All you ever wanted to know about English grammar

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Some of the original formatting (especially columns) has not yet been re-instated.


All you ever wanted…

or needed…

to know about


but were afraid to ask


Douglas Henderson

Copyright 2003 ? Douglas Henderson

All rights reserved: no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.







  • four kinds of noun
  • gender
  • plurals
  • case
  • possessives and apostrophes


  • nine kinds of pronoun
  • case and number
  • subject case
  • object case
  • case after prepositions
  • who/whom/whose/which


  • six kinds of adjective
  • its/it?s
  • confusion of adjectives with pronouns
  • agreement
  • comparison
  • elder/eldest
  • than/as
  • less/fewer
  • demonstrative, distributive and possessive adjectives
  • definite and indefinite articles (the, a/an)
  • their/ there
  • grammar and feminism


  • two kinds of verb
  • English and foreign tenses
  • English tenses
  • sequence of tenses
  • other problems with tense
  • shall/will & should/would
  • conditionals
  • mood (indicative or subjunctive)
  • voice (active or passive)
  • number (singular or plural)
  • person (1st, 2nd or 3rd)
  • participles
  • misrelated participles
  • infinitives
  • gerunds
  • gerundives
  • imperative
  • transitive/intransitive
  • irregular verbs


  • seven kinds of adverb
  • comparison
  • placing of adverbs


  • due ….to/owing to:
  • omission of prepositions


  • two kinds of conjunction




  • subject and Predicate


  • NOUN clauses
  • ADJECTIVAL clauses
  • ADVERBIAL clauses

    • prepositional phrases
    • participial phrases


    • simple sentence
    • compound sentence
    • complex sentence
    • compound/complex sentence
    • building a sentence



    Happily, most of the grammar of English causes few problems to native English speakers, and there is no case for spending endless hours learning about it. There are two main reasons for this document:

    1) To highlight the relatively few (20) areas which do cause difficulty;

    2) To clarify the traditional concepts of English grammar to help you when you are learning foreign languages.

    Traditional English grammar is based upon concepts found in Latin grammar, and is thus questionable in places, since the terms used really belong to a foreign language. Teaching in modern languages may from time to time diverge from the views expressed here and, irritatingly, different terms are used to express identical concepts in different languages (e.g. simple past / aorist etc.).

    This document describes only the grammar of relatively formal or written English (standard English). There are different usages in different parts of the country; they are not necessarily wrong!

    If you want to eliminate 95% of the errors commonly made by native English speakers (in their writing especially), just follow the crash course. This will take you 30 minutes.

    Once your appetite is whetted, then work your way through the rest at your leisure. It was only 20 pages of A4 in the original. It is deliberately not intimidating.

    Finally, there is no need to remember the names given to different kinds of pronoun, adjective or adverb (e.g. quantitative, distributive). This is used merely to distinguish the different types.


    1. Failure to put capital letters on proper nouns (and adjectives)

    2. Difficulties in forming plurals

    3. Possessives and apostrophes (and their confusion)

    4. Failure to distinguish subject and object case with some pronouns

    5. Confusion of its (possessive) and it’s (= it is or it has)

    6. Misspelling of suffix -ful (only ?full? itself ends in -ll)

    7. Less and fewer

    8. Confusion of their (possessive adjective) with there (cf. here etc)

    9. Plurals (their) following singulars (everybody, anyone etc)

    10. Wrong sequence of tenses

    11. The will/shall problem

    12. The double have in conditionals

    13. Use of the subjunctive

    14. Mis-related participles (waiting at the bus-stop, the bus went past)

    15. Split infinitives and clumsy expressions to avoid them

    16. Using past participle instead of simple past (sang/sung)

    17. Use of quick as adverb (quickly)

    18. Misplaced adverbs (especially only)

    19. Due….to/ owing to

    20. Failure to distinguish between verb (e.g. practise) and noun (practice)



    Traditional English grammar identifies eight ‘parts of speech’; that is, every individual word uttered in speech or writing can be analysed as one of the following:

    1) Nouns:? names given to people, places, concepts, objects etc.
    2) Pronouns:? words used to replace nouns to avoid tedious repetition
    3) Adjectives:? words which describe or qualify nouns

    4) Verbs:? the heart of any sentence: the ‘action’ (but that can be abstract)
    5) Adverbs:? words which say how/when/why (etc.) the ‘action’ is done

    6) Prepositions:? put simply, about 20 common words like: to, for, by, of, from, with etc
    7) Conjunctions:? co-ordinating or subordinating (see later)
    8) Interjections:? exclamations etc

    This document takes each of these in turn. How they are put together into phrases, clauses, and sentences is dealt with at the end under Sentence structure.

