One of the mysteries of the English language finally explained.
Some grammatical terms may be familiar to you, but others can be confusing or hard to remember. Clicking on any term below will give you a quick and clear definition. Below the categorized section you’ll find all the terms listed from A–Z, so you can browse that way if you prefer.
- Abstract noun
- Collective noun
- Common noun
- Concrete noun
- Countable noun
- Mass noun
- Proper noun
- Uncountable noun
- Verbal noun
- Auxiliary verb
- Finite verb
- Modal verb
- Non-finite verb
- Phrasal verb
- Split infinitive
Tenses and Moods
- Conditional clause
- Coordinate clause
- Defining relative clause
- Main clause
- Non-restrictive relative clause
- Relative clause
- Restrictive relative clause
- Subordinate clause
Other parts of speech
Other useful terms
- Cohesive device
- First person
- Grapheme-phoneme correspondences
- Root Word
- Second person
- Split digraph
- Standard English
- Third person
- Word family
An active verb has a subject which is performing the action of the verb, for example:
John ate the apple.
The opposite of passive. Find out more about active and passive verbs.
A type of optional adverbial that adds extra information to a sentence, for instance:
I can’t sleep at night.
Read more about adverbials and adjuncts.
A word, such as very, really or slowly, that is used to give more information about an adjective, verb, or other adverb. Learn more about how to use adverbs.
An adverb, phrase, or clause which changes, restricts, or adds to the meaning of a verb, for instance:
I put my bag on the floor.
Read more about adverbials.
A word, sentence, or phrase that states that something is the case or which expresses agreement, for instance:
Whales are mammals; that’s correct.
The opposite of negative.
An adjective that is used to put people or things into categories or classes (e.g. an electric oven, a presidential candidate). Compare with qualitative adjective. Find out more about classifying and qualitative adjectives.
I went to the bank and drew out some money.
The close relationship between the parts of a piece of writing (e.g. the clauses of a sentence or the sections of a longer text), based on grammar or meaning. Cohesion helps to guide the reader through the ideas in a text in a logical way. See also cohesive device.
A word or phrase used to link parts of a text so that the reader finds it clear to understand. Typical cohesive devices are pronouns (to refer to earlier nouns without repeating them); prepositions, conjunctions, and adverbs (to show contrast, addition, ordering, etc.); and ellipsis (to avoid stating words which the reader expects). See also connective.
For instance: My friend loves sailing, but he’s often too busy [ellipsis of to do this]. Apart from this, he also enjoys swimming, while I prefer to stay in and read.
The comparative form of an adjective is used for comparing two people or things, to express the fact that one has a higher degree of a quality than the other. For example:
She’s taller than me.
He’s happier today than yesterday.
They’re more popular than the Beatles.
She became a teacher.
I was angry.
They seemed very friendly.
A word made up of two or more existing words, such as credit card, left-handed, or website. Learn more about hyphens in compound words.
He would see.
Should we stay or go?
If I had more money, I’d buy a bigger house.
Should you change your mind, we’d be happy to help.
A clause which describes something that is possible or probable, depending on something else happening. Such clauses usually begin with if or unless, for example:
If it rains, the match will be cancelled.
I’m not going to the party unless she comes too.
A word that is used to link other words or parts of a sentence, such as and, but, or if. Learn about the different types of conjunctions.
A word or phrase that links other words, phrases, clauses, or sentences, such as a conjunction, a preposition, or an adverb. For example: My cat fell out of the tree, but she wasn't hurt. In fact, she climbed up it again! See also cohesive device.
A spoken sound made by completely or partially blocking the flow of air breathed out through the mouth. In English, consonants are represented by the letters b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, w, x, y, and z. Compare with vowel. See also Is the letter Y a vowel or a consonant?
I’m watching the TV.
It was snowing.
A shortened form of a word or group of words (e.g. they’re is a contraction of they are). Read more about contractions.
It was freezing cold but the sun was shining.
[coordinate clause] [coordinate clause]
Learn about the different types of conjunctions.
In grammar, coordination refers to a relationship between two or more words, phrases, or clauses in which both elements have equal importance. For instance, in the sentence we visited Paris and London, the words Paris and London are joined by the conjunction and to show that they are equally important. Compare with subordination. See also coordinate clause.
In the context of dictionaries and linguistics, a corpus is a very large and diverse collection of written (or spoken) material that is gathered into an electronic database and can be analysed to find out how people are really using language. Find out more about the Oxford English Corpus.
Also called count noun. A noun that refers to something that can be counted and has both singular and plural forms, such as cat/cats, woman/women, family/families. The opposite of uncountable noun. Learn more about countable and uncountable nouns.
Another term for restrictive relative clause.
