Category Archives: Grammar Basics

Grammar Basics: Conjunctions

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Conjunctions are words that join clauses together and thus have the capacity to create complex sentences.

There are two types of conjunction. A coordinator joins clauses in a way that gives them equal grammatical status. The main coordinators are and, but and or, and they allow us to turn a simple sentence like William likes pears into a complex sentence such as William likes pears, but he doesn’t like apples. The two clauses have equal grammatical status, because William likes pears and he doesn’t like apples can stand on their own, and still make sense. Or can be used with either to create alternatives, and neither . . . nor can be used to create negative alternatives. Coordinators can also join words together to make phrases: bacon and eggs, naughty but nice, trick or treat.

A subordinator introduces a dependent clause, that is, one that can’t stand on its own and make sense. We might, for example, say William likes pears when they are ripe and juicy, where when introduces a dependent clause. The first part, William likes pears, as we have seen, can stand on its own, but when they are ripe and juicy doesn’t make much sense without the first part of the sentence.

Coordinators and subordinators are unassuming words, but we couldn’t manage without them. They derive from words that once had lexical meaning. But, for example, is from Old English be-utan, which meant ‘on the outside’. As such, they support the argument that all language is metaphor, in that all words once related to tangible things in the world and temporal and spatial relations between them.

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Grammar Basics: Prepositions

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Prepositions have the semantic feature that they allow us to locate nouns in time and space. In, on and towards all do this in the phrases in the cupboard, on the next day, towards the end.

Morphologically, they are generally short, often consisting of just two letters: in, to, of, at

Syntactically, they normally precede rather than follow nouns. I’m going to bed, and not *I’m going bed to. They can, however, occur at the end of a relative clause: The girl I gave my heart to.

Most linguists recognise complex prepositions, which consist of more than one word, such as because of, according to and as far as. However, as the ‘Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English’ recognises

. . .  there are borderline cases with complex prepositions. It is not always clear whether a multi-word combination is a complex preposition-that is, a fixed expression with a special meaning-or a free combination of preposition ( + article) + noun + preposition. At the expense of is an example of an in-between case.

I say ‘most linguists recognise complex prepositions’ because Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum, the authors of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’, don’t. They analyse by means of, for example, not as a complex preposition, but as a preposition, by, followed by a Noun Phrase, means of. They point out that ‘if by means of were really a single preposition, we wouldn’t expect to be able to insert similar after the first part of it and drop the last part to get by similar means.’

Huddleston and Pullum also ‘extend the membership of the preposition class beyond the words that traditional grammar calls prepositions’ because they ‘see no justification for restricting it to words that have Noun Phrase complements’. They argue that both before and  know can have as their complements a Noun Phrase or a subordinate clause, or can have no complement at all, but where traditional grammar regards know as a verb in all three cases, it regards before as a preposition in the first, a subordinating conjunction in the second and as an adverb in the third. They ‘see this triple assignment as an unnecessary complication. It is much simpler to give before a uniform analysis, treating it as a preposition in all three, just as know is a verb in all three’.

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Grammar Basics: Pronouns

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Like the determiners, pronouns are short and relatively few. The personal pronouns are I, you, he, she, it, we, they. That is the form they take when they are the subject of a clause, that is, when they initiate whatever meaning is described in the verb. When they are on the receiving end of the verb, and form the object of a clause, or when they are the complement of a preposition, they take the forms me, you, him, her, it, us, them.

Personal pronouns are among the few reminders that English was once a fully inflected language, that is, one in which the role of the words in a sentence was shown by their endings rather than by the order in which they were placed. In Standard English today we still have to say I hit the ball and not *Me hit the ball and we have to say The ball hit me and not *The ball hit I. It would still be possible to extract the sense if we changed the word order in the second and third of those sentences. Though both ungrammatical in normal prose *Hit I the ball still tells who does the hitting and *The ball me hit still tells us who was hit.

Related to the personal pronouns are the possessive determiners my, your, his, her, its, our and their. In English, the gender of the third person singular possessive determiner is normally determined by the sex of the person it refers to. His house tell us that the owner is male, her house tells us that the owner is female. In French, by contrast, the gender is determined by the grammatical gender of the following noun. In French, it’s always sa maison, regardless of whose maison it is because maison is grammatically feminine. French thus avoids a problem which gives much anxiety to some English speakers. Take the sentence Until the water level has gone down, no-one must leave his house. His? Doesn’t the instruction apply to women as well then? Well, yes, it does. How do we express the fact? English doesn’t have a gender neutral third person singular possessive determiner, does it? Oh, but it does. We can say, and many people do say, Until the water level has gone down, no-one must leave their house. Their and the other forms they, them, their and themselves do double duty. They can be used with both singular and plural referents.