    Many words may be more than one ?part of speech? ? in different sentences – depending on their function in each sentence. This particularly applies to pronouns and adjectives. Beware when studying foreign languages, especially when consulting a foreign language dictionary.


    There are four kinds of noun

    Proper😕 Peter, France, January, Mrs Jones (N.B. These all have capital letters; so too do adjectival equivalents, e.g. Russian)
    Common😕 table, chair, dog, book
    Abstract😕 charm, pleasure, happiness, fright, fluency
    Collective😕 group, flock, herd, swarm, gaggle


    There are three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. This is very simple in English where male people and animals are masculine, females feminine, and almost everything else (with the odd exception) neuter; nor does it make much difference anyway. Most foreign languages have grammatical genders which only partly follow this pattern: many ‘things’ are masculine or feminine, and some people are neuter!


    Most plurals are formed by adding s to the singular, including all foreign or shortened words ending in o (e.g. pianos, photos).


    a) nouns ending in y after a consonant drop y and add ies: lady, ladies. This does not apply to proper nouns, e.g. Kennedys.

    b) a few nouns ending in f/fe change f to v: wife, wives; life, lives; knife, knives; wolf, wolves, self, selves, calf, calves; shelf,shelves; leaf, leaves; loaf, loaves,; thief, thieves; sheaf, sheaves, half, halves. Almost all others follow the usual rule; that is, simply add ?s? (N.B. roofs, not rooves).

    c) nouns ending in o/s/ss/sh/ch/x add es: potato, potatoes; bus, buses, boss, bosses; church, churches; box, boxes.

    d) words retained in their original form from Latin or Greek retain the original Latin or Greek plurals: radius, radii; oasis, oases; crisis, crises; appendix, appendices; axis, axes; index, indices; phenomenon, phenomena; criterion, criteria; medium, media etc. (but not musea).

    e) a few words change completely to form the plural: mouse, mice; man, men; child, children. These just need to be learned.


    Those who study Latin or German (in particular) will be familiar with the idea of grammatical case. For others, a simple way of putting this is that, instead of using some of our commoner prepositions (e.g. to, for, by etc.), ‘inflected’ languages use ‘endings’ on their nouns instead; for example, in Latin amico means to a friend whereas amici means of a friend.

    English has very few inflections indeed; it has remarkably few endings or changes at all in its word formation (known as morphology). This makes it easy to learn if you are not English, though there are some special difficulties in learning English (e.g. verbs and spelling).

    The very few areas of case which remain cause problems to native speakers who wish to be ‘correct’. The absence of English grammar teaching and the temporary decline of Latin during the last 40 years have produced an uncertainty about case where it exists.

    Those languages which are inflected rely upon endings to distinguish subject and object especially, and in the most inflected languages to replace notions where in English we use prepositions (q.v.). In English, only personal pronouns (he/him etc.) and relative pronouns (who/whom) make such a distinction and this will be explained under pronouns (section 2).

    Possessives and apostrophes

    In English, there used to be a genitive case denoting possession, with the ending -es, sometimes found in old carols (‘mannes delight’). This is still found today, except that the e has dropped out and an apostrophe marks its absence: my father’s house, Fred’s book etc..

    Rule for possessives: singular nouns have ‘s (my sister’s book)
    plural nouns have s’ (my parents’ house)

    Note that this rule applies equally to names. Do not be confused because some names end in s, nor because a weird exception exempts religious and poetic usage. In modern English we write James’s book even though you will find Jesus’ name in the hymn book.

    Similarly, the rule about forming plurals applies. The trouble is that they all sound the same (the dogs / the dog’s / the dogs’). The rule is: write what you say, but be clear whether you are writing a plural or a possessive (or both).

    The following are correct:

    Mr Jones’s party (singular possessive) i.e the party of Mr Jones

    I am going to see the Joneses (ordinary plural) i.e. more than one Jones

    I am going to the Joneses’ party (possessive plural) i.e. the party of more than one Jones

    The alternative construction (found always in French) is to use ‘of’. This is normally used with objects (the walls of the town rather than the town’s walls) and when the possessor is qualified in some way by a phrase or clause: the wallet of the man who spoke to me rather than the-man-who- spoke-to-me’s wallet.

