Return to home page

Grammatical terminology recommended by the LAGB for use in schools



abbreviation. An abbreviation is a shortened way of writing a word or group of words (in contrast with contractions, which primarily affect pronunciation and are typically spelt with an apostrophe); it is often the result of clipping. For example:  Co. (Company), approx. (approximately), PR (public relations). Some common abbreviations are of Latin terms (for example: e.g. = exempli gratia = for example). Names of organisations are often abbreviated using the initial letters of each word (e.g. the NHS (National Health Service)). Some such abbreviations (e.g. NATO, FIFA and UNESCO) have their own pronunciation and are called ‘acronyms’.

abstract noun. Nouns such as beauty, time, hour and grammar are often classified as abstract in contrast with concrete nouns such as dog, tree, stone and person. However, this is not a grammatical distinction, because it does not affect the grammar of the words concerned – abstract and concrete nouns follow exactly the same rules. It is only a matter of meaning, so the same noun may sometimes have a concrete meaning, and at other times an abstract one, without affecting its grammar; for instance, book may name either a concrete object made of paper and cardboard (I picked up the book), or the abstract content which may be contained in a large number of concrete books (She’s writing a book.).

accusative. See case.

acronym. see abbreviation

active verb. Many verbs can be either active or passive (a contrast traditionally called ‘voice’). For example, bite:

  The dog bit Ben. (active) 

  Ben was bitten. Or: Ben was bitten by the dog. (passive)
In the active sentence, the subject (the dog) is the ‘agent (i.e. performs the action) and the object (the ‘patient’) receives it. In the passive sentence, the subject (Ben) is on the receiving end of the action. The two sentences give similar information, but there is a difference in focus. The first is about what the dog did; the second is about what happened to Ben.

The contrast between active and passive is primarily a matter of grammatical form: passives use the past participle, and usually follow be (It was repaired) or get (It got broken), or even modify a noun (the trees broken by the storm). It is not enough for a verb to have a ‘passive’ meaning, so a verb such as die or receive does not have passive voice unless it also has passive form (as in The parcel was received, or even This bed was died in by three kings.)

     In English (but not in other languages such as French or German), the subject of a passive often corresponds to the object of a preposition in the active:

  The dog barked at Ben. (active)

  Ben was barked at by the dog. (passive)

‘Prepositional passives’ are particularly common in casual speech.
      A passive verb allows the agent to be identified using by:  Ben was bitten by the dog.  But very often, in passive sentences, the agent is unknown or insignificant, and therefore not identified:  The computer has been repaired.  
Passives without agent are common in formal styles. For example: 
  It was agreed that ... (compare We agreed that ...).
  Application forms may be obtained from the address below.  

adjective. E.g. big, extensive, vertical. Adjectives are sometimes called ‘describing words’ because they pick out single characteristics of people and things such as size or colour. This is a useful way to remember what adjectives are, but doesn't really help to distinguish them from other word classes because verbs, nouns and adverbs can do the same. Instead, it is better to identify adjectives by their range of grammatical uses. A typical adjective can be used:
• either before a noun (e.g. big box), acting as the noun's modifier. This use is called ‘attributive’.
or after the verb be (e.g. is big), acting as the verb's subject complement. Because subject complements are part of what is sometimes called ‘the predicate’, this use is called ‘predicative’.
  Short adjectives such as big and short have comparative and superlative forms: bigger, biggest; shorter, shortest, and the same effect can be achieved with longer adjectives by combining them with more and most: more intelligent, most intelligent.

adjective phrase. E.g. very nice, good enough to sell. An adjective phrase is a phrase whose head is an adjective.

adverb. E.g. quickly, fortunately, soon, almost, very. Adverbs are often added to a verb (hence their name) to provide more details about its meaning, especially its manner, time, or place (e.g. He arrived quickly. He will leave soon).
  Many adverbs are formed by adding -ly to an adjective (quick-ly, fortunate-ly - but not friendli-ly or loneli-ly!) so these adverbs are easy to recognise, and help to identify others which may replace them. For instance, often and almost must be adverbs because of their similarities of both syntax and meaning to frequently and nearly which are easily recognised as adverbs.
  Verbs are not the only words to which adverbs may be added: They may also modify the meaning of other word classes, including:
• adjectives (nearly impossible, extremely good; so ‘intensifiers’ are a type of adverb),
• other adverbs (almost impossibly difficult).
In addition, there are cases where adverbs modify an entire clause or sentence (Fortunately, she was unharmed), and occasionally even determiners, noun phrases, or preposition phrases (She ate almost all the cake, Tonight you can see almost the whole moon, The rug reached almost to the wall).

adverb phrase. E.g. very carefully, so recently that I can still remember it. An adverb phrase is a phrase whose head is an adverb.

adverbial. E.g. Recently, at home, this morning, when it rains. In Recently, I saw my neighbour in his garden, both recently and in his garden are adverbials -
parts of the clause which modify the verb. An adverbial is typically an adverb (recently), but may instead be a preposition phrase (in the garden), a noun or noun phrase (this morning) or a subordinate clause (when I arrived). The term ‘adverbial’ is generally reserved for modifiers of a verb or clause, even though adverbs can be used to modify other kinds of word; so unexpectedly is an adverbial in He arrived unexpectedly, but not in He did unexpectedly well (because it modifies well, not the verb did).

affirmative. A clause may be classified as either affirmative or negative; for example, It is raining and Somebody called for you are affirmative, but can be made negative by adding not or nobody: It is not raining and Nobody called for you. The term ‘positive’ is often used as a synonym of affirmative, and the contrast is called ‘polarity’.

affix, affixation. An affix is a morpheme which cannot itself be an entire word, and is always attached to a base. An affix can be
• a prefix, added before the base (e.g. intolerant, dislike)
• a suffix, added after the base (e.g. kindness, playing). 

It may be used to signal either inflection (e.g. playing) or derivation (e.g. player)

agent. The person or agent which carries out the action described by a verb is often called the agent. The agent is the 'do-er' of the action. For instance, in John caught the ball, John (the person, not the word) is the agent, and the ball is the 'patient'. This classification does not extend easily beyond 'action' verbs; for instance, it is not helpful to describe John as the agent in John is ill or John received a letter. See also: active.

agree, agreement. In some cases the form of a verb changes according to its subject, so the verb and subject are said to 'agree'. In Standard English, this happens with all present-tense verbs (except modal verbs), which have –s when the subject is singular but not if it is plural (or I or you):   
  She likes - they like 
  John does – John and Mary do

It also happens with the verb be in the past tense: she was – they were.

    Note that singular collective nouns (eg team, family, government) can take a singular or plural verb form, according to whether the people concerned are considered as a group (singular) or as individuals (plural). For example:  The team (= it) is a big one.  The team (= they) are all small.
    There are also a few cases where a determiner must agree with a noun according to whether it is singular or plural. For example: 
  this house    these houses 
  much traffic  many cars  

   Some languages have very rich and complex agreement systems; for example, in German:
der junge Mann wohnt hier. 'The young man lives here'
die jungen Männer wohnen hier. 'The young men live here'. 

ambiguous, ambiguity. A word or phrase which has more than one possible interpretation is ambiguous. This sometimes arises from unclear grammatical relationships. For example, in the headline: POLICE SHOOT MAN WITH GUN, it is not specified whether the man had the gun or the police used the gun to shoot the man. Both interpretations are possible, and either makes sense. Ambiguity is often a source of humour.  

anaphora, anaphoric. Anaphora is the 'referring back' relation between one word and another, its antecedent. For example, in Bill hurt himself, the reflexive pronoun himself refers back anaphorically to Bill because himself names the same person as Bill; more generally, in any sentence of the form X hurt himself, himself and X name the same person. Similarly, the personal pronoun she refers anaphorically to Emily in I saw Emily yesterday. She told me that she had changed jobs.  As this example shows, anaphora may link words that are in different sentences. It may also relate a word to something implicit in an earlier sentence, such as the time of the event concerned; for example, then links to the time of the party in We had a lovely party with lots of fun and food. Then we all went to bed.  In the examples given so far, the pronoun names the same individual or time as its antecedent, but in some cases the anaphora may involve a general category rather than an individual; for example, the noun one means 'book' in I read a French newspaper yesterday and a Spanish one today. An anaphoric element is a word or phrase that gets its meaning via anaphora.

     Although anaphora generally works ‘backwards’, i.e. by referring back to an earlier word, it has a special case called ‘cataphora’ in which an earlier word takes its reference from a later one. For example, Alongside Alan found a marble in his pocket, with anaphoric his, we also find In his pocket, Alan found a marble, where his refers to Alan.

antecedent. Any anaphoric element has an antecedent, the word or phrase to which it is linked by anaphora. For example, in I asked Mary to help me, but she wouldn't do it, the words she and it relate anaphorically to their antecedents, Mary and help me; so Mary is the antecedent of she, and help me is the antecedent of it. Similarly, the antecedent of a relative pronoun is the noun that the relative clause modifies; for example, in people who live in London, the antecedent of who is people.

antonyms, antonymy. Two words are antonyms if their meanings are opposites:  hot – cold;  light – dark;  light - heavy.
A word may have more than one word as an antonym: cold - hot/warm;  big - small/tiny/little

apostrophe. An apostrophe is a punctuation mark - a raised comma, as in John's - used to indicate either omitted letters or possession:

·          Omitted letters.  We use an apostrophe for the omitted letter(s) when a verb is contracted. For example:
  I'm (I am) 
  who's (who is/has) 
  they've (they have) 
  he'd (he had/would) 
  we're (we are) 
  it's (it is/has) 
  you've (would have) 
  she'll (she will)

In contracted negative forms, not is contracted to n't and joined to the verb: isn't, didn't, couldn't etc. 
  In formal written style, it is more usual to use the full form.
  There are a few other cases where an apostrophe is used to indicate letters that are in some sense 'omitted' in words other than verbs, eg let's (= let us), o'clock (= of the clock). 

·          Possession.  We also use an apostrophe for the possessive form: 
  my mother's car 
  Joe and Fiona's house 
  the cat's tail 
  James's ambition 
  a week's holiday 
  my parents' car  
  the children's clothes 

Note that the possessive pronouns yours, his, hers, ours, theirs, and its are not written with an apostrophe.

apposition. When two words or phrases are in apposition to one another, they are simply put next to each other ('apposed') so that they can each contribute in different ways to the same meaning. For instance, in the sentence Her brother John came in, her brother is in apposition to John because they both name the same person.

article.  A, an and the are articles. A (an before a vowel sound) is the indefinite article; the is the definite article. Articles are a type of determiner. 

aspect. The difference in meaning between I was playing football at five o'clock ('progressive') and I played football at five o'clock is sometimes called aspect rather than tense because it concerns the way in which the event is viewed - as ongoing or complete - rather than its position in time - before or after the present moment. Similarly, the difference between a perfect form such as I have seen it and its simple equivalent I see it or I saw it can be described as aspect because the perfect locates the event in an ongoing period. These two aspect contrasts combine freely with the contrast of tense to define eight distinct tense-aspect forms. (See tense.)

attributive. See adjective.

auxiliary verb. In They were talking, the verb were is called an 'auxiliary' verb because it ‘supports’ the verb talking by helping to define its grammatical characteristics such as tense, aspect and voice. This 'supporting' role explains the term 'auxiliary' (think 'auxiliary nurse'), but this term is problematic for two reasons.

