Words working together - Grammar Guide

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

Words working together
Grammar Guide

liza: I don’t want to talk grammar. I want to talk like a lady.

George Bernard Shaw

Pygmalion (1912)

In chapter 1 we took a traditional approach to grammar by identifying English words as parts of speech or word classes, and exploring the ways these various parts of speech behave. There are other ways to understand language, however. Some of the roles performed by words depend less on their part of speech and more on the way they are put together with other words. The study of this area of language, that is, the way words combine to form meaningful statements and express ideas, is called syntax.

At its simplest, syntax is about word order, for example, the subject, verb, object convention usual in English. As outlined in this chapter, however, it can become quite subtle and complex. Initially, we’ll touch on a few further grammar concepts and examples with a particular bearing on syntax. This will lead into an analysis of the main building blocks of the language: the phrase, the clause and the sentence.

Grammar concepts relating to syntax

Functional shift

Functional shift is the process by which a word shifts from one grammatical function to another.

As already noted (see chapter 1, here), a number of words in English can fulfil more than one role in a sentence, that is, they can behave as more than one part of speech. Another way of understanding this phenomenon is to think of it as functional shift.

Historical context

In English, the process of functional shift, whereby, for example, words that traditionally function as nouns begin to be used as verbs, or words that mainly function as adverbs take on meanings as nouns, has been under way for centuries. Dictionaries with etymologies — records of the origins of a word and the way its meaning has changed — record this phenomenon.

Here are some examples of functional shift that are firmly established in English:

1. Noun changing to verb: The noun access has existed in English since about the 14th century. The verb access (for example, to access a computer file) came into use in the 1960s.

2. Verb changing to noun: The word laugh is originally a verb in English and was in use as early as the 12th century. The use of laugh as a noun (for example, to give a laugh) only came into use in the 17th century.

3. Noun taking on adjectival use: The current sense of prestige as a noun dates from the 17th century. In the mid-20th century, the word became common as a modifier (for example, a prestige apartment complex).

4. Interjection changing to verb: The word wow as an interjection expressing surprise or admiration dates from the 16th century. As a verb (for example, Audiences were wowed by his new musical), it first appeared in the 1920s.

5. Adverb becoming a verb: The adverb up occurs in the earliest examples of English, before the 12th century. As a verb, (for example, upping the limit), it appeared in the 18th century.

Participles to noun forms

Present participle to gerund: A type of functional shift particularly useful to note for understanding syntax is that from present participle to gerund.

English verbs that have an infinitive form also have an -ing form. When we see this form out of context, we think of it as the PRESENT PARTICIPLE (see chapter 1, here): running, being, frustrating. It has an important job in forming the CONTINUOUS tenses (see here):

The engine has been running continuously for three weeks.

Joshua was being a nuisance again.

The weather today is frustrating all attempts to rescue the survivors.

And nearly all present participles can be used as adjectives: a fascinating subject, a going concern, a vibrating mechanism.

’O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound,

That breathes upon a bank of violets’

William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night (1602)

The -ing form of the verb can also be used as a noun, when it’s called a gerund. Consider these sentences:

Swimming and bicycling are two of the best all-around exercises.

Do you mind my taking this seat?

She was picked up for violating the conditions of her parole.

All the -ing forms in these sentences are nouns. Swimming and bicycling is the subject of the first sentence; the noun phrase my taking this seat is the direct object of the verb mind; and violating the conditions of her parole is the object of the preposition for.

Past participle to noun form: Another long-established shift is that from past participle to noun form.

The PAST PARTICIPLE of regular English verbs is formed by adding -d or -ed to the root (see chapter 1, here). In regular verbs it’s identical to the simple past form. Irregular verbs, however, show a variety of patterns in the past participle. As a reminder, past participles are important components in two kinds of verbs: the perfect tenses, which consist of a finite form of have plus the past participle (see here), and the passive voice, which consists of a finite form of be plus the past participle (see here):

I have seen all his films. [perfect tense]

The suspect was seen leaving the area after 11 pm. [passive voice]

A verb can be expressed as both passive and perfect by using its past participle with a finite form of have along with the past participle of be, that is, been:

All the applications have been acknowledged .

