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English Grammar

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English grammar is a body of rules (grammar) specifying how phrases and sentences are constructed in the English language. Accounts of English grammar tend to fall into two groups: the descriptivist, which describes the grammatical system of English; and the prescriptivist, which does not describe English grammar but rather sets out a small list of social regulations that attempt to govern the linguistic behaviour of native speakers (see Linguistic prescription and Descriptive linguistics). Prescriptive grammar concerns itself with several open disputes in English grammar, often representing changes in usage over time.

English grammar

This article describes a generalized Standard English, which is the form of speech found in types of public discourse including broadcasting, education, entertainment, government, and news reporting. Standard English includes both formal and informal speech. The many dialects of English have divergences from the grammar described here, which are only cursorily mentioned.


Lexical categories and phrasal syntax


Noun phrases and pronouns both can have a referential function where they "point" (i.e. refer) to some person or object in the real world (or a possible world). Additionally, they share many of the same grammatical functions in that they can both act as subjects, objects, and complements within clauses.

Noun phrases may consist of only a single noun, or they may be complex consisting of a noun (which functions as the head of the noun phrase) that is modified by different types of elements (such as adjectives, prepositional phrases, etc.).[1]

Pronouns are words that can act as substitutions for noun phrases. For instance, in the following sentence

Professor Plum kicked the very large ball with red spots over the fence.

the noun phrase the very large ball with red spots can be substituted with the pronoun it as in

Professor Plum kicked it over the fence.

In spite of the name pronoun, pronouns cannot substitute for nouns — they only substitute for noun phrases. This can be shown with the same sentence above: the noun ball cannot be substituted with the pronoun it (or any other pronoun) as in the ungrammatical[2] sentence

*Professor Plum kicked the very large it with red spots over the fence.

The sections below describe English nouns (their morphology and syntax), the structure of noun phrases, and pronouns.


Nouns are defined notionally (i.e. semantically) as generally describing persons, places, things, or ideas. This notional definition does account for what are the central members of the noun lexical category. However, the notional definition fails to account for several nouns, such as deverbal nouns like jump or destruction (which are notionally more like actions). For this reason, many grammatical descriptions of English define nouns in terms of grammar (i.e. according to their morphological and syntactic behavior). Nonetheless, traditional English grammars and some pedagogical grammars define nouns with a notional definition.

Non-proper nouns, in general, are not marked for case or gender, but are marked for number and definiteness (when referential).

Non-inflectional morphology
See also: English compound

English nouns may be of a few morphological types:

Simple nouns consist of a single root which also acts as the stem which may be inflected. For example, the word (or, more precisely, the lexeme) boy is a simple noun consisting of a single root (also boy). The root boy also acts as the stem boy, which can have the inflectional plural suffix -s added to it producing the inflectional word-form boys.

More complex nouns can have derivational prefixes or suffixes in addition to a noun stem. For example, the noun archenemy consists of a derivational prefix arch- and a root enemy. Here the derived form archenemy acts as the stem which can be used to form the inflected word-form archenemies. An example with a derivational suffix is kingdom which is composed of root king and suffix -dom. Some English nouns can be complex with several derivational prefixes and suffixes. A considerably complex example is antidisestablishmentarianism which has the root establish and the affixes anti-, dis-, -ment, -ary, -an, and -ism.

English compound nouns are nouns that consist of more than one stem. For example, the compound paperclip is composed of the stem paper and the stem clip. Compounds in English can be usefully subdivided (following Bauer 1983) into different classes according to the lexical category of the individual stems and according to a semantic classification into endocentric, exocentric, copulative, and appositional subtypes.

Main article: English plural

English nouns are typically inflected for number, having distinct singular and plural forms. The plural form usually consists of the singular form plus -s or -es, but there are many irregular nouns. Ordinarily, the singular form is used when discussing one instance of the noun's referent, and the plural form is used when discussing any other number of instances, but there are many exceptions to this rule. Here are some examples:

Number Example
Singular The girl talks.
Every girl talks.
No girl talks.
Plural The girls talk.
All girls talk.
No girls talk.


Words that belong to the noun lexical category (or part of speech) can be simple words that belong primarily to the noun category. These include words like man, dog, rice, et cetera.

Other nouns can be derived from words belonging to other lexical categories with the addition of class-changing derivational suffixes. For example, the suffixes -ation, -ee, -ure, -al, -er, -ment are attached to verb bases to create deverbal nouns.

vex (verb) > vexation (noun)
appoint (verb) > appointee (noun)
fail (verb) > failure (noun)
acquit (verb) > acquittal (noun)
run (verb) > runner (noun)
adjust (verb) > adjustment (noun)

Still other suffixes (-dom, -hood, -ist, -th, -ness) form derived deadjectival nouns from adjectives:

free (adjective) > freedom (noun)
lively (adjective) > livelihood (noun)
moral (adjective) > moralist (noun)
warm (adjective) > warmth (noun)
happy (adjective) > happiness (noun)

These derivational suffixes can also be added to (compound) phrasal bases like in the noun stick-it-to-itiveness, which is derived from the phrase [ stick it to it ] + -ive + -ness.

Besides derivational suffixation, words from other lexical categories can be converted straight to nouns (without any overt morphological indication) by a conversion process (also known as zero derivation). For example, the word run is a verb but it can be converted to a noun run "point scored in a baseball game (by running around the bases)" as in the sentence:

The team won with five runs in the ninth inning.

Here it is evident that run is a noun because it is pluralized with the inflectional plural suffix -s, it is modified by the preceding quantifier five, and it occurs as the head of the noun phrase five runs which acts as the complement of the preposition with in the prepositional phrase with five runs. Other lexical categories can also be converted:

if (subordinator) > if (noun) as in no ifs, ands, or buts about it [idiomatic]
daily (adjective) > daily (noun) [= "newspaper"] as in did you buy a daily for me?
down (preposition) > down (noun) [in American football] as in they made a new first down

Additionally, there are phrases which can be converted into nouns, such as jack-in-the-box, love-lies-bleeding (type of flower). These may be viewed as compounds (see noun morphology section). There are also conversion processes that convert from one noun subclass to another subclass (see the noun subclass conversion section).


Three basic noun classes in English can be distinguished according to syntactic criteria:

These syntactic subclasses also correspond fairly well to semantic categories (as indicated by their names and explained below).

Countable and uncountable nouns — such as dog (countable), rice (uncountable) — show article contrast: a dog, the dog, dogs, the dogs are all possible just as rice, the rice are both possible.

Countable nouns differ from uncountable nouns in that they cannot stand alone[3], cannot be modified by some unless they are in plural forms, can be modified by a, and can be pluralized. Semantically, they generally refer to easily individuated objects. Examples of countable nouns include the following: remark, book, bottle, chair, forest, idea, bun, pig, toy, difficulty, bracelet, mountain, etc.

Uncountable nouns, in contrast, can stand alone, can be modified by some, cannot be modified by a, and cannot be pluralized. Semantically, uncountable nouns refer to an undifferentiated mass. Examples of uncountable nouns include: rice, furniture, jewelry, scenery, gold, bread, grass, warmth, music, butter, homework, baggage, sugar, coffee, luck, sunshine, water, air, Chinese (language), soccer, literature, rain, walking, etc.

The morphosyntactic differences between countable and uncountable nouns are displayed in the table below.

  Countable Noun Uncountable Noun
standalone *remark rice
some + NOUN *some remark some rice
a + NOUN a remark *a rice
plural remarks *rices
some + plural NOUN some remarks *some rices

On the other hand, proper nouns, which include personal names — such as Peter, Smith and placenames like Paris, Tokyo — do not show article contrast. Typically, they cannot be preceded by an article. Thus, *a Peter, *the Peter, *a Tokyo, *the Tokyo are all ungrammatical (only Peter and Tokyo without articles are possible). Although several proper nouns (e.g. Peter, Smith, Paris, Tokyo) cannot be preceded by an article, some proper nouns must obligatorily be preceded by an article. These include proper nouns like The Hague, The Dalles, the Netherlands, the West Indies, and the Andes. However, like proper nouns without article modification, these proper nouns with preceding articles also lack article contrast. Thus, while The Hague is grammatical, *a Hague and *Hague are ungrammatical. Semantically, proper nouns have unique reference.

As seen above, the different subclasses affect grammatical number and quantification.

Dual membership, conversion

Complicating the membership of the basic subclasses described above is the existence of some nouns which have dual membership in more than one subcategory and the conversion of a noun from its basic subcategory to a different subcategory. (See the noun membership section.)

Nouns like brick and cake have dual membership. For example, observe the following sentences with brick:

The house was made of brick. brick = uncountable
The house was made of bricks. bricks = countable

In the first sentence, brick is an uncountable noun. This can be determined by the lack of an article preceding brick, which is a characteristic of uncountable nouns (and, thus, this sentence is parallel to a sentence like The ball was made of rice). In the second sentence, bricks is a countable noun because it is plural, which is a characteristic of only countable nouns (and, thus, this sentence is parallel to a sentence like The toy house was made of matches). Other nouns that have dual membership in both countable and uncountable subclasses are stone, paper, beauty, difficulty, experience, light, sound, talk, and lamb.