    Note also:

    a week’s holiday (singular – a holiday of one week)
    two weeks’ holiday (plural – a holiday of two weeks)


    Pronouns (pro-nouns means instead of nouns) are those words which we use to avoid tedious repetition of the same noun (John came in; he (John) sat down; he (John) ordered a drink; the barman gave him (John) a drink; a girl came up to him (John); she (the girl) asked whether the drink was his (John’s) etc. etc..

    There are nine kinds of pronoun

    1. Demonstrative: this/these; that/those
    2. Distributive: each, either, everyone, everybody, either, neither, both
    3. Quantitative: one, two, three, thirty, some, any, none, much, many, little, few
    4. Interrogative: who/whom/whose? what? which?
    5. Possessive: mine, yours, his, hers, its, ours, yours, theirs
    6. Personal: I/me, you, he/him, she/her, it, we/us, you, they/them
    7. Reflexive: myself, yourself, himself, herself. itself etc. (N.B. as in I cut myself)
    8. Emphatic: myself, yourself, himself,herself, itself etc. (N.B. as in I myself……)
    9. Relative: who, whom, which, whose (N.B. spelling).

    Case and number

    Most foreign languages change endings or word formation to indicate both case and number (and sometimes gender as well). In English, only certain pronouns do so, and this is why we need to understand the concept of case.

    Subject case

    The subject is the noun or pronoun performing the action of an active verb or suffering the action of a passive verb. In English, it normally (not always) comes before the verb:

    He hits me
    I am hit by him

    Object case

    The object is the noun or pronoun suffering/receiving the action expressed by an active verb:

    I hit him

    It can be seen that the two concepts of subject/object and active/passive (q.v.) are closely linked. The object of an active verb can be made into the subject of a passive verb with no essential change in meaning:

    He (subject) hits (active verb) me (object)
    I (subject) am hit (passive verb) by him (noun governed by preposition)

    Case after prepositions

    Where you can do so (i.e with some pronouns), all prepositions take/govern the object case: Note that this rule applies equally when there is more than one pronoun:

    Between you and me (not I)
    I saw him
    He saw me
    They gave apples to me as well as (to) him

    the words ‘than’ and ‘as’ used to be treated as exceptions to this rule, following Latin usage, but nowadays it seems pedantic to make that distinction.

    Who/ whom/ whose/ which

    1) Who is subject case in a relative/adjectival clause; the pronoun ?stands for? the noun in the clause:
    This the man who – i.e. the man ? sold the car
    = He sold the car.

    2) Whom is object case, and also used after all prepositions (e.g. after whom, to whom, with whom).
    This is the man (whom – i.e. the man – I defeated).
    = I defeated the man.

    3) Whose is the only place in English where the Old English genitive case exists, and it denotes possession (see above). It means ?of whom?.
    This is the man (whose ? of whom the) house I admire.

    This is a very simple concept, but may need careful examination of the examples above!

    Who/whom refer to people. Which is exactly the same, except that it is neuter ? i.e. things, not people ? and is used for both subject and object case and also genitive ?of which?.


    Adjectives modify, qualify, describe in some way either nouns or pronouns.

    There are six kinds of adjective

    1. Quality/description: square, good, kind, blue, fat, Russian (N.B. capital letter)
    2. Demonstrative: this/these; that/those
    3. Distributive: each, every, either, neither, both
    4. Quantitative: some, any, no, few, many, much, one, twenty etc..
    5. Interrogative: which…? what…? whose…?
    6. Possessive: my, your, his, her, its, our, your, their

    The vast majority of adjectives come under category 1; almost all the existing versions of the other categories are quoted here.


    its (= belonging to it) must not be confused with it’s which is a contraction of it is. This error is far and away the commonest mistake made by native English speakers.

    Confusion of adjectives with pronouns

    do not confuse the adjectives my, your, his with the pronouns mine, yours, his etc.

    we are here talking about individual words which are adjectives; it is quite possible to have either phrases or clauses ? see later – which are adjectival (i.e. act like adjectives).


    Unlike inflected languages, adjectives in English have only one form (except for comparison ? see page 9) and therefore do not agree in any way. The only exception is this/these and that/those which have different singulars and plurals.


