Grammar and the parts of speech - Grammar Guide

The Right Word: A Writer's Toolkit of Grammar, Vocabulary and Literary Terms - Waldram Sarah 2021

Grammar and the parts of speech
Grammar Guide

He who writes badly thinks badly.

William Cobbett

A Grammar of the English Language (1819)

The controversial English pamphleteer William Cobbett, in a letter to his son James, observes the link between clarity of thought and clarity of writing. He emphasises paying attention to grammar as a means of dispelling confusion, and pours scorn on those in public life who omit to do so.

Whatever one makes of Cobbett’s political views, his ideas on grammar still resonate today. This is especially true for writers looking to connect with their readership. Put simply, grammar enables users of language to combine words in ways that convey meaning clearly.

There is no mystery to grammar. Those who learn English as their first language from native speakers absorb its essentials while they are picking up the vocabulary required for basic communication. For writers, however, there are good reasons to explore English grammar more deeply. Getting to grips with grammar improves one’s understanding of the English language and consequently enriches one’s writing.

As a starting point, this chapter looks at the basic elements of the English sentence and explains terms used to describe these elements. We’ll present these in the traditional way, as parts of speech, even though, as touched on in chapter 2, some experts favour other approaches to analysing the language.

The parts of speech

The parts of speech, sometimes referred to as word classes, comprise (in the order they appear in this chapter):

✵ nouns

✵ verbs

✵ adjectives

✵ adverbs

✵ pronouns

✵ prepositions

✵ conjunctions

✵ interjections.

It’s worth remembering that a word’s part of speech gets defined only in use. Of course, it’s safe to say that a word like plumber is a noun, because it’s difficult to think of a case where it could be anything else. But a word like up can be a preposition, a verb, an adjective or an adverb, depending on the context:

The cat climbed up the tree and can’t get down. [preposition]

Introducing that proposal will really up the stakes. [verb]

The up escalator is on the other side. [adjective]

Send John right up as soon as he gets here. [adverb]

Therefore, in this book, when we identify a word as a verb, conjunction, adjective or other part of speech, our focus is on the role it fulfils in the context under consideration.


A noun is a word that names something: a person, place or thing.

Nouns are the largest word class in English.

✵ A noun can be a single word (car, truth) or a compound word made up of two or more single words (pruning shears, playwright, double-decker).

✵ A group of words that acts as a noun in a sentence is called a noun phrase.

✵ A proper noun is one that begins with a capital letter and usually names a person or some other unique thing: Mary Seacole, Windsor Castle.

✵ A common noun names a class of things: book, music.

Most nouns have two possible forms: singular or plural. The plural is usually created by adding -s, sometimes along with other changes to the word’s ending. There are only a small number of irregular plurals (ones that aren’t formed by adding -s), for example, child → children.

The system by which nouns AGREE with verbs — that is, a singular noun takes a singular verb form, and a plural noun takes a plural verb form, we cover in more detail in chapter 2 (see here).

Count and non-count nouns

Singular nouns in English can be classified as one of two types: those that have a plural form and those that do not:

✵ Nouns that can be pluralised are called count nouns (because they can be preceded by a number):

one shirt, two shirts

one mouse, two mice

one alumnus, two alumni

For some words, such as sheep, the plural form is the same as the singular, but they are count nouns nonetheless:

one sheep in the north pasture; a hundred sheep in the south pasture

✵ Singular nouns that cannot be pluralised are known as non-count nouns: music, happiness, fuss. A non-count noun denoting something such as a feeling or substance that cannot be quantified is called a mass noun: envy, air. One feature of mass nouns is that they can be preceded by words such as some, any and no.

Many mass nouns can be used as count nouns, however, when they refer to a particular type or quantity of what they denote:

French cheeses

Two coffees and five teas, please.

Collective nouns

A distinctive group of nouns are known as collective nouns. Examples of collective nouns are:

audience, committee, crowd, flock, government, jury and orchestra

These nouns are singular in form but refer to a group made up of a number of individuals or things.

When the group is spoken of as a unit, the collective noun takes a singular verb:

The jury has handed down a unanimous verdict.

’The best government is no government at all.

Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience (1849)

However, when the emphasis is on the individuals or things that make up the group, the noun takes a plural verb:

The jury have been arguing among themselves for twelve hours, and no verdict is expected.

