Linguistic Library (Mike Green)

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A glossary of linguistic terms, designed for A Level (UK) English Language Students.

Browse the glossary using this index

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Those features of our pronunciation which are determined by where we come from and our social class: e.g. in the south of England, it is normal to pronounce the word path as p-ar-th, but in the north, the phoneme 'a' is short and pronounced as in 'cat'. Middle and Upper class British people use the non-regional accent called Received Pronunciation (R.P.).

See also  Dialect.


A word class which contains words that can add more detail (i.e. modify) to a noun or pronoun - e.g. the busy teacher (pre-modification) it was awful (post-modification). Adjectives are gradable depending on whether a comparison is made with one other thing or many other things:

  • big, bigger, biggest
  • difficult, more difficult, most difficult.


A word class which contains words that add extra detail about the way an action occurred (i.e. the verb) but which can also modify another adverb or an adjective, e.g. 'The girl worked especially hard.' 'He was just too much!' Adverbs can give detail concerning time (soon), place (there) and manner (nearly).

An Adverbial is a phrase that does the job of an adverb provides extra information - usually about time, place or manner - in a clause. A sentence or clause can contain several adverbials (which, unusually for an English syntax, can be located in various places).  Adverbials are usually 'optional' elements in a clause - its central meaning being reasonably unaffected if they are left out.

Twice a day ADVERBIAL time
during the Summer ADVERBIAL time
furiously ADVERBIAL manner
in the gym ADVERBIAL place
on the rowing machine ADVERBIAL place

An adverbial may consist of

  • a single adverb (I will do it soon) or
  • a prepositional phrase (I will do it in a minute) or
  • a subordinate clause (I will do it when I find my screwdriver)




A type of phrase that provides extra information - usually about time, place or manner - in a clause. A sentence or clause can contain several adverbials (which, unusually for an English syntax, can be located in various places). Adverbials are usually 'optional' elements in a clause - its central meaning being reasonably unaffected if they are left out.

Twice a day ADVERBIAL time
during the Summer ADVERBIAL time
furiously ADVERBIAL manner
in the gym ADVERBIAL place
on the rowing machine ADVERBIAL place


In English grammar, it is necessary that certain linked words 'agree' with each other, for example, a verb is given an inflexion (suffix) to allow it to 'agree with' its subject when in the 'third person', e.g. he talks (not he talk).


This means 'more than one possible meaning'.  In most texts, ambiguity is a problem,  but in some kinds of text, such as poetry or song lyrics, ambiguity creates an effective richness of meaning.

Ambiguity can stem from interpreting words or grammatical structures differently.

Lexical ambiguity:
"He hid the money in the boot" the Wellington boot, or the car boot?

Grammatical ambiguity:  
'The sniper shot the general in the church' Who was in the church - the sniper or the general?

Ambiguity is typically resolved, allowing us to choose the right meaning, through context or pragmatics - so If you were asked to call someone a taxi, you wouldn't be likely to reply with "you're a taxi" .


An antonym is a word with directly 'opposite' meaning, e.g. black is an antonym of white;  good is an antonym of bad.

Compare synonym.


If a word is described as archaic, it suggests its use is now old-fashioned. Many words in poems are still used that seem archaic, and many formal words may seem to be so, especially in a religious or legal register. Such words may not be really archaic - it may simply be that you are unaware of these particular registers. Take great care when writing about language in A2 change not to label a word archaic simply because you haven't heard of it - better to say 'formal'.

In literature, an archaism is a deliberate and intentional use of older forms of language. For instance, nineteenth Century poetry retains the use of "thee" and "thou" as second person pronouns, even though they had passed out of use in conventionsl Standard English. If we are looking at an old text which contains words which were current at the time, but have since passed out of use, we can talk about obsolete language.


Audience means the kind of reader or listener the text was intended for. As this is unlikely to be you, you need to attempt the near impossible and 'become' the intended reader. Always consider a text in this way or you will run the risk of 'misreading' it. Also, avoid being overly specific or informal when describing an audience’s likely characteristics: 'this writing is suitable for clever so and so’s of about 23 and over' sounds rather less impressive than, 'the style of this text seems geared towards an educated and sophisticated adult audience'.

Auxiliary verb

English verbs are very limited in what they can indicate through their own morphology: using inflexions, they can show past (e.g. cooked) and present tense (e.g. cook), third person agreement (e.g. she cooks), and continuous action (e.g. cooking). Often the main verb needs 'helping out' with a secondary verb form. These are called auxiliary verbs. Auxiliaries are used, for example, to give a sense of time to the main verb (e.g. 'He will be working soon.') or to create a question, 'Have you won?', 'Do you believe it?', 'Could it be true?'. Common auxiliary verbs are forms of to be (is/am/was/are/were/will), to have (has/had/have) and to do (does/did). Some auxiliary verbs are used to remove the sense of action from the main or lexical verb, creating action that exists purely at the level of future potential. These are called modal auxiliaries, e.g. may, might, would, could, should.



A clause is a key grammatical structure and this means that clauses are things that you need to have, at the very least, a basic grasp of. Thought of at its simplest, a clause can be considered as a short 'sentence' - one that occurs either on its own (e.g. "I ate the jelly") or together with other clauses to make a longer sentence (e.g. "because I was hungry").

  • A clause, then, is a group of words that is either a whole sentence or is a part of a sentence.
  • Clauses are built up from individual words or from small clusters of words called phrases.
  • Most clauses are built around a main verb which tells, often, of an action, thought or state, e.g. "I ate the jelly because I was hungry".

