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Thomson Nelson > Higher Education > Conversations about Writing - Eavesdropping, Inkshedding, and Joining In > Glossary: Key Words for a Writer's Grammar

Glossary: Key Words for a Writer's Grammar—Language for Talking about Language


         Most of us are used to the traditional definitions for parts of speech, the ones that can be found in any dictionary. For instance, the traditional definition of a noun is “a word used to name a person, place, thing, quality, or action”; but an operational definition—a test we can perform to see if a certain word is a noun—would be “check to see if it can be made plural or if the or a/an can be placed in front of it.”
         In linguistics, we place all the words of our lexicon (our vocabulary) into categories based on their formal properties. We look at the way words behave—what endings they can take, for example—and then decide which category to put them in. The category membership(s) of a word doesn’t (don’t) change (some words do belong to more than one category, but they always belong to all of those categories); in other words, a noun is always a noun. You can look up the word’s category or categories in a dictionary. The word table, for instance, is always a noun with certain meanings and endings (tables) and ways of behaving in a sentence (a table, the table); it’s always a verb with certain other meanings and endings (tabled) and other ways of behaving in a sentence (had been tabled).
          What does change, however, is the word’s function, the work it does in a particular sentence. You might be thinking by now that this is simply another way to talk about parts of speech, not a better, more accurate way. But look what happens if we follow the traditional definition of an adjective as a describing word. What is the part of speech/word class of the word grammar in the following sentence?

My grammar book is so confusing that I decided not to read it any more.

If you say “adjective” because of the traditional definition of an adjective, you’d be wrong. Open any dictionary of the English language to double-check; after the word, an abbreviation is always given to show its part of speech. There is no dictionary in the world that will classify grammar as an adjective.
         So what is going on here? What part of speech is grammar? Its form is that of a noun because it can do all the things nouns do: it can be preceded by the, for example, or it can be made plural. Its function above, however, is not that of a noun but of a modifier (almost—but not quite—like an adjective).
        The definitions for the word classes we list below are based on their formal properties, their unique characteristics, usually in terms of endings. Note that these are the typical characteristics of each word class; in each category you can find words that don’t fit that typical pattern. In that case, if you need to know the membership of the word, turn to a dictionary. 

Adjective: A word that can take –er / -est (or more, most); it can also be preceded by very.
Adverb: A word that often ends in –ly; a typical adverb can move around in a sentence; it can answer the questions when, where, how, why.
Conjunction: A word that joins words, phrases, or clauses. There are three types of conjunctions: coordinating conjunctions which join equal parts (For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So), subordinating conjunctions which make a clause dependent/ subordinate (although, because, when, etc.) and adverbial conjunctions—also known as conjunctive adverbs—which can be used, if preceded by a semicolon, to join two independent clauses (however, moreover, nevertheless, therefore, etc.).
Determiner: A word that limits nouns/flags nouns.
         Articles: the (definite); a/an (indefinite)
         Numbers: one, two, first, second, etc.
Possessives: my, your, his/her/its, our, your, their
Possessive nouns: John’s, students’
Noun: A word that can take –s (plural), –’s (possessive) and can be preceded by the or a/an.
Preposition: A word that shows relationship between entities: to, of, between, in, on, etc.
Pronoun: A word that replaces a noun phrase. Pronouns belong to various categories: 
Personal: I, you, he/she/it, we, you, they 
Possessive: mine, yours, his/hers, ours, yours, theirs
Demonstrative: this/these, that/those
Relative: who, whose, whom, which, that
Interrogative: Who? Which? Whom?
Verb: A word that can take –ing, -ed, -s (a word that can change tense); it can be preceded in its basic form by must, can, will.


         All written texts consist of sentences, constructions that begin with a capital letter and end with a period, question mark, or exclamation mark. This is, obviously, a simplistic definition of a sentence, one that won’t help us understand how to tighten or punctuate sentences. We need more precise definitions to talk about parts of sentences and sentences themselves.

Phrase: A group of words that functions as a single unit—which means it can be replaced by a single word. The three most common types are noun, verb, and prepositional phrases. Note in the following example
         Her decision to retire took everyone by surprise
that the underlined part is a noun phrase because it can be replaced by the single pronoun it. In the following
The students will arrive on campus on January 15 
both underlined constructions are prepositional phrases not only because they each begin with a preposition but because they each can be replaced by a single modifier (in this case, there and then, respectively). Verb phrases can usually be replaced by a single verb, like did or was:
The students/ ate their lunch in the cafeteria could become They/ did

Subject: A single word or noun phrase that is an essential part of a minimum sentence, usually the first part and often (but NOT ALWAYS) the one that expresses the agent, the doer of the action expressed by the verb. To find the subject, use a yes/no question: the verb (underlined in the example below) that moves with the yes/no question will move next to the subject (in bold in the example below):
         Some of the guests were reluctant to voice their opinions.
Were some of the guests reluctant to voice their opinions?

Predicate: A single word or verb phrase that is an essential part of a sentence, the one that usually follows the subject. The predicate (underlined in the following sentence) includes the verb (in bold)—which expresses the event, the happening—as well as other required and optional elements:
    The children were learning to write.
Often the predicate (underlined in the following sentence, with the verb in bold) will contain the new information in the sentence, regardless of its position, as in the following example:
                      Into a field ran the boy.
Most English sentences will position the predicate after the subject, so this construction is a bit odd; most English sentences will also put given information into the subject and new information into the predicate, a guideline that helps identify the predicate above (the boy is clearly given information—what he does is new information).