A collective noun that denotes a class of objects, for example, furniture or luggage, is always singular:

My luggage is missing.

When using collective nouns, it is important to ensure agreement between verbs and pronouns. The following example, for instance, is inconsistent:

The committee has [singular] decided to reject the proposal and will give their [plural: should be its] reasons in writing tomorrow.

The jury eagerly wrote down all three dates on their slates, and then added them up, and reduced the answer to shillings and pence.’

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)

(It’s more common for a collective noun to take a plural verb in British English than in American English.)


A verb is a word that indicates an action or a condition. In English, verbs also express whether the action or condition is associated with the past, present or future.

English verb forms are relatively simple. As outlined immediately below, verbs have only three principal parts, which are predictable, apart from those for a significant number of irregular verbs. Despite this, English TENSES , when taken to include such features as ASPECT , are capable of rich, varied and complex expression. (For more detail, see here).

Principal parts

The three principal parts of the verb are the forms from which all other forms are derived.

✵ The main or root part of a verb is the infinitive. This is the form of the verb to be found in a dictionary. Because the derivative inflected forms (marked by changed endings or other variation), of English verbs are on the whole not complicated, many forms of the verb are actually identical to the infinitive.

Examples of infinitives are be, see, dig, automate, thrill. Since many uses of the infinitive in English require the preposition to before the verb, to is sometimes — erroneously — thought to be part of the infinitive.

✵ The second principal part of the verb is the simple past. Except for irregular verbs, English adds -ed or -d (for verbs already ending in e) to the end of an infinitive to form the simple past tense: thus, using our examples above, automated, thrilled. The others noted above are irregular and have different past tenses: be → was and were; see → saw; and dig → dug.

✵ The third principal part of the verb is the past participle. It’s used only in combination with AUXILIARY VERBS (see here). In regular verbs, the form of the past participle is identical to that of the simple past tense: automated, thrilled. In irregular verbs, it may be identical to the simple past of those verbs, or it may be a different word: thus, be (was and were) → been; see (saw) → seen; and dig (dug) → dug.

Verbs have another part — the present participle, but it’s usually not included among the principal parts because it’s always regular. The present participle is formed by adding -ing to the infinitive. Like the past participle, it’s used only in combination with auxiliary verbs. Examples of present participles for our group of sample verbs are being, seeing, digging, automating, thrilling. Note that verbs ending in a single consonant usually double the consonant before the -ing (as in digging), and verbs ending in silent e drop the e before the -ing (as in automating).


A common way to classify verbs is by whether or not they are followed by an object (a noun, noun phrase, or pronoun) to complete their meaning.

✵ Those verbs that do not take an object — and relatedly do not form PASSIVES (see here) — are called intransitive verbs:

You’d better leave.

He snores.

In dictionaries, these verbs are often indicated by the letters vi.

✵ Verbs that are followed by an object — the person or thing that receives or experiences the action of the verb — are transitive verbs:

Do you love me?

Put your books away.

In dictionaries, these verbs are often indicated by the letters vt.

A few transitive verbs can have two objects: a direct object and an indirect object. The direct object is the one acted on directly by the verb, and the indirect object is the one affected by the action of the verb:

I gave him £100. [the direct object is £100; the indirect object is him]

Many verbs can be either transitive or intransitive, depending on how they’re used and what they mean. In The dealer sells used cars, the verb sell is transitive, but in This used car won’t sell, the same verb is intransitive. In dictionaries, these verbs may be indicated by the letters vti.

’Do I dare to eat a peach?’

T. S. Eliot, ’The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (1915)

’While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.’

W. H. Auden, ’Musée des Beaux Arts’ (1940)

Copulas and complements

A small number of intransitive verbs can be followed by a complement, a noun or adjective that relates back to the subject. These intransitive verbs describe the relationship between the subject and complement and are called linking verbs or copulas:

I am Fred.

I feel sick.

Other copulas are grow, act, look, smell, taste and sound.

The kind of complement that follows an intransitive verb is called a subjective complement , because it describes the subject. In She has fallen ill, she is the subject, has fallen is the intransitive verb, and ill is the subjective complement.