As mentioned above, several nouns can undergo a conversion from one subclass to another. One type of conversion is from a proper noun to a countable noun. A proper name like Picasso may become a countable noun through metonymic extension, as in the sentence:

Did you see the Picassos hanging on the wall?

Although Picasso usually has a unique referent (which is the person Pablo Picasso), it can be used metonymically to mean, "a painting created by Picasso". This converted noun can be seen as belonging to the countable subclass by the fact that it is plural and that the article the precedes it. There are also two idiomatic constructions which involve the conversion of a proper noun to a countable noun:

Excuse me ma'am, a Mr. Smith is on the phone.
You don't mean THE Margaret Thatcher, do you?

Here the article a before Mr. Smith indicates a meaning of "a certain person called Mr. Smith that is otherwise unknown to you" in the first sentence while in the second sentence the article the with intonational stress (here indicated in caps) gives a reading of "the well-known person called Margaret Thatcher".

Noun phrases



Determiners[4][5] include articles (like the, a/an), demonstratives (like this, these, that, those), quantifiers (like all, many, some, any, each), numerals (like one, two, first, second), genitives[6] (like my, your, his, her, its, our, their), interrogatives (like which, what), and exclamatives (like such, what) that modify noun heads in noun phrases.

Determiners function as words that "determine" other nouns, where "determine" is generally conceived of as indicating information about quantification, grammatical (and/or semantic) number, issues involving reference, and noun subclass membership (i.e. count, noncount, and proper noun subclasses). These "determining" functions make determiners quite distinct from adjectival modifiers which generally provide qualitative information about nouns and cannot provide determining functions.

Within the noun phrase, determiners occur at the far left edge of the noun phrase before the noun head and before any optional adjective modifiers (if present):


Examples follow:

the balloon
det noun
many balloons
det noun
all balloons
det noun
the big red balloon
det adj adj noun
many big red balloons
det adj adj noun
all big red balloons
det adj adj noun

The distinctness of the determiner and adjective positions relative to each other and the noun head is demonstrable in that adjectives may never precede determiners. Thus, the following are ungrammatical English nouns phrases: *big the red balloon, *big red the balloon (as well as *big many red balloons, *big red many balloons, *big all red balloons, *big red all balloons).

Determiners can be divided into three subclasses according to their position with respect to each other:

  • predeteminers
  • central determiners
  • postdeterminers

Predeterminers may precede central determiners but may not follow central determiners. Postdeterminers follow central determiners but may not precede them. Central determiners must occur after predeterminers and before postdeterminers. Thus, a central determiner like the as in

the red balloons
det adj noun

can be preceded by a predeterminer like all as in

all the red balloons
predet cent.det    
det adj noun

or the central determiner the can be followed by a postdeterminer like many as in

the many red balloons
cent.det postdet    
det adj noun

A sequence of predeterminer + central determiner + postdeterminer is also possible as in

all the many red balloons
predet cent.det postdet    
det adj noun

However, there are several restrictions on combinatory possibilities. One general restriction is that only one determiner can occur in each of the three determiner positions. For example, the postdeterminers many and seven can occur in the following

many smart children
seven smart children
the many smart children
the seven smart children

but both many and seven cannot occur in postdeterminer position rendering the following noun phrases ungrammatical: *many seven smart children, *seven many smart children, *the many seven smart children, *the seven many smart children. Additionally, there are often other lexical restrictions. For example, the predeterminer all can occur alone (as the sole determiner) or before a central determiner (e.g. all children, all the children, all these children, all my children); however, the predeterminer such can only occur alone or before central determiner a (e.g., such nuisance!, such a nuisance!).

Predeterminers include words like all, both, half, double, twice, three times, one-third, one-fifth, three-quarters, such, exclamative what. Examples with predeterminers preceding a central determiner:

all the big balloons
both his nice parents
half a minute
double the risk
twice my age
three times my salary
one-third the cost
one-fifth the rate
three-quarters the diameter
such a big boy
what a clever suggestion

Central determiners include words like the, a/an, this, that, these, those, every, each, enough, much, more, most less, no, some, either, neither, which, what.

Examples of central determiners preceding adjectival modified noun heads:

the big balloon
a big balloon
this big balloon
that big balloon
these big balloons
those big balloons
every big balloon
each big balloon
no big balloon
some big balloons
either big balloon

While the, a/an, no, and every only function as determiners[7], the other central determiners can also function as members of other lexical categories, especially as pronouns. For example, that functions as a determiner in

That item is our belonging.

but as pronoun in

That is our belonging.

In additional to the above determiners, noun phrases with a genitive enclitic -’s[8] can have a determinative function like genitive determiners his, her, its, their. These genitive determinative noun phrases occur in the central determiner position:

[ my stepmother’s ] friendly children
both [ my stepmother’s ] friendly children
[ my stepmother’s ] many friendly children
all [ my stepmother’s ] many friendly children

Number agreement, selectional restrictions


Articles are words like a/an, and the that modify nouns. They occur in the central determiner position. Articles have several functions including marking definiteness, specific/generic reference, given/new information in discourse, and noun subclass membership (i.e. count, noncount, and proper noun subclasses).

The definite article "the" is used to refer to a specific instance of the noun, often already mentioned in the context or easy to identify. Definite articles are slightly different from demonstratives, which often indicate the location of nouns with respect to the speaker and audience.

  • "Let us look for a good restaurant."
  • "What about the restaurant we ate at last week?"
  • "That restaurant was terrible. What about this one on the corner here?"

Adjectival modification

  • adjectival modification (jokes galore)
  • prepositional phrase modification (men in tights)
  • clausal modification (planes flying overhead, jokes that I love, et cetera)


See also: English relative clauses

Main article: Gender in English

A remnant of grammatical gender is also preserved in the third person pronouns. Gender is assigned to animate objects based on biological gender (where known), and to personified objects based on social conventions (ships, for example, are often regarded as feminine in English). He is used for masculine nouns; she is used for feminine nouns; and it is used for nouns of indeterminate gender and inanimate objects. The use of it to refer to humans is generally considered ungrammatical and impolite, but is sometimes used deliberately as a term of offence or insult as it implies the person is of indeterminate gender or, worse, sub-human - a thing. (See for example: A Child Called "It")

Traditionally, the masculine he was used to refer to a person in the third person whose gender was unknown or irrelevant to the context; recently, this usage has come under criticism for supporting gender-based stereotypes and is increasingly considered inappropriate (see Gender-neutral language). There is no consensus on a replacement. Some English speakers prefer to use the slightly cumbersome "he or she" or "s/he"; others prefer the use of they (third plural) (see singular they). This situation rarely leads to confusion, since the intended meaning can be inferred from context, e.g. "This person has written me a letter but they have not signed it." However, it still is considered by some to be incorrect grammar. Spivak pronouns have also been proposed which are essentially formed by dropping the leading <th> from the plural counterpart, but their use is relatively rare compared to other solutions. For comparison, speakers of German distinguish between the homophonous sie ("she"), sie ("they"), and Sie ("you", polite) with little difficulty.

The categorization of nouns is typically expressed by one or more of the elements called deictic, numerative, epithet, and classifier. We shall consider each of these in turn.

Further information: English personal pronouns

Historically, English used to mark nouns for case, and the two remnants of this case marking are the pronominal system and the genitive clitic (which used to be called the Saxon genitive). The genitive is marked by a clitic at the end of the modifying noun phrase. This can be illustrated in the following manner:

The president from the company’s daughter was married yesterday.

The ’s clitic attached to company does not modify company but rather modifies the entire noun phrase president from the company. This can be shown more clearly using brackets:

[The president from the company]’s daughter was married yesterday.

English pronoun forms vary with number, person, case, and notional gender (only in 3rd person singular). Number and case distinctions have collapsed in the 2nd person singular in the standard formal language, although informal dialectal forms have number distinctions (for example singular you vs. plural y'all, youse, etc.).

Case 1st 2nd 3rd
sg. pl. sg. pl. inter-rogative
male female neuter
Subjective I we you he she it they who
Objective me us him her them who(m)
Genitive deter-miner my our your his its their whose
nominal mine ours yours hers theirs
  1. Some dialects use different forms for the second person plural pronoun: they include you-all or y'all [9], you guys, yu'uns [10], youse [11], or ye [12]. These forms are generally regarded as colloquial and non-standard.
  2. The pronoun thou was the former second person singular pronoun; it is considered an archaism in most contexts, although it is still used in some dialects in the north of England. Thou was originally the informal form to the formal you, is very rare, and is confined to dialects and religious and poetic functions. In modern Standard English, the second person plural you is used instead.
  3. Mine (and thine) were also previously used before vowel sounds to avoid a glottal stop. e.g., "Do mine eyes deceive me?” "Know thine enemy." This usage is now archaic.
  4. The objective form whom is most often found in formal English (as in writing) while the more common objective who is found in less formal writing and most speech. Prescriptivists state that who when used in objective context is "incorrect".

The reflexive pronouns are compounds consisting an genitive determiner pronoun and a following -self, with exception of the 3rd person singular male form which consists of the objective form him + -self and the 3rd person plural form with consists objective them + -self + -(e)s. In the plural, these reflexives take the regular plural suffix -s (with voicing of the f > v as with the free form of self > selves) along with the plural inflected pronoun form.

