Dick Howell, June 2002

revised: April 2004

This paper deals with the grammar of the English language, but with terms defined and organized so that it also can serve as a description of grammar in general. Not all languages possess all the features described, and some languages possess additional features, or use some of the features to a much greater or lesser extent than English. Languages not of Indo-European origin will deviate more from this description. This paper does not deal with the details of inflected forms, the complexities of verb forms such as aorist tenses, reflexive or middle voices, or many modals, nor with levels of formality or politeness. It intends instead to provide a structure on which additional linguistic features, such as are important, can be hung. Examples are sparse, and are given in English, but most should have good counterparts in other languages.

A sentence is made up of a sequence of words, with implied relationships among them. It is useful to identify with each word in the sentence a property called its part of speech. The rules which describe the relationships, in terms of the way the different parts of speech work together in a sentence, are collectively called grammar.

The term grammar sometimes includes the rules for using various graphical marks in the written form of a language, properly called punctuation, but it will not be the subject of this paper.

Grammatical relationships normally are described by saying that one word or phrase can modify another, that is, the modifier narrows the meaning of the other, making it more specific. Often the two such related words or phrases can after that be treated as a unit, sometimes called a phrase, although the term phrase is often reserved for such units that are formed with the use of the particular part of speech called a preposition (section 1.6). Other words, such as compound and complex, are also used to describe multiword grammatical units.

English grammar is sufficiently recursive that multiword grammatical units can be used in a sentence as almost any part of speech.

1. Parts of Speech

The term part of speech properly is only meaningful in describing a word's function in a given sentence. Most words, however, typically are used as only one particular part of speech, so you can often think of a word's part of speech outside of a sentence. But many words can be used in more than one way, and some sentences imply unusual usages, so it is not, in general, possible to determine a word's part of speech in isolation.

1.1. Noun

A noun represents a concrete or abstract thing. It can be modified by an adjective (or an article), and itself can modify, or at least form a relationship which narrows the meaning of, a verb (in four different ways) or a preposition.

1.2. Adjective

An adjective ascribes a property to a noun, and thus modifies it.

1.3. Pronoun

A pronoun is a substitute for a noun, taking on the noun's properties by reference. Examples of English pronouns are "it", "him", and "your". A pronoun can form most of the relationships of a noun, except that it cannot be modified by an adjective or an article.

1.4. Verb

A verb represents an action or a state of being. It can express a relationship among from zero to four nouns. Most verbs have many forms, some of which function grammatically as nouns (infinitives and gerunds), and some as adjectives (participles and gerundives).

1.5. Adverb

An adverb ascribes a property to a verb, adjective, or another adverb, and thus modifies it. Adverbs come in many types, and sometimes when they are considered to be modifying a verb, the relationship is not very clear. In general, words answering the questions "how", "why", "when", and "where" are considered adverbial, and if there is nothing else to which they clearly ascribe a property, they are considered to modify the main verb of the sentence or clause.

1.6. Preposition

A preposition forms a relationship with a noun or pronoun to form a phrase (a prepositional phrase), which may, depending on the preposition, have the character of an adjective or an adverb, thus modifying a noun, verb, adjective, or adverb. Such a prepositional phrase can also, in unusual circumstances, be itself modified by an adverb. Common English prepositions are "with", "for", and "of".

In English, when a prepositional phrase follows a noun, if it could be understood as either an adjective phrase modifying that noun or as an adverb phrase modifying the main verb, the adjective interpretation is usually preferred. This is not true in all languages.

1.7. Conjunction

A conjunction joins together two other grammatical units of the same part of speech, to form a compound unit, still of the same part of speech. Common English conjunctions are "and", "or", and "if". Sometimes a prepositional phrase modifying the first grammatical unit, such as "instead of", can substitute for a conjunction.

1.8. Article

An article is a marker on a noun, modifying it sort of like an adjective. There are three articles in English, "a", "an", and "the", which are required before certain classes of nouns when there is no other specifier or quantifier present.

1.9. Interjection

An interjection is usually a single word forming no relationship. English examples are exclamations such as "aha" and "alas". Sometimes a clause (see sections 2.3 concerning relative pronouns, and section 3.2), such as "I hope" can float in a sentence functionally like an interjection, although it's usually better to consider such usages adverbial.

1.10. Particle

A particle is a word, usually a short one, which forms part of a compound (multiword) unit which isn't readily identifiable as some other part of speech. An English example would be the prepositional part of a phrasal verb, such as the word "over" in "get over". Sometimes even articles are considered a type of particle.

2. Distinctive Properties of Various Parts of Speech

Understanding the relationships formed by different parts of speech is aided by assigning various distinctive properties to words, according to their parts of speech. In some cases, the property is part of the meaning of the word, and in others it is descriptive of a relationship formed with another word or phrase.

2.1. Properties of Nouns

Nouns, or phrases functioning as nouns, have primary properties called number, case, and gender. Nouns are sometimes also classified as count or noncount nouns, or as abstract or concrete nouns.

