Word Usage: GED Test Prep (page 6)
On the GED Language Arts, Writing Exam, questions about usage will cover topics such as subject-verb agreement, correct verb tense and conjugation, and proper pronoun use. This article will review these grammar rules and more so that you will be prepared for the exam.
Usage refers to the rules that govern the form of the words we use and how we string those words together in sentences. Correct grammar and usage are essential for clear and effective communication. In this section, you will review the following areas of basic grammar and usage:
- Verb conjugation and usage
- Consistent verb tense
- Subject-verb agreement
- Gerunds and infinitives
- Pronoun cases
- Pronoun agreement
- Comparative and superlative adjectives and adverbs
- Prepositional idioms
Verbs are the "heart" of a sentence. They express the action or state of being of the subject, telling us what the subject is doing, thinking, or feeling.
- She yelled out the window. (action)
- I am happy to be here. (state of being)
- We feel very lucky to be alive. (state of being)
- I should ask Winston what he thinks. (action)
Verbs have five basic forms:
- Infinitive: the base form of the verb plus the word to.
- Present tense: the verb form that expresses what is happening now.
- Present participle: the verb form that describes what is happening now. It ends in -ing and is accompanied by a helping verb such as is.
- Past tense: the verb form that expresses what happened in the past.
- Past participle: the verb form that describes an action that happened in the past and is used with a helping verb, such as has, have, or had.
to go to be to dream to admire
To indicate tenses of regular verbs (when the action of the verb did occur, is occurring, or will occur), we use the base form of the verb and add the appropriate tense endings.
I am sorry you are not coming with us.
Jessica does yoga every morning.
The present tense of regular verbs is formed as follows:
Jessica is doing a difficult yoga pose.
The leaves are falling from the trees.
Note: Words that end in -ing don't always function as verbs. Sometimes they act as nouns and are called gerunds. They can also function as adjectives (called participial phrases).
Present participle (verb): He is loading the boxes into the car.
Gerund (noun): This parking area is for loading only.
Participial phrase (adjective): The loading dock is littered with paper.
(You will learn more about gerunds later in this section.)
It snowed yesterday in the mountains.
I felt better after I stretched and did some deep breathing.
It has not snowed all winter.
I have waited as long as I can.
Most English verbs are "regular"—they follow a standard set of rules for forming the present participle, past tense, and past participle.
- The present participle is formed by adding -ing.
- The past and past participle are formed by adding –ed.
- If the verb ends with the letter e, just add d.
- If the verb ends with the letter y, for the past tense, change the y to an i and add -ed .
A handful of English verbs have the same present, past, and past participle form. Here is a partial list of those verbs and several examples:
Present: I read the newspaper every morning.
Past: I read the newspaper yesterday morning.
Past participle: I have read the newspaper every morning since 1992.
About 150 English verbs are irregular. They don't follow the standard rules for changing tense. We can divide these irregular verbs into three categories:
- irregular verbs with the same past and past participle forms
- irregular verbs with three distinct forms
- irregular verbs with the same present and past participle forms
The following table lists a few examples of irregular verbs.
In English, as in many other languages, the essential verb to be is highly irregular:
Helping verbs (also called auxiliary verbs) are essential to clear communication. They help indicate exactly when an action took place or will take place. They also suggest very specific meanings, such as the subject's ability or intention to do something. The following table lists the helping verbs, their forms, and their meanings.
The subjunctive mood is one of the verb forms we often forget to use in conversation, and therefore we often neglect to use it correctly in our writing. Like helping verbs, the subjunctive is used to express a specific meaning, indicating something that is wished for or that is contrary to fact. It is formed by using were instead of was as in the following examples:
If she were a little more experienced, she would get the promotion. (She is not a little more experienced.)
If I were rich, I would travel the world. (Unfortunately, I am not rich.)