    There are three degrees of comparison:

    1) Positive: hard tall useful good*
    2) Comparative: harder taller more useful better
    3) Superlative: hardest tallest most useful best

    Note: adjectives of one syllable add -er and -est (darker, darkest)
    adjectives of three syllables use more and most (more usual, most usual)
    adjectives of two syllables vary -ful (N.B. spelling of suffix) and -re use more and most (more careful, most careful).
    *this highly irregular one (also bad/worse/worst) has 3 quite different forms
    elder/ eldest
    this implies seniority and is used chiefly in families.
    ‘elder’ in theory means ‘of two’ but is perhaps pedantic.
    than/ as
    it is thought ‘correct’ to use the subject case, following Latin usage, but to do so nowadays also smacks of pedantry. Thus:

    He is older than/as old as I is ‘correct’
    He is older than/as old as me is almost universal.

    Less /fewer

    a distinction which may seem pedantic to some, but whose misuse grates on the ears of the educated, is the difference between less and fewer:

    (uncountable portion) much / more / most (followed by a singular noun)
    (countable number) many / more / most (followed by a plural noun)

    (uncountable portion) little / less / least (followed by a singular noun)
    (countable number) few / fewer / fewest (followed by a plural noun)

    A native speaker, upon a moment’s reflection, will recognise that little and much (etc.) refer to an uncountable portion, while few and many refer to countable number. Unfortunately, the similarities in the comparative and superlative of much and many have led to the unthinking supposition that the comparative and superlative of their counterparts (little and few) must likewise be identical. In view of almost universal ignorance of the distinction, I fear that fewer will shortly disappear from the language. However, it exists among the educated, and so you should use it.

    less cake, please (you can’t count the size)
    fewer cakes, fewer people, fewer chips (you can count the number).

    Demonstrative, distributive and possessive adjectives

    The only problems here are

    definite and indefinite articles (the, a/an)

    The definite article is just a weakened form of the demonstrative adjective that. The indefinite article is just a weakened form of the quantitative adjective one

    e.g. The man in the field / cf that man in the field
    A boy on his bike / cf one boy on his bike.

    Incidentally, in either/neither: the first syllable sounds like ‘eye’, not as in ‘knee’.

    their/ there

    Their is used only as the possessive adjective (their house); it should not be confused with the word there, e.g. as opposed to ?here?, or ?there is…?.

    Its (= belonging to it): again, this must not be confused with IT’S = IT IS.

    Grammar and feminism

    To the chagrin of feminists, the masculine has traditionally included both male and female wherever both are involved. Thus ‘Everybody must bring his books’ would be the normal, correct way to address a mixed class. However, in very recent years some embarrassment has been caused by such rampant sexism, with the result that the sensitive or militant have been driven to the cumbersome (his-or-her) or grammatically grating (their used as a singular). This clash of the educated ear and feminist sensibilities has not yet been resolved, even in the letters page of The Times.

    Distinguish between the personal pronoun, the personal adjective, and the possessive pronoun:

    (columns have not yet been put in)

    Personal pronoun Possessive adjective Possessive pronoun

    I/me my mine
    you (singular) your yours
    he/she/it his, her, its his, hers, its

    we/us our ours
    you (plural) your yours
    they/them their theirs

    Personal pronouns: stand for a person or thing (I = Jane, Fred etc.)

    Possessive adjectives: are followed by a noun or pronoun and denote possession
    e.g.: his book, my pen, its bone etc..

    Possessive pronouns: stand on their own but still denote possession,


    that book is mine, this house must be yours etc..


    English verbs cause foreigners more difficulty than everything else put together, and when we learn foreign languages, we fail to realise that other languages are often more direct and straightforward in their concepts and structures; it is often our understanding of English verbs (especially tenses, negatives, and questions) which is faulty and renders us incapable of understanding often much simpler foreign structures.

    Two kinds of verb

    auxiliary to be, to have, to do, to dare, to need, to be able/can, may,must, will, shall, ought and used (there is no present tense of the last). That?s the full list.

    ordinary for simplicity, we’ll call them ordinary verbs. Note that auxiliary verbs may also be used as ordinary verbs, in their own right, as it were:

    e.g. I was attacked (auxiliary use ? forming past passive)
    I was a postman (ordinary use ? past tense of ?to be?)

