The terminology of grammar
A list of the main terms of grammarused to describe the words and functions of the English language
A thematic glossary of the words commonly used to describe points of grammar in English. The four lists below cover units, categories, structural elements and general grammar terms. The object of these lists is to explain with sufficient detail, yet as succinctly and clearly as possible, the essential vocabulary of English grammar.
|Units of meaning||Parts of speech||Elements of a sentence||A-Z of other grammar terms|
Document - A document is a written, or sometimes oral, presentation of facts, fiction, ideas or opinions. It is or can be considered as complete and comprehensible in its own right.
Paragraph - Paragraphs are the principal sub-divisions of documents. In standard descriptive or declarative documents, a paragraph is a group of sentences with the same theme. Though there is no rule, grammarians tend to agree that a paragraph will normally have between two and eight sentences, with an optimal length of 3 to 5 sentences. Longer documents may be divided into larger subdivisions such as chapters or sections or even books.
- A sentence is the basic unit that constitutes a declarative or
interrogative statement. With the exception of single-word imperatives
(such as Look! or What?) a
sentence contains at least two
consists of a subject and a predicate. A simple sentence contains a
single clause. A compound sentence contains more than one clause.
Single word sentences can usually be considered as ellipses, i.e. the contraction of a longer sentences. For instance Look! really means something like Look at that or Look at me.
Clause - A
clause is a group of words that contains a subject and a predicate.
We can distinguish main
clauses, which can stand as sentences in their own right,
and subordinate clauses
which cannot. Examples:
Free-standing main clause: My brother likes fast cars.
Two coordinated main clauses: My brother likes fast cars, but he drives badly.
A main clause and a subordinate clause: He likes cars which can go fast.
Phrase - A
phrase is a group of words which form a single unit of meaning. Examples:
The man in the red shirt is a phrase, but so is the red shirt on its own.
Word - a word is the smallest complete free-standing unit of meaning in a language. Words come into several different categories which we call "parts of speech". These are detailed below.
- a morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning in
language. A word may be made up of a single lexical morpheme:
Examples: Give / child / speak / good / nation
or of a combination of morphemes, at least one of which must be lexical.
Examples: Giving / children / speaker / goodness / nationalistic
In the last example, nationalistic, we can see four morphemes: nation, al, ist, and ic. Nation is a lexical morpheme or lexeme, al ist and ic are functional morphemes that cannot exist on their own , but when attached to the lexeme serve to change its meaning or function.
Adjective - An ►adjective is a word that describes or modifies a noun, or occasionally a pronoun. Examples: Good / bad / ugly / disreputable. Examples: A big man / A good one .
An ►adverb is a word that describes
of modifies a verb, an adjective, another adverb, or occasionally a
Examples: Slowly / generally / upwards / somewhere / quite
Article - An ►article is a type of determiner which comes before a noun. In English we distinguish two sorts of articles, the definite article the, and the inderfinite articles a and an. Some grammar-books also include the word some as an indefinite article.
Conjunction - A ►conjunction is a word that is used to link sentences, clauses, phrases or words. The main examples : and / but / or / yet . See Coordination
is a word that describes an entity (person, item, substance etc) or a
process. It is usually preceded by a determiner (article or other
determiner) and may be qualified or modified by one or more adjectives,
by prepositional phrases, or by another noun. Nouns are
into two main categories, count or ►countable nouns , that can
be counted, and non-count or uncountable nouns that cannot.
Examples: Man / woman / chair / basket / oxygen / philosophy / idea
is a short functional word that serves to relate two other words in
terms of space, time, manner or other relation. Prepositions are
essentially used to introduce a prepositional phrase (like in
the beginning), or to inflect the meaning of a verb
(like to come in).
Examples: in / on / under / against / after / with / by
is a (usually) short word that allows a speaker or writer to refer back
to an already-mentioned (or implied) noun, or to a statement,
without repeating it. The main
groups of pronouns are personal pronouns ( I you he she it
one we they... and their object forms or possessive forms, me,
her ... and mine, hers),
pronouns (this, that etc)
and interrogative pronouns (who,
Examples: I saw him (him being a previously mentioned, or implied, male person)
or Yes, I heard it ( it being a previously mentioned, or implied, object such as the bell, event such as the explosion, or sentence such as The bell rang early.
- A ►verb
is a word that describes an action or a state of being. The verb is the
key word in a sentence, and no sentence can exist without one.
