Following many requests for help, Grammar Puss has decided to start a new blog for parents. Grammar Puss for parents

Tuesday, 31 January 2017


Determiners usually start a noun phrase and are words which give us information about whether the noun is specific or general.  For instance, in the sentence 'This cat would be the best for me', the word 'this' indicates we are talking about a specific cat.  'A cat' or 'any cat' would not indicate any specific cat, as 'a' and 'any' are general determiners.

When children start writing, they very often rely on the general determiners 'a' and 'an', or the specific determiner 'the'.  We should encourage children to increase the range of determiners they use so that they can vary their writing and communicate more clearly whether they are talking about something specific or general. 

As children are taught to read and write many determiners as part of their phonics teaching in Reception and Year 1 classes, it is an ideal opportunity or them to put these words into practice. However, they do not need to know the term 'determiner' until they are in Year 4.

Here are some determiners you can use with children to help them improve their use:
  • a, an, the  (these are also called 'articles' but this is not a term children are required to learn)
  • this, that, these, those
  • some, any, every, another
  • my, your, his, her, its, our, their
  • several, few, many
  • next, last
  • first, seventh, tenth  (ordinal numbers, which indicate an order)
  • six, twelve  (cardinal numbers, which indicate a quantity)
  • which, whose, what (when these words are used to start questions, e.g. Which book is mine?)

The table below contains some determiners, some of which can only be used with a singular noun, some with a plural noun and some with both singular and plural.  


You can use the table to create cards to match up to pictures of singular and plural nouns.  Discussing what the words mean and whether they can be matched with the nouns in the pictures will help your child develop understanding around their use.  Here is a picture to start you off.


  • the flowers
  • some flowers
  • many flowers
  • these flowers
  • my flowers
  • a rose
  • the rose
  • one rose
  • our rose

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Pronouns used to replace nouns and noun phrases

Once children learn to chain a few sentences together to create a piece of writing, it is important for them to understand that they don’t have to repeat the same nouns and noun phrases in every sentence.  If you read the following examples, you can see how repetition interferes with the flow of reading, but replacing some of the nouns and noun phrases with pronouns makes the text easier for the reader to understand.
  • Jack went to town and Jack took the cow to sell at the market.  When Jack got to town, Jack looked for a buyer but Jack could not find a buyer.  Jack was getting worried but then an old lady gave Jack some magic beans for the cow.  When Jack got home, Jack’s mother was very cross with Jack and Jack’s mother threw the beans out of the window.
  • Jack went to town and he took the cow to sell at the market.  When he got to town, Jack looked for a buyer but he could not find one.  Jack was getting worried but then an old lady gave him some magic beans for the cow.  When he got home, Jack’s mother was very cross with him and she threw the beans out of the window.
When pronouns refer to a person, we call them personal pronouns.  Children need to understand that we use different personal pronouns in different sentence slots:  we need subject pronouns in the subject position of a sentence and object pronouns in the object slots.

Subject pronouns                    Object pronouns
(use in the subject position        (use in the object position
before the verb)                         after the verb)
I                                                 me
he                                              him
she                                            her
it                                                it
you                                            you
we                                             us
they                                           them

For example,
  • He saw her.
  • I saw them.
  • She saw me.
  • My family and I saw them. 

Children will sometimes confuse these pronouns, which is incorrect in Standard English and will be marked incorrectly in the grammar and punctuation test:
  • Me and my family saw them.  (Incorrect as object pronoun me used in the subject position.)
  • She saw my family and I.  (Incorrect as subject pronoun I used in the object position.)
These sorts of mistakes usually happen when ‘I’ or ‘me’ is used with another subject or object.  For example, children will rarely say ‘Me saw them.’ or ‘She saw I.’ and will recognise these structures as wrong since they sound strange.  However, when another subject or object is added, the strangeness is not as apparent.  Many adults also make these mistakes and incorrect use is often heard in the media, so it is difficult for children to distinguish correct Standard English.

