English grammarEnglish grammar is the body of rules that describe the structure of expressions in the English language. This includes the structure of words, phrases, clauses and sentences.
The grammar of a language is approached in two ways: descriptive grammar is based on analysis of text corpora and describes grammatical structures thereof, whereas prescriptive grammar attempts to use the identified rules of a given language as a tool to govern the linguistic behaviour of speakers. This article predominantly concerns itself with descriptive grammar.
There are historical, social and regional variations of English. Divergences from the grammar described here occur in some dialects of English. This article describes a generalized present-day Standard English, the form of speech found in types of public discourse including broadcasting, education, entertainment, government, and news reporting, including both formal and informal speech. There are certain differences in grammar between the standard forms of British English, American English and Australian English, although these are relatively inconspicuous compared with the lexical differences and differences in pronunciation.
Grammar is divided into morphology, which describes the formation of words, and syntax, which describes the construction of meaningful phrases, clauses, and sentences out of words.
Word classes and phrase classesEight major word classes of English are described here: noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, conjunction, and determiner. The first seven are traditionally referred to as "parts of speech". There are minor word classes, such as interjections, but these do not fit into the clause and sentence structure of English.
Nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs form open classes – word classes that readily accept new members, such as the noun celebutante (a celebrity who frequents the fashion circles), the adverb 24/7 (as in I am working on it 24/7) and similar relatively new words. The others are regarded as closed classes; it is a rare occurrence for a new pronoun, for example, to be admitted to the language.
English words are not generally marked for word class – it is not possible, as a general rule, to tell from the form of a word which class it belongs to (except, to some extent, in the case of words with inflectional endings or derivational suffixes). Some words belong to more than one word class; for example run can serve as either a verb or a noun (these are regarded as two different lexemes). Lexemes may be inflected to express different grammatical categories, as the verb run has the forms runs, ran and running. Words in one class can sometimes be derived from those in another; this can give rise to new words, for example the noun aerobics has recently given rise to the adjective aerobicized.
Words combine to form phrases which themselves can take on the attributes of a word class. These classes are called phrase classes. The phrase: "The ancient pulse of germ and birth" is a noun phrase and functions as a noun in the sentence: "The ancient pulse of germ and birth was shrunken hard and dry." (Thomas Hardy, The Darkling Thrush). Other phrase classes in English are verb phrases, adjective phrases, adverb phrases, prepositional phrases, and determiner phrases.
NounsNouns form the largest English word class. There are many common suffixes used to form nouns from other nouns or from other types of words, such as -age (as in shrinkage), -hood (as in sisterhood) and so on, although many nouns are base forms not containing any such suffix (such as cat, grass, France). Nouns are also often created by conversion of verbs or adjectives, as with the words talk and gay (a boring talk, a group of gays).
Unlike in many related languages, English nouns do not have grammatical gender (although many nouns refer specifically to male or female persons or animals, like mother, father, bull, tigress; see Gender in English). Nouns are sometimes classified semantically (by their meanings): as proper nouns and common nouns (Cyrus, China vs. frog, milk), or as concrete nouns and abstract nouns (book, laptop vs. heat, prejudice). A grammatical distinction is often made between count (countable) nouns such as clock and city, and non-count (uncountable) nouns such as milk and decor. A given noun can function in more than one class; for example, wine can be either countable or uncountable (this is a good wine, I prefer red wine).
Most nouns have singular and plural forms. In most cases the plural is formed from the singular by adding -(e)s (as in dogs, bushes), although there are also irregular forms (woman/women, medium/media, etc.), including cases where the two forms are identical (sheep, series). For details, see English plural.
Certain nouns can take plural verbs even though they are singular in form, as in The government were... (where the government is considered to refer to the people constituting the government). This is more common in British than American English. See Synesis.
English nouns are not marked for case as they are in some languages, but they have possessive forms, formed by the addition of -'s (as in John's, children's), or just an apostrophe (with no change in pronunciation) in the case of -(e)s plurals and sometimes other words ending with -s (the dogs' owners, Jesus' love). This is sometimes called the Saxon genitive. More generally, the ending can be applied to noun phrases (as in the man you saw yesterday's sister) – see below. The possessive form can be used either as a determiner (John's cat) or as a noun phrase (John's is the one next to Jane's).
Noun phrasesNoun phrases are phrases that function grammatically as nouns within sentences, for example as the subject or object of a verb. Most noun phrases have a noun as their head.