Possessive determiners are not pronouns in themselves, unlike mine, your, his, hers, ours and theirs which are  possessive pronouns. They replace nouns in clauses like This is mine and That is yours. There is no possessive pronoun its, because we never need to use it. We don’t say, for example, of a house *This door is its in the way that we might say This house is mine.

Finally among the forms of the personal pronouns are the reflexives: myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves, yourselves and themselves. These are used to reflect the action of the verb back onto the subject, as in They washed themselves. They are also used for emphasis, as in I did it myself, meaning that I and no one else did it. There is also a tendency for the reflexive pronouns to replace personal pronouns in some contexts. We might hear, for example, They’ve invited John and myself instead of They’ve invited John and me.

There is no space in this post to discuss the use of all the other pronouns in English, but they include:

the demonstrative pronouns: this, that, these, those

the indefinite pronouns such as everybody, something, anyone, anything, nothing.

the quantifying pronouns: some, both, each, either, neither, all, many, enough, any, much, several, none, little, few

the relative pronouns: who, whom, which, whose, that (although, it has to be said, not all grammarians regard that as a relative pronoun)

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Grammar Basics: Auxiliary Verbs

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Lexical verbs express meaning in a sentence. Auxiliary verbs, on the other hand, tell us more about the lexical verb they accompany. They’re of two kinds, primary and modal.

The primary auxiliary verbs are be, have and do. Each of these can function as a main verb as well, as in I am happy, They have too much money, and I did modern languages at university. In their auxiliary role, be and have allow speakers to express further types of aspect in addition to those which can be expressed in the present tense and past tense. Do allows speakers to form questions and negatives and to add emphasis.

Here are some examples. I have walked is an instance of a perfect construction. It describes a past event that has current relevance, or one that arises from an earlier event. I am walking is an instance of the progressive aspect and describes an event that is happening now. Do you walk? asks a question. I don’t walk makes a negative statement and I do walk  emphasises what we’re saying.

The core modal auxiliary verbs are can, could, may, might, will, would, shall, should and must. They can be used, among other things, to express degrees of likelihood, known as epistemic modality and degrees of permission, obligation and necessity, known as deontic modality.

Modal verbs have several characteristics. They are invariable; they are always followed by the bare infinitive of the main verb, that is, by the base form of the verb without the particle to; in negative sentences they precede the negative particle not; and they form questions to which the answer is ‘yes’ or ‘no’ by inversion, and not by using the primary auxiliary do.

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Grammar Basics: Determiners

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The word classes covered so far in this series have been lexical words: nouns (1 and 2), lexical verbs, adjectives and adverbs. The remainder are function words, those that, very broadly, establish relationships between the lexical words. The main ones are determiners, auxiliary verbs, pronouns, adverbial particles, subordinators and coordinators.

First, the determiners. Like other function words, they do not lend themselves to the same morphological, syntactic and semantic classification as lexical words. To quote the ‘Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English’:

. . . determiners are function words used to specify the kind of reference a noun has.

For David Crystal in the ‘Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language’, a determiner is:

. . . an item that co-occurs with a noun to express such meanings as number or quantity.

They also express possession, where something is, and, in the case of the articles, whether something is definite or indefinite, that is to say, whether we know which item is being referred to. They are placed before nouns, and more than one may be used at a time, as in all those books.

Determiners are short, and relatively few in number, so few, in fact, that we can list almost all of them. They include:

  • the definite and indefinite articles, the, a,an
  • this, that and their plurals these, those
  • determiners that indicate possession or attribution: my, your, his, her, its, our, their
  • those that indicate quantity: every, each, all, many,  some, few, enough, several, both, any, no, half, twice, double
  • those that indicate number: one, two, three and so on

The definite and indefinite articles require particular attention by foreign learners whose native languages do not have them. The choice between them depends on a number of variables, including whether the noun is singular or plural, countable or non-countable, mentioned for the first time, and describes something known to both speaker (or writer) and listener (or reader).

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Grammar Basics: Adjectives and Adverbs

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The semantic characteristic of adjectives is that they modify nouns, that is, they give us more information about the nouns they occur with. Examples are good, large, wonderful, notorious and long.

Their morphological characteristic is that most of them, but not all, can form comparatives and superlatives. From short, we can make shorter and the shortest. Very generally, this applies to adjectives of one syllable. The comparative and superlative of longer adjectives are formed by placing more and the most in front of them. The comparatives and superlatives of a few adjectives are irregular, such as good, better and the best.

