The Englicious Glossary includes the new National Curriculum glossary terms, which are shown against a white background. However, there's much more to be found here:

  • we have added many entries that we feel are important, but cannot be found in the NC Glossary (e.g. connective), and
  • in many cases we have added information to the (often very brief) NC entries that need further explanation (e.g. clause and phrase).

Please note that in line with our practice throughout the site, we use capital letters for function terms such as Subject, Direct Object, Indirect Object, Modifier, etc. Although this convention is not followed in the documentation published by the Department for Education we have also done so in the text that forms part of the National Curriculum Glossary.

Tip: Within our units and resources, Glossary items appear highlighted within the text. When you hover over them, or click on them in the Slideshow, a popup is generated.


The simple form of an adjective (or adverb): the form that is not comparative or superlative. For example, in the following sequence the first form is the absolute form: great - greater - greatest.

abstract noun

A noun with an abstract (non-material) meaning, e.g. imagination, unhappiness, truth. Abstract nouns contrast with concrete nouns like rock or blackbird, which refer to things that can be perceived by the senses.


Features of pronunciation which identify where a person is from, either regionally or socially.

accusative case

The form taken by certain pronouns when they function as Object (Direct Object or Indirect Object) or after a preposition. E.g. them, me in The dog chased them, The baby smiled at me. Sometimes called the objective case. Contrasts with the nominative case, e.g. they, I.


A type of initialism in which the combined initials of the new word are pronounced as ordinary words. Examples include NATO, but not UN, because in the latter, each letter is pronounced separately. See also initialism.

action verb

A category of verb based on meaning. Action verbs denote physical actions, such as whacked, sprint, scribbling and moved.


An active verb has its usual pattern of Subject and Object (in contrast with the passive).

  • Active: The school arranged a visit.
  • Passive: A visit was arranged by the school.

Active voice is the more common pattern, which contrasts with the passive voice. In an active clause the agent is expressed as the Subject, e.g. My sister painted the fence. When an active clause is changed into a passive one, the patient becomes the Subject: The fence was painted by my sister.


Adjectives are typically placed before a noun or after verbs such as be, seem and appear.

The surest way to identify adjectives is by the ways they can be used:

  • before a noun, to make the noun’s meaning more specific (i.e. to modify the noun), or
  • after the verb be, as its complement.
  • The pupils did some really good work. [adjective used before a noun, to modify it]
  • Their work was good. [adjective used after the verb be, as its complement]

Adjectives cannot be modified by other adjectives. This distinguishes them from nouns, which can be.

Adjectives are sometimes called “describing words” because they pick out single characteristics such as size or colour. This is often true, but it doesn’t help to distinguish adjectives from other word classes, because verbs, nouns and adverbs can do the same thing.

Not adjectives:

  • The lamp glowed. [verb]
  • It was such a bright red! [noun]
  • He spoke loudly. [adverb]
  • It was a French grammar book. [noun]

See also: adjective phrase, possessive adjective.

adjective phrase

A phrase headed by an adjective. Examples (with the Head underlined) are messy, very enthusiastic, quite fond of dogs. Note that the National Curriculum stipulates that phrases should have at least two words, though it concedes in the entry for noun phrases that "Some grammarians recognise one-word phrases."

adjective test

  • Express an attribute of a person or thing.
  • Can be in an attributive position before the noun.
    • an old car
  • Can be in a predicative position after the verb.
    • the car is old


A functional label sometimes used for a constituent in a phrase or clause which is often optional and is not dependent on the presence of a particular kind of Head. The term used here for an Adjunct within a clause is Adverbial, e.g. yesterday in I went to the beach yesterday.


Adverbs often modify verbs, and can also modify adjectives, other adverbs, or entire clauses.

The surest way to identify adverbs is by the ways they can be used: they can modify a verb, an adjective, another adverb or even a whole clause.

  • Usha soon started snoring loudly. [adverbs modifying the verbs started and snoring]
  • That match was really exciting! [adverb modifying the adjective exciting]
  • We don't get to play games very often. [adverb modifying the other adverb, often]
  • Fortunately, it didn't rain. [adverb modifying the whole clause 'it didn't rain' by commenting on it]

Adverbs are sometimes said to describe manner or time. This is often true, but it doesn't help to distinguish adverbs from other word classes that can be used as adverbials, such as preposition phrases, noun phrases and subordinate clauses.

Not adverbs:

  • Usha went up the stairs. [preposition phrase as adverbial: modifies leaves]
  • She finished her work this evening. [noun phrase used as adverbial]
  • She finished when the teacher got cross. [subordinate clause used as adverbial]

On the distinction between adverb and Adverbial, see the entry on the latter.

adverb phrase

A phrase headed by an adverb. Examples (with the Head underlined) are angrily, very quickly, fortunately for him.


An Adverbial is a word or phrase that is used, like an adverb, to modify a verb or clause. Of course, adverbs can be used as Adverbials, but many other types of words and phrases can be used this way, including preposition phrases and subordinate clauses.

  • The bus leaves in five minutes. [preposition phrase as adverbial: modifies leaves]
  • She promised to see him last night. [noun phrase modifying either promised or see, according to the intended meaning]
  • She worked until she had finished. [subordinate clause as adverbial]

What exactly is the difference between adverb and Adverbial? The former is a word class label, whereas the latter is a function label. Adverbials are the optional units in a clause which provide an answer to one or more of the questions 'when did this occur?', 'where did this occur?', 'why did this occur?', or 'how did this occur?'. So in the sentence Harriet did well in the SPaG test we say that the word well is an adverb which functions as an Adverbial. Here are some further examples, with the Adverbials highlighted:

  • Last week, we finished all the work quickly. [noun phrase and adverb phrase functioning as Adverbial]
  • The police drove very fast. [adverb phrase functioning as Adverbial]
  • She hurriedly finished her meal in the restaurant. [adverb phrase and prepositional phrase functioning as Adverbial]

A linking Adverbial is an Adverbial that links a sentence, clause, etc. to another bit of text. Here are some examples:

  • Early application from students abroad is advised. However, where there is time to do so, students who are uncertain about their qualifications should write in the first instance to the Assistant Registrar, to check that they are eligible for consideration.
  • By April eighty-seven, Dr. Reeves noticed that the floor of the eye socket was sinking. Nevertheless, on the eighteenth of May she resumed work as a nursing auxiliary in the out-patients department of Pembury Hospital.

A fronted Adverbial is an Adverbial that is placed at the start of a sentence or clause. The National Curriculum demands that a comma is placed after fronted adverbials. Here are some examples:

  • Reluctantly , we left the theatre.
  • In the evening, we had a party on the beach.


A short element which is added to a word to create a different word form or a new word. For example, adding -ise to terror makes the word terrorise. An affix can be either a prefix, added at the beginning of a word, or a suffix, added at the end.


A semantic role which indicates the ‘doer’ of an action described by a verb phrase in a sentence or clause. It can be expressed in different ways. For example, Fiona is the agent both in Fiona drove the bus and in The bus was driven by Fiona.

agentless passive

A passive clause which has no by-phrase or agent, such as All the chocolate was eaten, which does not tell us who did the eating. An agentless passive may be used because the speaker does not know who the agent is, thinks it unimportant to specify the agent, or wants to avoid specifying the agent.


A term for the way one grammatical element matches ('agrees') with another in some way, usually used for Subject-verb agreement, where a present tense verb changes form depending on the number (singular vs. plural) of the Subject. E.g. The baby cries (singular) vs. The babies cry (plural).


Two words are antonyms if their meanings are opposites.

  • hot - cold
  • light - dark
  • light - heavy


The apostrophe, written ', is one of the 9 main punctuation marks in English.

Apostrophes have two completely different uses:

  • showing the place of missing letters (e.g. I'm for I am)
  • marking possessives (e.g. Hannah's mother)
  • I'm going out and I won't be long. [showing missing letters]
  • Hannah's mother went to town in Justin's car. [marking possessives]


The articles are the, a, and an.

The articles the (definite) and a or an (indefinite) are the most common type of determiner.

  • The dog found a bone in an old box.


Aspect is a grammatical notion, and refers to the way in which the unfolding of situations over time is encoded in language, typically through the use of grammatical patterns involving auxiliary verbs. For example, They are discussing it uses progressive aspect and presents the action as ongoing.

Some grammarians refer to the perfect construction as 'perfect aspect', as in They have discussed it, which indicates that the action occurred before the present, but has relevance in the present. Other grammarians refer to perfect constructions as 'perfect tense'.

aspectual auxiliary

An auxiliary verb that is used to mark aspect. The verb be is an aspectual auxiliary, e.g. in the past progressive construction They were watching TV.

Some grammarians say that the perfect construction represents aspect as well. In that case, have is an aspectual auxiliary, e.g. in He has sold his car.

attributive position

The position before the Head noun in a noun phrase which is held by a modifying element such as an adjective. For example, in a helpful person the adjective helpful is in attributive position. See also predicative position.

auxiliary verb

The auxiliary verbs are be, have and do and the modal verbs. They can be used to make questions and negative statements. In addition:

  • be is used in the progressive and passive
  • have is used in the perfect
  • do is used to form questions and negative statements if no other auxiliary verb is present
  • They are winning the match. [be used in the progressive]
  • Have you finished your picture? [have used to make a question, and the perfect]
  • No, I don't know him. [do used to make a negative; no other auxiliary is present]
  • Will you come with me or not? [modal verb will used to make a question about the other person's willingness]

Auxiliary verbs 'help' the main verb they precede by adding further shades of meaning such as aspect or modality. E.g. They are leaving; She has finished; We should help him.

base form

The basic form of a word to which inflections can be added to make other forms. E.g. clap is the base form of a verb, and is the starting point for making other forms such as clapped, clapping. This term is often used interchangeably with root word.

blended mode

A mode of communication which shows a mixture of features, some associated with spoken language and some with written language. For example, texting is often described as being a blended mode.


A word formation process by which two words are blended together. Conventional examples include brunch and ginormous. More recent interesting examples include mansplain and procrastibake.


A preposition phrase in a passive clause which starts with by and typically identifies the agent, as in The fire was started by some campers. The by-phrase is absent in agentless passive clauses.


Case is a grammatical term for the different forms a pronoun can take depending on their position or role in a sentence. For example, many of the English personal pronouns can occur in the nominative (or subjective) case (e.g. She likes the cat) or in the accusative (or objective) case (e.g. The cat likes her). Pronouns can also take the genitive case, as in Her cat is very lazy.


A clause is a special type of phrase whose Head is a verb. Clauses can sometimes be complete sentences. Clauses may be main or subordinate.

Traditionally, a clause had to have a finite verb, but most modern grammarians also recognise nonfinite clauses.