·          Not every verb that supports another verb in this way is called an auxiliary verb. For example, get and keep can both be used before talking (as in They got talking or They kept talking) but are not classified as auxiliary verbs because they do not share the other special characteristics that distinguish auxiliary verbs (see below). (See subject complement.)

·          The term ‘auxiliary’ implies subordination, but from a grammatical point of view, it is the following verb that is subordinate to the auxiliary verb, and not the other way round. In a sequence such as were talking, it is the auxiliary verb that is finite (past-tense were), whereas the second verb is not (the participle talking), and it is the auxiliary verb that determines the form of the next verb (because be takes a participle), rather than the other way round. For this reason, some grammarians would recognise the non-auxiliary verb (talking) as the head of a subordinate clause in an example like We were talking about grammar.

     Auxiliary verbs are a special class of verbs which can not only be used to support another verb, but have other special grammatical characteristics. These characteristics vary from language to language. In English, auxiliary verbs are those that allow 'negation' and 'inversion' when finite:

·          negation: They can be combined with not or n't, as in They weren't talking (but not: *They gotn't talking)

·          inversion: They can be placed before their subject, as in Were they talking? (but not: *Got they talking?)
As you can see, were passes this test but got fails it. Similarly, had passes but kept fails:

·          negation: They have not  talked. (but not: *They keep not talking)

·          inversion: Had they talked? (but not: *Kept they talking?)

Note that this classification only applies directly to finite forms, but extends indirectly to other forms of the same verbs; for instance, in We must be going, we classify be as an auxiliary verb because finite forms of the same verb (such as are) do pass the negation and inversion tests.
    The English verbs that pass these tests for auxiliary status are:

·          be in all uses, even when followed by something other than a verb (as in: They are happy)

·          have when followed by a past participle (have talked) or (for some speakers and some examples) when followed by an object (as in: I haven't a clue)

·          do when followed by an infinitive (as in: I don't know) - but not before an object (so not: *I didn't my homework)

·          all modal verbs (as in: I can't help you, You mustn't do that.)
Auxiliary verbs can, and often do, combine with each other, as in I must have been waiting for hours.
    The tests define a clear word class, which needs a name. When this word class combines with the 'supporting' function, grammarians all use the term 'auxiliary verb'; but when be and have are used in other ways, as in They are happy or I haven't a clue, many grammarians find the term misleading. However no other name has established itself for such cases, so 'auxiliary verb' may be the best option. If you do call non-supporting be and do auxiliary verbs, it is important to remember that this term names a word class, not a function. (Contrast main verb.)

backshift. When It’s Tuesday today is reported as You said it was Tuesday today, the change of tense from present to past is called ‘backshift’. Notice how the past was no longer has its usual deictic meaning, because It was Tuesday today doesn’t make sense. Backshift is found in subordinate clauses that are subordinate to a main clause whose verb is in the past tense.

base. A word’s base is the morpheme, or combination of morphemes, from which the word was built by some change such as the addition of an affix. For instance, in friendly and friends, the morpheme friend is the base, to which the affixes –ly and –s have been added; and in blackbirds the base is blackbird which in turn can be divided into two bases: black and bird. A word’s base is sometimes called its ‘stem’, and in schools, bases are often called ‘root words’.

blend. A blend is a word derived from the start of one word and the end of another:
  pictionary = picture + dictionary
  smog = smoke + fog
  brunch = breakfast + lunch

borrow, borrowing. The speakers of one language may ‘borrow’ words from another. For instance, the word  tsunami is a borrowing (or loan word) from Japanese, meaning that English speakers use the word as if it was an ordinary English word, even if they know that it was originally Japanese.

cardinal numeral. E.g. one, two, three,   Cardinal numerals are the basic numerals, in contrast with ordinal numerals such as first, second and third.

case. In some languages, nouns and pronouns have different forms to show their grammatical function as subject, object and so on. English has the vestiges of a former case system in the personal pronouns, where I and she are used as subjects but me and her as objects (I saw her and she saw me), but English no longer has a case system like that of German and Latin, where case applies even to modifying adjectives; for example, German der kleine Junge (the small boy) is the 'nominative' case used as subject, in contrast with the 'accusative' case den kleinen Jungen which is used as object (so: Der kleine Junge schläft, 'The small boy is sleeping', but: Ich kenne den kleinen Jungen, 'I know the small boy'). The traditional names for the cases in a language such as German are:

·          nominative (or ‘subjective’) case: used as subject

·          accusative (or ‘objective’) case: used as direct object

·          dative case: used as indirect object

·          genitive case: marking a possessor

casual speech. A casual (or ‘colloquial’ or ‘informal’) register is language used in familiar, informal contexts, in contrast with more formal registers. For instance, How about a drink? is casual, in contrast with Would you care for something to drink? (See also: active verb, contraction, phrasal verb, preposition, tag question)

cataphora. See anaphora.

clause.  A clause is a phrase whose head is a verb (whether finite or not). (The expected term verb phrase is best avoided because it has too many different meanings.) Finite clauses are especially important because they can be used as complete sentences (e.g. She lives in London.) but if a clause's verb is not finite, it must be changed to finite before the clause can be used as a complete sentence (e.g. from: She likes to live in London to: She lives in London). Clauses may be either main clauses or subordinate clauses.

clause type. See sentence type.

cleft sentence.   A sentence such as It was this book that I bought is called a cleft sentence because it is the result of 'cleaving' (splitting) a basic sentence (I bought this book) into two parts and then rejoining these parts with the help of the verb be. One part (this book) is the ‘focus’ (i.e. where attention is focussed) while the other part is backgrounded as a relative clause (that I bought). There are two kinds of cleft sentence:

·          In an 'it-cleft' such as this example, the subject is the pronoun it and the backgrounded relative clause is put at the end: It + was + this book + that I bought.

·          In a 'wh-cleft' (or ‘pseudo-cleft’) sentence the backgrounded part is a free relative clause, usually introduced by what, which can act as an ordinary noun phrase; so be simply links this phrase with the focussed element in either order: What I bought + was + this book or: This book + was + what I bought.

clipping. One kind of abbreviation is produced by ‘clipping’ off one end of a word such as examination (to produce exam).

coherent, coherence.  An effective text needs to be ‘coherent’ and ‘cohesive’.  The term coherence refers to the underlying logic and consistency of a text. The ideas expressed should be relevant to one another so that the reader can follow the meaning.  The term cohesion refers to the grammatical features in a text which enable the parts to fit together (see cohesive devices). One way of creating cohesion is the use of anaphora:  Emily sat down and turned on the television. Just then, she heard a strange noise.  The phrase just then relates these events in time, and she relates the people involved. 

cohesive, cohesion. See coherent

cohesive device. Cohesive devices are words or grammatical patterns that show ‘cohesion - i.e. that make clear how a text’s parts are related to one another. Words such as some determiners and pronouns are especially important for building cohesion because they refer anaphorically to earlier words. Other words such as some prepositions, conjunctions and adverbs also make relations clear. Such words can be classified roughly by their meaning:
  addition:  also, furthermore, moreover   
  opposition:  however, nevertheless, on the other hand   
  reinforcing:  besides, anyway, after all   
  explaining:  for example, in other words, that is to say  
  listing:  first(ly), first of all, finally  
  result:  therefore, consequently, as a result  
  time:  just then, meanwhile, later

Another kind of cohesive device is ellipsis, as in Fred’s story is more interesting than Bill’s, where Bill’s means Bill’s story.

collective noun. A collective noun such as family, team or crowd names a group of individuals which, in some sense, constitute a single unit. British English, unlike some other languages, allows a singular collective noun to be treated like a plural noun for purposes of agreement, as in His family are all tall (contrasting with His family is a very distinguished one.)

collocation. A collocation is a pair (or larger group) of words that tend strongly to occur together, such as white wine, black coffee, dead easy.

command. One of the functions that a clause may have is to issue a command (e.g. Stand still!). It is best to distinguish the functional classification from imperative, the sentence type  that typically signals it. Thus the imperative Come in! need not be a command, but could be an invitation or a piece of advice; and conversely, a command could be conveyed by other sentence types, as in You will do exactly as I say! or I command you to stand still.

common noun. See noun.

comparative. Some short adjectives and adverbs have a comparative form ending in -er and a superlative form ending in est; e.g. big has bigger and biggest. The basic big is sometimes called the ‘positive’ form, and the contrast among these three categories is called ‘degree’. Some grammarians would extend this contrast to adjectives which combine with the comparative and superlative adverbs more and most, as in more/most important.

complement. See subject complement, object complement. For example, quiet is a subject complement in She kept quiet and an object complement in She kept him quiet. The terminology is problematic because the term complement is also widely used in linguistics to include objects (as well as a range of other elements) in addition to subject/object complements. Unfortunately, there is no generally accepted term which distinguishes subject-complements and object-complements from objects (as well as from subjects and modifiers).

complex sentence. School grammar sometimes distinguishes three kinds of sentence: simple, complex and compound.
• A simple sentence consists of a single clause (e.g. It was raining.)
• A compound sentence consists of two or more coordinated clauses (e.g. It was raining but the sun was shining.)
• A complex sentence consists of a main clause with one or more subordinate clauses (e.g. If it rains, we'll get wet.)
However, grammarians do not recommend this classification because:

·          you can’t apply it until you have already identified the clauses and decided whether they are coordinated or subordinating; so it doesn’t avoid the need for more detailed analysis.

·          it requires a fourth category (which was in fact part of traditional grammatical analysis) called ‘compound-complex’ for those many sentences that contain both subordinate and coordinated clauses (e.g. If it rains but the sun shines, we'll get wet but we won't mind.)

·          it is misleading because ‘simple’ sentences can be complicated and ‘complex’ sentences can be very straightforward (e.g. I think you’re wrong.)