2.1.1. Number

A noun can be either singular or plural. Most concrete nouns can be either, and normally in English form the plural by adding the ending "­s" or "­es". Some nouns, usually abstract noncount nouns, have no generally used plural form. A few nouns have only a plural form but denote singular things, such as the English words "scissors" or "trousers". This is called pluralia tantum. There is also a less common singularia tantum for collective nouns which use a singular form to refer to a collection of things. Some people use the word "data" this way.

Some languages recognize additional types of number, for example, dual, when there are exactly two things. English does not make distinctions past one or more than one. Zero is conventionally considered singular, although common usage often treats it as plural if the noun denotes something countable.

2.1.2. Case

The case of a noun indicates its grammatical function, that is, the sort of relationships it is forming with surrounding words. Some languages have special forms of the words for each case. Some make less differentiation than the list here, and some do not match these functions one-for-one to the forms themselves. English uses nouns for all but one of these functions, but has very few distinct forms. If the text does not state otherwise, the English form for that case is the same as the nominative. Nominative (subject)

A noun may be the subject of a verb, that is, the thing performing the action of an active verb, or the thing receiving the action of a passive verb. See section 2.5.1 on verbs. The singular nominative form is the usual dictionary form of a noun.

The nominative case is also used as a predicate nominative after forms of the verb "to be". See section 2.5.1. Genitive (possessive)

A noun may represent something to which something else belongs. In this sense a possessive noun modifies the other noun, and so acts grammatically like an adjective. In English, possessives are formed by adding the ending "­'s" to the nominative form. If the resulting word would end in "­s's", as would be very common with plural possessives, the final "­s" may be removed. This removal is mandatory for plurals, and optional for singular possessives. Dative (indirect object)

A noun may be the indirect object of a verb, that is, the thing, usually animate, which receives the benefit of the action of the verb, which, in this case, acts on something else. Accusative (direct object)

A noun may be the direct object of a verb, that is, the thing upon which the verb acts. See section 2.5.1 on verbs. Vocative (address)

A noun may be used to call something, as if by name, when addressing it. Prepositional or Locative

A noun may be the object of a preposition, that is, the thing about which the preposition is expressing a relationship. In the English phrase "with sugar", the noun "sugar" is the object of the preposition "with". English does not differentiate the noun forms used with various prepositions, but some languages do. Usually they don't have a special case just for prepositions, but rather use various noun cases with prepositions, depending on the preposition and the way the resulting prepositional phrase is used. Ablative or Instrumental

A noun may express the means or agent by which the action of a verb comes about. See section 2.5.1 on verbs. This case is not used in English, its function being expressed by a prepositional phrase, usually with either the preposition "by", or "with".

2.1.3. Gender

Some languages classify nouns by grammatical gender, commonly corresponding to physical gender when referring to people and, often, animals. The gender of other nouns is usually rather arbitrary. English makes no distinction of gender with nouns, although there are several distinct pronoun forms.

2.1.4. Count/Noncount

Most nouns represent things which can be counted, but some do not. The forms of quantifying adjectives used with nouns sometimes differ depending on whether a thing is countable. English examples would be, for a count noun, "many cups"; for a noncount noun "much coffee".

2.1.5. Attributive Use of Nouns

Nouns in English are sometimes used attributively, which is to say that they function as adjectives. When we speak of a "town hall", a "paper tiger", or a "cement mixer", the first noun in each of these phrases acts as an adjective, modifying the second. Other languages often use a suffix on the noun to form a more distinct adjective.

2.2. Properties of Adjectives

Adjectives, in modifying nouns, can also have properties of number, case, and gender. In English, ordinary adjectives have the same form regardless of any of these properties. There are, however a few exceptions, for example demonstrative specifiers such as "this", with the plural form "these", and several quantifiers such as "much" and "many" which have different forms for use with count and noncount nouns.

Most adjectives have a property called degree, which has no name in the adjective's basic form, but in the 2nd degree is called comparative, and in the 3rd degree is called superlative. There are a number of exceptions in English, but the most common ways of making these forms are either with the suffixes "­er" and "­est", or with the auxiliary words "more" and "most".

One-syllable adjectives usually use the suffixes, and adjectives of three or more syllables almost always use the auxiliaries. With two syllables, there is no simple rule to predict which is correct.

An adjective also can be considered to have a property of either attributive or predicate, depending on its use. An attributive adjective, in English, generally stands in front of the noun it modifies, and serves to identify which thing is intended. A predicate adjective is an adjective modifying the subject in a sentence whose main verb indicates a state of being (often a form of "to be"), but standing after the verb and separated from the subject. Such an adjective asserts new information about the noun. For example, in the sentence "The big men were angry", the adjective "big" is attributive, identifying which men we mean, while the adjective "angry" is predicate, telling us something about the men.

2.3. Properties of Pronouns

Pronouns, as stand-ins for nouns, can have all the properties of nouns, plus a few more. In English, the pronouns "he" and "she" have gender, although they are about the only words in English with this property. They also have distinct case forms for subject, possessive, and object, the latter form being used for indirect object, direct object, and object of preposition.

