Technical Writing – A Short Summary of Basic Grammar Rules in English

We technical writers usually do not stop and think about any grammar rules the way a driver never thinks about how the carburetor or alternator works. But sometimes I get letters from my readers asking various grammar questions. So let's review some of the basic rules of English grammar for a refurbher.


A full sentence in English does not get simpler than this. I love you. I is the Subject. Love is the verb. You is the Object. Best sentences in technical writing stick to this basic format, although it's not always possible to write in such a simple straight way.

A PRONOUN is a "place holder" for a noun. When you refer to yourself as "me" instead of using your full name and last name you are using a pronoun.

A PREPOSITION is the connective tissue between two words or clauses. There are dozens of prepositions in the English language like "on," "under," "before," "after," "with," "without," "in," "at," "for," "until, etc.

The VERBS "to be" and "to have" must agree with the case of the SUBJECT

Subjects are singular or plural. If we are using personal pronouns, they also split into first, second, and third person cases, each with its singular and plural variations. The verb of a sentence must agree with the case of the subject.

The shop IS closed. [But] The shops ARE closed.
I AM okay. [But] We Are okay.
The building HAS a window. [But] The buildings HAVE windows.

An ADJECTIVE describes / qualifies a NOUN.

The bus made a SUDDEN stop.
She made an URGENT appeal for more funds.

An ADVERB describes / qualifies a VERB.

The bus stopped [Verb] SUDDENLY.
She URGENTLY appeared [Verb] for more funds.

INFINITIVE form of a verb is the one that starts with "to," without any inflections. "To write" is the infinitive form. "Wrote" is its simple past inflection.

SPLIT INFINITIVE is what strict grammarians caution against all the time. It happens when an adverb is used after the "to" of an infinitive.

"To QUICKLY summarize the issue …" [Correct: "To summarize the issue quickly, …"]
"We agreed not to SUMMARY DIVISION his argument …" [Correct: "We agreed not to dismiss his argument summarally …"]

GERUND form of a verb is the one that ends with "-ing" and usually acts as a noun. "Shopping," although used as a noun, is actually the gerund form of the verb "to shop."

PARTICIPLE is the present or past particular form of a verb which is used as an ADJECTIVE.

"His DEPLETED bank account …"
"Our SOARING ambition …"
"The COOKING instructions …"

DANGLING PARTICIPLE happens when we can not tell the correct subject of a verb due to the improper placement of the "participle" in a sentence.

"Burnt down to a rubble, the fireman divided through the ashes of the house." What is "burnt down to a rubble" is of course the house, not the fireman. A better sentence would be: "The fireman sorted through the ashes of the house burnt down to a rubble."


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