This page consists mainly of an annotated index of the grammar terms used on this site. In addition, I’ve explained a number of other terms often used in grammar books and have supplied detailed information about pronouns, verbs, and sentences.

Absolute Constructions: see Absolute Phrases

Abstract: see Noun

Active Voice: see Voice of Verbs

Adjective: see Modifier

Adverb: see Modifier


The noun or noun-like element that a pronoun refers to is called its antecedent. In Latin, antecedent means “coming before”; nouns usually (but not necessarily) precede their pronouns (see also Pronoun Reference). In the following examples, both the pronouns and their antecedents are italicized. In the second example, the pronoun comes before its antecedent:

Get rid of that snake before I tie him in six knots!

Although he‘s irascible, Fang is also flexible.

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Apposition is a special kind of coordination. Two or more elements (usually noun phrases but sometimes noun clauses) are said to be in apposition if they fulfill two conditions: (1) they have the same function in the same clause and (2) they refer to the same thing in different words:

Those pushy princess-kissers, frogs, naturally have green lips.

Two noun phrases, those pushy princess-kissers and frogs, are in apposition—or we can say they’re apposed. Both phrases refer to the same amphibian and both are the subjects of the finite verb have.

What had me hopping with rage was your remark that you found toad poetry rather dry.

Remark, a noun phrase, and that you found toad poetry rather dry, a noun clause, are in apposition. Both are the completers of was and both refer to the same utterance.

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Article is the traditional name for two determiners: the and a. The is called the definite article because it indicates that a specific, identified thing is being referred to: The duck is stuck indicates that a particular, already identified duck is meant. A (an before most vowels) is called the indefinite article because it indicates that the noun refers to something that isn’t specifically identified: A duck doesn’t need an umbrella indicates that no already-referred-to duck or umbrella is meant.

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Attributive Noun

A noun that functions as the modifier of another noun but keeps its noun form is called an attributive noun. I’ve italicized the attributive nouns in the following examples:
band wagon, log cabin, toad jewelry, barber shop, sun belt, wish bone, fire extinguisher

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Auxiliary Verbs: see Auxiliary Verbs under Verbs.

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Base Form of Verb: see Principal Parts of Verbs under Verbs.


A clause is a group of words containing a single structural backbone. A structural backbone is a combination of a finite verb together with its subject. The subject-finite verb relationship gives clauses their basic structure: someone or something (the subject) is something or does something or has something done to it (the finite verb expresses this doing or being), all within a time frame of past, present, or future. The finite verb may or may not have a completer. If it does, the completer is also part of the structural backbone.

A single clause may contain two or more coordinate subjects or finite verbs. But to be a single clause, all of the subjects must be the subjects of all of the finite verbs. The first example below consists of a single clause; the second consists of three clauses:

My BMW, my T shirts, and my pet mouse each express my good taste and inspire millions. [The three subjects (my BMW, my T shirts, and my pet mouse) are the subjects of both finite verbs (express and inspire), so there’s just one structural backbone, one clause. Each finite verb has its own completer.]

My parents came out; Dad rolled in the snow; Mom threw snowballs. [Each of the three finite verbs—came, rolled, and threw—has its own subject–parents, Dad, and Mom; thus, there are three separate structural backbones: three separate clauses.]

There are two types of clauses:
An independent clause is one that does not perform a function within another clause (in other words, it is not a structural element of another clause). Thus, an independent clause can stand alone as a sentence. All the clauses in the two examples above are independent.

A dependent clause functions as a subject or completer or modifier within another clause. There are two kinds of dependent clause, named after the words that introduce them: subordinating-connective clauses and WH-word clauses.

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Closed-Class Word: see Parts of Speech.

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Collective Nouns

A collective noun is one that refers to a group of people or things, such as class, flock, committee, crowd, audience, or company. For information about the use of singular or plural verbs with collective nouns, see Agreement of Subjects and Finite Verbs.

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Comparative Clause: see Adverb Clauses of Comparison

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Completer is the name of the third of the five syntactic functions.

In the broadest sense, completer refers to any element that answers the question who[m] or what? when the question word is placed after finite verbs, non-finite verbs, prepositions, or subordinating connectives. In the following examples, I’ve italicized the completers:

Completer of finite verb: He dropped the ball. [Dropped what?]

Completer of non-finite verb: Dribbling venom comes naturally to Fang. [Dribbling what? The complete phrase Dribbling venom is the subject of comes.]

Completer of preposition: Keep your eye on Uncle Charlie’s tummy.[On what?]