  • It was raining. [single-clause sentence]
  • It was raining but we were indoors. [two finite clauses]
  • If you are coming to the party, please let us know. [finite subordinate clause inside a finite main clause]
  • Usha went upstairs to play on her computer. [non-finite clause]

A clause is a structure which typically expresses a situation such as an action, process or state of affairs (declarative clause), but it can also be used to ask a question (interrogative clause) or issue a command (imperative clause). One or more clauses can make up a sentence. For example, He will find them is a main clause which stands alone as a sentence. By contrast, that he will find them is a subordinate clause functioning as a Direct Object within the main clause I know that he will find them.

The National Curriculum defines clauses as "a special type of phrase whose Head is a verb". This idea is similar to regarding a group of words whose pivotal element is a noun as a noun phrase, and a string of words whose main element is an adjective as an adjective phrase.

See also: clause type.

clause type

A classification of clauses into four grammatical types: declarative, interrogative, imperative and exclamative (sometimes called sentence moods or sentence functions). Each type is typically associated with a different discourse function: statement, question, directive (or command), and exclamation, respectively. The National Curriculum uses only the latter set of terms for both structure and function.

cleft sentence/construction

Cleft sentences are used to highlight or foreground a particular part of a sentence. For example, if you want to highlight that Tim ate all the biscuits, as opposed to someone else, you can say: Don't accuse me of eating all the biscuits. It was Tim who ate all the biscuits! Ordinary cleft constructions conform to the pattern it + {form of the verb be} + Item in Focus + who/that. Here's another example:

  • It was in Brazil that I was so happy.

This is a cleft version of I was so happy in Brazil.

There's another cleft construction in English called the pseudocleft construction. This is typically introduced by what in the pattern what + Subject + Verb + {form of the verb be} + Item in Focus.

Example: What he likes is cream cakes.


A process of word formation whereby an existing word is shortened to form a new word. For example, telephone is shortened into phone.

closed class

Term applied to a word class which does not readily allow new members to be added, e.g. conjunction, determiner and pronoun. Closed-class words are often grammatical words rather than content words.

closed interrogative

A type of interrogative clause in which an auxiliary verb appears before the Subject. Closed interrogatives are used to ask questions whose answer can be yes or no. See interrogative clause and Subject-verb inversion.


Coherence refers to the semantic relationships that exist within a text between words, phrases, etc. When we talk only of the grammatical links we speak of cohesion.


Cohesion refers to the grammatical relationships that exist within a text between words, phrases, etc. When we talk only of the semantic links, i.e. the meaning links, we speak of coherence.

A text has cohesion if it is clear how the meanings of its parts fit together. Cohesive devices can help to do this.

In the example, there are repeated references to the same thing (shown by the different combinations of bold, capitals, underlining and asterisks), and the logical relations, such as time and cause, between different parts are clear.

A visit has been arranged for YEAR 6, to the Mountain Peaks Field Study Centre, leaving school at 9.30am. This is an overnight visit. The centre has beautiful grounds and *a nature trail*. During the afternoon, THE CHILDREN will follow *the trail*.

cohesive device

Cohesive devices are words used to show how the different parts of a text fit together. In other words, they create cohesion.

Some examples of cohesive devices are:

  • determiners and pronouns, which can refer back to earlier words
  • conjunctions and adverbs, which can make relations between words clear
  • ellipsis of expected words.
  • Julia's dad bought her a football. The football was expensive! [determiner; refers us back to a particular football]
  • Joe was given a bike for Christmas. He liked it very much. [the pronouns refer back to Joe and the bike]
  • We'll be going shopping before we go to the park. [conjunction; makes a relationship of time clear]
  • I'm afraid we're going to have to wait for the next train. Meanwhile, we could have a cup of tea. [adverb; refers back to the time of waiting]
  • Where are you going? [_] To school! [ellipsis of the expected words I'm going; links the answer back to the question]

combining form

See compound.


A label for the main use (or discourse function) of an imperative clause. For example, Close the door! is an imperative clause which would typically be used to instruct the hearer to do (or not do) something.

common noun

Any noun which does not belong to the special class of proper nouns; examples are bus, politician, bravery. Proper nouns are those which refer to specific individuals, places, institutions and so on; examples are Paul, Switzerland, Boots.


The form of adjectives (and some adverbs) that ends in -er (e.g. quieter, faster). Sometimes a periphrastic form is used, e.g. more competent (rather than *competenter). See also superlative.


Complement is often used as a general functional label for any constituent whose presence is required by a verb, noun, adjective or preposition.

A verb's Subject Complement adds more information about its Subject, and its Object Complement does the same for its Object.

Unlike the verb's object, its complement may be an adjective. The verb be normally has a Subject Complement.

  • She is our teacher. [adds more information about the subject, she]
  • They seem very competent. [adds more information about the subject, they]
  • Learning makes me happy. [adds more information about the object, me]

Thus many grammars use the notion Complement in a wider sense as a cover term to denote Direct Objects, Indirect Objects and any other unit that a particular verb (or other element) selects. Under this wider definition, all of the highlighted portions in the sentences below are Complements.

  • Luke crashed his bike in the playground. [noun phrase acting as Direct Object]
  • My company sent me a new smartphone. [pronominal noun phrase acting as Indirect Object and noun phrase acting as Direct Object]
  • They suggested that I should upgrade. [clause acting as Direct Object]
  • We relied on his knowledge of the area. [prepositional phrase acting as Complement of the verb]

On the Englicious site we use Subject Complement and Object Complement as terms for specific functions within the clause.

complex preposition

A preposition made up of more than one word, e.g. because of, on top of.

complex sentence

A sentence containing a main clause with at least one subordinate clause inside it, e.g. I looked after the children while Sam was away. This whole sentence is a main clause which contains a subordinate clause, while Sam was away.In the National Curriculum the term multi-clause sentence is used.


A compound word contains at least two root words in its morphology; e.g. whiteboard, superman.

Compounding is very important in English.

  • blackbird, blow-dry, bookshop, ice-cream, English teacher, inkjet, one-eyed, bone-dry, baby-sit, daydream, outgrow

A root word is also known as a lexical base. Compounds are written in different ways: sometimes as one word, sometimes hyphenated, and sometimes as separate words. A neoclassical compound is a compound consisting of two combining forms derived from classical languages, e.g. bio- + -graphy.

compound sentence

A sentence where two or more main clauses are joined together, e.g. [Sam made a cake] and [Anna bought some biscuits]. The clauses which are joined are ‘equal’ in status, as each could stand alone. The National Curriculum prefers the term multi-clause sentence.

concrete noun

A noun that refers to something that can be directly perceived by the senses, such as baby, frog, or skyscraper. Concrete nouns express a different type of meaning from abstract nouns like sadness.

It is debatable whether non-tangible things that can be perceived by the senses, such as sound, are concrete. Nouns like pain can be seen as having a concrete meaning ("physical pain" perceived by the senses) and an abstract meaning ("emotional pain" not perceived by the senses).


One element in a set of two or more items linked by a coordinating conjunction. E.g. in the sun and the moon the noun phrases the sun and the moon are conjoins linked by the coordinating conjunction and.


A conjunction links two words or phrases together.

There are two main types of conjunctions:

  • coordinating conjunctions (e.g. and) link two words or phrases together as an equal pair.
  • subordinating conjunctions (e.g. when) introduce a subordinate clause.
  • James bought a bat and ball. [links the words bat and ball as an equal pair]
  • Kylie is young but she can kick the ball hard. [links two clauses as an equal pair]
  • Everyone watches when Kyle does back-flips. [introduces a subordinate clause]
  • Joe can't practise kicking because he's injured. [introduces a subordinate clause]

The principal coordinating conjunctions are and, or and but) and some typical subordinating conjunctions are because, when, that, if, whether, for).

The 2016 GPaS test sample papers also refer to conjunctions as joining words.


'Connective' is an old term that has been widely used by teachers for words that can connect units of information in various ways. These include words like however, so and nonetheless, and because, although and after.

In most contemporary discussions of grammar, and in the 2014 National Curriculum, the term 'connective' is not used because the words that have been given this label belong grammatically to different word classes. Instead, we distinguish between subordinating conjunctions, coordinating conjunctions and certain types of adverbs.

Subordinating conjunctions place one clause in a lower (subordinate) relationship to another.

  • He is only six years old, although he is very tall.
  • They devoured the cookies because they were hungry.

On the other hand, coordinating conjunctions link two units of an equal status:

  • novels and plays
  • fast but unsafe

Finally, words that connect sentences or clauses more loosely in terms of their meaning are called (linking) adverbs:

  • Everyone loves vacations in Hawaii. Nevertheless, I would never want to go there myself.
  • I have lots of friends, so I'm very happy.

Note that the adverbs above can be omitted, and the result would still be a grammatical sentence. The conjunctions in the first two examples cannot be omitted without the result becoming a "run-on" sentence. This is just one very good reason why these two types of connective words (conjunctions and adverbs) are not part of a single grammatical category.

Although the label 'connective' can be useful as a general notion that encourages students to think about how they might connect one piece of information to another, we would strongly encourage you to avoid it.

See also Adverbial.


A sound which is produced when the speaker closes off or obstructs the flow of air through the vocal tract, usually using lips, tongue or teeth.

  • /p/ [flow of air stopped by the lips, then released]
  • /t/ [flow of air stopped by the tongue touching the roof of the mouth, then released]
  • /f/ [flow of air obstructed by the bottom lip touching the top teeth]
  • /s/ [flow of air obstructed by the tip of the tongue touching the gum line]

Most of the letters of the alphabet represent consonants. Only the letters a, e, i, o, u and y can represent vowel sounds.

The term 'consonant' is used either for a sound made by bringing the vocal organs together or close to each other, or for a letter used to write a consonant sound: for example, the sound at the start of the word mat is a consonant sound, written with the consonant letter m.

constituency test

A test by means of which a string of words can be shown to behave as a unit, or constituent. See e.g. fronting.


One word or a group of words which grammatically behaves as a unit.


In language, this is our ability to represent and perceive the same thing in infinitely different ways. For example, we can choose to represent something in a very vague way (e.g. something happened) or a very specific way (e.g. a terrible monster appeared out of the wardrobe).

content word

A word with a full meaning content which can be stated separately, such as strawberry, chatter or green. Also called a lexical word. This type of word contrasts with a grammatical word, whose role is mainly to express grammatical relationships or meanings, e.g. of, and or the. Content words are usually open-class words, while grammatical words are usually closed-class words.


See progressive.


A word formation process by which a word takes on a new word class without adding any new elements such as prefixes or suffixes. For example, then noun Facebook quickly gave rise to the verb facebook.


See coordination.

coordinating conjunction

A linking word which connects (‘coordinates’) units which are equal in status. Common examples are and, or, and but. Also called a coordinator.


Words or phrases are coordinated if they are linked as an equal pair by a coordinating conjunction (i.e. and, but, or).

In the examples below, the coordinated elements are shown in bold, and the conjunction is in red.

  • Susan and Amra met in a cafe. [links the words Susan and Amra as an equal pair]
  • They talked and drank tea for an hour. [links two clauses as an equal pair]
  • Susan got on a bus but Amra walked. [links two clauses as an equal pair]

The difference between coordination and subordination is that, in subordination, the two linked elements are not equal.

