Grammar - Intermediate


Subject And Object Questions

Look at this sentence:

Mary looked at somebody.

Here, "somebody" is the object of the question. We want to know who the "somebody" is so we ask the question:

Who did Mary look at?

Now look at this sentence:

Somebody looked at Mary.

Now, "somebody" is the subject of the sentence. If we want to know who the "somebody" is, we have to ask:

Who looked at Mary?

When we use who, what or which as the subject of a question, we don't use do, does or did.

Sandra made something. - What did Sandra make? (Object)
Someone made a cake. - Who made a cake? (Subject)

Something happened. - What happened? (Subject)
Someone killed JFK. - Who killed JFK? (Subject)
One bank opens on Sunday. - Which bank opens on Sunday? (Subject)


Relative Pronouns and Relative Clauses

Here are three pieces of information.

There is a man. He lives next to the bank. He is a postman.

Now, we can join these three sentences together using a relative pronoun:

The man who lives next to the bank is a postman.

A relative clause is part of a sentence which tells us more information about a person or thing. Here are three other sentences.

There is a restaurant. We went there last night. It was very expensive.

Which we can combine using a different relative pronoun:

The restaurant where we went last night was very expensive.

We can use different relative pronouns depending if we are talking about a person, a place or a possession.

The man whose car was stolen last night is at the police station.
The town where Copernicus was born also invented gingerbread.
The politician who won the election was a communist.
The dog that/which bit me was a labrador.

Now look at these sentences.

You looked at a girl. She was blonde.
A girl looked at you. She was blonde.

In the first pair of sentences, the blonde girl is the object of the sentence. In the second pair of sentences, the blonde girl is the subject. When we use relative pronouns to join sentences like this, we don't have to include the relative pronoun that is the object:

You looked at a girl. She was blonde. (object)
We can write: The girl you looked at was blonde.

but

A girl looked at you. She was blonde. (subject)
We must write: The girl who looked at you was blonde.

We have to include the relative pronoun if it is the subject of a sentence.

The restaurant you like is near the bank. (relative pronoun omitted - object)
The restaurant which opens late is near the bank. (relative pronoun included - subject)

"Can" And "Be Able"

These two are both used to talk about ability, but in different ways.

General Ability

I can swim.
I am able to swim.

Both these sentences mean the same thing but "can" is usually used as it is shorter and more concise.

Also in the past, we use "could" instead of "was able to" to talk about general ability.

Mozart could play the piano when he was four years old.
NOT Mozart was able to play the piano when he was four years old.

Remember, it's not wrong - it's just better to use "can" or "could" in these examples.

Specific Ability

If we want to talk about someone's ability to do something at a specific time in the past, we must use "to be able to".

I studied a lot for this exam and I was able to finish it easily.

Here we cannot use "could". This is not a general ability - this exam was only on one day, at a specific time in the past. We can also use other expressions such as "succeeded in" or "managed to" to talk about what someone was able to do at a specific time in the past.

I managed to see John for five minutes when he wasn't busy.
It was a difficult shot but Tiger Woods succeeded in playing it perfectly.

However, even when we are talking about a specific occasion in the past, for negative sentences, we can use "couldn't".

It was a hard exam and I couldn't finish it in time.

As before, using "wasn't able to" in this sentence is possible, but is considered too long.

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