A clause can be what is called independent. This mean it is acting as a simple sentence, as in the example, "I ate the jelly". Independent clauses can also exist as a part of a larger sentence when they are called not an "independent clause" but a main clause.

Another common type of clause exists just to help out the meaning of a main clause. This second kind of clause is, therefore, dependent on its main clause for its meaning. An example would be the dependent clause, "because I was hungry"; you'll see here that there is an extra word at the start of the clause: "because". It is this extra word that stops the clause being able to be independent or to be a main clause; the word "because" forces the clause to be dependent on some other main clause, e.g. "I ate the jelly because I was hungry". This words acts to subordinate its clause and so is called a subordinator. Subordinators create dependent clauses - more often, these days, called subordinate clauses (sometimes reduced to "sub-clauses"). There are many subordinators.

Look at this example: "He hit him even though he was a friend":

He hit him MAIN CLAUSE
even though he was his friend. DEPENDENT (subordinate) CLAUSE

An important kind of clause acts as if it were an adjective - it adds extra information about a noun or noun phrase. These clauses are called relative or adjectival clauses. They can seem confusing because they can be inserted in between their main clause, e.g. "The girl who wore a red dress left early." This sentence contains one main clause "The girl left early"
and one dependent or relative clause, "who wore a red dress".

  • The subordinator in this example, the word "who", is acting as a pronoun (i.e. it is a word that takes the place of, and stands in for, a noun). Here it is called, therefore, a relative pronoun because it introduces a relative clause.
  • Other relative pronouns are "that" and "whom".
  • Sometimes the relative pronoun can be missed out to create an elliptical relative clause, e.g. "The joke [that] he told was funny"; here the relative clause is "he told".

The structure of clauses is fairly fixed in English syntax
(S = subject V = verb O = object C = complement A = adverbial).
In certain dialects and in poetry the syntax can be varied and the sense still kept, e.g.

S+V+O: Alison / sang / a song.
O+V+S A ballad /Alison / sang.
S+V: Alison / sang.
S+V+C: Alison / is / a good singer.
S+V+A: Alison / sings / in the choir.
S+V+O+O: Alison / sang / her mum / a ballad.
S+V+O+A: Alison / sang / the song / from the song-book.


Many patterns of words exhibit a quality known as cohesion. This means that they form coherent units. Phrases are an important coherent grammatical unit. Words that cohere are cohesive: they appear to act not as individual words but as a single unit, e.g. 'inside out', 'at three o'clock', 'the awful creature', 'has been eating', 'in a traditional manner'. These examples of coherent groups are all phrases, but clauses, sentences and discourses are also, if they are to be effective in communicating ideas and facts, coherent.

At the level of discourse, the reader or listener also needs to be able to link the different sentences and paragraphs (or stanzas in a poem, etc) in a logical way. This is achieved by many linguistic means including graphology, semantics, pragmatics, narrative structure, tone, lists, pronouns, proper nouns, repetition of either logical or similar ideas, use of synonyms, and so on. The analysis of the cohesive qualities (i.e. the coherence) of a text is the analysis of discourse structure.


Many words are habitually put together - or collocated. A collocation is any habitually linked group of words - a kind of lexical partnership, e.g. 'fish and chips', 'salt and pepper', 'don't mention it', 'it's nothing...', 'Oh well!', 'bangers and mash'... and so on. Many idioms or idiomatic phrases exhibit collocation, e.g. in a jiffy.


A 'colloquy' is a formal word for 'conversation', so colloquial language means the everyday language or register we adopt when chatting to friends, for example, e.g. 'Hello Fred, how's the new mother-in-law these days?'. Slang is a particular form of colloquial language used by certain social groups, e.g. 'Hey-up Fred! How's the new battle-axe then?'; 'Hey that's some cool dude there!'


A word, phrase or clause that follows a verb and which simply adds further information concerning, usually, the verb's subject. Complements usually follow stative verbs such as 'to be' to create a statement (i.e. a declarative sentence), e.g. 'He is happy'. Here the adjective 'happy' is the subject complement. However, in the sentence, 'He made me happy', the adjective happy is called an object complement as it gives more information about the verb's object, me.


A word used to link words, phrases and clauses. Common conjunctions are and, but, or, either... or, neither...nor. These can link 'equal units' such as words, phrases or main clauses. A special kind of conjunction that can link 'unequal' independent and dependent clauses is called a subordinating conjunction. There are many of these, e.g. if, when, where, unless, etc. Also see sentence and clause.


The denotation of a word is its direct, literal or specific meaning (as can be found in a dictionary). If a word also has implied or associated meanings when used in a certain way, these are called the word's connotations. The word 'bat' in this sentence is being used with its denotation: 'A bat is a flying mammal.' however, the word, 'bat' can also take on extra meanings, often metaphorical, e.g. 'He went like a bat out of hell'.

Interestingly, the word 'bat' also happens to have several possible denotations: 'a cricket bat', 'a vampire bat', 'They bat next' (as well as other slang and dialect meanings): words that have several denotations are called polysemic. Polysemy is an area of semantics and pragmatics.


The content is the meaning contained by a word, phrase, clause or sentence and this is involved with its function. The separation of form, function and content is a theoretical way of discussing the effect of each even though all three are inextricably linked.


Context is always an important aspect to consider whenever you analyse a text. Context refers to those particular elements of a situation that in some way or another affect the text (for example, the effects of time, place, ideology, social hierarchies, relationships, etc.).