Not coordination: They ate before they met. [before introduces a subordinate clause]

In coordination, elements or strings of elements (conjoins) are juxtaposed by means of a coordinating conjunction. E.g. Bulgaria and Greece.


Another term for coordinating conjunction; a linking word which connects units which are equal in status. Common examples are and, or, and but.


See linking verb.

copular verb

See linking verb.

core modal

A subset of modal verbs that is considered the most typical and most important. The core modals are: will, would, can, could, will, may, might, shall, should, must, and ought (to).


A collection of extracts of naturally occurring spoken or written language, often in computerised form. It can include written language and/or transcribed spoken language.

count noun

A type of noun which can be counted, like computer (one computer, two computers, three computers, etc.). In contrast, there are non-count nouns like software which can't be counted.

declarative clause

The most common clause type, which usually has regular grammatical ordering with the Subject before the finite verb, followed by the Object (if there is one), and which is usually, though not exclusively, used to make a statement. See also: exclamative clause, imperative clause, interrogative clause.

definite article

In English the word the is called the definite article. The indefinite article is a(n). Both belong to the word class of determiner.


The way that language can refer or 'point' to different things in different contexts. For example, the demonstrative pronoun that in spoken English can refer to a specific thing in the real world at a particular moment, but it can be used to refer to different things by different people in different times and places. Personal pronouns like she and it also show deixis, and are said to be deictic.

demonstrative pronoun

One of a small set of pronouns (this, that, these, those) which are used to 'point to' ('demonstrate') something which can be identified from the context (e.g. This is nice). When this, that, these, and those are placed before nouns we label them as determiners. See also: deixis.


The process by which one word is derived from another. For example, the adjective readable is derived from the verb read by the addition of an ending (or suffix), while the verb butter is derived from the noun butter without any change of form.

derivational morphology

Branch of morphology concerned with how words are formed from other words. For example, from kind we can derive words like unkind, kindly, kindness and unkindness by adding elements at the start or end of the word.


A descriptive approach to language aims to describe the way people actually use the language. It contrasts with a prescriptive approach, which aims to give people rules for how they should use language.


A determiner specifies a noun as known or unknown, and it goes before any modifiers (e.g. adjectives or other nouns).

Some examples of determiners are:

  • articles (the, a or an)
  • demonstratives (e.g. this, those)
  • possessives (e.g. my, your)
  • quantifiers (e.g. some, every).
  • the home team [article, specifies the team as known]
  • a good team [article, specifies the team as unknown]
  • that pupil [demonstrative, known]
  • Julia’s parents [possessive, known]
  • some big boys [quantifier, unknown]


  • *home the team, *big some boys [both incorrect, because the determiner should come before other modifiers]

'Determiner' is a word class label. It's a cover term for a range of word classes that are also known by other names, as the National Curriculum entry makes clear. Determiners typically occur before a noun within a noun phrase to indicate the type of reference the noun has, e.g. the, a/an, this, that, many, all. The so-called cardinal numerals, e.g. one, two, three, as in I ate three bowls of spaghetti, are sometimes included in the class of determiners. However, their classification is disputed, because there are also reasons for regarding them as nouns, for example the fact that we can pluralise them, as in They travelled in twos and threes. The ordinal numerals, e.g. first, second, etc. are adjectives. In a few cases determiners occur outside noun phrases, e.g. I don't like chocolate that much.


A regionally or socially distinctive variety of a language, identified by a particular set of words and grammatical structures.


A type of grapheme where two letters represent one phoneme. Sometimes, these two letters are not next to one another; this is called a split digraph.

  • The digraph ea in each is pronounced /i:/.
  • The digraph sh in shed is pronounced /ʃ/.
  • The split digraph i–e in line is pronounced /aɪ/.

Direct Object

A function label for an element in the clause which typically comes after the verb phrase and identifies the person or thing that undergoes the situation described by the main verb. For example, in Greg stroked the dog, the function of Direct Object is filled by the dog. See also Object, which is the term preferred in the National Curriculum.


A label for the main use (or discourse function) of an imperative clause, that is, getting someone to do something. For example, Be quiet is an imperative that would typically be used as a directive. However, other clause types are also sometimes used to issue directives, e.g. the interrogative clause Could you be quiet?. Also called command. See also: clause type, exclamation, statement, question.

discourse function

This term refers to how a particular expression is used on a particular occasion. The discourse function of a sentence depends on the context, for example Can you give me a call? might be a command or a question. Discourse functions include commands, statements and questions.

discourse marker

Discourse markers (also called pragmatic markers) are usually short words, phrases or clauses that are used by participants in spoken language to signal various meanings such as agreement, anger, surprise, etc. They can also signal a change in speaker (turn-taking) or the desire to terminate a conversation. Examples are ah, oh, well, yeah, oh my god, etc.

discourse structure

The way in which a text is organised, including the words and grammatical elements that link portions of a text to each other.


A term which refers to the arrangement of words, phrases, and so on in sentence structure. For example, in observing that in English sentences noun phrases typically occur in Subject position, Direct Object position, and after prepositions, we are talking about the distribution of noun phrases.

ditransitive verb

A verb that takes an Indirect Object and a Direct Object, as in the following sentence: Simone sent me a letter, where me is the Indirect Object, and a letter is the Direct Object.


This term refers to the insertion of the dummy auxiliary do to add emphasis, to form interrogative sentences, etc. in sentences which do not already contain an auxiliary. For example, if we want to change the following sentence into an interrogative form we need to add do:

  • Denise opened the file
    ~Did Denise open the file?

dummy auxiliary do

An auxiliary verb that is inserted by do-support to add emphasis, to form interrogative structures, etc. It is called dummy because it does not carry strong lexical meaning. Instead, it has a grammatical purpose only.

-ed participle

See past participle and participle.


Ellipsis is the omission of a word or phrase which is expected and predictable.

  • Frankie waved to Ivana and [she] watched her drive away.
  • She did it because she wanted to [do it].

In addition to grammatical ellipsis, the term ellipsis can also refer to the punctuation mark written with three dots: ...


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. Many words in English have come from Greek, Latin or French.

  • The word school was borrowed from a Greek word σχολή (skholé) meaning 'leisure'.
  • The word verb comes from Latin verbum, meaning 'word'.
  • The word mutton comes from French mouton, meaning 'sheep'.


The general definition of an exclamation is an utterance that expresses an emotion such as surprise, anger or admiration. In the National Curriculum this term is defined in a specialised way, namely in the way we define exclamative clauses in the entry below. See also: clause type, command, directive, statement, question.

exclamative clause

This is a clause type which starts with an exclamative phrase containing what or how, and is typically used to make an exclamation. Examples are What a fuss he made! and How tall she is! The exclamative phrase comes first, so there is a special word order (compare with the usual order in He made a big fuss or She is very tall). Please note that having an exclamation mark after a clause is not enough to turn it into an exclamative clause (defined as a pattern with what or how), so the following sentence is not an exclamative clause, but a declarative clause, despite the exclamation mark: This is a wonderful event! We see in this last example that it's perfectly fine to add an exclamation mark after clauses that do not have what or how in them; it's just that they are not exclamative clauses, because these are defined as particular structural patterns. See also: declarative clause, imperative clause, interrogative clause.

existential there

The word there that we find in sentences or clauses that are concerned with the existence of people, things, etc. E.g. There is a cat in the garage. See also locative there.

expanded noun phrase

An expanded noun phrase is a noun phrase that has elements in it other than a determiner and a noun, e.g. the smelly cheese in the fridge.


The movement of a string of words to the left or to the right in a sentence. For example, in the sentence It is wonderful to see you, the Subject clause to see you has been moved to a sentence-final position, and nonreferential it has been put in its place. The canonical form of the sentence (without extraposition) would be To see you is wonderful.


A feature of spoken language used to cover a pause or break in speech. For example, many speakers say uh, uhm, or er, and so on to fill pauses in speech. Fillers can be observed and studied in corpora.


Finite verbs are verbs that carry tense and (with the exception of imperative clauses) have a Subject.

Every sentence typically has at least one verb which is either past or present tense. Such verbs are called ‘finite’. The imperative verb in a command is also finite.

  • Lizzie does the dishes every day. [present tense]
  • Even Hana did the dishes yesterday. [past tense]
  • Do the dishes, Naser! [imperative]

Verbs that are not finite, such as participles or infinitives, cannot stand on their own: they are linked to another verb in the sentence.

Not finite verbs:

  • I have done them. [combined with the finite verb have]
  • I will do them. [combined with the finite verb will]
  • I want to do them! [combined with the finite verb want]

Note that the term finite is applied to a verb to indicate that it carries tense, and also applied to a clause or sentence that contains a finite verb.


A term used to describe whereby a particular linguistic feature 'stands out' or is ‘highlighted’. Foregrounding can be achieved via any part of the language system: phonology, lexis, grammar, semantics, etc. It is done by creating patterns (known as parallelism) or breaking away from established patterns (known as deviation).


See grammatical form.

fronted adverbial

See fronting.


A word or phrase that normally comes after the verb may be moved before the verb: when this happens, we say it has been ‘fronted’. For example, a fronted adverbial is an adverbial which has been moved before the verb. When writing fronted phrases, we often follow them with a comma.

  • Before we begin, make sure you’ve got a pencil. [Without fronting: Make sure you’ve got a pencil before we begin.]
  • The day after tomorrow, I’m visiting my granddad. [Without fronting: I’m visiting my granddad the day after tomorrow.]


See grammatical function.

function word

Another term for grammatical word.


Future time can be expressed in many different ways in English, but English does not have a future tense.

Reference to future time can be marked in a number of different ways in English. All these ways involve the use of a present tense verb. See also tense. Unlike many other languages (such as French, Spanish or Italian), English has no distinct ‘future tense’ form of the verb comparable with its present and past tenses.

  • He will leave tomorrow. [present-tense will followed by infinitive leave]
  • He may leave tomorrow. [present-tense may followed by infinitive leave]
  • He leaves tomorrow. [present-tense leaves]
  • He is going to leave tomorrow. [present tense is followed by going to plus the infinitive leave]


A category of text, referring to the type of the text and indicating the purpose of the text. 'Genre' traditionally refers to types of written text, so we can talk about a recipe being a subtype of an instructional genre, or stories being found within a narrative genre. If it is applied to types of spoken text, the term register is often used instead.


See grapheme-phoneme correspondence.


This refers to the property of adjectives (and some adverbs) to express degrees of application of some notion. For example, the property of being warm can be graded, because we can have warmer and warmest (these are comparative and superlative forms, respectively) and also very warm, where the adjective is preceded by an intensifier.


This is a term used in linguistics to recognise that on the one hand there are typical and less typical members of grammatical categories (this is called subsective gradience), and on the other hand that the boundaries between grammatical categories may not be absolutely fixed (this is called intersective gradience).

For example, let’s look at the fuzziness or gradience of the noun category. Cat, table and apple are all deemed to be ‘prototypical’ members of this category. They are physical objects; they take a possessive form; they can be plural or singular, and they can appear after a determiner.