The shortest of all sentences contsist of a single verb used
the imperative form. Example: Look
There are two sorts of verbs: dynamic verbs describe actions or changes of state: examples go / become / sit down / move
Stative verbs describe a condition or state of being: examples be / like / know
: The subject is the main actor or the main topic of a sentence. In a
basic declarative sentence, the subject comes before the verb. The
subject may be just a single pronoun or noun, such as He or The cat ;
but in many sentences it is may be quite a bit more,
adjectives, prepositional phrases, relative clauses or more. In this
example, all the words in red make
up the subject
Example: The old man in the red shirt who's talking too loudly is my uncle.
Verb : See Verb above
Predicate : Everything in a sentence that is not the subject. The predicate includes the verb, or verbs, plus any other elements that may be present, notably objects or adverb phrases
: The direct object is
the entity (person, thing, process) that is directly concerned by the
action expressed through the verb, or is the entity that
the action or process. It is the complement of a transitive verb. It
can be a pronoun, a noun, a noun phrase, or more than one of these.
Examples: I like chocolate / I like them / I like people who are friendly /
I like people who are friendly and don't smoke cigarettes, including you.
Indirect object :
The indirect object
is the person or entity that is the recipient of the action, or for
whom the action is done. When the indirect object follows the
direct object, it is introduced with the preposition to;
it precedes the direct object, to is
Examples: I gave a bone to the dog
I gave the dog a bone / I gave it a bone.
Main clause The main clause is the principal clause in a sentence. There can be one main clause or more in a sentence; if this is the case, the main clauses will be separated by a semli-colon (;), or by a coordinating conjunction such as and, but or yet.
A subordinate or dependent clause
cannot exist without a main clause. It is normally introduced by a
such as since, if, because or
as, or by a relative pronoun such
who or that.
Examples: You can go home now if you've finished your project.
As I said, there are no tickets left for the concert.
When he reached Manchester, he looked for a hotel.
Active : In English, most statements are made using the active voice. In an active statement, the subject is the doer of the action expressed by means of the verb. For example The students were studying English.
: Normally a direct sequence of two nouns, with no intervening
preposition, which both
refer to the same entity :
Examples: Prince William / The car, a Jaguar, ..
The painting, a work by Rembrandt,....
In English, except in titles (such as Doctor Jekyll ), the second or "apposed" noun requires a determiner, normally an article. Apposition should not be confused with compound nouns, in which two nouns placed next to each other refer to different things; for example The shop window
Aspect : In English, verbs can be expressed in two aspects, the simple aspect (such as I drink) or the progressive aspect (such as I am drinking).
Attributive : An adjective that is attributive is one that is placed in front of the noun it qualifies (as in A good book) .Contrast with adjectives following a copular verb such as be , which are called predicative adjectives (as in This book is good ) .
Auxiliary : A verb that comes before a main verb to designate a tense, a modality or the passive voice. The basic auxiliaries are be and have: modal auxiliaries are will, shall, may, might, must, can, be able to and their other forms.
Catenative verbs or consecutive verbs. Verbs that can be followed directly by a second verb, with no intervening noun or pronoun (as in I like playing football). See ► Consecutive verbs
Communication : the object of speech or writing. Communication cannot be successful unless the producer (speaker, writer) and the receiver (listener, reader) are using the same language code. The code consists of two elements : vocabulary (words) and grammar (how those words are organised).
Complement : the main element of the predicate after the verb. See object above.
: A type of connector,
a type of sentence
adverb used to express a particular
relationship between a first clause and a second clause that follows.
Therefore, however, similarly.
See ►Conjunctive adverbs
Connector : a word that links two similar items (words, phrases, clauses) . Connectors are either conjunctions or conjunctive adverbs. See ►conjunctions
Coordination : linking two or more elements with similar status in the sentence.
Copular verb : a verb whose complement is not an object, but a description of the subject. Examples: The car is red, I feel sick, The children became very excited
: A declarative sentence is a normal sentence, which is
an interrogative sentence (question), nor an exclamation, nor an
imperative . A declarative sentence can be affirmative or negative.
Examples: The man is sitting on a chair, and The man is not sitting on a chair are both declarative statements.
are used at the start of a ►
The most common determiners are ►articles; but
determiners also include ►demonstratives, ►numerals,
or ►possessive determiners.
All nouns or noun phrases require a determiner unless they
are used as generalisations.
Examples: The man is eating his dinner, and That man is eating chips.
No determiner is required before chips, which is used as a generalisation. For more on this, see ►count and non-count nouns
Ellipsis : a statement that is reduced to a minimum number of words, by the elimination of words whose meaning can be implied or inferred. For example the "the man in the garden" can be understood as an ellipsis of "the man who is in the garden". Or the simple expression "London" can exist as an elliptical sentence in reply to the question "Where do you live?" – the elliptical sentence implying the meaning "I live in London."