There are four classes of pronouns, personal, demonstrative, relative, and interrogative.

Personal pronouns also have the property of person. In the singular nominative (subject) forms, they are (1st person) I, (2nd person) you, and (3rd person) he/she/it. In the plural, they are, respectively, we, you, and they. The object forms are me, you, him/her/it; us, you, them.

English personal pronouns make a distinction in the possessive case between attributive and predicate forms. Since possessives act functionally like adjectives, they have these usages, and the forms of such pronouns are sometimes different. The attributive possessive pronouns are my, your, his/her/its; our, your, their. The predicate possessive pronouns are mine, yours, his/hers/its; ours, yours, theirs. Note that there are no apostrophes in the spelling of any of these English personal pronouns.

Possessive nouns and pronouns are used attributively in English in two ways. The simple way puts the pronoun before the noun and any adjectives modifying it, as a specifier, for example, "our heavy bags". If there is another specifier, a quantifier, or an article present, a phrase with the preposition "of", called double possessive, must be used after the noun, for example "those heavy bags of ours". The predicate possessive form serves as the object of the preposition.

A demonstrative pronoun points to something. English examples would be the words "this", "that", and a few related forms.

A personal pronoun in the 3rd person or a demonstrative pronoun must refer back to some earlier-used noun, or occasionally a phrase or an understood state of affairs, and the pronoun represents that thing in the pronoun's own usage. The thing for which the pronoun stands is called its antecedent. The pronoun must agree in gender and number with the antecedent, while the pronoun's case is determined by its own use.

A relative pronoun is a word like "which", "that", or "who", which introduces a construct called a clause. A clause is almost a subordinate sentence, with its own verb, which is related to the main sentence through the pronoun.

The relative pronoun in English usually immediately follows its antecedent. Sometimes a relative pronoun is used as the object of a preposition, which either comes right before the pronoun, or, in informal English, is sometimes tacked onto the end of the clause, possibly with many words intervening between it and its object. Some grammar texts consider this use substandard, but it is very common.

An interrogative pronoun is a word like "which", "what", or "who", which is used to begin a question which asks for identification of something which would serve as its antecedent.

English personal pronouns, including the relative pronoun "who", can be summarized compactly and completely in the following table of 36 entries:



Attributive possessive

Predicate possessive





































2.4. Properties of Adverbs

Adverbs generally do not change their forms except for degree, which works about the same as for adjectives (section 2.2). Formation of the comparative and superlative degrees is much more regular for adverbs, because a large number of them end in "­ly", and since that adds a syllable, there are not very many left which are less than three syllables. Most adverbs, including any of three or more syllables, use the auxiliaries "more" and "most". Adverbs of two syllables ending in "­ly" change the ending to "­lier" or "­liest". Adverbs not ending in "­ly" follow the same rules as adjectives.

2.5. Properties of Verbs

Verbs have many forms, and many kinds of properties. Some of the properties are intrinsic to the verb and its meaning, and others relate to the forms a verb may have when it is used. English has an especially complicated verb system.

As an intrinsic property, a verb may be transitive or intransitive, depending on whether it is used with a direct or indirect object. A verb may also be called compound if it is made up of more than one word. There are classes of compound verbs called modal and phrasal verbs.

In use, a verb may take on special forms to indicate properties of person, number, tense, aspect, voice, and mood. There are also forms which function as nouns, called infinitives and gerunds, and forms which function as adjectives, called participles and gerundives.

2.5.1. Transitive and Intransitive Verbs

A verb normally expresses a relationship among one to four nouns. Considering active verbs first (see section 2.5.5), the first noun, called the subject of the verb, is the thing performing the action of the verb. The second noun, called the direct object, is the thing upon which the verb acts. The third noun, the indirect object, is the thing, usually animate, which receives the benefit of the action of the verb, which, in this case, acts on something else. The fourth noun, called the agent, expresses the means by which the verb acts. Not all of these nouns must be present. In English, the agent is never expressed with a simple noun, but rather with a prepositional phrase, whose usage is considered adverbial.

For example, in the English sentence "the child wrote me a letter with a crayon", the subject is "child", the direct object is "letter", the indirect object is "me", and the agent is "crayon". In the normal English word order, the subject comes before the verb, and both kinds of object come after it. If both objects are present and they both come after the verb, the indirect object must come first. If the logic of the sentence makes this location inconvenient, the indirect object can be replaced by a prepositional phrase, usually with "to", (sometimes "for"), as in "the child wrote a letter to me with a crayon".

In a passive verb form, the relationship is reversed so that the subject receives the action, there is no object, and the thing performing the action is not mentioned. For example, in the English sentence "the letter was written to me with a crayon by a child", the subject is "letter", but the words which would be indirect object and subject of the active form, "me" and "child", must here be expressed by (adverbial) prepositional phrases.

Not all verbs can have an indirect object, for example, in a sentence like "he said something", the word "something" is the direct object, but there is no opportunity with the verb "say" to add an indirect object as in the sentence "he told me something".

