Grammar A–Z

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

A noun which refers to an idea, quality, or state (e.g. warmth, liberty, happiness), rather than a physical thing that can be seen or touched. Compare with concrete noun.

 

active

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.

 

adjective

A word, such as heavy, red, or sweet, that is used to describe (or modify) a noun. Learn more about adjectives.

 

adjunct

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.

 

adverb

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.

 

adverbial

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.

 

affirmative

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.

 

agent

The person or thing in a passive sentence that does or causes something (e.g. she was asked to leave). Read more about active and passive verbs.

 

aspect

The form of a verb that shows, for example, whether the action happens once or repeatedly, is completed or still continuing. See continuous, perfect. Read more about verb tenses.

 

attributive

An attributive adjective is used before the noun it describes (e.g. a red apple or a heavy bag). The opposite of predicative.

 

auxiliary verb

Auxiliary verbs are used to form tenses or passive forms of other verbs. The main ones are be, do, and have. See also modal verb. Learn more about auxiliary verbs.

 

Back to top

 

classifying adjective

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.

 

clause

A group of words that contains a verb and either forms part of a sentence or is a complete sentence in itself. For example:

I went to the bank and drew out some money.

[clause]                                [clause]

See also main clause, subordinate clause, relative clause, conditional clause, coordinate clause and examples of clauses.

 

collective noun

A noun which refers to a group of people or things, e.g. team, family, police, committee. Find out how to match verbs to collective nouns.

 

common noun

Any noun which refers to a person, animal, or thing in general: woman, dog, and bed are all common nouns. Compare with proper noun.

 

comparative

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.

Compare with positive and  superlative. Find out more about comparing adjectives.

 

complement

A word or phrase, especially an adjective or a noun, that is used after linking verbs such as be, seem, and become, and describes the subject of the verb, for example:

She became a teacher.

I was angry.

They seemed very friendly.

 

compound

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.

 

concrete noun

A noun which refers to a physical person or thing that can be seen, felt, heard, etc. For example, child, horse, and house are all concrete nouns. Compare with abstract noun.

 

conditional

In grammar, conditional can mean two things. Firstly, the conditional form (mood) of a verb, which is made from would (also should with ‘I’ and ‘we’) plus the infinitive without ‘to’:

He would see.

Should we stay or go?

Secondly, conditional is used to refer to a clause or sentence expressing the fact that something must happen before something else can happen, for example:

If I had more money, I’d buy a bigger house.

Should you change your mind, we’d be happy to help.

See also conditional clause. Read more about the conditional and other moods of verbs.

 

conditional clause

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.

 

conjunction

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.

 

consonant

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?

 

continuous

A verb tense (or aspect) used to describe an action that continues for a period of time. Continuous tenses are formed with the verb to be plus the present participle, for example:

I’m watching the TV.

It was snowing.

Also called progressive. Compare with perfect. Learn more about continuous tenses.

 

contraction

A shortened form of a word or group of words (e.g. they’re is a contraction of they are). Read more about contractions.

 

coordinate clause

A clause that is linked to another clause by a conjunction such as and, or, or but. Coordinate clauses make separate statements that have equal importance, for instance:

It was freezing cold but the sun was shining.

[coordinate clause] [coordinate clause]

 

corpus

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.

 

countable noun

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.

 

Back to top

 

defining relative clause

Another term for restrictive relative clause.

 

definite article

A term for the determiner the. See also indefinite article.

 

determiner

A word that introduces a noun, such as the, a, every, and this. See also definite article, indefinite article, possessive determiners.

 

direct speech

The actual words of a speaker quoted in writing (e.g. ‘I don’t believe you,’ said Nina). Compare with reported speech. Learn about punctuation in direct speech.

 

exclamation

A sound, word, or phrase expressing an emotion or feeling such as anger, surprise, pleasure, or pain (e.g. Ow!; That’s great!). Learn more about exclamations. Also called interjection.

 

first person

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

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.

Compare with informal, slang.

 

future

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.

 

gerund

Another term for verbal noun.

 

Back to top

 

imperative

The form (or mood) of a verb that expresses a command or instruction. For example:

Come here!

Add the onions to the pan.

Find out more about the imperative and other moods of verbs.

 

indefinite article

A term for the determiner a (or an). See also definite article.

 

indicative

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.

 

indirect speech

Another term for reported speech.

 

infinitive

The basic unchanged form of a verb, which usually occurs with the word ‘to’. For instance: to read; to be. See also split infinitive.

 

inflection

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 or the plural of a noun. Read more about verb tenses and forming plurals of nouns.

 

informal

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!’

Compare with formal, slang.

 

Back to top

 

interjection

Another term for exclamation.

 

interrogative

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.

 

intransitive

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.

The opposite of transitive. Read more about intransitive and transitive verbs.

 

irregular

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.

 

main clause

A clause that makes sense on its own, or may form part of a longer sentence. For example:

We’re waiting for the bus.