In addition to their roles in compound verb tenses, most past participles can also act as adjectives:

a done deal; a recorded message; a wrecked car

In a few cases, past participles have also acquired uses as nouns:

It’s a given that he will demand a higher rate than any other consultant.

A past participle preceded by the typically becomes a noun that designates a group:

They believe that the damned live in hell for eternity.

(In some ways, this is analogous to other noun use of adjectives, for example, young or poor: The young, by which I mean digital natives… or The poor take recourse to food banks.)

’The beautiful and the damned.’

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and the Damned (1922)


A determiner is a type of function word that precedes a noun or noun phrase, modifying it to specify definiteness, quantity or possession.

The concept of the determiner is similarly worth getting to grips with for understanding syntax. Determiners include:

definite and indefinite articles: the, a and an (see immediately below)

✵ adjectives that indicate relative quantity, such as more, less, few, many and enough. Some grammarians classify these determiners as quantifiers

✵ adjectives that indicate which of all possible things is designated, such as all, such, some, any, several and various. Also classified as quantifiers

✵ the personal possessive pronouns, such as my, your, his, her and our (see chapter 1, here, and here)

✵ the demonstrative pronouns (those indicating which), such as this, that, these and those.

Numbers and possessive nouns (such as Boris’s, the Prime Minister’s) are also sometimes classed as determiners.

One characteristic of determiners is that they precede other attributive modifiers of a noun or noun phrase. For example:

the black cat; more solitary walkers; some ambitious construction projects; my little sister; these unaccountable local agencies

Determiners as function words

The term determiner started to be used by linguists only in the 20th century. Central to its definition is the concept of the function word.

The first four parts of speech discussed in chapter 1 — nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs — generally have what linguists call lexical meaning, that is, a meaning based on common understanding. Words such as pomegranate, abdicate, green and slowly, for example, to varying degrees, bring an image to mind.

Words in other word classes — pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions and interjections — as well as some words in the first four classes, depend on their context for meaning. They have what is called grammatical meaning, that is, a meaning based on the rules of syntax. Linguists argue that we know what the words mean because we already have an in-built knowledge of these syntactical rules. Function words, then, are words that have grammatical (rather than lexical) meaning. Determiners represent one type of function word.

Before the name determiner came into use, the words in this category were divided among a number of different categories, as outlined above. Determine comes from a Latin word meaning ’to set the limits of’, and the role of determiners in English is to limit a noun or noun phrase. But unlike ordinary modifiers, which describe the qualities of a noun or noun phrase, determiners specify definiteness, quantity or possession. A determiner occurs before a noun or noun phrase; if there are modifying adjectives it precedes them.


The articles, by way of example, are the most frequently used determiners in English. There are three: the definite article, which is the, and the indefinite articles, a and an. The grammatical functions of the articles mostly concern number (how many of the associated noun), definiteness (already mentioned or not) and countability (existence or not of a plural form of the noun).

The way articles are used in English is partly determined by logical rules, but partly it is idiomatic — that is without obvious reason. Consider, for instance, the following:



Joe is singing a song.

Joe is singing the song.

[countable and singular]

Joe is singing (some) songs.

Joe is singing the songs.

[countable and plural]

Joe is listening to music.

Joe is listening to the music.


Note that a and an are really variations on the same word. A is the form of the indefinite article used before words that are pronounced with an initial consonant sound (even if the spelling does not begin with a consonant):

a banana; a hunk; a ewe.

An is the form used before words that begin with a vowel sound (even if an unpronounced consonant comes first):

an elephant; an heir.

The same rule regarding sound rather than spelling applies to abbreviations: a CD, a USB but an SSD.


Case is a feature of a noun, pronoun or adjective that reflects its relationship with other words in a sentence.

Some languages have more than a dozen cases, and some require inflection (changes in form) for nouns, pronouns and adjectives according to case. English is by comparison simple and straightforward. First, there are only three cases in English: nominative (also called subjective), objective and possessive. Secondly, only personal pronouns have inflections for case in English. Nouns are identical, whether in the nominative or the objective case, and they require only ’s to show the possessive case. English adjectives are identical in all cases.

A word in the nominative case is the subject of a sentence or clause. A word in the objective case is either the object of a transitive verb, or the object of a preposition. A noun or pronoun in the possessive case indicates possession.

