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English grammar

English grammar is the study of grammar in the English language. Grammars of English can either both prescriptive or descriptive[?]; this article attempts to be primarily descriptive.

The grammar of English is in some ways relatively simple, and in others quite complex. For example, word order is relatively fixed because English is an analytic language and this aspect of grammar is therefore relatively simple. The verbal system, on the other hand, is quite large and complex, like those of many other Indo-European languages.

This article is organized in sections, addressing word order, nouns, verbs, and other areas as they become relevant in the course of discussion.

Table of contents

Word Order

Structurally, English is a SVO language, meaning that it prefers a sequence of subject, verb, object in its simplest (declarative) statements. Thus:

  • Tom [subject] eats [verb] cheese [object]
  • Mary sees the cat

In general, English is a head-initial language, meaning that the "anchor" of a phrase (segment of a sentence[?]) occurs at the beginning of the phrase. For example:

The main exception is in noun phrases, which are head-final:

  • blue house (adjective + noun)
  • Fred's cat (possessive + noun)

Leading to a sentence like: "Fred's sister ran quickly to the store". As can be inferred from this example, the sequence of a basic sentence (ignoring articles[?] and other determiners) is: Adjective1 - Subject - Verb - Adverb - Adjective2 - Direct.Object - Adjective3 - Indirect.Object.

Changes in word order are used in interrogative sentences ("Did you go to the store?"), changes from active to passive voice ("The car was bought by John"), and lexical or grammatical emphasis (topicalization).


In English, nouns generally describe persons, places, things, and abstract ideas, and are treated as grammatically distinct from verbs. English nouns, in general, are not marked for case. Nouns are, however, marked for number and definiteness. For example:

  • the (definite article):the house refers to a specific house (e.g. "The house I was born in")
  • a/an (indefinite article): a house can refer to a generic house ("A house is a building for living in").
  • singular:the house refers to one house
  • plural: the houses refers to more than one house
English does not have dual or trial numbers for nouns.

The two primary exceptions to case marking are the possessive clitic and the pronomial system. In English, the possessive is marked by a clitic at the end of the possessing noun phrase. This can be illustrated in the following manner:

  • The king's daughter's house fell.
The first <'s> clitic on king indicates that the daughter in question is the king's. The second <'s> clitic does not attach to "daughter", as many people mistakenly believe, but in fact to the entire noun phrase The king's daughter.

On the other hand, English preserves relics of the old Germanic noun case system in its pronouns. The full set of cases are listed below; note that there is no distinction in number for the second person pronoun1.

Person: 1st singular 3rd singular 1st plural 3rd plural 2nd interrogative
Nominative I he, she, it we they you who
Accusative me him, her, it us them you whom
Genitive mine his, hers, its ours theirs yours whose
Dative to me his, her, its to us to them to you to whom

A remnant of grammatical gender is also preserved in the third person pronouns. Gender is assigned to animate objects based on biological gender (where known), and to personified objects based on social conventions (ships, for example, are often regarded as feminine in English). "He" is used for masculine nouns; "she" is used for feminine nouns; and "it" is used for nouns of indeterminate gender and inanimate objects. It is generally considered both ungrammatical and impolite to refer to humans as "it"; some English speakers will prefer the use of "they" (3rd. plural) when a person's gender is unknown or irrelevant to context, others prefer to use the slightly cumbersome "he or she" (see singular they). This situation rarely leads to confusion, since the intended meaning can be inferred from context. For comparison, speakers of German distinguish between the homophonous "sie" ("she") and "Sie" (2nd plural and 1st singular polite) with little difficulty.


In English, verbs generally describe actions, and can also be used to describe certain states of being. In contrast to the relative simplicity of English nouns, verbs come in a large array of tenses, some moods, two voices, and are marked for person.

Person in Verbs

Verbs in English are marked in limited fashion for person. Unlike some other European languages, person cannot generally be inferred from the conjugation attached to the verb. As a result, subject nouns are generally required elements in English sentences for clarity's sake. Most regular verbs in English follow the paradigm exemplified below for the simple present:

Stem: listen
1st. sing.: I listen
3rd. sing.: He/She/It listens
1st. plur.: We listen
3rd. Plur.: They listen
2nd. s (p): You (Y'all) listen

Voice in Verbs

English has two voices for verbs: the active and the passive. The basic form is the active verb, and follows the SVO pattern discussed above. The passive voice is derived from the active by changing the form of the verb, inverting of subject and direct object, and marking the subject with "by". For example:

    1. active: John heard the music.
    2. passive: The music was heard by John.

The semantic effect of the change from active to passive is the depersonalization of an action. It is also occasionally used to topicalize the direct object of a sentence.