Case 1st 2nd 3rd
sg. pl. sg. pl. sg. pl.
male female neuter
Reflexive myself ourselves yourself yourselves himself herself itself themselves

Ourself is used instead of ourselves for any semantically singular version of we, such as the royal we.

In some dialects, the 3rd person male and 3rd person plural reflexives are formed with the genitive determiner his > hisself and their > theirself. Thus, these dialects have regularized the entire paradigm to genitive forms.


Main article: English verbs

Verb classes

English verbs fall into two main types:

  • main verbs (also full verbs)
  • auxiliaries (also auxiliary verbs, helping verbs)

Main verbs are verbs like jump, take, catch, and hit. They are lexical in nature, carry the main semantic information within the verb complex, and are an open class (i.e. main verbs can be freely and productively created anew via word-formation processes). In the sentence

Halil is helping his brother.

the verb helping is the main verb.

Auxiliaries are verbs that typically precede the main verb in sentences. They are of limited number, contribute grammatical information to the verb complex, and are a closed class. In the sentence

Halil is helping his brother.

the verb is is the auxiliary.

Three verbs in English — be, have, and do — may function as both main verbs and as auxiliaries.[13] Quirk et al. (1985) refer to these verbs as primary verbs. The following examples demonstrate their dual functionality:

Halil will be a student.   (be as a main verb)
Halil is helping a student.   (be as an auxiliary)
The girls have many books.   (have as a main verb)
The girls have helped many students.   (have as an auxiliary)
The girls may do their homework.   (do as a main verb)
The girls do not help many students.   (do as an auxiliary)

Besides the three primary verbs, the other auxiliaries are modals which include can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, and would. In addition to their restriction to functioning only as auxiliaries, modals can only occur in finite clauses and cannot be inflected for tense, number, or person.

More marginal to the class of modals are verbs like ought and in British varieties also need and dare. These display many but not all properties of modals and are thus termed marginal modals by Quirk et al. (1985).

Finally, the verb used (as in She used to called me everyday) is considered to be marginal modal by Quirk et al. (1985), but Huddleston & Pullum (2002) find several differences between it and the other modals and marginal modals, concluding that it is an auxiliary of the most marginal type. Semantically, used has reference to time, which distinguishes it from modals, which have modality as their main semantic component.

Inflectional morphology

English verbs only have eight possible inflectional forms:

(1) base form (also called plain form) [15]
(2) -ing [16] form
(3) -en form [17]
  • finite (or tensed) forms:
nonpast forms:
(4) general nonpast form
(5) 1st person singular nonpast form
(6) 3rd person singular nonpast form
past forms:
(7) general past form
(8) 1st/3rd person singular past form

The copula be has eight distinct inflectional forms as seen in the example sentences below:

The girl wants to be in school (base form: be)
The girl is being a nuisance (-ing form: being)
The girl has been a great help (-en form: been)
The girls are students (general nonpast form: are)
I am a student (1st sg. nonpast form: am)
The girl is a student (3rd sg. nonpast form: is)
The girls were students (general past form: were)
The girl was a child (1st/3rd sg. past form: was)

However, most verbs (which include all regular verbs and some irregular verbs) have only four distinct inflectional forms:

The girl wants to jump in the lake (base form: jump)
The girl is jumping in the lake (-ing form: jumping)
The girl has already jumped in the lake (-en form: jumped)
The girls jump in the lake everyday (general nonpast form: jump)
I jump in the lake everyday (1st sg. nonpast form: jump)
The girl jumps in the lake everyday (3rd sg. nonpast form: jumps)
The girls jumped in the lake yesterday (general past form: jumped)
The girl jumped in the lake yesterday (1st/3rd sg. past form: jumped)

Unlike copula be, the verb jump has the same syncretic word-form jump for the base, general nonpast, and 1st. sg. nonpast forms (where the copula has be, are, am, respectively) and the same syncretic word-form jumped for the -en, general past, and the 1st/3rd sg. past forms (where the copula has been, were, was, respectively). Upon comparing other verbs with the copula, one finds that only the copula has a 1st/3rd sg. past form that is distinct from the general past form, a 1st sg. nonpast form that is distinct from the general nonpast, and a base form that is distinct from the general nonpast form — all other verbs display syncretism in these forms.[18] The copula and a regular jump can be compared with each other and three types of irregular verbs in the table below.

English Verb Inflectional Paradigm
  Copula be Regular verb Irregular verb with 5 inflections Irregular verb with 4 inflections Irregular verb with 3 inflections
-ing form being jumping taking building hitting
3rd Sg. Nonpast is jumps takes builds hits
1st Sg. Nonpast am jump take build hit
General Nonpast are
Base be
General Past were jumped took built
1st/3rd Sg. Past was
-en form been taken

All verbs (including the copula) form the -ing form with the addition of the -ing suffix to the base form:

BASE FORM   +   -ing

All regular verbs and most irregular verbs form the 3rd singular form with the addition of the -e(s) suffix to the base form:

BASE FORM   +   -(e)s

The parenthetical (e) above indicates that this suffix is spelled as either -es or -s. The -es form (pronounced [ɪz]) occurs after sibilant consonants. The -s spelling occurs after all other sounds.[19] Examples:

  • push-es [pʊʃ-ɪz]   (sh represents sibilant consonant [ʃ])
  • catch-es [kætʃ-ɪz]   (ch, dge represents sibilant consonant [tʃ])
  • (judge-es) > judges [dʒʌdʒ-ɪz]   (dge represents sibilant consonant [dʒ])
  • fit-s, dig-s, bathe-s, pan-s, pay-s   (t, g, the, n, ay represent non-sibilant sounds [t, ɡ, ð, n, eɪ])

All regular verbs form the past/-en form (as well as the syncretic 1st/3rd past) with the addition of the -ed suffix to the base form:

BASE FORM   +   -ed

Irregular verb morphology

Irregular verbs[20] may have the same syncretism as regular verbs (like catch) or may show less syncretism with five distinct forms (like take) or more syncretism with only three distinct forms (like hit). (See also: English irregular verbs.) Examples of the three types differing in the number of distinct inflectional forms:

  • irregular verbs with 5 forms: take, break, swim, grow, drive, do
  • irregular verbs with 4 forms: catch, build, have, feel, tell, say
  • irregular verbs with 3 forms: hit, put, hurt, bet, cut, cast

Irregular verbs with five distinct inflectional forms do not syncretize the general past and the -en forms. Irregular verbs with only three forms have the syncretism involving all forms except for the -ing form and the 3rd sg. nonpast form.[21]

Irregular verbs with five and four inflectional forms have different patterns of past formation and -en formation. Many of the patterns involve vowel ablaut (i.e. internal vowel changes) and/or the addition of suffixes.[22] Some of the more common patterns are briefly mentioned below. Note that the spelling does not always reflect pronunciation changes in the internal vowel, so the pronunciation is transcribed phonetically:

  • Voicing change in last consonant between base and past/-en forms (d is voiced, t is voiceless):
bend ~ bent
build ~ built
  • Vowel change and suffixation of t between base and past/-en forms:
sleep [sliːp] ~ slept [slɛpt] (slep + -t)
deal [diːl] ~ dealt [dɛlt] (deal + -t)
  • Replacing of vowel and final consonant(s) in base form with [ɔːt] in past/-en form:\
think [θɪŋk] ~ thought [θɔːt]
catch [kætʃ] ~ caught [kɔːt]
  • Vowel change between base and past/-en forms and -(e)n suffixation:
break [breɪk] ~ broke [broʊk] ~ broken [broʊkən] (broke + -(e)n)
steal [stiːl] ~ stole [stoʊl] ~ stolen [stoʊlən] (stole + -en)
tear [tɛər] ~ tore [tɔər] ~ torn [tɔːrn] (tor(e) + -n)
  • Vowel change between base/-en and past forms and -(e)n suffixation:
draw [drɔː] ~ drew [druː] ~ drawn [drɔːn] (draw + -n)
fall [fɔːl] ~ fell [fɛl] ~ fallen [fɔːlən] (fall + -en)
take [teɪk] ~ took [tʊk] ~ taken [teɪkən] (take + -(e)n)
  • Vowel changes in base, past, & -en forms:
swim [swɪm] ~ swam [swæm] ~ swum [swʌm]
  • Vowel changes in base, past, & -en forms with -(e)n suffixation:
drive [drаɪv] ~ drove [droʊv] ~ driven [drɪvən] (drive + -(e)n)
fly [flаɪ] ~ flew [fluː] ~ flown [floʊn] (flow + -n)

A few verbs also have irregular changes between the general present and the 3rd sg. present forms:

have [hæv] ~ has [hæz] (and not the expected 3rd sg. *haves [hævz])
do [duː] ~ does [dʌz] (and not the expected 3rd sg. *dos [duːz])
say [seɪ] ~ says [sɛz] (and not the expected 3rd sg. [seɪz])

The copula paradigm also has suffixation and vowel ablaut, but it is additionally marked by suppletion.[23] (See the table above for its eight inflected forms.)

Defective verbs

A final thing to mention is that a few verbs are defective in that they are not inflected or are missing some inflectional forms. The verb beware has only the base form beware. It is usually found in imperative sentences:

Beware of the dog.

