Glossary of grammatical terms - Grammar Guide

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

Glossary of grammatical terms
Grammar Guide

This glossary defines terms relating to grammar and usage outlined in the Grammar section (Part I) of this book.


Short form of a word or group of words. Abbreviations include shortenings, contractions, initialisms and acronyms.

abstract noun

Noun representing something non-material, for example nonsense, truth or similarity.

acronym Abbreviation

formed from parts of other words, for example, COVID-19 (for coronavirus disease 2019 ), or an initialism that has become a word in its own right, for example, UNESCO (for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).

active voice

Feature of a verb when the subject of the sentence performs the action of the verb, as in the sentence The storm destroyed the house. (The other category of voice in English is the passive voice.)


Word that describes a noun or pronoun, for example, happy.


Word that modifies a verb, an adjective, another adverb or a clause, for example, happily. Adverbs usually characterise relationships between words and give such information as when, where, why and how.


Element that is bound to a word and changes its meaning, or produces an inflection or derivative of the word. It may be a prefix, such as non-, or a suffix, such as -ism.


Correspondence of form between words, in English predominantly between subject noun or pronoun and verb, but also between subject and subsequent pronouns, to show that the words are connected with each other. Agreement may be required to show person, number, gender or occasionally case.


Word, phrase or clause that a subsequent word refers back to. In the sentence I’ll give this to Mary when I see her, Mary is the antecedent of her.


Mark of punctuation (’) showing that letters have been omitted (as in it’s late), or preceding or following the s that indicates the possessive for nouns (as in the dog’s bowl).


Relationship between two expressions, usually consecutive, that refer to the same person or thing. Words in apposition are nouns or noun phrases, for example, my husband, the football fan.


Kind of determiner that shows whether a general or a specific example of something is referred to. The indefinite article in English is a or an; the definite article is the.


Grammatical feature of verbs that indicates, for example, whether an action is finished or ongoing. In English, there are two aspects, the perfect and the continuous.


Mark (*) used to signal the presence of a footnote, or of characters not included in the text. In emails it marks emphasis.


An attributive adjective is one that immediately precedes a noun, for example painful in a painful memory.

auxiliary verb

Verb such as be, have or do that is used with other verbs to indicate person, number, mood, tense or aspect, as in I have met him or Do you know each other? (Modal auxiliaries are a special kind of auxiliary verb.)


One of a pair of marks, [ ], that are used to set apart text requiring particular treatment.


Form of an adjective, noun or pronoun in some languages that shows its relation to other words in the sentence, for example whether it is the subject (nominative case). In English, only personal pronouns show inflection for case.


Group of consecutive words containing a subject and a predicate, forming part of a sentence or constituting a sentence itself.

closed compound Compound word

that is written with no intervening space between the elements, such as highland.

collective noun

Noun that is singular in form but that denotes a group of people or things, such as committee or flock.


Mark of punctuation (:) used, for example, before a list of items.


Mark of punctuation (,) used to indicate a pause.


The form of an adjective or adverb used in comparisons, ending in -er or formed by using more, for example fuller, more friendly.


Word or phrase coming after the verb in a sentence that completes the verb and describes the subject of the sentence. In, She was a good doctor, the complement is a good doctor.

common noun

Noun that denotes any or all of a class of things, such as dog or magazine. It is usually spelt in lowercase letters, unlike a proper noun, and can be preceded by an article.

complex sentence

Sentence that contains at least one subordinate clause.

compound sentence

Sentence consisting of two or more clauses that can stand as independent clauses.

compound word

Word made up of two or more single words (pruning shears, playwright, double-decker).


Old-fashioned term for agreement .

concrete noun

Noun representing something that can be touched or seen, such as window, flower or desk.

conditional clause

Subordinate clause, usually beginning with if (or unless), that expresses a condition that has to happen (or not happen) for the main part of the sentence to be true. For example, Let’s go out, unless he calls in the next ten minutes.


The different forms, or inflections, of a verb, such as sings, singing, sang and sung.


Word such as and or because that links words, phrases or clauses and shows the relationship between them.


The form of a verb denoting continuous or uninterrupted action, formed by be and the present participle: He was crying, He’s really enjoying it! Also called progressive.