But news and information are more peripheral examples of nouns. The former is always in the plural, and the latter cannot take a plural ending.


The study of word and clause structure. It has two main branches: morphology, concerned with the internal structure of words, and syntax, concerned with how words are combined into sentences.


See ungrammatical.

grammatical form

The structural categories we can assign an element or group of elements to, such as word classes, phrases, and clauses. Form is distinct from the grammatical function that an element or group plays within a larger structure. For example, a group of words with the form of a noun phrase can have different functions in the clause, such as Subject or Direct Object. The term 'form' is also used to refer to the 'shape' or morphology of words.

grammatical function

The part that a word or constituent plays within a larger structure - for example, Subject, Object and Adverbial are functions within the clause. Function is distinct from form, which concerns structural categories such as word classes. Functional elements can be 'filled' by different formal elements - for example, in The boy ate the biscuits, the boy is both a noun phrase (form) and the Subject (function). The same noun phrase can operate as the Object (function) in a different example, such as She told the boy.

grammatical word

A word whose main role is to express grammatical relationships or meanings, e.g. of, and and whether. These words contrast with content words like laugh or chair, which have separate, stateable meaning content. Grammatical words are usually closed-class words. Another term for grammatical word is function word.


A letter, or combination of letters, that corresponds to a single phoneme within a word.

  • The grapheme t in the words ten, bet and ate corresponds to the phoneme /t/.
  • The grapheme ph in the word dolphin corresponds to the phoneme /f/.

grapheme-phoneme correspondence

The links between letters, or combinations of letters (graphemes) and the speech sounds (phonemes) that they represent.

In the English writing system, graphemes may correspond to different phonemes in different words.

  • The grapheme s corresponds to the phoneme /s/ in the word see, but…
  • …it corresponds to the phoneme /z/ in the word easy.

Grice's maxims

Paul Grice (1975) contends that speakers ideally observe the co-operative principle in conversation by adhering to four sets of conversational maxims. These maxims are general principles which underlie an optimally efficient, cooperative use of language. The four categories are:

1 quantity: make your contribution as informative as is required for the current purposes of the exchange - don't say too much or too little

2 quality: try to make your contribution one that is true

3 relation: be relevant

4 manner: be perspicuous - avoid unneccessary obscurity and ambiguity


A grammatical function label which refers to the principal word in a phrase. For example, a noun phrase has a noun as its Head, an adjective phrase has an adjective as its Head, an adverb phrase has an adverb as its Head, and so on.

See phrase.


An expression that tempers an absolute statement by qualifying it in various ways. For example, maybe, perhaps, and generally can operate as hedges, as can expressions like it would seem that or as far as I can tell. Hedges can express a speaker's hesitation, doubt, or uncertainty about what is being said, and can also protect a speaker from repercussions of saying something that is incorrect.


Two different words are homonyms if they both look exactly the same when written, and sound exactly the same when pronounced.

  • Has he left yet? Yes – he went through the door on the left.
  • The noise a dog makes is called a bark. Trees have bark.

See also homophone.


Two different words are homophones if they sound exactly the same when pronounced.

  • hear, here
  • some, sum

See also homonym.


An idiom is an expression whose meaning cannot be derived from its constituent parts, and that is unique to a particular language. For example, in English the phrase paint the town red means ‘to have a good time while going out’. But the equivalent phrase in French has a literal meaning only

imperative clause

A clause type which usually lacks a Subject and has a verb in the base form, and which is generally used to issue a directive (that is, to get someone to do something). Examples are Be quiet and Leave your belongings in the cloakroom. See also declarative clause, exclamative clause, interrogative clause.

indefinite article

In English the word a(n) is called the indefinite article. The definite article is the. Both belong to the word class of determiner.

indefinite pronoun

See pronoun.

Indirect Object

A function label for an element in the clause which typically comes after the verb phrase and before the Direct Object. The Indirect Object in a sentence is typically a noun phrase or pronoun that refers to someone or something that can be seen as the goal, recipient or beneficiary of the action expressed by the verb. For example, in We sent Kate some flowers the function of Indirect Object is filled by Kate. See also Object.


A verb’s infinitive is the basic form used as the head-word in a dictionary (e.g. walk, be).

Infinitives are often used:

  • after to
  • after modal verbs.
  • I want to walk.
  • I will be quiet.

The infinitive with to is called the to-infinitive, whereas the infinitive without to, for example after modal verbs, is called the bare infinitive. We can then say that the clause after a modal verb is a bare infinitive clause (e.g. We can send you some more information.)


When we add -ed to walk, or change mouse to mice, this change of morphology produces an inflection (‘bending’) of the basic word which has special grammar (e.g. past tense or plural). In contrast, adding -er to walk produces a completely different word, walker, which is part of the same word family. Inflection is sometimes thought of as merely a change of ending, but, in fact, some words change completely when inflected.

  • dogs is an inflection of dog.
  • went is an inflection of go.
  • better is an inflection of good.

An inflection is a change to the base form of a word to express grammatical information, usually by adding an ending (or suffix). Sometimes inflection involves another kind of change to the base form (e.g. mouse/mice).

inflectional morphology

Branch of morphology which looks at different forms of the same dictionary word. For example, laugh, laughs, laughed, laughing are different forms (called inflectional forms) of the verb laugh, which are used in different contexts. See also inflection.

information structuring

The ability to structure the presentation of information in different ways in sentences and clauses, for example to place emphasis on a particular part. Typical strategies for information structuring include employing passive voice and preposing or postposing elements.

  • I really like those shoes ~ Those shoes, I really like [them] (preposing).
  • I left the cake out in the rain ~ The cake was left out in the rain [by me] (passive).

See also fronting.

-ing participle

See present participle.


A word formation process whereby the first letters of words in a phrase are combined into a new word. Examples include NATO as well as UN. See also acronym.


Intensifiers modify adjectives and adverbs to increase their strength (e.g. very cold and extremely carefully). Also known as an intensifying adverb. Despite the name, intensifying adverbs can also decrease the strength of the adverb (e.g. quite untidy).


A minor word class consisting of such words as oh, ah, ouch and yuck, which express reactions, emotions and so on. They can occur alone; they can also occur within longer utterances, but do not form grammatical relationships with other words.

international phonetic alphabet

A universally recognised alphabet for the transcription of human speech sounds. It features a symbol for each sound of the world's languages.

interrogative clause

A clause type which is characterised by Subject-verb inversion and/or a fronted wh-phrase, and which is usually (though not exclusively) used to ask questions. Examples are Have you looked at this article? and Who told you that?

interrogative pronoun

A pronoun which can be used to ask a question, e.g. who, what.


A term used to define 'texts in relation to other texts', i.e. in any given text (written or read) a continual 'dialogue' is being set up with other texts (both literary and non-literary) that exist outside it, both currently and historically. For example, Allan Ahlberg's The Jolly Postman plays on our awareness of famous fairy tales; and when e. e. cummings writes all in green went my love riding he evokes the medieval ballad form.

intransitive preposition

A preposition that does not have a noun phrase as its Complement, as in He came in. See also transitive preposition.

intransitive verb

A verb which does not need an Object in a sentence to complete its meaning is described as intransitive. See transitive verb.

  • We all laughed.
  • We would like to stay longer, but we must leave.


A written character of the alphabet.


The dictionary entry of a word. E.g. the nouns cat and cats belong to the lexeme cat, and the verbs sing and sings belong to the lexeme sing.

lexical base

Element from which different words can be formed, for example by adding a short ending (suffix) or beginning (prefix). For instance, starting from the lexical base kind, we can form different words such as kindness, kindly and unkind.

lexical verb

Another term for main verb. A verb that conveys the primary action, process or state (e.g. chatter, know, smash), and can be used on its own (e.g. They chattered).

lexical word

See content word.


'Lexis' is another way to refer to words.

linking device

Any item used in grammar to link words, phrases or clauses with other words, phrases or clauses. Among the linking devices we find conjunctions, linking Adverbials and pronouns. See also cohesive device.

linking verb

A verb like seem, appear or be which links a Subject to an expression which describes or identifies the Subject. Examples are He seems nice and She is the prime minister of Australia. Another term used is copular verb (or copula).

locative there

The usage of there indicating a location. E.g. I live there. See also existential there.

main clause

A sentence contains at least one clause which is not a subordinate clause; such a clause is a main clause. A main clause may contain any number of subordinate clauses.

  • It was raining but the sun was shining. [two main clauses]
  • The man who wrote it told me that it was true. [one main clause containing two subordinate clauses.]
  • She said, “It rained all day.” [one main clause containing another.]

A main clause is a clause which is not subordinate to any other clause and can stand alone as a sentence, e.g. I saw them last night. It differs from a subordinate clause, which functions as part of a larger clause.

main verb

A verb that conveys the primary action, process or state (e.g. chatter, know, smash), and can be used on its own (e.g. They chattered). It can also be used with one or more helpers called auxiliary verbs (e.g. They were chattering). Sometimes called a lexical verb.

mass noun

A term used for non-count nouns which refer to an undivided mass, e.g. milk, bread, wood.


A word or phrase that is used to describe one thing in terms of another, where the literal ("dictionary-definition") meaning is not expressed. For example, when Shakespeare writes Juliet is the Sun, he does not mean that she actually is the sun! He means that she has some of the same qualities as the sun. The opposite of metaphorical is literal.

Metaphor is, however, pervasive in everyday language and can operate to shape our way of seeing things. Thus, 'argument' is regularly expressed in terms of to 'war' (we defend a point, attack an idea, marshall facts); we live by metaphors of time analogised as if it were a commodity - thus we spend and waste time. Such metaphors are 'dead metaphors' or sufficiently 'frozen' for them to be not really noticed, though they reveal much about how individuals and cultures shape meanings.

modal verb

A modal verb is an auxiliary verb which expresses modality (meanings to do with what is possible, necessary, and so on).

Modal verbs are used to change the meaning of other verbs. They can express meanings such as certainty, ability, or obligation. The main modal verbs are will, would, can, could, may, might, shall, should, must and ought. A modal verb only has finite forms and has no suffixes (e.g. I singhe sings, but not I musthe *musts).

  • I can do this maths work by myself.
  • This ride may be too scary for you!
  • You should help your little brother.
  • Is it going to rain? Yes, it might.
  • *Canning swim is important. [not possible because can must be finite; contrast: Being able to swim is important, where being is not a modal verb]


An area of meaning concerned with what is possible, necessary, desirable and so on. This can involve what may or must be true, or what actions are permitted or required. This kind of meaning is expressed by the modal verbs, e.g. may, must, and also by other forms such as certain adjectives (likely, essential) and adverbs (perhaps, probably).


The channel by which language is produced, i.e. spoken or written. Spoken and written language are often referred to as the two modes of language. In addition, linguists sometimes discuss text messaging or internet chat rooms as representing a mixed-mode, containing features of both spoken and written language.