A noun phrase typically takes the following form (not all elements need be present):
- the determiner may be an article (the, a(n)) or other equivalent word, as described in the following section. In many contexts some determiner is required to complete the noun phrase.
- other pre-modifiers include adjectives and some adjective phrases (such as red, really lovely), and other nouns (such as college in college student). Adjectival modifiers usually come before modifiers that are nouns.
- the complement or post-modifier, if present, may be a prepositional phrase (...of London), a relative clause (like ...which we saw yesterday), or certain adjective or participial phrases (...sitting on the beach).
Conjunctions such as and, or and but can be used at various levels in noun phrases, as in John, Paul and Mary; the matching green coat and hat; a dangerous but exciting ride; a person sitting down or standing up.
Noun phrases can also be placed in apposition (where two consecutive phrases refer to the same thing), as in that president, Abraham Lincoln,... (where that president and Abraham Lincoln are in apposition). In some contexts the same can be expressed by a prepositional phrase, as in the twin curses of famine and pestilence (meaning "the twin curses" which are "famine and pestilence").
Particular forms of noun phrases include:
- phrases formed by the determiner the with an adjective, as in the homeless, the English (these are plural phrases referring to homeless people or English people in general);
- phrases with a pronoun rather than a noun as the head (see below);
- phrases consisting just of a possessive (see the paragraph above on Saxon genitives).
Determiners are used in the formation of noun phrases (see above). Many words that serve as determiners can also be used as pronouns (this, that, many, etc.)
Determiners can be used in certain combinations, such as all the water, the many problems, etc.
PronounsPronouns are a small class of words which function as noun phrases. They include personal pronouns, demonstrative pronouns and relative pronouns. Many words and phrases that serve as determiners (especially quantifiers), such as many, a little, etc., are also used as pronouns. Sometimes the pronoun form is different, as with none (cf. determiner no), nothing, everyone, somebody, etc.
1st pers. sing.
2nd pers. sing./pl.
3rd pers. sing.
she, he, it
her, him, it
herself, himself, itself
her, his, its
hers, his, (rare: its)
1st pers. sing.
3rd pers. sing.
The third-person singular forms are differentiated according to the sex of the referent: she etc. are used to refer to a female person, sometimes a female animal, and sometimes an object to which female characteristics are attributed, such as a ship or a country. A male person, and sometimes a male animal, is referred to using he etc. In other cases it etc. are used.
The third-person plural forms they etc. are sometimes used with singular reference, as a gender-neutral pronoun, as in each employee should ensure they tidy their desk. This usage is sometimes considered ungrammatical.
The possessive deteminers (my etc.) are used as determiners to form noun phrases, as in my old man, some of his friends. The second possessive forms (mine etc.) are used when they do not qualify a noun: as pronouns, as in mine is bigger than yours, and as predicates, as in this one is mine. Note also the construction a friend of mine (meaning "someone who is my friend").
Demonstrative pronounsThe demonstrative pronouns of English are this (plural these), and that (plural those), as in these are good, I like that. Note that all four words can also be used as determiners (followed by a noun), as in those cars.
Relative pronounsThe main relative pronouns in English are that, which, who, whom and whose.
The first of these, that, can refer to either persons or things, is normally restricted to restrictive relative clauses, and cannot follow a preposition. For example, the song that I listened to yesterday, but the song to which (not *to that) I listened yesterday. The relative pronoun that is usually pronounced with a reduced vowel (schwa), and hence differently from the demonstrative that (see Weak and strong forms in English). If that is not the subject of the relative clause, it can be omitted (the song I listened to yesterday).
The relative pronoun which refers to things rather than persons, as in the shirt, which used to be red, is faded. For persons, who is used (the man who saw me was tall). The oblique case form of who is whom, as in the man whom I saw was tall, although in less formal registers who is commonly used in place of whom.
The possessive form of who is whose (the man whose car is missing...); however the use of whose is not restricted to persons (one can say an idea whose time has come).
For more detail on the use of these pronouns, see English relative clauses.
Quite a large number of verbs have irregular past tenses and/or past participles (sing–sang–sung, show–showed–shown, catch–caught–caught). The verbs have and do also have irregular forms for the third-person singular present tense (has, does [dʌz]). The verb be has the largest number of irregular forms (am, is, are in the present tense, was, were in the past tense, been for the past participle). See English irregular verbs.
