A word is defined as a letter or group of letters that has meaning when spoken or written.

This section covers:

Word classes

English words fall into 8 grammatical word classes (known in traditional grammar as ‘parts of speech’). They form 2 large subgroups:

  • Open classes include nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. Open classes continue to grow as new words are coined and taken up by writers and speakers.
  • Closed classes include prepositions, conjunctions, pronouns and determiners (ie structural words that glue words and phrases together in clauses and sentences). Closed classes are rarely added to, and additions are often resisted.

Each word class has subtypes with different grammatical functions.

A noun is the name of something (such as a person, animal, place, thing, feeling or action) aunt     possum     valley     sadness     running
Common nouns define a type of thing (concrete or abstract)

affection     child     hill     kindness     lollies

The kite was stuck in the tree.

Proper nouns name a specific example of a thing (eg specific person, place or organisation)

Ada Lovelace     Plato      Canberra     Australian Government

Julius Caesar went to Gaul.

Collective nouns name groups of people or animals flock of birds     mob of sheep     finance committee
Count nouns are items that can be individually counted and made into a plural boy/boys     book/books     idea/ideas    tree/trees
Mass nouns refer to abstract concepts or things that cannot be individually counted and made into a plural clothing     education     mud    peace    reliance     rice 
A verb is an action, process or state of being. Every English sentence and clause has a verb

hop     work     change     expect     is     become

Amy kicks the ball.

She improved.

He is 15 years old.

Lexical verbs are verbs that express an action, emotion or process, and can stand alone (ie as the ‘main’ verb of a clause; see Clauses and sentences)

Huan runs.

Bob walked fast.

I hate sushi.

Auxiliary verbs (eg be, have) create verb phrases with different tenses (past/present) and aspects (completed or continuous action)

Hassan has worked hard.

Edwina was working hard.

Modal verbs (eg can, may, will) add speaker attitudes or speaker intentions to verb phrases

I may tell him.

Bill will play tennis tomorrow.

An infinitive (eg to be, to run, to talk) is the base form of a verb. It is usually preceded by to, except after modal verbs

He wanted to be a pilot.

Dogs can walk on the footpath.

An adjective describes or modifies a noun, providing extra information (see Commas and adjectives for how to punctuate a string of adjectives)

beautiful     blue     clever     delicious     heavy      lukewarm     round     tiny     wondrous    

an orange book     a smooth rock

Evaluative adjectives give a judgment silly     splendid     unmanageable
Descriptive adjectives provide descriptive information blue     large     joyful
Categorial adjectives define and specify Greek     wooden     antique
An adverb details or modifies a verb, adjective or  another adverb. Adverbs are often formed by adding ly to adjectives, but not all adverbs end in ly

beautifully     cleverly   [manner]

regrettably     sadly   [stance or attitude]

very     extremely   [intensity]

underneath     upstairs   [place]

soon     later   [time]

He ran swiftly.

She is lonely.

I walked downstairs.

Sentence adverbs modify a whole sentence or clause  

Luckily, everyone will arrive at the same time.

They kindly agreed to participate.

Linking adverbs connect a sentence or clause with the one before it It was very hot. We therefore went for a swim.

A preposition introduces a noun, noun phrase or pronoun in a prepositional phrase (see Prepositional phrases)

at     before     for     in     off     on     over     with

I went to bed under the stairs.

We talked to him.

Simple prepositions are single words in     of     from     for     by     after    towards     under
Complex prepositions consist of 2 or 3 words due to     in terms of     with respect to

A conjunction connects phrases or clauses in a sentence

(see Clause connections for more information on different types of conjunctions and how to use them)

I ran to the door and opened it.

He wanted to go but he wasn’t allowed.

Coordinators combine 2 or more clauses that are of equal importance

and     but     or

I ran, and we caught the bus.

Subordinators link dependent clauses to the main clause or a previous subclause (see Clause structure)

We ran because it was the last bus that would get us home tonight.

It was the first book that was printed in English.

A pronoun stands for a previously mentioned noun or noun phrase

it     I     me     we     us     they     she     he   [personal]

who     which     whom      that   [relative]

some     any   [indefinite]

this     that   [demonstrative]

A determiner introduces a noun or noun phrase to show its scope

a fact     an important fact      your free trip     that original law    some minor changes

Articles show whether the noun is definite (referring to a specific thing) or indefinite (referring to any of the things)

the     a     an    

The kangaroo was limping. [definite]

A kangaroo and an echidna went past. [indefinite]

Possessives show who the noun belongs to

my     your     our     his     her     its     their

her house     their results     your books

Demonstratives point out whether a singular or plural instance of the noun is being talked about (see This and that)

this     that     these     those

those red balloons     this lonely land

Quantifiers and numbers show how many of the noun are involved

every     some     3     fifth

all people     40 thieves

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Additional word terms

Apart from the 8 word classes, English grammar uses other terms for different forms or parts of words.

