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A Shortcut to Good Grammar

In the year 2000, Living Language (a division of Random House) released a humorous little two CD set entitled Instant Scholar: A Shortcut to Good Grammar. [I think it still might be available as an audiobook on Apple Books, but I am not entirely sure.] This is a transcription of the little summary paper that came with the original.

Descriptive Grammar - describes how language works and how people speak; how you do speak, not how you should speak

Prescriptive Grammar - demands how you should speak, as prescribed by rules from outside forces, such as dictionaries or grammarians


Nouns - people, places, things, or abstract concepts (Marilyn Monroe, London, soup, existentialism)

Verbs - words expressing action or states of being (to run, swims, was going, are, carried)

Adjectives - words that decribe nouns (sunny, cold, blue, diabolical)

Degrees of adjectives:

• Comparative - the "-er" form of an adjective (sunnier, colder, bluer, more diabolical)

• Superlative - the "-est" form of an adjective (sunniest, coldest, bluest, most diabolical)

Adverbs - words that describe verbs or other adverbs (quickly, coldly, diabolically)

Pronouns - words that stand for nouns (I, me, you, it, them)

Prepositions - words that describe some kind of relationship between other words (in, on, under, for, by, without)

Conjunctions - words used to join words (and, or, but, either...or, neither...nor, until, although, because)

Interjections - words added for flavor (ouch!, ooh!, oy!)

Articles - the three little words that introduce nouns (the, a, an)


• "Good" is an adjective, and "well" is an adverb. The pie is good; you baked it well.

• Use "between" when you're talking about two things, and "among" when you're talking about three or more. Between you and me..., Among the three of us...


Sentence - a complete thought with which you can agree or disagree

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.

Simple subject - noun or noun equivalent

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.

Complete subject - contains all other descriptive information about the simple subject

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.

Predicate - the rest of the sentence that is not the subject (main verb and other information telling ou about the main verb)

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.


• Subjects and verbs have to agree in person (I go but he goes)

• If the subject is singular, so is the verb.

• If two singular subjects are joined with "either...or," "neither...nor," or "or," then the verb is singular: Either a boy or the dog is making noise.

• If a singular subject and plural subject are joined by "either...or," "neither...nor," or "or," then the verb agrees with the noun closest to it: Neither John nor his sisters are coming.

Direct object - who or what does (the subject) (verb)?

Who do I see? I see you. What is the cow eating? The cow is eating the grass.

Indirect object - find the subject, the verb, and the direct object, and ask to or for what or whom?

To whom did she give the candies? She gave him the candies.

Prepositional phrases - a preposition (in, on, with, under, because of, throughout, to) plus the other words that belong to it. They answer the questions "why," "how," "where," and "when."

Subject pronouns - I, you, he, she, it, we, they, and who

• Subject pronouns should be used after forms of "to be."

Object pronouns - me, you, him, her, it, us, them, and whom

• Object pronouns should be used as direct objects, indirect objects, and after prepositions.

Reflexive pronouns - myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, and themselves

• Reflexive pronouns should be used when reflecting back on the subject, or for emphasis.

TIP: Use "yourself" when talking about one person, and "yourselves" if you're talking about more than one person.

Count nouns - can be separated into units and counted (dollars, books, men, paintings)

• Use "few," "fewer," and "many" with count nouns.

Noncount nouns - cannot be separated or counted (water, air, chocolate, money)

• Use "little," "less," and "much" with noncount nouns.

TIP: To avoid much / many confusion, use "a lot of" instead.

Comparative degree (-er form) - to be used when comparing two tings

Superlative degree (-est form) - to be used when comparing three or more things


Past - walked

Present - walk / walks

Future - will walk

Past Continuous - was / were walking

Present Continuous - is / are walking

Future Continuous - will be walking

Past Perfect - had walked

• The past perfect is used when you're talking about two actions in the past and you want to stress that one of them happened before the other.

By the time you got home, I'd already eaten your dinner.

Present Perfect - have / has walked

• The present perfect is used when you're talking about a time frame that hasn't finished, and when you want to suggest that there's more of that action to come.

So far this week I have worked out three times (and I'll work out once more).

Future Perfect - will have walked

Past Perefect Continuous - had been walking

Present Perfect Continuous - have / has been walking

Future Perfect Continuous - will have been walking

Conditional - would have walked, would walk, would have been walking


Infinitive - form of verb used after "to" (to walk, to go)

Present participle - form of verb used in continuous tenses with some form of "to be" (I am walking, you are going)

Past tense - same as regular past tense

Past participle - form of verb used after "had," "have," "has," or "will have" to form the perfect tenses; also turns verbs to adjectives (eaten, drunk, swum, seen, finished)


• past participle is the -ed form of the verb


• beat, beating, beat, beaten. I've never beaten my father at chess.

• begin, beginning, began, begun. The movie has already begun.

• bite, biting, bit, bitten. She's been bitten by that dog before.

• blow, blowing, blew, blown. They've blown up the bridge!

• break, breaking, broke, broken. I think I've broken my arm.

• choose, choosing, chose, chosen. Have you chosen a name for our baby yet?

• come, coming, came, come. When I got there, they still hadn't come.

• do, doing, did, done. What have you done?

• drink, drinking, drank, drunk. You've drunk too much and shouldn't drive.

• eat, eating, ate, eaten. Have you eaten yet?

• fall, falling, fell, fallen. Has the baby fallen asleep?

• forget, forgetting, forgot, forgotten. I haven't forgotten what you did, you know!

• forgive, forgiving, forgave, forgiven. Has she forgiven us yet?