Most verbs can, and even must, have a direct object. Such verbs are called transitive. Many verbs, however cannot have a direct object. These verbs are called intransitive. For example, in the sentence "the sun shines", there is not, and cannot be, an object. In general, if there is no direct object, there cannot be an indirect object either.

The verb "to be", in all its forms, is an exception, being neither transitive nor intransitive. The first of the nouns it relates is called its subject, as with other verbs, but instead of an object, if it relates another noun, given after the verb, that second noun is called a predicate nominative, or sometimes a predicate noun.

Some verb forms, especially noun and adjective forms (see sections 2.5.7 to 2.5.10), refer to the verb's action as an abstraction, and do not have a subject. Some of these forms can still have either kind of object, however.

2.5.2. Compound Verbs

The term compound is used to describe a verb form which consists of more than one word. It includes modal and phrasal verbs, and is also used to describe tense forms which are sometimes formed with helping words called verbal auxiliaries or auxiliary verbs. In English, the words "have" and "be", in several forms, are used as auxiliaries. Modal Verbs

Modal verbs are forms made with auxiliaries such as "may", "can", "should", "might", and several others. Modal verbs usually express some sort of conditional nature or emphasis to the main verb action. The list sometimes also includes the auxiliary "will", which is used to express future action. Forms with "will", however, are usually called future tense (see section 2.5.4). Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal verbs are forms made from an ordinary verb and another word (or words), usually a word which could also be used as a preposition, which, in combination, take on a new meaning. An example is "to get over a cold". Semantically it is nonsense to call "get" the verb, and "over a cold" a prepositional phrase. It is grammatically faulty too, since "get" is transitive, and prepositional phrases don't generally function as nouns. It is more sensible to say "get over" is the verb, and "(a) cold" is its direct object. Some, but not all, phrasal verbs can be separated, as for example "to put away a book" can also be said "to put a book away".

2.5.3. Verb Person and Number

Verbs, like personal pronouns, have the property of person, and the term number is used to specify singular or plural. In these two properties of person and number, a verb must agree with its subject. The verb forms are the ones used with their corresponding pronouns. To use the verb "to sing" as an example, the forms are as follows:



1st person

I sing

we sing

2nd person

you sing

you sing

3rd person

he/she/it sings

they sing

Note that in English, all forms are the same except for the 3rd person singular present tense form, which generally has "­s" or "­es" added.

Sometimes verbs are irregular. The only English verb with very irregular person and number forms is the verb "to be":



1st person

I am

we are

2nd person

you are

you are

3rd person

he/she/it is

they are

In the past tense, it is irregular in the 1st person singular form "was". The 3rd person singular is also "was", while all other forms are "were".

The verb "have" drops the "­ve" in the 3rd person singular form "has".

2.5.4. Verb Tense and Aspect

The term tense is used to classify verb forms according to what they imply about the time or duration of the action. The first property specifies past, present, or future, generally relative to the present, but sometimes relative to some time established by the context, or the time used in a main clause. In English, these tenses are usually absolute, that is, relative to the present. A second property, sometimes called aspect, indicates whether the action is to be viewed as ongoing, repetitive, or habitual, or as already completed so only its results are implied. If the action is viewed as completed in the past, the tense can be called perfect (some languages have a property which views the action as a whole from beginning to end, called perfective). A tense expressing an action not viewed as completed can be called imperfect, although in English this term is not commonly used, in favor of the term progressive (or continuous) to indicate that the action is ongoing. Some languages use the term imperfect only for past tenses. In English there are two other peculiarities. First, the ordinary present tense is most often used to indicate repetitive or habitual action, or ability to perform an action. Second, English allows perfect progressive tenses to indicate ongoing, repetitive, or habitual action leading up to the time of reference, in addition to a past progressive tense to indicate ongoing action at a time in the past.

See the list of English tenses given at the end of the next section.

2.5.5. Verb Voice

The term voice is used to classify verb forms as either active or passive. This has already been largely explained in section 2.5.1. In an active form, the subject of the verb performs the action. In a passive form, the subject of the verb has the action performed on it. There are no passive forms for intransitive verbs.

Here is a table of the 1st person singular active and 3rd person singular passive forms of the verb "to sing", in all of the common English tenses:





will sing

will be sung

future progressive

will be singing

will be being sung

future perfect

will have sung

will have been sung

future perfect progressive

will have been singing

will have been being sung



is sung

present progressive

am singing

is being sung

present perfect

have sung

has been sung

present perfect progressive

have been singing

has been being sung



was sung

past progressive

was singing

was being sung

past perfect

had sung

had been sung

past perfect progressive

had been singing

had been being sung

Note that modal verbs have forms like the future forms, but with a different modal auxiliary verb. Also, the perfect forms become past forms for modals, and there are no explicit future tenses with modal verbs. Here is the table for "may":





may sing

may be sung

present progressive

may be singing

may be being sung


may have sung

may have been sung

past progressive

may have been singing

may have been being sung

2.5.6. Verb Mood

The term mood is used to classify verb forms as one of indicative, imperative, subjunctive, conditional, or a few others. The common verb forms shown above are in the indicative mood, which is used to state facts. The imperative mood is used to give commands. In English, the subject of an imperative mood verb is omitted, and there is a distinct verb form only for the 2nd person active voice present tense. Passive imperatives can be constructed with the imperative form of "be" plus a passive participle (see section 2.5.9). Imperatives in other persons are constructed with "let", with its indirect object expressing the person, and its direct object being an infinitive form of the verb in question. Almost always the "to" of the infinitive is omitted in this construction. In English, imperatives of any meaningful type are always in the present tense.