[main clause]

I went to a restaurant and I treated myself to lunch.

[main clause]                            [main clause]

See also clause, subordinate clause, relative clause, conditional clause, and examples of clauses.

 

mass noun

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.

 

modal verb

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.

 

modifier

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.

 

mood

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.

 

morpheme

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.

 

Back to top

negative

A word or phrase stating that something is not the case, such as never, nothing, no, or not. The opposite of affirmative. See also double negatives.

 

non-restrictive relative clause

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]

Also called non-defining relative clause. See also clause, main clause, subordinate clause, restrictive relative clause, conditional clause, and examples of clauses.

 

noun

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.

 

object

The person or thing affected by a verb, for example:

He was eating a sandwich.

She loves animals.

Compare with subject. Read more about subjects and objects.

 

Back to top

 

part of speech

Another term for word class. Find out more about different parts of speech.

 

participle

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.

 

Read more about participles. Here is some advice on avoiding dangling participles.

 

passive

A passive verb has a subject which is undergoing the action of the verb, rather than carrying it out, e.g.:

The apple was eaten.

The opposite of active. Find out more about active and passive verbs.

 

past

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.

 

perfect

A verb tense (or aspect) typically used to talk about actions that are completed by the present or a particular point in the past or future, for example:

It was the first time that I had seen an eagle.

Compare with continuous. Find out more about verb tenses.

 

personal pronoun

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'.

 

phrasal verb

A verb that is made up of a main verb together with an adverb or a preposition (or both). Typically the meaning of a phrasal verb is not obvious from the meanings of the component words, for example:

His car broke down.

 The idea didn’t catch on.

 You’re putting me off.

Find out more about phrasal verbs.

 

phrase

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.

 

plural

The form of a noun that is used to refer to more than one person or thing, such as books or benches. For more guidance see plurals of nouns.

 

  positive

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.

 

possessive pronoun

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.

 

postpositive

A postpositive adjective is placed after the word it relates to, for example galore in there were prizes galore. Learn more about the different types of adjective.

 

predicative

A predicative adjective follows a verb such as be, become, grow, look, or seem. For example:

The future looks gloomy.

They grew weary.

The opposite of attributive.

 

prefix

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.

 

preposition

A word that is used in front of a noun or pronoun to show place, time, direction, or method. For example:

She ran across the street.

The restaurant is not open during the day.

We went by train.

Find out more about prepositions and guidance on ending sentences with prepositions.

 

present

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.

 

progressive

Another term for continuous.

 

pronoun

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.

See when to use 'I' or 'me'. Read more about pronouns.

 

proper noun

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.

 

Back to top

 

qualitative adjective

An adjective that describes the qualities of a person or thing (e.g. an expensive car, a slender woman). Compare with classifying adjective. Read more about qualitative and classifying adjectives.

 

quantifier

A determiner or pronoun which is used to express quantity, for example: many, several, all, both.

 

regular

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.

 

relative clause

A clause 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]

See also examples of clauses. Learn more about relative clauses.

 

reported speech

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.

 

restrictive relative clause

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]

Also called defining relative clause. See clause and compare with non-restrictive relative clause.

 

Back to top

 

second person

The pronouns, verb forms, and determiners which are used to speak to someone, for instance, you, your, you slept. Compare with first person, third person.

 

sentence

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.

 

slang

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.

 

split infinitive

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.

 

standard English

The type of English that is suitable for use in every type of written or spoken situation (as opposed to informal language or slang).

 

subject

The subject of a sentence is generally the person or thing that the sentence is about, often the person or thing that performs the action of a verb. For example:

The restaurant was packed.

He was eating a sandwich.

Compare with object. Here's some help on matching subjects with verbs.

 

subjunctive

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.

 

subordinate clause

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.

 

suffix

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.

 

superlative

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.

 

syllable

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

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.

 

Back to top

 

tense

The form that a verb takes to show when a person did something, or when something existed or happened. In English the main tenses are: present, past, and future. Learn more about verb tenses.

 

third person

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.

 

transitive

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

I admire your courage.

They followed him back to his house.

The opposite of intransitive. See examples of transitive and intransitive verbs.

 

Back to top

 

uncountable noun

Another term for mass noun. Opposite of countable noun. Find out about other types of noun.

 

Back to top

 

verb

A word that describes what a person or thing does, or what happens, for example run, sing, grow, occur, seem. Learn more about verbs.

 

verbal noun

The present participle of a verb when it’s used as a noun (e.g. 'smoking' in smoking is strictly forbidden). Also called gerund. Find out more about participles.

 

vowel

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?

 

word class

Word classes are the categories to which words belong according to the part they play in a sentence, e.g. (noun, verb, adjective, adverb, or pronoun). Also called part of speech.

 

Back to top

 


Get more from Oxford Dictionaries

Subscribe to remove adverts and access premium resources

Grammar and usage