    A simpler classification contrasting ‘single-clause sentences’ with ‘multi-clause sentences’ may sometimes be helpful.

compound sentence. See complex sentence.

compound word, compounding.  A compound (or compound word) is a word made up of two base morphemes, e.g. football, headrest, broomstick, blow-dry, bone-dry.

concrete noun. See abstract noun.

conditional clause. Conditional clauses are subordinate clauses which typically start with the conjunction if and state the condition under which the main clause is true; for instance, in I'll help you if I can, the clause if I can states the condition under which I'll help you. Other conjunctions used in conditionals are unless, providing, provided, in case and as long as.
    The interpretation of a conditional depends on the choice of tense in both the clauses:
If it rains, we will get wet. (It may well rain.)
If it rained, we would get wet. (It probably won't rain.)
If it had rained, we would have got wet. (It didn't rain.)
    Some languages provide a special ‘conditional’ form of the verb for the meaning 'would' (e.g. French chanterait, 'would sing'), so the term 'conditional' is sometimes used in English to refer to the form would + verb: would go, would help etc. containing the past tense of the modal verb will.

conjunction. E.g. and, or, although, if. A conjunction links a following word or phrase to some other part of the sentence,
- either by coordination (e.g. ... and ....)
- or as a subordinate clause (e.g. ... although ...).

connective. ‘Connective’ is an informal name once used in schools for cohesive devices whose main function is to connect the ideas expressed in different clauses.

connotation. See denotation.

continuous. See progressive.

contract, contraction. The form I’m is a contracted form, or contraction, of I am. The same shortening by elision is possible for most English auxiliary verbs and the word not (e.g. can’t, won’t, hasn’t), as well as a number of other small words such as and and to. Contraction affects pronunciation, and is shown in writing by the apostrophe, in contrast with abbreviations, which are primarily conventions of writing and are signalled, if at all, by a full stop (as in V.I.P. or e.g.).

convert, conversion. Conversion derives one word from another without any morphological change. For example, a verb such as walk (as in They walk fast) can be ‘converted’ into the noun walk, as in They had a nice walk. Similarly, chat  may be either a verb (We chatted for a few minutes.) or a noun (We enjoyed our little chat.) and so can weed (We weeded the garden. We pulled the weeds out.) Conversion is a particularly important process in English for creating new vocabulary; for example, very many nouns can be converted into verbs (e.g. to text, to action).

coordinate, coordination. If words or phrases are coordinated, they are linked as equals by means of a conjunction such as and. (Contrast subordination.) The forms linked in this way may be of any length, from single words to complete clauses or even combinations of clauses:
  I bought the apples and bananas.
  I bought some apples and took them home.
  I bought some apples and took them home but I forgot the potatoes
    Coordination is a matter of grammar, not meaning, because the linked elements need not have equal status in meaning. For example, in the coordinated pair He worked all night and felt terrible next day, the feeling is a consequence of the working, so the meanings are not equal. The grammatical equality of coordination can be seen in two ways:

·          The coordinated units can share some element outside both, as in He speaks French and writes Spanish, where speaks and writes share the subject he. This is not possible in subordination; for example, He speaks French whereas he writes Spanish does not allow he to be shared, so we cannot say: He speaks French whereas _ writes Spanish.

·          The conjunction belongs equally to both (or all) the coordinated units, so it has to stand between them (as in: apples and pears or It rained and we got wet - never: And we got wet, it rained); in contrast, a subordinating conjunction clearly belongs to the subordinate clause, so it moves around with this. For instance, starting with We got wet because it rained we can move the subordinate clause, including because, by fronting it to give Because it rained, we got wet.
    By these criteria, the coordinating conjunctions of English are:

·          and: He speaks French and writes Spanish.

·          or: He speaks French or writes Spanish.

·          but: He speaks French but writes Spanish.

These are the most important conjunctions in English, but there are a few others which are much less common, and less clear examples because they can be combined with and:

·          nor: He neither speaks French nor writes Spanish. (or: ...and nor does he ...)

·          then: He first spoke French then wrote Spanish. (or: ... and then  ...)

·          yet: He speaks French yet writes Spanish. (or: ... and yet ...)

   A single pattern of coordination may link more than two elements, either with a single conjunction or with a conjunction between each pair:
  I bought apples, pears, bananas, grapes and a melon.
  I bought apples and pears and bananas and grapes and a melon.

copula. The verb be is sometimes called ‘the copula’. See also linking verb.

corpus. A structured collection of extended examples of written or spoken English is called a ‘corpus’ (Latin ‘body’; plural: corpora). For example, the British National Corpus includes 100 million words of recorded speech and written texts. Most corpora are stored on computer.

correct, correctness. The term correct is sometimes used to distinguish Standard forms from non-Standard forms; so He hasn’t done anything would be described as ‘correct’, in contrast with He ain’t done nothing. This is a muddled and unhelpful use of the term, because it implies that the rules of Standard English apply to every variety of English; whereas in fact the non-Standard ain’t and nothing are the forms required by the grammar of  non-Standard English, and are therefore ‘correct’ non-Standard English. Grammarians prefer the terms grammatical and ungrammatical, which imply a grammar that allows some patterns but not others, so that correctness varies from grammar to grammar. In these terms, He hasn’t done anything is grammatical in Standard English, but not in most non-Standard dialects, where the grammatical (and therefore ‘correct’) form is He ain’t done nothing.

count noun. Words such as pebble and coin are count nouns, in contrast with non-count nouns (sometimes called ‘mass nouns’) such as gravel and money. We signal this contrast every time we choose an indefinite determiner; for example, we say a pebble or a coin, but some grit and some money. Count nouns present their meaning as one or more individual items, so they may be made plural: three pebbles, two coins, but this is not possible for non-count nouns (so plurals  like gravels and moneys are normally impossible). In contrast, non-count nouns present their meaning as a ‘substance’, which may be measured out but not counted. This contrast is an important grammatical resource as it allows us to choose how to present a meaning; for example, we can ‘eat chocolate’, or ‘eat a chocolate’, and we can ‘enjoy red wine’ or ‘enjoy red wines’.

dative. See case.

declarative. See sentence type. 

definite. Determiners such as the and this are definite, whereas a(n) and some are indefinite. These words normally show whether or not the person or thing concerned is already known to the reader or listener; so on first mention, an indefinite determiner is normal, often to be replaced in later uses by a definite: Once upon a time, there was a king and a queen. The king was rich and the queen was beautiful. Pronouns may also be classified as definite (e.g. this) or indefinite (e.g. who, anyone).

definite article. See article.

degree. See comparative.         

degree modifier. Adjectives and adverbs that can inflect for degree may be modified by adverbs such as very, too, so and rather, which are therefore called ‘degree modifiers’.

deixis, deictic. Words such as me, you, here and now have a special kind of meaning called ‘deictic’ (‘pointing’), which is based on the immediate context consisting of the speaker or writer (me), the person addressed (you), and the time and place (here, now). This means that we cannot understand who or what such words are referring to (e.g. in I want to speak to you here and now.) unless we know the context in which they are uttered or written – who is speaking, who they are speaking to, and when and where they are speaking. See also tense.

demonstrative. The determiners this and that, which contrast ‘near’ and ‘far’ meanings, are called ‘demonstrative’.       

denotation. The denotation of a word is its basic meaning as given in a dictionary; for example, the denotation of grammar is the study of a particular part of language. In contrast, a word’s ‘connotation’ includes any additional values and associations the thing concerned may have for speakers, such as being exciting or boring.

dependent, dependency. See subordination.     

derive, derivation.  Derivation deals with one of the two ways in which morphology  can change words, and contrasts with inflection. For instance, from friend we can derive friend-ly; from friendly, un-friendly; and from unfriendly, unfriendli-ness. Each of these examples is a different lexeme. In contrast, inflection typically changes the shape of a word to mark a grammatical feature, as in friend - friend-s (i.e. singular versus plural), but without changing it into a different lexeme. In English, words are derived by affixation (friend-ly), compounding (foot+ball) or conversion (verb walk → noun walk, as in have a walk), but we also use other more marginal patterns such as blending (smog), abbreviation (Co., app) and acronymy (AIDS).

    It is better to reserve the term derivation for relations between words within one language and at one time, in contrast with etymology, which relates a word to its historical origins in the same language or a different one.

descriptive grammar. See grammar.

determiner. E.g. the, a, this, any, my. A determiner stands before a noun and any other words that modify the noun. A singular noun such as boy or number (but not coffee or beauty) requires a determiner, so we can say with the boy but not: *with boy.
     Determiners include:

·          articles: a/an, the  

·          demonstratives this/that, these/those

·          possessives my, your, his, her, its, our, their  

·          quantifiers some, any, no, every, each, all, both, either, neither

·          some question wordswhich (which car?), what (what size?), whose (whose coat?)

·          the relative whose  (e.g. the person whose name was on the door)
Some grammarians also classify plural numbers and other expressions of quantity as determiners although they never combine with nouns like boy and some can combine freely with other determiners (e.g. his three cats, these many years):

·          numbers three, fifty, three thousand etc  

·          quantity expressions: many, much, few, little,  enough

    Many words used as determiners can also be used as pronouns. These include:

·          the demonstratives: I bought this.

·          the possessives (with slight changes of form): Yours is here, mine is there.

·          question words: Which did you buy?

·          most of the quantifiers: I bought some.
When used as pronouns, these words are not followed by a noun - their meaning generally includes an understood noun which is provided by the context: 
  I've got some books. This (i.e. this book) is for you.


dialect. See register.

direct object.    See object.

direct speech. There are two ways of reporting what somebody says: direct speech and indirect speech. 

·          In direct speech, we use the speaker's original words (as in a speech bubble). In text, speech marks ('…' or "…" – also called ‘inverted commas’ or ‘quotes’) mark the beginning and end of direct speech: 
  Helen said, 'I'm going home'.   
  “What do you want?” I asked.

·          In indirect (or reported) speech, we report what was said but do not use the exact words of the original speaker. Typically we change pronouns and verb tenses, and speech marks are not used: 
   Helen said (that) she was going home.   
   I asked them what they wanted. 

discourse. Any continuous stretch of language in ordinary use, especially spoken language, can be called ‘discourse’. Discourse is controlled by rules and conventions that go beyond the rules of grammar, such as the need for coherence and cohesion.

double negative. In non-Standard English (and also in earlier stages of English and many other languages, e.g. French), a negative may be expressed twice – a so-called ‘double negative’. For example: 
  We didn't see nobody. 
  I don’t want to go nowhere
Such double negatives are not acceptable in Standard English. The equivalent Standard forms would be:
  We didn't see anybody. 
  I don’t want to go anywhere
Strictly speaking, the non-Standard pattern should be called 'multiple negation', because there is no upper limit to the number of negative words allowed:
  I haven't never owed nothing to no-one.
  Nor never none / Shall mistress be of it, save I alone
. (Shakespeare)

ed form. See participle.

elide, elision. If a sound is omitted in casual speech it is said to be ‘elided’; e.g. t can be elided in want to to give wanna. Eliding sounds produces contracted words, as when and contracts to’n in  boys ’n girls. Contrast ellipsis.

ellipsis, elliptical. The process called ‘ellipsis’ allows the omission of words in order to avoid repetition; for example, Mary doesn’t like oranges, but Jane does is understood as meaning ‘does like oranges’. Ellipsis is a cohesive device. See also tag question.

etymology. A word’s etymology is its history: its origins in earlier forms of English or other languages, and how its form and meaning have changed. For example, the etymology of the word verb relates it to the Latin word verbum, which means simply ‘word’ and also lies behind our adjective verbal.

euphemism. A mild or vague expression used instead of one with bad connotations; for example, pass away is a euphemism for die.

exclamation. An exclamation is an utterance expressing strong emotion (joy, wonder, anger, surprise, etc) and, if written down, it is usually followed by an exclamation mark. Exclamations can be full sentences, ordinary words with specialised meanings (e.g. Oh dear! Good grief!) or specialised words called interjections such as aha! and ow! 


exclamative. See sentence type.

existential sentence. A sentence (more accurately, a clause) in which the subject is the word there, as in There’s a fly in my soup, or (more formally): There arose a serious dispute.

expletive. An expletive is a ‘dummy’ word which has no meaning but is required by the rules of grammar. English has four such words:

·          there, used as the subject of existential sentences: There’s a fly in my soup (meaning the same as A fly is in my soup.)