This is a functional label for an element in a phrase which supports (or 'modifies') the Head word. Adverbials modify verbs or clauses.

One word or phrase modifies another by making its meaning more specific.

Because the two words make a phrase, the ‘modifier’ is normally close to the modified word.

In the phrase primary-school teacher:

  • teacher is modified by primary-school (to mean a specific kind of teacher)
  • school is modified by primary (to mean a specific kind of school).

Other examples of modifiers are happy in the noun phrase a happy bunny, very in the adjective phrase very cheeky and extremely in the adverb phrase extremely quickly.


See Modifier.

monitoring device

An expression in spoken language that is used to confirm a listener's engagement with a speaker. For example, tag questions or phrases such as if you see what I mean, as well as the word innit are often used in this way.


Morphemes are the component parts of which words are made up, e.g. unhappy is made up of the prefix un- and the root word happy.


Morphology is the study of the internal structure of words.

A word’s morphology is its internal make-up in terms of root words and suffixes or prefixes, as well as other kinds of change such as the change of mouse to mice.

Morphology may be used to produce different inflections of the same word (e.g. boyboys), or entirely new words (e.g. boyboyish) belonging to the same word family.

  • dogs has the morphological make-up: dog + s.
  • unhelpfulness has the morphological make-up: unhelpful + ness, where unhelpful = un + helpful and helpful = help + ful

A word that contains two or more root words is a compound (e.g. news+paper, ice+cream).

Morphology looks at how words can be made up from smaller parts, e.g. bright + -er gives brighter; white + board = whiteboard; study + -ed = studied.

multi-clause sentence

A label used in the National Curriculum to refer to sentences that contain two or more clauses. This includes both complex sentences, where one clause is subordinate to another, as signalled by a subordinating conjunction (e.g. I came home [because it was raining]), and compound sentences, where clauses are 'chained' using a coordinating conjunction (e.g. [I came home] and [my sister went out]).

As the distinction between complex and compound sentences is relatively advanced, the National Curriculum recommends that the term ‘multi-clause sentence’ be used up to KS2.

negated modal verb

A modal verb with a negative element tagged onto it. E.g. can’t, won’t, mustn’t, etc.


A word which typically expresses the contradiction of some or all of a sentence's meaning. Examples of negation include 'nt, not, never, not, etc.

neoclassical compound

A compound consisting of two combining forms derived from classical languages (Latin and Ancient Greek), e.g. bio- + -logy. See compound.


A newly coined word.

nominative case

The form which some pronouns take when they function as Subject, e.g. they, I in They like chocolate, I won a prize. Sometimes called subjective case. Contrasts with the accusative case as in them, me.

non-countable noun

A noun which can't be counted, such as furniture or software. We can't talk about *one furniture or *two furnitures, for instance. Because many non-count nouns refer to an undivided mass (e.g. lemonade, coal), they are sometimes called mass nouns. Nouns which can be counted, like chair, are called count nouns.


A term applied to a verb to indicate that it does not carry tense, and also applied to a clause that does not contain a finite verb.

nonreferential it

The it that we find in expressions pertaining to the weather (e.g. It is raining) or in constructions which exhibit extraposition (e.g. It is wonderful to see you.). See also referential it.


Nouns constitute one of the major word classes, which includes words for people, animals, and things (teacher, rabbit, desk) and also many words for abstract concepts (kindness, mystery, technology).

The surest way to identify nouns is by the ways they can be used after determiners such as the: for example, most nouns will fit into the frame “The __ matters/matter.”

Nouns are sometimes called ‘naming words’ because they name people, places and ‘things’; this is often true, but it doesn’t help to distinguish nouns from other word classes. For example, prepositions can name places and verbs can name ‘things’ such as actions.

  • Our dog bit the burglar on his behind!
  • My big brother did an amazing jump on his skateboard.
  • Actions speak louder than words.

Not nouns:

  • He’s behind you! [this names a place, but is a preposition, not a noun]
  • She can jump so high! [this names an action, but is a verb, not a noun]

Nouns may be classified as common (e.g. boy, day) or proper (e.g. Ivan, Wednesday), and also as countable (e.g. thing, boy) or non-countable (e.g. stuff, money). These classes can be recognised by the determiners they combine with.

  • common, countable: a book, books, two chocolates, one day, fewer ideas
  • common, non-countable: money, some chocolate, less imagination
  • proper, countable: Marilyn, London, Wednesday

Typical nouns share a number of grammatical properties, such as the ability to form a plural (teachers, kindnesses) and to occur after a/an or the (a teacher, the kindness of strangers). Collective nouns indicate collections of individuals (e.g. crowd, family, government) and can take either a singular or plural form of a following verb (e.g. My family are/is on holiday.)

See also noun phrase

noun phrase

A noun phrase is a phrase with a noun as its Head, e.g. some foxes, foxes with bushy tails. Some grammarians recognise one-word phrases, so that foxes are multiplying would contain the noun foxes acting as the head of the noun phrase foxes.

  • Adult foxes can jump. [adult modifies foxes, so adult belongs to the noun phrase]
  • Almost all healthy adult foxes in this area can jump. [all the other words help to modify foxes, so they all belong to the noun phrase]

See also expanded noun phrase.


A grammatical term for the contrast between singular and plural. This contrast is seen in many nouns (e.g. spider/spiders) and pronouns (e.g. I/we).


See determiner.


An Object is normally a noun, pronoun or noun phrase that comes straight after the verb, and shows what the verb is acting upon.

  • Year 2 designed puppets. [noun acting as Object]
  • I like that. [pronoun acting as object]
  • Some people suggested a pretty display. [noun phrase acting as Object]

Objects can be turned into the Subject of a passive verb, and cannot be adjectives (contrast with Complement).


  • A display was suggested. [Object of active verb becomes the Subject of the passive verb]
  • *Year 2 designed pretty. [incorrect, because adjectives cannot be objects]

Note that Object is a function label which covers two different types: Direct Object and Indirect Object (and some other units typically selected by verbs). We use the label prepositional Object to indicate the function of a unit that comes after a preposition, typically a noun phrase (e.g. on the stairs, with cheese).

Object Complement

A function label for an element in the clause which typically comes after the Direct Object and describes the person or thing it refers to. E.g. He found the staff very helpful; I consider the project a success. See also Complement and Subject Complement.

objective case

See accusative case.

open class

Term applied to a word class which readily accepts new members. Open classes in English are noun, verb, adjective and adverb. Compare closed class.

open interrogative

A type of interrogative clause introduced by a wh- phrase. Open interrogatives cannot generally be answered with yes or no.


Verbs in English have two participles, called present participle (e.g. walking, taking) and past participle (e.g. walked, taken).

Unfortunately, these terms can be confusing to learners, because:

  • they don’t necessarily have anything to do with present or past time
  • although past participles are used as perfects (e.g. has eaten) they are also used as passives (e.g. was eaten).
  • He is walking to school. [present participle in a progressive]
  • He has taken the bus to school. [past participle in a perfect]
  • The photo was taken in the rain. [past participle in a passive]

The present participle is sometimes called the -ing participle or gerund participle. The past participle is also called the -ed participle. A present participle clause (also called an -ing-clause) is a clause with a present participle as its Head verb. Example:

  • Chewing on a sandwich, Pete tried to make a phone call at the same time.

A past participle clause (also called an -ed clause) is a clause with a past participle as its Head verb. Example:

  • Kate flung herself onto the sofa, exhausted by a long day's work.


This word class label is given in some frameworks to the preposition-like elements in phrasal verbs, e.g. up in look up.


'Passive' is a term applied to a special pattern (or voice) used in a sentence or clause, formed with the auxiliary verb be followed by a verb in the -ed participle form, as in The fence was painted by my sister. Compare this with the more usual active pattern, as in My sister painted the fence. In the active example, the agent or 'doer' of the action (my sister) is expressed as the Subject; but in the passive example, the patient of the action (the fence) becomes the Subject.

The sentence It was eaten by our dog is the passive of Our dog ate it. A passive is recognisable from:

  • the past participle form eaten
  • the normal Object (it) turned into the Subject
  • the normal Subject (our dog) turned into an optional preposition phrase with by as its Head
  • the verb be(was), or some other verb such as get.

Contrast active.

A verb is not ‘passive’ just because it has a passive meaning: it must be the passive version of an active verb.

  • A visit was arranged by the school.
  • Our cat got run over by a bus.

Active versions:

  • The school arranged a visit.
  • A bus ran over our cat.

Not passive:

  • He received a warning. [past tense, active received]
  • We had an accident. [past tense, active had]

past participle

See participle.

past perfect

A verb construction which conveys that the situation described by the verb started in the past and was still relevant at a given later point in the past. The English past perfect is conveyed using the auxiliary verb have in the past tense combined with a past participle.

past progressive

A verb construction conveying that the action described by the verb was ongoing in the past. The English past progressive is conveyed using the auxiliary verb be in the past tense combined with a present participle.

past tense

The past tense is a grammatical marking on verbs. (See also inflection.) E.g. the verb in She sounded tired is a past tense form (compare the present tense form in She sounds tired).

Verbs in the past tense are commonly used to:

  • talk about the past
  • talk about imagined situations
  • make a request sound more polite.

Most verbs take a suffix –ed, to form their past tense, but many commonly-used verbs are irregular.

See also tense.

  • Tom and Chris showed me their new TV. [names an event in the past]
  • Antonio went on holiday to Brazil. [names an event in the past; irregular past of go]
  • I wish I had a puppy. [names an imagined situation, not a situation in the past]
  • I was hoping you'd help tomorrow. [makes an implied request sound more polite]


A semantic role which indicates the ‘undergoer’ of a situation in a sentence or clause. It can be expressed in different ways. For example, the dog is the patient in both Julie has washed the dog and The dog has been washed.


The perfect construction is composed of a form of have followed by an past participle, e.g. has cooked, have walked, had eaten.

The perfect form of a verb generally calls attention to the consequences of a prior event; for example, he has gone to lunch implies that he is still away, in contrast with he went to lunch. ‘Had gone to lunch’ takes a past time point (i.e. when we arrived) as its reference point and is another way of establishing time relations in a text. The perfect tense is formed by:

  • turning the verb into its past participle inflection
  • adding a form of the verb have before it.
  • She has downloaded some songs. [present perfect; now she has some songs]
  • I had eaten lunch when you came. [past perfect; I wasn’t hungry when you came]

It can also be combined with the progressive (e.g. he has been going).

Many grammars refer to the perfect construction as a type of aspect.


A three-level grammatical system which applies particularly to certain kinds of pronoun. For example, I (the speaker/writer) is a first person pronoun, you (the addressee) is a second person pronoun, and he/she/it are third person pronouns. A noun phrase like the chair also belongs to the third person. See also personal pronoun.

personal pronoun

One of a group of pronouns used to refer mainly to people, but also to things. They can be classified by person, e.g. I (speaker/writer: first person), you (addressee: second person), she/he/it (others: third person).