• freeze, freezing, froze, frozen. The lake hasn't frozen yet.

• get, getting, got, gotten or got. Have you gotten a new job yet?

• give, giving, gave, given. She had already given me the news before he called.

• go, going, went, gone. Have they ever gone skiing before?

• grow, growing, grew, grown. Look how much you've grown!

• hang, hanging, hung, hung (a form of decoration, as in a picture). Have they hung the art yet?

• hang, hanging, hanged, hanged (a form of execution, as in a person). Have they ever hanged a convict in this state?

• know, knowing, knew, known. If I had known, I wouldn't have come.

• ride, riding, rode, ridden. I've never ridden a horse before.

• ring, ringing, rang, rung. The bell has rung three times.

• rise, rising, rose, risen. The sun hadn't risen, but the whole family was awake.

• see, seeing, saw, seen. Have you seen this movie before?

• shake, shaking, shook, shaken. The news has shaken us all up a bit.

• shrink, shrinking, shrank, shrunk or shrunken. Have my jeans shrunk, or am I putting on weight?

• show, showing, showed, shown. She hasn't shown me her portfolio yet.

• sink, sinking, sank, sunk. Four ships have already sunk so far this year.

• sing, singing, sang, sung. I've never sung in front of so many people!

• speak, speaking, spoke, spoken. We have spoken about this many times before.

• swim, swimming, swam, swum. Have you ever swum in the Dead Sea?

• take, taking, took, taken. I've never taken a class on Eastern religions, but it sounds interesting.

• tear, tearing, tore, torn. She didn't realize that she had torn her dress.

• throw, throwing, threw, thrown. I've been thrown out of better places than this!

• write, writing, wrote, written. I haven't written the report yet, but I will today.

• wake, waking, woke, woken. Have you woken your father yet?


• After "could have," "should have," "would have," "might have," and "may have," use the past participle. (Gave, done, taken, come, and seen - NEVER went, did, took, came, and saw)

TIP: Sometimes there's a special form that is used only as an adjective but not as a perfect verb. (The ship has sunk, and now there's sunken treasure.)


Active voice - tells you who did what to whom (I made some mistakes.)

Passive voice - hides identities of guilty parties (Mistakes were made.)

Indicative mood - indicates things (The sky is blue.)

Imperative mood - gives commands (Pay attention!)

Subjunctive mood - expresses statements that are contrary to fact (If I were you...)


• If you want to talk about a condition that is hypothetical and untrue, use the subjunctive mood. (If I were a rich man...)

• Use the subjunctive "were" or "would / could" + verb in "I wish" statements. (I wish I were a tree; I wish she would stop nagging me; I wish I could go)

• Use the subjunctive after certain verbs or expressions of ordering, demanding, requesting, recommending, or suggesting. (It is important that you be on time. It is essential that he finish the job.) The subjunctive form of the verb = infinitive form minus "to."

• Do not use past tense or would after "if."


When making a comparison, even though the pronoun is clipped and sitting all alone at the end of the sentence, it's still the subject of the verb, and must be kept in subject form. (She writes better than he. NOT She writes better than him.)


Maintain consistency in sentences. Use all infinitives, or use all "-ing" forms, but don't mix them.

At the beach, I like to read, to lie in the sun, and to swim in the ocean.


Modifier - something that describes something else

Make sure that the modifying phrases are next to the words they modify. (Tired from all the exertion, Robert scrubbed and scrubbed theh pot covered with grease and burnt-on cheese. NOT Covered with grease and burnt-on cheese, Robert scrubbed and scrubbed the pot, tired from all the exertion.)


Lay - to place something somewhere (plAce)

Lie - to recline (reclIne)

TIP: Remember the vowels: lay / place, lie / recline. You lay something somewhere; you lie down.

Principle parts:
LAY - lay, laying, laid, laid
LIE - lie, lying, lay, lain


That - used when adding information in a sentence that you need. "That" introduces information that restricts the exact meaning of whatever the information describes.

That hat that you're wearing carries a terrible curse!

Which - used when adding extra information that doesn't zero in any further on the precise meaning, at least not in a way that's important for your subjective purposes.

That hat, which incidentally would look better on me, carries a terrible curse!


Gerund - a verb turned into a noun

• When using a gerund, use a possessive pronoun to introduce it.

My having a chance to ask these questions is helpful.

TIP: You can use a noun with an apostrophe instead of a possessive adjective like "my" or "your" or "her."

John's coming to see me made all the difference.


To split an infinitive means to stick some other word between the "to" and the verb itself. This is no big deal, but it is a rule of grammar that comes from Latin, which has one-word infinitives that can't be split. Bottom line - do it if you want to, but be prepared to see some wrinkled noses.


You can say that something is bigger "than" something else, or better "than" something else, but if it's different, it's different "from" something else.

Her hair is darker than mine. Jonathan's idea was different from Adam's.


There - used in "there is / there are" (There are 50 states.)

• Remember to use "there is" with singular nouns and "there are" with plural nouns.

There is one piece of candy left. There are lots of birds on the feeder.

Their - a possessive adjective (Their cat is not friendly.)

They're - a contraction for "they are" (They're away for the weekend.)


Your - a possessive adjective (Your shirt is all stained.)

You're - a contraction for "you are" (You're not serious!)


Its - a possessive, even though there is no apostrophe (The alien is licking its chops.)

It's - a contraction for "it is" (It's a fine day to be abducted!)


Each other - used when talking about two people (Bob and Tim hate each other.)

Oen another - used when talking about three or more people (The Henderson triplets aren't speaking to one another anymore.)