Grammar for Great Writing


If you really want to master writing in English, you need a strong understanding of grammar. And maybe that sounds intimidating to you.

I can’t tell you how many of my students fear the idea of grammar. It makes them think of textbooks and rules that can feel pointless and complicated. 

It’s true that we can do (and have done) some really complicated things with the English language, but the thing is: when you break it down in a simple, step-by-step way, you’ll see that the rules of English grammar don’t have to be so terrifying or boring. 

Great English writing starts with two things you’ve probably already heard of: a subject and a verb. We can also throw in a direct object or an indirect object, but we can build a sentence without them.

And the best writing is all about how you choose to make those subjects and verbs interact.

In today’s post, we’re going to take a look at all the basic building blocks of English grammar and how they can come together to make something great. We’re going to talk about:

  • The 5 types of clauses in English

  • The 4 different types of English sentences

  • 3 grammar tips to remember when you write

So, if you’re ready to do some learning and give your grammar the jump start it needs, grab a pen and paper, settle into your favorite chair, and let’s keep reading!


The 5 Types of Clauses in English

What is a clause? It is a unit that contains a subject and a verb, and it’s the basic building block of a sentence.

Sentences can be made of one or more clauses connected together, but I’ll explain more about that later.

For right now, it’s important to know that English is one of the subject + verb + object (SVO) languages, which means that, in order to create a clause that makes sense, you have to start with a subject, follow it with a verb, and then everything else comes after that.

But here’s an encouraging fact: When it comes to declarative clauses - or clauses that are not questions or commands - there are only five possible options for you to choose from.

And maybe that still sounds like too many! If it does, don’t worry. Let’s break it down in a simple way.

1. Subject + Verb

The subject is the “actor” or “doer” of the sentence who tells us “who?” or “what?” and the verb tells us about the subject’s action or state, as in:

  • She works.

  • I am napping.

  • They came.

That’s easy enough, right?

2. Subject + Verb + Direct Object

The direct object answers the question, “Who or what is receiving the action of the verb?”

  • Laura is eating pizza.

  • Mike has a secret.

What are the direct objects here? “Pizza” and “secret.”

NOTE: Some verbs in English, such as “like,” “enjoy,” or “consider,” have to be followed by an object, while other verbs such as “work,” “come” or “happen” don’t always have to be.

3. Subject + Verb + Indirect Object + Direct Object

Okay, this is where things start to get a little more interesting. But stick with me! The indirect object answers the question, “to whom?” or “for whom?”

  • Laura gave her a slice of pizza (S + V + IO + DO)

  • Mike told me his secret. (S + V + IO + DO)

So, if Mike has a secret, we can ask the question, “Who did he tell his secret to?” in order to figure out the indirect object. 

NOTE: Are you wondering: “What about the words ‘a’ and ‘his’ in those examples?” 

Remember that “a” is just an article, like “an” or “the,” and we use them with nouns we can count. And the word “his” is a possessive pronoun that tells us who the secret belongs to: Mike

4. Subject + Verb + Direct Object + Object Complement

What is an object complement? It’s just a noun, adjective, or a phrase that renames or describes the direct object. For example, Mike’s secret is that:

  • Cheese makes him gassy. (S + V + DO + OC)

In this sentence, the object complement is an adjective: gassy

  • I consider him a friend. (S + V + DO + OC)

In this case, the object complement is a noun: a friend.

NOTE: We often use the verbs “make,” “name,”  “consider,” or “find” when we’re creating sentences with object complements.           

5. Subject + Linking verb + Subject Complement

This structure sounds a little different from the other four, but it’s actually quite simple. You probably use it all the time when you speak. Here’s an example:

  • Mike was embarrassed. (S + LV + SC)

In this sentence, we have Mike, the subject, the linking verb “was,” and the subject complement, “embarrassed.” The subject complement just renames or describes Mike, and tells us what he was. A subject complement always follows a linking verb.

  • This cheese smells weird. (S + LV + SC)

In this sentence, the word “smells” is acting as a linking verb. It doesn’t mean that the cheese has the ability to smell, but that it has an odor

What about questions?

I’m glad you asked! The structure for questions is a bit different, but there are four basic structures: “Yes or No” questions, choice questions, “Wh-” questions, and tag questions. We’ll use the example of Mike again:

  • Does Mike have a secret? (yes or no?)

  • Does Mike want to talk about it or not? (The choices: talk about it or keep it private?)

  • What is Mike’s secret? (What is it?)

  • Mike needs some alone time, doesn’t he? (tag question: doesn’t he?)

You can see that the structure here differs from declarative sentences. In the first two examples, we start with an auxiliary verb like “do.” 

In the third example, we could begin with “what,” “why,” “when” or “how,” and then follow it with an auxiliary verb like “is” or “do,” and then the subject.

In the fourth example, we add a tag question to emphasize our statement and engage the person we’re talking to.

What about adjectives and adverbs?

