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An Introduction to

Words are fundamental units in every sentence, so we will begin

by looking at these. Consider the words in the following
my brother drives a big car
We can tell almost instinctively that brother and car are the same
type of word, and also that brother and drives are different types
of words. By this we mean that brother and car belong to the
same word class. Similarly, when we recognise
that brother and drives are different types, we mean that they
belong to different word classes. We recognise seven MAJOR word


be, drive, grow, sing, think


brother, car, David, house, London


a, an, my, some, the


big, foolish, happy, talented, tidy


happily, recently, soon, then, there


: at, in, of, over, with


: and, because, but, if, or

You may find that other grammars recognise different word

classes from the ones listed here. They may also define the
boundaries between the classes in different ways. In some
grammars, for instance, pronouns are treated as a separate word
class, whereas we treat them as a subclass of nouns. A difference
like this should not cause confusion. Instead, it highlights an
important principle in grammar, known as GRADIENCE. This refers
to the fact that the boundaries between the word classes are not

absolutely fixed. Many word classes share characteristics with

others, and there is considerable overlap between some of the
classes. In other words, the boundaries are "fuzzy", so different
grammars draw them in different places.
We will discuss each of the major word classes in turn. Then we
will look briefly at some MINOR word classes. But first, let us
consider how we distinguish between word classes in general.

Criteria for Word Classes

We began by grouping words more or less on the basis of our
instincts about English. We somehow "feel"
that brother and car belong to the same class, and
that brother and drives belong to different classes. However, in
order to conduct an informed study of grammar, we need a much
more reliable and more systematic method than this for
distinguishing between word classes.
We use a combination of three criteria for determining the word
class of a word:
1. The meaning of the word
2. The form or `shape' of the word
3. The position or `environment' of the word in a sentence

1. Meaning
Using this criterion, we generalize about the kind of meanings
that words convey. For example, we could group together the
wordsbrother and car, as well as David, house, and London, on
the basis that they all refer to people, places, or things. In fact,
this has traditionally been a popular approach to determining
members of the class of nouns. It has also been applied to verbs,
by saying that they denote some kind of "action",
like cook, drive, eat, run, shout, walk.
This approach has certain merits, since it allows us to determine
word classes by replacing words in a sentence with words of
"similar" meaning. For instance, in the sentence My son cooks
dinner every Sunday, we can replace the verb cooks with other
"action" words:



cooks dinner every Sunday

prepares dinner every Sunday
eats dinner every Sunday
misses dinner every Sunday

On the basis of this replacement test, we can conclude that all of

these words belong to the same class, that of "action" words, or
However, this approach also has some serious limitations. The
definition of a noun as a word denoting a person, place, or thing,
is wholly inadequate, since it excludes abstract nouns such
as time,imagination, repetition, wisdom, and chance. Similarly, to
say that verbs are "action" words excludes a verb like be, as in I
want to be happy. What "action" does be refer to here? So
although this criterion has a certain validity when applied to some
words, we need other, more stringent criteria as well.

2. The form or `shape' of a word

Some words can be assigned to a word class on the basis of their
form or `shape'. For example, many nouns have a characteristic tionending:
action, condition, contemplation, demonstration, organization,rep
Similarly, many adjectives end in -able or -ible:
acceptable, credible, miserable, responsible, suitable, terrible
Many words also take what are called INFLECTIONS, that is,
regular changes in their form under certain conditions. For
example, nouns can take a plural inflection, usually by adding
an -s at the end:
car -- cars
dinner -- dinners
book -- books
Verbs also take inflections:
walk -- walks -- walked -- walking

3. The position or `environment' of a word in a sentence

This criterion refers to where words typically occur in a sentence,
and the kinds of words which typically occur near to them. We
can illustrate the use of this criterion using a simple example.
Compare the following:
[1] I cook dinner every Sunday
[2] The cook is on holiday