    This last point affects modern language learning. Since we make no distinction in English, it’s difficult to grasp the notion when other languages do so:

    The house was covered with leaves in no time (auxiliary use)
    The house was covered with leaves (ordinary use)

    Verbs are normally known by their present infinitive (to work, to sing), but some auxiliaries have no infinitive (you can’t say “to must” or “to may”).

    Foreign languages usually have a wide variety of forms to indicate tense, mood, voice, number, and person. These concepts form the headings which follow. English uses very few forms to distinguish these different concepts, but mainly uses auxiliary verbs instead. It is important to realise this distinction between English and most foreign languages that you may study.

    English and foreign tenses

    Tenses are to do with time – present, past, or future. Unlike most other languages, English also makes a distinction between simple actions (etc.) and continuous actions. In other words, we tend to have twice the number of tenses that most foreign languages have.

    English tenses

    Present simple: ? I work (N.B. negative I do not work)
    Present continuous:? I am working

    Present perfect:? I have worked
    Present perfect continuous:? I have been working

    Past simple (aorist):? I worked (N.B. negative I did not work)
    Past continuous:? I was working

    Past perfect (pluperfect):? I had worked
    Past perfect continuous:? I had been working

    Future simple:? I shall work
    Future continuous:? I shall be working

    Future perfect:? I shall have worked
    Future perfect continuous:? I shall have been working

    1. Questions:? are usually shown by reversing subject and verb (e.g. shall I work?)
    2. Negatives:? are shown by adding ‘not’ (but note exceptions shown)
    3. Passives are shown by using the equivalent tense of ‘to be’, followed by the past participle passive (I am defeated, he was defeated etc.)

    Sequence of tenses

    After a main verb in the past, the subordinate verb must also be in the past:
    e.g. I know that he is coming
    but I knew that he was coming

    Other problems with tense

    We often use auxiliaries to introduce ideas other than those of time:

    a) I am going to work (I shall work, with hints of determination); also, “I’m off to…”
    b) I used to work (regularly, but I don’t now)
    c) I used to be working (frequently/continuously)
    d) I do work (I really do)
    e) I have to work (I can’t afford not to, or I must do so now)
    f) I ought to work (but I don’t)
    g) I must work (I really must or it’s time I started)
    h) I should be working (but I’m not)
    i) I need to work (I realise that but…)
    j) I may work (I’m allowed to or perhaps I shall)
    k) I can work (I’m able to do so).

    Note too that we often use the present tense for future time:

    I’m working tomorrow;? he arrives tomorrow.

    Shall/will & should/would

    This delicious distinction has almost vanished from the language, since virtually nobody knows about it. Briefly, in simple future tenses, shall is 1st person, will is 2nd and 3rd person:

    I shall go Shall I go? We shall go Shall we go?
    You will go Will you go? You will go Will you go?
    He will go Will he go? They will go Will they go?

    The interrogative form is shown here because all native speakers instinctively get it ‘right’ in questions; but “I will” and “we will” are very common indeed among educated people, not only in Ireland where it is the normal form.

    And here’s the nice bit: if reversed (I will, you shall etc.) then a note of determination is added: “You shall do this” means “I’m determined that you will”


    This is the kind of construction where if introduces one part (if you go, I go), though sometimes the if part is assumed “I shouldn’t do that” (if I were you). These cause native speakers few difficulties except the following:

    a) The same as the shall/will problem. In theory, it’s I should, you would etc. as above.
    Thus: “I should be grateful if you would…”

    but as with shall/will, it’s something of a lost cause, particularly since should already has an air of determination about it even in the first person (“I should do it” also means “I ought to do it”)

    b) The double ‘have’ problem: we confuse the tense of the main verb with the tense of the infinitive and write what is usually (though not always) nonsense:

    “I?d like to have been there” (I wish today that I was there yesterday)
    “I?d have liked to be there? (I wished yesterday that I was there)
    “I?d have liked to have been there” (I wished yesterday that I had been there the day before).

    We usually contract ?I should? to ?I?d? ? as shown ? even in writing. You probably mean the first of these and the last is probably wrong!

    Thus: I?d like to have been there = I should like to have been there.

    Mood (indicative or subjunctive)

    indicative is the simple form of all tenses
    subjunctive suggests a mood of doubt, uncertainty, hypothesis etc., and
    is used in certain special constructions such as exclamations.