Apart from lexical verbs, which constitute the vast majority, there is also a set of auxiliary verbs. These add information to other lexical verbs, such as aspect (progressive, perfect, habitual), passive voice, clause type (interrogative, negative), and modality.
The auxiliary verbs "be" and "have" are used to form the perfect, progressive and passive constructions in English. Examples (the auxiliary is in boldface and the lexical verb is italicized):
- Aspect (progressive): "'She is breathing Granny; we've got to make her keep it up, that's all—just keep her breathing."
- Aspect (perfect): "'Yes, I want a coach,' said Maurice, and bade the coachman draw up to the stone where the poor man who had swooned was sitting."
- Passive voice: "When she was admitted into the house Beautiful, care was taken to inquire into the religious knowledge of her children."
- Clause type (interrogative): (Old joke) Boy: "Excuse me sir, How do I get to Carnegie Hall?" Man on street: "Practice, Practice, Practice."
- Clause type (negative): "The loud noise did not surprise her."
- Aspect (habitual): "We used to go there often."
- Ability: "Before the snow could melt for good, an ice storm covered the lowcountry and we learned the deeper treachery of ice."
- Certainty: "Eat your eggs in Lent and the snow will melt. That's what I say to our people when they get noisy over their cups at San Gallo ..."
- Expressing necessity: "But I should think there must be some stream somewhere about. The snow must melt; besides, these great herds of deer must drink somewhere."
- Person: "I/you/she might consider it." "He dare not go." "He need not go."
- Number: "I/we/she/they might consider it"
History of English verbsSome examples of suffixes that have been used to form verbs include "-ate" ("formulate"), "-iate" ("inebriate"), "-ify" ("electrify"), and "-ise" ("realise"). Prefixes can also be used to create new verbs. Some examples are: "un-" ("unmask"), "out-" ("outlast"), "over-" ("overtake"), and "under-" ("undervalue"). Just as nouns can be formed from verbs by conversion, the reverse is also possible:
- "so are the sons of men snared in an evil time"
- "[a national convention] nosed parliament in the very seat of its authority"
AdjectivesAccording to Carter and McCarthy, "Adjectives describe properties, qualities, and states attributed to a noun or a pronoun." As was the case with nouns and verbs, the class of adjectives cannot be identified by the forms of its constituents. However, adjectives are commonly formed by the addition of a suffix to a noun. Examples: "-al" ("habitual," "multidimensional," "visceral"), "-ful" ("blissful," "pitiful," "woeful"), "-ic" ("atomic," "gigantic," "pedantic"), "-ish" ("impish," "peckish," "youngish"), "-ous" ("fabulous," "hazardous"). As with nouns and verbs, there are exceptions: "homosexual" can be a noun, "earful" is a noun, "anesthetic" can be a noun, "brandish" is a verb. Adjectives can also be formed from other adjectives through the addition of a suffix or more commonly a prefix: weakish, implacable, disloyal, irredeemable, unforeseen. A number of adjectives are formed by adding "a" as a prefix to a verb: "adrift," "astride," "awry."
In figurative or literary language, a non-gradable adjective can sometimes be treated as gradable, especially in order to emphasize some aspect:
- "When a man's verses cannot be understood, nor a man's good wit seconded with a forward child, understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room."
- "... the bell seemed to sound more dead than it did when just before it sounded in open air."
Adjectives are usually modified by adverb phrases (adverb in boldface; adjective in italics):
- "... placing himself in a dignified and truly imposing attitude, began to draw from his mouth yard after yard of red tape ..."
- "Families did certainly come, beguiled by representations of impossibly cheap provisions, though the place was in reality very expensive, for every tradesman was a monopolist at heart."
- "... of anger frequent but generally silent, ..."
- "... during that brief time I was proud of myself, and I grew to love the heave and roll of the Ghost ..."
- "... her bosom angry at his intrusion, ..."
- "Dr. Drew is especially keen on good congregational singing."
- "Was sure that the shrill voice was that of a man—a Frenchman."
- "The longest day that ever was; so she raves, restless and impatient."
- "Few people were ever more proud of civic honours than the Thane of Fife."
- "Truly selfish genes do arise, in the sense that they reproduce themselves at a cost to the other genes in the genome."