In [1], cook is a verb, but in [2], it is a noun. We can see that it is

a verb in [1] because it takes the inflections which are typical of
I cook dinner every Sunday
I cooked dinner last Sunday
I am cooking dinner today
My son cooks dinner every Sunday
And we can see that cook is a noun in [2] because it takes the
plural -sinflection
The cooks are on holiday
If we really need to, we can also apply a replacement test, based
on our first criterion, replacing cook in each sentence with
"similar" words:
Notice that we can replace verbs with verbs, and nouns with
nouns, but we cannot replace verbs with nouns or nouns with
*I chef dinner every Sunday
*The eat is on holiday
It should be clear from this discussion that there is no one-to-one
relation between words and their classes. Cook can be a verb or a
noun -- it all depends on how the word is used. In fact, many
words can belong to more than one word class. Here are some
more examples:
She looks very pale (verb)
She's very proud of her looks (noun)

He drives a fast car (adjective)

He drives very fast on the motorway (adverb)
Turn on the light (noun)
I'm trying to light the fire (verb)
I usually have a light lunch (adjective)
You will see here that each italicised word can belong to more
than one word class. However, they only belong to one word class
at a time, depending on how they are used. So it is quite wrong to
say, for example, "cook is a verb". Instead, we have to say
something like "cook is a verb in the sentence I cook dinner every
Sunday, but it is a noun in The cook is on holiday".
Of the three criteria for word classes that we have discussed
here, the Internet Grammar will emphasise the second and third the form of words, and how they are positioned or how they
function in sentences.

Open and Closed Word Classes

Some word classes are OPEN, that is, new words can be added to
the class as the need arises. The class of nouns, for instance, is
potentially infinite, since it is continually being expanded as new
scientific discoveries are made, new products are developed, and
new ideas are explored. In the late twentieth century, for
example, developments in computer technology have given rise
to many new nouns:
Internet, website, URL, CD-ROM, email, newsgroup, bitmap, mode
New verbs have also been introduced:
download, upload, reboot, right-click, double-click
The adjective and adverb classes can also be expanded by the
addition of new words, though less prolifically.
On the other hand, we never invent new prepositions,
determiners, or conjunctions. These classes include words
like of, the, and but. They are called CLOSED word classes
because they are made up of finite sets of words which are never
expanded (though their members may change their spelling, for
example, over long periods of time). The subclass of pronouns,
within the open noun class, is also closed.
Words in an open class are known as open-class items. Words in a

closed class are known as closed-class items.

In the pages which follow, we will look in detail at each of the
seven major word classes.

A noun is a word that identifies:

a person (woman, boy, doctor, neighbour)

a thing (dog, building, tree, country)

an idea, quality, or state (truth, danger, birth, happiness).

There are several different types of noun, as follows:

Common noun
A common noun is a noun that refers to people or things in general, e.g. boy,
country, bridge, city, birth, day, happiness.

Proper noun
A proper noun is a name that identifies a particular person, place, or thing,
e.g. Steven, Africa, Tower Bridge, London, Monday. In written English, proper
nouns begin with capital letters.

Concrete noun

A concrete noun is a noun which refers to people and to things that exist
physically and can be seen, touched, smelled, heard, or tasted. Examples
include dog, building, tree, rain, beach, tune, Tower Bridge.
Abstract noun
An abstract noun is a noun which refers to ideas, qualities, and conditions things that cannot be seen or touched and things which have no physical reality,
e.g. truth, danger, happiness, time, friendship, humour.
Collective nouns
Collective nouns refer to groups of people or things, e.g. audience, family,
government, team, jury. Collective nouns can usually be treated as singular or
plural, with either a singular or plural verb. Both the following sentences are
grammatically correct:
The whole family was at the table.
The whole family were at the table.
For more information about this, see matching verbs to collective nouns.
A noun may belong to more than one category. For example, happiness is both a
common noun and an abstract noun, while Tower Bridge is both a concrete noun
and a proper noun.

A verb describes what a person or thing does or what happens. For example,
verbs describe:

an action run, hit, travel

an event rain, occur

a situation be, seem, have

a change become, grow, develop

The basic form of a verb is known as the infinitive. Its often preceded by the
word to:
Molly decided to follow him.
He began to run back.

Verb tenses
The tense of a verb tells you when a person did something or when something
existed or happened. In English, the main tenses are:

the present (e.g. I am, she laughs, they love, we begin)

the past (e.g. I was, she laughed, they loved, we began)

the future (e.g. I will/shall, she will laugh, they will love, we will/shall

These main tenses can be further subdivided, as follows:

the present continuous she is laughing

the past continuous she was laughing

the future continuous she will be laughing

the present perfect she has laughed

the present perfect continuous she has been laughing

the past perfect she had laughed

the past perfect continuous she had been laughing

the future perfect she will have laughed

the future perfect continuous she will have been laughing

Note that the continuous is also called the progressive.