    In English, the subjunctive is shown either by the use of auxiliaries (may or might) or by the present tense which differs from the indicative only by omitting the normal (e)s in the 3rd person singular (he go, not he goes); the subjunctive of ‘to be’ is be (not I am, you are etc.).

    e.g. “Long live the King!” (not lives)
    It is essential that he go now (not goes)
    If this be madness ……(not is)

    Its use nowadays may smack of pedantry, but there are useful distinctions to be made, and it is the normal form in hypothetical conditions (“if he were to attack me, I’d – I should – kill him”.)

    Voice (active or passive)

    active is where the subject performs the action
    passive is where the subject suffers the action

    Note especially in these examples the confusing similarity of forms:

    John is eating the lion (present continuous active)
    John is eaten by the lion (simple present passive)
    John was eating the lion (past continuous active)
    John was eaten by the lion (simple past passive)

    Number (singular or plural)

    This is simply the choice between singular (one) and plural (more than one). However, do not confuse it with the term Person, called 1st, 2nd and 3rd (below)

    Person (1st, 2nd or 3rd)
    Singular Plural
    1st person I we
    2nd person you (singular) you (plural)
    3rd person he, she, it they (all genders)


    A participle is an adjective formed from a verb and has some of the functions of both parts. It describes a noun or pronoun but it may also govern an object; in inflected* languages, it agrees like an adjective with the noun / pronoun it is describing. (*those having lots of endings, i.e. most European languages).

    There are six participles, though many of them are so cumbersome that they are rarely used in English:

    Active/? Passive

    Present eating being eaten
    Past having eaten (having been) eaten
    Future (being) about to eat (being) about to be eaten

    Mis-related participles

    Be careful that you do not write nonsense by misrelating a participle, e.g.: ?Waiting at the bus-stop, the bus went past” (you mean “After I had waited”).


    An infinitive is the form of the verb preceded by the word ‘to’; in tenses with auxiliaries, the infinitive is that of the auxiliary, not of the main verb. It is considered by purists a heinous crime to split infinitives (i.e. separate the ‘to’ and the ‘go’ as in ‘to boldly go’), and in most cases such usage falls heavy on the ear. But note that ‘to have quickly gone’ is not splitting the infinitive since the infinitive is ‘to have’. The moral is that if you know you’re splitting an infinitive, then good luck.

    It is used after certain verbs (learn, remember, forget, promise etc.) and in certain constructions which do not baffle English speakers. It has three tenses and two voices, like participles.

    The infinitives are these:

    Active Passive

    (no columns yet introduced)

    Present/continuous to eat / be eating to be eaten / be being eaten
    Past/continuous to have eaten / been eating to have been eaten
    Future to be about to eat / be eating to be about to be eaten


    The gerund is the form of the verb which acts like a noun (in that it may be subject or object or be governed by a preposition), but it also acts like a verb, in that it may govern an object. Its form is the verb with ‘- ing’ on the end (a rare ending in English!). Note: it is identical in form to the present participle and this can cause great confusion in foreign language learning.

    e.g. Singing is fun (gerund, subject)
    I hate running (gerund, object)
    He earned a modest living by teaching Latin (gerund, governed by a preposition)
    Here comes the vicar, singing psalms (participle describing the vicar).


    This is the form of the verb which acts like a passive adjective and suggests obligation. It describes a noun or pronoun but like most adjectival expressions of more than word, it is generally found following its noun or pronoun, not before, which is the norm in English. Its form is the past participle passive preceded by ‘to be’. Note: it is identical in form to the present infinitive passive, and this can also cause much confusion in foreign language learning.


    This work is to be done by Tuesday (gerundive)
    These matters are to be discussed today (gerundive)
    Remember to be dressed properly (present passive infinitive).


    Strictly speaking, this is a third mood, but let?s keep things simple. This is the form of the verb on its own, and is a command to a (2nd) person. Some languages use an exclamation mark afterwards; in English, we do so only after a very forceful command:


    Lie down!
    Go away!
    but Do this by tomorrow, please.
    Show all tickets on demand.


    a transitive verb can take an object (and usually does)
    an intransitive verb is one which cannot take an object


    The hen lays an egg; but the man lies on the floor (you can’t lie anything). In this example, two different verbs are often confused; see the next section.