The subjunctive mood expresses a theoretical action in a subordinate clause, such as "go" in a sentence like "I'd suggest that he go home". If it were indicative, the form would be "goes". The conditional mood expresses an action contrary to fact or contingent on something speculative. It is often used with the conjunction "if", as in "if I were a rich man", or sometimes without "if", as in "were I a rich man". In English, the verb form often looks similar to an indicative form one tense further in the past, for example, future "if he is ready, he will sing", present "if he were ready, he would be singing", or past "if he had been ready, he would have sung". Other tense and mood sequences are possible but uncommon. Note the need for modal conditionals in the main clause when it is not in the future.

The terms subjunctive and conditional are often confused. The subjunctive mood can usually be replaced with a modal verb, as in "I'd suggest that he should go home". The conditional mood generally cannot, although not every use of a conjunction such as "if" or "when" must be followed by a verb in the conditional mood. For example, an expression not contrary to fact, such as "if it quacks like a duck", is properly in the indicative mood. If the true conditional is really needed, it would be expressed "if it were to quack like a duck" or "if it were quacking like a duck". Several other such correct and uncommon forms can be constructed, but they are beyond the scope of the present description.

2.5.7. Infinitives

An infinitive is a noun form of a verb which, in English, uses the auxiliary particle "to", for example "to sing". Such a verb form represents the action as an abstraction, and has no subject, but it can still have both direct and indirect objects, and even an agent. Infinitives can not be modified by adjectives or articles, and do not form objects of prepositions. Usually they function as subject, direct object, or predicate nominative in association with another verb, generally one of a limited number which meaningfully associate with abstractions. For example, in "he will start to sing us a song", "to sing" is the direct object of the main verb "(will) start". Both direct and indirect objects of "to sing" are present.

Often the auxiliary "to" is omitted, as in "I will go sing something". When "to" is present, the infinitive often expresses purpose, and thereby has the function of an adverb, as in "I will study hard to sing well". The phrase "to sing well" is roughly equivalent to the phrase "so I will sing well", which is adverbial, modifying the main verb "study".

As a noun, an infinitive is singular and neuter. It is neither count nor noncount, since it can never be modified.

When a verb is cited as an example, commonly its infinitive form is given, and the infinitive, without the auxiliary "to" is the form under which the verb may be looked up in a dictionary.

2.5.8. Gerunds

A gerund is a noun form of a verb which, in English, uses the suffix "­ing", for example "singing". There are three "­ing" forms, the others of which are the present active participle (see section 2.5.9) and the gerundive (section 2.5.10). Gerunds, unlike infinitives, can be modified by adjectives and articles, and can function as objects of prepositions. In the sentence "singing songs is fun", "singing" is the subject of the verb "is", and has the direct object "songs". In the sentence "I only paid attention to the best singing", "singing" is modified by "the" and "best", and is the object of the phrasal verb "paid attention to".

As a noun, a gerund is singular, neuter, and almost always noncount.

In English, gerunds tend to be imperfect in character, and infinitives often refer more abstractly to the action as a whole. In some sentences where either form could be used, this distinction can indicate which will be more appropriate.

2.5.9. Participles

A participle is an adjective form of a verb, of which, in English, there are about a half dozen forms. It may be used either before or after the noun it modifies.

The present active participle uses the suffix "­ing", for example "singing". There are three "­ing" forms, the others of which are the gerund (section 2.5.8) and the gerundive (section 2.5.10). In the sentence "I heard a singing bird", the participle "singing" modifies "bird". In this sort of adjective modifier, there is implied an inverse relationship in which the noun also acts as the subject of the participle. If the noun is actually an object form of a pronoun, it does not change to a subject form when it is modified by a participle, despite its also acting as the subject of the participle.

This "­ing" form of the participle is imperfect, and is used to form the progressive tenses, which sometimes are grammatically equivalent to a form of the verb "to be" followed by the participle, which modifies the verb subject.

The past participle is the 3rd principal part of the verb (see section 2.5.11), for example, "sung". With a transitive verb it forms a past passive participle, as in "the sung music", that is, the music which was sung. With an intransitive verb, it occasionally can form a past active participle, as in "vanished glory". This form of participle is perfect in aspect.

The 3rd principal part is also used in three other participle forms, using auxiliary verbs called participial auxiliaries. Staying with the same example verb "to sing", the perfect active participle is "having sung", the perfect passive participle is "having been sung", and the present passive participle is "being sung". Only the first of these three forms is possible with an intransitive verb.