Different tenses are typically formed either by adding -ed or -ing to the basic form
of the verb (known as the stem), or with the help of other verbs known
as auxiliary verbs such as am, was, have, has, had, and will.
Regular and irregular verbs
Many English verbs are regular, which means that they form their different tenses
according to an established pattern. Regular verbs work like this:
3rd person

3rd person

singular present

singular past



he/she laughs







he/she laughed



he/she loves

he/she loved



he/she boos

he/she booed



In the present tense, the basic form of the verb only changes in the 3 rd person
singular. Most verbs just add -s, but some verbs that end with a vowel other
than e add -es (e.g. go/goes, veto/vetoes, do/does). If the verb ends in -y, you
need to change the y to an i before adding -es (e.g. hurry/hurries,clarify/clarifies).
If the basic form of the verb ends in a consonant or a vowel other than e, then
you add the letters -edto make the past tense and the past participle, as
with laugh or boo. If it ends in e then you just add -d, as with love. If the basic
form ends in y, then you change the y to an i before adding
-ed (e.g.hurry/hurried, clarify/clarified).

If the basic form of the verb ends in a consonant or a vowel other than e, then
you add the letters ing to make the present participle, as with laugh or boo. If it
ends in e then you drop the e before adding -ing, as with love. Note that if the
basic form ends in y there is no need to make any spelling changes: you just add
-ing (e.g. hurry/hurrying, clarify/clarifying).
But there are also many irregular verbs that dont follow the normal rules. Here
are some examples:

3rd person

3rd person

singular present

singular past









he/she takes

he/she took




he/she sinks

he/she sank



he/she swings

he/she swung




he/she creeps

he/she crept




he/she begins

he/she began




he/she goes

he/she went




he/she flies

he/she flew




If you arent sure how a verb behaves, its best to look it up. All irregular verb
forms will be given in full at the main dictionary entry.

Subjects and objects

All verbs have a subject. The subject is generally the person or thing that the
sentence is about. Its often the person or thing that performs the action of the
verb in question and it usually (but not always) comes before the verb:




was eating a


In imperative sentences (i.e. ones that express a command), the subject is

usually understood without being explicitly stated:
Come here at once!
(i.e. You come here at once! the subject You is understood.)
Some verbs have an object as well as a subject. The object is the person or
thing affected by the verb:






was eating a



Direct objects and indirect objects

There are two different types of object: direct objects and indirect objects. A
direct object is, as its name suggests, directly affected by the action of the main
verb. In the following two sentences, a drink and a story are direct objects: a
drink was bought and a story was being read.


a drink.


[direct object]


was reading

a story.



An indirect object is usually a person or thing that benefits in some way from the
action of the main verb. Take a look at the following sentences:



was reading


a drink.

[indirect object]

[direct object]

his daughter

a story.

[indirect object]

[direct object]

Catherine has received a drink, but it is the drink that has been bought. His
daughter is hearing the story, but its the story that is being read.

Transitive and intransitive verbs

A transitive verb is one that is used with an object. In the following
sentences, admire and love are transitive verbs:

I admire your courage.

She loves animals.
Some transitive verbs can be used with a direct object and an indirect object:
Liz brought

He sent


a glass of water.

[indirect object]

[direct object]


a letter.

[indirect object]

[direct object]

An intransitive verb is not followed by an object. In the following

sentences, cry and talk are intransitive verbs:
The baby was crying.
We talked for hours.
Some verbs can be transitive or intransitive. For example:
The choir sang carols. [transitive]
She left London on June 6. [transitive]
I want to leave early. [intransitive]

A participle is a word formed from a verb, usually by adding -d, -ed, or -ing.
There are two kinds of participle in English, as follows:
The present participle
The present participle ends with -ing, e.g.:
We are going to Italy.
The company is building new headquarters in the UK.
The past participle
The past participle ends with -d or -ed for regular verbs, e.g.:
She had decided to go to Italy.
Fans had camped outside the studio.
and with -t or -en or some other form for irregular ones, e.g.:
New houses are still being built.
The glass is broken.