Great question! Adjectives, which describe nouns and adverbs, which describe adjectives and verbs, can add more detail to English sentences. Sometimes we need those details, and sometimes we don’t. In fact, when it comes to adverbs, you should pay close attention to them. Ask yourself: Is it necessary, or can I get rid of the adverb? For example,

  • “Mike has a secret,” she whispered quietly.

  • “Mike has a secret,” she whispered.

In some cases, adverbs are unnecessary. If someone whispers, we know that they are speaking quietly. It’s not grammatically wrong, but you should consider deleting it.

Sometimes we use something called adjective phrases, which work just like an adjective. As in:

  • “The guy in the red shirt has a secret.”

The phrase “in the red shirt” is an adjective phrase. In this case, we need to use an adjective phrase because we need to describe which guy we’re talking about. We also have to use it because we can’t really say “the red-shirted guy” in English. 

What about the passive voice?

In the active voice, we start the sentence with the subject, but in the passive voice, we start with the object. So, in the passive voice, the object becomes the subject. 

  • Mike ate the cheese.” (active voice)

  • The cheese was eaten by Mike.” (passive voice)

You can see that in the active voice example, the object - “the cheese” - becomes the subject in the passive voice example. 

Why do we use the passive voice in English? There are certain situations when it’s better to use the passive voice. In the above example, we might use it because we don’t want to accuse Mike directly.

But, unless you want to focus on the object, or if you’re writing in an academic or formal context, you should try to stick with the active voice as much as possible because it’s less confusing.

Do I really need to know this?

You don’t have to memorize it, but getting comfortable with the different structures we have in English will help you grow more confident as a writer. You’ll learn to tell the difference between confusing, repetitive sentences and effective, interesting sentences.

Is it really this simple?

English grammar might not always be easy, but it can be this simple if you break it down into simple language. It also takes practice, so remember that if you don’t get it right away, you can work on it in the editing and revision process.

When you break down sentences and clauses in this way, you can see that grammar for writing doesn’t have to be so complicated. Even the most complicated constructions in the English language follow these five basic structures. 

So now that you see and understand what they are, you can grow more confident with using them and playing around with them!

Try writing one of each of these sentences yourself. If you need something to write about, write about your day today, and see how it goes!


The 4 Different Types of Sentences

Earlier I mentioned that a clause is the basic building block of a sentence, and a sentence can be made of one or more clauses connected together. 

Well, now that you have an understanding of how clauses work, let’s talk about how we can put them together to build four different kinds of English sentences.

1. Simple sentences

All of the sentences we just learned about before are simple sentences, which are sentences with at least one subject and a verb.

  • Jose made dessert.

  • But they can also have more than one subject and more than one verb. And if they do, they are still considered simple sentences, even if they look more complicated.

  • Jose and Kevin ordered dinner and made dessert.

  • Annie, Mark, and Beth washed the dishes, swept the kitchen, and fed the cats.

When we begin to turn simple sentences into complex sentences, simple sentences become known as independent clauses. Try to keep that in mind.

2. Complex sentences

Don’t let the name scare you away! A complex sentence is just an independent clause combined with a dependent clause. 

What makes a clause dependent? A dependent clause begins with words like if, even though, because, or unless (which are also called subordinating conjunctions).  But just like an independent clause, a dependent clause also has to have at least one subject and verb. In this example, we’ll start the sentence with an independent clause.

  • Jose made dessert even though he hates to bake.

The dependent clause here is “even though he hates to bake.”

In this next example, you’ll see what happens when we start the sentence with the  dependent clause, “If you chop the onions…”

  • If you chop the onions, I’ll slice the tomatoes. 

When we start the sentence with a dependent clause, we need to put a comma after it.

Here are a few more examples: 

  • We didn’t go because the party was cancelled.

  • Because the party was cancelled, we didn’t go.

  • I’m going to order pizza unless you want something else.

  • Unless you want something else, I’m going to order pizza.

  • We’re going to get robbed if you keep forgetting to lock the door.

  • If you keep forgetting to lock the door, we’re going to get robbed.

3. Compound sentences

In compound sentences, we join two simple sentences together with something called a coordinating conjunction. 

Coordinating conjunctions are just words like and, or, but, or so. You’ll sometimes see them referred to as FANBOYS (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so), and if that helps you to remember them, that’s great!

  • He chopped the onions, and I sliced the tomatoes.

  • Annie washed the dishes, but she forgot to feed the cats.

  • The party was cancelled, so we didn’t go.

Did you notice that all of these sentences have commas? In compound sentences, you will always see a comma separating the two independent clauses.

4. Compound-complex sentences

These sentences are a little more complicated to understand and write, so it’s best not to use these sentences too much. But now you have all the building blocks you need to write them. All you need to make a compound-complex sentence are two independent clauses and one dependent clause combined together with at least one subordinating conjunction and one coordinating conjunction.

  • If you keep forgetting to lock the door, we’re going to get robbed, and I’m going to be so annoyed.

  • Even though they hate to bake, Jose made cookies, and Kevin made a cake.