The forms bewaring, bewares, bewared are not present in Modern English.

The verb used only occurs in past form, as in

We used to go to the beach every day when I was young.

or in the base form only following do, as in

We didn't use to go the beach every day.

This used verb indicates habitual action or states in the past and should not be confused with the other verb use which is a regular verb.

The verb stride is missing a past participle form in its inflectional paradigm for many speakers (for some speakers who do have a past participle form, the form may variously be stridden, strid, or strode).

The verbs rumored and reputed only occur in the -en form in passive sentences:

Halil is rumored to have participated in the scandal.
Halil is reputed to have connections with the scandal.

All modals (can, could, should, might, etc.) are defective.

Auxiliary inflection

Of the auxiliaries, only be, have, and do are inflected for tense, number, and person. The auxiliary be has the same eight inflectional forms as a main verb (the copula) and have and do likewise have the same five inflectional forms as when functioning as main verbs. In contrast, modals are uninflected auxiliaries with respect to these grammatical parameters (and are thus defective).

However, most auxiliaries share the additional inflection of negation. Negative inflection consists of a -n't suffix that is attached to the auxiliary. Thus, there are the following inflected auxiliary forms:

aren't   (are + -n't)
isn't   (is + -n't)
weren't   (were + -n't)
wasn't   (was + -n't)
ain't   [dialectal, prescriptively "incorrect"]
haven't   (have + -n't)
hasn't   (has + -n't)
hadn't   (had + -n't)
don't   (do + -n't)
doesn't   (does + -n't)
didn't   (did + -n't)

can't   (can + -n't)
couldn't   (could + -n't)
mayn't   (may + -n't)   [very rare]
mightn't   (might + -n't)
mustn't   (must + -n't)
shan't   (shall + -n't)
won't   (will + -n't)
wouldn't   (would + -n't)

marginal auxiliaries
daren't   (dare + -n't)   [rare, mostly British]
needn't   (need + -n't)   [rare, mostly British]
oughtn't   (ought + -n't)   [ungrammatical in some varieties]
usedn't   (used + -n't)   [ungrammatical in some dialects, mostly British]

The negative forms don't [doʊnt] (and not the expected [dunt]) and won't [woʊnt] (and not the expected [wɪlnt]) are irregular in their changes in internal vowel, and shan't [ʃænt, ʃɑːnt] is irregular in its deletion of the final consonant (and in RP its vowel has shifted from [æ] to [ɑː]). The forms mayn't and shan't are now rare (particularly so with mayn't) and are virtually absent in standard varieties of American English.

Traditional grammar views -n't not as an inflectional suffix but as simply a phonologically reduced form (in traditional terms contracted) of the grammatical word not. According to this view, haven't is equivalent to non-contracted have + not, doesn't = does + not, etc. These contracted negative forms are, thus, equated with the reduced (contracted) forms of some of the other auxiliaries, namely are > ’re, is > ’s, am > ’m, have > ’ve, has > ’s, had > ’d, does > ’s, will > ’ll, would > ’d. Although this is the historical origin of the negative forms, clearly in the modern language the -n't in these words are suffixes forming a single indivisible word as the negative auxiliaries display different syntactic behavior compared with constructions consisting of auxiliary + not:

Didn't Halil bring the coffee?
*Did not Halil bring the coffee?
*Did Haliln't bring the coffee?
Did Halil not bring the coffee?
Sadaf brought the coffee, didn't she?
*Sadaf brought the coffee, did not she?
*Sadaf brought the coffee, did shen't?
Sadaf brought the coffee, did she not?

Additionally, it can also be shown that the reduced forms of the other auxiliaries do not behave similarly to the negative auxiliaries:

Shouldn’t Halil go to the store?   (cf. Halil shouldn’t go to the store.)
*Should’ve Halil gone to the store?   (cf. Halil should’ve gone to the store.)
*He’dn’t go to the store if she asked him.
He’d’ve gone to the store if she had asked him.[25]

Finally, the negative inflection property applies generally to auxiliaries but not to main verbs. There are two exceptions to this, however, involving the "primary" verbs. The verb be as a main verb may also be inflected in the negative as the following examples show:

The student wasn't being considered fairly.   (negative inflection as auxiliary)
The student wasn't a sophomore.   (negative inflection as main verb)

In British varieties, have may also have negative forms as a main verb while are ungrammatical for most American varieties:

The student hasn't been treated fairly.   (negative inflection as auxiliary)
The student hasn't enough time.   (negative inflection as main verb — British)

The other "primary" verb, however, cannot have negative forms when acting as a main verb.

This case of properties of auxiliaries applying to be and have is also seen in other syntactic behavior, such as in the inversion of subject and auxiliary operator. (See the operator section.)

Thus, ’ve, ’m, ’s, etc. are phonologically reduced (i.e. contracted) forms of separate words whereas the negative -n’t is not a contracted separate word but rather a (inflectional) suffix.[26]


Most English verbs mark number (in agreement with their subjects) only in the non-past tense, indicative mood. In this context, there is a contrast between the 3rd person and all other persons (i.e., 1st and 2nd): the 3rd person is marked with a -(e)s suffix while all other persons are unmarked (i.e. without overt marking). Furthermore, the inflectional suffix -(e)s also indicates singular number, i.e. -(e)s indicates a 3rd person singular subject. Similarly, singular number is only indicated in the 3rd person — number in the other persons are unmarked. The plural in the 3rd person is unmarked. The 3rd person singular suffix is added to the general present tense form while the unmarked form is general present tense form. There is, thus, only a distinction between a general present form and 3rd person singular form.

General 3rd Singular
listen listen-s
push push-es

Combined with personal pronoun subjects, the following are the possible subject-verb combinations:[27]

General 3rd Singular
I/we/you/they push he/she/it pushes

The copula be, however, makes additional distinctions of the 1st person singular in the non-past and the 1st or 3rd person singular in the past. Unlike other verbs, these inflected forms of be lie in a suppletive relationship.

Non-past Past
General 1st Singular 3rd Singular General 1st/3rd Singular
are am is were was

Pronoun subject-verb combinations:

Non-past Past
General 1st Singular 3rd Singular General 1st/3rd Singular
we/you/they are I am he/she/it is we/you/they were I/he/she/it was

In the subjunctive mood, all person and number distinctions are neutralized (see below).

Structure of the verb "complex"


The first auxiliary in the verb complex is termed the operator. It is displays a number of distinct syntactic and morphological characteristics.

  • subject-operator inversion
[ The large man with a cane ] has been coming your way.
Has [ the large man with a cane ] been coming your way?
[ The woman ] has been flying a kite, and [ her son ] has been flying a kite, too.
[ The woman ] has been flying a kite, and so has [ her son ] .   (with coordination ellipsis)

Time, tense and aspect

Main article: English_verb#Tenses

Changes in tense in English are achieved by the changes in ending and the use of auxiliary verbs "to be" and "to have" and the use of the auxiliaries "will", "shall" and "would". (These auxiliaries cannot co-occur with other modals like can, may, and must.) The examples below use the regular verb to listen:

  • Present tenses
    • Simple present (or simply "present"): "I listen." This tense typically expresses habitual actions. Rarely, it is used to refer to present time in reportative style speech.
    • Present continuous (or "present progressive"): "I am listening." This tense expresses actions in the present taking place as the speaker is speaking or in the future.
    • Present perfect: "I have listened." This tense expresses actions that began in the past but are still true in the present: "I have known her for six years" (and I still know her). This is also used to express a completed action that took place at a non-specific moment in the past. This tense often expresses actions that happen in the past, yet cannot be considered a past tense because it always has a connection to the present.
    • Present perfect continuous: "I have been listening." This is used to express that an event started at some time in the past and continuing to the present.
    • All forms of the present tense are often used in place of their future-tense counterparts. In particular, various kinds of subordinate clauses — especially if and when clauses — cannot generally use the future tense, so the present tense is used instead.
  • Past tenses
    • Simple past: "I listened." This is used to express a completed action that took place at a specific moment in the past. (Confusingly, in US English, the simple past may sometimes be used for a non-specific moment in the past).
    • Past continuous (otherwise known as the imperfect or past progressive): "I was listening." This is used to express an incomplete action in the past. (Thus, an "imperfect" action, as opposed to a completed and therefore "perfect" action.)
    • Past perfect or pluperfect: "I had listened." This expresses an action completed before some other action in the past (often expressed by the simple past). The pluperfect is thus expressing an action even more in the past e.g. "He realised he had lost his way", "I was going to town because he had spoken to me".
    • Past perfect continuous or simply "perfect continuous": "I had been listening." Usually used with an explicit duration, this indicates that an event was ongoing for a specific time, e.g. "When Peter entered my room, I had been listening to music for half an hour."
  • Future tenses
    • Simple future: "I shall/will listen." This is used to express that an event will occur in the future, or that the speaker intends to perform some action.
    • Future continuous: "I shall/will be listening." This is used to express an ongoing event that has not yet been initiated.
    • Future perfect: "I shall/will have listened." This indicates an action which will occur before some other action in the future: Normally two actions are expressed, and the future perfect indicates an action which will occur in the future but will, at the time of the main future action expressed, be in the past (e.g. "I will know the tune next week because I will have listened to it").
    • Future perfect continuous or future imperfect: "I shall/will have been listening." Expresses an ongoing action that occurs in the future, before some other event expressed in the future.
    • "I am going to listen" is a construction using "to go" as an auxiliary. It is referred to as going to future, futur proche or immediate future, and has the same sense as the simple future, sometimes with an implication of immediacy. It is not strictly a tense, and "to go" is not strictly a tense auxiliary verb, but this construction often is presented as a tense for simplicity. By varying the tense of the auxiliary "to go", various other meanings can be achieved, e.g. "I am going to be listening" (future continuous), and "I was going to listen" (conditional perfect continuous).
  • Conditional tenses
    • Present conditional or simply conditional: "I would listen." This is used to express an event that occurred multiple times or was ongoing in the past (i.e. When I was younger, I would listen. [multiple times]), or something that would be done now or in the future when predicated upon another condition (i.e. “If I had the time, I would listen to you.” [This condition could be known from context and omitted from the conditional statement.])
    • Present continuous conditional: "I would be listening." This is used to express an ongoing event that had not yet been initiated.
    • Conditional perfect: "I would have listened." Indicates that an action would occur after some other event.
    • Conditional perfect continuous: "I would have been listening": Expresses an ongoing action that would occur in the future in the past, after some other event.