Fang’s heart is light because he keeps his fangs clean. [Because what?] .

See also Completers in Syntax.

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Complex Sentence: see Sentence

Compound Sentence: see Sentence

Concrete and Abstract Nouns: see Nouns

Conditional Clause: see Adverb Clauses of Condition

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Conjunction (from Latin: “join together”) is a term used by most grammar books to refer to the term I’ve used on this site: connective. Connective seems to me to be more directly understandable. When we had lots of passenger trains in North America, the term junction was widely understood. See the following entry.

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A connective is a structural marker that serves to join two other functions. There are three types of connective—coordinating, non-coordinating, and marginal:

Coordinating Connective: One of three words (and, or, but) that join elements that have exactly the same function in the same phrase or clause. Coordinating connectives also join independent clauses to make compound sentences.

Non-coordinating Connective: A word or phrase that joins elements that have different functions. There are two types of non-coordinating connectives: prepositions and subordinating connectives.

Marginal connectives are linking words halfway between coordinating and non-coordinating connectives:
for (meaning “because”)
nor (or with a built-in not)
so (meaning “therefore”)
then (“next in time”)
yet (“however”)

Marginal connectives can connect only independent clauses, never coordinate elements within the same clause. The partial exception to this is nor, which can connect coordinate phrases when it’s part of a correlative pair: neither this flea nor that salamander (see Correlatives, on this page). Marginal connectives are discussed a bit more fully under Joining Independent Clauses.

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Coordination (from Latin “arranging together”) refers to the relationship between words, phrases, or clauses that have exactly the same function within the same structure. In the examples, the coordinate elements are italicized:

Ice and snow are my favorite media. [coordinate subjects]
He neither thinks nor swims. [coordinate finite verbs]
I had hoped {that you would dance} and {[that] she would play the castanets’}.[coordinate completers]

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See also Coordination in the Syntax section.

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Correlatives are a set of modifiers that are paired with coordinating connectives (and, or or but) to reinforce the meaning of the connective. There are five correlative pairs in English, italicized in the following examples:

He both hisses and writhes.

They use either venom or peanut butter.

Whether he hisses or whistles is all the same to me.

I found them not only writhing but also boogying.

Cobra jam is neither tasty nor nutritious.

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Declarative Sentence: see Sentence Types.

Definite Article: see Article.

Dependent Clause; see Clause.

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Determiners are specialized modifiers that introduce noun phrases. Determiners include 1) the articles (the and a (an before most nouns) and 2) five kinds of pronouns: demonstrative, possessive, interrogative, relative, and indefinite: these are all listed under Pronouns.

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Direct Address

Direct address refers to nouns that name a person or thing that is being directly spoken to. Such phrases don’t have a syntactic function. In writing, nouns in direct address (italicized in the following examples) are set off with commas to indicate a pause in sentence rhythm:

Keep your stupid remarks to yourself, Fang.

Sir, the nit-picker will see you now.

Miss Angie, would you mind minding my mongoose?

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Direct and Indirect Objects; Subject and Object Complements; and Double Completers

Most studies of grammar distinguish the following types of completers of verbs: direct object, indirect object, subject complement, and object complement:

A direct object is a completer directly affected by (it “receives”) the action of a transitive verb: She kissed the frog.

A subject complement is a noun or adjective that follows a linking verb and that identifies or describes the subject: This frog is potentially a prince. That frog is cheeky.

An indirect object is a completer that refers to a person or thing that is “indirectly” affected by the action of a transitive verb, as is frog in “She gave the frog a kiss,” where kiss is the direct object. It’s said that an indirect object “receives” the direct object. An indirect object is always followed by a direct object; that is, an indirect object can’t appear by itself. “She gave the frog” would mean that frog is a direct object: a present to some unnamed person.

An object complement is a phrase that “completes” a direct object: You make me happy. We elected Fang Pit-Leader. Me and Fang are the direct objects.

Double Completers: On this site I’ve used the term double completers to substitute for the two combinations of terms: indirect object plus direct object and direct object plus object complement. That is, double completers are two completers of the same verb; they follow each other but are not coordinate.

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Dummy Subject

A dummy subject is a word like there or it that comes at the beginning of the sentence, in the position a subject would normally occupy. The actual, “real” subject either comes later or is nonexistent. Dummy subjects satisfy the need for what we feel is normal sentence rhythm:

There is a mouse in my soup. [The subject of is is mouse. It wouldn’t be idiomatic to say, “A mouse is in my soup.”]

