"Grammar is important but big biceps are importanter."

Ugh! Did someone just hear the sound of extreme tire screeching while reading this? If you did, then that's good - for two reasons. One: you can obviously recognize bad grammar when you hear it, and two: you care about speaking English well and recognize the importance of good grammar (not that big biceps aren't important).

However, this article is not about sculpting your arms at the gym, so I'll cut right to the chase... If your goal as a language learner is to sound like a native, remember:

Speaking English well requires good grammar, as well.

In other words, your grammar skills are a direct reflection of your overall fluency level. This is to say that while you may be sound like a good English speaker to others, you might still need to work on your grammar to make that perfect pronunciation and awesome accent of yours sound like a match made in heaven to anybody's ears.

To help you speak better English, here are four grammar rules you simply must know:

girl reading a book

1. Know the difference between "a" and "an".

Yes, this is still a problem. Most English learners think that if a word (noun or adjective) starts with a consonant, it is automatically preceded with the article "a", e.g. "a dog", and if starts with a vowel, it is preceded with "an", e.g. "an airport".

However, this rule reveals only 90 percent of the truth. Here's proof:

an NBA player vs. a nest (both words start with the consonant "n")

an umbrella vs. a used car (both words start with the vowel "u")

Yet, all four of these examples are correct. As to how this is possible, it's because of the sounds vs. letters battle. For example, the "u" in umbrella starts with the vowel sound /ʌ/ while the "u" in "used" start with the consonant sound /j/. The same happens in the other example, just with the letter "n" and its different pronunciations.

Pronunciation matters, people!

Here's how to go about this: Whenever you're thinking about which article to use ("a" or "an"), just look at the sound of the first letter of the next word, and not just the first letter itself. There might be a huge difference.

So, the rule to remember is: If a word (an adjective or a noun) starts with a consonant sound, it is preceded with the article "a". On the other hand, if a word starts with a vowel sound, it is preceded with the article "an".

man on arrow in the street

2. Master past tense verb forms.

This might just be the beginner's English grammar trap out there - one you can never really get out of. Even if you're a highly proficient English speaker, slipping up and saying "I didn't thought it mattered" is going to cost you big time! Time might pass and you might forget it but others certainly won't.

It's the mistake of all mistakes. I always tell my students:

Knowing the past tense verb forms in English is half your job.

Over the years, they grow to realize that the statement above couldn't be closer to the truth. It's just something that we as English learners have to use naturally and seamlessly if we want to be considered good English speakers by others.

coffee mug on a calendar

3. Never put habitual actions in the gerund form.

Unless you're Justin Timberlake or a McDonald's marketing representative from a few decades ago, "I'm loving it" just isn't going to sound cool. On the contrary, one of the main usages of the present simple tense is, in fact, to describe habitual actions and routines - something we've all probably learned in our very first English lessons.

Granted, "loving" something isn't necessarily a habit but the question remains: why do English learners still use the -ing form a.k.a the gerund to describe habitual actions?

I go to school every day.
I'm going to school every day.

I always forget my keys when I'm in a hurry!
I'm always forgetting my keys when I'm in a hurry!

You should never use the gerund to describe habitual actions in English... except in one (very specific) case.

Not many English learners know this but using the gerund to describe habits is actually possible. You can do so only when you want to talk about something that annoys you - not just a one-off thing but something that really gets on your last nerves!

Mom, Jenny's always hitting me when I speak with Veronica!
But teacher, he's the one whispering to me!

Congrats! You now know one more of our beloved English language's little secrets. One more rule to cover...

comma

4. Know your commas.

While punctuation may not be considered a traditional part of English grammar, one cannot have perfect grammar without it. However, for the purpose of this article, we'll focus only on commas, which are a must-know for English speakers.

Although there is plenty to be said about the errors surrounding this tiny symbol used to beautify your writing in English, I'd like to mention the fact that it is quickly becoming one of the biggest threats to our society. In other words...

The (mis)usage of commas nowadays is getting dangerous.

Don't believe me? Please take a look at this basic example below:

Let's eat grandma! (comma feeds one's appetite)
Let's eat, grandma! (comma saves one's life)

Lesson: Love your grandmas and know your commas or you might get yourselves (and others) in a whole lot of trouble.

Out of all of the rules mentioned today, I think it's safe to say that commas are the one area of English grammar you'd never want to get wrong.

man pointing at the camera

To conclude...

We've covered a lot here but there are some key lessons to be learned. First, you should understand the importance of speaking well. Take care of your English grammar. Know what you can always say and what you must never utter. Then, you can worry about growing your biceps if that's "importanter" to you.

A wise man once said:

The greater part of the world's troubles are due to questions of grammar. - Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays

And he couldn't have been more right!

Until next time, happy learning everyone!