Three verb pairs are particularly troublesome, even for native speakers of English:
- lie / lay
- sit / set
- rise / raise
The key to knowing which verb to use is remembering which verb takes an object. In each pair, one verb is transitive—an object "receives" the action—while the other is intransitive—the subject itself "receives" or performs the action. For example, lie is an action that the subject of the sentence "performs" on itself: I will lie down. The transitive verb lay, on the other hand, is an action that the subject of the sentence performs upon an object: I lay the babydown in the crib. In the following examples, the subjects are in bold and the objects are underlined.
lie: to rest or recline (intransitive—subject only)
lay: to put or place (transitive—needs an object)
I will lie down for a while.
Will you please lay the papers down on the table?
sit: to rest (intransitive—subject only)
set: to put or place (transitive—needs an object)
Why don't we sit down and talk this over?
He will set the record straight.
rise: to go up (intransitive—subject only)
raise: to move something up (transitive—needs an object)
The sun will rise at 5:48 A.M. tomorrow.
He raised the rent to $750 per month.
The basic forms of these verbs can also be a bit tricky.The following table shows how each verb is conjugated.
Now that you have reviewed verb conjugation and tense formation, it's time to talk about two key issues with verb usage: consistent tense and subject-verb agreement.
One of the quickest ways to confuse readers, especially if you are telling a story or describing an event, is to shift verb tenses. To help readers be clear about when actions occur, make sure verbs are consistent in tense. If you begin telling the story in the present tense, for example, keep the story in the present tense; do not inadvertently mix tenses as you write. Be clear about changing tense, and make sure that it makes sense in the context of the story (for example, a story that takes place in the present tense might use the past tense to talk about actions that happened before the story started). Otherwise, you will leave your readers wondering whether actions are taking place in the present or took place in the past.
Incorrect: She left the house and forgets her keys again.
Correct: She left the house and forgot her keys again.
Incorrect: When we work together, we got better results.
Correct: When we work together, we get better results. OR
When we worked together, we got better results.
In English grammar, agreement means that sentence elements are balanced.Verbs, for example, should agree with their subjects: If the subject is singular, the verb should be singular; if the subject is plural, the verb should be plural.
Incorrect: They doesn't have a chance against Coolidge. (plural subject, singular verb)
Correct: They don't have a chance against Coolidge. (plural subject, plural verb)
Of course, to make sure subjects and verbs agree, you need to be clear about who or what is the subject of the sentence. For example, what is the subject in the following sentence, and which is the correct verb?
Only one of the students [was/were] officially registered for the class.
In this sentence, the subject is one, not students. Though it seems like students are performing the action of being completed, students can't be the subject because it is part of a prepositional phrase (of the students), and subjects are never found in prepositional phrases. Thus, the verb must be singular (was, not were) to agree with one. In addition, it is only one of the students—not all—who was registered, so again, the verb must be singular.
Here are some other important guidelines for subject-verb agreement:
- If a compound, singular subject is connected by and, the verb must be plural.
- If a compound, singular subject is connected by or or nor, the verb must be singular.
- If one plural and one singular subject are connected by or or nor, the verb agrees with the closest subject.
- In an inverted sentence, the subject comes after the verb, so the first step is to clearly identify the subject. (Sentences that begin with there is and there are, for example, as well as questions, are inverted sentences.) Once you correctly identify the subject, then you can make sure your verb agrees. The correct subjects and verbs are underlined.
Both Vanessa and Xui want to join the committee.
Neither Vanessa nor Xiu wants to join the committee.
Neither Vanessa nor the treasurers want to join the committee.
Neither the treasurers nor Vanessa wants to join the committee.
Incorrect: There's plenty of reasons to go.
Correct: There are plenty of reasons to go.
Incorrect: What's the side effects of this medication?
Correct: What are the side effects of this medication?
Gerunds and Infinitives
Gerunds and infinitives have given many students of English a grammar headache, but they are not so difficult to master. Gerunds, as we noted earlier, look like verbs because they end in -ing, but they actually function as nouns in sentences:
Tracy loves camping.
Here, the "action" Tracy performs is loves. The thing (noun) she enjoys is camping. In the following sentence, however, camping is the action Tracy performs, so it is functioning as a verb, not as a gerund:
Tracy is camping in the Pine Barrens next week.
Words ending in -ing can also function as adjectives:
Some of our camping gear needs to be replaced before our trip.
