Here are some quick tips that will help with commonly-confused areas of English grammar and usage. To keep things interesting, we’ve added some pictures along the way – enjoy!
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Tenses and moods
- Active vs. passive construction
- Advice structure in the subjunctive mood
- Common errors in the use of the past perfect tense
- The present continuous tense
- The future continuous tense
- The present perfect tense
- The present perfect continuous tense
- The mixed conditional: It’s all in the mind.
- Talking about the unreal past
- Two actions in the past do not always equal the past perfect.
Sentence construction and punctuation
- Coordinate adjectives
- Is your modifier dangling?
- Subject-verb agreement and singular indefinite pronouns
English idioms and usage
- “Bystander” vs. “Passerby”
- “Is the glass half empty or half full?”
- The most difficult tongue twister in English
- Not “loving” it
- “Reach out” vs. “Contacted”
- “So that” vs. “In order that”
- “Supposed to” vs. “Suppose to”
- “Worse” vs. “Worst”
Active vs. passive construction
Note in active construction that the focus is on the subject of the sentence whereas in passive construction the focus of the sentence is on the object, and the doer of the action does not have to be identified.
Advice structure in the subjunctive mood
The subjunctive mood is used in “that” clauses of order, insistence, suggestion, demand and recommendation. Its simple form in the present tense looks similar to an infinitive phrase without “to.”
She suggests that Misha eat a full dish of shrimp.
The teacher insists that he turn off his cell in the classroom.
Note: “he turns” becomes “he turn.”
Common errors in the use of the past perfect tense
The past perfect is used to show that an action was completed in a “before past” before the recent past action occurred. It is constructed by a had + past participle structure to refer to the earlier past action, and the simple past to denote the most recent past action.
For example: Misha had eaten his dinner by the time I arrived.
Two common errors often occur in the use of the past perfect:
1. The speaker/writer forgets that there have to be two pasts – a before past and a recent past – to form the past perfect tense.
Incorrect: Misha had eaten dinner last night.
Correct: Misha ate dinner last night.
Incorrect: Misha was suspicious that his menu was changed.
Correct: Misha was suspicious that his menu had been changed.
The present continuous tense is the “happening now” tense. It describes an action that is in progress at or around the time of speaking.
For example: He is looking at the clock.
The future continuous tense
The present perfect tense
The present perfect continuous tense
The mixed conditional: It’s all in the mind.
For example: If I had gone to bed earlier, I wouldn’t be tired now.
Talking about the unreal past
Sometimes one imagines what would have happened in the past if she/he had done a different action than the one she/he actually did. In order to express this reflection in speaking or writing an “if” clause is created, which consists of “if” followed by a subject and the past perfect tense.
For example: If the kid hadn’t squirted Grandma with the hose…
(This structure shows an unreal past because in reality the kid did squirt Grandma with the hose.)
In order to complete the sentence structure and to show the result of the action that in reality did not occur, the “if” clause is joined with the main clause by adding a subject, which is followed by “would have” and a past participle.
The completed structure usually has the “if” clause starting the sentence.
For example: If the kid hadn’t squirted Grandma with the hose, he would have been given an ice cream cone.
Two actions in the past do not always equal the past perfect.
Although past perfect construction consists of two actions in the past, if the actions happen sequentially close together there is no time for a “before” past to be created. As a result, the simple past rather than the past perfect is used.
For example: She left the store and walked down the street.
Pluralizing nouns that end in a consonant and “o”
The spelling rule for pluralizing nouns that end in a consonant and “o” is simple – just add “es” to the word.
Singular: Potato Plural: Potatoes
Singular: Hero Plural: Heroes
Sample sentence: Misha’s heroes have always been shrimp boat captains.
The squirrel spelling rule
When spelling a word in English, remember that the letter “q” is always followed by either an “a” or a “u” and a following vowel.
Coordinate adjectives are two adjectives that modify a noun in the same way. They require the writer to place a comma between them.
For example: Misha’s big, shiny eyes make me smile.
For example: Misha’s big and shiny eyes make me smile.
Is your modifier dangling?
What is wrong with this sentence construction?
Watching television, the bed creaked.
Seriously, does a bed watch television?
The problem here is that the writer has unintentionally constructed a dangling modifier. Dangling modifiers are created when the modifying phrase is separated from the subject it is modifying. Correcting a dangling modifier is easy. Simply put the modifier next to its subject.
For example: While I was watching television, the bed creaked.
(The subject of the sentence is “I” followed by the modifying phrase “watching television.”)
Subject-verb agreement and singular indefinite pronouns
“Each,” “either,” “neither,” “anybody,” “anyone,” “anything,” “everybody,” “everyone,” “everything,” “nobody,” “no one,” “nothing,” “somebody,” “someone,” and “something” are singular indefinite pronouns that should be followed by a singular verb or pronoun.
For example: Everyone loves Grandma’s sense of humor.
“Bystander” vs. “Passerby”
A bystander is a person who is at the scene of an event but is not a participant in it.
For example: The bystander watched as the graduating class began to assemble for the graduation ceremony.
For example: The man reading the newspaper did not see the passerby.
“Is the glass half empty or half full?”
This open-ended question is often asked to determine if a person is an optimist or a pessimist. The optimist would reply that the metaphorical glass is half full whereas the pessimist would answer that it is half empty.
The Most Difficult Tongue Twister in English
How well can you quickly say:
Not “loving” it
Although movie dialogue and television commercials often use non-action verbs (also known as stative verbs) erroneously in the continuous tense, using non-action verbs in an “ing” form should be avoided. Remember that verbs that express conditions or states, such as love, hate, have, seem, smell, taste, understand, and believe cannot end in “ing. “
However, there is an exception to this rule when it is applied to “see.” If one uses the word “seeing” in terms of “meeting” someone, “see” + “ing” is permissible.
For example: Misha is seeing (meeting) Sasha tomorrow.
“Reach out” vs. “Contacted”
The overuse and misuse of “reach out” to substitute for the word “contact” was initiated in the late 1980s by AT&T marketing, which use the slogan “Reach out and Touch Someone” in its television commercials to spin a less formal and a more friendlier variant to “contact.”
However, “reach out” means to offer help and encouragement to someone who is experiencing a difficult time in his/her life.
For example: We reached out to Misha by arranging an intervention for his shrimp addiction.
In contrast, “contact” means to communicate with someone through connection or interaction via letter, phone or email.
In short, “reach out” has become a trendy and insincere substitute for “contacted.” It is a tiresome business cliché, so one should avoid this substitution it if he/she means to initiate contact with someone.
“So that” vs. “In order that”
Both “so that” and “in order that” are used to talk about purpose and are often followed by model verbs. However, “in order that” is more formal.
The chicken crossed the road so that he could get to the other side.
Note: “that” is often left out after “so” in informal situations. For example: The chicken crossed the road so he could get to the other side.
“Supposed to” vs. “Suppose to”
“Worse” vs. “Worst”
Worse is used as a comparative form. It serves as a comparative adjective for “bad” and compares two things.
For example: I think that living in a tent is worse than living in a cabin.
However, when “worst” is used as a superlative form – it means that one thing is worse than all the others. It serves as the superlative adjective for “bad” and compares more than two things.