Using participles

Participles are used:

with auxiliary verbs to make verb tenses such as the present

continuous and the past perfect:

We are going to Italy. [present continuous]

She had decided to go to Italy. [past perfect]

as adjectives, e.g.:

The pavement was covered with broken glass.

He stared at me with bulging eyes.

as nouns, e.g.:

She was a woman of good breeding.

Len was ordered to cut down on his drinking.
When a present participle is used as a noun, as in the last two examples above,
its known as averbal noun or a gerund. Here are two more examples of verbal
Smoking is strictly forbidden.
Camping attracts people of all ages.
See also Dangling participles.

Active and passive

Depending on the way in which you word a sentence, a verb can be
either active or passive.
When the verb is active, the subject of the verb is doing the action, as in this

beat Brazil in the final.


[active verb]

When the verb is passive, the subject undergoes the action rather than doing it:

were beaten in the final.


[passive verb]

Here, the sentences point of view has changed, and Brazil has become the
subject of the passive verb were beaten.
The passive is formed with the auxiliary verb be and the past participle of the
main verb.

These two different ways of using verbs are known as voices. In everyday
writing, the active voice is much more common than the passive, which tends to
be used in formal documents such as official reports or scientific papers.

The subjunctive
The usual form of a verb is known as the indicative. The subjunctive is a
special form that expresses a wish or possibility instead of a fact (the technical
term for forms like this is mood). The subjunctive has a limited role in English
compared to other languages such as French or Italian, but it's important to use it
properly in formal writing.
Take a look at these two sentences:
It was suggested he wait till the next morning.
They demanded that the prime minister explain who authorized the action.
In these sentences, the verbs wait and explain are in the subjunctive. The
ordinary, indicative forms would be waits and explains and it would be
grammatically incorrect to use them in these sentences:
It was suggested he waits till the next morning.
They demanded that the prime minister explains who authorized the action.
Here are other typical uses of the subjunctive:

after if, as if, as though, and unless, in sentences that state a hypothetical

If I were taller, I would have been a model.

be and were are used at the beginning of sentences or clauses when the
subject follows:

Were I to make a list of my favourite films, this would be in second place.

All books, be they fiction or non-fiction, should provide entertainment in some
form or other.

in certain fixed expressions, for example be that as it may, come what

may, and so be it.

Phrasal verbs
A phrasal verb is a verb that is made up of a main verb together with an adverb
or a preposition, or both. Typically, their meaning is not obvious from the
meanings of the individual words themselves. For example:

His car broke down on the motorway

She has always looked down on me
Ill see to the animals.
Dont put me off, Im trying to concentrate.
The report spelled out the need for more staff.

Auxiliary verbs
Auxiliary verbs are used to form the various tenses, moods, and voices of other
verbs. The principal ones are be, do, and have:
She is reading a magazine.
The judge had asked her to speak up.
He did look tired.
There is also a further set of auxiliary verbs known as modal verbs. These
combine with other verbs to express necessity, possibility, or ability. The modal
auxiliary verbs are must, shall, will, should, would, ought (to), can, could,
may, and might. For example:
You must act promptly.
Can you speak French?
I would go if I could afford it.
He said he might reconsider his decision.

An adjective is a word that describes a noun, giving extra information about it.
For example:

a sweet taste

a red apple

a technical problem

an Italian woman

Attributive and predicative

Most adjectives can be used in two positions. When they are used before the
noun they describe, they are called attributive:

a black cat

a gloomy outlook

a slow journey

a large suitcase

When they are used after a verb such as be, become, grow, look, or seem,
theyre called predicative:

The cat was black.

The future looks gloomy.

The journey seemed slow.

They were growing tired.

There are some adjectives that can only be used in one position or the other. For
example, these two sentences are grammatically correct:
She was alone that evening. [alone = predicative ]
It was a mere scratch. [mere = attributive]
These sentences, on the other hand, are not correct:
X I saw an alone woman. [alone cannot be used in the attributive position]
X The scratch was mere. [mere cannot be used in the predicative position]

Comparing adjectives
Most adjectives have three different forms, the absolute (also known as
the positive), thecomparative, and the superlative:
more unusual
most unusual
The comparative form is used for comparing two people or things, while
the superlative is used for comparing one person or thing with every other
member of their group:
He is taller than me. [comparative]
He was the tallest boy in the class. [superlative]
The book was more interesting than the film. [comparative]
Its the most interesting book Ive ever read. [superlative]
As you can see, some adjectives change their spelling when forming their
comparative and superlative forms. For more information about this, see Spelling
rules and tips.
Youll find that most dictionaries will show you the spellings of adjectives that
change their form. For example, if you look up 'happy' in the Oxford Dictionaries
Online, youll see that the comparative and superlative forms are given in
brackets directly after the part of speech:
happy adjective (happier, happiest)

Always look up an adjective if you are unsure about how to spell its comparative
or superlative form.