A note about participial phrases

A participial phrase is just a phrase that functions as an adjective but looks like a verb. 

  • Keeping Kevin by his side, Jose felt like he could do anything.

Don’t let this confuse you. The participial phrase “keeping Kevin by his side,” isn’t a dependent or independent clause. It’s just a phrase that describes Jose. But we do need to separate a participial phrase from the rest of the sentence with a comma. Here’s another example:

  • He was in the kitchen, chopping the onions.

How do we know that the phrase “chopping the onions” isn’t a dependent or independent clause? We know it’s a participial phrase that describes the subject “He.” We also know that it’s not a clause because it doesn’t contain both things that a clause needs: a subject and a verb.

When you use a participial phrase, make sure it’s clear which noun you want to describe. If you put your participial phrase next to the wrong noun, the result can be confusing. For example:

  • Walking through my house in the dark, something made a creepy noise.

  • Walking through my house in the dark, I heard a creepy noise.

Practice Exercise: Combining Sentences

Choose four of these simple sentences and combine them together to make two complex, compound, or compound-complex sentences. Write your sentences in the comments, and we’ll correct your mistakes. This is also a great strategy to incorporate into your regular writing practice!

  • We rode our bikes to the beach.

  • My friend is afraid of lightning.

  • A storm was coming.

  • My friend is one of the bravest people I know.

  • We decided to take our chances and stay at the beach.

  • I’m afraid of everything.


3 Grammar Tips to Remember When You Write in English

1. Keep your subjects close to your verbs.

Remember how I said that great writing is about how subjects and verbs interact? If you want to write clear, easy-to-read sentences, keep your main subject and verb close together. Don’t allow descriptive phrases and clauses to get in between them if you can avoid it. For example:

  • In the final chapter of his autobiography, the author talks about his relationship with his son.

  • The author, in the final chapter of his biography, talks about his relationship with his son.

  • When you bring it to 100 degrees Celsius, water always boils.

  • Water, when you bring it to 100 degrees Celsius, always boils.

2. Vary your sentence length.

This is something that will take practice. Reading what you write out loud will help you identify if you need to vary your sentence length.

Try reading this out loud and see how it sounds.

In the final chapter of his autobiography, the author talked about his relationship with his son. The two had always had a challenging relationship, and they spent many years without speaking. His son had become an author like his father, and he reached out to his father when he was writing his own first novel. The author describes how difficult this conversation was, but he was glad they had it.

What structure do most of these sentences follow? Every sentence except the first one is a compound sentence. Did you notice how it sounded when you read it? When you don’t vary your sentence structure, your writing will sound a lot less interesting.

Now read this paragraph out loud:

In the final chapter of his autobiography, the author talked about his relationship with his son. The two men had always had a challenging relationship, and they spent many years without speaking. That’s why the author was surprised when his son reached out to him. It turned out that his son was an author now, too. In fact, he had just written his first novel.  Even though the author describes that first conversation as a difficult one, he was glad they had it.

How would you compare this paragraph with the previous one? In this example, you can find simple, complex, and compound sentences.

And did you notice those transitional words and phrases like “That’s why…,” “It turned out…,” and “In fact…?” These phrases help the ideas flow and connect in a more engaging way. So, when you edit your writing to see how your sentence lengths vary, you can also check to see how your sentences connect with each other.

3. Use parallel structure.

When you want to give multiple nouns, phrases, or clauses the same emphasis in a sentence, it’s important to use parallel structure. So, when you’re listing nouns or phrases, or when you’re writing compound or complex sentences, you want to make sure everything follows the same grammatical pattern. For example:

  • On the weekends she likes hiking, swimming, or having picnics.

  • On the weekends, she likes to hike, to swim, or having picnics.

It’s not that it’s grammatically wrong if you don’t follow the rules of parallel structure, but your sentences will be easier to read, and it can help you avoid grammatical confusion.

  • My teacher told me that I should write every day, that I should read as often as I can, and I should share more of my writing in class.

  • My teacher told me that I should write every day, that I should read as often as I can, and to share more of my writing in class.

  • They were always on time because they stayed organized, liked following a schedule, and hated to waste people’s time.

  • They were always on time because they stayed organized, liked following a schedule, and they were scared of wasting people’s time.

Ready? Now, go write!

I know I keep saying this, but I’m going to say it again: You have to practice writing! It’s important to read and learn about writing, but if you don’t practice, none of these grammar rules will matter. 

In order to get a sense of your skills, you have to write something first.

And when you do write, don’t listen to the voice in your head that’s telling you it’s not good! You might make a lot of mistakes in the beginning, and that voice doesn’t want you to make mistakes. But we all have to write something bad to write something good. And if you just start writing a little bit every day, you are bound to improve.



Designed to help adult learners build fluency and confidence in English.

Perfect for learning online or offline!

About the writer

Marta is an online ESL teacher who works with students from around the world. As a writer, language nerd, and content contributor for In English With Love, her mission is to empower English learners with knowledge and positivity.

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