The act of leaving out a word or phrase deliberately, either to avoid repeating something, or because the meaning can be understood without it (e.g. ‘How many coffees did you drink today?’ ‘Three.’ [ellipsis of I drank...coffees today].
The origin of a word (for instance, from a particular language) and the historical development of its meaning. You can find the etymologies (described as ORIGIN) of many words near the end of each dictionary page on Oxford Dictionaries Online; here is the etymology of nice.
A verb form which shows a particular tense, person (first person, second person, or third person), or number (singular or plural). For instance, am, is, was, and were are the finite forms of the verb to be. Compare with non-finite verb.
The pronouns, verb forms, and determiners which are used by a speaker to identify himself or herself, or to refer to a group including himself or herself, for instance, I, we, my, we were, I went. Compare with second person, third person.
Formal speaking and writing typically has more complex grammatical structures and more conservative or technical vocabulary than everyday English. It’s used in official communications and speeches, business reports, legal contexts, academic books, etc. For example:
The defendant was unable to give any alternative satisfactory explanation of how he financed the purchase, apart from unspecified loans from individuals not available to give evidence.
The emphasis of a word or phrase by placing it at or near the start of a sentence, instead of beginning the sentence with its grammatical subject. For instance, in the following sentence, this afternoon has been fronted so as to emphasize the time that the meeting is happening: This afternoon, we’re going to meet our friends for lunch (the typical word order would be We’re going to meet up with our friends for lunch this afternoon).
A verb tense used to refer to something that has not yet happened, for example:
I shall arrive in Paris at midday.
Will it be sunny this weekend?
Learn more about verb tenses.
Another term for verbal noun.
Abbreviation for grapheme-phoneme correspondences.
The smallest unit (a letter or combination of letters) that has meaning in a writing system and which represents a particular phoneme (speech sound) For example, the word sheet has 5 letters and 4 graphemes.
The associations between the units of a writing system (graphemes) and the speech sounds (phonemes) that they represent. For instance, the graphemes ee, ea, ei, and e can all represent the phoneme /i:/ (sleeve; each; receive; me).
A word that is spelled the same as another word or words, but which may have a different meaning or pronunciation. For instance: the violinist put down her bow and made a bow to the audience. See also homophone, homonym.
A word that has the same spelling or pronunciation as another word or words, but which has a different meaning and origin. For example: I can see one can of beans on the shelf. See also homophone, homograph.
Add the onions to the pan.
Find out more about the imperative and other moods of verbs.
The form (or mood) of a verb that expresses simple statements of fact. In the sentence Jo likes coffee, the verb like is in the indicative mood. Find out more about the indicative and other moods of verbs.
Another term for reported speech.
The basic unchanged form of a verb, which usually occurs with the word ‘to’. For instance: to read; to be. See also split infinitive.
A change in the form of a word (usually the ending) to show its grammatical function in a sentence, for example the tense of a verb (e.g. I walked; she had) or the plural of a noun (e.g. potatoes; children). Read more about verb tenses and forming plurals of nouns.
Informal speaking and writing typically has fairly simple grammatical structures, doesn't always follow strict grammatical rules, and uses non-specialist vocabulary. It’s suitable for everyday communication with friends or other people you know. For example:
‘Coming out tonight?’ ‘No chance, sorry!’
Another term for exclamation.
Used to describe a word used to ask a question, or to describe a sentence in the form of a question. For instance, how, where, and who are interrogative words, and Why don’t we meet for coffee? is an interrogative sentence (that is, a question). The interrogative form (mood) of a verb is used to ask questions and in English it’s formed by an auxiliary verb which is placed before the subject, for example:
Are you going on holiday this year?
Learn more about the interrogative and other moods of verbs.
An intransitive verb is not followed by an object. In the following sentences, talk and cry are intransitive verbs:
The baby was crying.
We talked for hours.
An irregular word, such as a noun or verb, has inflections that do not follow the normal rules. For example, the plural of man is the irregular form men, and the past of the verb run is ran. The opposite of regular. Learn more about regular and irregular verbs.
We’re waiting for the bus.
I went to a restaurant and I treated myself to lunch.
[main clause] [main clause]
A noun that refers to something that can’t be counted, and which does not regularly have a plural form, for example rain, darkness, happiness, or humour. Also called uncountable noun. The opposite of countable noun. Learn more about countable and uncountable nouns.
A modal verb is an auxiliary verb which is used with another verb to talk about possibility, probability, permission, intention, etc. The main modal verbs are can, could, may, might, must, ought, shall, should, will, would. Also called modal auxiliary verb. Find out more about auxiliary verbs.
A word or phrase that changes, restricts, or adds to the meaning of another word, often a noun or adjective used before another noun. Adverbs can also act as modifiers, for example, in the following sentence, very [adverb], large [adjective], and family [noun] are all being used as modifiers to give more information about the noun home:
It was a very large family home.