Personal pronouns

PERSONAL PRONOUNS (see chapter 1, here) are the only words in English that inflect (that is, change their form) for case differences:

The few usage issues involving case in English arise when there is a conflict — real or imagined — about which case should govern a pronoun in context.

Possessive pronouns with participles and gerunds: Which sentence is correct? Consider the following:

I was surprised to hear of him refusing.

I was surprised to hear of his refusing.

In fact both sentences can be considered correct. In the first option, the -ing word refusing is a participle functioning as an adjective that modifies him. The case of the adjective is governed by its role in the sentence — as part of the object of the preposition of, it’s in the objective case.

In the second option, the -ing word refusing is a gerund and a synonym for the noun refusal. When an -ing form is a noun, it must be preceded by a possessive form. This second option is generally considered the better choice, and should be used in formal writing. Nevertheless, the first option is overwhelmingly common in spoken English.

The intent of the speaker or writer with respect to the choice of gerunds or participles is apparent in the following examples. Take, for example,

We were amused to watch the press secretary weaving and dodging during a tense news conference.

This means the speaker was amused to watch the press secretary being evasive (adjective).

Alternatively, take:

We were amused to watch the press secretary’s weaving and dodging during a tense news conference.

Here the speaker was amused by the press secretary’s evasions (the noun equivalent of the gerunds weaving/dodging).

There are some exceptions to this pattern. Take:

✵ a plural noun such as visitors, or

✵ an abstract noun such as panic, or

✵ a noun modified by other words, for example, Member of Parliament.

When these are used with a present participle -ing form, this is usually an adjective, not a gerund, and the possessive does not normally appear. Thus:

The guards will not put up with visitors roaming the corridors of the House of Commons.

It was a case of panic overwhelming the speculators.

There was something sleazy about a Member of Parliament having friendly relations with a convicted criminal.

Pronouns in comparatives after than and as…as: Which sentence is correct? Consider the following:

You’re stronger than me, or

You’re stronger than I.

Because than is a preposition as well as a conjunction, either construction is possible, as is the fuller version of the second option than I am.

The form than me (or than him, than her, than us and than them), with the pronoun in the objective case after the preposition than, is common in conversation and other speech: We’re older than him. But it may still be frowned on in formal writing where, despite its awkwardness to some ears, the pronoun in the nominative case after the conjunction than may be preferred: We’re older than he. An undoubtedly correct alternative is to follow than and pronoun in the nominative with a full SUBORDINATE clause (see here): We’re older than he is.

A similar situation arises in the case of as…as when it’s used in comparisons. Though common, such sentences as the following are not strictly correct:

I was sitting close, but not as close as them. [as…as]

She makes a lot more money than me. [than]

The phrase as…as, where an adjective or adverb fills in the blank, acts as a conjunction between clauses. The second clause, in cases where it contains only a pronoun in the nominative case, has an implied predicate that is the same as the predicate of the first clause, and can therefore, in theory at least, be omitted:

I was sitting close, but not as close as they. [as…as]

She makes a lot more money than I. [than]

Fuller forms of the preceding sentences are:

I was sitting close, but not as close as they were. [as…as]

She makes a lot more money than I do. [than]

These have the advantages of both correctness and naturalness.

’He’s more myself than I am.’

Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847)


Agreement is the matching of the form of a word belonging to one part of speech with the form of a word belonging to another part of speech. For example, subject noun or pronoun must agree with the verb.

In English, agreement mainly relates to person, number and gender, and occurs mainly between subject noun or pronoun and verb, but also between subject and subsequent pronouns (see, for example, chapter 1, here).

Many centuries ago, English had a fully-fledged system of PERSON agreement (see chapter 1, here) for its verbs. In other words, it was possible to tell simply by looking at the ending of a verb whether the subject was I, you, he, she, it, we or they. Modern European languages such as French and German still have similar specialised verb forms, but in modern English they’ve almost completely died out.