Word or pair of words such as she’d that is shortened by leaving out certain letters and replacing them with an apostrophe. Or, an abbreviation, for example, Dr for Doctor or St for Street or Saint.


Linking verb, such as be or seem. A copula is an intransitive verb that can be followed by a complement, a noun or adjective that relates back to the subject, as, for example, in I am Fred, or I feel sick.

count noun

Noun that refers to a countable thing and is typically used in both the singular and plural, for example, one shirt, two shirts, or one mouse, two mice.

dangling participle Participle

or participial phrase that is placed so as to modify the wrong noun, or no noun at all, as in the incorrect Driving down the street, the house came into view.


Informal mark of punctuation (— or —), often occurring as one of a pair, that sets apart parenthetical remarks.


The inflection of nouns, pronouns and adjectives. The related verb is decline: Pronouns decline in English, but adjectives don’t.

demonstrative pronoun

Pronoun that specifies the thing it refers to, such as this, that, these and those.

dependent clause

Another name for subordinate clause.


Word that is derived from another word, by inflection or by the addition of affixes that change the meaning. For example, quickly is a derivative of quick.


Word that precedes a noun or adjective to limit or determine its reference. For example, this, each, some or either.

direct object

Noun or pronoun in the predicate of a sentence that receives the action of the verb, such as the ball in She hit the ball.

ditransitive verb

Verb, such as give or take, that can take both a direct and an indirect object.

double negative

The incorrect use of two negating words in a clause or sentence, such as He doesn’t have no money.


1. A sequence of three full points that is used in writing to show that words have been left out or text has been left unfinished. 2. The omission of words from a phrase, clause or sentence because they are understood by the reader from the context.

exclamation mark

Mark of punctuation (!) that signals an exclamation.


Verb form that signifies a tense, person and number, for example, I ate the apple, or They are playing on the swings. Finite is used as both a noun and an adjective. (Compare infinitive.)

full sentence

Independent sentence that has a subject and a predicate.

full stop

Mark of punctuation (.) used to end a written sentence and for various other purposes.

functional shift

Change in a word from one grammatical function to another, without a change in the spelling. As when the noun wallpaper is used as a verb, for example, to wallpaper.

future perfect

Verb tense used to indicate completion in the future of something that is currently not complete, for example, By this time tomorrow he will have left.


Category of inflection that affects only pronouns in English, dividing them into masculine (he, his, him), feminine (she, her, hers) and neuter (it, its).


Noun ending in -ing that is formed from a verb, for example, smoking in the phrase non-smoking carriage.


The grammatical principle by which the form of one word determines what form another syntactically connected word must take. The related verb is govern.

gradable adjective

Adjective denoting a quality that can be present in varying degrees, and that regularly appears in the comparative and superlative form.


Any of two or more words with identical pronunciation but different meanings, such as bare and bear.


Mark (-) that separates syllables of certain compound words, or of words that break over a line.

hyphenated compound

Compound word that is written with a hyphen, such as higgledy-piggledy.


The mood of verbs used in commands and requests. In English verbs the form of the imperative is identical to the infinitive.

impersonal verb

Verb that does not have a personal subject, such as rain in it is raining.

indefinite pronoun

Pronoun that does not specify who or what it refers to, such as some or any.

independent clause

Another name for main clause.


The mood of verbs used to make ordinary statements and questions.

indirect object

Noun or pronoun in a predicate that is the usually the recipient or the beneficiary of the action of the verb, such as Mum in We gave Mum a bouquet for her birthday.


The basic, uninflected form of a verb that has no markers as to number, tense or person. Many infinitive constructions in English are accompanied by modal verbs, as in You must go, or by the preposition to, as in I’m dying to see you. (Compare finite.)


1. Form of a word that is derived, usually in a predictable way, from the main form, such as the past tense of a verb, the comparative of an adjective, or the plural of a noun. 2. System by which words in a language make these systematic changes.

initialism Abbreviation

formed by putting together the first letter of a group of words, for example, BBC for British Broadcasting Corporation or CIA for Central Intelligence Agency.

intensifying adverb

Older term for sub-modifier.