Modifier: An optional element in a sentence, it usually gives information about quality, quantity, size, time, place, etc. It is sometimes moveable (that is, it doesn’t have a fixed position in the sentence, especially if it’s answering the kinds of questions an adverb might answer). It can be one word or a phrase or a clause.

Clause: A construction that consists of a subject and a predicate. In all clauses, there are required and optional elements; for instance, subjects are required for all English clauses (except imperatives like Eat your vegetables! in which the implied subject is You). Modifiers, on the other hand, are not required. There are two types of clauses: independent and dependent.

Dependent Clause: A construction that consists of a subject and a predicate but cannot be punctuated as a sentence (i.e. cannot stand alone, without another independent clause).

Independent Clause: A construction that consists of a subject and a predicate and can be punctuated as a sentence. If a construction is a clause, it can be made into a yes/no question, it can have a tag question added to it, or it can be embedded in a larger sentence that begins with I believe that . . . .

Sentence: A construction consisting of at least one independent clause, beginning with a capital letter and ending with a period, question mark or exclamation mark. There are four possible kinds of sentences:

Simple—one independent clause.
Complex—one independent clause and at least one dependent clause.
Compound—at least two independent clauses.
Compound/Complex—at least two independent clauses plus at least one dependent clause.


Absolute: A construction of the form Noun Phrase V-ing, loosely attached to the sentence (i.e. doesn’t modify anything specific in the sentence), used as a zoom-in device. (V-ing means a verb ending in –ing.)

Weather permitting, we will fly our kites on Monday.

Often, the absolute is signaled by with:

With his hair blowing in the wind, John watched the sunset.

Appositive: A construction that renames a noun (less frequently an adjective); it has exactly the same function as that noun:

Marina, my friend from high school, worked in Paris for a year.

Participle: A verb form ending in –ing or –en/-ed, usually used as a modifier; it can be a single word or it can introduce a participial phrase:   

Mary, watching her children play in the park, smiled tenderly.
Once bitten by a dog, Frank was afraid of all dogs forever after.
Even as thirsty as he was, he refused to take a sip of water until he finished the speech: he read the entire thing parched.

Gerund: A verb form ending in –ing or –en/-ed, usually used as a noun; it can be a single word or it can introduce a gerund phrase:

Swimming makes me happy.
Swimming across the English Channel would make me happy.

T-Unit (Minimal Terminable Unit): An independent clause together with all its dependent elements:

They left early yesterday. (1 T-unit)
They left early yesterday because they were tired. (1 T-unit—an independent and a dependent clause)
They left early yesterday but promised to return today. (1 T-unit—there is no explicit subject in the second part, so there isn’t a second independent clause, just a compound verb.)
They left early yesterday, but they decided to stay longer today. (2 T-units—2 independent clauses: the subject in the second clause has been made explicit.)

Parallel structure (repeating structure): A structure consisting of at least two parts which have the same structure for related meanings; in other words, in parallel structure, we have similar forms for similar meanings. For example, in the sentence:

Conventions are roadmaps that guide readers in their reading, road signs that tell readers when to come to a complete stop and when to yield, where to pay particular attention and where to skim over the text

we see a layering of parallel structures, of repetition. First, we have repetition of the noun phrases roadmaps that. . . and road signs that . . . ; then, we have repetition of the wh- constructions: when to come to a complete stop / when to yield / where to pay particular attention / where to skim over the text.

Coordination: Joining of equal constructions (words, phrases or clauses) using one of the coordinating conjunctions.

John and Mary decided to leave the party early.(coordination of words)
John ate dinner and watched TV until midnight. (coordination of phrases)
John washed the dishes , but Mary dried them. (coordination of clauses)

Subordination: Joining of clauses using a subordinating conjunction. The clause introduced by a subordinating conjunction becomes dependent (i.e. cannot stand alone as a sentence—also referred to as subordinate) and contains information that is less important/emphasized than the information appearing in the independent clause. In the sentence below, we have underlined the dependent/subordinate clause and we have also highlighted the subordinating conjunction:

Because it was late, we decided to spend the night at a hotel.

Note the shift of emphasis on which information is most important (i.e., new, as opposed to given) if we subordinate the information that appears in the independent clause above:

Since we had decided to spend the night at a hotel in town, we partied very late.


Non-sentence: A construction that cannot be punctuated as a minimum sentence/ independent clause because it fails the operational tests: it has either too few or too many parts. Fragments and run-ons (fused sentences) are the two types of non-sentences: comma splices are generally considered simply one type of run-on sentence.

(1) A fragment (sentence fragment) is a construction that is either a phrase (lacking the subject or predicate required for clause status) or a dependent clause:

Which is easy to understand (dependent clause)
Ran across the park (verb phrase—no subject)
The reason being she had never seen a book this big (noun phrase—no predicate)

(2) A run-on (fused sentence) is a construction consisting of two independent clauses that have no coordinating conjunction and/or no appropriate punctuation mark joining them (the boundaries of each clause below are indicated with a //):

//We visited the Blue Mosque// // then we had lunch at the TopKapi.//

 —A comma splice is one specific subset of run-on: it is a construction consisting of two independent clauses that are inappropriately joined using only a comma.

//They saw Mary,// // she was carrying a box of  books.//


Student Resources

Bare Bones Writer's Grammar

Glossary: Key Words for a Writer's Grammar

Answer to Question in Chapter 5

Readings - The Place of Run-Ons and Dashes in Writing

Readings - Public Grammar and Private Grammar

Feedback Sheets

Link to Editor Software

MLA Documentation

Reading, Writing, Reference Links