A few transitive verbs can also be followed by a complement. This kind of complement is called an objective complement , because it describes the direct object of the verb:

I find her books fascinating. [the object is her books; the complement is fascinating]

The team elected Sarah captain. [the object is Sarah; the complement is captain]

Person, number and tense

Features such as whether a verb is transitive or requires a complement can be described as lexical features. In other words, they relate to the verb’s meaning and cannot be changed at will. Such features of verbs as person, number and tense, on the other hand, are variable, and these variations are effected by conjugating the verb, that is expressing it in its different forms.

Another way of stating this is that the features of person, number and tense, when present, mark a verb form as a finite verb. Finite in this case means ’limited’, since these three features limit the reference of the verb to a particular person, number or time. (This contrasts with the INFINITIVE (see here), which is not limited. Rather, the infinitive form indicates only meaning — it’s not constrained by person, time or number.)

Person: There are three grammatical persons: the speaker (who is the first person), the addressee or one spoken to (the second person) and someone spoken about (the third person).

On the whole, English verbs aren’t very concerned with person. English uses other features of language to express this concept. The only marker of person in standard English verbs is the -s at the end of the third-person singular form of verbs in the present tense: I sing, you sing, he sings. The irregular verb be is non-standard and so exceptional: I am, you are, he is, etc.

Number: Grammatical number as it relates to verbs is concerned only with whether a verb has as its subject one person or thing (singular) or more than one (plural).

As with person, English verbs aren’t too concerned with number. Instead, English depends on nouns to signify this. The only regular marker of number in English verbs is the same as for person: an -s at the end of the third-person singular form of verbs in the present tense: They sing, she sings. Again, the irregular verb be is exceptional: I am, we are, etc.

Tense: Tense is the feature of a verb that indicates, in a general way, when. The simplest division of English verb tenses is into past, present and future.

✵ The past tense uses the SIMPLE PAST (see here). The only English verb that has variable parts for the past tense is be, which uses was for the first and third persons singular, and were for all other persons and numbers.

✵ The present tense uses the root form (infinitive) of the verb except, as noted above, for two cases: the third person singular in standard verbs and all forms of be.

✵ The future tense is also based on the root form together with the auxiliary or MODAL (see here) verbs will or shall:

She will sing.

Shall I sing?

We have already noted that, owing to limited inflection in English, many forms of verbs are identical to the infinitive. Because of this, it only becomes apparent whether a verb is finite or an infinitive when one sees it in context. Take, for example, these three sentences:

I always return library books on time.

You need to return this book to the library by next week.

The letter demanded that he return the book immediately.

The form of the verb is identical in each sentence. But in the first sentence, return is a finite verb: first person singular present tense. In the second sentence, return is an infinitive. In the third sentence, return is another finite verb, this time a SUBJUNCTIVE form (for more detail, see here).

Aspect, mood and voice

Further features that English verbs have in common with those in other languages include aspect, mood and voice. In some languages these are expressed using the root of the verb altered by suffixes, changed vowels and the like. In English verbs, these features are mainly expressed through the use of AUXILIARY VERBS (see here).

Aspect: Experts differ as to whether to consider aspect a separate feature of verbs, or to regard it as part of tense. Certainly, the two aspects that English verbs show — the perfect and the continuous — cannot be separated from tense. They are always bound up with the finite features of a verb.

✵ The perfect aspect of verbs is evident in the perfect tenses — those formed using a finite form of the auxiliary verb have plus the past participle (-ed form) of the main verb. The perfect tenses indicate an action or condition existing in more than one point in time. For example,

I have lived here for twenty years

indicates the time when I started living here, and also the present time (because I still live here). In the sentence

When I arrived at the restaurant she had already left

the past perfect is used (she had left) to show that the action of leave happened before the action of arrive.

’You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.’

Greta Thunberg, UN Climate Action Summit (2019)

✵ The continuous (also called progressive) aspect of verbs expresses a continuing, unfinished action or condition. It’s formed with a finite form of be and the present participle (-ing form) of another verb. The continuous aspect can refer to either things that are going on in the present:

I’m cleaning my shoes.

Or things that were going on in the past:

We were living in Japan then.

Or things that will be going on in the future:

She’ll be waiting there till the train comes in.

’Sittin’ in the mornin’ sun,

I’ll be sittin’ when the evenin’ come.’