It’s nighttime. [It is the subject of is but doesn’t refer to anything. We’d never say, “Nighttime is.”]

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Ellipsis is the leaving out of sentence elements that can be understood from the context:

Your highness, stand here; you guys, over there. [Stand has been ellipted after you guys.]

King: “Did you clean out the snake pit?” Heracles: “No, but I will soon.” [Clean out the snake pit has been ellipted after will.]

I’ve followed Randolph Quirk and Sidney Greenbaum, A University Grammar of English (Longman, 1976) in adopting ellipt as a verb form. Ellipt seems to me to be an ideal coinage since it has the same base as the noun and adjective forms: ellipsis and elliptical. The conventional verb form, elide, refers more directly to the leaving out or slurring of sounds or syllables (elision), while ellipsis refers to the leaving out of one or more complete words.

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Exclamatory Sentence: see Sentence Types.

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Finite Verb

A finite verb is a main verb in a clause. it’s the element that does the actual asserting, requesting, or asking with reference to a subject. A finite verb has a tense to indicate a relative point in time or period of time in which the action of the verb occurs.

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Function refers to the relationships between words or groups of words in clauses or phrases. In other words, a function is the “activity” that a word or group of words performs in a sentence. This site distinguishes five functions: subject, finite verb, completer, modifier, and connective.

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Grammar includes the study of the forms of words in a language and of the possible relationships between words. As I have used them on this site, the terms grammar and syntax have roughly the same meaning, except that I haven’t included all of the information that someone learning English as a second language would need—such things as the forms of plurals or the subtleties of using the.

In the broadest sense, grammar includes all of the verbal and structural resources of a language—the language as a whole. If one thinks of the vocabulary of a language as its “ingredients,” then grammar deals with the three following aspects of vocabulary:

the forms, sounds, and meanings of words (morphology and semantics)

the movement of words in speaking or listening, reading or writing (sentence rhythm)

the interaction of words in sentences (syntax)

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Helping Verb: see Auxiliary Verbs

Imperative Sentence: see Sentence Types

Indefinite Article: see Article

Independent Clause: see Clause

Infinitive: see Principal Parts of Verbs

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Interject, from Latin, means “”thrown into.” Interjections are words or sounds that are don’t have a syntactical function in their sentences. They can be greetings or nouns in direct address (“Hi, Ms. Beebs”) or exclamations, of enthusiasm (“yippee!), sorrow (“alas”), or disgust (“Yuck”). See also Nouns in Direct Address.

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Interrogative Sentence: see Sentence Types

Indirect Object: see Direct and Indirect Objects; Subject and Object Complements; and Double Completers

Intransitive Verbs: see Transitive and Intransitive Verbs

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Linking Adverbs

Some adverbs connect independent clauses; for example, therefore and however in the following examples:

You lost your mittens; therefore, your pie account will be cancelled.

The frog missed kissing the princess; he will, however, be issued another gold ball.

Linking adverbs always appear in the second of the related clause, where they modify the finite verb (therefore modifies will be cancelled; however modifies will be issued). In terms of meaning, however, they express a connection between what is said in the first clause and what is said in the second. I’ve printed the examples as compound sentences, but such pairs often appear as separate sentences, in which case, the rhythm has changed, but not the meaning.

Here are some other examples of linking adverbs: moreover, consequently, secondly, similarly, incidentally, in other words, and in that case.

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Linking Verb

A linking verb connects a subject and completer when the completer is either a noun that identifies the subject or an adjective that describes the subject. The most common linking verb is be but other examples are given, in italics, below:

Fang was my friend before he got so touchy.

She is allergic to jerks.

My elephant seems more elephantine than yours.

When he became a squirrel, she went nuts.

See also Action Verbs and Linking Verbs.

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Main Clause

A main clause is an independent clause that contains either a dependent clause or a non-finite verb phrase. A main clause can usually stand alone as a sentence.

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Main Word: see Phrase.

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Main Verb

A main verb is the last or only word in a finite verb phrase.

Marginal Connectives: see Connectives.

Modal Auxiliary Verbs: see Modal Auxiliary Verbs.


See also Modifiers under Syntax.

Modifiers are one of the five possible functions in a sentence. Modifiers are “attached” to other words: the effect is to narrow, or make more specific, the reference of the modified word. The noun piranha refers to any or all of those fishes with hearty appetites, but in the overweight piranha swimming in your bathtub, the modifying words and phrases make the reference very specific.

There are two kinds of modifiers: adjectives and adverbs. Both kinds can consist of phrases or dependent clauses.