There are other types of pronouns, but the subject and object pronouns are the first that will need to be taught.

Activity: Take Tibbles Out: using subject and object pronouns correctly

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Update to Happy Families present and past progressive card game

Apologies to those of you who have downloaded the Happy Families game already.  I realised overnight that the singular past progressive cards needed to include 'I' as well as 'he/she/it'.  The cards are now revised. 

Also, the final column should contain the words 'past progressive', not 'present progressive'.  I was a little over-enthusiastic with my copy and paste buttons when putting these together and will endeavour to proof read a little more carefully in future!

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Present progressive and past progressive verb forms

Progressive forms of verbs (sometimes referred to as ‘continuous’ forms) are used to indicate continuation of an action or state of being.

The present progressive shows that the action or state of being is continuing at the present time, e.g. He is runningshe is getting stronger.

The past progressive shows that the action or state of being was continuing at the time being referred to, e.g. He was crossing the bridgeshe was feeling sad.

Progressive forms are constructed by using a form of the verb ‘be’ + the present participle of a verb, which ends in –ing. 

The present progressive is detailed below, giving some examples of use with proper nouns (names), common nouns (the robot/the children) and pronouns:
  • I am writing
  • Jack/he is writing
  • Amy/she is writing
  • The robot/it is writing
  • You are writing
  • We are writing
  • The children/they are writing
You can see that the form of the verb ‘be’ is different for ‘I’ (am), ‘he/she/it’ (is) and ‘you/we/they’ (are) so, when using the present progressive, children need to choose the correct form of ‘be’ to match the person or pronoun.

The past progressive is formed using the past tense of the verb ‘be’:
  • I was writing
  • Jack/he was writing
  • Amy/she was writing
  • The robot/it was writing
  • You were writing
  • We were writing
  • The children/they were writing
With this form of the progressive, only ‘was’ and ‘were’ are used.

If we just write the present participle (-ing verb) in a sentence, we cannot tell whether the action is in the past or the present and the sense will not be complete, so it is the verb ‘be’ (am/is/are/was/were) that indicates whether we are writing in the past or present.

The dragon flying.  (doesn’t make full sense; we cannot say present or past tense)
The dragon is flying. (present tense) 
The dragon was flying. (past tense)

To use Standard English, children need to match the correct form of ‘be’ to the pronoun, so it is important to know when to use am, is, are, was, were.  

I have developed a ‘Happy Families’ game (link below) for my Grammar Puss for Parents blog.  This game helps children get used to the different forms of ‘be’ and how they should be used to make the present and past progressive.  The verbs are all used in the context of a sentence.  

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Resource for teaching fronted adverbials: 'Something about a Bear' by Jackie Morris

‘Where the water churns with salmon, thick and rich with leaping fishes, there the Brown Bear stands and catches the wild king of the river.’

What a poetic opening this is!  Of course, it is just the rich, beautiful language we have come to expect from Jackie Morris and, once again, she has provided teachers with a quality text for exemplifying certain sentence structures. 

This book could be used to develop understanding around many aspects of grammar, but here we are going to focus on fronted adverbials.  Below are some examples from the text which could be used in the following ways:
  1. Using Talk for Writing techniques, children can learn the patterns of the text and innovate/invent their own sentences from these. 
  2. Discussing the fronted adverbials will also help children understand this grammatical feature.  For example, is the adverbial position filled with one phrase, more than one phrase, or a clause?
  3. In some sentences, there is subject-verb inversion after the fronted adverbial and children could use this pattern for a more literary style.  This structure can be used when the subject is a noun (not a pronoun) and there is an initial place adverbial (position or direction).

I would not discuss sentence structure beyond points 2 and 3 above, since many of the sentences have lengthy, sophisticated constructions and there is no need to understand how these are put together to appreciate the beauty of the language.