A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound that signals a distinct, contrasting meaning. For example:

  • /t/ contrasts with /k/ to signal the difference between tap and cap
  • /t/ contrasts with /l/ to signal the difference between bought and ball.

It is this contrast in meaning that tells us there are two distinct phonemes at work.

There are around 44 phonemes in English; the exact number depends on regional accents. A single phoneme may be represented in writing by one, two, three or four letters constituting a single grapheme.

  • The word cat has three letters and three phonemes: /kæt/
  • The word catch has five letters and three phonemes: /kaʧ/
  • The word caught has six letters and three phonemes: /kɔ:t/


Phonetics is the study of how speech sounds are made and perceived. This involves describing, classifying and transcribing sounds. Phoneticians make use of the International Phonetic Alphabet, a system for transcribing all of the sounds found in the languages of the world. Phoneticians also study the speech variation of different accents and dialects.


Phonology is concerned with how speech sounds are put together and how they are stored in the mind.

phrasal verb

A complex transitive or intransitive verb that consists of two parts: a verb and a preposition, e.g. look up (transitive; e.g. He looked up the word / He looked the word up), give up (intransitive; e.g. She gave up.).


A phrase is a group of words that are grammatically connected so that they stay together, and that expand a single word, called the Head. The phrase is a noun phrase if its Head is a noun, a preposition phrase if its Head is a preposition, and so on; but if the Head is a verb, the phrase is called a clause. Phrases can be made up of other phrases.

  • She waved to her mother. [a noun phrase, with the noun mother as its Head]
  • She waved to her mother. [a preposition phrase, with the preposition to as its Head]
  • She waved to her mother. [a clause, with the verb waved as its Head]

We distinguish noun phrases, verb phrases, adjective phrases, prepositional phrases and adverb phrases (though note that the term ‘verb phrase’ is not used in the National Curriculum). You can think of the Head of a phrase as the most important element that tells you what the phrase is a 'kind of'. For example, a neighbour from hell is a kind of neighbour, and an unbelievably weird story is a kind of story. Phrases may include other elements which function as Modifier of the Head. For example, in the phrases above from hell and unbelievably weird are Modifiers.

Note: the National Curriculum does not regard single words as phrases, so that in Cats hate dogs, both cats and dogs are simply nouns, not noun phrases, and in I am happy, happy is an adjective, not an adjective phrase. The programme specifications state that: "

The National Curriculum refers to 'clauses' as a type of 'phrase'. This may at first seem a little bit puzzling, but if you think of a clause as a grouping of words whose pivotal element (i.e. Head) is a verb, then it begins to makes sense. Some grammarians prefer to distinguish between 'verb phrases', which do not include a Subject, and 'clauses', which do include a Subject.


A plural noun normally has a suffix –s or –es and means ‘more than one’.

There are a few nouns with different morphology in the plural (e.g. mice, formulae).

  • dogs [more than one dog]
  • boxes [more than one box]
  • mice [more than one mouse]

A term describing a form of a noun or pronoun which refers to more than one person or thing. Singular and plural are contrasting values of number. For example, roses is a plural form which contrasts with the singular form rose.


A form of noun (with ' or 's added) or pronoun that is often used to show possession.

A possessive can be:

  • a noun followed by an apostrophe, with or without s
  • a possessive pronoun.
  • Tariq’s book [Tariq has the book]
  • The boys’ arrival [the boys arrive]
  • That essay is mine. [I wrote the essay]

The relation expressed by a possessive goes well beyond ordinary ideas of ‘possession’. A possessive may act as a determiner.

  • His obituary [the obituary is about him]

The meaning of a possessive is not always 'possession' in a literal sense, e.g. John's arrival.

See also possessive adjective.

possessive adjective

Many websites on English grammar make mention of possessive adjectives. They use this term for words like my, his, her, our, your, etc. which always occur before nouns, typically to indicate possession. This would seem to make sense. After all, there is a similarity between the following:

  • my daughters


  • lovely daughters

However, the fact that my and lovely both occur before the noun daughters does not mean that they are both adjectives.

Adjectives are often said to be describing words: they ascribe a property to the noun that they accompany ('being lovely'). By contrast, words like my, his, her, etc. have a 'specifying' or 'identifying' function. They belong to the class of determiners, along with a, the, this, that, those, etc. Compare the following:

  • a cat


  • the cat

If you and I are talking, and I use the former phrase then I'm talking about a cat that is not known to you: it has as yet not been identified. The property of not being identifiable is called 'indefiniteness'. Conversely, the property of being identifiable is called 'definiteness'. So, when I use the phrase the cat in a conversation with you then you are familiar with (or I'm assuming that you are familiar with) the particular cat I'm talking about: it is an identifiable cat. Similarly, when I use the phrase my daughters then the individuals I'm talking about are identifiable to you.

Adjectives are grammatically different from determiners: typically they have comparative and superlative forms: lovely, lovelier, loveliest, and they are often gradable: very lovely. However, determiners cannot be modified in this way. We can't say my-er, my-est or very my.

possessive pronoun

See: pronoun.


A Modifier which comes after the Head word in a phrase, for example with curly hair in the noun phrase the boy with curly hair.


A strategy for information structuring involving moving an element (typically a long noun phrase) to a later point in a clause than its expected position. For example, a short Direct Object normally comes immediately after the verb, as in I wrote the date in my diary, but a long Direct Object is sometimes moved to a later position, as in I wrote in my diary all the dates I needed to remember.


The study of language use, especially the effects of context on interpretation.


A functional syntactic label which denotes all the linguistic material to the right of the Subject. See also predicative position.

Predicative Complement

A general term often used to cover the functions of Subject Complement and Object Complement within the clause.

predicative position

The position that immediately follows a linking verb. For example, in the sentence He is helpful the adjective helpful is in predicative position. See also attributive position.


A function label applied to the verb in a clause. For example, in The children fed the ducks, the verb fed has the function of Predicator. The term is therefore on par with terms like Subject and Object.


A prefix is added at the beginning of a word in order to turn it into another word.

Contrast suffix.

  • overtake, disappear

See also affix.


A Modifier which comes before the Head word in a phrase, such as the adjective trendy in the noun phrase trendy clothes.


An information structuring strategy where a grammatical element is moved earlier in the clause to highlight it. For example, instead of saying I could come on Thursday, a speaker might say On Thursday I could come, stressing the date to the hearer.


A member of a closed word class, including of and in, which grammatically link other elements together, and generally expresses relations in space, in time, or in the mind.

A preposition links a following noun, pronoun or noun phrase to some other word in the sentence. Prepositions often describe locations or directions, but can describe other things, such as relations of time.

Words like before or since can act either as prepositions or as conjunctions.

  • Tom waved goodbye to Christy.
  • She’ll be back from Australia in two weeks.
  • I haven’t seen my dog since this morning.

Contrast: I’m going, since no-one wants me here! [conjunction: links two clauses]

preposition phrase

A preposition phrase has a preposition as its Head followed by a noun, pronoun or noun phrase.

  • He was in bed.
  • I met them after the party.

On the Englicious site we generally use the term prepositional phrase, by which we mean the same as preposition phrase.

prepositional Object

See Object.

prepositional phrase

Another term for preposition phrase.

prepositional verb

A verb that takes a preposition phrase as its Complement, e.g. rely on something, look at something, etc.


A prescriptive approach to language tells people how they should speak and write. It contrasts with a descriptive approach, which aims to describe how people actually do use language.

present participle

See participle.

present perfect

A verb construction conveying that the action described by the verb started in the past but is still relevant now. The English present perfect is conveyed using the auxiliary verb have in the present tense combined with a past participle.

present progressive

A verb construction conveying that the action described by the verb is ongoing in the present. The English present progressive is conveyed using the auxiliary verb be in the present tense combined with a present participle.

present tense

The present tense is a grammatical marking on verbs which often, but not always, expresses present time. (See also inflection.) E.g. the verb in She sounds tired is a present tense form (compare the past tense form in She sounded tired).

Verbs in the present tense are commonly used to:

  • talk about the present
  • talk about the future.

They may take a suffix –s (depending on the subject).

See also tense.

  • Jamal goes to the pool every day. [describes a habit that exists now]
  • He can swim. [describes a state that is true now]
  • The bus arrives at three. [scheduled now]
  • My friends are coming to play. [describes a plan in progress now]


The progressive (also known as the continuous) form of a verb generally describes events in progress. It is formed by combining the verb’s present participle (e.g. singing) with a form of the verb be (e.g. he was singing).

  • Michael is singing in the store room. [present progressive]
  • Amanda was making a patchwork quilt. [past progressive]

The progressive can also be combined with the perfect (e.g. he has been singing).

  • Usha had been practising for an hour when I called. [past perfect progressive]

The progressive construction conveys aspect, in that it indicates that a situation is viewed as an ongoing process.


A closed class of words, including he, I and you, which can generally stand in for a noun phrase.

Pronouns are normally used like nouns, except that:

  • they are grammatically more specialised
  • it is harder to modify them.

In the examples, each sentence is written twice: once with nouns, and once with pronouns (in red). Where the same thing is being talked about, the words are shown in bold.

  • Amanda waved to Michael. She waved to him.
  • John’s mother is over there. His mother is over there.
  • The visit will be an overnight visit. This will be an overnight visit.
  • Simon is the person: Simon broke it. He is the one who broke it.

Note that pronouns often occur not just in similar positions to nouns, but also in similar positions to entire noun phrases, e.g.

  • The children went to the park. ~They went to the park.

As well as personal pronouns like they and him, there are many other types of pronoun, including demonstrative pronouns (this, these, that), e.g. that is amazing!, indefinite pronouns (who, which, what, etc.) and reciprocal pronouns (each other, one another). Who and that are relative pronouns when they relate to an antecedent (e.g. That is the fox that we saw last night)

Some pronouns can change their form depending on their function. For example, in Subject position we have I, she, he, we, they, who, whereas in Object position we have me, her, him, us, them, whom. This is a distinction of case.

proper name

A noun phrase which is used to name a particular person, organisation, place, time, event, etc., such as Edward the Confessor, Winchester Cathedral, the United Kingdom, the House of Commons. It can consist of a proper noun on its own, such as Timmy, London, Oxfam.

proper noun

A special subclass of noun whose members refer to specific people, places, organisations and so on, e.g. Sarah, Liverpool, Microsoft. Other, ordinary nouns (like dog or happiness) are called common nouns. See also proper name.

pseudocleft sentence

A sentence which conforms to the following pattern: Wh-item + ... + {form of be} + Focus, as in

  • What Janice did was laugh out loud.

Compare with cleft sentence.


Punctuation includes any conventional features of writing other than spelling and general layout: the standard punctuation marks . , ; : ? ! - – ( ) “ ” ‘ ’ , and also word-spaces, capital letters, apostrophes, paragraph breaks and bullet points. One important role of punctuation is to indicate sentence boundaries.

  • “I’m_going_out,_Usha,_and_I_wont_be_long,”_Mum_said.