Adjectives modify only nouns or pronouns. They add information about such things as color, size, shape, material, texture, position, or emotional state. In the following examples, the adjectives are printed in italics:

elegant red noses

a solvent cobra with money in the bank

The overcooked cookies that you tried to sell for mosaic tiles

See also Wh-Word Adjective Clauses.

Adverbs can modify verbs (beautifully in she sings beautifully), adjectives (awfully in awfully cold), other adverbs (very in he hissed very softly), and, occasionally, prepositions (almost in I was almost out of my mind). Adverbs specify such things as time, place, manner, result, or reason. See also Adverb Clauses.

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Multi-Word Verbs

A multi-word verb consists of a verb followed by one or more adverbs that combine with the verb to make a verb with a different meaning. For instance, look down upon, if not a physical act of seeing, means “regard with contempt”; go out can mean, among other things, “be extinguished,” as in “The fire went out.”Put up can mean both “give lodging to” (“We can put up three guests for the night”), “tolerate” (“We don’t put up with kidding around in formation”), and preserve food (“After the harvest, we put up three cases of cobra chow.”) See also Particle Verbs.

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Non-Coordinating Connective: see Connective.

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Non-Finite Verb

A non-finite verb is a verb form that functions as a subject, completer, or modifier. See Non-Finite Verb Phrases, in the Syntax section.

Non-Restrictive Modifier: see Restrictive and Non-Restrictive Modifiers.

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Noun (from Latin: “name”) is one of the four open class parts of speech. The “idea” of nouns is that they refer to “things.” Proper nouns refer to only one specific thing, real or imaginary: South America, Nelson Mandela, Bugs Bunny. Common nouns refer to things of which there may be more than one example: crow, bottle, college, scissors.

Nouns are either concrete or abstract. Concrete refers to things that have physical existence, that can be detected through the five physical senses (sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste) or through various instruments (a radio or an electron microscope, for instance). Thus, table, music, molecule, bruise, and leaf are concrete. Abstract refers to things that can only be experienced mentally because they do not have a physical existence; that is, abstract nouns name ideas or concepts. Love, peace, syntax, and justice are abstract; they’re things, but you can’t physically touch them. (This is a rough, practical distinction, which applies only to grammar: philosophers have had other ideas about the subject.)

See also Nouns in Syntax.

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Noun Clause

A noun clause is a dependent clause that functions within a sentence in the same way that noun phrases can (see Noun Phrase): as subjects or completers. In the following examples, the noun clauses are italicized:

What I’m trying to tell you is that there’s a spider on your tuffet. [The first noun clause is the subject of the finite verb is; the second noun clause is the completer of is.]

Nobody knows where she went or what she’s doing. [Coordinate noun clauses functioning as completers of the finite verb knows]

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Noun Phrases

A noun phrase consists either of a single noun functioning alone (like bugs in Bugs have cute legs) or of a noun with one or more modifiers (At least that dumb bug in the rug is snug).

Number: see Personal Pronouns

Object Complement: see Direct and Indirect Objects; Subject and Object Complements; and Double Completers

Open-Class Words: see Parts of Speech.

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Parts of Speech

See also Nouns, Verbs, Adjectives and Adverbs.

Words are classified according to the possible syntactic functions they may have.

There are two categories: 1) open-class words, to which new words can easily be added (to google, for instance) or to which additional meanings can be developed for existing words (computer mouse, for example) and 2) closed-class words, groups to which new words are very rarely added (me, should, and, to, for, from, with, for example).

The open-class parts of speech consist of nouns, main verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. The closed-class parts of speech consist of pronouns, auxiliary verbs, prepositions, and connectives.

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Passive Voice: see Voice of Verbs.

Person: see Personal Pronouns.

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A phrase is either a group of words that performs a single syntactic function or a single word that performs a syntactic function by itself.

We identify phrases according to the part of speech of their main words (also called head words). A main word is one that is the “topic” of a phrase: nouns apart from their modifiers, verbs without their auxiliary verbs, or prepositions without their completers. In the following examples, I’ve italicized the main words:

Noun phrase: That silly serpent

Verb phrase: has been hissing

Adjective phrase: pretty darn silly

Adverb phrase: rather quickly

Prepositional phrase: in a pig’s eye

In the last example, the completer of the preposition in is itself a noun phrase, a pig’s eye. The main word of this phrase is eye.

