English grammar

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English grammar is the structure of expressions in the English language. This includes the structure of words, phrases, clauses and sentences.

There are historical, social, cultural 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 inconspicuous compared with the lexical and pronunciation differences.

Word classes and phrases

Eight types of word ("word classes" or "parts of speech") are distinguished in English: nouns, determiners, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, and conjunctions. (Determiners, traditionally classified along with adjectives, have not always been regarded as a separate part of speech.) Interjections are another word class, but these are not described here as they do not form part of the clause and sentence structure of the language.[1]

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), similar relatively new words.[1] The others are regarded as closed classes. For example, it is rare for a new pronoun to be admitted to the language.

English words are not generally marked for word class. It is not usually possible 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. On the other hand, 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).[2] Lexemes may be inflected to express different grammatical categories. The lexeme run has the forms runs, ran, runny, runner, and running.[2] Words in one class can sometimes be derived from those in another. This has the potential to give rise to new words. The noun aerobics has recently given rise to the adjective aerobicized.[2]

Words combine to form phrases. A phrase typically serves the same function as a word from some particular word class.[2] For example, my very good friend Peter is a phrase that can be used in a sentence as if it were a noun, and is therefore called a noun phrase. Similarly, adjective phrases and adverb phrases function as if they were adjectives or adverbs, but with other types of phrases the terminology has different implications. For example, a verb phrase consists of a verb together with any objects and other dependents; a prepositional phrase consists of a preposition together with its complement (and is therefore usually a type of adverb phrase); and a determiner phrase is a type of noun phrase containing a determiner.


Nouns 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,[2] 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 reading (a boring talk, the assigned reading).

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).[3] 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.[4] Some nouns can function both as countable and as uncountable such as the word "wine" (This is a good wine, I prefer red wine).

Countable nouns generally have singular and plural forms.[3] 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, foot/feet, etc.), including cases where the two forms are identical (sheep, series). For more 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, a form of synesis, is more common in British than American English. See English plural: Singulars with collective meaning treated as plural.

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). 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). For details, see English possessive.

Noun phrases

Noun 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.[4]

An English noun phrase typically takes the following form (not all elements need be present):

Determiner + Pre-modifiers + NOUN + Postmodifiers/Complement

In this structure:

  • the determiner may be an article (the, a[n]) or other equivalent word, as described in the following section. In many contexts it is required for a noun phrase to include some determiner.
  • pre-modifiers include adjectives and some adjective phrases (such as red, really lovely), and noun adjuncts (such as college in the phrase the college student). Adjectival modifiers usually come before noun adjuncts.
  • a complement or postmodifier[4] may be a prepositional phrase (... of London), a relative clause (like  ...which we saw yesterday), certain adjective or participial phrases (... sitting on the beach), or a dependent clause or infinitive phrase appropriate to the noun (like ... that the world is round after a noun such as fact or statement, or ... to travel widely after a noun such as desire).

An example of a noun phrase that includes all of the above-mentioned elements is that rather attractive young college student to whom you were talking. Here that is the determiner, rather attractive and young are adjectival pre-modifiers, college is a noun adjunct, student is the noun serving as the head of the phrase, and to whom you were talking is a post-modifier (a relative clause in this case). Notice the order of the pre-modifiers; the determiner that must come first and the noun adjunct college must come after the adjectival modifiers.

Coordinating 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. See Conjunctions below for more explanation.

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" that 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;
  • infinitive and gerund phrases, in certain positions;
  • certain clauses, such as that clauses and relative clauses like what he said, in certain positions.

Noun gender

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Generally there is no difference between male and female in English nouns. However, gender is occasionally exposed by different shapes or dissimilar words when referring to people or animals.[5]

Masculine Feminine Gender neutral
man woman person
boy girl child
husband wife spouse
prince princess -
rooster hen chicken

Many nouns that mention to people's roles and jobs can refer to either a masculine or a feminine subject, for instance "cousin", "teenager", "teacher", "doctor", "student", "friend", and "colleague".[6]

  • Jane is my friend. She is a dentist.
  • Paul is my cousin. He is a dentist.
  • Ed is my friend. He is a journalist.
  • Barbara is my cousin. She is a journalist.

Often the gender distinction for these neutral nouns is established by inserting the words "male" or "female".[7]

  • Sam is a female doctor.
  • No, he is not my boyfriend, he is just a male friend.
  • I have three female cousins and two male cousins.

Rarely, nouns illustrating things with no gender are referred to with a gendered pronoun to convey familiarity. It is also standard to make use of the gender-neutral pronoun (it).[8]

  • I love my car. She (the car) is my greatest passion.
  • France is popular with her (France's) neighbors at the moment.
  • I travelled from England to New York on the Queen Elizabeth; she (the Queen Elizabeth) is a great ship.