·          it, used when a subject or object is needed but

o       either none is needed by the meaning: It was raining.

o       or it replaces a clause which has been delayed to the end of the sentence, as in: It was regrettable that we missed the party. (compare: That we missed the party was regrettable.)

·          to, used before an infinitive: I’m trying to help you.

feminine. See gender.

filler. A filler is a form such as umm or you know which can be used to ‘fill’ an unwanted pause in conversation.

finite. In It was raining, the past-tense verb was is finite, but the participle raining is not. This contrast reflects the rule that ‘every sentence needs a finite verb’, because a past-tense verb such as was could be the only verb in a sentence (e.g. He was sad.), whereas the participle raining could not . A verb is finite if its inflection is:

·          present tense (It begins here.)

·          past tense (It began here.)

·          imperative (Begin here!)

So a verb is not finite if it is:

·          a participle (It is beginning. It has begun. I saw it beginning.)

·          an infinitive (e.g. It will begin. I saw it begin.)

And the same verb-form may be finite in some sentences but not in others; e.g. ended is finite in The film ended abruptly. but not in: The film has ended.

focus. See cleft sentence.         

formal.  Formal language is a style which is typically reserved for occasions which are public and impersonal, in contrast to the casual style typical of everyday speech. For example, beginning a question with a preposition before the wh-word is a formal option in English: To whom does the coat belong? (Contrast the more casual style of Who does the coat belong to?).

free relative clause. See relative clause.

front, fronting.  A word that would normally follow the verb may be ‘fronted’ to the start of the clause; for instance, a fronted adverbial is an adverbial which has been put at the front of the clause.
  not fronted: The wind blew our tree down last night.
  fronted: Last night, the wind blew our tree down.

See word order.

function, functional. Every word we use not only belongs to a word class but also has a grammatical function, which explains how it contributes to the overall structure and meaning; for instance, in grammar book, both words are nouns, but the function of grammar is to modify the meaning of book. The main grammatical functions are:

·          modifier: We found a big book.

·          subject: We found a big book.

·          object: We found a big book.

·          subject/object complement: He was late and made her angry.

·          adverbial: We arrived saw it yesterday.

·          head: big book; We found a big book.

function word. See grammatical word.

future tense. Some languages have a future tense comparable with its present and past tenses. For example, French contrasts chantera, ‘will sing’, with chante, ‘sings’ and chantait, ‘used to sing’. English, in contrast, has no future tense. Instead, reference to future time can be marked in a number of different ways, all of which include a present-tense verb:

·          We will/shall leave tomorrow.

·          We leave tomorrow.

·          We are leaving tomorrow.

·          We are going to leave tomorrow.
Moreover, the modal verb will, which is often claimed to mark the future tense, may be used in other ways, e.g. for repeated events (Boys will be boys) and may even be used in the past tense:  Having left home, he would never see her again.

gender. When used as a purely grammatical term, gender refers to the contrast that some languages make between categories such as masculine, feminine and neuter; for instance, the masculine or feminine gender of a French noun decides whether the definite article has the form le or la, and adjectives agree in gender with their noun. Grammatical gender generally corresponds to the biological contrast of sex when applied to animals, but for inanimates it is basically arbitrary; so in French, ‘book’ is masculine while ‘table’ is feminine, giving le grand livre (the big book) but la grande table (the big table).  In contrast, languages such as English have no grammatical gender contrast (although pronouns such as he and she do, of course, mark a semantic contrast of sex – i.e. ‘gender’ in a non-grammatical sense).

generic reference. Nouns can be used to refer either to specific individuals (e.g. The dog barked) or (generically) to an entire class or species (e.g. The dinosaur is extinct). The latter use is often called ‘generic reference’.      

genitive case. An alternative term for possessive, used especially in English for the “apostrophe s” form such as Jane’s. In grammars for some other languages, genitive is the name of a case. See also group genitive.          

gerund. See participle.

grammar, grammatical. The grammar of a language consists of that language’s conventions for using words to express meanings. Like any other social conventions, it can be seen as a collection of restrictions (Don’t do X) or of permissions (Doing X is ok) – i.e. as limiting or as enabling.

     Grammar is normally divided into two parts:

·          syntax – how words combine with each other to make sentences.

·          morphology  – how smaller parts (morphemes) combine to make words. 

Grammar in this sense is simply part of the whole language, contrasted with its lexicon (though some linguists reject this contrast in favour of a unified ‘lexicogrammar’).

    In another sense, grammar is the study of grammar in the first sense above. There are two different approaches to the study of grammar:

·          descriptive’ grammar, which simply describes (and tries to understand) grammar as it actually is.

·          ‘prescriptive’ grammar, which tries to change the grammar by ‘prescribing’ (recommending) some forms which are not used and ‘proscribing’ (forbidding) other forms which are used. This approach tends to proscribe non-Standard forms such as ain’t, and also some patterns which are current in Standard English but are not found in high-status languages like Latin and French, such as split infinitives and stranded prepositions.

     A sentence is described as ‘grammatical’ if it is allowed by the grammar of the language concerned, and as ‘ungrammatical’ if it is not. For example, *I him see is ungrammatical in English (although a word-for-word translation into French would be grammatical: Je le vois.) Grammarians write * before examples to show that they are ungrammatical.

grammatical word. Some grammarians call words such as to, that, the and is ‘grammatical words’ or ‘function words’, in contrast with ‘lexical words’ such as dog or bark. However it is generally agreed that there is no clear boundary between the two.

group genitive. If we add the apostrophe ’s of possession to a noun which has a following modifier, such as girl with brown hair, the result (e.g. the girl with brown hair’s name) is called a ‘group genitive’ because it is clear that the possessive marker belongs to the entire phrase (a ‘group’ of words) rather than just to the head noun (girl). case

head. The head of a phrase is the central word of that phrase, to which all the other words or phrases are subordinate. For example, in the adjective phrase very silly, the head is silly, with very as a subordinate; and in the noun phrase very silly squirrels, the head is squirrels, with very silly as a subordinate. The head word is grammatically important, as the word to which all the other words are subordinate, but need not be the most important in terms of meaning and information; for example, in She’s a nice person, the phrase a nice person has the rather predictable and unimportant word person as its grammatical head.

    ‘Head’ is a functional label and can be applied to words of different word classes. The word class of the head decides how the whole phrase is classified. For instance, an adjective phrase is a phrase with an adjective (e.g. silly) as its head, while a noun phrase is headed by a noun (e.g. squirrels). 

historic present. One of the uses of the present tense is to describe an incident in the past as though it was happening now: I’m sitting in this cafe, and a guy comes up to me and says ...

homograph. If two different words have the same spelling as each other, they are often called homographs:

The bear growled – I can’t bear it. (same pronunciation – also homophones)

 a lead pencil - the dog's lead  (different pronunciation)
     The term homograph is sometimes reserved for words that have the same spelling but are not homophones, like lead above. See also homonym.

homonym. Words which are either homophones or homographs are often called ‘homonyms’. The term homonym is sometimes reserved for words which are both homophones and homographs (such as the noun and verb bear). It also tends to be reserved for words whose meanings are radically different, such as bank (edge of a river, or a financial institution), in contrast with polysemous words, whose alternative meanings are closely related.

homophone. Two words are homophones if they have the same pronunciation (but, of course, different meanings):
  The fair has arrived. She has fair hair. (same spelling)

  read – reed (different spelling)
The term homophone is sometimes reserved for words that have the same pronunciation but are not homographs. See also homonym.

hypernym.  See hyponym.        

hyponym. The word dog is described as a hyponym of animal, and conversely, animal is a hypernym of dog because a dog is a subcategory (or type or kind) of animal. (Hint: in Greek, hypo means ‘beneath’, as in hypodermic, ‘under the skin’; hyper means ‘above’, as in hypermarket; Greek hypo and hyper correspond to Latin sub- and super-) The hypernym’s meaning includes the meaning of the hyponym, so the hypernym’s meaning is more general than the hyponym’s. Words are often linked in a chain of increasingly specific meanings; so although dog is a hyponym of animal, it is a hypernym of terrier.  

idiom.   An idiom is an expression which is not meant literally and whose meaning cannot be deduced from knowledge of the individual words. For example: 
  You look a bit under the weather this morning.
  Are you all right? 
  Try and keep to the point of the discussion.
  You're always introducing red herrings. 
  You and I have the same problems - we're in the same boat. 
  That name rings a bell. I've heard it before somewhere. 

imperative. See sentence type. (See also command.)

imperfect. The term ‘imperfect’ is used in grammars of languages such as French for the verb tense that might be translated by the English past progressive (e.g. was singing) or by used to (e.g. used to sing). The imperfect is not the opposite of the English perfect, so English has no tense that could be called ‘imperfect’.

impersonal. Some languages (e.g. Latin, French and earlier forms of English) have verbs without a separate subject person such as behove (e.g. It behoves us to work hard); such verbs are called ‘impersonal’. The term may be extended to other patterns such as passives without a by phrase (e.g. The window has been broken.)  The term ‘impersonal style’ may be helpful in discussions of literary style, but is hard to apply to grammar..      

indefinite article. See article.

indefinite determiner or pronoun. See definite.   

indicative. In some languages, finite verb inflections are classified as ‘indicative’, ‘imperative’ or ‘subjunctive’; this contrast is called ‘mood’. Indicative verbs are used in ordinary statements and questions in main clauses, with subjunctives used in special circumstance such as some subordinate clauses or in referring to hypothetical situations. For example, French subjunctive verbs are used after certain conjunctions and expressions of uncertainty such as ‘It is unlikely that ...’

indirect object. See direct object.         

indirect speech. See direct speech.

infinitive. In English, the infinitive is the basic form of the verb without any additional endings. For example, play is the infinitive form (as opposed to playing, played or plays) and be is the infinitive corresponding to am, is, are, was, were. Apart from the verb be, a verb’s infinitive has the same form as its plural present tense (They play) and as its imperative (Play well!), so a verb in its basic form requires different classifications according to how it is being used.

·          It is an infinitive when used after to: 
  I want to go home.
  It's good to be here.
  The person to see is Ahmed.

(Notice that these two words may be separated in so-called 'split infinitives':  to boldly go  or: I'm hoping to actually go inside.)

·          The infinitive is also used with many auxiliary verbs: 
  I will play  
  He should play  
  Do you play?