This makes matching the correct form of the verb to the subject, that is, making the verb agree with the subject, comparatively easy when the timeframe is the present or the past:

I sing/you sing/we sing [simple present tense]

I sang/Nicole sang/the birds sang [simple past tense]

Leaving aside special cases like the verb to be (because it changes to I am, you are, he is, etc.), as we have seen in chapter 1, (page 11), modern verbs change their basic form only in the PRESENT tense, where the third person singular (the form used with he, she, or it) adds an -s or sometimes -ies:

he sings/she carries/it hurts

Complexities relating to agreement arise, however, when NUMBER (see chapter 1, here) is not immediately apparent.

Agreement for number

Here are some of the trickier cases of agreement for number.

Two subjects joined by and : Two or more subjects of a sentence joined by and form a plural subject and take a plural verb, even if they’re individually singular:

The politician and the journalist have a lot in common.

She and I are alike in many ways.

In respect of the verb, the politician and the journalist become a collective they, and she and I become a collective we.

Two subjects joined by or, either...or, or neither...nor : Two or more subjects linked by or, either … or, or neither … nor, can take either a singular or a plural verb.

When both subjects are singular, use a singular verb:

One or the other of them has to be right.

When both subjects are plural, a plural verb should be used:

Neither politicians nor journalists are agreed on this.

What happens when there are two subjects both in the third person, one singular and one plural? There’s no definitive answer to this, but as a general rule the verb usually agrees with the subject nearest to it:

Neither they nor their friend is involved in the dispute.

Either he or his opponents are wrong.

When the subjects are a mixture of nouns or pronouns in different persons, the rule is the same: the verb agrees with the pronoun nearest to it:

Neither my friends nor I am involved in the dispute.

Either he or we have to give way.

Pronouns either, none, there, what, any and nothing:

Either is normally used with a singular verb:

Has either of you been to Paris?

Informally, however, when the question is regarded collectively rather than individually, the plural can be used, so it would be quite natural to say,

Have either of you been to Paris?

This permits the possibility that both the people addressed have been there.

None : When none refers to a singular noun, and it can be replaced with no + noun, a singular verb should be used:

We were desperate for information, but none [= no information] was available.

When none refers to a singular noun, and it can be replaced with not one, a singular verb similarly appears:

None of my friends [= not one of my friends] was able to come.

I’d have liked a sandwich, but none [= not a single one] was left.

When none refers to a plural noun, and it can be replaced with not any, a plural verb should be used:

None of you [= not any of you] have handed in your work yet.

There : When the pronoun there opens a sentence followed by a linking verb like be, appear or seem, the verb must agree with the grammatical subject coming after the verb:

There is [not are] a beach nearby.

There are [not is] beaches nearby.

There appear [not appears] to be mistakes in your essay.

There appears [not appear] to be a mistake in your essay.

There’s stands for there is. It should be used only with a singular grammatical subject, as in:

There’s a lot still to be done.

There’s a car in the garage.

With compound grammatical subjects there used with a singular linking verb is acceptable only when the compound subject is regarded not as two separate entities but as a single compound noun. Thus it is acceptable to say:

There is/There’s food and drink for everybody.

(Stylistically, There is/are sentences tend to be flat and lacking emphasis, so it may be wise to avoid overusing them.)

What : If you use what as the subject of a clause, it takes a plural verb if its complement (the word or phrase relating back to it to complete the sentence, see chapter 1, here) is plural:

She makes what seem [not seems] to be exaggerated claims.

If you use what as the subject of a clause, it takes a singular verb if its complement is singular:

I see what looks like a deer in the front garden.

The same rule applies to what clauses that occur at the beginning of sentences:

What we wanted was fairness.

What we wanted were fairness and truth.

If the what clause has both singular and plural complements, the verb usually agrees with the complement closest to:

What we expected was truthfulness and honest claims.

What we got were fraudulent claims and mendacity.

Any used as a pronoun is followed by a singular or plural verb depending on the writer’s intended meaning:

Any of these suggestions is acceptable. [= Any one of these suggestions is acceptable.]

Are any of the children coming? [Are any of several of them coming?]

Is any of the children coming? [One is expected, but which one?]

Nothing is a singular indefinite pronoun. It is usually treated as singular even if it’s followed by a phrase introduced by a phrase like except for and a plural noun:

Nothing except for your boxes and bags has [not have] been removed from the apartment.