- "Luisa Rosado: a woman proud of being a midwife"
- "No, no, I didn't really think so," returned Dora; "but I am a little tired, and it made me silly for a moment ..."
- "She was ill at ease, and looked more than usually stern and forbidding as she entered the Hales' little drawing room."
- "habitually": "... shining out of the New England reserve with which Holgrave habitually masked whatever lay near his heart."
- "pitifully": "The lamb tottered along far behind, near exhaustion, bleating pitifully."
- "impishly": "Well," and he grinned impishly, "it was one doggone good party while it lasted!"
- "homeward": "The plougman homeward plods his weary way."
- "downward": "In tumbling turning, clustering loops, straight downward falling, ..."
- "lengthwise": "2 to 3 medium carrots, peeled, halved lengthwise, and cut into 1-inch pieces."
- Adverb: "'You'd best begin, or you'll be sorry—it's raining outside."
- Adjective: "It would be possible to winter the colonies in the barn if each colony is provided with a separate outside entrance; ..."
- "quite": "Mr. Bingley was obliged to be in town the following day, and ... Mrs. Bennet was quite disconcerted."
- "too": "... like a child that, having devoured its plumcake too hastily, sits sucking its fingers, ...."
- "so": "... oh! ... would she heave one little sigh to see a bright young life so rudely blighted, ...?"
- "O error, soon conceived, Thou never comest unto a happy birth, ..."
- "Nerissa: 'superfluity comes sooner by white hairs, but competency lives longer."
- "'Least said, soonest mended!' "
- "Valrosa well deserved its name, for in that climate of perpetual summer roses blossomed everywhere."
- "'I'm afraid your appearance in the Phycological Quarterly was better deserved,' said Mrs. Arkwright, without removing her eyes from the microscope ..."
- "Who among the typical Victorians best deserved his hate?"
Adverb placementAdverbs are most usually placed at the end of a phrase. Time adverbs (yesterday, soon, habitually) are the most flexible exception. "Connecting Adverbs", such as next, then, however, may also be placed at the beginning of a clause. Other exceptions include "focusing adverbs", which can occupy a middle position for emphasis. "
- "Yet all too suddenly Rosy popped back into the conversation, ...."
- "Oddly enough, that very shudder did the business."
- "The Stoics said, perhaps shockingly for us, that a father ceases to be a father when his child dies."
- "'... it is underneath the pink slip that I wore on Wednesday with my Mechlin.'"
- "... north-by-northeast was Rich Mountain, ..."
- "They plow through a heavy fog, and Enrique sleeps soundly—too soundly."
- "Sleepily, very sleepily, you stagger to your feet and collapse into the nearest chair."
- (adjectives) "Then to the swish of waters as the sailors sluice the decks all around and under you, you fall into a really deep sleep."
- (adverbs) "'My grandma's kinda deaf and she sleeps like really heavily."
- (noun phrase): "She stayed out in the middle of the wild sea, and told them that was quite the loveliest place, you could see for many miles all round you, ...."
- (pronoun phrase): "... the typical structure of glioma is that of spherical and cylindrical lobules, almost each and everyone of which has a centrally located blood vessel."
- (prepositional phrase): "About halfway through the movie, I decided to ..."
- "The devil knows best what he said, but at least she became his tool and was in the habit of seeing him nearly every evening."
- "Nearly if not quite all civilized peoples and ourselves above almost all others, are heavily burdened with the interest upon their public debt."
- "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."
- "Astonishingly, she'd shelled every nut, leaving me only the inner skin to remove."
- "... they concluded from the similarities of their bodies, that mine must contain at least 1724 of theirs, and consequently would require as much food as was necessary to support that number of Lilliputians."
PrepositionsPrepositions relate two events in time or two people or things in space. They form a closed class. They also represent abstract relations between two entities: Examples:
- ("after":) "We came home from Mr. Boythorn's after six pleasant weeks."
- ("after":) "'That was done with a bamboo,' said the boy, after one glance."
- ("to":) "I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life, ..."
- ("between" and "through":) "Between two golden tufts of summer grass, I see the world through hot air as through glass, ..."
- ("during":) "During these years at Florence, Leonardo's history is the history of his art; he himself is lost in the bright cloud of it."
- ("of":) "When to the sessions of sweet silent thought I summon up remembrances of things past."
