And, to be fair, a lot of them can write. A greater number, although barely literate, if that, do still have a story to tell. Who are we to say they may not publish their work just as well as anyone else?

If you are one of these people, with a good story to tell, and perhaps you even have that indefinable gift of making the pages keep turning, which is the hallmark of a writer, it’s still no good unless you can translate the wonderful story in your mind into something that people can actually read, and read with pleasure. Yes, you have the right to self-publish your first draft in barely comprehensible language. But why would you want to? See my post of 9 January.

So, as with any craft, writing has its set of ‘tools’ that are essential. Just as you wouldn’t get far knitting unless you had some needles and yarn, so you cannot go far as a writer without the basic tools of language. And, as with the needles and yarn, it’s not enough just to have them - you have to know how to use them, so with the English language (or any other language in which you might be writing, of course, but I am talking about English here).

A detailed exposition of all the rules of English grammar is beyond the scope of this article. Below are listed the basic elements with which you need to be familiar. This is, if you like, your ‘starter kit’.

Parts of speech.

For any word, you need to be able to say what part of speech it is. Noun, verb, pronoun, adverb and so on. Even if it is a word you have not seen before. You need to know this because, unless you know what part of speech a word is, you will not know how it may, or may not, be used.

Getting your parts of speech wrong can result in things like this:

Rover was an old dog with brown colour fur.

or this:

He had been kicked out of his home for vomit on the carpet.

or even this:

Because he was homeless, Rover went to the rubbish tip everyday to look for  food.

Enough said? Yes, I thought so.

One Word/Two Word Pairs

Many pairs of words can be written either as two separate words (“every day”) or as a single word (“everyday”). It is extremely important to understand the difference between the two. A two-word pair and a single, joined word are not interchangeable, and cannot be used as if they were.

The reason for this is that the single word and the phrase, although their meanings are nearly always related, are different parts of speech. In our example, for instance, “every day” is an adverbial phrase meaning “daily”, whereas the single word “everyday” is an adjective meaning ordinary. Similarly, “login” is a noun, “log in” a verb clause.

In order to navigate these pairs safely, your best guide is a sound understanding of what part of speech each is.


You must know how to conjugate verbs, both regular and irregular. This is absolutely vital.

If you do not understand the structure of a verb’s conjugation, you are liable to write something like this:

Rover looked around the rubbish tip, and in one corner he seen a dead rat.

or this:

Rover don’t like rat much, but that day it was all he can find.

or even this:

Within two seconds, Rover eated the rat.


You need to know which words are required to agree with each other, and how to achieve that happy state.

Failure of agreement can result in this:

Looking up from his rat meal, Rover notices his two friends, Spot and Fluffy, entering the tip. Neither Spot nor Fluffy have a home either.

or this:

Rover, Spot and Fluffy started to dig for bones. As soon as anyone dug up a bone, they ate it.

or even:

None of them were entirely free of fleas.


You must be able to use articles correctly. Errors in the use of articles don’t generally compromise your meaning, but they do tend to make your sentence look like a bad translation from Italian. You will lose your reader’s respect if you say things like:

Rover made decision to seek out his family.
Fluffy loved to hunt a mice, but in this neighbourhood there were more the rats than the mice.
Spot went along with the Rover and the Fluffy to hunt an rats.

Mass Nouns and Count Nouns

It is vital that you understand the distinction between mass nouns and count nouns, and the difference in their use, both in terms of stating quantities and in the use of articles. Talking, for instance, about “less people” will just make you look silly.

How To Know If You Need Help

If any of the above terms is unfamiliar to you, or doesn’t make sense, or you lack the basic knowledge described, then your English is at the remedial level, and if you want to write, you need to address this, and as soon as possible.

What To Do About It.

The following is a list of suggestions for addressing deficiencies in your written English. If you’re serious about it, your course of action should include at least one choice from List 1.

1. Educate yourself.

The best and most reliable option. It does take time, but if you are serious about writing it is worth the time and the effort. There are various options for doing this; you might consider the following, separately or all together:

1. Go back to school (I). Look for a course called Remedial English Grammar, or something along those lines.

2. Go back to school (II). Enrol for a couple of semesters of university Latin. This will do you enormous good. Do not email me asking why studying Latin improves your English.  It does. Take my word for it.

3. Hire a private tutor to bring you up to speed. This option can work well if you find the right person. If cost is a problem, consider barter; depending on what skills you have yourself, you might be able to organise to have a student tutor you in return for some service you can provide.  

4. If money is really tight and you can’t organise a barter arrangement, as a measure of desperation you could try doing it yourself using internet resources and books from the library. I don’t recommend this, though, unless there is really no other way. Self-study without guidance can result in skimming over material without really digging into it, and in the case of complex material, in fundamental misunderstandings. You are far better off with a teacher or tutor.

2. Read.

Read the good stuff, the classics. Declare a moratorium on rubbish and get reacquainted with Austen, Trollope, Dickens, Stevenson, Conrad, Wilde. If you are writing, you should be reading a great deal in any case.

3. Use your editor.

If you’ve already written your book and only now realise your grammar needs work, this is something with which a good editor can help you. When choosing an editor, make sure you get a good one. Ask other authors for their recommendations. Don’t just hire someone who spammed you. Find an editor who is willing to work with a remedial client, and be prepared to pay a bit over the odds, because that editor is going to be putting in far more work than he would do with an ordinary client.

In any case, you will need a good editor even if you are not a remedial case. An editor is an indispensable part of the publication process. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can do without one.

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