Any of a class of words or phrases that express emotion and that are usually used in isolation, such as um, Wow! or Cool!

interrogative pronoun

Pronoun used to ask a question, such as who or what.

intransitive verb

Verb that cannot take a direct object, such as abound, cling, hanker and skateboard.

irregular verb

In English, a verb in which the past tense and/or past participle cannot be predicted from the form of the infinitive and must be learnt. Examples include bite, eat, see and wind. Also called a strong verb.

limiting adjective Determiner

that limits the noun it modifies, such as certain or this.

linking verb

Another name for copula, for example, be or seem.

main clause

Clause in a sentence containing a finite verb form and capable of standing alone as a complete sentence. Also known as an independent clause.

mass noun

Noun that is typically used in the singular and without an indefinite article, denoting something that is homogenous or abstract, such as meat, sand or happiness.

modal auxiliary

Verb such as can, could, may, might, shall, should, will, would and must that is used with an infinitive or other verb forms to express modality or mood. A kind of auxiliary verb.


Adjective or adverb.


Essentially, there are three moods associated with English verbs: the indicative (expressing fact), the imperative (expressing command) and the subjunctive (expressing possibility).


The conversion of a positive statement to its opposite, using no, not, never, none, nor, nothing, nobody or never.


The case of nouns, pronouns and adjectives that are the subject of a sentence. In English only the personal pronouns show variable nominative forms, for example, I, he, she, we. Also called subjective.

non-gradable adjective

Adjective denoting a quality that does not exist in degrees, for example, mortal, failing and unique.

non-restrictive clause

Subordinate clause, typically beginning with who or which and enclosed by commas, that is not essential for establishing the identity of its antecedent.


Word that stands for a person, place or thing.

noun phrase

Unit in a clause that functions as a noun, consisting of a noun or pronoun and all of its modifiers.


Category of inflection for nouns, pronouns and verbs that distinguishes whether one or more than one thing is referred to.


The case of direct objects, indirect objects, and objects of prepositions.

open compound Compound word

that is written with a space between the elements, such as fast lane.


1. Word or phrase functioning as an additional remark within text, which remains grammatically complete without it. 2. In the plural, parentheses, a pair of marks, ( ), used to enclose such material.

part of speech

Any of the usually eight functional categories into which English words are traditionally divided.


Non-finite form of a verb that is used to form compound tenses and also functions as other parts of speech. English verbs have a present participle (ending in -ing), and a past participle (ending in -ed, except in irregular verbs).

passive voice

Feature of a verb when the subject of the sentence is the recipient of the action of the verb, as in the sentence, The house was destroyed by the storm. (The other category of voice in English is the active voice.)

past perfect Tense

formed by adding the past participle to had, used to distinguish the earlier of two actions in the past, when the later one is expressed in the past tense or implied by context.

perfect Tense

or aspect of English verbs denoting an action or condition existing in more than one point in time, formed by combining a finite form of have with the past participle of a verb, for example, has passed in She has passed the examination.


Category of inflection affecting personal pronouns in English, and distinguishing between the speaker (first person), the person spoken to (second person) and a person or thing spoken of (third person). English verbs mostly have a unique form for the third person singular present.

personal pronoun Pronoun

that stands in place of the speaker, the person spoken to, or the person spoken about. The English personal pronouns are I, we, you, he, she, it and they.

phrasal verb

Verb consisting of an inflecting root and one or more adverbs or prepositions that functions as a semantic unit, for example, break down, look forward.


Sequence of two or more words acting together that does not contain both a subject and a predicate, so is not a clause.


The division of grammatical number that denotes two or more things, as in, for example, apples, mice, we.


Grammatical case showing possession and indicated by inflection in English pronouns, and by the addition of ’s or to the end of nouns.


Grammatical term meaning the part of a sentence that includes the verb and the other elements that modify the verb, for example sat on the sofa in Sophia and her friends sat on the sofa.

predicate adjective

Adjective that is used in the predicate of a sentence, and not before a noun (attributively), such as awake in Suddenly she was wide awake.


Letter or group of letters added to the beginning of a word, such as anti- in anti-nuclear.