Otis Reading/Steve Cropper, ’The Dock of the Bay’ (1967)

Not all verbs can be used in a continuous aspect. Notably, verbs that describe a permanent condition and verbs connected with perception cannot. Examples include have, as in Do you have any brothers or sisters? (not Are you having…?), and hate, as in I hate him (not I am hating...).

Both the perfect and the continuous aspects of verbs can be expressed at the same time. For example, in the sentence

She has been working at home for several months now

there is a notion of continuous action starting in the past and still going on in the present.

Mood: Mood is a complex feature of verbs in some languages, but in English it’s relatively simple. There are only three moods associated with English verbs: the indicative, the imperative and the subjunctive.

✵ The indicative mood is used for ordinary statements and questions, in which verbs simply describe actions or conditions:

Birds sing.

Does he live here?

✵ The imperative mood is used to give orders or make requests. English has no separate form for imperative verbs; the imperative form is identical to the infinitive:

Go away!

Give me that!

✵ The subjunctive mood is used for special statements that may express a command, a wish, or something that is unreal. For all verbs except be the subjunctive form is the same as the infinitive, so it’s only evident the mood is subjunctive from the context:

I suggested to her that she drop by for a drink before the concert.

They demanded that he answer their questions.

Notice that the third person singular present omits the final -s (drop rather than drops, answer rather than answers).

The subjunctive form of be is either be or were:

The governor demanded that the letter be published.

If you were to go, you might regret it.

Be is used where the action is hypothetical or in the future. Were is used in clauses introduced by if, as if, as though or suppose:

Suppose I were to meet you outside the theatre.

(For more on CONDITIONAL CLAUSES, introduced by if, and the subjunctive, see chapter 2, here.)

A typical use of the subjunctive is in clauses introduced by that expressing a wish or suggestion:

We recommend that she be promoted to a supervisory position.

The subjunctive also occurs in fixed expressions such as: as it were, be that as it may, come what may and far be it from me.

Voice: There are two ’voices’: the active and the passive.

✵ In the active voice, the subject of the verb is the one who does the action described by the verb, and the object is the one acted upon:

The waiters will collect the plates.

✵ In the passive voice, this situation is reversed. The subject of the verb is the one acted upon by the verb, and the one who does the action — if mentioned at all — is relegated to a separate phrase, typically beginning with by:

The plates will be collected by the waiters.

The passive can be used for a variety of purposes, for example, if the identity of the doer of the action is unknown, if the writer wants to conceal the identity of the doer of the action, as in

The vase was broken,

or if the writer wants to put special emphasis on the object or the action rather than on the doer of the action, as in

The bomb was defused by experts.

Formal writing tends to use the passive more frequently than informal writing.

Auxiliary verbs

We’ve already encountered several verb forms that use auxiliary or ’helping’ verbs. Auxiliary verbs in English perform the work that complex inflections do in some other languages. So, while English has only three principal parts of the verb (the infinitive, the simple past and the past participle), auxiliary verbs enable a broader range of expression.

Do, be and have: The core auxiliary verbs in English are do, be and have. They are used:

✵ to form questions and negations (a finite form of do plus the infinitive)

✵ to form the passive voice (a finite form of be plus the past participle)

✵ to form the continuous tenses (a finite form of be plus the present participle)

✵ to form the perfect tenses (a finite form of have plus the past participle).

Of course, do, be and have can alternatively function as ordinary verbs. Because they can be either auxiliary verbs or ordinary verbs, confusion over identifying the main verb in a sentence may arise. Consider these examples:

Does he know all the people at the party?

I don’t work Fridays.

In both sentences, a form of do is the auxiliary verb: in the first sentence used to create a question, and in the second to negate the main verb. The main verb in the first sentence is know; the main verb in the second sentence is work. Note that, in both sentences, the auxiliary verb is a finite form and the main verb an infinitive.

We have already seen how a finite form of be is used to form the CONTINUOUS tenses (see here), and the PASSIVE voice (see here). Consider this sentence:

Joe is staying with us for a few months.

Here, a form of be (in its finite form, is) is the auxiliary verb. The main verb is stay, expressed by its present participle.

For examples of have functioning as an auxiliary verb to form the PERFECT tenses, see here.