A label for the main use (or discourse function) of an interrogative clause. For example, Will you dance with me? is an interrogative structure which can be used as a question to elicit either a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response. Other clause types can also be used to ask questions, e.g. the declarative clause You will dance with me? This would normally be used to make a statement, but can be used as a question if it is pronounced with a rising intonation. See also clause type, command, directive, statement.

question word

A word such as who, what, why, and when used in interrogative clauses, typically to ask questions (e.g. Who called you? What did you eat for breakfast?).

Received Pronunciation

Received Pronunciation (often abbreviated to RP) is an accent which is used only by a small minority of English speakers in England. It is not associated with any one region. Because of its regional neutrality, it is the accent which is generally shown in dictionaries in the UK (but not, of course, in the USA). RP has no special status in the National Curriculum.


A semantic role which indicates the ‘receiver’ in a situation described by a sentence or clause, e.g. Kate in I sent Kate some flowers and I sent some flowers to Kate.

reciprocal pronoun

See pronoun.

referential it

The pronoun it that has referential content. E.g. Where is my coat? It is over there. See also nonreferential it.


A form of personal pronoun that includes self. The reflexive personal pronouns are: myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, oneself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves.


'Register' is a broad description of the type of sociolinguistic context of written and spoken language, similar to genre in meaning.

Classroom lessons, football commentaries and novels use different registers of the same language, recognised by differences of vocabulary and grammar. Registers are ‘varieties’ of a language which are each tied to a range of uses, in contrast with dialects, which are tied to groups of users.

  • I regret to inform you that Mr Joseph Smith has passed away. [formal letter]
  • Have you heard that Joe has died? [casual speech]
  • Joe falls down and dies, centre stage. [stage direction]

'Register' is frequently used to refer to the degree of formality/informality of a text (a property arising out of the situation), whereas genre tends to have a more traditional 'library classification' meaning (e.g. instructional/informative, fiction/non-fiction).

relational verb

A category of verb based on meaning. Relational verbs denote the relation between two things, such as was and has.

relative clause

A relative clause is a special type of subordinate clause that modifies a noun. It often does this by using a relative pronoun such as who or that to refer back to that noun, though the relative pronoun that is often omitted.

A relative clause may also be attached to a clause. In that case, the pronoun refers back to the whole clause, rather than referring back to a noun.

In the examples, the relative clauses are in red, and both the pronouns and the words they refer back to are in bold.

  • That’s the boy who lives near school. [who refers back to boy]
  • The prize that I won was a book. [that refers back to prize]
  • The prize I won was a book. [the pronoun that is omitted]
  • Tom broke the game, which annoyed Ali. [which refers back to the whole clause]
Note that in the first three examples above the relative clause is part of a noun phrase: the boy who lives near school; the prize that I won; the prize I won.

relative pronoun

A pronoun which is used at the start of a relative clause, e.g. who, which, that (the girl who won the race, the necklace which/that I found).

root word

Root words are words that can stand alone, unlike prefixes and suffixes, which cannot stand alone.

Morphology breaks words down into root words, which can stand alone, and suffixes or prefixes which can’t. For example, help is the root word for other words in its word family such as helpful and helpless, and also for its inflections such as helping. Compound words (e.g. help-desk) contain two or more root words. When looking in a dictionary, we sometimes have to look for the root word (or words) of the word we are interested in.

  • played [the root word is play]
  • unfair [the root word is fair]
  • football [the root words are foot and ball]


The name of a vowel sound that is found only in unstressed positions in English. It is the most common vowel sound in English.

It is written as /ə/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet. In the English writing system, it can be written in many different ways.

  • /əlɒŋ/ [along]
  • /bʌtə/ [butter]
  • /dɒktə/ [doctor]

semantic role

The participant role which an element plays in the situation described by a sentence or clause, such as agent or recipient. These roles concern meaning and are distinct from grammatical functions such as Subject. For example, Tom plays the role of agent in both Tom painted the fence and The fence was painted by Tom.


The study of meaning. It covers the meanings of words and their combinations into larger units (phrases, clauses and sentences).


The sentence is the largest unit of grammar, which in the written language begins with a capital letter and ends with a full stop.

A sentence is a group of words which are grammatically connected to each other but not to any words outside the sentence.

The form of a sentence’s main clause shows whether it is being used as a statement, a question, a command or an exclamation.

A sentence may consist of a single clause or it may contain several clauses held together by subordination or co-ordination. Classifying a sentence as a simple sentence, complex sentence or compound sentence can be confusing, because a ‘simple’ sentence may be complicated, and a ‘complex’ one may be straightforward. The terms single-clause sentence and multi-clause sentence may be more helpful.

  • John went to his friend’s house. He stayed there till tea-time.
  • John went to his friend’s house, he stayed there till tea-time. [comma splice]
    • This is a ‘comma splice’, a common error in which a comma is used where either a full stop or a semi-colon is needed to indicate the lack of any grammatical connection between the two clauses.
  • You are my friend. [statement]
  • Are you my friend? [question]
  • Be my friend! [command]
  • What a good friend you are! [exclamation]
  • Ali went home on his bike to his goldfish and his current library book about pets. [single-clause sentence]
  • She went shopping but took back everything she had bought because she didn’t like any of it. [multi-clause sentence]

See also clause type, command, exclamation, question, statement.

simple past

The basic presentation of the past tense verb, with no auxiliary verbs expressing aspect (i.e. progressive or perfect).

simple present

The basic presentation of the present tense verb, with no auxiliary verbs expressing aspect (i.e. progressive or perfect).

simple sentence

A sentence containing only one main clause, with no subordinate clauses inside it, e.g. Kate visited her cousins yesterday. It may also be referred to as a single-clause sentence. This terminology is preferred in the National Curriculum.

single-clause sentence

The term preferred in the National Curriculum for a sentence consisting of a single clause. Also called simple sentence. For example, in He went to school on the bus, there is only one main verb (went) and therefore one clause. By contrast, a multi-clause sentence contains more than one clause.


A term describing a form of a noun or pronoun which refers to a single person or thing. Singular and plural are contrasting values of number. For example, banana is a singular form which contrasts with the plural form bananas.

speech verb

A category of verb based on meaning. Speech verbs denote ways of speaking, such as whispered, muttered, shouted and argue.

split digraph

See digraph.

Standard English

Standard English can be recognised by the use of a very small range of forms such as those books, I did it and I wasn’t doing anything (rather than their non-Standard equivalents); it is not limited to any particular accent. It is the variety of English which is used, with only minor variation, as a major world language. Some people use Standard English all the time, in all situations from the most casual to the most formal, so it covers most registers. The aim of the national curriculum is that everyone should be able to use Standard English as needed in writing and in relatively formal speaking.

  • I did it because they were not willing to undertake any more work on those houses. [formal Standard English]
  • I did it cos they wouldn’t do any more work on those houses. [casual Standard English]
  • I done it cos they wouldn’t do no more work on them houses. [casual non-Standard English]

Note that standards change, and that Standard English in Shakespeare's time, or in Dickens's time, was different from Standard English today. Likewise, Standard English in 200 years will be different from Standard English now.

Likewise, standards vary around the world. American English and British English do have some significant differences, such that what is standard in America may be non-standard in the UK.


A label for the main use (or discourse function) of a declarative clause. For example, We danced all night is a declarative sentence which would typically be used as a statement. However, statements can also be used in different ways. For example, the following is an example of a sentence that has the structure of a statement, but is used as a question: You like fried bananas?. See also clause type, command, directive, question.


A syllable is stressed if it is pronounced more forcefully than the syllables next to it. The other syllables are unstressed.

  • about
  • visit

The emphasis that a speaker places on a word or syllable of a word makes the word or syllable louder, higher, and/or longer than other words or syllables. Words have characteristic stress patterns: for example, tiger is stressed on the first syllable while about is stressed on the second syllable.


The Subject of a verb is normally the noun, noun phrase or pronoun that names the ‘do-er’ or ‘be-er’. The Subject’s normal position is:

  • just before the verb in a statement
  • just after the auxiliary verb, in a question.

Unlike the verb’s Object and Complement, the Subject can determine the form of the verb (e.g. I am, you are).

  • Rula’s mother went out.
  • That is uncertain.
  • The children will study the animals.
  • Will the children study the animals?

'Subject' is a function label for an element in the clause which often identifies the agent that carries out the action expressed by the main verb. However, not all Subjects denote agents (e.g. in Linda felt tired, Linda is not really a 'do-er' - she is not carrying out an action), so the Subject is better defined in terms of grammatical properties. These include its typical position in the clause, and the way it shows agreement with the verb in person and number.

Subject Complement

A function label for an element in the clause which comes after a linking verb and describes a person or thing picked out by the Subject. E.g. This soup is delicious; Sarah is a good swimmer. See also Complement, Object Complement.

Subject-verb inversion

A special ordering where a verb comes before the Subject instead of after it. For example, in the interrogative clause Have you told her?, the auxiliary verb have occurs before the Subject you.

subjective case

See nominative case.


In some languages, the inflections of a verb include a large range of special forms which are used typically in subordinate clauses, and are called 'subjunctives'. English has very few such forms and those it has tend to be used in rather formal styles.

  • The school requires that all pupils be honest.
  • The school rules demand that pupils not enter the gym at lunchtime.
  • If Zoë were the class president, things would be much better.

Subjunctive verbs are triggered by adjectives such as necessary, imperative, crucial, or by verbs such as demand, require, insist, etc. When the subjunctive verb has a third person singular subject, it does not take the -s inflection.

  • I insist that he leave at once.
  • We stipulated that she take a French course.

Many grammarians now take the view that English does not have a subjunctive mood.


See subordination.

subordinate clause

A clause which is subordinate to some other part of the same sentence is a subordinate clause; for example, in The apple that I ate was sour, the clause that I ate is subordinate to apple (which it modifies).

  • That’s the street where Ben lives. [relative clause; modifies street]
  • He watched her as she disappeared. [Adverbial; modifies watched]
  • What you said was very nice. [acts as Subject of was]
  • She noticed an hour had passed. [acts as Object of noticed]

Subordinate clauses contrast with coordinate clauses as in It was sour but looked very tasty. (Contrast: main clause)

However, clauses that are directly quoted as direct speech are not subordinate clauses.

  • Not subordinate: He shouted, “Look out!”

A subordinate clause does not function as a sentence on its own but functions instead as part of a larger clause. For example, in the sentence I believe that we will have a hot summer the clause that we will have a hot summer is a subordinate clause functioning as part of the larger main clause: it is the Direct Object of the verb believe.

subordinating conjunction

A word that links a subordinate clause with the clause it is dependent on, e.g. that, because, when, although, if. Also called subordinator.


The relationship between two elements of unequal grammatical status, often linked by a subordinate conjunction.