Auxiliary verbs may be used to define tense, aspect, or mood of a verb phrase.

As mentioned above "going to" is used for some future pseudo-tenses:

Forms of "do" are used for some negatives, questions and emphasis of the simple present and simple past:

  1. "Do I listen?" "I do not listen." "I do listen!"
  2. "Did I listen?" "I did not listen." "I did listen!"

Verb tense chart
Main article: Grammatical aspect

English verb tenses can be better visualized in the following chart, which shows the times of the English language and its three aspects, namely Prior, Complete, and Incomplete. Note that this chart only represents actions truly happening, be it present, past, or future. Since unreal conditionals are obviously assumptions, conditional structures with 'would' are not included here.

PRIOR ASPECT Past Perfect Present Perfect Future Perfect
COMPLETE ASPECT Simple Past Simple Present Simple Future
INCOMPLETE ASPECT Past Continuous Present Continuous Future Continuous


Main article: English passive voice

English has two voices for verbs: the active and the passive. The basic form is the active verb, and follows the SVO pattern discussed above. The passive voice is derived from the active by using the auxiliary verb "to be" and the -en form of the main verb.

Examples of the passive:

Passive voice Active voice
I am seen by John John sees me
You will be struck by John John will strike you
It was stolen by John John stole it
We were carried by John John carried us
They have been chosen by John John has chosen them

Furthermore, the agent and patient switch grammatical roles between active and passive voices so that in passive the patient is the subject, and the agent is noted in an optional prepositional phrase using by, for example:

  1. active: I heard the music.
  2. passive: The music was heard (by me). (Note: me, not I)

The passive form of the verb is formed by replacing the verb with to be in the same tense and aspect, and appending the -en form of the original verb. Thus:

Tense Active voice The same sense, expressed with the passive voice
Simple present I hear the music. The music is heard by me.
Present progressive I am hearing the music. The music is being heard by me.
Past progressive I was hearing the music. The music was being heard by me.
Past perfect I had heard the music. The music had been heard by me.
Simple future I will hear the music. The music will be heard by me.

This pattern continues through all the composite tenses as well. The semantic effect of the change from active to passive is the depersonalisation of an action. It is also occasionally used to topicalize the direct object of a sentence, or when the agent is either unknown or unimportant even when included, thus:

  1. The plane was shot down.
  2. Dozens were killed.
  3. Bill was run over by a bus.

Many writing style guides including Strunk and White recommend minimizing use of the passive voice in English; however, many others do not.

There is a third 'voice' in English, related to the classic "middle" voice. In this, the patient becomes the subject, as in passive, but the verb remains in apparently active voice, no agent can plausibly be supplied, and generally, an adverbial modifies the entire construction. Thus:

  1. She does not frighten easily.
  2. This bread slices poorly.
  3. His novels sell well.

Modals and modality

English has "moods" of verb. These always include the declarative/indicative and the subjunctive moods, and normally the imperative is included as a mood. Some people include conditional or interrogative forms as verbal moods.

Indicative, or declarative, mood
  • The declarative mood or indicative mood is the simplest and most basic mood. The overwhelming majority of verb use is in the indicative, which may be considered the "normal" form of verbs, with the subjunctive as an "exceptional" form of verbs. (If any other forms are considered a mood (e.g. imperative), they may also be considered other "exceptional" verb forms.)

Examples are most commonly used verb forms, e.g.:

  • I think
  • I thought
  • He was seen
  • I am walking home.
  • They are singing.
  • He is not a dancer.
  • We are very happy.

Subjunctive mood
  • The subjunctive mood is used to express counterfactual (or conditional) statements, and is often found in if-then statements, and certain formulaic expressions. It is typically marked in the present tense by the auxiliary "were" plus the -ing form of the verb.
    1. Were I eating, I would sit.
    2. If they were eating, they would sit.
    3. Truth be told...
    4. If I were you... I would do that.

The conjugation of these moods becomes a significantly more complex matter when they are used with different tenses. However, casual spoken English rarely uses the subjunctive, and generally restricts the conditional mood to the simple present and simple past. A notable exception to this is the use of the present subjunctive in clauses of wish or command which is marked in one or two ways: (1) if third person singular, the "-s" conjugation called for by the declarative mood is absent, and (2) past tense is not used. For example, "They insisted that he go to chapel every morning" means that they were requiring or demanding him to go to chapel. However, "They insisted that he went to chapel every morning" means they are reasserting the statement that, in the past, he did attend chapel every morning. The underlying grammar of this distinction has been called the "American subjunctive". On the other hand, other constructions for expressing wishes and commands, which do not use the subjunctive, are equally common, such as "They required him to go..."

Imperative mood
  • The imperative mood is used for commands or instructions. It is not always considered a verbal mood per se. Using the verb in its simplest, unconjugated form forms it: "Listen! Sit! Eat!" The imperative mood in English occurs only in the second person, and the subject ("you") is generally not expressly stated, because it is implied. When the speaker gives a command regarding anyone else, it is still directed at the second person as though it were a request for permission, although it may be a rhetorical statement.
    1. Let me do the talking.
    2. Come here.
    3. Give him an allowance.
    4. Let sleeping dogs lie.

Modal forms

Conditional forms of verb are used to express if-then statements, or in response to counterfactual propositions (see subjunctive mood, above), denoting or implying an indeterminate future action. Conditionals may be considered tense forms but are sometimes considered a verbal mood, the conditional mood.

Conditionals are expressed through the use of the verbal auxiliaries could, would, should, may and might in combination with the stem form of the verb.

  1. He could go to the store.
  2. You should be more careful.
  3. I may try something else.
  4. He might be heading north.

Note that for many speakers "may" and "might" have merged into a single meaning (that of "might") that implies the outcome of the statement is contingent. The implication of permission in "may" seems to remain only in certain uses with the second person, e.g. "You may leave the dinner table."

Two main conditional tenses can be identified in English:

I would think = Present Conditional
I would have thought = Conditional Perfect


  1. In English, a long-standing prescriptive rule holds that shall denotes simple futurity in the first person, and will denotes simple futurity in the second and third persons. In American English, this distinction has largely vanished; will is normally used for both cases, and shall is rare. In British English, adherence to the rule has declined during the 20th century (see Shall and will for a more detailed discussion), although use of shall remains for expressing the simple future in the first person.
  2. The distinction between tense, aspect, and mood is not clear-cut or universally agreed-upon. For example, many analysts would not accept that English has twelve tenses. The six "continuous" (also called "progressive") forms in the list above are often treated under the heading of "aspect" rather than tense: the simple past and the past continuous are examples of the same tense, under this view. In addition, many modern grammars of English agree that English does not have a future tense (or a future perfect). These include two large recent grammars:
  1. Biber, D., S. Johansson, G. Leech, S. Conrad & E. Finegan. 1999. Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Harlow, Longman.
  2. Huddleston, R. & G. Pullum. 2002. The Cambridge grammar of the English language. Cambridge, CUP.

The main argument given by Huddleston and Pullum (pp 209-10) that English does not have a future tense is that "will" is a modal verb, both in its grammar and in its meaning. Biber et al. go further and say that English has only two tenses, past and present: they treat the perfect forms with "have" under "aspect". Huddleston & Pullum, on the other hand, regard the forms with "have" as "secondary tenses".

Verb phrases


Adjectives are words that can be used attributively within noun phrases where they (pre-)modify noun heads and predicatively within verb phrase where they are the complement of copular verbs. For example, in the sentence below the adjective tall occurs within the noun phrase the tall man modifying the noun head man. The adjective nice occurs within the verb phrase is nice as the complement of the (copular) verb head is.

[ The tall man ] [ is nice ]

The adjectives also act as the head of adjective phrases as in the following:

The [ very tall ] man is [ rather nice ]

Here the adjectives tall and nice are the heads of the adjective phrases very tall and rather nice.

Semantically, adjectives provide more information about them. Adjectives are used to describe and identify their associated nouns.

