Jane Schwartz

Grammar Power

The first edition of Grammar Power came out in 1997. It's been re-issued twice since then, with different covers but the same content.

Here is an excerpt.


Read aloud the following group of words:

he is a man who cares

Perhaps you read it this way:

He is a man who cares.

But you might also have read it this way:

He is a man. Who cares?

Both versions are grammatically correct, both make sense, and both use the same words in the same order. However, they convey two very different messages. To communicate your thoughts in a clear, unambiguous way, you need to structure your words into sentences. Individual words are important, but meaning comes from sentences.

You've been using sentences to communicate for most of your life, so obviously you know a lot about them even if you can't name or identify a single part of speech. That's okay. You're not reading about grammar so you can discuss participial phrases on your next date (at least, we sincerely hope not!). You're taking time out of your busy schedule to study grammar for only one reason: because it has practical value. The practical value of grammar resides in making sentences. That is its sole purpose. Communication -- both verbal and written -- is based on the sentence. That's why we're not going to spend the first 50 pages of this book teaching you the individual parts of speech. We're going to start right off with the real thing, what you use every day: the sentence. The place to practice swimming is in the water, not on the shore. So jump in; the water's fine. (You will need to learn a few terms as we go along, but we promise to keep them to a minimum.)

Plug In Sentences are made of subjects and verbs, some of which are part of a phrase or clause. In the following sentences, underline all subjects once and all verbs twice.

1. The phone is ringing.
2. Could you please answer it?
3. Don't tell anyone where I am!
4. Mom and Dad will not ground me; however, I will grind you up into little pieces in about two more minutes.
5. Having a little sister tries my patience.

What is a sentence? The sentence is our basic unit of communication. From it we build everything from news broadcasts to college application essays; from e-mail messages to research papers; from corporate memos to true-crime novels; from "Dear John" letters to instructions for taking medication.

Plays and screenplays also grow from sentences (although, since they attempt to reproduce the spoken word, they do not always strive for grammatical correctness or completeness). Even poetry -- no matter how the lines appear on the printed page -- is carried, for the most part, on the backs of sentences.

What makes the sentence so powerful? A sentence is powerful because it is the expression of a complete and independent thought. A sentence, standing all by itself, makes sense. Every sentence you write is like a minidrama or a very short story (the shortest story you can imagine). Someone (or something) does something (or is something). In other words: Something happens.

The boy smiles.

The girl swam.

We are leaving.

That movie was terrible.

They endured.

In and of themselves, these may not be the kind of stories for which Nobel Prizes in Literature are awarded (although the last sentence comes from The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, who actually did win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949), but they each fulfill the basic requirements: Something happens. Someone (or something) does something (or is something).

Subjects and Verbs
You're already familiar with the basic elements of the sentence. You have an intuitive understanding of what goes where (most of the time). You can demonstrate this by writing an appropriate word in each space in the following sentences.

1. The ______________ fell off the shelf.
2. ______________ is my favorite food.
3. ______________ are running in the halls.
4. An old ______________ cannot always be repaired.

The words you wrote are subjects. Now write an appropriate word in each space in the following sentences:

5. Andrew and Jeff ______________ with their father.
6. The teacher ______________ the room.
7. The boys ______________ less than the girls.
8. The key ______________.

The words you wrote are verbs. To fulfill its storytelling requirement, a sentence must always have a subject and a verb, and it must be able to stand on its own.

What Is a Subject?
The subject is always some form of a noun. It is the actor in your drama. The actor doesn't have to be a person. It can also be a place, a thing, or an abstraction:

The desk seems old.
Running can be good for you.
Bombay surprised me.
The future remains a mystery.
To laugh is to survive.

The subject may consist of two or more separate actors. This is called a compound subject:

Kevin and I fought constantly.
Eating and sleeping were his favorite activities.
Men, women, and children cried at this movie.

Warmed up? Try this exercise. In each of the following sentences, underline the subject(s) once. (See the answers at the end of this book.)

1. We ran for the bus.
2. The roses smell wonderful.
3. January and February were the worst months of the year.
4. You frightened me.
5. To hear his voice gives me pleasure.

To Find the Subject. If you have trouble locating the subject, picture the drama in your mind. If you still aren't sure who the star of the sentence is, ask yourself what the action is. Once you see the action taking place, work backward and ask who or what is performing that action. That will be the subject.

What Is a Verb?
A verb is a word that shows action. It indicates what the subject does or is or feels.

•A single verb may be composed of more than one word: Jill was running.

•Negatives are not part of the verb: I will not buy that paper.

•When a subject performs two or more separate actions, you have a compound verb: Joyce hacked and slashed her way out of the forest.

To Check Your Verb Choice. If you're not sure about your choice for the verb, try putting I, you, he, she, it, or they before it and see if you get a sentence. If any one of those words fits, you've picked a verb. For example,

Being in pain isolates you.

Is being the verb? Use the test: "I being." "You being." "He being." "She being." "It being." "They being." None of these is a sentence; therefore, being cannot be the verb.

What other possible choice is there? Isolates. Try it out: "I isolates." No. "You isolates." No. "He isolates." BINGO! Therefore, isolates is a verb. (And, in case you're interested, that makes being the subject.)

In each of the following sentences, underline the verb(s) twice.

1. He screamed at his younger sister.
2. Terry has been trying to buy a house.
3. Darryl sings in the chorus and plays on the football team.
4. We are not going to the party.
5. The painting lay in the closet gathering dust.

Selected Works

Biography; Nonfiction; Sports
The definitive portrait of the greatest filly in thoroughbred racing, and of the people and politics that shaped her brilliant, tragic career.
Set in the rooftop world of the Brooklyn pigeon-flyers, where the beauty and freedom of the skies offers a sharp contrast to the narrowness and violence of the streets, Caught is the story of an unusual friendship that develops between a ten-year-old girl and a grown man.
Here are a few of the poems that I'm collecting into a book.
A humorous self-help grammar book for adults.

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