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Possessives indicate “belonging-to”: your book or Ms. Beebs’ book means the book belongs to you or to Ms. Beebs. Your team can indicate either the team you belong to or the team that you own. Fang’s actions refers to the actions that Fang performs. For the ways in which possession is indicated in English, see apostrophes and Possessive Pronouns.

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The term predicate (which I don’t use elsewhere on this site, and which comes from Latin “to assert”) refers to all the elements in a clause except its subject (or subjects) and any modifiers of the subject. In other words, the predicate consists of the finite verb (or finite verbs) plus any completers along with the modifiers of both. I’ve italicized the predicates in the following two examples:

Although he’s a good sport, Jumbo sometimes grows sullen during a press conference. [Everything in this sentence belongs to the predicate except Jumbo, the subject. Even though the “although” clause appears before the subject, it’s part of the predicate because it modifies the finite verb grows.]

Liking mice is Jumbo’s strangest trait. [Liking mice is the subject; the rest is predicate. Is is the finite verb; Jumbo’s strangest trait is the completer of is.]

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Prepositions and Prepositional Phrases

There is a full discussion of prepositions and prepositional phrases in Syntax.

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(For pronoun errors, see Pronoun Problems.)

Pronoun means “for a noun,” in the sense of “substitute for” a noun. Pronouns function in sentences like nouns, but unlike nouns, pronouns have no individual meaning. This means that a relatively few pronouns can substitute for many thousands of different nouns.

There are seven types of English pronouns: personal, intensive or reflexive, reciprocal, indefinite, demonstrative, interrogative, and relative.

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Personal Pronouns

Personal pronouns are so called because they have different forms for the person who is speaking (the first person), the person spoken to (the second person), and the person spoken about (the third person). There are also forms for a single person (singular) and for two or more persons (plural). There are four different forms, for personal pronouns as subjects, as completers, as possessives before a noun and as possessives after a verb:

Personal pronouns as subjects of finite verbs:

singular plural
1st person I hiss we hiss
2nd person you hiss you hiss
3rd person he, she, it hisses they hiss

Personal pronouns as completers of verbs:

singular plural
1st person the dog bites me the dog bites us
2nd person the dog bites you the dog bites you
3rd person the dog bites her, him, it the dog bites them

Personal pronouns as completers of prepositions:

to me for you with her, him, or it
in spite of us toward you under them

Possessive Pronouns
There are two kinds of possessive pronouns. One kind comes before a noun, and the other comes after a verb. See examples below.

Personal pronouns as possessives before a noun:

singular plural
1st person my mouse our mouse
2nd person your mouse your mouse
3rd person his, her, its mouse their mouse

Personal pronouns as possessives coming after a verb (that is, as completers):

singular plural
1st person this pig is mine this pig is ours
2nd person this pig is yours this pig is yours
3rd person this pig is hers, his this pig is theirs

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Intensive Pronouns

Both intensive and reflexive pronouns have the same forms, made by adding the suffix -self to certain personal pronouns:

myself yourself herself himself itself oneself

Intensive pronouns are modifiers used for emphasis:

singular plural
1st person myself ourselves
2nd person yourself yourselves
3rd person herself, himself, itself, oneself themselves

I myself will do it.

Ms. Beebs herself will be flying the plane.

They themselves will perform.

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Reflexive pronouns

Reflexive pronouns function as completers. They indicate that the subject and completer refer to the same thing (reflex in Latin literally means “bend back”):

One seldom sees oneself honestly.

Don’t torture yourself with cookies.

Fang can’t tickle himself.

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Reciprocal Pronouns

Reciprocal in Latin means “going back (re) and forward (pro).” There are four reciprocal pronoun forms:

each other each other’s
one another one another’s

The forms in the first column function as completers:

The pigs saw each other (or one another) every day.

The forms in the second column function as modifiers:

Jack and Mrs. Sprat scratch each other’s (or one another’s) backs.

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Indefinite Pronouns

The following pronouns don’t usually refer to specific antecedents but instead have “indefinite” reference:

any none some
anybody everybody nobody somebody
anyone everyone no one someone
anything everything nothing something
few many more most
much all both each
either neither

These are pronouns only when they function as subjects or completers:

Anybody can learn to hiss.

Some like it hot.

The piranhas ate everything.

Around here, anything goes.

You should have told somebody.

When they modify nouns, words in this group are adjectives:

Some / most / all / no / any cobra chow should be sterilized.

I’ve spoken firmly to both ducks.

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Demonstrative Pronouns

There are four demonstrative (“pointing-out”) pronouns: This and these point to a thing or things that are close by; that and those point to something further away:

I like these with maple syrup.