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English determiners constitute a relatively small class of words. They include the articles the, a[n] (and in some contexts some), certain demonstrative and interrogative words such as this, that, and which, possessives such as my and whose (the role of determiner can also be played by noun possessive forms such as John's and the girl's), various quantifying words like all, many, various, and numerals (one, two, etc.). There are also many phrases (such as a couple of) that can play the role of determiners.

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 and the many problems.

In many contexts, it is required for a noun phrase to be completed with an article or some other determiner. It is not grammatical to say just cat sat on table; one must say my cat sat on the table. The most common situations in which a complete noun phrase can be formed without a determiner are when it refers generally to a whole class or concept (as in dogs are dangerous and beauty is subjective) and when it is a name (Jane, Spain, etc.) This is discussed in more detail at English articles and Zero article in English.


Pronouns are a relatively small, closed class of words that function in the place of nouns or noun phrases. They include personal pronouns, demonstrative pronouns, relative pronouns, interrogative pronouns, and some others, mainly indefinite pronouns.

Personal pronouns

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The personal pronouns of modern standard English, and the corresponding possessive forms, are as follows:

  Nominative Oblique Reflexive Possessive determiner Possessive pronoun
1st pers. sing. I me myself my mine
2nd pers. sing./pl. you you yourself/yourselves your yours
3rd pers. sing. she, he, they, it her, him, they, it  herself, himself, themself, itself  her, his, their, its hers, his, theirs, its
1st pers. pl. we us ourselves our ours
3rd pers. pl. they them themselves their theirs

The second-person forms such as you are used with both singular and plural reference. In the Southern United States, y'all (you all) is used as a plural form, and various other phrases such as you guys are used in other places. An archaic set of pronouns used for singular reference is thou, thee, thyself, thy, thine, which are still used in religious services and can be seen in older works, such as Shakespeare's - in such texts, the word you is used as a plural form. You can also be used as an indefinite pronoun, referring to a person in general (see generic you) compared to the more formal alternative, one (reflexive oneself, possessive one's).

The third-person singular forms are differentiated according to the sex of the referent. For example, she can be 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. In other cases it can be used. (See Gender in English.) The word it can also be used as a dummy subject, in sentences like It is going to be sunny this afternoon.

The third-person plural forms such as they are sometimes used with singular reference, as a gender-neutral pronoun, as in each employee should ensure they tidy their desk. Despite its long history, this usage is sometimes considered ungrammatical. (See singular they.)

The possessive determiners such as my are used as determiners together with nouns, as in my old man, some of his friends. The second possessive forms like mine 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"). See English possessive for more details.

Demonstrative and interrogative pronouns

The 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. They can also form the alternative pronominal expressions this/that one, these/those ones.

The interrogative pronouns are who, what, and which (all of them can take the suffix -ever for emphasis). The pronoun who refers to a person or people; it has an oblique form whom (though in informal contexts this is usually replaced by who), and a possessive form (pronoun or determiner) whose. The pronoun what refers to things or abstracts. The word which is used to ask about alternatives from what is seen as a closed set: which (of the books) do you like best? (It can also be an interrogative determiner: which book?; this can form the alternative pronominal expressions which one and which ones.) Which, who, and what can be either singular or plural, although who and what often take a singular verb regardless of any supposed number. For more information see who.

All the interrogative pronouns can also be used as relative pronouns; see below for more details.

Relative pronouns

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The main relative pronouns in English are who (with its derived forms whom and whose), which, and that.[9]

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 informal 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).

The word that as a relative pronoun is normally found only in restrictive relative clauses (unlike which and who, which can be used in both restrictive and unrestrictive clauses). It can refer to either persons or things, and cannot follow a preposition. For example, one can say the song that [or which] 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 word what can be used to form a free relative clause – one that has no antecedent and that serves as a complete noun phrase in itself, as in I like what he likes. The words whatever and whichever can be used similarly, in the role of either pronouns (whatever he likes) or determiners (whatever book he likes). When referring to persons, who(ever) (and whom(ever)) can be used in a similar way (but not as determiners).

There as pronoun

The word there is used as a pronoun in some sentences, playing the role of a dummy subject, normally of an intransitive verb. The "logical subject" of the verb then appears as a complement after the verb.

This use of there occurs most commonly with forms of the verb be in existential clauses, to refer to the presence or existence of something. For example: There is a heaven; There are two cups on the table; There have been a lot of problems lately. It can also be used with other verbs: There exist two major variants; There occurred a very strange incident.

The dummy subject takes the number (singular or plural) of the logical subject (complement), hence it takes a plural verb if the complement is plural. In colloquial English, however, the contraction there's is often used where there are would be expected.

The dummy subject can undergo inversion, Is there a test today? and Never has there been a man such as this. It can also appear without a corresponding logical subject, in short sentences and question tags: There wasn't a discussion, was there? There was.