    Irregular verbs

    Since we spend so much time learning other people’s irregular verbs, it’s nice to know that foreigners spend happy hours learning ours. Most of them cause us no difficulty except that sometimes we use the past participle (e.g. sung) instead of the simple past tense (e.g. sang). I sang the song he has so often sung to me. A few which cause us difficulty (for different reasons) are as follows:

    (columns not yet introduced)

    Present Simple past Past participle

    begin began begun (cf sing/sang/sung)
    bid bade bidden (pronounced bad)
    do did done (not he done her wrong)
    drink drank drunk (cf sing/sang/sung)
    eat ate eaten (pronounced et)
    forbid forbade forbidden (pronounced for-bad)
    hang hung hung (normal use)
    hang hanged hanged (executions)
    lay laid laid (transitive – the hen lays eggs)
    lie lay lain (intransitive ? the man lies on the floor)
    ring rang rung (cf sing/sang/sung)
    see saw seen (normal use)
    saw sawed sawn (we daren’t say “I sawed a log”)
    shrink shrank shrunk (cf sing/sang/sung)
    sing sang sung (see above)
    sink sank sunk (cf sing/sang/sung)
    slay slew slain (perhaps only Biblical – proper version)
    strive strove striven (perhaps nearly obsolete)
    swim swam swum (cf sing/sang/sung)


    Adverbs modify, qualify, describe in some way verbs (just as adjectives modify etc. nouns). Occasionally, they may modify adjectives or other adverbs (e.g. very soon, too slowly).

    There are seven kinds of adverb:

    1. Manner:? quickly, bravely, happily, well etc.
    2. Place:? here, there, everywhere, up, down, nearby etc.
    3. Time:? now, soon, yet, then, today etc.
    4. Frequency:? twice, often, never, always, occasionally etc.
    5. Degree:? very, fairly, rather, quite, too, hardly etc.
    6. Interrogative:? when? where? why? etc.
    7. Relative:? when, where, why etc.

    Note: the last two examples should remind us that it is not so much an individual word which defines its part of speech, but its function in the sentence.


    Most adverbs of manner and a few others are formed by adding -ly to the adjective (slowly, gravely, quickly etc.). Beware of the spelling of the following:

    truly, duly, wholly; and some others which change slightly, e.g.? gaily.

    Adjectives which already end in -ly do not have an adverb form (e.g. friendly); you have to use an adverbial phrase instead (e.g. in a friendly way, rather than friendlily!)

    some can be used as both adjectives and adverb, e.g. fast, hard, near (but not quick).


    There are three degrees of comparison which correspond with those of adjectives:

    (columns not yet introduced)

    quickly fortunately
    more quickly more fortunately
    most quickly most fortunately

    Since the vast majority of adverbs are formed from adjectives and therefore have two or more syllables by definition (see adjectives), most of them use more and most for the comparative and superlative.

    ? the comparative of quickly is more quickly (NOT quicker):


    He ran more quickly than I did (not quicker than I did)

    Placing of adverbs

    There is not room here to detail the rules which apply. Let me say simply that you should take care that your adverbs are carefully placed to give the meaning that you want. In particular, place the adverb only before the word it is qualifying. In speech there is a tendency to place it before the verb willy-nilly, and rely upon intonation in the voice to convey specific meaning. Compare the different meanings of the following:

    Only he bought six apples (she didn’t)
    He only bought six apples (he didn’t sell any)
    He bought only six apples (not seven)
    He bought only apples (not pears)


    Prepositions are the small change of language, ‘introducing’ prepositional phrases which may be adjectival or adverbial depending on context. In foreign languages, endings often take the place of English prepositions. These cause us no difficulties, except the following:

    due ….to/owing to:

    owing to has long been accepted as a compound (i.e. double) preposition, as in ‘owing to the bad weather, we have decided to….’

    due is simply an adjective, and must therefore have a noun or pronoun to describe:

    ‘The revolution was due to several factors…’

    In other words, ‘due to’ should not be used a substitute for ‘owing to’.

    Omission of prepositions

    We often omit prepositions, especially when we use a so-called indirect object. It usually depends on the word order. Thus:

    I bought a bike for my son
    I bought (for) my son a bike

    In this latter example, my son is not a direct object, since you did not, presumably, buy him. It is an indirect object, with the preposition for omitted in this position. Similarly:

    I amuse myself
    but I buy myself an apple (= for myself)

    Two kinds of conjunction

    Co-ordinating conjunctions link two equal clauses or phrases or individual words (e.g.: bread and butter); subordinating conjunctions show the relation between a main clause and a subordinate clause (or phrase or individual words).