These (over here) are nice, but those (over there) are yucky.

I’ll give you this if you’ll promise not to tell.

As is the case with indefinite pronouns demonstratives are pronouns only when they function as subjects or completers. When they function as modifiers, they are determiners (italicized in the following examples):

I’ve never in my life kissed that elephant.

These cobras are the cuddly kind.

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Interrogative Pronouns

There are five interrogative (“question-asking”) pronouns: who, whose, whom, which, and what. These form WH-word questions (the kinds that solicit new information):

What is going on here?

Which twin is full of baloney?

Who called you a “fanged failure”?

Whose frog did you kiss?

Whom did you nominate to be fang inspector?

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Relative Pronouns and Relative Clauses

Relative clauses are dependent clauses introduced by a relative pronoun (who, whom, which, or that). Relative clauses function as modifiers of noun phrases, and directly follow the phrase they modify. In the following examples, I’ve enclosed the relative clauses in curly brackets:

A cobra {who eats his basket} is capable of anything.

I’ll give them to the elephant {[that] you marked with a happy face}.

When a relative pronoun is a completer within its clause, it may be ellipted (left out), as in the previous example, where that can be ellipted. The antecedent of that is elephant.

For a more complete discussion of relative clauses, see WH-word Clauses. For punctuating relative clauses, see Restrictive and Non-Restrictive Modifiers.

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Simply put (though the term is used in a number of different senses), semantics is the study of meaning in language: such things as the denotations and connotations of words and sentences. It is the complementary study to syntax, which examines the structural relationships between words in sentences.

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The term sentence generally refers to two kinds of structures:

1. A group of words that contains at least one independent clause:

2. A combination of words that is understood from the context to be an ellipted version of an independent clause, as in the answer to the question, “Where are you going?” If one answers, “Home,” this is understood to be an ellipted version of I’m going home.

With respect to their clause structure, there are four kinds of sentences: simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex.

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Simple Sentences

Simple sentences contain a single independent clause that doesn’t contain any dependent clauses or non-finite verb phrases:

An armadillo doesn’t make a good pillow.

Fleas and vampires love chocolate blood.

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Compound Sentences

Compound sentences contain two or more independent clauses:

The piranhas can sleep in the tub; the fleas can have the tent; and the ducks can go to a motel. [a series of independent clauses]

You can ignore your cobra’s whining, but you can’t miss his hiss. [two independent clauses]

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Complex Sentences

Complex sentences contain one independent clause, and that independent clause contains one or more dependent clauses (also called subordinate clauses) or non-finite verb phrases. The dependent clauses and non-finite verb phrases are italicized in the following examples:

We’re able to migrate without fetishes this year, since we’ve finally installed interactive honking.

If you put all your holiday wishes in one sentence, you can open a Santa clause.

Finding a substitute for mustache wax was harder than tattooing a replacement goatee.

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Compound-Complex Sentences

As the name indicates, compound-complex sentences are combinations: at least one of the independent clauses contains a dependent clause:

When she comes ’round the mountain, she’ll be riding six white horses, and when I see her, I’ll kill the old red rooster.

Expecting Fang to have manners is like asking Jack Horner to use a fork; it just isn’t in their natures.

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Sentence Rhythm

Sentence rhythm refers to the dynamic aspect of syntax. In speaking, people instinctively speed up and slow down, pause, stress certain syllables that are the focus of important information, and lower and raise the pitch of their voices (for example, to make statements or ask questions) Through following sentence rhythm, listeners instinctively monitor syntax and thus understand what’s being said. Written sentences tend to be longer and more complex in structure than spoken sentences, but capable readers follow the sentence structure by reading the sentence rhythm—as though they were silently speaking the sentences themselves. See Syntax in Motion.

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Sentence Types

There are four types of sentences with respect to what or how they communicate: declarative, Interrogative, imperative, and exclamatory:

Declarative (or statement) sentences supply information:
Fang’s new passion is competitive hissing.
Frogs are not generally enamored of herons.

Interrogative (or question) sentences request information:
Have you stopped beating your gums? (a “yes-no” question)
She asked me if I had given up teasing piranhas. (an indirect question)
Who or what ate all the cookies? (a WH-word question)

Imperative (or command) sentences call for action (or the stopping of action):
Please keep your thumb out of the pie.
Don’t give up your day job.
Leave Jumbo alone.

Exclamatory sentences (or exclamations) express emotion or call for immediate action:
What lovely tadpoles!
How awful!
Watch out!