The word there in such sentences has sometimes been analyzed as an adverb, or as a dummy predicate, rather than as a pronoun.[10] However, its identification as a pronoun is most consistent with its behavior in inverted sentences and question tags as described above.

Because the word there can also be a deictic adverb (meaning "at/to that place"), a sentence like There is a river could have either of two meanings: "a river exists" (with there as a pronoun), and "a river is in that place" (with there as an adverb). In speech, the adverbial there would be given stress, while the pronoun would not – in fact the pronoun is often pronounced as a weak form, /ðə(r)/.

Other pronouns

Other pronouns in English are often identical in form to determiners (especially quantifiers), such as many, a little, etc. Sometimes, the pronoun form is different, as with none (corresponding to the determiner no), nothing, everyone, somebody, etc. Many examples are listed as indefinite pronouns. Another indefinite (or impersonal) pronoun is one (with its reflexive form oneself and possessive one's), which is a more formal alternative to generic you.[11]


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Verbs form the second largest word class after nouns. The basic form of an English verb is not generally marked by any ending, although there are certain suffixes that are frequently used to form verbs, such as -ate (formulate), -fy (electrify), and -ise/ize (realise/realize).[12] Many verbs also contain prefixes, such un- (unmask), out- (outlast), over- (overtake), and under- (undervalue).[12] Verbs can also be formed from nouns and adjectives by conversion, as with the verbs snare, nose, dry, and calm.

Most verbs have three or four inflected forms: a third-person singular present tense form in -(e)s (writes, botches), a present participle and gerund form in -ing (writing), a past tense (wrote), and – though often identical to the past tense form – a past participle (written). Regular verbs have identical past tense and past participle forms in -ed, but there are 100 or so irregular English verbs with different forms (see list). The verbs have, do and say also have irregular third-person present tense forms (has, does /dʌz/, says /sɛz/). 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).

Most of what are often referred to as verb tenses (or sometimes aspects) in English are formed using auxiliary verbs. Apart from what are called the simple present (write, writes) and simple past (wrote), there are also continuous (progressive) forms (am/is/are/was/were writing), perfect forms (have/has/had written, and the perfect continuous have/has/had been writing), future forms (will write, will be writing, will have written, will have been writing), and conditionals (also called "future in the past") with would in place of will. The auxiliaries shall and should sometimes replace will and would in the first person. For the uses of these various verb forms, see English verbs and English clause syntax.

The infinitive is the basic form of the verb (be, write, play), although there is also a "to-infinitive" (to be, to write, to play) used in many syntactical constructions. There are also infinitives corresponding to other aspects: (to) have written, (to) be writing, (to) have been writing. The second-person imperative is identical to the (basic) infinitive; other imperative forms may be made with let (let us go, or let's go; let them eat cake).

A form identical to the infinitive can be used as a present subjunctive in certain contexts: It is important that he follow them or ... that he be committed to the cause. There is also a past subjunctive (distinct from the simple past only in the possible use of were instead of was), used in some conditional sentences and similar: if I were (or was) rich ...; were he to arrive now ...; I wish she were (or was) here. For details see English subjunctive.

The passive voice is formed using the verb be (in the appropriate tense or form) with the past participle of the verb in question: cars are driven, he was killed, I am being tickled, it is nice to be pampered, etc. The performer of the action may be introduced in a prepositional phrase with by (as in they were killed by the invaders).

The English modal verbs consist of the core modals can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would, as well as ought (to), had better, and in some uses dare and need.[13] These do not inflect for person or number,[13] and do not have infinitive or participle forms (except synonyms, as with be/being/been able (to) for the modals can/could). The modals are used with the basic infinitive form of a verb (I can swim, he may be killed, we dare not move, need they go?), except for ought, which takes to (you ought to go).

The copula be, along with the modal verbs and the other auxiliaries, form a distinct class, sometimes called "special verbs" or simply "auxiliaries".[14] These have different syntax from ordinary lexical verbs, especially in that they make their interrogative forms by plain inversion with the subject, and their negative forms by adding not after the verb (could I ...? I could not ...). Apart from those already mentioned, this class may also include used to (although the forms did he use to? and he didn't use to are also found), and sometimes have even when not an auxiliary (forms like have you a sister? and he hadn't a clue are possible, though becoming less common). It also includes the auxiliary do (does, did); this is used with the basic infinitive of other verbs (those not belonging to the "special verbs" class) to make their question and negation forms, as well as emphatic forms (do I like you?; he doesn't speak English; we did close the fridge). For more details of this, see do-support.

Some forms of the copula and auxiliaries often appear as contractions, as in I'm for I am, you'd for you would or you had, and John's for John is. Their negated forms with following not are also often contracted (see Negation below). For detail see English auxiliaries and contractions.