Moving the subject closer to its verb reduces the chance of grammatical error and more closely follows the natural flow of speech:

Except for your boxes and bags, nothing has been removed from the apartment.

Sentences starting nothing but become a little more subtle, however. The following are both acceptable, depending on emphasis:

Nothing but truthful answers is acceptable on this questionnaire. [emphasising an instance]

Nothing but truthful answers are acceptable on this questionnaire. [emphasising the whole]

’We had to tolerate flaws in our loved ones: nothing was ever perfect, he said.’

Rachel Cusk, Outline (2014)


Negation is the denial of the truth of a clause or a sentence, that is, changing its status from true to false.

Negation is accomplished with a very small group of words in English: no, not, none, neither, nor, nothing, nobody, no one and never. Of these, the true workhorse is not, and it’s used regularly with AUXILIARY and MODAL verbs (see chapter 1, here) that reduce it to the contraction n’t: isn’t, doesn’t, can’t, won’t, shouldn’t, mustn’t.

The hard and fast rule of negation in English is that its required only once in a sentence. Using two of the above negating words in the same clause is called a double negative, and, when intended to reinforce, is grammatically incorrect: for example, I don’t know nothing, They haven’t got no more flour.

The non-standard negating word ain’t can stand for am not, are not, is not, have not, has not, do not, does not and did not. With this kind of versatility, it’s a pity that no matter which of these it substitutes for — and despite its occasional poetry — it’s incorrect. While acceptable in some fixed expressions that occur in informal contexts, such as You ain’t seen nothing yet, it’s never a part of correct, formal writing. (Ain’t is typically used with another negative word, perhaps guided by the notion that if one is going to break one rule, one might as well break two.)

While double negatives in which two negatives are intended to reinforce each other are considered illiterate in current standard English, these are to be distinguished from the acceptable, if somewhat uncommon, constructions in sentences such as:

It is not impossible. [= It is certainly possible.]

This isn’t a non-trivial question. [= It is a trivial question.]

Here, the negatives are intended to cancel each other out. This is a figure of speech called LITOTES (see Literary terms here).

It’s worth bearing in mind that the adverbs hardly, barely and scarcely have negative force, so that no further negative is needed with them in a clause or sentence:

I can hardly see you. [not I can’t hardly see you.]

Note that when and not than is used in any continuation of a sentence using one of these adverbs:

Hardly had I begun to speak when she interrupted me.

Interestingly, a similar construction, using the conventional negating word no, uses than rather than when:

No sooner had I begun to speak than she interrupted me.

This is because sooner here is a COMPARATIVE (see chapter 1, here).

The phrase, the clause and the sentence

In isolation, the various parts of speech, which we examined in chapter 1 (see here), are not very meaningful. They only start to make sense when combined with other elements. While conversations may include many one- and two-word utterances, if we analyse these, we’ll usually find that words are left out because they’re mutually understood by the speakers. Most often, words combine into groups that we designate as phrases, clauses or sentences. While we have been unable to avoid using these three terms up to now, below we explore what they mean in more detail.


A phrase is a group of words that function as a single part of speech. It is neither a clause nor a sentence.

Five distinct types of phrase can be identified: noun phrases, verb phrases, adjective phrases, adverbial phrases and prepositional phrases.

1. Noun phrases: The main word in a noun phrase is a noun. It may be accompanied simply by an article (an apple), or by an adjective or series of adjectives (a big, red, well-polished apple). It can comprise more than one noun (apples and oranges).

2. Verb phrases: The main word in a verb phrase is a verb. It may be accompanied by one or more auxiliary verbs (had finished; ought to have been resting). All tenses, moods, aspects and voices of English verbs except the simple present and the simple past are expressed by verb phrases.

3. Adjective phrases: The main word in an adjective phrase is an adjective. It may be accompanied by one or more adverbs (completely incredible; not altogether believable). Adjective phrases modify nouns or pronouns

4. Adverbial phrases: The main word in an adverbial phrase is an adverb. It may be accompanied by other adverbs (somewhat surprisingly).

5. Prepositional phrases: A prepositional phrase consists of a preposition followed by a noun, a pronoun, or another phrase (under the bed; during intermission; for me; in the best of times and the worst of times).