Here's another example of how the same word can have three different functions:
Verb: He is screaming loudly.
Gerund (noun): That screaming is driving me crazy!
Adjective: The screaming boy finally stopped.
What this means is that you can't count on word endings to determine a word's part of speech. Lots of words that look like verbs may not be. It's how they function in the sentence that counts.
Infinitives are the base (unconjugated) form of the verb preceded by to: to be, to delay, to manage. They are often part of a verb chain, but they are not the main verb (main action) of a sentence:
Priya likes to write poems.
In this example, likes is the main verb; what Priya likes (the action she likes to take) is to write poems.
When to Use Infinitives and Gerunds
In many situations, you may be uncertain whether to use an infinitive or a gerund. Which is correct: I like to swim or I like swimming? In this case, both are correct; like, hate, and other verbs that express preference can be followed by either a gerund or infinitive. But other verbs can only be followed by one or the other. Here are a few helpful guidelines:
- Always use a gerund after a preposition.
- Always use a gerund after the following verbs:
- In general, use an infinitive after these verbs:
- When a noun or pronoun immediately follows these verbs, use an infinitive:
Keza thought that by taking the train, she would save money and time.
Noriel was afraid of offending her host, but she couldn't eat the dinner.
We should discuss buying a new computer.
I am going to quit smoking.
Aswad promises to be back by noon.
Fatima failed to keep her promise.
I'd like you to reconsider my offer.
The committee needs you to organize this event.
Pronouns, as we noted earlier, replace nouns. This keeps us from having to repeat names and objects over and over. But pronouns can be a bit tricky at times. This section reviews the different kinds of pronouns and the rules they follow.
Personal pronouns refer to specific people or things. They can be either singular (I) or plural (we); they can be subjects (I) or objects (me).
Pronoun mistakes are often made by using the subject form when you really need the object form. Here are two guidelines to follow:
- Always use the object pronoun in a prepositional phrase. Pronouns and nouns in prepositional phrases are always objects.
- Always use the subject pronoun in a than construction (comparison).When a pronoun follows than, it is usually part of a clause that omits the verb in order not to repeat unnecessarily.
He promised to bring a souvenir for Betty and me.
Please keep this between us.
I realize that Alonzo is more talented than I. [than I am]
Sandra is much more reliable than he. [than he is]
Unlike personal pronouns, indefinite pronouns, such as anybody and everyone, don't refer to a specific person. The following indefinite pronouns are always singular and require singular verbs:
Everybody has a chance to win.
Neither child admits to eating the cookies.
Has anyone seen my keys?
The following indefinite pronouns are always plural:
both few many several
Both sound like good options.
Only a few are left.
These indefinite pronouns can be singular or plural, depending upon the noun or pronoun to which they refer:
all any most none some
Some of the money is counterfeit.
Some of the coins are valuable.
None of the animals have been fed.
All of the bread is moldy.
Just as subjects (both nouns and pronouns) must agree with their verbs, pronouns must also agree with their antecedents—the words they replace. For example:
Children will often believe everything their parents tell them.
The word children is the antecedent and is replaced by their and them in the sentence. Because children is plural, the pronouns must also be plural.
Indefinite pronouns can also be antecedents. Singular indefinite pronouns require singular pronouns:
Everyone has his or her own reasons for coming.
Neither of the physicists could explain what she saw.
Plural indefinite pronouns, on the other hand, require plural pronouns, just like they need plural verbs:
both few many several
Both of them have finished their work.
Only a few are still in their original cases.
Finally, those pronouns that can be either singular or plural, depending upon the noun or pronoun to which they refer, should take the pronoun that matches their referent. If the antecedent is singular, the pronoun and verb must also be singular. If the antecedent is plural, they must be plural:
all any most none some
All of the chocolate is gone. It was delicious!
All of the cookies are gone. They were delicious!
None of the information is accurate; it's all out of date.
None of the facts are accurate; they are all out of date.
Just as you need to be consistent in verb tense, you should also be consistent in your pronoun point of view. Pronouns can be:
A passage that begins in the third-person plural should continue to use that third-person plural point of view.