Verb phrases

A verb together with its dependents, excluding its subject, may be identified as a verb phrase (although this concept is not acknowledged in all theories of grammar[15]). A verb phrase headed by a finite verb may also be called a predicate. The dependents may be objects, complements, and modifiers (adverbs or adverbial phrases). In English, objects and complements nearly always come after the verb; a direct object precedes other complements such as prepositional phrases, but if there is an indirect object as well, expressed without a preposition, then that precedes the direct object: give me the book, but give the book to me. Adverbial modifiers generally follow objects, although other positions are possible (see under Adverbs below). Certain verb–modifier combinations, particularly when they have independent meaning (such as take on and get up), are known as "phrasal verbs".

For details of possible patterns, see English clause syntax. See the Non-finite clauses section of that article for verb phrases headed by non-finite verb forms, such as infinitives and participles.


English adjectives, as with other word classes, cannot in general be identified as such by their form,[16] although many of them are formed from nouns or other words by the addition of a suffix, such as -al (habitual), -ful (blissful), -ic (atomic), -ish (impish, youngish), -ous (hazardous), etc.; or from other adjectives using a prefix: disloyal, irredeemable, unforeseen, overtired.

Adjectives may be used attributively, as part of a noun phrase (nearly always preceding the noun they modify; for exceptions see postpositive adjective), as in the big house, or predicatively, as in the house is big. Certain adjectives are restricted to one or other use; for example, drunken is attributive (a drunken sailor), while drunk is usually predicative (the sailor was drunk).


Many adjectives have comparative and superlative forms in -er and -est,[17] such as faster and fastest (from the positive form fast). Spelling rules which maintain pronunciation apply to suffixing adjectives just as they do for similar treatment of regular past tense formation; these cover consonant doubling (as in bigger and biggest, from big) and the change of y to i after consonants (as in happier and happiest, from happy).

The adjectives good and bad have the irregular forms better, best and worse, worst; also far becomes farther, farthest or further, furthest. The adjective old (for which the regular older and oldest are usual) also has the irregular forms elder and eldest, these generally being restricted to use in comparing siblings and in certain independent uses. For the comparison of adverbs, see Adverbs below.

Many adjectives, however, particularly those that are longer and less common, do not have inflected comparative and superlative forms. Instead, they can be qualified with more and most, as in beautiful, more beautiful, most beautiful (this construction is also sometimes used even for adjectives for which inflected forms do exist).

Certain adjectives are classed as ungradable.[17] These represent properties that cannot be compared on a scale; they simply apply or do not, as with pregnant, dead, unique. Consequently, comparative and superlative forms of such adjectives are not normally used, except in a figurative, humorous or imprecise context. Similarly, such adjectives are not normally qualified with modifiers of degree such as very and fairly, although with some of them it is idiomatic to use adverbs such as completely. Another type of adjectives sometimes considered ungradable is those that represent an extreme degree of some property, such as delicious and terrified.

Adjective phrases

An adjective phrase is a group of words that plays the role of an adjective in a sentence. It usually has a single adjective as its head, to which modifiers and complements may be added.[18]

Adjectives can be modified by a preceding adverb or adverb phrase, as in very warm, truly imposing, more than a little excited. Some can also be preceded by a noun or quantitative phrase, as in fat-free, two-metre-long.

Complements following the adjective may include:

  • prepositional phrases: proud of him, angry at the screen, keen on breeding toads;
  • infinitive phrases: anxious to solve the problem, easy to pick up;
  • content clauses, i.e. that clauses and certain others: certain that he was right, unsure where they are;
  • after comparatives, phrases or clauses with than: better than you, smaller than I had imagined.

An adjective phrase may include both modifiers before the adjective and a complement after it, as in very difficult to put away.

Adjective phrases containing complements after the adjective cannot normally be used as attributive adjectives before a noun. Sometimes they are used attributively after the noun, as in a woman proud of being a midwife (where they may be converted into relative clauses: a woman who is proud of being a midwife), but it is wrong to say *a proud of being a midwife woman. Exceptions include very brief and often established phrases such as easy-to-use. (Certain complements can be moved to after the noun, leaving the adjective before the noun, as in a better man than you, a hard nut to crack.)

Certain attributive adjective phrases are formed from other parts of speech, without any adjective as their head, as in a two-bedroom house, a no-jeans policy.


Adverbs perform a wide range of functions. They typically modify verbs (or verb phrases), adjectives (or adjectival phrases), or other adverbs (or adverbial phrases).[19] However, adverbs also sometimes qualify noun phrases (only the boss; quite a lovely place), pronouns and determiners (almost all), prepositional phrases (halfway through the movie), or whole sentences, to provide contextual comment or indicate an attitude (Frankly, I don't believe you).[20] They can also indicate a relationship between clauses or sentences (He died, and consequently I inherited the estate).[20]

Many English adverbs are formed from adjectives by adding the ending -ly, as in hopefully, widely, theoretically (for details of spelling and etymology, see -ly). Certain words can be used as both adjectives and adverbs, such as fast, straight, and hard. The adverb corresponding to the adjective good is well (note that bad forms the regular badly, although ill is occasionally used in some phrases).