·          It can also be used with some ordinary verbs, as an object complement:
  I heard him come in.
 They let him sit down.

inflect, inflection. Inflecting a word changes (literally, 'bends') the word's normal shape to indicate tense, number or other grammatical features; each of the resulting forms, or the affixes that mark them, can be called ‘an inflection’ of the basic word. For example:

·          walk may be inflected for contrasts such as tense to give: walks, walked, walking

·          shoe may be inflected for number to give: shoes

·          old may be inflected for degree to give: older, oldest  

informal. See formal.

ing-form. See participle.          

intensifier. Words such as thoroughly and hardly, as in thoroughly disapprove or hardly know, are sometimes called ‘intensifiers’. The term can also be applied to degree modifiers.     

interjection. See exclamation. 

interrogative. See sentence type.          

intransitive verb. See transitive verb.

invert, inversion. See auxiliary verb.      

irregular. See regular.

it-cleft. See cleft sentence.

lexeme. See word.

lexical word. See grammatical word.    

lexicon. A language’s lexicon is its vocabulary – i.e. its stock of words (or more precisely lexemes – ‘dictionary words’). Traditionally this is contrasted with the language’s grammar, but there is no clear boundary between the fine detail of one and the broad generalisations of the other.

linking verb. Verbs that are used with a subject complement are sometimes called ‘linking verbs’ (or ‘link verbs’). The most common example is the copula be, but others are become, seem, look (as in They look nice)  and get (as in You’ll get wet).

loan word. See borrowing.

main clause. The clauses in a sentence may be divided into one or more main clauses and any number of subordinate clauses. For instance, in the sentence The fact that she lied shows that she’s not to be trusted, but we may give her a second chance., there are two main clauses and two subordinate clauses:

1.      The fact that she lied shows that she’s dishonest – main clause

2.      we may give her a second chance – main clause, coordinated to 1.

3.      that she lied – subordinate clause

4.      that she’s dishonest – subordinate clause.

The two subordinate clauses 3 and 4 must be part of the first main clause 1 because they are subordinate to words in this clause: 3 modifies fact (which fact?) and 4 is the object of shows (shows what?).

    In general, a clause is a main clause unless it is subordinate to the whole or part of another clause. An exception, however, is made for direct speech; for example, in He said, “I need you!” the quotation is a main clause acting as object of the verb said.

main verb. In a pair such as is working, the first is an auxiliary verb and the second is called a ‘main verb’. The term main verb covers any verb which is not an auxiliary verb, so main verbs are as easy to recognise as auxiliaries. However the terminology is misleading because it implies that is should be grammatically subordinate to working, whereas in fact the participle working is subordinate to is because the latter is finite. So instead of He is working we can say just He is (with ellipsis of working), but we can’t say just He working.

major sentence. A major sentence – or more accurately a major main clause is  one whose head is a finite verb. In contrast, a ‘minor’ clause’s head is something other than a finite verb , e.g. How about a cup of tea? Oh for a horse! What a mess! Why not go home? To think you were there all the time!

masculine. See gender.

mass noun. See count noun.     

metalanguage, metalinguistic. Metalanguage is the language we use when talking about language itself. It includes words like sentence, noun, paragraph, meaning, pronunciation and all the terms in this glossary.   

metaphor. A metaphor is an expression which uses the literal meaning of words to create a so-called figurative meaning that resembles the literal meaning in some way. It often uses a concrete meaning to create a more abstract notion (e.g. anger) in terms of something more concrete (e.g. fire). For example:
  He was boiling with rage.
  He is an ass.
  He fell in love.

minor sentence. See major sentence.

modal verb. E.g. will, might, must.  Modal verbs are important for communicating complex ideas because they express meanings such as possibility and obligation, but their distinctiveness lies in their grammar. They are auxiliary verbs which:

·          have no -s in the present tense even when their subject is singular: He can swim. (not: *He cans swim. Compare: He knows how to swim.)

·          are always either past or present tense, so they have no infinitive or participles:
   It's important to be able to swim. but not: *It's important to can swim.
  Being able to swim is important.
but not: *Canning swim is important.

·          are followed by an infinitive without to (exception: ought to)
     The main modal verbs, by these criteria, are: will, would, can, could, may, might, shall, should, must and ought. More marginal members of the class are: used to, is/am/are/was/were to, dare, dared and need.

modify, modifier, modification. If one word modifies another, the modifying word (the ‘modifier’) is subordinate to the modified word, and (unlike subjects, objects and complements) is an optional addition. For example:

·          In big book, big modifies book so that it refers to a 'big book' instead of just 'book'.

·          In walks quickly, quickly modifies walks so that the latter means 'walks quickly' and not just 'walks'.

      A modifier positioned before the head is called a ‘premodifier’, and one positioned after the head is a ‘postmodifier’; for example, in big books about butterflies, the head is books, its premodifier is big and its postmodifier is about butterflies.


mood. See indicative.

morpheme. A morpheme is the smallest unit of morphology, so it is the smallest part of a word that relates to the word's grammar or meaning. A word may consist of
• one morpheme: house
• two morphemes: house+s, hous+ing, foot+ball
• three or more morphemes: house+keep+ing, un+happi+ness, foot+ball+er.
Morphemes may be classified as bases or affixes.

morphology. A word’s morphology is its internal make-up defined in terms of morphemes: one or more bases, which may be changed by the addition of affixes (or in more complex ways such as vowel change, as in sing – sang). Morphology may show:
inflection: house-s, walk-ed
derivation: teach-er, de-motiv-ate.

multi-clause sentence – see complex sentence.

negative, negation. See affirmative.

neologism. A neologism is a newly-created word, whether borrowed from another language or created out of ‘native’ material by derivation.

neuter. See gender.

nominative. See case.

non-count noun. See count noun.         

non-finite. See finite.

non-restrictive relative clause. See relative clause.

non-Standard English. See Standard English.    

notation. Grammarians have developed a number of useful conventions for discussing grammar:

·          * for ungrammatical sentences.

·          italics or underlining (or both) for words that are being discussed or quoted as examples, rather than used in the ordinary way.

noun. E.g. cat, person, arrival, purpose. Nouns – the largest word class of all – are sometimes called ‘naming words’ because they name (more technically, refer to) people, places and things. This may be a useful way to remember what nouns are, but doesn't always help to distinguish nouns from other word classes because these can also have similar meanings to nouns; for instance, people can be referred to by pronouns (him, someone), and places by prepositions (behind the sofa).
    The most reliable way to recognise nouns is by their grammatical behaviour. Specifically, most nouns:

·          can be counted and show that they're plural if the number is two or more (e.g. one dog, two dog-s, one mouse, two mice),

·          can be combined immediately with the (e.g. the dog, the mouse),

·          can be used – either alone or with a determiner such as the – as the subject or object of a verb (e.g. The dog was hungry, Mice love cheese.)

    Nouns are subdivided into:

·          common nouns: dog, wine, time, day, teacher

·          proper nouns (‘names’ in the more conventional sense): Mary, London, Wednesday, Dad

(See also count noun.)

noun phrase. E.g. big books, the end of the road, the girl next door. A noun phrase is a phrase whose head is a noun.    

number. See plural.

object.  A verb's object often shows the ‘patient’, the thing or person affected by the action; so in We ate the bread. The bread is the patient because it is affected by the action of eating. But the object may have many other roles in the verb's meaning: We like bread. (The bread was not affected by the liking.) We baked bread. (The bread was created by the baking.)   
    Because of this wide variation in meaning, it is best to identify objects by their grammar. A verb's object:

·          normally stands just after the verb (in contrast with the subject, which stands before the verb). So the normal order of elements in an English clause is: subject - verb - object (S - V - O).

·          is a noun, pronoun or noun phrase. We like it. We like the bread they serve here.

·          is expected after the verb, according to whether it is transitive or intransitive. For example,

o       after like, we expect an object, so it would be odd to say simply I like.

o       after eat, an object is possible but not obligatory, so we could say either We ate it. or: We ate.

o       after sleep, we don't expect an object, so it would be odd to say We slept it. The ‘apparent object’ last night in We slept well last night is not an object but an adverbial because it is no more  expected after sleep than after any other verb.

    Unlike complements, most objects

·          can be turned into the subject of a passive verb:

   Object: Thomas made a lovely meal - A lovely meal was made by Thomas.
   Complement: Their daughter became a teacher But not: *A teacher was become by their daughter.

·          cannot be adjectives.
    Complement:  He seemed sad.
    Object: not: *He saw sad.

·          do not describe the subject (or another object).
    Complement: He became a teacher. (‘a teacher’ describes him, after the change)
    Object: He met a teacher. (The teacher is a different person from him, not a description of him.)

     In all the examples given so far, the object is a ‘direct object’, so-called because any effect applies to it directly (e.g. the food is affected directly by the eating). In contrast, the pronoun them in We gave them a present is an indirect object, which typically identifies a person affected only indirectly by the transfer to them of the thing identified by the direct object. An indirect object can often be replaced by a preposition phrase headed by to or for (e.g. We gave the children a present – We gave a present to the children. Or: We made the children a cake – We made a cake for the children.)

    Grammarians often extend the term object from verbs to prepositions. In this usage, London is the object of from in the phrase from London. There are obvious similarities between the objects of verbs and of prepositions, including their position after the head, and (in languages that have case) the range of cases found.

object complement. Like a verb’s subject complement, its object complement ‘completes’ the verb’s meaning by adding information about the verb’s object. For instance, in It made Mary happy, the object complement happy describes the object, Mary. Like the subject complement, the object complement may also be a noun (e.g. They made her president) or an infinitive or participle (e.g. We saw it happen/happening. We persuaded her to help us). As usual, it may also be a phrase based on any of these words (e.g. president of the college, happen in our road, to help us).  

objective case. See case.         

ordinal numeral. See cardinal numeral.

orthography. (The study of) correct spelling.

parse, parsing. A traditional grammatical exercise for school-children was to ‘parse’ the words in a sentence by assigning each one to its word class or ‘part of speech’ (Latin: pars orationis), as well as giving a fixed range of information about its inflection and about its function in the sentence. For example, in the previous sentence, the word words would be described as:

·          a common noun

·          the plural of word

·          the object of the verb parse.

In modern computational linguistics, the term parse has been extended to include the entire structural analysis of a sentence as assigned by a computer; and similarly in some branches of psycholinguistics.


part of speech. See word class.

participle. verbs in English have two inflections called ‘participles’. They are commonly called the ‘present participle’ and the ‘past participle’.

·          present participle:  The present participle always ends in -ing (working, reading, going etc). Although it is called 'present', it is used in all progressive forms, whether past or present: she is going, she was going, she will be going,   she would have been going.
Present participles can also be used:

o       in adverbials: Walking down the road, I heard a shout.

o       in relative clauses: The man walking down the road slipped and fell over.

o       in subject complements and object complements of other verbs: He kept talking. I saw him walking down the road.

    The -ing ending is also used in a verb functioning as a noun. For example: I enjoy reading, Reading is important. ('Reading' is used as a noun in these examples.) This -ing form is sometimes called a ‘verbal noun’ or ‘gerund’. 