Modal verbs: The other important group of auxiliary verbs in English are the modal verbs (also called modal auxiliaries):

can, could, may, might, must, ought to, shall, should, will and would.

(In some cases, the verbs dare, need and used are also considered part of this group.)

We have already noted the use of modal verbs:

✵ to form FUTURE tenses (will and shall plus the infinitive).

More broadly, modal verbs are used to convey certain modalities (possibility, obligation, etc.) that affect the meaning of the main verb.

’“But suppose we need that men should be better than we are,” said Gwendolen.’

George Eliot, Daniel Deronda (1876)

Modal auxiliaries are different from ordinary verbs in two important respects. First, they generally don’t have infinitives or other inflections. Second, they’re never used alone, but always in combination with a main verb. Since they tend not to have all the inflections of ordinary verbs, modal verbs are sometimes called defective , implying they work differently to other verbs.

In speech and some other contexts, modal verbs may be found used alone but, in these cases, the main verb is always implied and can often be found in the immediate context, typically the previous sentence or clause. For example:

They wanted me to stay on until the end of the project, but I really couldn’t.

’Are you going to do anything for Michael’s birthday?’

’I know I should, but I probably won’t.’

In the first example, I really couldn’t means ’I really couldn’t stay.’ In the second example, both should and won’t (contraction of will not) refer back to do anything in the first sentence.

Phrasal verbs

A special group of verbs in English are called phrasal verbs. A phrasal verb is a verb that consists of a main verb — which inflects (changes its form) like any other verb — and another word, usually an adverb or preposition.

The meaning of a phrasal verb is often something other than simply the sum of the main verb and the second word. It may extend the main verb’s meaning or it may have a very different sense. Take, for example, the phrasal verb look up, as in

You can look up those words in the dictionary.

It means more than look, and it doesn’t have anything in particular do to with up, but when used in combination the meaning is clear. Other examples of phrasal verbs are come round (= regain consciousness, be converted to someone’s opinion, etc.), pay back (= repay, take revenge on, etc.), and set aside (= preserve for future use, decide not to consider, etc.).

Phrasal verbs can be transitive or intransitive, just like standard verbs. A feature of many transitive phrasal verbs is that the direct object of the verb is movable. Consider these two examples:

I’ve plugged in the fridge.

Have you plugged it in?

So, when the object of a phrasal verb is a personal pronoun (in the example above, it), this appears between the main verb and the other component word of the phrasal verb. When the object is a noun (in the example above, fridge), this usually comes after the entire phrasal verb, but may occasionally appear between its two component words if it’s a short word. (For more on PERSONAL PRONOUNS, see here.)


An adjective is a word that describes a particular quality associated with a noun.

In the phrases a tall man and a green hat, tall and green are adjectives.

Attributive and predicate adjectives

Typically, adjectives appear in one of two places in the sentence. They can come before the noun they describe:

We ate a delicious meal.

The people next door have a very friendly dog.

Or they can come after the noun and a linking verb (copula) such as be, seem, feel, look, turn or remain:

The meal we had there was delicious .

Next door’s dog seems very friendly .

An adjective that precedes a noun is called an attributive adjective. One that follows a noun and linking verb is called a predicate adjective (it forms part of the predicate, the part of the sentence that contains the verb and says something about the subject). Some adjectives can be used only attributively (before the noun), for example elder or main. Others can be used only predicatively (after the verb), for example afraid or ajar. Furthermore, some adjectives that can be used either way change their meaning when they’re used attributively or predicatively:

There are certain things we need to discuss. [attributive meaning]

I think it’s him, but I’m not absolutely certain . [predicative meaning]

Comparatives and superlatives

Many adjectives inflect (change their form) to show that something has relatively more of a particular quality or the most of that quality. The comparative form, which indicates ’more’, is made by adding -er or using the word more (lighter, more difficult). The superlative form, which indicates ’most’, is made by adding -est or using the word most (lightest, most difficult). Adjectives that change their form and describe qualities that exist in degrees are called gradable adjectives.

There are a great many adjectives, however, that are considered non-gradable — the quality they describe doesn’t exist in degrees. This sort of adjective is called a non-gradable or classifying adjective. Examples include mortal, nuclear, living and flightless, all qualities that something either possesses or doesn’t. For example,

The penguin is a flightless bird. [not more flightless or most flightless]

The word unique is generally agreed to be a non-gradable adjective. Consequently, sentences such as

It was the most unique experience I ever had

are usually regarded as incorrect, even though they’re commonly used.