Importantly, language has two potentially important contextual aspects: the context in which it was created and that in which it was interpreted. For example, a letter from a manager to one of his staff will be affected by context such as the situation itself, the power relationship that exists between the manager and the worker, the historical conditions and so on. Another example, when you speak to your parents or when you speak to a friend on the phone you will see that context naturally affects the linguistic choices - the style - of the discourse in important ways. Also see register.



One of a small group of words - a word class - that precedes and pre-modifies a noun and creates a noun phrase, e.g. a, the, some, this, that, those, each.

  • Determiners include the three 'articles' (i.e. a, an, the) and similar words: e.g. some, those, many, their. Each of these are said to determine the number or 'definiteness' of their noun, e.g. 'That man is the one!'

Confusingly, determiners can themselves be pre-modified by 'pre-determiners', e.g. 'Even the apples were rotten' 'All the books were lost.'

The most common determiners are  the definite article (the) and the indefinite article (a or an).


a dialect is a variety of language used in a particular geographical region. It refers to the particular words chosen, (the word 'bread roll' has a number of different names in different parts of the country such as 'cob', 'bap' and 'bread cake') and also regionally specifically grammatical features (I weren't happy in Yorkshire, we wasn't happy in London)

Some linguists also include accent as a part of dialect.



Discourse is a word that causes much confusion - but it shouldn't! A discourse is any stretch of language used for the act of communicating (rather than an artificial stretch made up for, say, the act of studying, for example, to demonstrate how grammar works).

Discourse analysis means looking at aspects of a stretch of language, for example its style - and this includes its social, cultural, historical and contextual aspects as revealed by aspects of the user's stylistic choices.

  • Grammar is only useful to allow an analysis of syntax and morphology up to the level of the sentence.

  • Discourse analysis allows a commentary on a whole stretch of text.

A discourse might be a conversation, a discussion, a letter, a novel, a newspaper article, or whatever - discourses are everyday and everywhere and have been in existence since language began. We can usefully label individual discourses: 'the discourse of early 21st century broadsheet newspapers', for example; 'the discourse of 19th century working men and women'; 'medical discourse'; 'doctor-patient discourse', and so on.

  • The key point about discourse is that it is an example of real language used by people in some or other social circumstance (even if there is but one person - as when we think or talk to ourselves!)

  • Commenting on the social circumstances of a text means taking account of aspects of its context. This is a key aspect of all English language courses!

Of course, we all have the ability to create discourses. When we speak, we know how to combine phonemes into words (or when we write, we combine morphemes into words); we then combine these words to make phrases, the phrases combine to make clauses, and the clauses make sentences on their own or combine to make longer sentences. Finally, we join sentences to make a text which is what forms our discourse - a discourse that we have instilled with certain stylistic elements that we have deemed suitable for whatever genre, context, purpose and audience we need to address.

When analysing a text, it can be fascinating (and gain many extra marks because of its subtlety) to dig deeper than the surface meaning of the words to try to reveal interesting cultural, societal or contextual aspects of the text's creator. To make this clearer, you can imagine that our own society is far more liberal-minded than, say, the society of a century ago. This aspect will show up in the texts written in these periods through a variety of aspects including word choice and grammar. Similarly, aspects of social hierarchy and social power always manifest themselves within texts. Imagine a conversation between a patient and a doctor, for example  - again, discourse analysis seeks to reveal this.

  • You should have recognised by now that an important aspect of discourse analysis is pragmatics.

  • Another important aspect of discourse analysis is discourse structure.

An important part of discourse analysis is to determine what is called orders of discourse. In any discourse, it is clear that speakers or readers are rarely 'on equal terms'. Usually there is a hierarchy of power or a power relationship involved, wherein one participant - through language choices - can 'position' the other participant in a less powerful position. An analysis of men and women in conversation has revealed many ways in which apparently innocent uses of language create a power relationship between the participants.

Discourse structure is the study of how we combine sentences into longer passages to create a fluent discourse. To be effective, a discourse needs to be clear, coherent and meaningful. Discourse analysis sets out to uncover the linguistic and other means by which sentences are linked.



An element is a distinct grammatical unit - a 'building block' or segment of a sentence there are three important grammatical elements: word, phrase and clause. Some of the elements of a discourse or text are their sentences, paragraphs, chapters and so on.


English grammar allows certain words to be missed from a grammatical construction (i.e. for a sentence to be grammatically abbreviated) and yet for it still to allow full meaning to be achieved, e.g. 'I bought half a dozen eggs and [...I also bought...] six rashers of bacon.' The reader or listener is able to 'add back in' the elements that have been left out and thus understand what is meant.



This word applies to verbs. A finite verb is one whose meaning is 'held' or 'bounded' by its attached subject, as in the clause, 'The athlete fainted'. Here, the past-tense verb 'fainted' is made finite by (i.e. it is limited by) its subject. This perhaps becomes clearer when you consider what a 'non-finite' verb is! Some forms of a verb do not take subjects and so are not 'bounded' by them with regard to their meaning as in these three sentence: 'Cooked meat is safer than uncooked' 'Cooking is fun' 'I like to cook' and 'Let's cook!'. One of the definitions of a sentence is that it is a group of words containing a finite clause.


Form means the sound, shape and appearance of something, e.g. two forms of the word please, are pleases and pleased. The form of the sentence, e.g. 'He pleased himself.' can be explained by referring to two kinds of structure: that of its individual words (i.e. their morphology) and the way its words relate to each other (i.e. their syntax). The study of both of these aspects of sentences is called grammar.  The study of the form of a text is called discourse analysis.

Compare content.



Formality is an important aspect of register. Informal language is friendly, familiar, and casual. Strict accuracy and correctness are not important in informal language. Formal language is authoritative, and more impersonal.

