This section provides a basic overview of two grammar issues I’ve found to be most problematic in student papers. It does not attempt to cover English grammar in its entirety; for that, you may wish to consult the “Resources” link above.

1.Parts of Speech:

Noun – a word that identifies people, places, or things. When denoting a class of objects or a concept, we use a common noun. When describing a specific person, place, or organization, we use aproper noun. Proper nouns are capitalized.

Verb – a word that describes an action, occurrence, or state. Every sentence in English must have at least one verb. Clauses that do not have a verb and are not attached to a sentence are called fragments. Fragments are not to be used in proper English.

A verb may come in different tenses (past, present, future, and their derivatives) or moods (indicative, subjunctive, imperative). See also “Tenses” below.

Adjective – a word that modifies or qualifies a noun. In a sentence, an adjective should be placed as close as possible to the noun it modifies to avoid ambiguity.

Adverb – a word or phrase that modifies or qualifies an adjective, verb, or another adverb or a group of words. An adverb indicates place, time, manner, cause, etc. Quite often, adjectives are turned into adverbs by attaching the suffix -ly.

Note: using adverbs is a good way to keep your writing clear and concise. For example, instead of writing “in a strange manner” or “in a strange way,” simply say “strangely.”

Pronoun – a noun that refers to the participants in a conversation or to someone or something mentioned in speech or writing.

examples: I, you, he, she, it, we, they, it, this (pl. these), that (pl. those).


a. Whenever a pronoun is used, it has to be entirely clear who/what the pronoun refers to. An ambiguity often results when a sentence has more than one subject or pronoun. When this happens, substituting one of the pronouns for the noun it represents will resolve the confusion.

b. A pronoun must correspond to the gender and form (singular/plural) of the noun it replaces. For example, the correct pronoun for describing a country/state or an animal is it, not they, she, or he.

Preposition – a word governing and often preceding a noun or pronoun, which expresses a relation to another word or phrase in the sentence. Prepositions usually follow a verb and sometimes modify its meaning.

Note: be sure to use the right preposition for each verb. If you are not sure, look the verb up in a dictionary.

examples: to, from, for, in, at, above, under, after, before, over, since, through, between

Conjunction – a word used to connect clauses or sentences.

examples: and, if, but

2. Tenses:

There are a number of tenses in English. Although for native speakers choosing a tense comes as a second nature, good writers will always pick their tenses carefully, thinking of the meaning or mood each tense conveys.

The main tenses in English are:

•         Past simple – I did, he did etc. Indicates actions that took place and were concluded in the past.

•        Present perfect – I have been, She has seen etc. Indicates actions that took place in an unspecified time in the past, and continued up to the present, or have some bearing on the present. Cannot be used with definite time expressions, such as: yesterday, last week, when I was five, at that moment, etc.

•         Present perfect continuous – I have been doing, I have been drinking etc. Indicates actions that started in the past and are still continuing, or have some bearing on the present. Used with expressions like: since, for the past two weeks etc.

•        Past perfect – I had studied, I had worked etc. Indicates an action that took place before another action or specific time in the past. Example: I had finished all my homework by the time my parents got home.

•         Past perfect continuous – I had been eating, I had been watching etc. Indicates actions that started in the past and continued up until a more recent past. Example: I had been snoring very loudly for an hour when my wife woke me up.

Rule for future tenses: there can be only one future indicator per sentence (will, will have, am/is/are going to).

•          Future perfect – used to indicate that something will be finished before the action in the future takes place.


I am going to see a movie when I have finished my homework.

I will have perfected my French by the time I come back from Paris.

By next November, I will have received my promotion.

The Post Office will have returned my package before I can pick it up.


I am going to see a movie when I will have finished my homework.

Remember:   One part – future                    Other part – present


3. Conditional Sentences:

English, like French, has three types of conditionals, called Type I, II, and III.

Type I, Real Conditional –

If one thing happens, the other thing will happen as well.

Example: If I eat 5 slices of that chocolate cake I will gain weight.  (eating 5 slices of cake will definitely, or most probably, cause me to gain weight)

One part – Present                 Other part – Future


Type II, Possible but not likely –

Example: If I won a million dollars, I would buy a Lexus (This is what I would do with $1 million, but since the chances of me winning so much money are slim, I probably won’t buy that car).

One part – Simple past           Other part – would

Type III, Unreal conditional –

Example: If I had a plasma screen I would have been happy (but I don’t so I’m not happy).

If he was alive, I would have been able to talk to him (but he’s dead, so I won’t be talking to him).

If I knew how to bike, I would not have been walking to school every day (but I don’t know how to bike, so I walk).

One part – Simple Past               Other part – Present Perfect

Note the difference in meaning between type II and III:

If he was here, I would speak to him – he could be here, and then I’ll speak to him, but he probably won’t be.

If he was here, I would have spoken to him– He won’t be here (he’s in another country, he’s dead etc.) and therefore I will definitely not speak to him.

Note: this type of conditional sentence can also work with were:

If I were sad, I wouldn’t be here at this party.


If I were sad, I would not have been here at this party.