Endings : Also called suffixes, endings are grammatical or functional morphemes that are added to the end of word to inflect or change its meaning. Compared to many languages, English has relatively few endings. There are actually only three common endings in English that are used to make inflected forms of a word, without changing its category. These are -ing, -ed, and -s for verbs, and -s for nouns. Other endings are used to change the grammatical category of a word, for example -ness or -ity that form nouns from adjectives, or -ful or -less that form adjectives from nouns.
Gerund : a Gerund is a type of -ing word. To distinguish gerunds from present participles, see ►Gerunds.
Gradable : adjectives are called gradable if they can be modified by an intensifier such as very, quite or extremely. Most adjectives are gradable, but some are not. For example we can say A rather expensive car or The children became very excited, but we cannot say John has a very electric car. A car is electric, or it is not electric. It cannot be very electric, or quite electric. Sometimes people use intensifiers to modify adjectives that are in theory ungradable: this is usually done for emphasis. In theory one cannot grade the adjective impossible. Something is either impossible, or it is not impossible; yet people often qualify the adjective impossible with adverbs such as quite, absolutely or really.
Grammar : The corpus of rules and principles that describe how a language is used or should be used. Grammar can be prescriptive (telling people what is correct and what is not) , or descriptive (describing what how people actually use language). Grammar is constantly evolving, but it does so more slowly that vocabulary. As well as traditional grammar, linguists have developed other types of grammar to better analyse language, such as transformational grammar or generative grammar.
Imperative : the form of the verb that we use when we give an order or a command. See ►Imperative.
Indicative : In English, almost all verbs are used in the indicative mood. The subjunctive, the other principal mood, is rare
Intensifier : a type of adverb that is used to give extra force to the meaning of an adjective. Examples: very / extremely / most / highly
Modal verb : Modal verbs, or modal auxiliaries, such as can or must, are used to express possibility, obligation, probability or futurity. See ►Modals of obligation, ►Modals of possibility , ►expressing the future.
Modify : in grammar, the word modify most commonly means to give a specific meaning to a noun or verb. Modifiers include adjectives, adverbs and prepositional phrases
Mood : In English there are two moods, the indicative and the subjunctive. The subjunctive is very rarely used.
A passive sentence is one in which the subject is the topic
of the action, not the actor or agent. See ► Passive.
Example: The tree was blown over by the wind. In this example, the actor or agent of the action is the wind.
Predicate : one of the two essential constituents of a sentence, the other one being the subject. The predicate is made up of everything in the sentence that is not contained in the subject. In a normal affirmative sentence, it follows the subject. It must contain a verb.
Punctuation : an aspect of syntax, punctuation consists of a small number of symbols that are used to delimit, when necessary, words, phrases or sentences. See ►punctuation
Quantifier : A quantifier is a type of determiner that expresses an imprecise or undefined quantity; it can be contrasted with a number that expresses a precise quantity. Quantifiers include words such as some, many, a few, several. See ►quantifiers
Subject : the actor or topic of a sentence. In a simple sentence, the subject comes first, before the predicate.
Subordination : see subordinate clause above.
Suffix : a morpheme (element of meaning) added to the end of a word. See endings above.
Style : the manner in which ideas are expressed as words. Style can be anything from formal to informal, or oral to written. See ►style in English.
Syntax : an aspect of grammar, syntax deals with the way in which words are organised and ordered. It includes word order and punctuation.
: tenses are specific forms of verbs which are used to
action in time. According to the current convention in modern
linguistics, English just has two tenses, the
present tense and the past tense; but this is just one way of
classifying tenses in English, and not necessarily the most logical
For purposes of simplicity and clarity, many books and language teachers use the word tense in a much broader sense, to describe each of the different forms of a verb used to denote a different time frame – as is accepted practice for languages like French Spanish or Russian.
It is important to understand that there is no absolute truth. Saying that there are two tenses in English is not any more accurate, nor more exact, than saying there are six tenses, or even twelve tenses. It depends on the criteria used to define the notion of "tense".
English verbs come in different forms and different aspects, so for example in the two-tense model, the English present tense is a single tense with four forms, the present simple and the present progressive, the present perfect simple and the present perfect progressive. In the six-tense model, these are two different tenses, each with two aspects; and in the twelve-tense model, these are four different tenses.
Verbs are either transitive
Some verbs are always one or the other, some verbs can be either
depending on their use. A transitive verb is a verb that must
have a direct object.
Example: The dog was barking / The dog was eating a bone
In the first example, barking is intransitive. It cannot take an object. In the second example, eating is used transitively, because there is an object bone. The verb eat can also be used intransitively, i.e. with no object, as in : The dog was eating.