·          past participle:  The past participle is sometimes called the ‘ed-form’ because it often ends in -ed (worked, played) but many common verbs are irregular and have other endings, eg -t (kept), -n (flown), and -en (stolen). 
    Past participles are used:  

o       after have to make perfect forms: I've worked, he has fallen, we should have gone 

o       after be or verbs such as get, to make passive forms: I was asked, they are kept, it has been stolen 
Here too, the name ‘past participle’ is misleading, because passive forms need not refer to the past: A toast will be drunk. 
Passive past participles can also be used in the same range of ways as present participles:

§         in adverbials:   Written in 1923, the book has been translated into 25 languages.

§         in relative clauses: The goods stolen from the shop have been recovered.

§         in subject/object complements: The house is sold. I saw it stolen.

passive verb. See active verb.

past participle. See participle.

past tense. A past-tense verb (‘a verb in the past tense’) normally

·          has a suffix -ed: walked, debated - but many common verbs have irregular forms: was, came, thought, put, went

·          refers to an event or state in the past: Yesterday I came home and went to bed early.

·          has a subject because it is finite: It rained. not: *Rained.

    The past tense can also have other uses and meanings:

·          In a subordinate clause with backshift which takes its tense from the main clause: I thought today was Tuesday.

·          In a modal verb with conditional meaning: I would love a coffee.

·          In a conditional clause: I would help if you needed it.

·          In some fixed expressions: It's time we solved this problem.

patient. See agent and object.  

perfect. The perfect of a verb is formed by using the auxiliary verb have with the past participle of the verb (e.g. has shown, had taken, have helped). The tense of have distinguishes the 'present perfect' (has seen) from the 'past perfect' (had seen), traditionally called the ‘pluperfect’.  It can also be combined with the progressive (e.g. he has been reading,called 'present perfect progressive').

    Like the past tense, the perfect refers to an event or state in the past, but the perfect generally calls attention to its consequences, as in He has gone to lunch. (implying he is still away - compare: He went to lunch.)

person. In grammar, a distinction is made among 'first person', 'second person' and 'third person’. The first person is the speaker, the second person is the person spoken to, and everyone and everything else is a 'third' person. These persons are distinguished in the personal pronouns (me - you - he/she/it; myself - yourself – himself).
  In some languages, the person of a verb's subject also affects the verb's form by agreement; this was true in earlier stages of English (Shakespeare's I have - thou hast - he hath or he has) but now survives in Standard English only in the present tense singular of most verbs (I/you walk - he walks), and in the past tense of the verb be (you were - I/he was).

personal pronoun. See pronoun.

personal style. See impersonal style.

phrasal verb. . Many verbs in English (and some other languages such as German) combine with prepositions to produce idioms. For instance, look after (as in He looked after his daughter) means ‘care for’, and give up (as in I give up) means ‘stop trying’. Such verb-preposition combinations are called ‘phrasal verbs’, and can be classified according to whether the preposition:

·          is used on its own, without an object: give up, get on, be off

·          has an object, so that it heads a full preposition phrase: look after x, take after x, look into x

·          both: give up on x, look in on x, put up with x

    It can be hard to distinguish a full preposition phrase (look after x) from a combination of an object-less preposition followed by the verb’s object (look up x). The easiest clue is that an object-less preposition can occur either before or after the verb’s object, whereas a preposition always stands before its own object:

·          verb + object-less preposition + verb’s object: I looked up the word. or: I looked the word up.

·          verb + preposition + preposition’s object: I looked up the street. but not: *I looked the street up.

    Phrasal verbs are often relatively casual, and have more formal single-word synonyms: ring up – telephone; give up – abandon; find out – discover.

phrase. A phrase is a group of words containing one word – its head and all the words or phrases that are subordinate to it.. For example, in Small babies cry, the noun phrase small babies consists of the head, babies, and its modifier small. Similarly, the entire clause Small babies cry is a special kind of phrase consisting of cry and the smaller phrase subordinate to cry, its subject small babies.
    Phrases can be classified according to the word class of their head word; so for example, small babies is a noun phrase because its head is a noun. Similarly, we have:
adjective phrases: He almost immediately ordered a very large ice-cream for every pupil.
adverb phrases: He almost immediately ordered a very large ice-cream for every pupil.
preposition phrases: He almost immediately ordered a very large ice-cream for every pupil.
The exception is the term verb phrase, which is best avoided because it is used in too many different, and conflicting, ways. The best name for a phrase headed by a verb is the well-established term clause.
      Notice the difference in terminology between pairs such as adverb phrase and adverbial, where an adverb phrase is a phrase headed by an adverb, whereas an adverbial is a word or phrase that functions like an adverb. This distinction between class and function allows us to analyse something as a  preposition phrase functioning as an adverbial (e.g. for every pupil in the above example).
     This definition of phrases assumes that a phrase must always contain at least two words, so that in Babies cry, babies is not a phrase although small babies would be. You may come across a very different view of phrases which allows them to consist of nothing but their head word; in this view, babies in Babies cry would be both a word and a phrase - i.e. a noun and a noun phrase. This alternative view requires more complicated structures because of all the extra phrases that have to be recognised. On the other hand, it also allows simpler grammars because a single term such as noun phrase covers at least two possibilities, which are always available: a single unmodified noun, or a noun heading a many-word phrase. The definition given here is probably better for use in schools, where grammatical analysis is more important than grammar-writing.

pluperfect. See perfect. In grammars of Latin, one of the tenses of a verb was called the ‘pluperfect’, which would normally be translated into English as a past perfect. For example, amaveram meant ‘I had loved’. English has no pluperfect tense as such.

plural. A plural noun is an inflected form which refers to more than one example of the noun’s basic meaning; for instance, whereas the singular dog refers to just one dog, its plural dogs refers to more than one dog (or to dogs in general). The contrast between singular and plural is called ‘number’.
     In English, regular plurals contain the suffix -s or -es (e.g. cats, dogs, horses, wishes), but there are nouns with irregular morphology (e.g. mice, formulae). Some plural nouns also have irregular meanings because they refer to a single example or quantity; for example, plural scales is similar in meaning to singular balance.

polarity. See affirmative, tag question.   

polysemy, polysemous. Most common words have a range of possible meanings rather than just one single meaning; for example, even an apparently straightforward noun such as book may refer to a physical object (I’ve lost that book) or to the abstract contents (I’ve finished writing that book). This phenomenon is called ‘polysemy’ and words like book are described as ‘polysemous’. (Contrast homonymy.)

positive. See affirmative and comparative.

possessive, possession. In my house or Mary’s cat, the words my and Mary’s are called ‘possessive’ modifiers of the following noun because I ‘possess’ the house and Mary ‘possesses’ the cat. Although the term possessive is helpful, it is important to remember that the same grammatical patterns can express a wide range of real-world relations that go well beyond possession in its ordinary sense, to cover ideas, related people, names, events and so on; for example, Mary doesn’t possess her arrival in Mary’s arrival, nor does she possess her defeat in Mary’s defeat. Unfortunately there is no widely accepted alternative to the term ‘possessive’.

    In English, the possessive may be a possessive determiner such as my, as in the following examples which illustrate the range of meanings covered: my house, your wedding, his name, her age, our arrival, their death. A possessive pronoun is also possible, with ellipsis of the ‘possessed’ noun: mine, yours, hers.

    The possessive may also be a noun or noun phrase followed by an apostrophe  and ­–s:  Mary's house,  my best friend's name.  A possessive with 's acts as a determiner, so (unlike some other languages) no other determiner is possible, as in *the Mary's house, *a my book.

     An alternative way of expressing the 'possessor' is to use the preposition of, which is often preferable, especially if the ‘possessor’ is an inanimate object, or else needs a long noun phrase. For example:
  The fall broke Mary’s arm but: He broke the arm of the chair.
  their arrival but: the arrival of the Queen of Sheba.

postmodifier. See modify.        

predicate.  The predicate is that part of a clause which is not the subject but which gives information about the subject. So, in the sentence Clare visited her new school, the subject is Clare and the predicate is visited her new school. This kind of analysis is popular among logicians and some grammarians, but many grammarians do not accept it. Instead, they recognise both the subject and the object as directly subordinate to the verb: Clare + visited + her new school; in such an analysis, there is no grammatical unit visited her new school.

predicative. See adjective.

prefix.   See affix.

premodifier. See modify.

preposition. E.g. of, at, over, by, with. A preposition is usually followed by a noun, pronoun or noun phrase (which is often called the preposition’s object):
  We got home at midnight.
  Did you come here by car?
  Are you coming with me?
  They jumped over a fence.
  What's the name of this street?
  I fell asleep during the film.

    Prepositions often indicate

·          time (at midnight/during the film/on Friday),

·          position (at the station/in a field)

·          direction (to the station/over a fence).
But there are many other meanings, including

·          possession (of this street),

·          means (by car)

·          accompaniment (with me).

    In questions and a few other structures such as relative clauses, prepositions are often ‘stranded’ (i.e., left on their own at the end of the clause) because their object has been fronted:
  Who did you go out with?
  We haven't got enough money to live on.
  I found the book that I was looking for.

In formal style, the preposition tends to go before whom or which (with whom, about which etc):
  With whom do you wish to speak?
See also phrasal verb.

preposition phrase. E.g. in my house, to the seaside, of Mary. A preposition phrase is a phrase whose head is a preposition. Preposition phrases are often called 'prepositional phrases'. The most important functions of preposition phrases are as (a) postmodifier and (b) adverbial.

prepositional passive. See active verb.

prescriptive grammar. See grammar.

present participle. See participle.          

present tense. A present-tense verb (‘a verb in the present tense’) normally refers to a state or event that exists now. For instance,
  I understand your problem. (The state of understanding exists now.)
  I promise to come home early. (The action of promising is happening now.)
  Smith passes the ball to Brown, and Brown kicks it into touch. (The actions are happening now.)
  I generally get up at 8 o'clock. (My routine of getting up exists now.)
  I leave tomorrow. (My plan for leaving exists now.)
  John tells me that you live in London. (Though the action of telling was in the past, its effect on me exists now.)
  Hamlet enters on the left. (The action of entering exists in a fictional 'now'.)
  He has gone for lunch. (The effects of the action of going exist now.)
  He is going for lunch soon. (The plan for going exists now.)
  A man walks into a pub and orders a drink.... (The events exist in an imaginary ‘now’.)
As these examples show, there are many different kinds of  'now' and many possible relations in time between the state or event referred to and this ‘now’.

     A present-tense verb normally has either no suffix or –s (depending on the subject). (modal verbs are exceptional in never having –s.)

progressive. The progressive is normally formed by combining the verb’s present participle with be, as in is working, were trying. The progressive generally refers to an event already in progress, or already planned:

   He was working at 5 o’clock this morning. (At 5 o’clock his work was already in progress.)

   I’m going on holiday tomorrow. (My plan is already ‘in progress’.)

