Linguistic Library (Mike Green)

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

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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.

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