Grading adjectives
Most adjectives are gradable. This means that their meaning can be modified by
placing one or more adverbs in front of them. For example:

an expensive car

a very expensive car

a fairly expensive car

an extremely expensive car

The adverbs very, fairly, and extremely are telling us where this particular car
belongs on the scale of expensiveness. By using them, we can make a
significant difference to the meaning of an adjective.

Qualitative and classifying adjectives

Not all adjectives have a comparative and superlative form nor can they all be
graded. This is because there are two types of adjective, known
as qualitative and classifying.
Qualitative adjectives describe the qualities of a person or thing whether they
are large or small, happy or sad, etc. This type of adjective can be graded. For

a fairly tall man

a very boring film

a really long holiday

an extremely expensive car

Classifying adjectives place people and things into categories or classes. Do

you read a daily newspaper or a weekly one? Does your house have
an electric oven or a gas oven? Here are some more examples of classifying

the western hemisphere

an annual event

the external walls

a nuclear weapon

Classifying adjectives don't generally have comparative and superlative forms. It

would sound strange to describe one event as more annual than another, for
example, or one weapon as the most nuclear. In general, classifying adjectives
cannot be graded either. An event cannot be very annual nor an oven fairly

An adverb is a word thats used to give information about a verb, adjective, or
other adverb.
When used with a verb, adverbs can give information about:

how something happens or is done:

She stretched lazily.

He walked slowly.
The town is easily accessible by road.

where something happens:

I live here.
Shes travelling abroad.
The children tiptoed upstairs.

when something happens:

They visited us yesterday.

I have to leave soon.
He still lives in London.
Adverbs can make the meaning of a verb, adjective, or other adverb stronger or

with a verb:

I almost fell asleep.

He really means it.

with an adjective:

These schemes are very clever.

This is a slightly better result.

with another adverb:

They nearly always get home late.

The answer to both questions is really rather simple.
Adverbs are often found between the subject and its verb:
She carefully avoided my eye.
They can also come between an auxiliary verb (such as be or have) and a main
The concert was suddenly cancelled.
Sentence adverbs
Some adverbs refer to a whole statement and not just a part of it. They are called
'sentence adverbs' and they act as a sort of comment, showing the attitude or
opinion of the speaker or writer to a particular situation.
Sentence adverbs often stand at the beginning of the sentence. Here are some
Clearly, there have been unacceptable delays.
(= It is clear that there have been unacceptable delays)
Sadly, the forests are now under threat.
(= It is sad that the forests are now under threat)
Curiously, he never visited America.
(= It's curious that he never visted America)
The sentence adverbs are used to convey the writer or speaker's opinion that it is
clear/sad/curious that something happened or is the case. If you compare the
way clearly, sadly, and curiously are used in the next three sentences, you can
easily see the difference between the meaning of the sentence adverbs and the
'ordinary' adverbs:

He spoke clearly and with conviction.

(= He spoke in a clear way and with conviction)
She smiled sadly. [adverb]
(= She smiled in a sad way)
He looked at her curiously.
(= He looked at her in a curious/inquisitive way)

Hopefully and thankfully as sentence adverbs

Sentence adverbs are well established in English, but there are two
hopefully and thankfully which have caused a lot of controversy. Here are two
sentences in which hopefully and thankfully are being used as sentence adverbs:
Hopefully, the work will be finished within the next two or three weeks.
Thankfully, we didnt have to wait long.
Many people are convinced that its wrong to use hopefully or thankfully in this
way. Whats the problem? It lies in the fact that you can't rewrite this type of
sentence using the wording 'it is hopeful that' or 'it is thankful that'. If you wanted
to rewrite the two previous sentences, you couldnt say:
X It is hopeful that the work will be finished within the next two or three weeks.
X It is thankful that we didnt have to wait long.
Youd need to choose a different wording, for example:
It is to be hoped that the work will be finished within the next two or three weeks.
As luck would have it, we didnt have to wait long.
This leads people to the conclusion that hopefully and thankfully should not be
used as sentence adverbs. In fact, there are no very strong grammatical grounds
for criticizing the use of hopefully and thankfully as sentence adverbs: there
aren't any rules that ban this sort of development of meaning. And there are other
adverbs which behave in the same way but which havent attracted the same
level of condemnation, e.g. frankly or briefly:

Frankly, I was pleased to leave.

