Grammar Review

For most of us, the word "grammar" evokes painful memories of tedious exercises done many years ago while we were sitting on a hard seat and eagerly awaiting the bell. The subject matter is forgotten, and all we remember is the pain.

Unfortunately, grammar is a foundation for further learning. Without it we would have no terms in which to describe and discuss language, and that's why this section has been included.

I shall try to cover the topic as quickly and painlessly as possible while nonetheless conveying an explanation of all the grammatical terms used elsewhere in this guide. We'll briefly cover only the topics you need right now. Consequently, I have left out a great deal of information that you may wish to review in your pursuit of better writing skills. For that information, you may refer to Web pages posted by some genuine English teachers:

In the way of a warning, real grammarians may have fits over some of the things I've said below. That's because I've ruthlessly simplified a topic that properly should consume many megabytes of disk storage, and could take years to master.

To begin, we review the main parts of speech: If you've followed all the links and understood it all, then you've had enough grammar. Go back to learning about specifications. That's imperative!

The noun family

A noun is the name of a person, a place, a thing or an idea. Nouns have properties, like:

Pronouns, like it, she and they take the place of a noun so you don't have to repeat the whole noun or noun phrase. The relative pronouns, which, that, and who perform the special function of introducing relative clauses.

By the way, words that perform special functions like relative pronouns are often called function words by modern grammarians. The function words are the very core of the English language; to them we attribute the fact that Lewis Carroll's famous line:

is obviously an English sentence, even though it makes little sense.

Adjectives, like slow, modify nouns. Adjectives, in turn, may be modified by adverbs like painfully. More about adverbs in a few minutes.

Articles, like the and an alert readers to the fact that that a noun follows. Sometimes they're called determiners.

When nouns are grouped with their associated articles, adjectives, and modifying clauses, the combination is sometimes called a noun phrase.

Often found in technical English are strings of nouns grouped together, like software life cycle model. I don't know the formal grammatical term for such constructions, but in technical writing texts they're often called noun sandwiches. Thank goodness we don't have to write our specifications in German, because in German the noun sandwiches are more like noun sausages, all strung together into one great big word, like datenverarbeitungstechnik.

The verb family

Verbs are action words. Two good examples are go and write.

This is a good time to mention that a given word in English often may appear in some places performing one function and in other places performing another. An example would be the word paint, which can function as either a noun or a verb.

Now back to verbs. Verbs are often made up of a main verb plus one or more adjoining words known as auxiliary verbs, or simply auxiliaries. They help to convey the author's intended properties of the verb, like:

There are numerous tenses in English, but the one we use almost exclusively in specifications is the future tense. Thank goodness I don't have to cover the topic of English tenses: it's a dilly!

Mode in specifications is a slightly more complicated and very relevent topic. The main subdivisions of mode in English are the indicative and imperative. There's also another, called subjunctive, but it's so rarely used correctly these days that we could safely say it's no longer a part of the language. Here's an example of verbs in the imperative mode:

Simply stated, imperative verbs are commands. Nearly all other verbs are indicative.

The voice of a verb is either active or passive. Active voice is straightforward:

First the actor, then the verb, and then the object acted upon.

Passive voice reverses this order:

Note that I could very well have left "by Deborah" off the end of the passive-voice sentence.

Writing in passive voice has two effects:

  1. It puts the object of the action up front where it gets special attention. We do this often in specifications because the emphasis in specifications belongs on the product we're trying to describe.

  2. It subordinates or eliminates the mention of who performs the act. For this reason, bureaucrats often couch their statements in the passive voice in order to downplay their responsibility. In specifications, it permits us to leave off endless repetitions of "by the contractor."

All of the above are accomplished by the addition of auxiliary verbs, which can also serve to shade the meaning of verbs. Preceding a verb with a modal auxiliary like shall, will, should, may, might, ought, and so on changes the way in which the verb behaves. For example, correct usage of shall and will in specifications is crucial: it determines which party, the contractor or the Government, is responsible for fulfilling the requirement.

The category "adverb" is a catch-all for words that don't fit very well in any other category. Most of them modify verbs or adjectives, and most are formed by adding "ly" to an adjective, but some of them are harder to describe. The word "just" in the next example is such an adverb, and it seems to modify either the verb "works," or the preposition "like," but I would refer you to a genuine grammarian for an explanation of exactly how it operates.

Prepositions

Prepositions are function words used in front of noun phrases to express relationships. Most of them are very short words. For example:

Phrases formed by prepositions and their adjacent noun phrase are called prepositional phrases, and they act as modifiers. They often appear chained together, as in

Conjunctions

Conjunctions are words like and, or, and but that tie things together. Coordinating conjunctions tie together words or clauses of equal rank. They correspond to the logical operators, and perform a similar function. Therefore they must be used very carefully in specifications. Subordinating conjunctions tie dependent clauses to main clauses.

Clauses

Having already said a little bit about sentences written in active and passive voices, the clause is the only notion about sentences that's necessary to explain here. Clauses are either independent or dependent. For example, in

the independent clause is "John gained weight," because it can stand on its own and expresses a complete thought.

The remainder of the sentence is a dependent clause, since no one would say such a thing unless it were part of another sentence. The subordinating conjunction "while" indicates that it's not a complete thought, so even though it contains a complete sentence, it's not an independent clause. In this case, the dependent clause acts as a modifier to the verb "gained."

Subordinate clauses can be either essential or nonessential. Another pair of terms for the same notion is restrictive and nonrestrictive. A restrictive dependent clause changes the meaning of the independent clause, while a nonrestrictive clause does not. The difference between the two is often indicated only by the presence of a comma. For example,

means something totally different from

David's and Mary's problems are trivial in comparison to the havoc that this linguistic phenomenon can play on your specifications.


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Last Update: 2 April 2013