A category or form of a verb which indicates whether the verb expresses a fact (the indicative mood), a command (the imperative mood), a question (the interrogative mood), a condition (the conditional mood) or a wish or possibility (the subjunctive mood). Read more about the moods of verbs.
The smallest unit of meaning into which a word can be divided. You cannot break a morpheme down into anything smaller that has a meaning. For example, the word never has one morpheme, while the word nevertheless has three morphemes (never, the, and less). Read more about morphemes. Compare with syllable.
In linguistics, morphology refers to the form of a word, or the study of the forms of words. For instance, the morphology of the word uninterested shows that it is formed from the prefix un-, the root word interest, and the suffix -ed.
A verb form which does not show a particular tense, person (first person, second person, or third person), or number (singular or plural). For instance, be, been, and being are the non-finite forms of the verb to be. Compare with finite verb.
A clause which gives extra information that could be left out of a sentence without affecting the structure or meaning. Non-restrictive relative clauses are normally introduced by which, who, or whose (but never by that) and you should place a comma in front of them:
He held out the small bag, which Jane snatched eagerly.
[main clause] [non-restrictive relative clause]
A word that refers to a person or thing, for example book, John, country, London, or friendship. Different types of noun include abstract, collective, countable/uncountable, concrete, gerund/verbal, mass, and proper. Find out more about nouns.
The person or thing affected by a verb, for example:
He was eating a sandwich.
She loves animals.
The past participle is the form of a verb which is used to form:
certain past tenses, e.g. I have looked everywhere; we had decided to leave.
adjectives, e.g. broken glass; lost property.
The present participle is the form of a verb, ending in –ing, that is used to form:
continuous tenses describing something that is still happening, e.g. I am thinking, she was talking.
adjectives, e.g. running water, the freezing rain.
verbal nouns, e.g. a woman of good breeding; no smoking allowed.
The apple was eaten.
A verb tense used to refer to something that happened before the present, for example:
We went shopping last Saturday.
Did you go for a meal, too?
Learn more about verb tenses.
It was the first time that I had seen an eagle.
A word such as I, me, you, him, her, s, we, they, or them that is used in place of a noun that has already been mentioned or that is already known. Compare with possessive pronoun. See when to use 'I' or 'me'.
Any one of the set of the smallest units of speech sound in a language that distinguish one word from another. For example, the phonemes /p/, /k/, and /b/ differentiate the words pat, cat, and bat.
His car broke down.
The idea didn’t catch on.
You’re putting me off.
Find out more about phrasal verbs.
A small group of words that forms a meaningful unit within a clause, for example the red dress; in the city. A phrase is also a group of words which have a specific meaning when used together, for example to let the cat out of the bag. Learn more about phrases.
The basic form of an adjective or adverb that is used to express a simple quality, for instance sad, good, fast, loudly. Compare with comparative and superlative. Find out more about comparative and superlative adjectives.
Showing that someone or something belongs or relates to a person or thing. You can use a noun plus an apostrophe to show possession (e.g. my father’s car; yesterday’s news), a possessive determiner (my house) or a possessive pronoun (those shoes are mine).
A pronoun, such as mine, yours, hers, or ours, that refers to something owned by the speaker or by someone or something previously referred to, for example:
That book is mine.
John’s eyes met hers.
Ours is a family farm.
Compare with personal pronoun.
The future looks gloomy.
They grew weary.
The opposite of attributive.
A letter or group of letters placed at the beginning of an existing word to change its meaning, such as un- (as in unable, unlock, or unhappy) or multi- (as in multimedia, multitask, or multicultural). Compare with suffix. See examples of prefixes and suffixes.
She ran across the street.
The restaurant is not open during the day.
We went by train.
A verb tense used to refer to something that is happening or exists now or that happens or exists regularly, for example:
I love my parents.
She goes swimming every week.
Read more about verb tenses.
Another term for continuous.
A word such as I, he, she, it, we, hers, us, your, or they that is used instead of a noun to indicate someone or something that has already been mentioned, especially to avoid repeating the noun. For example:
Kate was tired so she went to bed.
Print out the leaflet and pass it round.
A noun that identifies a particular person or thing (e.g. John, Italy, London, Monday, Windsor Castle). In written English, proper nouns begin with capital letters. Compare with common noun. Find out about other types of noun.
A regular word, such as a noun or a verb, has inflections that follow the normal rules. For instance, the noun cat has a regular plural with -s (cats), and the verb to love forms its tenses in the normal way (loved; loving). The opposite of irregular. Find out more about regular and irregular verbs.
A clause which gives more information about the noun to which it refers and which is connected to a main clause by a word such as that, which, who, whose, or where. For example:
I first saw her in Paris, where I lived in the early twenties.