A further morphological characteristic of adjectives, which is also shared with adverbs, is their ability to be inflected in comparison: tall-er, tall-est. See also the comparison section.

Adjective phrases

Semantic ordering


The term adverb originating from traditional grammar refers to a wide range of words that have different functions and different syntactic behaviors. Therefore, it is best to separate adverbs into different subclasses and discuss the grammar of each subclass separately.

See also the comparison section.

Degree adverbs

Adverbs of degree (or intensifiers) roughly qualify a point on a gradable semantic property. Below are some degree adverbs:

  • very [28]
  • extremely
  • etc.

Syntactically, degree adverbs pre-modify either adjectives or adverbs:

The very fast car is running smoothly.   (very modifying adjective fast)
The very kindly gentleman fixed my car.   (very modifying adjective kindly)
The fast car is running very smoothly.   (very modifying adverb smoothly)
The kindly gentleman is driving my car very fast.   (very modifying adverb fast)


Prepositional phrases

PP = (Modifier + ) P + NP : (right) on [ the bus ]

Clausal syntax

Word order

English is a subject verb object (SVO) language: it prefers a sequence of subject–verb–object in its simplest, unmarked declarative statements. Thus, "Tom [subject] eats [verb] cheese [object]" and "Mary sees the cat."

However, beyond these simple examples, word order is a complicated matter in English. In particular, the speaker or writer's point of departure in each clause is a key factor in the organization of the message. Thus, the elements in a message can be ordered in a way that signals to the reader or listener what the message concerns.

  • The duke has given my aunt that teapot. (i.e., I am going to tell you about the duke).
  • My aunt has been given that teapot by the duke. (i.e., I am going to tell you about my aunt).
  • That teapot has been given to my aunt by the duke. (i.e., I am going to tell you about that teapot).

The point of departure can also be set up as an equation, known as a thematic equative. In this way, virtually any element in a clause can be put first.

  • "What the duke gave my aunt was a teapot" (i.e., I am going to tell you what the duke gave my aunt).
  • "What happened was that the duke gave my aunt a teapot" (i.e., I am going to tell you what happened).

Usually, the point of departure is the subject of a declarative clause; this is the unmarked form. A point of departure is marked when it is not the subject — thus, occasionally it is the object ("You I blame for this dilemma") and more often an adverbial phrase ("This morning I got up late").

In questions, point of departure is treated slightly differently. English questions come in two types: wh-questions and yes-no questions. Ordinary (unmarked) questions of either type start with the word that indicates what the speaker wants to know.

  • "Where is my little dog?" (I want you to tell me where.) [wh-question]
  • "Is John Smith inside?" (I want you to tell me whether he is or is not). [yes-no question]

Special (marked) questions displace this key "what I want to know" word with some other element.

  • "After tea, will you tell me a story?" (Still "will you or will not you?")
  • "In your house, who does the cooking?" (Still "who?")

Either imperative clauses are of the type "I want you to do something" or "I want you and me to do something." The second type usually starts with let us; in the unmarked form of the first type, you is implied and not made explicit ("Improve your grammar!"), and included in the marked form ("You improve your grammar!"); another marked form is "Do improve your grammar." In the negative, "Do not argue with me" is unmarked, and "Do not you argue with me" is marked.

In spoken English, the point of departure is frequently marked off by intonation.

Generally, English is a head-initial language, meaning that the "anchor" of a phrase (segment of a sentence) occurs at the beginning of the phrase.

The main exception is that simple modifiers precede the noun phrases:

  • A dog (article + noun)
  • Blue house (adjective + noun)
  • Fred's cat (possessive + noun) but man of the house (noun + prepositional phrase)

This leads to a sentence like: "Fred's sister ran quickly to the store." As can be inferred from this example, the sequence of a basic sentence (ignoring articles and other determiners as well as prepositional phrases) is: Adjective1 - Subject - Verb - Adverb - Adjective2 - Indirect Object - Adjective3 - Direct Object.

Interrogative sentences invert word order ("Did you go to the store?"). Changing a given sentence from active to passive grammatical voice changes the word order, moving the new subject to the front ("John bought the car" becomes "The car was bought by John"), and lexical or grammatical emphasis (topicalization) changes it in many cases as well (see duke-aunt-teapot examples above).

English also sees some use of the OSV (object-subject-verb) word order, especially when making comparisons using pronouns that are marked for case. For example, "I hate oranges, but apples I will eat." Far more rare, but still sometimes used is OVS, "If it is apples you like, then apples like I," although this last usage can sound contrived and anachronistic to a native speaker.

Interrogative sentences

Interrogative word order is used to pose questions, with or without an expected answer. Most of the time, it is formed by switching the order of the subject and the auxiliary (or "helping") verb in a declarative sentence, as in the following:

  1. Are you going to the party?
  2. Is he supposed to do that?
  3. How much do I owe you?
  4. Where is the parking lot?

However, when the information being requested would be the subject of the answer, the word order is not inverted, and the interrogative pronoun takes the place of the subject, as in the following:

  1. Who helped you with your homework?
  2. What happened here?

When spoken, an intonation change is often used to emphasize this switch, or can entirely reflect interrogation in some cases (e.g. "John ran?"). The interrogative phrase can further be formed in this manner by moving the predicate of a declarative sentence in front of the helping verb and changing it to a demonstrative, relative pronoun, quantifier, etc. Ending the sentence with a question mark denotes the interrogative phrase <?>.

Rhetorical questions can be formed by moving the helping verb-subject pair to the end of the question, e.g. "You would not really do that, would you?"

Types of Interrogative Sentences

There are three types of interrogative sentences (questions) in English:

  1. Yes/no questions require “Yes/No” answers. For example: Do you like modern music? Is he a driver?
    • Alternative questions express opposition and can be asked to any part of the sentence (like special questions). For example: Do you prefer tea or coffee? Did you or your mum tell him the truth?
  2. Information questions (or Wh-questions) require special information while answering them. They are characterized by the presence of an interrogative pronoun in the first place (Why? When? How much? etc.) and can be asked to any part of the sentence. For example: Where did you spend last summer? Why have you done it?
    • Questions to the subject require mentioning the doer of the action in the answer. For example: Who has broken the window? Who was talking to you when I saw you?
  3. Tag questions (disjunctive questions) represent statements with tags separated by a comma. For example: You were at home yesterday, weren't you? He won't come tomorrow, will he?

Yes/No questions

Yes/No questions require an answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’. If there is a modal verb (can, must, should, may), an auxiliary verb (will, shall, have) or a form of the verb ‘to be’ in the sentence, put it in front of the subject.

  • Mary is drinking tea. – Is Mary drinking tea?
  • The friends have come. – Have the friends come?
  • The houses were built last year. – Were the houses built last year?
  • You must do it. – Must you do it?
  • She'll come in ten minutes. – Will she come in ten minutes?
  • They are from Canada. - Are they from Canada?

If there is no modal verb, auxiliary verb or the verb ‘to be’ in the sentence, yes/no questions are formed with the help of the auxiliary verb ‘do’. The auxiliary verb ‘do’ has no meaning. It just takes the form according to the main verb in the sentence.

‘do’ – in the present tense: if the subject of the sentence is the noun in the 1st person singular or plural (I or we), the 2nd person singular or plural (you), and the 3rd person plural (they).

  • We go to the country every weekend. – Do we go the country every weekend?
  • You like swimming. – Do you like swimming?
  • They play football. – Do they play football?

‘does’ – in the present tense: if the subject of the sentence is the noun in the 3rd person singular (he, she, it).

  • She cooks well. – Does she cook well?

‘did’ - in the past tense

  • They arrived yesterday. – Did they arrive yesterday?

Note: the main verb in yes/no questions comes without any endings (-es, -s, ed) or in case of the past tense – in its first form (arrived – arrive, came – come).

To form negative yes/no questions you have to put the negative modal verb, negative auxiliary verb or negative form of the verb ‘to be’ in front of the subject.

  • Can’t you help him?
  • Aren’t you waiting for me?

If you need to form the negative yes/no question with the help of the auxiliary verb ‘do’, you have to use ‘don’t’ (do not), doesn’t (does not), or didn’t (did not) instead of ‘do’ does, or did.

  • Don’t you know him?
  • Didn’t you tell him the truth?

The peraphrastic negative is used in more formal English:

  • Can you not help him?
  • Are you not waiting for me?
  • Do you not know him?
  • Did you not tell him the truth?

Information questions

Information or Wh- questions require additional information for the answer (as opposed to simply yes or no as with yes/no-questions). To form such questions you have to put the question word (why? when? where? what? how? who? whom?) together with all of the words in the same phrase at the front of the sentence. If the question word is part of the subject you do not have to change the word order. The word order remains as in the statement.

  • Who is playing the piano in the room now?
  • Which car is hers?

If the question word is not part of the subject you have to use a modal verb (can, must, should, may), an auxiliary verb (will, shall, have) or a form of the verb ‘to be’ after the question word and in front of the subject.

  • Where is Tommy?
  • Where will you be waiting for me tomorrow?

If there is no modal verb, auxiliary verb or the verb ‘to be’ in the sentence, you have to use the auxiliary verb ‘do’ after the question word and in front of the subject.