There are also many adverbs that are not derived from adjectives,[19] including adverbs of time, of frequency, of place, of degree and with other meanings. Some suffixes that are commonly used to form adverbs from nouns are -ward[s] (as in homeward[s]) and -wise (as in lengthwise).

Most adverbs form comparatives and superlatives by modification with more and most: often, more often, most often; smoothly, more smoothly, most smoothly (see also comparison of adjectives, above). However, a few adverbs retain irregular inflection for comparative and superlative forms:[19] much, more, most; a little, less, least; well, better, best; badly, worse, worst; far, further (farther), furthest (farthest); or follow the regular adjectival inflection: fast, faster, fastest; soon, sooner, soonest; etc.

Adverbs indicating the manner of an action are generally placed after the verb and its objects (We considered the proposal carefully), although other positions are often possible (We carefully considered the proposal). Many adverbs of frequency, degree, certainty, etc. (such as often, always, almost, probably, and various others such as just) tend to be placed before the verb (they usually have chips), although if there is an auxiliary or other "special verb" (see Verbs above), then the normal position for such adverbs is after that special verb (or after the first of them, if there is more than one): I have just finished the crossword; She can usually manage a pint; We are never late; You might possibly have been unconscious. Adverbs that provide a connection with previous information (such as next, then, however), and those that provide the context (such as time or place) for a sentence, are typically placed at the start of the sentence: Yesterday we went on a shopping expedition.[21]

A special type of adverb is the adverbial particle used to form phrasal verbs (such as up in pick up, on in get on, etc.) If such a verb also has an object, then the particle may precede or follow the object, although it will normally follow the object if the object is a pronoun (pick the pen up or pick up the pen, but pick it up).

Adverb phrases

An adverb phrase is a phrase that acts as an adverb within a sentence.[22] An adverb phrase may have an adverb as its head, together with any modifiers (other adverbs or adverb phrases) and complements, analogously to the adjective phrases described above. For example: very sleepily; all too suddenly; oddly enough; perhaps shockingly for us.

Another very common type of adverb phrase is the prepositional phrase, which consists of a preposition and its object: in the pool; after two years; for the sake of harmony.


Prepositions form a closed word class,[20] although there are also certain phrases that serve as prepositions, such as in front of. A single preposition may have a variety of meanings, often including temporal, spatial and abstract. Many words that are prepositions can also serve as adverbs. Examples of common English prepositions (including phrasal instances) are of, in, on, over, under, to, from, with, in front of, behind, opposite, by, before, after, during, through, in spite of or despite, between, among, etc.

A preposition is usually used with a noun phrase as its complement. A preposition together with its complement is called a prepositional phrase.[23] Examples are in England, under the table, after six pleasant weeks, between the land and the sea. A prepositional phrase can be used as a complement or post-modifier of a noun in a noun phrase, as in the man in the car, the start of the fight; as a complement of a verb or adjective, as in deal with the problem, proud of oneself; or generally as an adverb phrase (see above).

English allows the use of "stranded" prepositions. This can occur in interrogative and relative clauses, where the interrogative or relative pronoun that is the preposition's complement is moved to the start (fronted), leaving the preposition in place. This kind of structure is avoided in some kinds of formal English. For example:

  • What are you talking about? (Possible alternative version: About what are you talking?)
  • The song that you were listening to ... (more formal: The song to which you were listening ...)

Notice that in the second example the relative pronoun that could be omitted.

Stranded prepositions can also arise in passive voice constructions and other uses of passive past participial phrases, where the complement in a prepositional phrase can become zero in the same way that a verb's direct object would: it was looked at; I will be operated on; get your teeth seen to. The same can happen in certain uses of infinitive phrases: he is nice to talk to; this is the page to make copies of.


Conjunctions express a variety of logical relations between items, phrases, clauses and sentences.[24] The principal coordinating conjunctions in English are and, or, and but, as well as nor, so, yet and for. These can be used in many grammatical contexts to link two or more items of equal grammatical status,[24] for example:

  • Noun phrases combined into a longer noun phrase, such as John, Eric, and Jill, the red coat or the blue one. When and is used, the resulting noun phrase is plural. A determiner does not need to be repeated with the individual elements: the cat, the dog, and the mouse and the cat, dog, and mouse are both correct. The same applies to other modifiers. (The word but can be used here in the sense of "except": nobody but you.)
  • Adjective or adverb phrases combined into a longer adjective or adverb phrase: tired but happy, over the fields and far away.
  • Verbs or verb phrases combined as in he washed, peeled, and diced the turnips (verbs conjoined, object shared); he washed the turnips, peeled them, and diced them (full verb phrases, including objects, conjoined).
  • Other equivalent items linked, such as prefixes linked in pre- and post-test counselling,[25] numerals as in two or three buildings, etc.
  • Clauses or sentences linked, as in We came, but they wouldn't let us in. They wouldn't let us in, nor would they explain what we had done wrong.