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Structural Backbone

Structural backbone is a term I’ve coined to help readers visualize the relationships between the syntactic relationships possible in a sentence. The backbone functions are subjects (what the sentence is “about”) and their finite verbs (what is said about the subject). Often the action of the finite verb is transmitted to a completer of the verb. So essentially, what a sentence can say or ask is carried along its backbone.

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Structural Marker

A structural marker is a word (like the, one of the determiners) or part of a word that indicates syntactic function. The parts of words that function as structural markers are usually word endings, for example -ing, -ed, -ly, or -s, which indicate such things as verb tense or plural forms. Connectives (when, because, but, and so on) are also structural markers: they have meaning but are primarily indicators of syntactical relationships.

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The subject is the element in a clause that names or refers to something the rest of the clause tells or asks about. The guideline for finding a subject says that it is a word, phrase or dependent clause that answers the question who or what? when the question is placed just before a finite verb. See Predicate.

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Subject Complement: see Direct and Indirect Objects; Subject and Object Complements; and Double Completers.

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Subordinate Clause

Subordinate Clause is another name for dependent clause.

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Subordinating Connectives and Subordinating Connective Clauses

Subordinating connectives are non-coordinating connectives that introduce dependent clauses. A subordinating connective expresses a relationship between the clause it introduces and an element in the main clause.

Some common subordinating connectives are because, when, since, if, although, as, and that.

Subordinating-connective clauses can function as adverb clauses (they modify verbs) or as noun clauses (they serve as subjects or completers). In the following examples, I’ve placed the subordinating-connective clauses in curly brackets:

Standing {when the cobra anthem is played} indicates an ecumenical spirit. [The “when” clause modifies the non-finite verb standing, which is the subject of the finite verb indicates.]

{Although we acted silly}, we were nice to have around. [The “although” clause modifies the finite verb were.]

We’re flapping our wings {because the paint isn’t dry yet}. [The “because” clause modifies the finite verb are flapping.]

We thought {that you’d let us hibernate here}. [The “that” clause is the completer of the finite verb thought.]

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Syntax is the study of the structural relationships between words in sentences—the study of how words function. Syntax operates within sentence boundaries. The relationships between sentences are studied as aspects of rhetoric in the non-pejorative sense of the skills of clear and precise communication.

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Verbs are one of the four open-class parts of speech. As parts of speech (types of words) verbs are virtually impossible to define. That’s partly because we can’t talk about verbs without turning them into nouns. However, it’s useful to say that verbs refer to actions and states of being (just as nouns refer to things). One author (I wish I could remember who) says that verbs move, while nouns stand still.

For the functioning of verbs in sentences, see Subjects and Finite Verbs.

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Finite and Non-Finite Verbs

Fortunately, we’re able through experience to catch on to the way words with “verb meaning” are used and thus to hold on to the idea of a verb. We recognize the difference between finite verbs, the central backbone function in a clause, and non-finite verbs, words that refer to “actions” but that function in other ways. Change, for example, functions as a finite verb in “We frequently change his venom,” but changing, a non-finite verb, functions as a subject in “Changing your venom won’t change your character,” and changed, a non-finite verb, functions as a modifier in “She’s become a changed person since she started snake-charming.”

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Principal Parts of Verbs

The principal parts of verbs consist of the four possible forms of a main verb in verb phrases:

Infinitive: The “plain” or base form of the verb, often preceded by the structural marker to: [to] go, [to] walk, [to] wish

-s form: A form made by adding -s or -es to the base form to make the third person singular of finite verbs in the present tense: she goes, he walks, he wishes

-ing form: A form made by adding -ing to the base form: going, walking, wishing,

-ed form: a form made by adding -ed to the base form or by changing the form of the base: went, gone, walked, wished.

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Auxiliary Verbs

Auxiliary verbs (also called “helping” verbs) are verb forms that come before the main verb in a clause. There are two kinds: primary and modal.

Primary auxiliaries aid in forming tenses and indicate whether a verb is active or passive (see Voice of Verbs) or whether an action is in progress or completed. The primary auxiliary verbs are do, be and have.

Modal auxiliary verbs are used to express a situation other than one of fact. The main modal auxiliaries are can, could, may, might, will, would, shall, should, and must.

There are also multi-word auxiliaries like have to, be about to, had better (as in “I’m about to migrate”).

For a fuller discussion of auxiliary verbs see the four sections beginning with Finite Verb Phrases in Syntax.