It can also be combined with the other aspect contrast, the perfect (e.g. he has been reading).

pronoun. E.g. me, him, he, his, himself, who, what, that, someone. A pronoun functions like a noun, and is often described as 'being used instead of a noun' - hence the name pro-noun. This means that pronouns can be used wherever it is possible to use a noun or noun phrase. But pronouns are also different from nouns:

·          pronouns are harder to modify than nouns:
  I saw a small book, but not: *I saw a small it.

·          pronouns are grammatically more specialised, because they combine the characteristics of a noun with those of a determiner:
   I saw it could be used instead of I saw the book but not instead of: I saw a book. (Both it and the are definite.)
   Who did you see? could be used instead of Which person did you see? (Both who and which are question words.)
   Did you see anyone? could be used instead of Did you see any person?
In fact, most determiners can be turned into pronouns by removing their following noun:
   That (book) is his (book).
   Did you buy any (books)

      Many pronouns can also be combined with a following common noun (e.g. that book). In that case they are called ‘determiners’, and can be classified in the same way as determiners, as demonstratives (this, those, etc), possessives (mine, hers, etc), question words (who, what, how, when, where, why, whose) or relative pronouns (who, which, whose, when, where). And as with determiners, some grammarians also classify numbers (one, two hundred, etc) and other expression of quantity (e.g. many, much, few, little,  enough) as pronouns. But not all pronouns correspond to determiners; other types include:

·          personal pronouns: I/me, you, he/him, she/her, it, we/us, they/them

·          reflexive pronouns: myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves

proper noun. See noun.

punctuation. Punctuation includes any conventional features of written presentation other than spelling and general layout: the standard punctuation marks (. , ; : ? ! - -- ( ) “ ” ‘’ ), and also word-spaces, capital letters, apostrophes, paragraph breaks and bullet points. One of the roles of punctuation is to indicate syntactic structure, i.e. how the words cluster to form phrases and sentences and how these clusters function (e.g. as questions or statements).

quantifier. Quantifiers are determiners or pronouns such as some, any, none, many. The term quantifier, which comes from logic, is used by some grammarians to refer to any indefinite determiner or pronoun that defines ‘quantity’.

question. One of the functions that a clause may have is to express a question (e.g. Are you ready?). It is best to distinguish the functional classification from interrogative, the sentence type that typically signals a question. Thus the interrogative Can’t you drive straight? need not be a question, but could be an exclamation or a warning; and conversely, a question could be conveyed by other sentence types, as in Tell me whether you're ready or I wonder if you're ready.

question word. See determiner and pronoun. Most questions words in English are spelt with wh... (who, what, which, when, why, where, whoever, etc.), so they are sometimes called ‘wh-words’. (The exception is how, but even this contains w and h.)

refer. A word or phrase is said to ‘refer to’ the people, things, events, places and so on that it picks out (more accurately, it refers to our mental representations of these things, so it can refer to entities that don’t exist, such as Father Christmas). For instance, in the sentence The birds woke me this morning, 

·          me refers to the person speaking or writing.

·          this morning refers to some time in the morning of the day when the speaking or writing occurred.

·          the birds refers to the birds in question.

·          the whole sentence refers to the incident described.

reflexive pronoun. See pronoun.

register. The language that we use varies with the situation in which we use it: formal or casual, technical or lay, written or spoken, and so on. This kind of variation is described in terms of different ‘registers’ such as ‘legal English’ or ‘the English of casual conversation’ (in contrast with differences that vary with the user, which are described in terms of ‘dialects’).

regular. When words are described as ‘regular’ or ‘irregular’, this normally refers specifically to their inflectional morphology. For example, English regular verbs form their past tense by adding ed, as in walk – walked, but irregular verbs use different patterns such as take – took, buy – bought or sing – sang. Similarly, mouse is described as an ‘irregular noun’ because of its plural mice. This rather specialised use of the terms regular and irregular should not obscure the fact that virtually any rule may have exceptions, including the rules of syntax; for example, although ‘regular’ degree modifiers such as sufficiently stand before the word they modify (as in sufficiently big), the ‘irregular’ word enough stands after it (as in big enough).  

relative clause. A relative clause is a subordinate clause that modifies a noun (or clause) by adding a statement about what it refers to. For instance:

·          the cake that he made yesterday answers the question: ‘which cake? by adding the statement that he made it yesterday.

·          He lives in London, which is the capital of the UK. answers the question: ‘what about London?’ by adding that it is the capital of the UK'.

·          Margaret arrived late, which spoilt the party. answers the question: ‘what about Margaret arriving late?’
     When they modify a noun, relative clauses are similar in function to modifying adjectives, and can often be used to expand a simple adjective:
  the big cake (adjective) = the cake which is big (relative clause)

    Relative clauses in English are marked in a variety of ways. For example, in order to modify the noun book by adding the idea that Mary should write the book, you could:

·          attach the relative clause Mary should write straight after book, without any separator: the book Mary should write

·          add that to mark the start of the relative clause: the book that Mary should write

·          add the relative pronoun which: the book which Mary should write

·          use to and an infinitive, with ellipsis of Mary: the book to write

·          use for to allow Mary to be added to the infinitive: the book for Mary to write

·          use a passive infinitive: the book to be written by Mary.
Other possibilities are available if the book is the subject of the relative clause, as when the modifying idea is that the book is lying on the table. These include most of the options above, plus:

·          use a present participle: the book lying on the table.

    Relative clauses may have different relations to the modified noun:

·          restrictive relative clause: the relative clause restricts the meaning of the noun: The daughter who wrote novels became famous. (Answers: Which daughter?)

·          non-restrictive relative clause: the relative clause tells us something new about whoever or whatever the noun refers to: Their daughter, who wrote novels, became famous. (Answers: What about the daughter?)

·          free relative clause: there is no separate noun or clause, because the noun is already built into the special pronoun (e.g. what means ‘the thing which’): What he ate made him sick. (Means ‘the thing which he ate made him sick’)

relative pronoun. See pronoun, determiner, relative clause.

reported speech. See direct speech.

restrictive relative clause. See relative clause.

root. A word’s etymological origin is often called its ‘root’; for example, the Greek word σχολή (skhole) meaning ‘leisure’ is the root of our word school.         

root word. See base.

sentence. All the words in a sentence are held together by purely grammatical links of subordination or coordination, rather than merely by semantic links of coherence. For example, take this string of words:

we had a lovely breakfast in the garden the birds were singing

There are strong grammatical links among the first few words; for instance, we is the subject of had, a lovely breakfast is its object and (thanks to in) in the garden is its adverbial. But although all the words combine to describe the same scene, there is no grammatical link between the garden and the birds, so they are separated by a sentence boundary. Similar arguments guide the division of the following into two sentences:

   when I woke up | the sun was shining | and the birds were singing | I felt great

Here there are four clauses (separated by |) but how many sentences?

·          The first two clauses are held together by subordination (the subordinate clause when I woke up is a fronted adverbial belonging to the main clause the sun was shining), so they must be part of the same sentence.

·          The second and third clauses are held together by coordination (... and ...), so they too must be part of the same sentence.

But although the fourth clause is clearly linked to the earlier clauses by meaning (cause - effect, a case of coherence), it has no grammatical link back to these clauses so it must be part of a different sentence.
   If punctuation follows grammatical structure in a simple way, the punctuation should therefore be:
   When I woke up, the sun was shining and the birds were singing. I felt great.
But punctuation is a resource that experienced writers can exploit for deliberate effects, so 'sentence punctuation' can sometimes deliberately disagree with grammatical sentences - for example, a writer might choose to put a full stop after shining to split the one grammatical sentence into two punctuation sentences.  
     For the classification of sentences as ‘simple’, ‘compound’ or ‘complex’, see complex sentence.

sentence type.   Sentences are sometimes classified according to the kind of function their grammatical structure allows them to have, as commands, statements, questions and so on; so grammarians distinguish the following grammatical structures, which are sometimes called ‘sentence types’:

·          declarative, e.g. You’re being very quiet.

·          interrogative, with at least two sub-types:

o       yes/no interrogative, e.g. Are you being very quiet?

o       wh-interrogative, e.g. Why are you being so quiet?

·          imperative, e.g. Be very quiet! Let’s be very quiet!

·          exclamative, e.g. How quiet you’re being!

However, this classification really applies separately to each main clause, because different kinds of main clause can combine in the same sentence:
   This book is mine, but whose is this one? (declarative + interrrogative)
   It's cold outside, so do come in! (declarative + imperative)

Consequently, it would be better to call declaratives, interrogatives and so on distinct ‘clause types’ rather than sentence-types.

simple sentence. See complex sentence.

single-clause sentence. See complex sentence.

singular. See plural.

speech marks. See direct speech.         

split infinitive. English infinitives often combine with the expletive to, as in He seems to like it. If to is separated from the infinitive, as in He seems to really like it, the infinitive is described as ‘split’. Prescriptive grammar condemns this because our to + infinitive is generally translated in languages like Latin or French as a single word, which (of course) cannot be split. English is different, and allows modifiers before verbs (e.g. I really like it) whether or not they are preceded by to.

Standard English. Standard English is the variety of English used in public communication, particularly in writing. It is the form taught in schools and used by educated speakers. It is not limited to a particular region of the UK and can be spoken with any accent.
    There are differences in vocabulary and grammar between Standard English and non-Standard English. For example:
  We were given those bottles. (Standard English)
  We was given them bottles. (non-Standard English)
These examples show Standard and non-Standard patterns of agreement. A different non-Standard grammatical pattern is the double negative.
   Note that Standard British English is not the only standard variety of English; other English-speaking countries, such as the United States and Australia, have their own standard forms.

statement. One of the functions that a clause may have is to make a statement (e.g. I'm ready.). It is best to distinguish the functional classification from ‘declarative’, the sentence type  that typically signals it. Thus the declarative You're ready need not be a statement but could be a question or request for confirmation.

stem. See base .

stranded preposition. See preposition.

subject. In John kicked the ball, the subject is John, and the object is the ball. The most obvious difference between them is in the word order: subject before the verb, object after it (S V O), but there are other differences too:

·          The subject is normally the person or thing about which something is said.   In some sense, John kicked the ball would normally be 'about' John (What did John do?) rather than about the ball (What happened to the ball?).

·          A verb’s subject normally names the ‘do-er’ or ‘be-er’ (the kicker in John kicked the ball or the ‘be-er’ in John is happy).

·          It is the position of the subject, before or after the finite verb, that distinguishes declaratives from interrogatives (e.g. declarative John is happy. and interrogative Is John happy?)

·          The subject of a passive verb corresponds to the object of its active equivalent, while the active verb's subject corresponds to a by-phrase with the passive. (passive: The ball was kicked by John. active: John kicked the ball.)

·          The singular/plural number of the subject sometimes influences the inflection of the verb by agreement. (He is happy. but: They are happy.)

subject complement. In Mary seems nice, and Mary seems a nice person, ‘nice’ and ‘a nice person’ is a description of the subject Mary, whereas in Mary met a nice person, this phrase is the object, and refers to a separate person from Mary. In the first example, a nice person is called a ‘subject complement’ because it ‘completes’ the verb (after seems we expect more words such as this phrase), and describes the subject. (See complement and contrast object complements such as angry in He made her angry, which describe the object.)