There are also correlative conjunctions, where as well as the basic conjunction, an additional element appears before the first of the items being linked.[24] The common correlatives in English are:

  • either ... or (either a man or a woman);
  • neither ... nor (neither clever nor funny);
  • both ... and (they both punished and rewarded them);
  • not ... but, particularly in not only ... but also (not exhausted but exhilarated, not only football but also many other sports).

Subordinating conjunctions make relations between clauses, making the clause in which they appear into a subordinate clause.[26] Some common subordinating conjunctions in English are:

  • conjunctions of time, including after, before, since, until, when, while;
  • conjunctions of cause and effect, including because, since, now that, as, in order that, so;
  • conjunctions of opposition or concession, such as although, though, even though, whereas, while;
  • conjunctions of condition: such as if, unless, only if, whether or not, even if, in case (that);
  • the conjunction that, which produces content clauses, as well as words that produce interrogative content clauses: whether, where, when, how, etc.

A subordinating conjunction generally comes at the very start of its clause, although many of them can be preceded by qualifying adverbs, as in probably because ..., especially if .... The conjunction that can be omitted after certain verbs, as in she told us (that) she was ready. (For the use of that in relative clauses, see Relative pronouns above.)


As noted above under Verbs, a finite indicative verb (or its clause) is negated by placing the word not after an auxiliary, modal or other "special" verb such as do, can or be. For example, the clause I go is negated with the appearance of the auxiliary do, as I do not go (see do-support). When the affirmative already uses auxiliary verbs (I am going), no other auxiliary verbs are added to negate the clause (I am not going). (Until the period of early Modern English, negation was effected without additional auxiliary verbs: I go not.)

Most combinations of auxiliary verbs etc. with not have contracted forms: don't, can't, isn't, etc. (Also the uncontracted negated form of can is written as a single word cannot.) On inversion of subject and verb (such as in questions; see below), the subject may be placed after a contracted negated form: Should he not pay? or Shouldn't he pay?

Other elements, such as noun phrases, adjectives, adverbs, infinitive and participial phrases, etc., can be negated by placing the word not before them: not the right answer, not interesting, not to enter, not noticing the train, etc.

When other negating words such as never, nobody, etc. appear in a sentence, the negating not is omitted (unlike its equivalents in many languages): I saw nothing or I didn't see anything, but not (except in non-standard speech) *I didn't see nothing (see Double negative). Such negating words generally have corresponding negative polarity items (ever for never, anybody for nobody, etc.) which can appear in a negative context, but are not negative themselves (and can thus be used after a negation without giving rise to double negatives).

Clause and sentence structure

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A typical sentence contains one independent clause and possibly one or more dependent clauses, although it is also possible to link together sentences of this form into longer sentences, using coordinating conjunctions (see above).

A clause typically contains a subject (a noun phrase) and a predicate (a verb phrase in the terminology used above; that is, a verb together with its objects and complements). A dependent clause also normally contains a subordinating conjunction (or in the case of relative clauses, a relative pronoun or phrase containing one). English syntax is essentially of SVO (subject–verb–object) type; the verb precedes its object in the verb phrase, and the subject of the clause precedes the verb.


Like many other Western European languages, English historically allowed questions to be formed by inverting the positions of verb and subject. Modern English permits this only in the case of a small class of verbs ("special verbs"), consisting of auxiliaries as well as forms of the copula be (see subject–auxiliary inversion). To form a question from a sentence which does not have such an auxiliary or copula present, the auxiliary verb do (does, did) needs to be inserted, along with inversion of the word order, to form a question (see do-support). For example:

  • She can dance. → Can she dance? (inversion of subject she and auxiliary can)
  • I am sitting here. → Am I sitting here? (inversion of subject I and copula am)
  • The milk goes in the fridge. → Does the milk go in the fridge? (no special verb present; do-support required)

The above concerns yes-no questions, but inversion also takes place in the same way after other questions, formed with interrogative words such as where, what, how, etc. An exception applies when the interrogative word is the subject or part of the subject, in which case there is no inversion. For example:

  • I go. → Where do I go? (wh-question formed using inversion, with do-support required in this case)
  • He goes. → Who goes? (no inversion, because the question word who is the subject)

Note that inversion does not apply in indirect questions: I wonder where he is (not *... where is he). Indirect yes-no questions can be expressed using if or whether as the interrogative word: Ask them whether/if they saw him.

Negative questions are formed similarly; however if the verb undergoing inversion has a contraction with not, then it is possible to invert the subject with this contraction as a whole. For example:

  • John is going. (affirmative)
  • John is not going. / John isn't going. (negative, with and without contraction)
  • Isn't John going? / Is John not going? (negative question, with and without contraction respectively)

See also English auxiliaries and contractions: Contractions and inversion.