Speech tends to be informal, Writing tends to be formal.


The function of a word is what it 'does' in its sentence, e.g. its function is to act as a subject, object, verb, etc. The function of a sentence is what it is intended to 'do', e.g. to make a statement, ask a question or give a command or order.



Genre is a way of categorising texts according to similarities they share with those we already know. Texts that share content (e.g. chain saws, fondling couples), function (e.g. to frighten, to arouse), and form (e.g. books, films) are categorised and 'made safe'. But because, as they say, familiarity breeds contempt, genres can and do change – but slowly (see Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs for evidence).

Genre is an important idea because it affects the production as well as the reception of texts. Writers know what we expect from a particular genre, and – to keep us receptive and comfortable (and hence – importantly for language study – more easily influenced or persuaded) – they will stay broadly within a particular genre’s expectations. Typical genres of fiction are adventure, detective and horror, and of non-fiction, reports (e.g. newspaper, school), biographical writing, advertising, recipes, etc. Taking account of genre allows you to comment on effective genre indicators and stylistic devices within a text. Texts may conform closely to the typical features of their genre, or challenge, mix and play with those genre expectations.


Grammar is the set of rules that tells how words can be put into a sequence and a form that allows their meaning to become unambiguous in a sentence. The order of words in a phrase, clause or sentence is called its syntax and the form of words is called morphology (for example, to show plural we add the morpheme s, to show possession, we add the morpheme  's).


Graphology is too often misunderstood. Its early meaning was to refer to the appearance of a person's handwriting but in linguistics it more often means the formal aspects of a written and printed language: its layout and general visual appearance on the page. Students studying A-level English Language are often warned not to spend too much time on discussing graphology.

Typography is the correct word to refer to different choices of typeface.


Head word

The head or head word of a phrase is the word around which the phrase is built, i.e. the main word that determines the core meaning of the whole phrase, e.g.

  • in the noun phrase the old-fashioned door, the head word is door
  • in the verb phrase, might have been hit the head word is hit.



Ideology refers to the important 'belief systems' adhered to by groups or whole societies - it is our 'world view' or 'mind set' concerning how things are and ought to be. A society is a group of people who share certain key values and ideas. These values and ideas are called that society's ideologies. Texts are created by speakers and writers who share society's beliefs concerning 'what is right' and 'what is wrong' or about 'the way things should be for the best' in society.


a variety of language used by a particular individual - in effect, a one person dialect.


Idiomatic language refers to many words or phrases that are a familiar and everyday feature of our language. Idioms are a part of the comfortable, conversational style of language we use daily - but to a foreigner, idioms are difficult to understand because their meaning is very different from the literal meaning of the words that make them up, e.g. 'He wants his pound of flesh.' 'You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours''He's a pain in the neck!', etc. Each of these are idioms - or idiomatic phrases.


A command sentence which uses the second person plural form of a verb but misses out the subject pronoun 'you'. It gives orders, e.g. Leave now! Sit down.


A form of a verb without tense and often introduced by 'to' infinitive forms can replace noun phrases as subject or object of a verb, e.g.

  • Object: He likes to eat
  • Subject: To fish is a very relaxing way to spend the morning.


The way words can change their form to show, for example, that they are singular or plural (e.g. table becomes tables) and to indicate tense (e.g. change becomes changes/ changed/ changing) or possession (The cat's whiskers).


A word class that is used to show emotion, e.g. 'Ouch!', 'Hey!'


A verb is called intransitive when no action transfers from their subject to an object, e.g.

  • She sang beautifully (No object in this sentence - beautifully is an adverbial)
  • He swam like a fish (No object in this sentence - like a fish is an adverbial)
  • They  died (No object or adverbial in this sentence)

A transitive verb takes an object - the thing that takes its action,
e.g. He [S] hit [V] his thumb [O] with the hammer [A].


Irony is the name given to the effect of meaning created when one thing is said or written but another - sometimes opposite - thing is meant. In speech this effect is created by tone of voice in writing by carefully chosen lexis. The study of such meaning falls within the area known as pragmatics.



The technical term for a single base unit of independent meaning such as a word, especially a word in its 'base form' as found as a head word in a dictionary's pages shown in bold, e.g. interest, bridge, mouse but also including some 'phrasal verbs' that have separate meanings from their constituent lexemes, e.g. 'to see to', 'to break down', 'to put up with', 'to wind up'.

The collection of lexemes that forms your vocabulary is called your personal lexicon. A dictionary is another kind of lexicon.

Lexical verb

Lexical verbs tell of an action (to hit, to call, to sing)

Stative verbs tell of a state of being (to be - am, is, was, were - to think, hope, seem, appear, feel, etc.).


Lexical choice means nothing more than word choice. It's clearly an important aspect of creating a suitable style or register (i.e. when making language choices suited to a particular genre, context, audience and purpose). It might be easier to think of lexis as referring only to the form of a word - its shape and sound as opposed to its content or meaning. So a text containing many polysyllabic word choices, for example, would suggest it is suited for a more educated or older speaker; another example, rhymed word choices might suggest a text written in a style suitable for a younger child, and so on.


Referring to the study or ways of language and the use of words to create meaning.


Minor sentence

A minor sentence is a sentence without a subject and/or verb. Exclamations are an example, “Not on your life!' Poets and writers use them to create the effect of real conversation.

Modal Verb

A type of auxiliary verb that communicates how likely something is to happen, or the degree of intent behind it.

  • He might win
  • she could go
  • She will leave
  • He must lose. 