- preposition: "after"; prepositional complement: "six pleasant weeks"
- preposition: "after"; prepositional complement: "one glance"
- preposition: "to"; prepositional complement: "the seas"; preposition: "to"; prepositional complement: "the vagrant gypsy life";
- preposition: "Between"; prepositional complement: "two golden tufts of summer grass,"; preposition: "through"; prepositional complement: "hot air"; preposition: "as through"; prepositional complement: "glass."
- preposition: "during"; prepositional complement: "these years at Florence."
- preposition: "of"; prepositional complement: "sweet silent thought"; preposition: "of"; prepositional complement: "things past."
Prepositional phrasesA prepositional phrase is formed when a preposition combines with its complement. In the above examples, the prepositional phrases are:
- prepositional phrase: "after six pleasant weeks"
- prepositional phrase: "after one glance"
- prepositional phrases: "to the seas" and "to the vagrant gypsy life"
- prepositional phrases: "Between two golden tufts of summer grass," "through hot air" and "as through glass."
- prepositional phrase: "During these years at Florence."
- prepositional phrases "of sweet silent thought" and "of things past."
ConjunctionsAccording to Carter and McCarthy, "Conjunctions express a variety of logical relations between phrases, clauses and sentences." There are two kinds of conjunctions: coordinating conjunctions and subordinating conjunctions.
- (prefixes): "The doctor must provide facilities for pre- and post test counselling and have his own strict procedures for the storing of that confidential information."
- (words): "'No, I'll never love anybody but you, Tom, and I'll never marry anybody but you--and you ain't to ever marry anybody but me, either."
- (phrases): "Can storied urn or animated bust back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?"
- (subordinate clauses): "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
- (independent clauses): "Well, I think you're here, plain enough, but I think you're a tangle-headed old fool, Jim."
- (sentences): "He said we were neither of us much to look at and we were as sour as we looked. But I don't feel as sour as I used to before I knew robin and Dickon."
- "either ... or":
- "The clergyman stayed to exchange a few sentences, either of admonition or reproof, with his haughty parishioner ...."
- "...; for I could not divest myself of a misgiving that something might happen to London in the meanwhile, and that, when I got there, it would be either greatly deteriorated or clean gone."
- "neither ... nor":
- "Buck made no effort. He lay quietly where he had fallen. The lash bit into him again and again, but he neither whined nor struggled."
- "For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth, action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech, to stir men's blood: I only speak right on; ..."
- "both ... and"
- "There was no mistaking her sincerity—it breathed in every tone of her voice. Both Marilla and Mrs. Lynde recognized its unmistakable ring."
- "There messages have both ethical and pragmatic overtones, urging women to recognize that even if they do suffer from physical and social disadvantages, their lives are far from being determined by their biology."
- "Not only ... but also"
- (time: "before"): "Perhaps Homo erectus had already died out before Homo sapiens arrived.
- (cause and effect: "in order that"): "In order that feelings, representations, ideas and the like should attain a certain degree of memorability, it is important that they should not remain isolated ..."
- (opposition: "although"): "Ultimately there were seven more sessions, in which, although she remained talkative, she increasingly clearly conveyed a sense that she did not wish to come any more."
- (condition: "even if"): "Even if Sethe could deal with the return of the spirit, Stamp didn't believe her daughter could."
AdjunctsThe label adjunct refers to any part of a sentence which could be removed without leaving behind something ungrammatical. Adjuncts are usually adverbial in nature. For example, in the sentence ‘I met John yesterday’, the adverb yesterday is an adjunct because it can be removed without producing ungrammaticality.
Similarly, in the sentence ‘I visited France during the summer’, the adverbial phrase ‘during the summer’ is an adjunct because it can be removed without leaving behind a sentence fragment which is ungrammatical.
Verb complementationDifferent verbs can be followed by different kinds of words and structures. For example, after a verb like write or read, it is normal to expect a noun, in which case the verb is being used transitively. Phrasal verbs contain a verb and a preposition or adverb; for example, wait for, followed by a noun object, has a different meaning from wait without for. Suggest can be followed by an object in the form of a that-clause or by an –ing form, but not an infinitive. There are no simple rules for determining what kind of structures can follow what verbs.
History of English grammars
Even as late as the early 19th century, Lindley Murray, the author of one of the most widely used grammars of the day, was having to cite “grammatical authorities” to bolster the claim that grammatical cases in English are different from those in Ancient Greek or Latin.