Dependent clauses

The syntax of a dependent clause is generally the same as that of an independent clause, except that the dependent clause usually begins with a subordinating conjunction or relative pronoun (or phrase containing such). In some situations (as already described) the conjunction or relative pronoun that can be omitted. Another type of dependent clause with no subordinating conjunction is the conditional clause formed by inversion (see below).

Other uses of inversion

The clause structure with inverted subject and verb, used to form questions as described above, is also used in certain types of declarative sentence. This occurs mainly when the sentence begins with an adverbial or other phrase that is essentially negative or contains words such as only, hardly, etc.: Never have I known someone so stupid; Only in France can such food be tasted.

In elliptical sentences (see below), inversion takes place after so (meaning "also") as well as after the negative neither: so do I, neither does she.

Inversion can also be used to form conditional clauses, beginning with should, were (subjunctive), or had, in the following ways:

  • should I win the race (equivalent to if I win the race);
  • were he a soldier (equivalent to if he were a soldier);
  • were he to win the race (equivalent to if he were to win the race, i.e. if he won the race);
  • had he won the race (equivalent to if he had won the race).

Other similar forms sometimes appear, but are less common. There is also a construction with subjunctive be, as in be he alive or dead (meaning "no matter whether he is alive or dead").

Use of inversion to express a third-person imperative is now mostly confined to the expression long live X, meaning "let X live long".


In an imperative sentence (one giving an order), there is usually no subject in the independent clause: Go away until I call you. It is possible, however, to include you as the subject for emphasis: You stay away from me.

Elliptical constructions

Many types of elliptical construction are possible in English, resulting in sentences that omit certain redundant elements. Various examples are given in the article on Ellipsis.

Some notable elliptical forms found in English include:

  • Short statements of the form I can, he isn't, we mustn't. Here the verb phrase (understood from the context) is reduced to a single auxiliary or other "special" verb, negated if appropriate. If there is no special verb in the original verb phrase, it is replaced by do/does/did: he does, they didn't.
  • Clauses that omit the verb, in particular those like me too, nor me, me neither. The latter forms are used after negative statements. (Equivalents including the verb: I do too or so do I; I don't either or neither do I.)
  • Tag questions, formed with a special verb and pronoun subject: isn't it?; were there?; am I not?

History of English grammars

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The first published English grammar was a Pamphlet for Grammar of 1586, written by William Bullokar with the stated goal of demonstrating that English was just as rule-based as Latin. Bullokar's grammar was faithfully modeled on William Lily's Latin grammar, Rudimenta Grammatices (1534), used in English schools at that time, having been "prescribed" for them in 1542 by Henry VIII. Bullokar wrote his grammar in English and used a "reformed spelling system" of his own invention; but many English grammars, for much of the century after Bullokar's effort, were written in Latin, especially by authors who were aiming to be scholarly. John Wallis's Grammatica Linguae Anglicanae (1685) was the last English grammar written in Latin.

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.

See also

Notes and references

  1. 1.0 1.1 Carter & McCarthy 2006, p. 296
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Carter & McCarthy 2006, p. 297
  3. 3.0 3.1 Carter & McCarthy 2006, p. 298
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Carter & McCarthy 2006, p. 299
  5. NOUN GENDER edufind.com
  6. NOUN GENDER edufind.com
  7. NOUN GENDER edufind.com
  8. NOUN GENDER edufind.com
  9. Some linguists consider that in such sentences to be a complementizer rather than a relative pronoun. See English relative clauses: Status of that.
  10. For a treatment of there as a dummy predicate, based on the analysis of the copula, see Moro, A., The Raising of Predicates. Predicative Noun Phrases and the Theory of Clause Structure, Cambridge Studies in Linguistics, 80, Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  11. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Carter & McCarthy 2006, p. 301
  13. 13.0 13.1 Carter & McCarthy 2006, p. 303
  14. C.D. Sidhu, An Intensive Course in English, Orient Blackswan, 1976, p. 5.
  15. Dependency grammars reject the concept of finite verb phrases as clause constituents, regarding the subject as a dependent of the verb as well. See the verb phrase article for more information.
  16. Carter & McCarthy 2006, p. 308
  17. 17.0 17.1 Carter & McCarthy 2006, p. 309
  18. Carter & McCarthy 2006, p. 310
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 Carter & McCarthy 2006, p. 311
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 Carter & McCarthy 2006, p. 313
  21. esl.about.com
  22. Carter & McCarthy 2006, p. 312
  23. Carter & McCarthy 2006, pp. 314–315
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 Carter & McCarthy 2006, p. 315
  25. British Medical Association, Misuse of Drugs, Chapter 4, "Constraints of current practice."
  26. Carter & McCarthy 2006, p. 316