Modification describes the grammatical process in which the semantic value of a word (usually a noun, verb or adjective) can be 'modified' or changed by the addition of another word or phrase (usually an adjective or adverb).

For example, nouns can be both pre-modified (by adjectives, e.g. A tall dark stranger' or other nouns, e.g. 'oven glove') as well as post-modified, e.g. 'The man with an ice-cream. Prepositional phrases can also act as modifiers when they act as the complement of a verb, as in, 'The man is a pig!'.


An important aspect of grammar, but far less so than syntax. Morphology is the study of the way words are formed from smaller units called morphemes. A morpheme is the smallest part of a word that can create or change the word's meaning or function (e.g. un-, happy, -ness). Prefixes and suffixes (i.e. affixes such as, e.g. un-, -tion) are called bound morphemes because they cannot exist without being bound to a base or root word base words (e.g. interest, intent) are called free morphemes because they can exist as independent root words.



Narrative is the technical term for story. A narrative is a particular form of social discourse in which a story, real or fictional, is told from a certain point of view and in which certain events are selected and made to appear to be a sequence, related by 'cause and effect'.


A noun is any word that can form the head word in a noun phrase or be the subject or object of a verb . Semantically speaking, a noun is any word that 'labels' or 'names' a person, thing or idea.

There are several types of noun: common noun (e.g. computer, sandwich, cats), proper noun (proper nouns are names for individual nouns, e.g. Coke, London, Simon), abstract noun (abstract nouns are 'ideas', e.g. death, hunger, beauty), concrete nouns (concrete nouns are solid objects in the real or imaginary world, e.g. bread, butter, clock) collective nouns (collective nouns name groups of individual or things, e.g. parliament, audience collective nouns are often treated as if they were singular, e.g. 'The choir is singing well.'), mass (or non-count ) nouns (mass nouns exist as an undifferentiated mass, e.g. card, beer, milk, cake), and count nouns (count nouns exist as countable items, e.g. bottle, pencil).



Orthography is the term used in linguistics used to refer to spelling.



Words made from verbs that are used either with an auxiliary to create a verb tense (e.g. was eaten) or as an adjective to describe a noun (e.g. an eating apple) or as a noun to label a thing (e.g. the singing was loud). Notice that because the participles all derive from verbs, they always retain the idea of action in their meaning.


This term is used to describe pronouns . A pronoun always has a referent (i.e. a noun to which it refers).

  • The referent of 'I' is always the writer or speaker of a sentence and is referred to as the first person singular pronoun
  • 'we' is called the first person plural pronoun
  • the person or people spoken to is referred to as the second person pronoun, i.e. 'you' (both singular and plural)
  • the person or people spoken about is referred to as the third person pronoun, i.e. he / she / it (third person singular) or they (third person plural).


Phonetics is the study of the different speech sounds that can create speech and the way these are created by the various 'organs of speech' in the body including the tongue, palate, lips, pharynx, etc. Phonology is sometimes considered to be a part of grammar : it is the study of the structure of speech sounds and how these can be combined to create clarity of meaning in a sentence. Just as there are grammar 'rules' that apply to the syntax of a sentence and the morphology of words, there are, of course, phonological rules.

In even very early childhood, children are able to produce (i.e. articulate) the full range of sounds needed to create all of the words used in any language, yet as language acquisition progresses, those phonemes that do not apply to English words become forgotten so much so that in later life, if a second language is then learned, the pronunciation of non-English phonemes needs to be re-made this time at a wholly conscious level, as opposed to the ability to pronounce each English phoneme without thought. Even 'non-words' such as 'erm', 'uh?', etc. use English phonemes.

A phoneme is the smallest unit of speech-sound that can - by itself - change the meaning of a word or be a complete word in itself. There are more than 44 phonemes in the standard English dialect which is 18 more than the number of letters in the alphabet. Each of these phonemes is given a symbol so that the accurate pronunciation of any English word can be represented in writing. The extra sounds we have above the number of letters we have available in part explains the complexities of English spelling (i.e. orthography). Consider the word might, in which there are three phonemes m-ight-t (represented as m/aj/t using the International Phonetic Alphabet or IPA), changing just a single phoneme can completely change the meaning of this word, e.g. mate, m-a-te (represented as m/e/t phonetically).

Phonology also covers the study of important sound features such as rhythm, pitch, tone, melody, stress and intonation. These phonological language features are also referred to as the prosodic or suprasegmental features of language.


A phrase is a key grammatical unit and so is something you need to get to grips with. A phrase is a group of words that shares a close relationship. This means that a phrase acts as a unit with individual meaning, but without being sufficiently complete in its meaning to form a clause or sentence .

  • A phrase acts in the same way as a single word - which means it can act as if it were a noun, adverb, verb, etc.

  • Note that some grammarians often refer to single words as phrases.

Noun phrase

A noun phrase always has a noun as its head word, e.g. "a cat"; "the naughty cat"; "that furry black mangy old cat".

Verb phrase
(sometimes called a verb chain)

A verb phrase always has a verb as its head word, "drink"; "has drunk"; "has been drinking"; "seems"; "will be"; "might have been"; "explained"; "has been explaining".

Adjective phrase (or adjectival phrase)

An adjective phrase always has an adjective as its head word, e.g. "gory", "absolutely foul".

Adverb phrase (or adverbial phrase)

A phrase with an adverb as its head word, e.g. soundly; too evidently; as quickly as possible

Prepositional phrase (a special kind of adverbial phrase)

A phrase which has been constructed from a preposition with a noun phrase linked to it to form a single unit of meaning, e.g. "up the road"; "across the street"; "round the bend".