    Examples of such conjunctions:

    Co-ordinating are mainly:? and / but
    Subordinating are words such as:? when / since / although / because / where / why etc.
    (but be careful because some of these are often used as entirely different ?parts of speech?).

    See also the section below on ?Sentence structure?.


    Interjections are those exclamatory words (ouch! bother! wow! etc.) which do not form part of normal sentences. They cause no difficulty or offence unless rude.

    A final reminder about parts of speech: many words are not in themselves one particular part of speech or another; it depends on the structure of the sentence. Some words have a different form for the verb and the noun (e.g. bathe / bath, practise / practice, license / licence).



    Statements, commands, and questions: these are the three kinds, and need no explanation.

    Subject and Predicate

    A ?main? sentence has a subject (noun or pronoun) and a predicate (what is said about the noun or pronoun). The predicate contains a finite verb (as opposed to a participle or infinitive etc.).

    Thus:? I (pronoun) sing (finite verb) forms a complete sentence.

    Sentences are built up with clauses and phrases, as well as individual words. Both terms mean a group of words which act together exactly like an individual word (e.g. noun, adverb or adjective); the difference is that a clause has a subject and a finite verb, but a phrase does not. Clauses are often referred to as subordinate clauses, because they cannot stand on their own but are ?subordinate? to a ?Main? sentence ? itself sometimes confusingly referred to as a ?main clause?.


    NOUN clauses
    (i.e. acting like a noun, by being subject or object of the verb):

    I know that he is coming tomorrow (i.e. the object of ‘know’)

    ADJECTIVAL clauses
    (i.e. acting like an adjective, in describing etc. a noun):

    This is the man who bought my car (describing the ‘man’)

    ADVERBIAL clauses
    (i.e. acting like an adverb):

    I did it because I was hungry (reason) Why?
    I did it when I wanted to (time) When?
    I did it as well as I could (manner) How?
    I did it where it was necessary (place) Where?
    I did it if he asked me (condition) In what conditions?
    I did it although I was unwilling (concession) Despite what?


    The two types of phrase are

    Prepositional phrases
    (i.e. introduced by a preposition)

    in the rain, on the street, in your dreams

    Participial phrases
    (i.e. introduced by a participle)

    singing in the rain
    having been defeated by the overwhelming forces of the enemy

    Note that it is perfectly possible to have one phrase contained within another, and very likely indeed that phrases will be contained within clauses.

    Phrases may be adverbial or adjectival (i.e. acting exactly like an adjective or adverb), and sometimes it?s hard to tell which. For example: the man in the moon. You could take this as adjectival, describing the man, or as adverbial, saying where he lives. But it doesn?t really matter!


    Simple sentence
    a sentence with a single main verb

    Compound sentence
    a sentence with two or three main verbs, always with at least one conjunction

    Complex sentence
    a sentence with a single main verb plus one or more subordinate verbs/clauses

    Compound/complex sentence
    a sentence with two or main verbs and two or more subordinate verbs/clauses

    Building a sentence

    We start with a subject and verb:? Man shouts

    We may add a definite or indefinite article:? The/a man shouts

    We may add a fuller description of the noun:? The tall man shouts or
    with an adjective (or adjectival phrase or clause):? The man in the moon shouts

    We may add an adverb to modify the verb:? The tall man shouts loudly
    (i.e. how/why/where etc. does he shout…)

    We may link together two separate main sentences, also called main clauses (compound sentence):

    The man in the moon shouts loudly and the cat howls appallingly.

    We may add an adverbial clause, where the whole clause acts like an adverb in modifying the verb (complex sentence):

    The man in the moon shouts loudly {why?} because a cow keeps disturbing him.

    Finally, we may build up as long a sentence as we can keep control of, by adding further adjectives, adverbs, phrases and clauses. Reminder:? any sentence with two main verbs is a compound sentence; any sentence with a subordinate clause in it is a complex sentence. If it also has two main clauses, then it is ? not surprisingly – known as a compound/complex sentence:

    Those ladies and gentlemen who read this document are very lucky because they have the opportunity, which may have been hitherto denied them, of learning something of traditional English grammar and, if they are very lucky as well as being possessed of a certain native wit, they may also be encouraged to study Latin and Greek which, as we all know, are the foundations of European civilisation.

    ? 2003

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