Overlaying this, some grammarians classify phrases according to the verb form that introduces them: participial phrases, gerund phrases or infinitive phrases.

Participial phrases usually function as adjectives or adverbs:

A teacher burdened with unruly students can burn out very quickly. [adjective phrase]

She ran out of the room crying her eyes out . [adverbial phrase]

Gerund phrases usually function as nouns:

Reading the dictionary sounds like a punishment to me.

(For more on the GERUND, see here.)

Infinitive phrases can function as nouns or adjectives:

To see the Northern Lights was his abiding wish. [noun phrase]

There are many issues still to be dealt with . [adjective phrase]

A compound phrase comprises two or more phrases, often of different classifications, that act as a single unit. In

The great dream of my childhood was to live in Paris

the infinitive phrase to live is completed by the prepositional phrase in Paris. In combination, the whole compound phrase is the complement of the verb was.


A clause is a unit of language that contains a verb, either explicit or implied. It also usually contains the subject of the verb, and very often other words such as the object of the verb.

A clause contains a subject, expressed or implied, typically by a noun, noun phrase or pronoun, and a predicate, expressed by the verb and any other elements that modify the verb. In the clause, we encounter the grammar rules involving subject—verb AGREEMENT (see here). The general principle is simple: a singular subject requires a singular verb; a plural subject requires a plural verb.

There are two types of clause: main clauses and subordinate clauses.

Main (or independent) clauses can stand alone as sentences. Help! is a main clause. So are:

She left.

He finished his drink.

The squirrel buried its nuts under the old chestnut tree at the bottom of the garden.

When two or more main clauses occur in a compound sentence, they are joined with a coordinating conjunction. The main ones are and and or:

Stop or I’ll shoot.

I made all the beds and Erika did the vacuuming.

In formal writing, joining main clauses with only a comma is considered incorrect. They should either be separate sentences, or joined with an appropriate conjunction.

Subordinate (or dependent) clauses cannot stand alone in formal writing; they need to be attached to a main clause. They are sometimes called dependent clauses because they depend on a main clause for their meaning. For example, what the time was is a subordinate clause. It makes no sense on its own and has to go with a main clause:

I’d forgotten what the time was.

Similarly, the subordinate clause although I like chocolate requires a main clause:

Although I like chocolate, I can’t stand chocolate milk.

Subordinate clauses are generally introduced by one of two different kinds of words, which we met in chapter 1:

1. The RELATIVE PRONOUNS, including who, whom, whose, which, that and what (see chapter 1, here).

2. The SUBORDINATING CONJUNCTIONS, which include although, because, when, where, why, whether, which, who, how and that (see chapter 1, here).

One way to analyse subordinate clauses is by function. Clauses can perform the same roles in sentences that phrases do. For example, an adjective clause modifies a noun or pronoun; an adverb clause acts as an adverb in a main clause — that is, it modifies a verb or an adjective; and a noun clause acts as a noun in a main clause.

Relative clauses

A relative clause, introduced by a relative pronoun, is a type of subordinate clause. Relative clauses tend to be adjective clauses, modifying nouns or pronouns. They can be differentiated according to their relationship to the main clause.

Restrictive and non-restrictive clauses:

Restrictive clauses limit, specify and define the particular person or thing being referred to. For instance, in

The team that I support has won all its games this season

the restrictive clause that I support specifies which team is referred to.

 Broadly, restrictive clauses can begin with any of the relative pronouns given above. However, when the clause refers to a thing, it is considered better to begin it with that than with which:

All the fabrics that I ordered have arrived.

In practice, many such relative clauses may eliminate the relative pronoun all together:

All the fabrics I ordered have arrived.

Non-restrictive clauses add information about a person or thing previously mentioned. They don’t limit, specify or define. For example, in

The team, which I support, has won all its games this season,

the non-restrictive relative clause is providing the extra, nonessential, information that the speaker happens to support the particular team already under discussion. Note that in writing, a non-restrictive clause is marked off with a pair of commas. Any of the relative pronouns other than that can begin restrictive clauses.

’The bear, which could reach either of them in two easy scooches, loses interest.’

Richard Powers, The Overstory (2018)

Antecedents: As we have seen in chapter 1 (here), an antecedent is a word or phrase that a following word (especially a relative pronoun) refers back to:

I have a friend who lives in Scotland.

