English Grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

English grammar
"English grammar is happening all around you," say Kersti Börjars and Kate Burridge. " Language change is going on in front of your very eyes" ( Introducing English Grammar, 2010). (kaan tanman/Getty Images)

English grammar is the set of principles or rules dealing with the word structures (morphology) and sentence structures (syntax) of the English language.

Although there are certain grammatical differences among the many dialects of present-day English, these differences are fairly minor compared to regional and social variations in vocabulary and pronunciation

In linguistic terms, English grammar (also known as descriptive grammar) is not the same as English usage (sometimes called prescriptive grammar).

"The grammatical rules of the English language," says Joseph Mukalel,"are determined by the nature of the language itself, but the rules of use and the appropriateness of the use are determined by the speech community" (Approaches To English Language Teaching, 1998).

Examples and Observations

  • "Grammar is concerned with how sentences and utterances are formed. In a typical English sentence, we can see the two most basic principles of grammar, the arrangement of items (syntax) and the structure of items (morphology):
    I gave my sister a sweater for her birthday.
    The meaning of this sentence is obviously created by words such as gave, sister, sweater and birthday. But there are other words (I, my, a, for, her) which contribute to the meaning, and, additionally, aspects of individual words and the way they are arranged which enable us to interpret what the sentence means."
    (Ronald Carter and Michael McCarthy, Cambridge Grammar of English: A Comprehensive Guide. Cambridge University Press, 2006)
  • Basic Word Structure in English
    "[W]ords are made up of elements of two kinds: bases and affixes. For the most part, bases can stand alone as whole words whereas affixes can't. Here are some examples, with the units separated by a [hyphen], bases [in italics], and affixes [in bold italics]:
    The bases danger, slow, and just, for example, can form whole words. But the affixes can't: there are no words *en, *ly, *un. Every word contains at least one or more bases; and a word may or may not contain affixes in addition.

    "Affixes are subdivided into prefixes, which precede the base to which they attach, and suffixes, which follow."
    (Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, A Student's Introduction to English Grammar. Cambridge University Press, 2006)
  • Word Order and Inflection in English
    - "English grammar is unlike other grammars in that it is structured on word order while many languages are based on inflection. Thus, syntactic structure in English may be quite different from those in other languages."
    (Linda Miller Cleary, Linguistics for Teachers. McGraw-Hill, 1993)

    - "One of the major syntactic changes in the English language since Anglo-Saxon times has been the disappearance of the S[ubject]-O[bject]-V[erb] and V[erb]-S[ubject]-O[bject] types of word-order, and the establishment of the S[ubject]-V[erb]-O[bject] type as normal. The S-O-V type disappeared in the early Middle Ages, and the V-S-O type was rare after the middle of the seventeenth century. V-S word-order does indeed still exist in English as a less common variant, as in 'Down the road came a whole crowd of children,' but the full V-S-O type hardly occurs today."
    (Charles Barber, The English Language: A Historical Introduction, rev. ed. Cambridge University Press, 2000)
  • Rules of English Syntax
    - "Syntax is the set of rules for combining words into sentences. For example, the rules of English syntax tell us that, because nouns generally precede verbs in basic English sentences, dogs and barked may be combined as Dogs barked but not *Barked dogs (the asterisk being used by linguists to mark constructions that violate the rules of the language.)  . . . Still other syntactic rules require the presence of an additional word if dog is singular: one can say A dog barks or The dog barks but not *Dog bark(s). Moreover, the rules of standard English syntax tell us that -ing must be attached to bark if some form of be precedes bark: Dogs are barking or The/A dog is barking, but not *Dogs barking. Yet another rule of English syntax tells us that the word to must be present in a sentence such as I allowed him to sing a song, yet to must not be present if the  verb is changed to hear (I heard him sing a song but not *I heard him to sing a song). With still other verbs, the speaker has the option of using or omitting to, for example, I helped him (to) sing a song. Morphemes such as the, a, -ing, and to are often termed function morphemes to distinguish them from content morphemes such as dog, bark, sing, song, and the like."
    (Ronald R. Butters, "Grammatical Structure." The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume 6, ed. by John Algeo. Cambridge University Press, 2001)

    - "[One]  feature of English syntax is transformation—moving phrases around within a sentence structure governed by certain syntactic rules. . . . After the transformation, the new meaning for two out of three sentences is different from their original sentences. The transformed sentences, however, are still grammatically correct, because the transformation has followed the syntactic rules. If transformation is not done by a rule, the new sentence will not be understood. For example, if the word not is put between the words good and student, as in He is a good not student, the meaning will be confusing and ambiguous: Is he not a good student? or Is he not a student?"
    (Shelley Hong Xu, Teaching English Language Learners. Guilford Press, 2010)
  • Gender in English
    "We think it's a nuisance that so many European languages assign gender to nouns for no reason, with French having female moons and male boats and such. But actually, it's we who are odd: Almost all European languages belong to one family—Indo-European—and of all of them, English is the only one that doesn't assign genders. . . .

    "Old English had the crazy genders we would expect of a good European language—but the Scandinavians didn't bother with those, and so now we have none." 
    (John McWhorter, "English Is Weird." The Week, December 20, 2015)
  • Adjectives in English
    "The most frequently used adjectives in English are monosyllabic, or disyllabic [two-syllable] words of native origin. They tend to be paired as opposites such as good-bad, big-little, large-small, tall-short, black-white, easy-hard, soft-hard, dark-light, alive-dead, hot-cold, which have no distinctive form to mark them as adjectives.

    "Many adjectives, such as sandy, milky, are derived from nouns, other adjectives or verbs by the addition of certain characteristic suffixes. Some of these are of native origin, as in greenish, hopeful, handsome, handy, foremost, useless, while others are formed on Greek or Latin bases, as in central, secondary, apparent, civic, creative, and yet others via French such as marvelous and readable."
    (Angela Downing, English Grammar: A University Course, 3rd ed. Routledge, 2015)

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