        Just like an object, a subject complement may be a noun, pronoun or noun phrase, as above, but it may also be:

·          an adjective (Mary seems nice).

·          a preposition phrase (Mary is in a good mood).

So a good test to distinguish subject complements from objects is the possibility of replacement by an adjective; for instance, a nice person can be replaced by nice in Mary seems ..., but not in Mary met .....

     Verbs that allow a subject complement are called ‘linking verbs’, and include be, get, become and sound. Some grammarians also include auxiliary verbs in this list, so that in She was singing, the participle singing is a subject complement, just as it is in She kept singing.

subjective case. See case.        

subjunctive. In some languages, verbs have a special inflection called the ‘subjunctive’ which is used to show some kind of subordination of the verb, in contrast with the usual indicative verbs used in ordinary main clauses. For example, French subjunctive verbs are used after certain conjunctions and in certain kinds of subordinate clauses; and German subjunctives are used even in main clauses to show that the meaning is reported.
   Modern English has no subjunctive in this sense, though earlier stages of English did have one and traces of the old forms survive especially in fixed phrases, and especially in some formal varieties:

·          the subjunctive present tense has the verb’s base form even when the subject is singular:
   The school requires that every pupil give (not: *gives) a presentation.
   The proposal is that Harinder Singh be (not: *is) the chairman.
the verb be in the subjunctive past tense is were (not was) even when the subject is singular:
    If I were you, ...

subordinate, subordination. Most words in a sentence are linked in the unequal relation of subordination (also known as ‘dependency’), rather than the equality of coordination. For example,

·          a modifier is subordinate to the word it modifies: small boy (small is subordinate to boy)

·          a verb’s subject, object and subject/object complement are all subordinate to the verb: He made her happy. (he, her, happy are all subordinate to made, the head of the clause)

·          a preposition’s object is subordinate to the preposition, which in turn is subordinate to some other word or phrase: He lives in London. (London is subordinate to in, which is subordinate to lives.)
In each case,

·          The subordinate word combines closely with the other word to make a phrase, in which the other word is the head:

  The small boy made her happy.(The small boy is a phrase in which the head is boy, modified by the and small.)

 The small boy made her happy. (The small boy made her happy is a phrase, and more precisely, a clause, whose head is made.)

·          The subordinate word generally makes the head word’s meaning more precise:

  small boy is more precise than boy (because a small boy is a particular kind of boy).

  he made her happy is more precise than just made (or even than someone made someone something)

subordinate clause. A subordinate clause is subordinate to some word or phrase, with various possible functions including the following:

·          as a modifying relative clause: The man who came to supper knew my father.

·          as a modifying adverbial: He fell down when he went out.

·          as a verb’s subject: Eating toffee apples is fun.

·          as a verb's object: He said that he was ready.
How a subordinate clause fits into the larger sentence is normally signalled in the words used, either by a special introductory word such as a conjunction, or by special forms of the verb (such as eating). However:

·          some subordinate clauses have no marking.
   I know you're angry.
   The book I bought is on the table.

·          clauses that are quoted as direct speech are not subordinate clauses, but main clauses.
   He shouted, 'Go away!'

suffix. See affix.

superlative. See comparative.

synonym, synonymous. Two words are synonyms if their meanings are the same or very similar; e.g. try – attempt;  wet - damp

syntax.  Syntax is the part of grammar which is concerned with sentence structure, i.e. with how words are used together in a sentence. It includes word order, phrases, subordination and agreement. (Contrast morphology.)

tag question. One of the characteristics of casual speech is the use of small elliptical questions at the end of a main clause: That boy can swim well, can’t he? You missed the deadline, didn’t you? The tag question consists of an ordinary auxiliary verb plus its subject pronoun, with the usual inverted auxiliary verbs found in interrogatives – e.g. am I, can’t you, won’t they. If the main clause already has an auxiliary verb and a pronoun as subject, these are simply copied into the tag question, with the possible addition of n’t.

·          You are coming, aren’t you?

·          You are coming, are you?

·          You’re not coming, are you?

·          It can’t be true, can it?

·          It doesn’t matter, does it?

But if the main clause has no auxiliary verb the tag question contains do, and an appropriate pronoun is provided for a non-pronominal subject:

       Variable tag questions are a peculiarity of informal spoken English. In languages such as French the tag question has a constant form (e.g. in French: n’est-ce pas). The possibility of using or omitting n’t, and of varying intonation, is important for conveying subtleties of meaning by the use of ‘polarity’ (positive/negative). In its polarity, the tag may copy the main clause (Oh, so you’re going home, are you?), or reverse it (You’re going home, aren’t you?).

tense. A tense is a set of verb forms that is typically used to indicate time. English verbs have two basic tenses
present, e.g. is, waits, run
past, e.g. was, waited, ran
but unlike languages such as French, English has no future tense.

    The present-past contrast is primarily used to classify the time of an event or state as ‘present’ (existing now) or ‘past’ (existing before now) as in: It was cold yesterday but it is warm today. This is an example of deictic meaning because it builds on ‘now’ (the time of uttering).

   The English tense system can combine with the two contrasts of aspect:
perfect/non-perfect, e.g. has waited, had waited
progressive/non-progressive, e.g. is waiting, was waiting
These contrasts combine to define eight patterns:

·          present simple: waits

·          present perfect: has waited

·          present progressive: is waiting

·          present perfect progressive: has been waiting

·          past simple: waited

·          past perfect: had waited

·          past progressive: was waiting

·          past perfect progressive: had been waiting

transitive verb. A transitive verb has, or may have, a direct object, in contrast with intransitive verbs. The term alludes to the ‘transition’ of activity from the subject to the object, as in John kicked the ball where the kicking passes from John to the ball. However, in practice we use the term transitive for verbs that take a direct object even where such a transition doesn’t exist: John saw the ball; John imagined the ball

ungrammatical   . See grammar. Ungrammatical sentences are signalled by *.

verb. E.g. take, arrive, imagine, rain, be. The best way to recognise a verb is by its ability to have a tense and a subject. For instance, arrive must be a verb because we can contrast present-tense arrives or arrive with past-tense arrived, and we can use both of these with a subject such as she, as in She arrived. In contrast, arrival cannot be a verb because it doesn’t have a tense and can’t be used with a subject, so we can’t say *She arrivals/arrivalled.

    Verbs are sometimes called ‘doing words’ because they often name an action that someone does. This may be a useful way to remember what verbs are, but an accurate definition should be broader, including also non-action events where things simply happen, without anyone ‘doing’ them, e.g. It rained all day or states (where nothing changes, e.g. We are British). Moreover, since actions, events, and states can also be referred to by nouns, e.g. His success made us all happy, a definition based on meaning is ultimately unhelpful.

verbal noun. See participle.

verb phrase. See clause.          

vocabulary. See grammar.        

voice. See active verb.

wh-cleft. See cleft sentence.

wh-question. See sentence type.

wh-word. See question word and pronoun.      

word. A word is a unit of grammar that can be selected and moved around relatively independently of other such units. In punctuation, words are normally separated by word spaces, but this is omitted in abbreviations (e.g. contractions such as I’m).
     But there are uncertain boundaries: for example, there is great uncertainty about the boundary between compound words and two-word combinations of a modifier plus the head; for example, is brick-red one word or two? And should we write land owner or land-owner (or even landowner)? Dictionaries give guidance, though not always the same guidance.

     Another complication is the difference between ‘word forms’ and ‘dictionary words’ (technically calledlexemes’); for example, book and books are two different word forms that belong to the same lexeme, and the lexeme write covers the forms writes, wrote, writing and written.

     Another important distinction contrasts word ‘types’ with word ‘tokens’. Types are stored items in the language, whereas tokens are examples of these types used on particular occasions or in particular texts. For example, The cat sat on the mat contains six tokens of five types, including two distinct tokens of the type the. The ‘type-token’ ratio of a text is a familiar measure of the range of vocabulary in it.

word class.  Words can be classified grammatically as nouns, verbs and so on. Like any other classification, these classes take account of a wide range of characteristics, and not just one which might be used as a simple criterion for recognising members. In the case of words, these characteristics include:

·          meaning: for example, a noun's meaning may be a concrete object or a person, but this is normally not possible for a verb; in contrast, verbs tend to be used for events and states.

·          syntax: nouns and verbs combine with different kinds of words; for example, we use adjectives to modify nouns, but adverbs to modify verbs (recent accident, but happened recently).

·          morphology: nouns and verbs have different inflections: nouns inflect for number (singular vs. plural), while verbs inflect for tense (present vs. past).

This idea that classes recognize many different criteria leads us to two important  principles::

·          When you're deciding how to classify a word, its meaning is often relevant and helpful, but it's never the only thing to pay attention to: you always need to pay attention to its grammar - its syntax and morphology.

·          Nor is it enough to look at how the word is being used (syntactically) in the present sentence. Instead, you have to consider its full range of possible functions. For instance, in big grammar book, the words big and grammar are both being used in the same way (to modify the noun book), but they actually belong to different word classes because they have different ranges of possible uses: big is an adjective because we can also say: This book is very big, but not: *I like big; but grammar is a noun because we can also say: I like grammar, but not: *This book is very grammar.

     Using these multiple criteria, grammarians generally distinguish the following main word classes for English:

·          noun: book, arrival

·          verb: arrive, do

·          adjective: big, punctual

·          adverb: quickly, soon

·          prepositions: of, behind

·          pronoun: me, who

·          determiner: the, which

·          conjunction: and, if

Each of these main word classes may be further subdivided; for example, verbs can be classified as auxiliary verbs, among which we recognise the modal verbs. The main word classes do not account for every single word, so there are other words which are either unique, or belong to very small classes such as greetings (Hello), fillers (Umm) and so on.

       Word classes were traditionally called ‘parts of speech’, but this rather opaque term is becoming much less common.

word family. The words in a word family are normally derived from a single ‘root word’; for example friend acts as the root word which holds together friendly, unfriendly, friendship, friendliness and befriend. As in this example, the words in a word family may belong to different word classes and have quite different, though related, meanings, in contrast with the word forms in a lexeme.

word form. See word. 

word order. One of the important parts of syntax is the order of words or phrases. The term “word order” is often used for something that could be better expressed as “word and phrase order”. The order found in sentences is partially free, and partially covered by rules. For instance, English has relatively strict rules for the positions of a verb and its subject and object, and for the modifiers of a noun (adjectives before the head, preposition phrases after it); so He reads big books about butterflies allows very little freedom in the order of words. However some freedom is possible even in English thanks to operations such as fronting, which, given a suitable context, would allow Big books about butterflies he reads. Adverbials also tend to be free to move, as in Ivan does it frequently – Ivan frequently does it – Frequently Ivan does it.

word token, word type. See word.

yes-no question. See sentence type.     


Return to home page