As noted, relative clauses generally refer back to a noun form as their antecedent. Moreover, the relationship between the clause and its antecedent needs to be clear. In formal writing constructions in which the antecedent is missing or vague should be avoided:

I’d sign up for advanced calculus if I were clever, which I’m not.

The clause which I’m not has no clear antecedent. (Moreover, there is redundancy, since if I were clever already indicates that I am not, and can be safely deleted.)

Stylistically, it is also advisable to avoid making an entire clause the antecedent for a relative clause. Instead of

He crashed the ultralight aircraft into the motorway, which was his own fault.

it is better to rephrase

Crashing the ultralight aircraft into the motorway was his own fault.

Conditional clauses

Often a subordinate clause contains a condition, that is something that must be true if the main clause is true, will happen, or did happen. Conditions can be expressed in various ways in English, but the standard is a dependent clause beginning with if. For this reason, conditional clauses are often called if clauses:

If you clean your plate you can have some ice cream.

A major distinction between types of if clauses is whether they express possible or impossible conditions. This distinction is sometimes expressed as a factual condition or a condition contrary to fact. Perhaps the simplest way to understand the distinction, is to divide if clauses into real and unreal conditions.

Here is an example of a sentence containing a possible or real condition:

If he doesn’t put on a mask I’ll simply walk away.

And here is an example of a sentence containing an impossible or unreal condition:

If you hadn’t seen the lorry coming we’d both be dead. [but you did see it]

A degree of complexity arises as to which form of the verb is correct for different types of if clause.

Real conditions: When an if clause expresses a real condition, the INDICATIVE mood (see chapter 1, here) for the appropriate tense of the verb is used in that clause:

If I finish in time I’ll stop by the post office. [finish is present indicative]

If Jon was still on the mountain during the storm, he probably tried to shelter somewhere. [was is past indicative]

Unreal conditions: When an if clause expresses an unreal condition, it gets trickier.

✵ For an unreal condition in the present, a PAST tense (see chapter 1, here) is used in the if clause, and a MODAL AUXILIARY verb (see chapter 1, here), usually would (or, less commonly, should or another modal) is used in the main clause:

If I liked raves, I would attend more of them. [liked is past tense]

Furthermore, if the verb is be, then the SUBJUNCTIVE form (see chapter 1, here) of the verb is apparent in the if clause (If I were [not ’was’] you):

If I were you, I would not try that at home.

✵ For an unreal condition in the past, a PAST PERFECT tense (see chapter 1, here) is used:

If you had texted me, I would have come.

If they had done it right to begin with, these problems would not exist.

(Sometimes, would have may be encountered in such if clauses — If you would have texted…, but it is incorrect.)

’If my books had been any worse, I should not have been invited to Hollywood, and if they had been any better, I should not have come.’

Raymond Chandler, letter to Charles Morton (1945)


A sentence is a set of words that stands independently, consisting of one or more main clauses and sometimes one or more subordinate clauses.

We have now explored all the component elements of sentences, starting from the PARTS OF SPEECH (see chapter 1), through some considerations as to how these function in relation to SYNTAX (see here), to putting them together to create PHRASES (see here) and CLAUSES (see here). This makes the remainder of our subject easy, for sentences are only phrases and clauses joined and punctuated in the correct way.

English sentences are of three types:

1. Simple sentences comprise just one main clause. The following are all simple sentences:


Birds sing.

This film is awful.

All the squirrels in my garden are burying acorns today.

2. Compound sentences contain two or more main clauses. The following are examples of compound sentences:

A beam cracked and men started shouting.

I’m not her boss, but I am familiar with her work.

Stand up and fight or get out of here.

3. Complex sentences include at least one SUBORDINATE or dependent clause (see here) in addition to the main clause. The following are examples of complex sentences:

I think you’re wrong.

She found the letters that her grandfather had sent her.

If he believes that, he’ll believe anything.

The person whose name appears at the top of the list should send the letter to five further people who have not received it before.

She kept the party secret, because she wanted to surprise him.

The remaining important features of sentences concern punctuation, capitalisation and style, and are covered in the following chapters in the first part of this book.