What are the main rules of English grammar?

For anyone learning English as a second language, one of its most baffling and frustrating aspects is its general lack of grammatical rules. Those of us who are native English speakers don’t really need to think too much about rules when we are speaking the language: we just know from experience that some things sound ‘right’ and some sound ‘wrong’. Most of us would find it hard to explain why one is better than the other, unless they are pedants like me – or should that be ‘as I am’? We have just grown up hearing everyone else speak English, and accept that there are right and wrong ways of using it.

Unluckily for those learning English for the first time in later life, our language is extremely diverse and has stolen words, expressions and even bits of grammar from all sorts of other languages. In fact we rather pride ourselves on the rich mix of linguistical sources, and the fact that we don’t have any kind of ‘language police’ to lay down the laws of grammar as they do in some other countries. Our language is continually developing and shifting and adopting new words. Even the Oxford English Dictionary, which most people think of as the official guide to the language, doesn’t really tell us what we should be saying. It just tells us what we are saying.

English never has been a fixed, regulated language. It came here with the Anglo-Saxons from what is now Germany (which is why English and German are so similar) but has since been heavily influenced by Viking Norse, Norman French, Dutch, and more recently by the languages of the British Empire, especially India. Most of what we think of as English grammar was really Latin grammar, adapted and imposed on English by scholars from Henry VIII’s time onwards.

All this wouldn’t necessarily matter very much – after all, as long as people understand me, does it really matter if my grammar is perfect? However, sometimes it does matter. Many of my clients are professional people who reach a stage in their careers when they become self-conscious about the way they speak and write. Usually this is because they are competing for promotion against colleagues who went to posher schools than they did, where strict grammar was considered important. Whether we like it or not, there are some circumstances where you are going to be judged if you say ‘ain’t’ when all around you are saying ‘aren’t’ (or better still, ‘are not’).

Here are a few examples where I find people often trip themselves up, and let themselves down, with their English.

They’re & Their & There – not to be confused. They’re = they are; Their = belonging to them; There = in that place.

It’s & Its – careful with that apostrophe. It’s = it is; Its = belonging to it

Speaking of apostrophes – the apostrophe should be used when showing possession (Sue’s cat) or when letters or numbers have been left out (he’s gone, 1 Jan. ’09). It should not be used in forming the plural of ordinary words, as in apple’s and pear’s or I saw two dog’s, or in possessive pronouns such as hers, yours, or theirs. If showing possession with a plural word ending in the letter ‘s’, the apostrophe goes after the ‘s’ (cats’ paws if more than one cat, but women’s, men’s and children’s because women, men and children, though plural, don’t end in ‘s’). Phew!

Practice & practise – Practice is a noun (general practice); Practise is a verb (I practice medicine). Same with advice and advise.

Should have & should of – always should have, never should of. Likewise could have, would have.

Imply & infer – Imply = say something in an indirect way; Infer = reach a conclusion or decide that something is true on the basis of the evidence available. Often confused.

Less & fewer – less when you’re referring to something that can’t be counted or doesn’t have a plural (e.g. money, air, time, music, rain; fewer if you’re referring to people or things in the plural (e.g. houses, newspapers, dogs, students, children). So less money but fewer children.

Who & that – who for people (ladies who lunch); that for things (doors that open)

You and me & you and I – use the pronoun I, along with other pronouns such as we, he, she, you, and they, when the pronoun is the subject of a verb:

He went to bed.
Clare and I are going for a coffee.

Use the pronoun me, along with other pronouns such as us, him, her, you, and them, when the pronoun is the object of a verb:

Danny thanked them.

The dog followed John and me to the door.

Different from & different to & different than – different from is best; different to is almost as good; different than is incorrect in British English (but fine if you are American)

I’m so nervous when giving a presentation – how can I stop this?

The first thing to grasp is that nervousness is a perfectly natural response when you have to get up and speak to an audience. In fact, if you didn’t feel some nerves and apprehension in that situation I would think there’s something wrong with you. What you are feeling is an instinctive fear which dates back before we were all properly human. When we roamed around in herds, constantly at the mercy of sabre toothed tigers and so on, we soon learned that making an exhibition of ourselves was a dangerous thing to do. In fact, those of us who did stand out from the crowd (ie the ones who weren’t nervous) were quickly eaten and removed from the evolutionary chain. This of us who survived still carry that ancient defence mechanism of the fight-or-flight response: if ever we have to draw attention to ourselves the adrenaline starts flowing, our blood pressure and heart rate go up, our muscles tense in order to provide the body with extra speed and strength. All that blood rushing to your muscles from other parts of your body can make you feel weird, even faint. Another side effect is a dry mouth, which of course makes it more difficult to speak, thus increasing your anxiety.

You need to accept that these things will happen to you because they happen to everyone. That incredibly fluent and self-assured person you know who seems to be able to speak calmly and wittily on any subject at the drop of a hat? They are suffering from the effects of nervousness too. The difference between them and you is that they have learned how to deal with their nerves; in fact how to harness them and use them.

This is the key – to be able to expect the nerves, then accept them and don’t fight them. Nervousness is your friend: it makes you think faster, it keeps you alert and it gives you that edge you need. Think of an actor stepping out on stage in some demanding scene from Shakespeare. He doesn’t want to be too relaxed, he just needs to look relaxed. If he really was as relaxed as he looks, he would give a dull performance. He needs that nervous energy to power him through the part. Giving a presentation is a kind of performance, so in a way you are in the same position as that actor.

So how do you learn how to use your nerves and make them your friends? Naturally giving a confident presentation is a skill, and like all skills you can improve it with practice and experience. There are some things you can do straightaway, though. One important element of your preparation is to take a leaf out of that actor’s book and rehearse. I don’t just mean running through your presentation script in your head, I mean saying it out loud over and over again until it becomes second nature. People who don’t like giving presentations tend not to rehearse like that because they find it a bit embarrassing – but believe me it works wonders.

There are some practical things you can do, too. Hydrating yourself by drinking lots of water (not alcohol) for a couple of hours before a presentation will help with the dry mouth problem. Also there are some simple physical exercises that will help calm those nerves just before you ‘go on’. A good one is just to shake your hands vigorously for a few minutes, so you can ‘shake out’ your tenseness. I have no idea why that works, but it does, and it’s something you can see actors and athletes doing before a big appearance. Then of course there’s your breathing. The fight-or-flight response tends to make your breathing fast and shallow, so make sure you take some slow, long, deep breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth. This has a double benefit: rhythmic breathing has a calming effect and it also puts plenty of oxygen in your bloodstream to keep you alert.

So – don’t worry about being nervous, because you will be anyway. Don’t fight those nerves: make them work for you.