Word that introduces a prepositional phrase or completes a phrasal verb, for example, to, for or with. Prepositions express relationships between words.

present perfect Tense

formed by adding the past participle to a present form of have, expressing action begun in the past and still continuing in, or having an influence on, the present. An example is, have done in You have done very well.

principal parts

Set of forms from which all inflections are derived. In English the principal parts of verbs are the infinitive, the simple past tense and the past participle.


Another name for continuous.


Word that takes the place of a noun.

proper adjective

Adjective derived from a proper noun, such as Japanese from Japan.

proper noun

Noun that refers to a particular person, place or thing, for example, John, London, the Louvre. It generally begins with a capital letter and is not usually preceded by an indefinite article.


Marks added to written language in accordance with rules that help to clarify its meaning. Examples include the full stop, the comma, the colon, the semicolon and the apostrophe.

question mark

Mark of punctuation (?) that ends a question, or indicates that the writer is making a guess.

quotation marks

Marks (’ ’) placed around words to indicate that they are a quotation, or that they are being considered in a special way.


The unnecessary repetition of words with the same meaning. The related adjective is redundant.

reflexive pronoun

Pronoun with the same referent as the subject of the sentence or of clause in which it stands. The English reflexive pronouns have the suffix -self or -selves.

reflexive verb

Verb that can take a reflexive pronoun as a direct or indirect object, such as enjoy in He really enjoyed himself.

regular verb

In English, a verb in which the past tense and the past participle are identical with each other and formed by adding -d or -ed to the infinitive, while sometimes also making other predictable changes. Examples include bandy, mow, strut and type.

relative clause Subordinate

(or dependent) clause that is usually introduced by a relative pronoun, for example, who delivers the paper in The boy who delivers the paper lives in the next street.

relative pronoun

Any of a large group of pronouns that link relative clauses to their antecedent. The commonest ones are that, who and which.

reported speech

The use of verbs such as say and tell to indicate that the writer is quoting what someone else said.

restrictive clause

Subordinate clause, typically beginning with that or who, that identifies or limits its antecedent. An example is that I chose in The dress that I chose was full length.


Mark of punctuation (;) that indicates a pause and is intermediate in function between a comma and a colon.


Unit of language consisting of a subject and a predicate, either of which may be present or implied, that expresses an independent statement, wish, question, command, exclamation or request.

sentence adverb

Adverb, typically placed at the beginning of a sentence, that modifies or expresses some condition about the entire sentence, for example, Incredibly in Incredibly, she believed everything he said.


Abbreviation usually consisting of just the first few letters of the word, for example, etc. for et cetera, or deli for delicatessen.

simple past

1. The second principal part of English verbs, most often formed by adding -d or -ed to the infinitive. 2. The finite tense that uses this form.

simple sentence

Sentence with a single main clause and no subordinate clauses.


The division of grammatical number that denotes a single thing, as in, for example, apple, mouse, I, jumps.

split infinitive Infinitive

construction in which an adverb intervenes between to and the infinitive, as in He claims to actually know the king personally.

stative verb

Verb that expresses a condition or state rather than an action, such as like or believe.


In grammar, the thing that a sentence is about. It can be represented by a noun, a noun phrase, a pronoun, or something that is nominalised by the use of punctuation. An example is The floating restaurant in The floating restaurant has re-opened.


Another name for nominative.


This mood is used for special statements that may express something imagined, wished for, or possible. An example is were in If he were to visit, would you go to the seaside?


Adverb that indicates the intensity, degree or extent of an adjective or another adverb, for example, surprisingly in She drove surprisingly fast.

subordinate clause

Clause that does not constitute an independent sentence and modifies the main clause or some part of it.


Technical term for noun.


Letter or group of letters added to the end of a word, such as -less in waterless.


The form of an adjective or adverb used to indicate the highest or most extreme degree, ending in -est or formed by using most in front of the modifier: fullest, most particular.


The set of rules governing the order of words in phrases, clauses and sentences. The related adjective is syntactic.


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.

transitive verb

Verb that can take a direct object, such as bash, give, peel and whip.


Word that describes an action or characterises a state or condition.


Set of categories for which verbs inflect, used to indicate the relation of the subject to the action of the verb. English has an active and a passive voice.

word class

Another term for part of speech .