A subordinate word or phrase tells us more about the meaning of the word it is subordinate to. Subordination can be thought of as an unequal relationship between a subordinate word and a main word. For example:

  • an adjective is subordinate to the noun it modifies
  • Subjects and Objects are subordinate to their verbs.
  • big dogs [big is subordinate to dogs]
  • Big dogs need long walks. [big dogs and long walks are subordinate to need]
  • We can watch TV when we’ve finished. [when we’ve finished is subordinate to watch]

Subordination is much more common than the equal relationship of coordination.

See also subordinate clause.


Another term for subordinating conjunction: a word that links a subordinate clause with the clause it is dependent on, e.g. because, when, although, that, if. When a subordinator is left out, but could be inserted, we speak of a zero subordinator, e.g. I thought ø you had left, where ‘ø’ indicates the zero subordinator.


A suffix is an ‘ending’, used at the end of one word to turn it into another word. Unlike root words, suffixes cannot stand on their own as a complete word.

Contrast prefix.

  • callcalled
  • teachteacher [turns a verb into a noun]
  • terrorterrorise [turns a noun into a verb]
  • greengreenish [leaves word class unchanged]

See also affix.


The form of adjectives (and some adverbs) that ends in -est (e.g. quietest, fastest). Sometimes a periphrastic form is used, e.g. most competent (rather than *competentest). See also comparative.


A syllable sounds like a beat in a word. Syllables consist of at least one vowel, and possibly one or more consonants.

  • Cat has one syllable.
  • Fairy has two syllables.
  • Hippopotamus has five syllables.


Two words are synonyms if they have the same meaning, or similar meanings. Contrast antonym.

  • talkspeak
  • oldelderly

syntactic distribution

This term refers to the arrangement of words and other units of language in clauses and phrases and the relationships that obtain between them.


The study of sentence structure. It concerns how words combine to form larger units: phrases, clauses and ultimately sentences.

tag question

A short question added to the end of a clause, such as did he? or wasn’t there?. These short additional interrogative clauses are usually incomplete and refer back to the main clause of the sentence, as in ...there was a large picture of your mother's mother wasn't there?[S1A-007 #167]. Tag questions are common in conversational speech, frequently used to seek agreement.


Tense is a grammatical notion, and refers to the way that time is encoded in language, typically through verb endings (inflections).

In English, tense is the choice between present tense and past tense verbs, which is special because it is signalled by inflections and normally indicates differences of time. In contrast, languages like French, Spanish and Italian have three or more distinct tense forms, including a future tense. (See also: future.)

The simple tenses (present and past) may be combined in English with the perfect and progressive.

  • He studies. [present tense – present time]
  • He studied yesterday. [past tense – past time]
  • He studies tomorrow, or else! [present tense – future time]
  • He may study tomorrow. [present tense + infinitive – future time]
  • He plans to study tomorrow. [present tense + infinitive – future time]
  • If he studied tomorrow, he’d see the difference! [past tense – imagined future]

Contrast three distinct tense forms in Spanish:

  • Estudia. [present tense]
  • Estudió. [past tense]
  • Estudiará. [future tense]

text grammar

The grammar of how sentences relate to each other, rather than how a clause's internal elements relate to each other.


A text-world is a mental image that is triggered by language and fleshed out by a reader's own background knowledge. For example, in the sentence the black dog looked menacingly at the nervous postman, a text-world is constructed out of nouns (dog, postman) and Modifiers in the form of adjectives (black, nervous) and adverbs (menacingly).

My knowledge of the world (in this instance of dogs and postmen) fleshes out the detail - although there is nothing in the text that states it, I imagine the dog to be big and snarling, and the postman to be wearing a uniform and carrying a large bag.

Thinking about language like this allows us to appreciate that the way we interpret texts is a result of two things: (1) the text itself, and (2) our own, unique personal experiences, memories and background knowledge.

thought verb

A category of verb based on meaning. Thought verbs denote thoughts, perceptions, feelings and other states of cognition, such as dreaming, wondered, consider and desired.


The displacement of a phrase to a clause-initial position for emphasis or prominence, as in Films, I enjoy (in contrast with the more typical ordering seen in I enjoy films). See also fronting, constituency test.

transitive preposition

A preposition that takes a noun phrase or clause as its Complement, as in since the war (began). See also intransitive preposition.

transitive verb

A transitive verb takes at least one Object in a sentence to complete its meaning, in contrast to an intransitive verb, which does not.

  • He loves Juliet.
  • She understands English grammar.

tree (diagram)

A graphical representation of the structure of sentences, clauses, phrases, etc.


A type of grapheme where three letters represent one phoneme.

  • High /haɪ/
  • pure /pjʊə/
  • patch /pætʃ/
  • hedge /hɛdʒ/

uncountable noun

See countable noun.


See patient.


Not in conformity with the rules of a particular language. More specifically, this refers to words or strings of words which are not part of a language from the point of view of their syntax or morphology. For example, while Lily was eating a pretzel is a grammatical sentence in English, *Pretzel Lily a eating was is not, as indicated by the asterisk. Similarly unhappily is grammatical in English, but *lyhappyun is not.


See stress.


A term used to describe speech sounds whose production does not involve vocal fold vibration.


A term used in pragmatics that refers to a sentence (or phrase or word) used in a particular context.


Verbs constitute one of the major word classes, including words for actions (e.g. shout, work, travel) and states (e.g. be, belong, remain). There are two main types of verb: main verbs and auxiliary verbs.

The surest way to identify verbs is by the ways they can be used: they can usually have a tense, either present tense or past tense (see also future).

  • He lives in Birmingham. [present tense]
  • The teacher wrote a song for the class. [past tense]

Verbs are sometimes called ‘doing words’ because many verbs name an action that someone does; while this can be a way of recognising verbs, it doesn’t distinguish verbs from nouns (which can also name actions). Moreover many verbs name states or feelings rather than actions.

  • He likes chocolate. [present tense; not an action]
  • He knew my father. [past tense; not an action]

Not verbs:

  • The walk to Halina’s house will take an hour. [noun]
  • All that surfing makes Morwenna so sleepy! [noun]

Verbs can be classified in various ways: for example, as auxiliary verbs, or modal verbs; as transitive verbs or intransitive verbs; and as states or events.

Irregular verbs form their past tense typically by a change of vowel (e.g. break-broke, see-saw, eat-ate). Be aware that in the National Curriculum a sequence of one or more auxiliaries together with a main verb are regarded as forms of the main verb. For example, have eaten is a form (the perfect form) of the verb eat, and will have been being seen is a form of the verb see. In other frameworks such sequences are regarded as verb phrases.

verb form

The forms a verb can take. For example, for be we have am, are, is, was, being, been; for walk we have walks, walked, walking, and for see we have sees, saw, seeing, and seen.

The National Curriculum also uses this term to include tense and aspect. In this sense there are six different ‘tense’ forms of a verb: the simple present tense and past tense forms, plus the present and past forms of the progressive and perfect.

  • He lives in Birmingham. [simple present]
  • He lived in Birmingham. [simple past]
  • He is living in Birmingham. [present progressive]
  • He was living in Birmingham. [past progressive]
  • He has lived in Birmingham. [present perfect]
  • He had lived in Birmingham. [past perfect]

verb phrase

In grammar studies the term verb phrase (VP) has been defined in different ways. On the Englicious website we mainly use the first definition.

1. A verb phrase is a phrase in which a lexical verb functions as the Head. The Head can occur alone or together with one or more auxiliary verbs:

  • They [teach] graphic novels in our university.
  • They [will teach] graphic novels in our university next year.
  • They [will be teaching] graphic novels in our university next year.
  • In this conception of verb phrase the direct object and possible adjuncts are not included in the VP.

    Note: The label 'verb phrase' is not used in the National Curriculum. The National Curriculum defines a clause as "a special type of phrase whose Head is a verb".

    2. A verb phrase is a phrase in which a lexical verb functions as the Head; it can also contain elements other than verbs. In the sentence below the verb phrase comprises only the intransitive verb blush:

  • He always [blushes], when he sees me.
  • But in the next two sentences the VP consists of a verb and a following noun phrase taken together:

  • They just [want a cup tea].
  • She [had a really good time].
  • In these sentences the NPs function as Direct Object.

    In addition to an Object a verb phrase may also contain an Adverbial:

  • We [left school at five].
  • See also clause.

    vocal articulators

    The parts of the body used in making speech sounds - lips, tongue, teeth, larynx, roof of the mouth, and the vocal cords.

    vocal tract

    The area of the mouth above the larynx, including the vocal articulators (lips, tongue, teeth, etc.). It changes shape due to the way that vocal articulators move around, which in turn affects speech sounds.


    English has two voices: active and passive. It's easiest to see the difference in sentences with action verbs, for instance Anna threw the ball (active) versus The ball was thrown by Anna (passive). In the active example, the Subject (Anna) is the agent of the action and the Direct Object (the ball) is the patient, while in the passive the patient becomes the Subject. The passive is formed with the auxiliary verb be followed by a verb in the -ed participle form.


    A term used to describe speech sounds whose production involves vocal fold vibration.


    A vowel is a speech sound which is produced without any closure or obstruction of the vocal tract.

    Vowels can form syllables by themselves, or they may combine with consonants.

    In the English writing system, the letters a, e, i, o, u and y can represent vowels.

    The term 'vowel' is used in two ways: first, for a sound which is made with the mouth fairly open and which forms the central part of a syllable; and second, for a letter which is used to write a vowel sound, e.g. a, e, i, o, u. See also the contrasting term consonant.


    A term used by linguists to denote the displacement of a phrase that contains an element that begins with the letters wh. For example, in Which film did you see? the wh-phrase which film has been moved from a position immediately following the verb to the beginning of the sentence.


    A word is a unit of grammar: it can be selected and moved around relatively independently, but cannot easily be split. In punctuation, words are normally separated by word spaces. Sometimes, a sequence that appears grammatically to be two words is collapsed into a single written word, indicated with a hyphen or apostrophe (e.g. well-built, he’s).

    • headteacher or head teacher [can be written with or without a space]
    • I’m going out.
    • 9.30 am

    word class

    Every word belongs to a word class which summarises the ways in which it can be used in grammar. The major word classes for English are: noun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, determiner, pronoun, conjunction. Word classes are sometimes called parts of speech.

    A word class is a group of words which show similar grammatical behaviour. For example, words which belong to the class of nouns occur as the Heads of noun phrases, can be preceded by determiners, and so on.

    word family

    The words in a word family are normally related to each other by a combination of morphology, grammar and meaning.

    • teachteacher
    • extendextentextensive
    • grammargrammaticalgrammarian

    yes-no interrogative

    A term used by linguists to refer to an interrogative clause that elicits either a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ response. For example, Are you cold?, Would you like something to drink? See also yes-no question.

    yes-no question

    A term used in pragmatics that refers to an utterance that can be interpreted as eliciting a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ response. Typically, such an utterance would grammatically be a yes-no interrogative, but it need not be, as in the following example: She never went to San Francisco? Grammatically this is a declarative clause, but pragmatically it has the force of a yes-no question.
    Englicious (C) Survey of English Usage, UCL, 2012-21 | Supported by the AHRC and EPSRC. | Privacy | Cookies