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Facultad de Humanidades y Arte El sustantivo y sus estructuras asociadas

Departamento de Idiomas Extranjeros J. Pablo Cerda


Grammar is concerned with the structure of words (morphology), and of phrases and clauses
(syntax). There is a long tradition of grammar writing, starting with the ancient Greeks and leading
up to the present day. This tradition has had a lasting influence on how languages –not just English-
have been described.

In the history of grammar writing a number of different types of grammar can be distinguished.
School grammars aim to teach basic and often simplified grammar patterns. Very often they have
a prescriptive outlook, rather than a purely descriptive one –that is, they tell their readers what to
do and what not to do when speaking or writing. They were used very widely in the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries. Stemming from this tradition, but more up to date and modern, are
pedagogical grammars, used in a variety of educational settings. Traditional grammars are detailed
scholarly works which belong to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They are
characterised by their length, usually several weighty volumes, and their extensive use of literary
examples. The aim of theoretical grammar is to discover the (abstract) rules and principles
underlying the structure (and sometimes use) of language. There are many different types of
theoretical approaches to grammar. The best known is probably the theory of the American linguist
Noam Chomsky which aims to arrive at a blueprint for a mentally encoded Universal Grammar that
all human beings are genetically endowed with.

Modern descriptive reference grammars describe the language as it is used to day by its speakers
and do not aim to legislate in matters of ‘correct grammar’. Thus, while you may find a description
of the so-called split infinitive in a reference grammar, you will not be told to avoid this construction
on the grounds that it is ‘bad English’. Naturally, this does not mean that everything uttered is

The grammar of a language is shaped over time by the speakers of that language, not by self-
appointed individuals or learned bodies. The efforts of those who have tried in the past to influence
how the language should be used have generally failed. Jonathan Swift, who proposed setting up
an Academy in his 1712 pamphlet entitled ‘A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining
the English Tongue’, was unsuccessful, and even the lexicographer Samuel Johnson, who thought
he could improve the English language when he began his magisterial Dictionary of the English
Language (published in 1755), had to give up on that idea. Joseph Priestly was opposed to setting
up an Academy, and his attitude to usage, expressed in his Rudiments of the English Grammar
(1761), foreshadowed modern thinking when he wrote that the only standard we need to admit is
that of custom.

Allowing the language to run its own course means that a previously frowned-upon usage can
become normal. For different speakers this will happen at a different pace.

Word classes/categories

Traditionally words are categorised into parts of speech which are also called word classes. English
has the following word classes: noun, determinative, adjective, verb, preposition, adverb,
conjunction, and interjection. The word class labels are referred to as form labels.
Facultad de Humanidades y Arte El sustantivo y sus estructuras asociadas
Departamento de Idiomas Extranjeros J. Pablo Cerda

Nouns and noun phrases

The word class of Nouns includes words that denote concrete objects in the world around us. We
can distinguish different types of nouns such as common nouns, proper nouns, and pronouns (words
used instead of nouns).

The first property of a noun is that it can function as the Head of Noun Phrase (NP). A Head is the
most prominent element of a string of words.

The second property of many nouns is that they can take a plural inflection.

The third property is that nouns are words that can be preceded by the word the (definite article).
Most nouns can also be preceded by the word a (indefinite article), but not all of them.

The exception to the second and third properties are uncountable nouns which cannot be pluralised
and cannot be preceded by indefinite article a as it refers to one instance of the thing they denote.

A fourth characteristic is that nouns can be preceded by descriptive words called adjectives.

Pronouns belong to the class of nouns because they replace nouns to avoid repetition. In fact they
substitute for whole Noun Phrases.


Determinatives function as the Heads of Determinative Phrases (DPs) which function as

Determiners inside NPs. Some of the meanings they expressed include definiteness,
proximity/remoteness, number, gender, and quantification.

Distributionally, determinatives almost always precede nouns, either immediately or before other
phrases such as Adjective Phrases. Some determinatives can be modified.

Adjectives and Adjective Phrases

An adjective is a word that functions as the Head of and Adjective Phrase (AdjP) and can describe
the referent of a noun in attributive position, i.e. in front of a noun.

Attributive adjectives can occur in sequence with no limitation other than the speaker or writer’s
skills to stack one after another at the risk of make their audience bored. They can also occur in
predicative position after linking/copular verbs.

Some adjectives can only occur in attributive position, while others only in predicative position.

Adjectives can be modified by Adverbs.

Facultad de Humanidades y Arte El sustantivo y sus estructuras asociadas
Departamento de Idiomas Extranjeros J. Pablo Cerda

Verbs and Verb Phrases.

Verbs are the most central elements of clauses. They can express actions, events, states of affairs,
among others.

Verbs can be inflected for tense (finite), or occur in non-tensed (non-finite) forms, with the
exception of modal verbs which always carry tense.

Verbs function as the Heads of Verb Phrases (VPs).

There are two main types of verbs. Lexical and Auxiliary verbs. Lexical verbs express the main
action or event in a clause, whereas auxiliary verbs are traditionally said to ‘help’ lexical verbs in
specifying additional meanings.

Auxiliary verbs share a number of distributional properties that do not apply to lexical verbs. These
properties are referred to as the NICE properties, which stands for Negation, Inversion, Code, and

Unlike all other verbs, Modal Auxiliaries do not show inflected forms for third singular person in
present tense nor non-finite forms as they are always tensed. They help in expressing personal,
subjective assessments about the state of reality of an affair.

Aspectual auxiliaries help to express how an event is viewed in relation to time as a complete
(finalised) event or an event in progression.

Passive Be is used in passive constructions to shift the focus of attention from the role that the
participants (Agent to Patient, and others) play in an event.

Dummy Do or Do Support has no meaning and its only purpose is to help in the construction of
negative, interrogative, code, and emphatic structures.


Prepositions function as the Heads of Prepositional Phrases (PPs). They are uninflected, usually
short words which often express literal meanings such as location in space or time or non-spatial
and abstract meanings.

Prepositions can be simple (one word) or complex (more than one word).

Some prepositions are derived from verbs (deverbal prepositions). This is the case of prepositions
ending in –ing (present participle verb form) or –ed (past participle verb form).

Adverbs and Adverb Phrases

Adverbs function as the Head of Adverb Phrases (AdvP) which modify verbs, adjectives, or other
adverbs. Some adverbs have the same form as adjectives.
Facultad de Humanidades y Arte El sustantivo y sus estructuras asociadas
Departamento de Idiomas Extranjeros J. Pablo Cerda

Adverbs can express a large range of different types of meanings, such as manner (the way in which
something occurs), intensity or degree, direction, frequency, instrument, location, time, modality.


Conjunctions are linking words of which there are two main types: coordinating conjunctions and
subordinating conjunctions.

Coordinating conjunctions are used to link words, phrases, and clauses. The most common ones
are and, or, and but.

Subordinating conjunctions (also called subordinators) are linking words which serve to subordinate
one clause to another.


The class of interjections includes words like ah, aha, cook, damn, oh, mmm, ooh, ouch, uh, wow,
yippee, yuck. They are used to express reactions, emotions, approval, disapproval, and so on.


Bas, Aarts. 2011. Oxford Modern English Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Raddent, Gunter; Rene Dirven. 2007. Cognitive English Grammar. Amsterdam: John Benjamins
Publishing Company.