Incorrect: We have tested our hypothesis and the team believes it is correct.
Correct: We have tested our hypothesis and we believe it is correct.
Incorrect: If you prepare carefully, one can expect to pass the exam.
Correct: If you prepare carefully, you can expect to pass the exam. OR
If one prepares carefully, one can expect to pass the exam.
The possessive pronouns its, your, their, and whose are often confused with the contractions it's (it is or it has), you're (you are), they're (they are), and who's (who is). Because we use apostrophes to show possession in nouns (Louise's truck, the rug's pattern), many people make the mistake of thinking that pronouns use apostrophes for possession, too. But possessive pronouns do not take apostrophes. When a pronoun has an apostrophe, it always shows contraction.
The pronouns who, that, and which are also often confused. Here are the general guidelines for using these pronouns correctly:
- Use who or whom when referring to people:
- Use that when referring to things:
- Use which when introducing clauses that are not essential to the information in the sentence, unless they refer to people. In that case, use who.
She is the one who should make that decision, not me.
This is the most important decision that she will make as director.
Emily married Sonny, who has been in love with her since first grade.
Antoinette, who is a computer programmer, would be a good match for Daniel.
The film, which is a comedy, won several awards.
Adjectives and Adverbs
Adjectives and adverbs help give our sentences color; they describe things and actions. Adjectives describe nouns and pronouns and tell us which one, what kind, and how many. See the following table.
Adverbs, on the other hand, describe verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. They tell us where, when, how, and to what extent. See the table below.
Remember to keep modifiers as close as possible to what they modify.
As a rule, use the adjective fewer to modify plural nouns or things that can be counted. Use less for singular nouns that represent a quantity or a degree. Most nouns to which an -s can be added require the adjective fewer.
Use less salt this time. Use fewer eggs this time.
I had less reason to go this time. I had fewer reasons to go this time.
These pairs of words—good/well, bad/badly—are often confused. The key to proper usage is to understand their function in the sentence. Good and bad are adjectives; they should be used to modify only nouns and pronouns. Well and badly are adverbs; they should be used to modify verbs.
I was surprised by how good Sebastian's cake was.
Jennelle hasn't been feeling well lately.
Her attitude is good, but she didn't do well in the interview.
An important function of adjectives and adverbs is comparisons. When you are comparing two things, use the comparative form(-er) of the modifier. If you are comparing more than two things, use the superlative form (-est) of the modifier.
To create the comparative form, either:
- add -er to the modifier OR
- place the word more or less before the modifier.
In general, add -er to short modifiers (one or two syllables). Use more or less with modifiers of more than two syllables.
cheaper less expensive
smarter more intelligent
To create the superlative form, either:
- add -est to the modifier OR
- place the word most or least before the modifier.
Again, as a general rule, add -est to short modifiers (one or two syllables). Use most or least with modifiers that are more than two syllables.
Wanda is more experienced than I, but I am the most familiar with the software.
Ahmed is clearly the smartest student in the class.
Double Comparisons and Double Negatives
Be sure to avoid double comparisons. Don't use both -er/-est and more/less or most/least together.
Incorrect: She has the most longest hair I've ever seen.
Correct: She has the longest hair I've ever seen.
Incorrect: Minsun is more happier now.
Correct: Minsun is happier now.
Likewise, be sure to avoid double negatives. When a negative word such as no or not is added to a statement that is already negative, a double negative—and potential confusion—results. Hardly and barely are also negative words. Remember, one negative is all you need.
Incorrect: He doesn't have no idea what she's talking about.
Correct: He doesn't have any idea what she's talking about.
He has no idea what she's talking about.
Incorrect: I can't hardly wait to see you.
Correct: I can hardly wait to see you.
I can't wait to see you.
Another aspect of usage that may be covered on the GED Language Arts, Writing Exam is prepositional idioms: the specific word/preposition combinations that we use in the English language, such as take care of and according to. What follows is a list of some of the most common prepositional idioms. Review the list carefully to be sure you are using prepositional idioms correctly.
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