Phrases - with words - are the basic building blocks of clauses and sentences. A phrase can always be split into two parts: its head word which is linked to some kind of modification of the head word. The head word is the central part of the phrase and the remaining words act to modify this head word in some way, e.g. "The peculiarly strong creature" - can you see that the head word of this noun phrase is the noun, "creature"?

As suggested above, a phrase does, in fact, act just like an individual word. The next example sentence contains three phrases and a single main clause. Can you recognise which are the phrases and which is the clause?

In a frenzy, without thinking, he grabbed him by the neck.

You might like to think that, between each word of the three phrases above, there exists a kind of “word glue” that gives the phrase its coherent quality. The phrases "In a frenzy", "without thinking" and "by the neck" all can be seen to exist as individual units of meaning, i.e. as individual phrases.

  • Notice that the clause in the above sentence cannot be called a phrase because it is built around a verb (i.e. a verb phrase), "he grabbed him"


Pragmatics is the study of inferred meaning. It is the social force words can take on - beyond their basic semantic value - when used in certain contexts.

  • Pragmatics needs a consideration of how social context helps create and shape meaning.

  • It is a vital part of any A-level textual analysis as it is so very revealing of important linguistic aspects. If you ignore the pragmatic force of language in your analyses, you will lose many marks.

Semantics is sometimes said to be the study of sentence meaning; pragmatics to be the study of utterance meaning. This seems confusing - but think of sentence meaning as being that which a dictionary can reveal, whereas utterance meaning requires knowledge of the social context of the whole communication - of the people involved, their social or professional relationship and of other situational aspects pertaining to the time and place in which the words were used. 

  • Pragmatics considers the 'force' language gathers when used in a particular social context.

  • An example will make this clearer. If you think about the phrase, 'Give him one!', the meaning this contains will very much depend upon the social situation in which it is used. It is the noun 'one' that, in certain social situations, will carry different levels of force: it is a pragmatically loaded word, where its precise meaning can only be inferred by the context of the language use.

  • Pragmatic meanings can be inferred in this way because, owing to the context of the language use, we are able to 'read into' a word the extra meaning - the utterance's pragmatic force - conferred on it by the way it is used within a particular social situation.  

Pragmatics can allow language to be used in interesting and social ways: knowing that your listener or reader shares certain knowledge with you allows your conversation to be more personal, lively or less extended. It also allows you to use words and give them inferred elements such as power aspects, because your listener is aware of your social standing, for example. Similarly, language can act in ideological ways to reinforce a society's values - again, pragmatically. At another level, language users can rely on pragmatics to help them cut down on the number of words needed to make meaning clear - and hence contributes to a more lively style.

Here are a few examples that require more than a semantic analysis to reveal the intended meaning of the text's words and phrases, but where the pragmatic meaning is perfectly clear:

'BABY SALE - GOING CHEAP' (poster seen in shop window - but no babies are for sale).

'Quick! Fire!' (and you know you must run).

'Pass the salt' (and you know it's not an order).

'Are you going into town?' (and you know it's a request for the person to come with you).

'He's got a knife!' (and you don't ask how sharp it is)

'I promise to be good.' (and you don't expect a repeat of the bad deed).

'The present King of England is bald.' (said on TV, yet you can work out what is meant even though we have a queen).

'Another pint...?' (and you know you've already had one).

'I said, 'Now!'' (and you know when).

'I put him forward for the honour.' (and you know who gets it).

'Gosh - it's cold in here!' (and someone shuts the door or window).

An important area of pragmatics is in the study of language and power. The implicit understanding of a power relationship between, say, two speakers, is often indicated by the meanings implied by the language used. This meaning can be very context dependent.


The predicate is all that is written or said in a sentence or clause about its grammatical subject, e.g. He sang every song in the book.


An affix - i.e. a bound morpheme - that is added to the beginning of a word to change its meaning: e.g. un+happy. See suffix .


A small word or phrase that begins a longer adverbial phrase (called the object of the preposition) that acts to tell about place, time or manner and relate this aspect to some other word in the sentence, e.g. in, on, by, ahead of, near.


A word used often - but not always - to replace a noun, e.g. Alex, when the teacher came into the classroom, you mean you really didn't see her? See also person .


Purpose is the reason why a text was created. This may be, for example, to entertain, explain, instruct, persuade or inform. The purpose of a text is its writer or speaker’s controlling idea: the message they wish the text to leave with the reader or listener. When you consider a text’s purpose, you need to recognise how the writer has chosen stylistic devices to bring about a particular series of effects on the reader. One of the most common purposes is to persuade – and it can be one of the most difficult to determine because professional writers are experts at making persuasion appear to be information: quite a different thing (as wartime propaganda has shown). Audience is also a way to categorise texts.



A referent is the word to which another word in a sentence or text refers. It is an important element of textual cohesion . For example, a pronoun must have a referent noun which is already understood (this noun is called the pronoun's antecedent) or its meaning will be unclear or ambiguous.

Referents can be

  • exophoric (when the referent is outside of the text),
  • endophoric (when the referent is within the text),
  • anaphoric (when the reference precedes the pronoun, e.g. 'John will cook the meal he is a fine chef.' Here, the pronoun, 'he' is an anaphoric referent) or
  • cataphoric (when the referent follows the pronoun, e.g. 'I know what he means about it' said the captain about the steward's behaviour.' - here, the pronouns 'I', 'he' and 'it' all have cataphoric referents).


When context results in a commonly recognisable style to be produced, the resulting style is called a register (e.g. an informal register, a medical register, a scientific register). Context can be an effective way to categorise texts.

