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.

English Skills for Business People

It is a fact that thousands of business people are self-conscious about the way they express themselves, to such an extent that they believe it is holding back their career. I know this from my own experience as a private tutor, because many of my clients have been in exactly that situation. They come to me to ask for my help in improving their writing or speaking skills, or both. They feel they are letting themselves down every time they open their mouths or write a sentence, either because of their accent, or the words they use, or because they are worried about a gap in their education.

Often the clients I see are professionals in senior management positions. They are clearly very capable in their chosen occupation, otherwise they could not have risen so high up the corporate ladder. At some point in their careers they find that personal communication skills have become an issue for them. This then damages their confidence – they actually feel inferior to more confident speakers or writers.

The fact is that effective spoken and written communications are more important now than ever before, and nobody feels confident if they think they lack them. The good news is these are skills that can be taught, and at any age.

A whole generation seems to have gone though the UK education system without being drilled in the essentials of English grammar, spelling and punctuation. If you are one of these people, it doesn’t mean you’re inferior, it just means that nobody showed you how to do it. If you like, it’s the same as riding a bike: if nobody ever showed you how, then you won’t be able to do it – but that doesn’t make you a bad person! A capable tutor can take you through the essentials of good written English and give you the skills that may have passed you by when you were at school.

The same goes for good spoken English. It’s a skill and it can be taught. Once you and your tutor have sorted out whatever it is about your speaking voice that embarrasses you, your confidence will soar.

I know what I’m talking about because I have worked with dozens of business people to improve their personal communication skills. Very often before they contact me they have spent years persuading themselves that there is something wrong with them because, for example, they don’t know how to use a semi-colon, or they have a strong regional accent which (they think) makes them stand out like sore thumb among their public school educated colleagues.

The problem, if it can even be called that, is rarely as bad as they have built it up in their minds to be. After a few sessions they get the hang of what they previously thought were the secrets of good English. Their self-consciousness begins to melt away and they are well on the road to being confident, effective speakers and writers.

Curiosity is the key

I have always believed that curiosity was a sign of intelligence. This has struck me over and over again: the people I have met whom I consider to be clever and successful in their field all share the characteristic of an enquiring mind – not just about their own chosen subject but about the world in general. They never stop learning and they are fascinated by new avenues of research. They find other people interesting. On the other hand, those who lack curiosity seem to me to be dull by comparison. Somehow they have decided they already know enough. They lack that spark of ingenuity that makes them want to find out more about what’s around them.

I had suspected this was a personal prejudice of mine, but a recent article seems to show that it now has some scientific backing. Psychologists have found that curiosity and diligence are as important as intelligence for a student’s success. The leader of the research team, based at Edinburgh University, says that “Teachers have a great opportunity to inspire curiosity in their students, to make them engaged and independent learners.”

You could say I was lucky. My parents, although they had no academic qualifications, instilled in their children a love of learning and a sense of wonder about the world. They thought that for any situation in which you find yourself, however mundane, there is something new to be learned to increase your personal intellectual storehouse. At school, the good teachers encouraged this mindset (I think I managed to ignore the poor teachers, although now I am an occasional tutor myself I find I can learn a lot even from their bad example!).

When I was working in the civil service I attended countless compulsory training sessions and workshops of widely variable relevance and originality, sometimes delivered by staff who – let us say – were not gifted trainers. I always tried to approach these with and open, enquiring mind and I usually found that, no matter how tedious the session itself was, I could take something new from it to enrich my experience. Sometimes I’m afraid it was how not to organise a training session, but even that can be helpful! The point I am making is that if we approach these potential learning opportunities thinking that we will get nothing out of them, then that is exactly what we will get – nothing.

I think that the greatest gift a student can be given by their teachers is what the Edinburgh psychologists call a “hunger for exploration”. This is true no matter what subject is being taught. Education is not something that should just be “delivered” like a big heavy box slammed down on the desk, job done. We want our students to be asking their teachers, and themselves, what? why? how? when? who? Where can they find out more?

Curiosity is the key.