20 April 2021

English Grammar: How Its Strange Rules Can Make Language Learning a Challenge

Hot Air Ballons

If you are learning a language, it is only a matter of time before the subject of grammar rears its rather forbidding head. To conquer a new language, you ideally need to remember all sorts of grammatical rules and regulations – including ones that make your written and spoken communications as accurate and effective as possible. Sadly, grammar will not be ignored for long, and if you want to succeed in communicating successfully, in any language, you will need to grapple with some grammatical rules eventually.

One way to help you make sense of grammar when learning a new language is to deepen your baseline understanding of English grammar. In this article, we look at a few grammar rules head-on, so join us on the hunt to vanquish the grammar beast. Hopefully, you will discover that with a few rules memorised, you are well on your way to taming and mastering the English language – and readying yourself for the grammar challenge in a second language too.

A reverse possessive: It’s versus Its

In most cases, using an apostrophe shows who owns what (so it shows belonging or possession) – for example, ‘Simon’s dictionary’ (the dictionary belonging to Simon) or ‘Pablo’s pencil’ (the pencil belonging to Pablo). Sounds simple and memorable, right? However, this rule is not universal in English.

The term ‘it’s’ uses an apostrophe to form a contraction of ‘it is’ or ‘it has’. Therefore, you would say (or write) ‘it’s sunny’ (it is sunny), or ‘it’s been sunny’ (it has been sunny), or ‘it’s easy (it is easy). When you see the term without the apostrophe – ‘its’ – that version indicates possession, which is quite the opposite rule; for example, ‘the pencil is in its case’ (the pencil belongs to the case). Many native English speakers are confused by this, so do not worry if it takes a while to get used to this funny rule!

Pesky Plurals

Many nouns in the English language (that is, words that represent a person, place, object or idea) become plurals (meaning there are more than one) by simply adding an ‘s’. Easy. So ‘girl’ becomes ‘girls’ and ‘boy’ becomes ‘boys’. However, there is an important BUT you need to keep in mind. Many words have unusual, irregular plurals that you simply have to become familiar with and learn, and some of the more common instances relate to people. For example, ‘woman’ becomes ‘women’ (and ‘lady’ becomes ‘ladies’ – if you are visiting the UK to improve your English, you will see this sign on toilet doors!), while more than one ‘man’ is ‘men’ (you may also see ‘gents’ on a toilet door, which is short for ‘gentlemen’).

Here is another curious example. If you see ‘the child’s ball’, it is referring to a ball that belongs to one particular child rather than belonging to many boys and girls, which fits with the general rule on possessive nouns. However, the plural of a child is not ‘childs’ but ‘children’ – and if the ball were to belong to all the children, it would be ‘the children’s ball’ because ‘children’ is an irregular plural that does not form a plural by adding an ‘s’!

Occasionally, to make a word plural, you need to add ‘es’ if the word ends in s, x, z, ch or sh. For example: ‘kiss’ becomes ‘kisses’, ‘fox’ becomes ‘foxes’, ‘quiz becomes ‘quizzes’, ‘church’ becomes ‘churches’ and ‘dish’ becomes ‘dishes’.

For a humorous take on unusual plurals, head here.

Using ‘a’ and ‘the’

You almost always use the words ‘a’ (known as the indefinite article) or ‘the’ (definite article) when talking or writing about nouns. If you are talking about something indefinite (not knowable) you would say ‘is there a post office nearby?’ If you are talking about something definite (knowable), you would say ‘is the post office nearby?’

Also, remember that if the noun begins with a vowel, you need to use the indefinite article ‘an’ instead of ‘a’; for example, ‘an idea’ or ‘an apple’. Many English language students find this tricky, so do not worry if you are one of them. The more you practise speaking, listen to English-language programmes and read from different sources, the more confident you will become at reading, speaking and writing English.

Agreement between subject and verb

While you can usually make a noun plural by adding an ‘s’, the opposite is true when it comes to plural verbs! The singular verb usually uses the ‘s’ – so, ‘Pablo writes with a pencil’ – but when more than one person is doing something, you need to get rid of that extra ‘s’! Instead, you would say ‘we write with pencils’.

Collective nouns can complicate things too. Even confident native English speakers get confused with collective nouns such as ‘team’ or ‘family’, which indicate a group. Should they be treated as singular or plural nouns? Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast rule. You need to consider whether the group is (or should that be ‘are’?!) an impersonal unit or a collection of individuals. So you might say ‘the team is going to win’ but ‘my family are coming to visit’. Understanding such subtle differences can help to finesse your communication skills over time.


If all this leaves you hungry for more, have a read of this article to get to grips with some more confusing English grammar rules – or check out this list of common English language errors to save yourself from making similar mistakes. And if you want to take things further and improve your grammar skills, whether it is by polishing your English language skills, practising your business English or developing your expertise in another language, contact us today to take your language learning to the next level.

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