2.5.10. Gerundives

A gerundive is an adjective form of a verb which, in English, uses the suffix "­ing", for example "singing". There are three "­ing" forms, the others of which are the gerund (section 2.5.8) and the present active participle (section 2.5.9). In the sentence "she took singing lessons twice a week", the gerundive "singing" modifies "lessons". Note that the gerundive, unlike a participle, implies neither any action nor any inverse relationship in which, in this example, the lessons might "sing". The gerundive usually expresses the purpose or particular type of the noun it modifies. In this sense it can be considered a gerund used attributively (see section 2.1.5), but without the possibility of having either kind of object.

2.5.11. Principal Parts

Because of the variety of forms, and the fact that in most languages many are irregular, verbs may be classified or listed in terms of what are called their principal parts. In English, three forms are given, which are the present tense, the past (imperfect) tense, and the past participle. The present and past tense forms are given as the 1st person singular active indicative. All of the perfect active tenses, and all of the passive tenses, are formed from the 3rd principal part.

Most English verbs, considered to be regular verbs, form both the past tense and past participle by adding the ending "­d" or "­ed". Others, of which there are many, are considered irregular.

The examples above have used the verb "to sing", which conveniently has all of the demonstrated forms. It also is irregular, such that the three principal parts, "sing", "sang", "sung", are all different. Careful study of the examples will show which principal part is used in the construction of each form.

3. English Word Order

This section outlines the fundamentals of normal English word order. Sentences can have almost infinite variation, and many structures, even some common ones, will not, for the sake of brevity, be covered here.

3.1. Simple Declarative Sentences

This section describes the structure of a sentence which states a simple fact.

3.1.1. Synthesis

The normal order of the main parts of a sentence is (1) subject, (2) verb, (3) indirect object, and (4) direct object. If any part is not present in a given sentence, the other parts still go in the indicated order. If there is an indirect object, it directly follows the verb, or if the verb is compound, it follows the main word of the verb. If a separable phrasal verb is actually separated, the separated part usually comes after the direct object.

Adjectives usually go before the nouns they modify. If there are several adjectives modifying a single noun, their order may not matter, but there is sometimes the sense that the adjective closest to the noun acts first, forming a two-word noun phrase, then the next adjective modifies that phrase to form a three-word phrase, and so forth. Sometimes this suggests a logical order for the adjectives. If there is a quantifier, it will come before the ordinary adjectives, and if there is an article, specifier, or possessive, it will come first of all. Phrasal participles usually come after the noun. For example, the noun phrase "The three famous tenors, having sung the aria" demonstrates them all.

In a prepositional phrase, the preposition comes first, then its object, which will be a noun, a noun with modifiers, or a noun phrase. If the prepositional phrase itself acts as an adjective, it will go after the noun it modifies.

Adverbs usually go before adjectives and other adverbs which they modify. Adverbial prepositional phrases go after adjectives and other adverbs which they modify. When adverbs or adverbial phrases modify verbs, they can go nearly anywhere in the sentence, although it is often most convenient to collect them at the beginning and the end of the sentence.

Grammatical units constructed with conjunctions generally put the conjunction between the parts being joined, and the resulting phrase after that stays together as a unit.

3.1.2. Analysis

In analyzing a sentence, the parts of speech and the words' functions are identified by breaking it apart gradually into smaller units until finally it's resolved into individual words and compounds.

The first step is to identify the main verb in the sentence, then to find the subject of that verb, sometimes also called the subject of the sentence. The word which is the subject, along with all its modifiers, can then be separated off into a possibly large unit called the subject part of the sentence. The rest of the sentence, possibly not contiguous, but mostly following the subject part, is collected together and called the predicate. The predicate can, in a sense, be thought of as a giant intransitive verb phrase, of which the subject part is the subject. The two pieces can now be further broken down separately. The subject part is simply a noun phrase, and can be resolved into the main noun and its modifiers. The predicate is a verb with possible objects and adverbial modifiers. Those parts are identified, split off, and separately broken down.

This analysis can be represented by a schematic drawing in which phrases are underlined or enclosed in boxes, and arrows point from modifiers to the words or phrases modified. Such a drawing is called a sentence diagram.

3.2. Clauses

A phrase which contains a verb, but is not in itself the complete sentence, is called a clause. A clause which functions as a noun, adjective, or adverb within the main part of the sentence, and is thus secondary to it, is called a subordinate clause. Such a clause is introduced with a relative pronoun (see section 2.3), a word such as "how" or "why", which is both a conjunction and an adverb, or a conjunction such as "if", "so", or "because". A relative pronoun usually has an antecedent which immediately precedes the clause, so these clauses don't usually come at the beginning of the sentence. Such clauses act as adjectives modifying the antecedent. A clause introduced with an adverb can act as either an adjective or a noun, as shown by the sentences "I have no idea how it works", and "I don't know how it works". The phrase "how it works" is a clause, in the first case functioning as an adjective modifying the noun "idea", and in the second case functioning as a noun, the direct object of the main verb "know". In either case, within the clause "how it works", the word "how" acts like an adverb modifying "works".