A participle is the form of a lexical verb that is used with an auxiliary verb. Participles (present or past) are also often used as an adjective

The fire was burning. [present participle]

He has worked hard. [past participle]

burning embers

bouncing ball [present participle]

combed hair

edited document [past participle]

A gerund is a present (-ing) participle of a verb that acts as a noun. Gerunds can be modified by adjectives, and used as the subject or object of a verb

dancing     sewing     singing     talking

ballroom dancing

ice skating

Cooking is my favourite activity.  

She enjoys running.

A comparative adjective or adverb (with -er) compares 2 objects or activities

Let’s take the faster train. [comparative adjective]

Go faster if you can. [comparative adverb]

A superlative adjective or adverb (with -est) is the extreme point on a scale (see Making comparisons for more information on how to make comparatives and superlatives)

the slowest time in the competition [superlative adjective]

The big snail went slowest in the race. [superlative adverb]

A modifier is another name for an adjective that qualifies a noun; or an adverb that qualifies a verb, adjective or other adverb

a happy retiree

glorious sunset

abundant pasture

He wrote elegantly.

The style was very elegant.

They spoke quite persuasively about the issue.

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Prefixes, suffixes and inflections (including tenses)

The open classes of words carry extra grammatical information in the prefixes and suffixes added to them. 

A prefix added before a base word can reverse or modify the meaning of the word

happy  →  unhappy

government  →  nongovernment

circle  →  semicircle

A suffix is an ending that changes the class of a word

keen  →  keenness

liquid  →  liquefy

mercy  →  merciful

Inflections are suffixes that go with particular classes of words and express grammatical meanings, such as singular or plural, present or past tense, and degrees of comparison

-’s inflection on common and proper nouns makes them possessive (see also Apostrophes)

a parent’s smile    

Mona Lisa’s smile

-s/es/ies inflections on nouns make them plural, whereas on verbs they make them singular and present tense

bun  →  buns 

suffix  →  suffixes

fairy  →  fairies
[plural nouns]

burn  →  burns [present  tense verb]

-(e)d inflections on many lexical verbs (known as regular verbs) marks them as past tense (see also Irregular verb inflections) I cook  →  I cooked [past tense verb]
-(e)d inflections make the past participle, which, when combined with  an auxiliary verb, shows that the action has been completed

I have [auxiliary verb] cooked [-ed inflection]

The cake was cooked

[auxiliary verb + past participle = completed action]

-ing inflections on lexical verbs make the -ing participle, which shows that the action is continuous. (In traditional grammar, it was called the present participle)

The temperature is [auxiliary verb] rising

[-ing inflection]  

[auxiliary verb + -ing participle = continuous action]

-er and -est inflections on adjectives and adverbs are used to make comparisons (see Comparisons with adjectives and Comparisons with adverbs)

kind  →  kinder  →  kindest
[adjective  →  comparative  →  superlative]

fast  →  faster    →  fastest
[adverb  →  comparative  →  superlative]

See also Hyphens for using hyphens with prefixes and suffixes.

See Spelling conventions for spelling rules for word endings.

Did you know?  

Close encounters between the -ing participle and the gerund (verbal noun)
The overlap between these two has baffled English grammarians for decades. The key is that they have different roles in sentences.

The -ing participle is used with an auxiliary verb to express continuous action:
The fire was burning. [auxiliary verb + -ing participle]

-ing participles are also often used as adjectives to modify nouns:
burning embers     bouncing ball [participles as adjectives]

A gerund is a word ending in -ing that works as a noun in phrases and clauses:
She enjoys running.     He likes cooking on the barbecue.

A gerund can be modified by adjectives:
ballroom dancing     loud singing     strenuous fitness training

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Irregular verb inflections

The regular verbs of English use the -ed or -t inflection to form the past tense and past participle (eg ask  →  asked, deal  →  dealt). Irregular verbs do not. Many do not use any inflection for the past tense, but change the verb’s vowel. The vowel of the past participle is often different again, and often carries an -(e)n inflection.

break  →  broke/broken

[present tense  →  past tense/past participle] 

  Other irregular verbs to watch out for:

choose  →  chose/chosen     speak  →  spoke/spoken     steal  →  stole/stolen

drive  →  drove/driven     rise  →  rose/risen     write  →  wrote/written     

swear  →  swore/sworn     tear  →  tore/torn     wear  →  wore/worn     

blow  →  blew/blown     grow  →  grew/grown     know  →  knew/known 

begin  →  began/begun     sing  →  sang/sung     swim  →  swam/swum

Some irregular verbs use irregular inflections to form the past tense and past participle (eg the past tense and past participle of bring are both brought, not bringed).

Did you know?

Future time
English lacks a future tense that is built into the verb, like -ed for the past tense. It more than makes up for it with several alternative verb phrases to express future time.

He will come this weekend. [modal verb phrase]

He is going to come this weekend. [modal paraphrase]

He is coming this weekend. [present tense, continuous aspect]

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