On the shore the young bears watch him; still others swim …  (Fronted adverbial phrase)

In the wildest lands of China, in the forests and the mountains, lives the white-and-black Giant Panda, hidden from the world. (Power of 3 opening: 3 adverbials followed by subject-verb inversion and a final, non-finite, adverbial clause.  Note that the third listed adverbial has the preposition ‘in’ omitted for succinctness.)  This would be a great structure for children to imitate, innovate and invent their own.

Through the forest, hunting termites and the honey hives of bees, where the mangos and the fruit trees grow in plenty, walks the shaggy-coated Sloth Bear.  (This is a complicated structure, with two clauses placed between the fronted adverbial and the inverted subject-verb.  The basic sentence is Through the forest walks the shaggy-coated Sloth Bear.  This is split by a non-finite adverbial clausehunting termites and the honey hives of bees,’ and a finite adverbial clausewhere the mangos and the fruit trees grow in plenty’. Children learning to use fronted adverbials do not need to understand these two clause structures grammatically, but it is useful for the teacher to be aware of them. 

With her cubs aboard her strong back she keeps them safe from danger, for there are tiges in the forests, and wild dogs and leopards too. (Fronted adverbial phrase)

Up in the crowns of tall trees, in the softest nests of green leaves, the Spectacled Bear sunbathes through the heat of the day.  (Two adverbial phrases fronting the sentence.)

By dawn light and dusk light the great Moon Bear of Asia hunts and searches, for insects, and for noney, nuts and berries.  (Fronted adverbial created by a preposition + two noun phrases linked with ‘and’.)

Where the forest meets the snowline she watches from her bear’s nest for the wild leopard of the mountains, who hunts the higher ground.  (Fronted adverbial clause)

In the cool of night he searches…  (Fronted adverbial phrase)

Besides the lakes and in the forests Black Bear fishes in the water, …  (Two adverbial phrases linked with ‘and’ fronting the sentence.)

You will note that many of Jackie Morris’s fronted adverbials are not punctuated with commas, unless embedded clauses or phrases follow.  For more about punctuating fronted adverbials, click here.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Using commas with fronted adverbials

The new National Curriculum requires children to be taught to use fronted adverbials and to indicate these as a grammatical feature by ‘using commas after fronted adverbials’. (Years 3-4 Programme of Study).  This statutory requirement appears in appendix 2: Vocabulary, grammar and punctuation under Year 4.

I have no disagreement at all about teaching children to front adverbials, since these enable them to create different effects for their readers and also provide variation in sentence structure.  However, I think the statement ‘Use of commas after fronted adverbials’ needs a little mediation, since not all fronted adverbials will require to be punctuated.  In fact, hidden away in the glossary of the National Curriculum, it does state ‘When writing fronted phrases, we often follow them with a comma’ (my italics). 

The task for us is to teach children:
  • What function adverbs, adverbial phrases and adverbial clauses have in a sentence, e.g. where, when, how, why things happen.
  • What words, phrases and clauses can fill the adverbial positions in a sentence.  When considering single word adverbs, children need to recognise that these can end in –ly, but also include other words too, such as away, off, well.  Adverbial phrases are often prepositional phrases, but could also consist of a single word adverb an a premodifying adverb, e.g. extremely well, really quickly, very conscientiouslyAdverbial clauses are subordinate clauses that fill the adverbial position.  Very often we teach children the subordinate structure for these, but don’t highlight the adverbial function (other functions of subordinate clauses are nominal and relative).
  • How to construct adverbial phrases and clauses, e.g. a prepositional phrase = a preposition + a noun or noun phrase.
  • How and when it is appropriate to punctuate adverbs, adverbial phrases and adverbial clauses, especially when these are fronted.

Children need to understand that the purpose of punctuation is to help a reader (who is usually not present) understand clearly what the writer intended.  I don’t think that this is discussed explicitly enough with children.  It is not obvious from the classroom context that the purpose for writing is usually for a reader who is not present at the time of writing.  In many instances, children are writing for a teacher, teaching assistant or peers who are in the same room, maybe sitting at the same table.  This means that any misunderstandings in what they have written can be explained verbally. It is extremely difficult for children to read their writing as another reader would: they know exactly what they had in mind and reading with somebody else’s ‘eyes’ is a skill that needs to be learnt.