Grammar books

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  • Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. A CD-Rom version is included.
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  • Curme, George O., College English Grammar, Richmond, VA, 1925, Johnson Publishing company, 414 pages . A revised edition Principles and Practice of English Grammar was published by Barnes & Noble, in 1947.
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  • Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. Declerck in his introduction (p.vi) states that almost half his grammar is taken up by the topics of tense, aspect and modality. This he contrasts with the 71 pages devoted to these subjects in The Comprehensive Grammar of English. Huddleston and Pullman say they profited from consulting this grammar in their Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. (p. 1765)
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  • Huddleston, Rodney D. (1984) Introduction to the Grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Huddleston, Rodney D. (1988) English Grammar: An outline. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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  • Jespersen, Otto. (1937). Analytic Syntax. Copenhagen: Levin & Munksgaard, 1937. 170 p.
  • Jespersen, Otto. (1909–1949). A modern English grammar on historical principles (Vols. 1-7). Heidelberg: C. Winter.
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  • Korsakov, A. K. (Andreĭ Konstantinovich). 1969. The use of tenses in English. Korsakov, A. K. Structure of Modern English pt. 1. oai:gial.edu:26766 at http://www.language-archives.org/item/oai:gial.edu:26766
  • Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.Three Volumes, translated by Clair James Grece from the German edition Englische Grammatik: Die Lehre von der Wort- und Satzfügung. Professor Whitney in his Essentials of English Grammar recommends the German original stating "there is an English version, but it is hardly to be used." (p. vi)
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  • Poutsma, Hendrik. A grammar of late modern English, Groningen, P. Noordhoff, 1914–29, 2 pt. in 5 v. Contents: pt. I. The sentence: 1st half. The elements of the sentence, 1928. 2d half. The composite sentence, 1929.--pt. II. The parts of speech: section I, A. Nouns, adjectives and articles, 1914. section I, B. Pronouns and numerals, 1916. section II. The verb and the particles, 1926.
  • Quirk, Randolph; Greenbaum, Sidney; Leech, Geoffrey; & Svartvik, Jan. (1972). A Grammar of Contemporary English. Harlow: Longman.
  • Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  • Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. This book is a translation of Schibsbye's three volume Engelsk Grammatik published between 1957 and 1961. Schibsbye was a student of Jespersen's and co-author of the sixth volume –Morphology –of Jespersen's seven volume Modern English Grammar.
  • Sinclair, John, ed. (1991) Collins COBUILD – English Grammar London: Collins ISBN 0-00-370257-X second edition, 2005 ISBN 0-00-718387-9. Huddleston and Pullman say they found this grammar 'useful' in their Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. (p. 1765) A CD-Rom version of the 1st edition is available on the Collins COBUILD Resource Pack ISBN 0-00-716921-3
  • Sledd, James. (1959) A short introduction to English grammar Chicago: Scott, Foresman.
  • Strang, Barbara M. H. (1968) Modern English structure (2nd ed.) London: Arnold.
  • Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  • Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. 4th impression. pts. 1-2. Syntactical units with one verb.--pt.3. 1st half. Syntactical units with two verbs.--pt.3. 2d half. Syntactical units with two and more verbs.
  • Whitney, William Dwight, (1877) Essentials of English Grammar, Boston: Ginn & Heath.
  • Zandvoort, R. W. (1972) A Handbook of English Grammar (2nd ed.) London: Longmans.


  • Adams, Valerie. (1973). An introduction to modern English word-formation. London: Longman.
  • Bauer, Laurie. (1983). English word-formation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Fries, Charles Carpenter. (1952). The structure of English; an introduction to the construction of English sentences. New York: Harcourt, Brace.
  • Halliday, M. A. K. (1985/94). Spoken and written language. Deakin University Press.
  • Huddleston, Rodney D. (1976). An introduction to English transformational syntax. Longman.
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  • Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.—includes Jespersen's monographs Negation in English and Other Languages, and A System of Grammar.
  • Kruisinga, E. (1925). A handbook of present-day English. Utrecht: Kemink en Zoon.
  • Leech, Geoffrey N. (1971). Meaning and the English verb. London: Longman.
  • Marchand, Hans. (1969). The categories and types of present-day English word-formation (2nd ed.). München: C. H. Beck.
  • McCawley, James D. (1998). The syntactic phenomena of English (2nd ed.). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Onions, C. T. (Charles Talbut), (1904, 1st edition) An advanced English syntax based on the principles and requirements of the Grammatical society. London: Keegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & co. A new edition of An advanced English syntax, prepared from the author's materials by B. D. H. Miller, was published as Modern English syntax in 1971.
  • Palmer, F. R. (1974). The English verb. London: Longman.
  • Palmer, F. R. (1979). Modality and the English modals. London: Longman.
  • Plag, Ingo. (2003). Word-formation in English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Scheurweghs, Gustave. (1959). Present-day English syntax: A survey of sentence patterns. London: Longmans.

External links