(i.e. to be frank, I was pleased to leave)
Briefly, the plot is as follows.
(i.e. to be brief, the plot is as follows)
Nevertheless, you should be aware that some people strongly object to the use
of hopefully and thankfully as sentence adverbs. In view of this, its a good idea
to be cautious about using them in formal writing such as job applications just in
case your reader happens to be one of those people.

Pronouns are used in place of a noun that has already been mentioned or that is
already known, often to avoid repeating the noun. For example:
Kate was tired so she went to bed.
Michael took the children with him.
Kierans face was close to mine.
That is a good idea.
Anything might happen.

Personal pronouns
Personal pronouns are used in place of nouns referring to specific people or
things, for example Ime, mine, you, yours, his, her, hers, we, they, or them.
They can be divided into various different categories according to their role in a
sentence, as follows:

subjective pronouns

objective pronouns

possessive pronouns

reflexive pronouns

Subjective pronouns
The personal pronouns I, you, we, he, she, it, we, and they are known as
subjective pronouns because they act as the subjects of verbs:
She saw Catherine.
We drove Nick home.
I waved at her.

Objective pronouns
The personal pronouns me, you, us, him, her, it, and them are called objective
pronouns because they act as the objects of verbs and prepositions:
Catherine saw her.
Nick drove us home.
She waved at me.

Heres a table setting out the different forms:







first person




second person





third person





Notice that the personal pronouns you and it stay the same, whether they are
being used in the subjective or objective roles.

Possessive pronouns
The personal pronouns mine, yours, hers, his, ours, and theirs are known as
possessive pronouns: they refer to something owned by the speaker or by
someone or something previously mentioned. For example:
That book is mine.
Johns eyes met hers.
Ours is a family farm.

Reflexive pronouns
Reflexive personal pronouns include myself, himself, herself, itself,
ourselves, yourselves, and themselves. These are used to refer back to the
subject of the clause in which they are used:
I fell and hurt myself.
Daisy prepared herself for the journey.
The children had to look after themselves.

A preposition is a word such as after, in, to, on, and with. Prepositions are usually
used in front of nouns or pronouns and they show the relationship between the
noun or pronoun and other words in a sentence. They describe, for example:

the position of something:

Her bag was under the chair.

The dog crawled between us and lay down at our feet.
His flat was over the shop.

the time when something happens:

They arrived on Sunday.

The class starts at 9 a.m.
Shortly after their marriage they moved to Colorado.

the way in which something is done:

We went by train.
They stared at each other without speaking.
Some prepositions are made up of more than one word, for example:
They moved here because of the baby.
We sat next to each other.
The hotel is perched on top of a cliff.

A conjunction (also called a connective) is a word such
as and, because, but, for, if, or, and when. Conjunctions are used to
connect phrases, clauses, and sentences.
There are two main kinds of conjunction.

Coordinating conjunctions
Coordinating conjunctions join items that are of equal importance in a sentence:
You can have ice cream or strawberries.
He plays football and cricket.
The weather was cold but clear.

Subordinating conjunctions
Subordinating conjunctions connect subordinate clauses to the main clause of a
I waited at home until she arrived.
He went to bed because he was tired.

Starting a sentence with a conjunction

You might have been taught that its not good English to start a sentence with a
conjunction such asand or but. Its not grammatically incorrect to do so, however,
and many respected writers use conjunctions at the start of a sentence to create
a dramatic or forceful effect. For example:

What are the governments chances of winning in court? And what are the
Beginning a sentence with a conjunction can also be a useful way of conveying
And are you really going?
But didnt she tell you?
Its best not to overdo it, but there is no reason for completely avoiding the use of
conjunctions at the start of sentences.