Sometimes clauses are joined by a simple conjunction, so that neither is subordinate, as in the sentence "I came and I left".

A sentence with only one verb is called a simple sentence. A sentences with clauses is called a compound sentence.

3.3. Negation

Negation of the sense of the verb in an English sentence is accomplished by putting the word "not" after the verb. However, except with forms of the verb "to be", it sounds archaic if the verb is not a compound verb of some sort. With a compound verb, the word "not" goes after the first part of the compound. With a simple verb, it is customary in modern English to change the verb to a compound form, either by adding a modal auxiliary or a form of the word "do", which is otherwise used as an auxiliary verb to provide emphasis. It is then also very common for the verbal auxiliary and the word "not" to be contracted, especially if the negation is not emphatic. For example, to negate "he sings", we add the auxiliary "do" to get "he does sing", then "not" to get "he does not sing", and then it contracts to "he doesn't sing". If the verb is already compound, no additional auxiliary is needed, as in "he isn't singing", "it hasn't been sung", or "we couldn't sing".

Phrasal verbs, even though they are compound, usually are modified in this way with an auxiliary before being negated.

Sometimes "not" has the sense of attaching to the main part of a compound verb so that it forms a two-word verb phrase with a negated meaning. For example, the sentence "he might have been singing" would be negated the ordinary way as "he might not have been singing". It is also possible to say "he might have been not singing", to emphasize the abstention from singing as if it were something active. It is even possible to say "he might have not been singing", although this last example is perhaps substandard.

3.4. Questions

Questions are asked by putting the verb before the subject, usually at the very beginning of the sentence. However, as with negation, this is not done with simple verbs other than forms of "to be". For example, "they are singers" becomes "are they singers". Other simple verbs and phrasal verbs are first changed to a compound form with an auxiliary, exactly as they are with negation, and then they are treated like any compound verb, in which the first word of the compound is moved to the front of the sentence. For example, the sentence "I sing" goes through "I do sing" to "do I sing". If the verb is already compound, no additional auxiliary is needed, as in "is he singing", "has it been sung", or "could we sing".

Negation of a question is easy, since there will already be an auxiliary verb at the beginning of the sentence. We just add "not", almost always contracted in a question, as in "isn't he singing", "hasn't it been sung", or "couldn't we sing". If it is uncontracted, "not" is placed after the subject, as in "is he not singing", "has it not been sung", or "could we not sing". Emphasizing the negative in a question is hard, since it sounds unnatural to uncontract it without also moving "not" to follow the subject, and that usage sounds more polite than emphatic. It is more common to form a two-word verb phrase with a negated meaning, as in "could he have not sung". The main trouble with this usage is that distinguishing it from the non-emphatic polite form requires at least a three-word compound verb.

3.5. Commands

Commands are given with verbs in the imperative mood, as described in section 2.5.6. The subject "you" is omitted, and the verb is the first word in the sentence, as in "sing all three songs". For emphasis, the subject "you" can be added, before the verb, but the context or tone of voice must make the imperative mood clear, because the sentence form is the same as an ordinary statement using the indicative mood. Other imperatives, mentioned in section 2.5.6, use the imperative mood of "be" or "let", always at the beginning of the sentence, as in "be sung, o song", or "let us sing". The last example is normally contracted to "let's sing".

4. Common Errors, Substandard Usages, and Odd Things

This section lists some examples of English usage which are commonly heard, but are also unusual, incorrect, or otherwise noteworthy.

4.1. Mixed forms of personal pronouns in compounds

As described in section 2.3, most personal pronouns have distinct subject and object forms. English speakers generally have no trouble with them when they are used in isolation, but for reasons hard to understand, some people use them incorrectly when they are joined with a conjunction, especially "and". Conjunctions form multiword grammatical units which, except sometimes for number, have the same properties as the individual units joined by the conjunction, thus it is never proper to join a subject form and an object form. Examples of proper usage would be "he and I sang", "she saw them and us", and "they went with him and me". In each case the sentence can be expanded into two clauses, as "he sang and I sang", "she saw them and she saw us", and "they went with him and they went with me". If the pronoun forms are incorrect in the expanded form, they are equally incorrect with the conjunction.

This is quite a common error in spoken English, and it is absolutely wrong.

4.2. Splitting an infinitive

It is sometimes considered bad practice to "split an infinitive", that is, to put anything between the auxiliary "to" and the main verb part. But there are times when an adverb of some sort has reason to be attached so firmly to the verb that it seems to form a new compound verb with the sense of the adverb built into its meaning. This is described in section 3.3 for use of the word "not" to construct a compound verb with a negated meaning. Thus people may feel more natural with a verb like "to boldly go", rather than disallowing this way of forming a compound, and thus being compelled to say "to go boldly".

English in common use seems to allow formation of this kind of compound verb. If it is understood as such a compound, and not as an inserted adverb, the infinitive is no longer split. Some grammar authorities, however, don't recognize this as a legal construct, and call the usage substandard.