  • Where do your parents live?
  • Why did he do it?

Note: the main verb in information questions comes without any endings (goes – go, plays – play, talked - talk) or in case of the past tense – in its first form (arrived – arrive, came – come).


see also: #Negation, negative polarity, and assertion.

Reversed polarity tags

Disjunctive questions (tag questions) Tag questions are statements with tags at the end. The tag consists of two or three parts.

1st part: a modal verb, an auxiliary verb, or a form of the verb ‘to be’ (if they are in the sentence) in the form required by the pronoun in the 3rd part.

2nd part: the particle ‘not’ if the statement is positive. If the statement is negative, the particle is omitted.

3rd part: the subject of the statement expressed by a noun.

  • She is having a shower now, isn’t she?
  • You can’t swim, can you?

If there is no modal verb, auxiliary verb or the verb ‘to be’ in the statement, you have to use the auxiliary verb ‘do’ in the tag.

  • Henry played tennis well, didn’t he?
  • We go to work by bus, don’t we?


(a) In BrE the main verb ‘to have’ behaves as an auxiliary.

  • You have a brother and a sister, haven’t you? (BrE)
  • You have a brother and a sister, don’t you? (AmE)

(b) If the subject of the statement is the indefinite pronoun ‘somebody’ in the tag it is replaced by the pronoun ‘they’.

  • Someone’s knocking at the door, aren’t they?

(c) Such words like ‘nothing’, ‘never’, ‘hardly’ make the statements negative, so the tag should be positive.

  • You never listen to me, do you?

(d) If the statement starts with ‘there’, this word counts as a pronoun, so it is placed on the 3rd place in the tag.

  • ’’There's nothing here, is there?

(e) If the statement is an imperative, the tag will be ‘will you’ or ‘won’t you’.

  • Be attentive, won’t you?
  • Don’t be lazy, will you?

(f) If the statement contains ‘Let's’, the tag will be ‘shall we’.

  • ’’Let's go to the cinema, shall we?

(g) More formal English uses peraphrastic negation in the tags to positive sentences:

  • She is having a shower now, is she not?
  • You cannot swim, can you?
  • Henry played tennis well, did he not?
  • We go to work by bus, do we not?
  • You have a brother and a sister, have you not? (BrE)
  • You have a brother and a sister, do you not? (AmE)
  • Someone is knocking at the door, are they not?
  • Be attentive, will you not?

Meaning of tags

The tag question requires the person to respond to the statement. Negative tags require a ‘Yes’ answer. Positive tags require a ‘No’ answer.

  • ’’We've done the project, haven't we? – Yes, we have.
  • We haven't done the project, have we? – No, we haven't.

Constant polarity tags
So, they read my article, did they?


The book, I like. The movie, I don't. (cf. I like the book. I don't like the movie.)
To John, I gave the book. (cf. I gave the book to John.)

non-tensed VP topicaliztion:

Throw the ball, I will. (cf. I will throw the ball.)

but not

*Threw the ball, I.

instead non-tensed VP movement with do-support

*Throw the ball, I did. (cf. I threw the ball.)
  • left dislocation
The book, I like it. (cf. I like the book.)
Jim, he is here. (cf. Jim is here.)
  • cleft
It is the book (that) I like. (cf. I like the book.)
  • pseudo-cleft
The book is what I like. (cf. I like the book.)

Negation, negative polarity, and assertion

Halil is going with them.
Halil isn’t going with them.   (inflectional "contraction" negation)
Halil is not going with them.   (periphrastic negation)
Halil went with them
Halil didn't go with them.   (do-support, inflectional "contraction" negation)
Halil did not go with them.   (do-support, periphrastic negation)
Halil was receiving some help from his friends.
*Halil was receiving any help from his friends.
Halil was receiving no help from his friends.
*Halil wasn't receiving some help from his friends.
Halil wasn't receiving any help from his friends.
Halil wasn't receiving no help from his friends.   (dialectal, prescriptively "incorrect")
Halil can drive a motorcycle and so can Cherif.
*Halil can drive a motorcycle and neither can Cherif.
*Halil can't drive a motorcycle and so can Cherif.
Halil can't drive a motorcycle and neither can Cherif.
Halil almost touched the bomb and so did Cherif.
*Halil almost touched the bomb and neither did Cherif.
*Halil hardly touched the bomb and so did Cherif.
Halil hardly touched the bomb and neither did Cherif.
  • syntactic negation vs. lexical negation (clausal vs. subclausal)
Halil was unable to go and so was Cherif.
*Halil was unable to go and neither was Cherif.
*Halil wasn't able to go and so was Cherif.
Halil wasn't able to go and neither was Cherif.
  • VP negation vs. non-VP negation
Do not ever accept this job position! (negation inside of VP)
Never ever accept this job position! (negation outside of VP)

restrictions on not:

He did not accept the position. (negation inside of VP)
*He not accepted the position. (negation outside of VP)
It is imperative [ that he not accept the position ]. (negation outside of VP in subjunctive)
  • scope of negation and ambiguity
The streets are not [ safe because of the flood ]
interpretation #1 = the flood is not the reason for the unsafe streets (there is another cause)
The streets are not [ safe ] because of the flood
interpretation #2 = the flood is causing the unsafe streets
All of the streets are not flooded
interpretation #1 = None of the streets are flooded
interpretation #2 = Not all of the streets are flooded



Semantic gradability

Adjectives and adverbs typically have the semantic feature of being gradable, that is the quality or state that they describe exists on a gradual scale between two opposite poles. For example, there is a gradable scale between the antonyms cold and hot. Gradable words of this type can have several modifiers that qualify where on the scale a particular quality or state rests as in the following \left ( intensifier \right ) +  \begin{Bmatrix}
  adjective \
\end{Bmatrix} combinations:

very quick
rather quick
quite quick
too quick

very quickly
rather quickly
quite quickly
too quickly

Most adjectives[30] are gradable but some adjectives are not. For example, the adjective infinite is not gradable making the adjective phrases very infinite, rather infinite and more infinite semantically odd.

Types of comparison

Gradable adjective and adverbs can also be involved in comparison where to the positions of two or more entities on a gradable scale are compared with each other. Semantically, three types of comparison can be distinguished:

  • higher degree (superior)
  • same degree
  • lower degree (inferior)

Comparisons of the same degree use only the general base adjective form.

In higher degree comparisons, the comparison is indicated either by inflectional suffixation, using -er, -est (morphological marking) or by periphrastic constructions involving more, most modifiers preceding the adjective (syntactic marking). The three inflectional forms are known as

Lower degree comparisons only use periphrastic constructions involving less and least adjectival modifiers.


  Inflectional Periphrastic
Same degree (Absolute) tall beautiful
Higher degree Comparative taller more beautiful
Superlative tallest most beautiful
Lower degree less tall, less beautiful
least tall, least beautiful

Comparative constructions

She is taller than Halil.
She is more tall than short.   (note: *She is taller than short is ungrammatical)
She is as tall as Halil.


The phenomenon of ellipsis refers to omission of parts of sentences when those parts are readily recoverable in the context of an utterance. Some types of ellipsis are obligatory while other types of ellipsis are optional. Still other types are optional in certain grammatical environment but obligatory in other grammatical environments. For example, in the following sentences the underlined words can optionally be omitted:

The red sock and red shoe are in the hamper.
The red sock and shoe are in the hamper.   (red is omitted)
Halil can drink coffee and John can drink coffee, too.
Halil can drink coffee and John can, too.   (drink coffee is omitted)
Halil borrowed one of my CDs but I can't remember which CD.
Halil borrowed one of my CDs but I can't remember which.   (CD is omitted)
This boy always has done bad things and always will do bad things.
This boy always has and always will do bad things.   (done bad things is omitted)
Halil is drinking coffee at the table and John is drinking coffee at the bar.
Halil is drinking coffee at the table and John at the bar.   (is drinking coffee is omitted)

The above examples involve ellipsis in the second component of a coordinated constituent. This type of ellipsis is very common. Other types of non-coordinated optional ellipsis are the following:

Do you want a drink?
Want a drink?   (do you omitted)
Do you want a drink?
You want a drink?   (do omitted)
It looks fine to me.
Looks fine to me.   (it omitted)
Is the machine still broken?
Machine still broken?   (is the omitted)
We meet on Wednesday mornings.
We meet Wednesday mornings.   (on omitted)

Certain kinds of ellipsis indicate a more informal or familiar style of language while other types are neutral in the aspect.

A type of ellipsis that is always obligatory involves control constructions.[31] These sentences are usually analyzed as consisting of a main clause with the verb of the main clause taking a non-finite clause as a complement.

Halil tried [ to paint his house ] .