An adverb is a word that modifies a verb, adjective, another adverb, or a word group.

Like adjectives, adverbs are words that add flesh to the bare bones of sentences. They perform many different roles.

Typically, adverbs follow verbs, and indicate how, when or where the action described by the verb takes place:

Prices have increased dramatically . [how]

They are arriving today . [when]

Planes flew overhead . [where]

Adverbs also commonly precede and modify adjectives or other adverbs:

The cherries look tantalisingly ripe. [modifying adjective]

He learnt to sail surprisingly quickly. [modifying adverb]

-ly endings

Often, adverbs are formed from adjectives by adding -ly (or -ally). For example, the adjectives quick, sharp and drastic form the adverbs quickly, sharply and drastically. Note, however, that some adjectives too end in -ly: lovely, friendly, lively. Moreover, many adverbs are either completely independent forms or are identical to their corresponding adjectives:



an overhead cable

planes flew overhead

a fast car

he drove fast

a daily vitamin

I take vitamins daily

In a small number of cases, the adjective form of a word can correctly be used as an adverb, even though an -ly form exists as well:

Hold on tight [or tightly].

He spelt my name wrong [or wrongly].

Adverb types

Because adverbs perform different roles in sentences, it’s helpful to identify types of adverb. In addition to what we might call ’standard’ adverbs — those that tell how, when or where — there are three kinds.

Sentence adverbs: These occur at the beginning (or, more unusually, at the end) of a sentence and comment on the sentence as a whole, or on conditions affecting it. For example:

Frankly , I didn’t believe a word he said.

Unfortunately she won’t be able to join us.

He remembered visiting the park once when he was a child, strangely enough .

The use of hopefully as a sentence adverb, as in Hopefully, someone can resolve this, has sometimes been regarded as controversial. This is because in such sentences no one is indicated as doing the hoping. (The issue can be avoided by writing Let’s hope or It is to be hoped.) Despite the controversy, however, hopefully has become well established as a sentence adverb, perhaps since there is little ambiguity as to what it actually means.

Conjunctive adverbs: These introduce a new clause in a sentence, while at the same time characterising its relationship with the preceding clause. For example:

Mark doesn’t have the grades to get into Manchester; besides , he doesn’t even want to go there.

You’ve made progress in your work, but nevertheless you need to keep applying yourself.

I’ve agreed to every suggestion he’s made and still he hesitates to join us.

Intensifying adverbs: These are adverbs that make an adjective or another adverb more — or sometimes less — intense. They are sometimes termed sub-modifiers, because they modify a word that is itself a modifier.

The idea is totally ridiculous.

Carl is much better at making speeches than I am.

She’s driving too fast.

Don’t you think he was slightly embarrassed by what happened?


A pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun or noun phrase, so its meaning is always dependent on context.

Pronouns stand in for nouns, so that we don’t have to repeat them. Consider the sentence:

Mr McMillan lent Mary Mr McMillan’s car for a day, and she didn’t give it back to Mr McMillan for a week.

Once Mr McMillan has been mentioned, we can safely refer to him with personal pronouns (here, his and him), without being misunderstood:

Mr McMillan lent Mary his car for a day, and she didn’t give it back to him for a week.

Personal pronouns

Personal pronouns in English inflect for two of the same grammatical features that we have already encountered for verbs, that is, PERSON and NUMBER (see here). A third feature affecting pronouns, which in English has no bearing on verbs, is gender . English pronouns distinguish between gender in one set of pronouns only: the third person singular. Three genders, masculine, feminine and neuter, are represented by he, she and it respectively. A fourth grammatical feature affecting the inflection of pronouns is CASE , leading to such variation as I, me, my, etc. (Case, including a full table of personal pronouns inflected for person, number and case, is covered in detail in chapter 2, see here.)

Relative pronouns

Relative pronouns introduce a kind of SUBORDINATE CLAUSE (dependent or secondary clause) known as a RELATIVE CLAUSE (see chapter 2, here) and usually identify the noun from the main clause that they refer to. The main relative pronouns are who, whom, whose, which, that and what. These are called definite relative pronouns, because the person or thing they refer to — known as their antecedent is explicit. For example, in

I have a friend who lives in Scotland

the relative clause is who lives in Scotland and the antecedent is friend.