Syntactically, adjectives can occur in front of a noun, as in a warm day, when they are described as attributive. They can also occur after verb, as in the day was warm, when they are known as predicative.


As adjectives modify nouns, so one function of adverbs is to modify verbs. They add detail to whatever it is the verb is describing, in terms of manner (elegantly), place (there), time (yesterday), degree (intensely) and frequency (occasionally).

It is often possible to recognise adverbs morphologically by the ending –ly, as in slowly, necessarily and finally. Other adverbs, such as tomorrow, soon, and well give us no such clue. Syntactically, an adverb can occur at the beginning or end of a clause, or in the middle, depending on the kind of adverb it is.

‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’ divides adverbs into the following four groups:

Adjuncts are adverbs that modify verbs, as described above.

Subjuncts modify adjectives and other adverbs in ways that either soften or intensify the words they modify. Among the former are fairly, rather and somewhat, and among the latter are extremely, most and so.

Disjuncts tell us something about what the speaker or writer thinks about the content of an entire sentence. They include adverbs such maybe, possibly, probably and surely that indicate the likelihood of something happening, and those, such as fortunately, mercifully, regrettably and worryingly that express an attitude towards the event described.

Conjuncts are adverbs like also, however, therefore, and thus which express logical relationships between sentences, such as addition, contrast and causation.

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Grammar Basics: Lexical Verbs

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Main Features

Just as there are different kinds of noun, so there are different kinds of verb. The broad distinction is between lexical verbs and auxiliary verbs. This post considers the first of the two. Lexical verbs are those verbs that have traditionally been taught as ‘doing’ words. That’s fine as far as it goes, but a moment’s reflection shows the limitations of such an approach. What ‘actions’ do think, seem or exist describe? We could extend the definition by saying that verbs can describe a state or a condition as well as an action but, as with nouns, we need to consider the morphological and syntactical roles as well as the semantic one.

Most verbs come in different forms. Walk, as we have seen earlier, can occur as walk, walks, walking and walked. A word that can take all of those forms is undeniably a verb. Walk is a regular verb, but the verbs we use most tend to be irregular verbs, that is to say, we cannot predict their various forms without first learning them. There is an historical reason why sang and not singed is the past tense of sing and why drank and not drinked is the past tense of drink, but there is no rule that tells us that’s what it is.

We can also identify a word as a verb from the role it plays in a sentence. A typical sentence will often consist of a Noun Phrase (NP) and a Verb Phrase (VP). A NP has a noun as its head, that is, the main (and sometimes only) component. A VP is what is left and it has a verb as its head (and it, too, may be the only component). Within the VP we can recognize the verb by looking for a word that has the semantic and morphological features just described.

Finite and Non-finite

As with nouns, we can make further distinctions between verbs. Firstly, a verb can be finite or non-finite. Finite forms of the verb are those from which we can deduce answers to questions such as ‘Who?’ and ‘When?’ This means they are those forms that can show agreement with a preceding noun or pronoun, and which can tell us through their forms the time when whatever the verb is describing takes place.

Non-finite forms of the verb give no such indications. They comprise the –ing form, also known as the present participle or gerund; the form that in regular verbs ends in -d, known as the past participle; and the form traditionally known as the infinitive. The infinitive is also known as the base form and the plain form. It has often been thought of as including the particle to, but it does not invariably do so.

Tense and Aspect

When a verb tells us through its finite form when the event described takes place we can speak of its tense. If we think of tense as a change in the finite form of the verb in this way, then English has two tenses, present and past. He walks is present tense, he walked is past tense. The present tense of regular verbs such as walk has two forms, walk and walks. It has only one past tense from, walked. It contrasts with a verb like sing, which is irregular and native speakers as well as foreign learners have to learn its past tense sang, and its past participle sung as separate words.

Tense is closely related to aspect. Aspect describes the way in which the timing of the meaning expressed by the verb is viewed. I walked expresses perfective aspect, in which the event is viewed as an unanalysable whole. Often, it is expressed not through changes in the finite form of the verb, but through the use of the verb’s ing form, or its past participle, in combination with forms of the the verb be and have. I am walking is an instance of the progressive aspect which typically indicates what the subject of the sentence is doing over a particular period of time. I have walked is an instance of the perfect aspect which typically describes a state resulting from an earlier event, and is usually relevant at the time of speaking. (Adapted from the article on Aspect in ‘Language and Linguistics: The Key Concepts’ by R L Trask.)

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