In the sentence above Halil tried [ X ] is the main clause and the embedded (i.e. subordinate) non-finite clause is to paint his house. The non-finite clause is analyzed as having a subject which is obligatorily omitted in the surface sentence. In this case, the omitted subject is Halil (since it is Halil who making the painting attempt). Thus, the underlying structure is

Halil tried [ Halil paint his house ] .   (underlying Halil in the embedded clause is ungrammatical)

which has a subject that must be omitted (along with an infinitive marker to that must be added) to give:

Halil tried to paint his house.   (Halil is omitted)

Types of ellipsis that are obligatory in certain constructions but optional in others include the that complementizer:

Post-nominal modification:
The man that I love will be there.   (that is optionally present)
The man I love will be there.   (that is optionally omitted)
He knows that I love him.   (that is optionally present)
He knows I love him.   (that is optionally present)
It is obvious that I love him.   (that is optionally present)
It is obvious I love him.   (that is optionally omitted)
That I love him is obvious.   (that is obligatorily present)
*I love him is obvious.   (omitting that is ungrammatical when the clause is in subject position)


Diagrams like this were used in English grammar education:

The teacher punished Johnny

"The teacher punished Johnny"

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ Other more recent analyses of noun phrases posit that they are instead determiner phrases with a determiner acting as the phrasal head and the noun (and its modifiers) acting as a complement to the determiner. This article will follow the older, traditional view of noun phrases being headed by nouns and determiners acting as modifiers of the noun head.
  2. ^ Ungrammatical example sentences are generally indicated with a preceding asterisk * in linguistic literature. This convention will be used in this article.
  3. ^ "Standing alone" (or "bare") refers to a syntactic context like the following:
    1. I want *book. (book = countable)
    2. I want rice. (rice = uncountable)
    Sentence (2) with uncountable rice without a preceding article is grammatical, but sentence (1) is ungrammatical because book in the singular cannot occur without a preceding article. In other words, rice can standalone in sentence (2) without an article but book cannot standalone.
  4. ^ The term determiner has different meanings in works by different authors. One usage uses the term determiner as the name of a syntactic lexical category (i.e. part of speech) while the term determinative is used to refer to words that have a "determining" function. Other authors reverse the definitions with determiner referring to function and determinative referring to the lexical category. A third usage uses the term determiner to refer to both the lexical category and the function (and thus does not distinguish between the two). In this article, the first usage will be followed where determiner = lexical category, determinative = function.
  5. ^ Many traditional grammars refer to determiners with the term adjective. However, determiners clearly have different syntactic behavior and are usually distinguished from adjectives in more linguistically-oriented grammatical descriptions.
  6. ^ Note that the genitive pronouns mine, yours, hers, ours, theirs are not determiners but are rather syntactically pronouns. (The genitive pronoun his has the same form as the genitive determiner his, i.e. they are syncretic.)
  7. ^ The word no, however, can also function as an interjection, when used to give a negative answer to a yes-no question as in
    Speaker A: Do you want a pelican?
    Speaker B: No, I don't like 'em.
  8. ^ The genitive enclitic is spelled simply -’ in certain situations...
  9. ^ The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. See http://www.bartleby.com/61/66/Y0026600.html.
  10. ^ The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. See http://www.bartleby.com/61/94/Y0029450.html.
  11. ^ The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. See http://www.bartleby.com/61/91/Y0029150.html.
  12. ^ Dictionary of Newfoundland English. See http://www.heritage.nf.ca/dictionary/azindex/pages/5505.html.
  13. ^ As an auxiliary, do has a mostly empty semantic component. However, it is required in certain syntactic constructions that are referred to as do-support.
  14. ^ Strictly speaking, the term non-finite refers to verbs (and their associated clauses) that are limited in their inflection according to person, number, and tense. Since the base form of the verb is used in imperative sentences, the base form is not strictly non-finite as imperative sentences have a second person subject (usually not present in the surface sentence). Thus, the terminology of non-tensed and tensed is more appropriate to a characterization of Modern English. However, this article will use the traditional terminology non-finite with the caveat that base form is finite in imperative sentences and truly non-finite in other constructions.
  15. ^ In traditional grammar terminology, the base form is often split into three forms: infinitive, imperative, present subjunctive. However, these forms are always identical morphologically in Modern English.
  16. ^ The -ing form is called by two terms in traditional grammar: present participle or gerund. However, since these forms are never distinct morphologically, they have been referred to with the term participle-gerund. Despite its name present participle in traditional grammar, the -ing does not express tense and, in fact, is used in verbal constructions that indicate present, future, and past time frames. In finite clauses, its main function is aspectual.
  17. ^ Despite the name past participle from traditional grammar, the -en form does not express tense or a past time frame. In finite clauses, it indicates either aspect or passive voice. The -en form is named after the -en~-n suffix that appears on several irregular verbs like beat : beaten (beat + -en), sew : sewn (sew + -n), give : given (give + -n).
  18. ^ Note that if the copula is excluded from the analysis, the verb paradigm can be charted as
  19. English Verb Inflectional Paradigm (excluding copula)

      Regular verb Irregular verb with 5 inflections Irregular verb with 4 inflections Irregular verb with 3 inflections
    -ing form jumping taking building hitting
    3rd Sg. Nonpast jumps takes builds hits
    Base jump take build hit
    Past jumped took built
    -en form taken

  20. ^ Actually, the -s spelling represents two different pronunciations: one as [s] (after voiceless nonsibilants), the other as [z] after voiced nonsibilants.
  21. ^ There are approximately between 250 and 300 irregular verbs in Modern English. However, there is considerable dialectal variation in the number of irregular verbs in the language of an individual native speaker (i.e. idiolect). Even within so-called "standard" varieties of English, there is variation. For example, some speakers say/write has been mowed with mow having the -en form of regular verbs while other speakers say/write has been mown with mow having an irregular -en form — here both the regular and irregular forms are considered acceptable by prescriptivists. Another example is drag where some speakers say/write She dragged it yesterday (regular past) while others say/write She drug it yesterday (irregular past) — in this example the irregular drug is rejected by some prescriptivists. Several irregular verbs are archaic and obsolete (such as smite~smote~smitten). Others have become converted to regular verb inflectional paradigms (such the irregular past form glode has become glided in most modern varieties).
  22. ^ The irregular beat exceptionally distinguishes the general past (beat) from the -en form (beaten) but has a syncretism involving the base, general nonpast, and 1st. sg. nonpast forms as well as the general past and 1st/3rd sg. past.
  23. ^ There are two categories of irregular verbs based upon historical development:
    1. strong verbs (the "transparently irregular" of two historical types)
    2. "true" irregular verbs.
    The term "transparently irregular" is sometimes used to describe Jacob Grimm's "strong" verbs that appear irregular at first, but actually follow a common paradigm. This group of verbs is a relic of the older Germanic ablaut system for conjugation. This is generally confined to atypical simple past verb forms, e.g.:
    swim ~ swam ~ swum
    sing ~ sang ~ sung
    steal ~ stole ~ stolen
    Another category of "transparently irregular" verbs dates back to Middle English. Some verbs, especially those with a stem ending in an alveolar consonant (/t/, /d/, or /s/), formed a geminate consonant or consonant cluster with the -d suffix. In Middle English, vowels before a consonant cluster often became shorter. As the Great Vowel Shift obscured the connection between long vowels and the corresponding short vowels, transparent irregularities such as the following arose:
    meet ~ met
    lead ~ led
    read ~ read
    lose ~ lost
    keep ~ kept
    Irregular verbs include eat, sit, lend, and keep, among many others. Some paradigms are based on obsolete root words, or roots that have changed meaning. Others are derived from old umlaut patterns that changes in phonemic structure and grammar have distorted (keep ~ kept is one such example). Some are unclear in origin, and may date back to Proto-Indo-European times.
  24. ^ The reason for the suppletion is due to the historical development of the copula, which is a merging of the inflectional paradigms of three different verbs: am, are, is (and archaic art) are from one verb; be, been, being are from a second verb; was, were are from a third Old English verb.
  25. ^ There is also the dialectal form amn't (am + n't) which is uncommon in standard varieties.
  26. ^ Note that sequences of reduced forms like ’d’ve (= would have) are often not found in written language. Nevertheless, they are frequently attested in the spoken language.
  27. ^ Albeit in extremely formal writing (where not would be preferable), the -n’t is acceptable in most writing.
  28. ^ The archaic version second person singular has a -est suffix as in thou listenest. The archaic third person singular has a -eth suffix as in he/she/it listeneth.
  29. ^ Note that the degree adverb very is to be distinguished from the adjective very meaning "actual, precise" as in the sentence That is the very woman I was speaking of.
  30. ^ The word anymore is similar to any in being grammatical only in sentences suggesting doubt, or questions. However, in some United States dialects it can be heard used with the approximate meaning nowadays. However, in such contexts there is often still an implication of negation or cessation. For example, in the utterance,
    Anymore, people just wear jeans and t-shirts when they travel on a plane
    it may be implicit that
    People no longer dress up to fly.
  31. ^ All dynamic and most stative adjectives are gradable. However, many nongradable adjectives can be used in a gradable sense often with an accompanying change in meaning. For instance, the stative adjective dead is usually not gradable since generally dead and its complementary alive are considered to be mutually exclusive states. But, in sentences like I felt very dead today the adjective being used as a gradable adjective.
  32. ^ Control structures are also referred to as equi-NP-deletion in earlier transformational grammar.


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  • Bauer, Laurie. (1983). English word-formation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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  • Celce-Murcia, M.; & Larsen-Freeman, D. The grammar book: An ESL/EFL teacher's course (2nd ed.). ISBN 0838447252
  • Curme, George O. (1931). Syntax. Boston: Heath.
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External links


Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_grammar

Published - October 2008

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