An indefinite relative pronoun introduces a relative clause but has no antecedent. The compounds formed with -ever from the pronouns above often serve as indefinite relative pronouns: whoever, whichever, whatever, etc.; but the real test of an indefinite relative pronoun is whether it has an antecedent. In the sentence

We saw what had happened

what is an indefinite relative pronoun because it has no antecedent. (For more on ANTECEDENTS, see chapter 2, here.)

Indefinite pronouns

Indefinite pronouns refer to a person or thing whose name or identity is not known: someone, something, anybody, any, etc. Any and its compounds are used for questions and negative statements. Otherwise some and its compounds are used.

Someone is at the door.

Is there any soup left?

Note that sentences using words like hardly or scarcely have negative force and should be treated as negative sentences with regard to pronouns:

After only three days on holiday they had hardly any money left.

Reflexive pronouns

Pronouns ending in -self or -selves are called reflexive pronouns because they reflect on someone or something already referred to. The reflexive pronouns are:

myself, yourself, himself, herself, oneself, itself, ourselves, yourselves and themselves.

Typically, reflexive pronouns function as objects (either direct or indirect):

He shot himself in the foot.

We’ve created a huge problem for ourselves.

’In the strangest torment of anger, merriment, and pity she flung off all disguise and admitted herself a woman.’

Virginia Woolf, Orlando (1928)

Note that in the above examples, himself and ourselves refer to the subjects of the sentences.

Use of myself and other -self pronouns to refer to something other than the subject of the sentence is usually not correct:

The coach chose Sarah and me. [not myself]

There may also be a temptation to use reflexive pronouns incorrectly in contexts such as:

My wife and I want to thank you for your support. [not On behalf of my wife and myself, I want…]

That’s up to you. [not up to yourself]

A secondary use of -self compounds is to intensify or emphasise a noun (usually the subject):

I repaired my bike myself.


A preposition is a word that introduces a prepositional phrase, or completes a phrasal verb. Prepositions express relationships between different language elements.

Prepositions usually come before the noun or pronoun with which they form a prepositional phrase: under the bed; during the performance; by myself.

However, in certain circumstances, despite the objections of some grammarians, it is quite acceptable for a preposition to appear at the end of a sentence, for example, in phrasal verbs such as attend to. Where else could one put the preposition in Are you being attended to?

Some questions and clauses opening with wh-, for example what, which, who, typically have the preposition at the end, as in What were they hoping for? Some infinitive clauses also have prepositions at the end, as in I would love to go to the dance, but I need someone to go with.


A conjunction connects different elements of language: words, phrases, clauses or sentences.

✵ The commonest conjunctions are: and, because, but and or.

✵ Sometimes a conjunction is itself a fixed phrase, for example as soon as.

In English, when two items, whether words, phrases or clauses, are joined together, a conjunction is required between them. When more than two items are joined — that is, when a list is presented — a conjunction typically separates only the last two items, though it’s not impossible to use conjunctions between all items in a list:

The farmyard was full of ducks and pigs and chickens.

Some conjunctions not only join two language elements but also express a relationship between them. Or, for example, indicates that the second of two items is an alternative to the first. Subordinating conjunctions, such as when, where, why and how, join a SUBORDINATE CLAUSE (secondary clause, see chapter 2, here) with a main clause:

They were happy when I won.

He wasn’t able to tell me why he was leaving.

Here, when I won and why he was leaving are the subordinate clauses.


An interjection is a word or phrase that can stand alone to express an emotion or an idea.

✵ Common interjections include Ouch! oh dear and Wow!

Interjections are the most straightforward of the traditional parts of speech. While there are hundreds of them in English, since they occur in relative isolation, either independently from other sentences (often followed by an exclamation mark), or separated by a comma, they can readily be identified. For example,

Bless you, how kind you are.



“Tell me, Doctor, what exactly are you looking for?”’

David Nicholls, Sweet Sorrow (2019)

Some linguists regard interjections as sentence substitutes, utterances that express a complete idea, as a sentence does, but without the use of a subject and a predicate.