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Transitive and Intransitive Verbs

Transitive means “going across” in Latin. In a clause or non-finite verb phrase a transitive verb is one that takes (“goes across to”) a completer (Coffee in “I like coffee”) and an intransitive verb is one that does not, as with “They already left.” Some verbs have both transitive and intransitive meanings, which can be different. “She sweated” (intransitive) means that moisture transpired through her pores. “She didn’t sweat the exam” (transitive) means she didn’t feel anxious about it.

See also Direct and Indirect Objects; Subject and Object Complements; and Double Completers.

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Verb Tense

Tense refers to the forms of verbs that indicate the time or duration of the action expressed by the verb. Such time indications are not absolute but are relative to the time at which a sentence is spoken.

If, for example, you say, “I adore fleas,” the “adoring” exists at the time you say the sentence and extends indefinitely backward in time to the moment you first felt the feeling and indefinitely forward in time up to a moment where something may cause you to feel differently.

“I adored fleas,” refers to an action that both began and ended at an indefinite time prior to the time of speaking.

“I have adored fleas” indicates an action that began in the past, has continued up to the present, and is still ongoing. “I had adored fleas before I discovered piranhas” indicates an action that began and ended in the past before another action that also began and ended in the past. “I was decorating my fleas when he barged in” indicates an action that was going on (in progress) when another action occurred.

To pin down times and durations more specifically, we use modifiers, as with the italicized phrases in, “We came at four, but he had left at exactly 3:57.”

We can say for the sake of simplicity (scholars of grammar make finer distinctions) that verbs indicate three time divisions, past, present, and future, and that each time division has three aspects: simple, progressive, and perfect— indications of whether the action was indefinite, ongoing, or completed:

Simple refers to an action that occurs at an indefinite time in the past, present, or future relative to the time of speaking.

Progressive refers to an action that is or was or will be ongoing, in progress, at the time of speaking.

Perfect refers to actions completed at the time of speaking, though the action could possibly happen again.

Combining three time divisions with three aspects give us nine tenses. These are listed here in both the active and passive voices (see Voice of Verbs):

Tense Active Passive
Simple Present I stop
It plays
I am stopped
It is played
Simple Past I stopped
It played
I was stopped
It was played
Simple Future I will stop
It will play
I will be stopped
It will be played
Present Perfect I have stopped
It has played
I have been stopped
It has been played
Past Perfect I had stopped
It had played
I had been stopped
It had been played
Future Perfect I will have stopped
It will have played
I will have been stopped
It will have been played
Present Progressive I am stopping
It is playing
I am being stopped
It is being played
Past Progressive I was stopping
It was playing
I was being stopped
It was being played
Future Progressive I will be stopping
It will be playing
I will be stopped
It will be played

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Voice of Verbs

Voice refers to the relationship between the subject of a verb and the action expressed by the verb. Verbs are either in the active voice or the passive voice. A verb is in the active voice when its subject is active, when the subject performs the action:

active: That frog has returned a million golden balls. [The frog does the returning: he’s performs the action so has returned is in the active voice.]

A verb is in the passive voice when its subject does not perform the action but instead “receives” the action:

passive: The golden balls were returned. [The subject, golden balls, didn’t perform the action, somebody or something else does.]

Again, the subject does or doesn’t perform the action, but the situation is signaled by the form of the verb phrase.

The passive voice is formed by adding the appropriate form of auxiliary verb be to the main verb, which always has the form of the -ed participle. Here are some examples:

Active Passive
We nominate Fang. Fang is nominated.
We were nominating Fang. Fang was being nominated.
They had nominated Fang. Fang had been nominated.
They would have nominated Fang. Fang would have been nominated.

When a verb is switched from active to passive, the completer becomes the subject. If it’s desirable to keep the original subject in the sentence, it has to appear in a prepositional phrase beginning with by:

active: The whole crew were tickling Fang.

passive: Fang was being tickled by the whole crew.

active: Barfy probably licked Ms. Beebs’s lollipop.

passive: Ms. Beebs’s lollipop was probably licked by Barfy.

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Verbal is another term for non-finite verb.

WH-Words and WH-Word Clauses

The term WH-word refers to a set of words, mostly beginning with the letters wh-:

who, whose, what, which, why, when, where, how, that

WH-words function as interrogative pronouns or other question-asking words (where, what, why, when, how), or as the introductory words in WH-word clauses.

WH-word clauses are dependent (subordinate) clauses that function as adjective clauses or noun clauses. See WH-word Clauses.

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Word Class

Word class is a term used by many grammarians for the more traditional Parts of Speech.

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