Relative clause

A kind of clause (a group of words built around a subject and verb ) that is a variety of adjectival clause . Relative clauses are used to give extra detail about the subject or object noun of a main clause in a sentence. e.g. A main clause might be, “The butcher sold me some sausages.' and a relative clause could be, ' who works in Tesco's' . The sentence could then become, 'The butcher, who works in Tesco's, sold me some sausages.'

A relative clause usually begins with a relative pronoun such as: that, which, who, whom, although 'that' is often elided as in: 'He knew [that] we were going early.'.

Root Word

A free morpheme to which can be added a affix (a prefix or suffix) that acts to change the root word's meaning or function.


Semantic field

A group of words that are related because they are from the same area of knowledge or interest, e.g. the semantic field of agriculture includes: farm, farming, tractor, meadow, crop, etc. This is sometimes also called lexical field. Semantic fields can be important in the use of metaphor. A metaphor is a description of a thing from one semantic field (e.g. football) spoken of as if it were from a very different semantic field ('the home side gunned down the opposing side with ease' - the semantic field of war).


Semantics is the study of the meanings created by words and phrases (see also pragmatics - the study of the way context can infer or imply extra meanings and so add to their semantic value or content). Writers often play with the semantics of words to entertain or intrigue a reader - examples are when a writer uses irony, simile, metaphor or hyperbole (called figurative language). An important area of semantics is idiomatic language .


A sentence is a sequence of words constructed in accordance with the rules of grammar. Such a group has a sense of completeness and clarity of meaning. It will be constructed around at least one noun phrase acting as the subject of a finite verb, i.e. it will contain at least one main clause The rules of grammar mainly concern the order words must take in a sentence, technically called its syntax and, to a lesser extent, the form words must take, called their morphology.

Sentence 1) below shows standard syntax and morphology (i.e. standard grammar):
1). 'The cat sat on the mat.'

Sentence 2) shows non-standard morphology:
2). 'The cat sitted the mat on.'

Sentence 3) shows non-standard syntax:
3). 'The cat on the mat sat.'

A group of words that is a sentence is made obvious to the eye (i.e. in writing) by an opening capital letter and a final full stop, question mark or exclamation mark. It is made obvious to the ear (i.e. in speech) by the use of pauses. It is made obvious to the mind because it makes sense alone.

A sentence may loosely be said to be a coherent group of words that expresses a single complete thought about something (or someone).

A sentence can be one of three main types:

1. A simple sentence is a sentence that contains a single subject and verb, i.e. an independent clause.

2. A compound sentence is a sentence that contains more than one main clause. These clauses must be linked by co-ordinating conjunction or a semicolon.

3. A complex sentence is a sentence that contains a mixture of clause types. A complex sentence must contain (as all sentences) at least one main clause but will also contain a second kind of clause acting as a dependent or subordinate clause. Subordinate clauses often begin with a subordinating conjunction such as however, although, even though, because, etc. There is also a special kind of sentence, often used in speech, called a 'minor sentence'.

A sentence can fulfil one of four functions:

1. It can make a statement. This is called a declarative sentence, e.g. 'I am overweight.' Declaratives usually follow the word order SV (subject first, verb second)

2. It can ask a question. This is called an interrogative sentence, e.g. 'Am I overweight?' and indicated by a question mark. Interrogatives usually follow the word order VS (verb first, subject second)

3. It can demand an action. This is called an imperative sentence, e.g. 'Sit down, please.' indicated by a lack of subject (but 'you' is implied).

4. It can make an exclamation. This is called an exclamatory sentence, e.g. 'What a mess!', indicated by an exclamation mark.


a variety of language used by a particular social group.

Standard English

This is the standard national dialect of English. It is the clearest and most well-known dialect and as such is accepted for use in most textbooks, by teachers, in the media and as the basis for English teaching across the world. Non-standard English includes regional dialects and slang. There are also 'standard forms' of important international English languages such as 'standard American English'.


The structure of something refers to the form of the complete item - such as a sentence or a text - and the way its individual parts have been put together to create a coherent (interrelated) whole. In a phrase , clause or sentence the individual words are related both by their grammatical structure and their semantic properties in a text, the relationship and connections between its structural parts (e.g. its sentences and paragraphs) is considered using discourse analysis.


Style means the way language and structure are chosen by a writer or speaker to suit a particular context, audience and purpose. Three important aspects of style that could be worthy of comment are its degree of formality or informality, its use of standard or non-standard grammar and its discourse structure. A good writers might also have a distinctive, individual style, which may also be called a ' voice' .


The word 'subject' needs care as it has a particular - and very important - meaning that is quite distinct to grammar and which is different from the meaning you probably usually use. Grammatically speaking, the subject (S) is an element of a clause. It is the word or phrase that the clause tells about - and is usually a noun or noun phrase. In the sentence, 'I gave him a present', 'I' is the grammatical subject and 'gave' is its associated verb in the sentence (in the past tense). In the simple sentence, 'The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog', the subject is 'The quick brown fox'. This is a noun phrase that has as its associated finite verb , 'jumped'.

Most English sentences need a subject but sometimes this can be one of the small words (called pronouns) 'it' or 'there'. This type of subject can be tricky to recognise as proper subjects.

Some typical word orders of simple declarative sentences are: SV (subject-verb), SVO (subject-verb-object), SVC (subject-verb-complement) or SVA (subject-verb-adverbial).

Some types of verb transfer their action from their subject onto something else (the thing receiving the action of the verb is called its object). These are called transitive verbs. In the above sentence, the verb 'gave' is transitive as action transfers to the object, the noun 'a present'.