4.3. Ending a sentence with a preposition

It is also considered bad practice to end a sentence with a preposition, presumably since the object of the preposition should always follow it. But there is a very commonly used grammatical manipulation which puts a preposition at the end of a subordinate clause, which can then easily be the end of the sentence as a whole. Consider the sentence "a preposition is a bad thing to end a sentence with", which, of course, ends with a preposition. This comes about because the phrase at the end "to end a sentence with" is a common alternate form of "with which to end a sentence", as explained in section 2.3 for use of relative pronouns when forming clauses. In this case, after "with" is moved to the end, the relative pronoun "which" can be removed, the rule seeming to be that it can be omitted when it is the very first word of the clause, and the clause is adjectival and immediately following the noun it modifies, in this case the word "thing". While this construction definitely leaves the preposition hanging far from its object, it also potentially shortens the sentence. Most people don't consider this to be substandard.

There is an old story told about Winston Churchill, who, upon being asked about this point, replied "This is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put". Perhaps it should be noted that it would have been all right to say "the sort of nonsense I will not put up with", since in this sentence, the word "with" is not a preposition at all, but rather part of the nonseparable phrasal verb "to put up with" (see section But the construction of Churchill's sentence is clear when you realize that the object of the verb in the clause, which is the relative pronoun "which", has been omitted because it would have been the first word in the clause, which modifies "nonsense" (or arguably the noun phrase "the sort of nonsense"). So then the clause "which I will not put up with", could, if we treat "with" incorrectly as a preposition, be rewritten as "with which I will not put up", and then moving "up" to the beginning to keep it with "with", we arrive at the original tortured form. But none of it is necessary, or really even correct.

4.4. Object forms for pronouns after forms of "to be"

After a form of "to be", a main noun or pronoun in the predicate is supposed to be in the nominative (subject) case, but in ordinarily spoken English, it has become common for the object form to be used. Thus the formally correct "it was she", is much more often heard as "it was her". This is true for all personal pronouns except "whom" and for any tense of the verb "to be", so it is just as common to hear things like "it will be only us in the room". For the same reason, when someone asks "who's there?", the usual answer would be "me".

While appearing incorrect according to the rules, this usage has come to be considered standard in modern English. Using the subject form, however, is not incorrect.

4.5. Subject form of "who" used as object

The object form of the personal relative and interrogative pronoun "who" is "whom". However, it is rarely used except directly after a preposition. It is normal to see sentences like "who did you see", "I know who you saw", "who were you talking to", and "he saw who you wrote about". If the last two examples are changed so the final preposition comes first, "whom" must be used, as "to whom were you talking" and "he saw about whom you wrote". The last of these, however, is clumsy, probably because it seems at first as if "saw about" might be some new phrasal verb.

If there is a preposition, "whom" is required, but otherwise it has become standard to use "who" even as an object.

4.6. Use of "they" forms for "he" or "she"

Until the 1960's, it was conventional to use forms of "he" when speaking generally of individuals of unknown or unspecified gender, and "she" only when the person was known or at least strongly supposed to be female. Certain groups of English speakers objected to this convention, and in deference to them, it has become common to use forms of "they" (and plural verb forms) even when the antecedent is, grammatically, clearly singular. This new convention leads to more semantic ambiguities than the old one, but some people have become extraordinarily sensitive.

Other people have adopted a convention of choosing either a "he" form or a "she" form completely at random, so the grammar remains singular, but use of a "she" form this way often appears sexist, especially to the older generation.

These usages aren't really standard, but they're sometimes thought to be politically correct.

4.7. Plural number in phrase based on singular noun

The grammar presented in this paper has spoken of phrases or grammatical units as entities which themselves can be classified as parts of speech, given all the properties normally adhering to those parts of speech, and used in sentences almost as freely as individual words. In this sense, English grammar may be thought of as recursive, a notion which actually simplifies a description such as this one. It also provides a neat answer to an otherwise puzzling question.

Consider answers to a question such as "how many tickets are available for tomorrow's game?" Answers might be "there is one ticket", "there are ten tickets", "there are two hundred tickets", or even "there are a great number of tickets". But is the last sentence correct? On one hand it seems reasonable that you should only use the verb "is" when there is exactly one ticket, which would clearly not be the case. On the other hand, a grammar which doesn't assign properties to multiword grammatical units would be stuck with identifying "number" as the subject, which is singular, so for proper agreement the verb would have to be "is". The fact is, if you hear people actually talking about tickets this way, you will virtually never hear "is".

The explanation, of course, is simple. The subject isn't "number", but the phrase "a great number of tickets". Semantically this is plural, so we naturally consider it to be grammatically plural as well. The problem is solved. More precisely, we should say we would use "are" if we are talking about tickets, but "is" if what we are actually talking about is numbers.

Common sense must be used not to carry this notion too far. The property assigned to the phrase must be natural and obvious, not an incidental logical consequence. Thus you ought to say "All single-digit integers greater than eight are divisible by three", even though there is only one.

Copyright 2002-2004 Richard P. Howell IV. Permission to use for noncommercial purposes granted so long as this copyright notice is not removed.