[main clause] [relative clause]
The reporting of a speaker’s words, rather than quoting them directly (e.g. Nina said that she didn’t believe him). Compare with direct speech. Also called indirect speech.
A clause which gives essential information about a noun that comes before it. Restrictive relative clauses can be introduced by that, which, who, or whose. You should not place a comma in front of them. For example:
It reminded him of the house that/which he used to live in.
[main clause] [restrictive relative clause]
He's going out with a girl who used to go to my school.
[main clause] [restrictive relative clause]
A word or part of a word that has the main meaning and on which its other forms are based; a word that other words are formed from, for example by adding prefixes, suffixes, etc. For instance, look is the root word of looks, looking, looked, outlook, etc.
A vowel sound in parts of words that are not stressed, shown by the symbol /ə/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet and represented by different letters in English. For instance, there is a schwa sound at the start of ago, at the end of moment, and in the middle of information.
A sentence is a group of words that makes complete sense, contains a main verb, begins with a capital letter, and ends with a full stop, exclamation mark, or question mark. For example:
Paul flew to New York last Monday.
Whose turn is it to do the washing up?
Read more on sentences.
Very informal words and expressions that are mainly found in speaking rather than writing. Slang is often used by a particular group, such as young people or the armed forces. For example, in British teenage slang, bare means ‘very’ or ‘a lot of’ (I was bare tired), while in military slang, a bandit is an enemy aircraft. Compare with formal, informal.
A digraph in which the two letters representing one speech sound are separated by other letters. For example, the sound /aI/ in mine is shown by the split digraph i-e,
A split infinitive happens when an adverb is placed between to and a verb (e.g. She seems to really like him). Some people object strongly to split infinitives. Although there’s no real grammatical justification for this view, it’s best to avoid them in formal writing. More on split infinitives.
The extra emphasis used when pronouncing a particular word or syllable. For instance, in the word category, the first syllable (cat-) is stressed. Compare with unstressed.
The restaurant was packed.
He was eating a sandwich.
A special form (or mood) of a verb that expresses a wish or possibility instead of a fact. In the following sentences the verbs face and were are in the subjunctive mood (the ordinary indicative forms would be faces and was):
The report recommends that he face a tribunal.
I wish I were more organized.
Read more about the subjunctive and other moods of verbs.
A clause which depends on a main clause for its meaning. Together with a main clause, a subordinate clause forms part of a longer sentence. A sentence may contain more than one subordinate clause. There are two main types of subordinate clause: the relative clause and the conditional clause.
In grammar, subordination refers to a relationship between words, phrases, or clauses in which one element is less important but which gives us more information about the main element that it is linked to. For instance, in the phrase a difficult question, the adjective difficult is subordinate to the noun question and tells us more about it. In the same way, a subject or object is subordinate to a verb, as in the following sentence: He cleaned the floor. Compare with coordination. See also subordinate clause.
A group of letters placed at the end of an existing word to change its meaning, such as –ish (as in childish or feverish) or –able (as in likeable or breakable). The opposite of prefix. See examples of prefixes and suffixes.
The superlative form of an adjective is used for comparing one person or thing with every other member of their group, to express the fact that they have the highest or a very high degree of a quality. For example:
She’s the tallest girl in the class.
He’s the happiest person I know.
They’re the most popular band in the world.
Compare with postive and comparative. See more examples of comparative and superlative adjectives.
A word or part of a word that contains one vowel sound, and usually one or more consonants before or after the vowel sound. For example, speak has one syllable and speaker has two syllables (speak and -er). Compare with morpheme.
Syntax is the way in which words and phrases are put together to create well-formed sentences in a language. For example, 'I went to the shops today' is correct English syntax, whereas 'Shops I went today the to' is not.
The pronouns, verb forms, and determiners which are used by a speaker to refer to other people or things, for instance, he, she, it, their, it has, they were. Compare with first person, second person.
I admire your courage.
They followed him back to his house.
Used to refer to a syllable that is not pronounced with a stress (e.g. in the word admire, the first syllable, ad-, is unstressed).
A word that describes what a person or thing does, or what happens, for example run, sing, grow, occur, seem. Learn more about verbs.
A spoken sound made with the mouth open and without the tongue touching the roof of the mouth, teeth, etc. In English, vowels are represented by the letters a, e, i, o, and u. Compare with consonant. See also Is the letter Y a vowel or a consonant?
A single unit of language, which has meaning and which can be spoken or written, typically shown with a space on either side when written or printed. Some words may consist of two or more elements (e.g. credit card; bed and breakfast; out-of-town), but in terms of grammar and meaning, they are treated as a single unit.
A group of words that are related to each other, typically by meaning, form, and grammar. For example, the words therapy, therapist, therapeutic, therapeutical, and therapeutically all form a word family.
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