Verbs are called intransitive if they do not transfer action, but, instead, act to tell what their subject is doing, e.g. 'He is working.', 'It died.' Some verbs can be either transitive or intransitive according to their usage in the sentence, e.g. 'He is singing.' (intransitive) and 'He is singing a song.' (transitive).

A few special verbs (stative verbs) have no sense of direct action but, instead, act to make a statement about their subject's state of being. These verbs are called copular or linking verbs, e.g. He seems ill, She is clever, he was a criminal, it appears dark, etc.. The word that follows a stative verb has no action passing on to it so it cannot be called an object; instead, it is termed a complement.

Confusingly, Some verbs can take two objects:

'I gave Sally a present.' (i.e. 'I gave a present to Sally')

In this type of sentence, the object is 'a present' (= the thing given; this is called the DIRECT OBJECT); but there is a second 'object' - the 'receiver' of the direct object. This is termed the INDIRECT OBJECT. Notice that all sentences of this type can be re-written as shown using the word 'to'.


An affix (a morpheme ) added to the end of a word to alter its grammatical function , e.g. the noun luck can become an adjective by adding the suffix (or 'adjective marker') -y, as in lucky.


A word that has a closely similar meaning to another word. English has very few true synonyms (e.g. sofa / couch / settee), but many near synonyms, e.g. house - dwelling - home - abode - pad. The existence of synonyms allows variety of word choice according to style and register. A list of synonyms is available in a thesaurus. 

Compare antonym.


Syntax is the most important aspect of English grammar . It refers to the way words are put together in a group to create meaning as phrases, clauses or as a sentence. Studying the syntax of a sentence involves investigating the structure and relationships of its words. Standard syntax refers to the syntax of a particular dialect of English called Standard English - this is the syntax you will read in most written texts and hear from teachers in lessons, newsreaders and in any other more formal context. Non-standard syntax is a normal part of much spoken English and is common in regional dialects



Tense refers to the way the time of an action can be directly indicated in a verb by changing its form (i.e. morphologically). English only has two verb tenses - present tense 'I leave.' and past tense, 'I left.'. However, we have many other ways of creating the idea of tense by using auxiliary verbs or other structures that indicate the time of an action. For example, each of the following grammatical structures suggests a future event, or a future aspect (the 'will' construction is often, but loosely, called 'the English future tense'):

  • I will leave in the morning.
  • I am going to leave in the morning.
  • I shall leave in the morning.
  • I leave in the morning.
  • I am leaving in the morning.


Within linguistics, the word 'text' means any continuous and coherent sequence of writing or speech. See also discourse .



Combined with its subject , the verb becomes the central element of a sentence or clause.  A main verb is the head word of a verb phrase - sometimes called a verb chain , e.g. 'He hit him hard.'  A lexical verb is the part of the verb chain that suggests the action involved, e.g. He might have hit him. A verb that tells of a 'state of being' is a copular or stative verb, e.g. is, was, seems, appears, becomes, etc. Verbs that work along with a subject are called finite (e.g. the girl looked). But verbs do not have to work with a subject within a sentence - these are called a verb's non-finite forms (e.g. I like to run). Non-finite forms of verbs can act as other parts of speech:     

The infinitive from of the verb (often used with 'to'), e.g. 'He used to love me.'

The -ed participle form (usually ending with the suffix -ed):

  • 'Only the cooked apples should be used.'

The -ing participle form:

  • 'He used cooking apples' (adjective).

  • 'The cooking was superb' (noun).

  • 'He will be cooking this evening' (continuous aspect).

A verb phrase has a head word that is a main verb along with one or more 'helper' or auxiliary verbs.

A verb phrase is a coherent group of words that acts as a unit of meaning and which most often follows a subject (which is usually a noun phrase). Along with its subject the combination forms a clause. Both single verbs and verb chains tell what the action or state of their subject.

In a verb phrase, the main verb can be inflected to show tense (e.g. eat, eaten, ate), agreement (e.g. I eat, she eats) or continuous action (e.g. He is eating) and it can also be pre-modified with an adverb (e.g. He is quietly eating) the auxiliary verb can be inverted to form a question (e.g. Do you eat spaghetti?), e.g. 'She will have been singing for forty minutes.'


The voice of a verb can be either active or passive. The active voice is the most common and preferred in English usage. In an active clause the subject and object of the main verb are in their usual position, i.e. SVO, 'Alex caught the thief' however, in a passive sentence, the object is transferred to the subject position, e.g. 'The thief was caught by Alex.' This can have the effect of emphasising the object or diminishing the effect of the subject. in fact, in a passive construction, the subject can be hidden completely, e.g. 'The thief was caught.'

In the active voice, 'The cat sat on the mat' becomes, in the passive voice, 'The mat was sat on by the cat'. The passive voice is used when the style demands that the object of the action is to be given emphasis over the subject by what is called fronting of the object. What makes the passive useful is that it gives the possibility of reducing or removing the reference to the subject to diminish the role of the subject in the action of the sentence. This style popular in newspaper headlines which want to sound authoritative and impressive yet not point the finger to the cause of an action, e.g. 'Woman murdered in gangland shooting'. Here the subject (called the agent, or the agency of the verb) is not even mentioned and allows a very different style of sentence to be created. The passive voice is also the style of choice for reports where the subject is not important, e.g. the person who carried out an experiment or interview is usually of far less importance than the details and results of the experiment.


Word Class

One of the eight parts of speech of traditional grammar in which words that have a similar grammatical function are grouped together: noun , pronoun , adjective , verb , adverb , preposition , conjunction and interjection .

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