So, how can punctuation of fronted adverbials help a reader understand the text more clearly?  Well, most punctuation is a matter of convention, rather than definite ‘rights and wrongs’.  In spite of what some may say about ‘rules’ of punctuation, use of commas is optional in many cases and very much depends on personal preference, avoiding ambiguity and promoting clarity of message.  This clarity is not just about the sense the reader can obtain from the text; it is also about creating the effect the writer desires.

Bearing what I have just said about optional use and personal preference I would simply offer the following ideas about use of commas with fronted adverbials.  Not everyone would agree with me!
With this type of adverbial, which can usually be placed in different positions in a sentence, I would be much more likely to consider sense, and the effect I wanted to create. 

In short sentences, or those where I wanted to develop some pace, I would be less likely to use a comma since these do cause the reader to pause mentally (or physically if they are reading aloud).  We should avoid telling children that punctuation makes the reader ‘take a breath’: the reader is very capable of controlling their own breathing, especially if reading silently! However, pausing at the grammatical boundaries in a sentence does give the reader chance to consider what has gone before, take in the meaning, and prepare for the next piece of information.

Consider the following examples.  The sense is clear and I would prefer to build the pace so have not used commas.  
  • That night I tried again.
  • Suddenly it started.
  • Hurriedly they darted under a rock.
Now compare these two similar structures. What difference does the punctuation make?
  • Explosively the fiery lava spurted from the mouth of the volcano.
  • Gradually, the viscous, black oil dripped from the pipe.

I would also use a comma if my opening adverbial was lengthy. (David Crystal discusses the issue of use of commas with longer grammatical structures in his book: Making a point, for anyone interested in further reading.)  With short term memory being what it is, slowing the reader down can give time for the information to be processed:
  • In the silent darkness of the gloomy forest, the red-cloaked child felt nervous.
  • Because of the clear tones of her voice and the beauty of the melody, the audience gave her a standing ovation.

Of course, if the fronted adverbial is a subordinate clause, I would use a comma to demarcate the boundary:
  • Since she was a child, Sophie had wanted to work with horses.
  • Climbing to the top, he had a clear view of the surrounding countryside.

Conjuncts (adverbials with a cohesive function)
With most of these adverbials, I would use commas to separate them from the rest of the sentence.  Conjuncts are used to help the text flow and are therefore on the periphery of the sentence.  They are usually placed at or near the beginning of the sentence, so that the reader can use this early information to link to what has happened in the previous sentences or paragraph:
  • Furthermore, animals do not have as much room to move in captivity.
  • Later that afternoon, he left the house and wandered through the streets again.
  • In the meantime, she would practise making cakes.
  • The prince was, however, not ready for the responsibility of ruling the kingdom.

With some conjuncts though, especially in short sentences, I might omit the comma, e.g.
  • Finally they arrived.

I would use commas to separate these adverbial words, phrases or clauses from the remainder of the information in the sentence, since they are not integral to the sentence, but purely convey the writer’s feelings.  It seems right to me to help the reader distinguish the main message from the writer's feelings, beliefs and opinions.  For example:

  • Frankly, he is unlikely to remain a politician.
  • Seriously, I heard them say so on the radio.
  • To be precise, not all the details are available.
  • With regret, we will not be able to attend.
  • If I can be direct, I don’t agree.

However, once again I think that I might omit the comma if the sentence is very short and the disjunct is a single word.  Consider the structures below.  Does the reader really need the benefit of a comma here?
  • Obviously I care!
  • Clearly it's not.

In the grammar and punctuation tests, children are likely to be required to identify a fronted adverbial punctuated with a comma as the correct option.  I just hope the people setting these tests choose examples where there is no doubt a comma is required for sense and effect.  If that is the case, we can teach children to write well, using adverbials and commas to aid sense and effect, rather than requiring them to punctuate every single fronted adverbial in order to pass a test!