Verbal moods

English has four primary moods of verb. These are the declarative, the imperative, the conditional, and the little-used subjunctive. Again, the declarative is the simplest, and most basic form. The declarative mood is, very simply put, a statement in the active voice of a verb.

  • The imperative mood is used in issuing commands. It is formed by using the verb in its simplest, unconjugated form: "Listen!", "Sit!", "Eat!". The imperative mood in English occurs only in the second person, and the subject ("you") is generally not expressly stated, because it is implied. Sometimes a vocative is used for clarification, as in "Sit, John."

  • The conditional mood is used to express if-then statements, or in response to counterfactual propositions (see subjunctive mood, below). It is expressed through the use of the verbal auxiliaries could, would, should, may and might in combination with the stem form of the verb. For example:
    1. He goes to the store.
    2. He could go to the store. (He is able to go, but hasn't necessarily committed to going.)
    3. He should go to the store. (There is some necessity for him to go, but he hasn't yet.)
    4. He may go to the store. (He has been given permission to go, but hasn't committed to going.)
    5. He might go to the store. (Indeterminate whether he will go or not, and implies that it is subject to changing conditions.)
    • Note that for many speakers, "may" and "might" have merged into a single meaning - that for "might" above.

  • The subjunctive mood is used to express counterfactual (or conditional) statements, and is often found in if-then statements, and certain formulaic expressions. It is typically marked in the present tense by the auxililary "were" plus the continuous aspect (<-ing>) form of the verb.
    1. I am eating, so I will sit. (Factual/declarative)
    2. Were I eating, I would sit. (Counterfactual)
    3. If they were eating, they would sit. (Counterfactual conditional / If-then)
    4. Truth be told... (subjunctive, uncommon in the US, more common elsewhere)
    5. If I were you... (subjunctive, uncommon in the US, more common elsewhere)

The conjugation of verbal moods becomes a significantly more complex matter when they are used with different tenses. However, casual spoken English rarely uses the subjunctive, and generally restricts the conditional mood to the simple present and simple past.

Verb tenses

English has a wide variety of verb tenses, all of which convey only the time of an action. English has no spatial tenses[?]. The twelve major tenses in English result from combining each of three times (past, present, future) with each of four aspects (simple, continuous (or "imperfect"), perfect, and continuous perfect). (Certain combinations are very rare in the passive voice, however, most notably the future continuous perfect.) The following are illustrative examples of the primary verb tenses encountered in English. (Adapted from the grammatical tense article.)

Tenses in which the main verb is marked for person:

  • Simple present: "I listen." For many verbs, this is used to express habit or ability ("I play the guitar").

Tenses in which the auxiliary is marked for person:

  • Present continuous:
"I am listening." This is used to express what most other language use the simple present tense for. Note that this form in English can also be used to express future actions, such as in the phrase "We're going to the movies tonight".
  • Past continuous:
"I was listening." Used to express an ongoing action completed in the past.
  • Present perfect:
"I have listened." This is usually used to express that an event happened at an unspecified or unknown time on the past.
  • Present perfect continuous: "I have been listening." This is used to express that an event started at some time in the past and continues to the present.
  • Simple future: "I will listen." Can be used to express intention, prediction, and other conditions.
  • Future continuous: "I will be listening." Expresses an ongoing event that has not yet been initiated.

Tenses in which neither the main verb nor the auxiliary is marked for person:

  • Infinitive: "to listen" Used in combination with other verbs: "I was to listen to the story."
  • Simple past: "I listened." In English (unlike some other languages with aorist? tenses), this implies that the action took place in the past and that it is not taking place now.
  • Past perfect: "I had listened." Expresses that an action was completed prior to some other event.
  • Past perfect continuous: "I had been listening." Usually expressed with a duration, this indicates that an event was ongoing for a specific time, then completed before a specific event.
  • Future perfect: "I will have listened." Indicates that an action will occur after some other event.
  • Future perfect continuous: "I will have been listening." Expresses an ongoing action that occurs in the future, after some other event.

Irregular verbs

While many verbs in English follow the relatively simple paradigm illustrated at the beginning of this section, there are many verbs that do not. There are two categories of such verbs:

  • the "transparently irregular"
  • true irregular verbs.

The term "transparently irregular" is used to describe verbs that appear irregular at first, but actually follow a common paradigm. This group of verbs are relics of the older Germanic ablaut system for conjugation. This is generally confined to atypical simple past verb forms. For example:

  • I meet ~ I met ~ I had met
  • I read ~ I read ~ I had read
  • I lead ~ I led ~ I had led
  • I swim ~ I swam ~ I had swum
  • I sing ~ I sang ~ I had sung
  • I steal ~ I stole ~ I had stolen

True irregular verbs have forms that are not predictable from ablaut rules. The most common of these in English is the verb "be". A sampling of its verbal paradigm is listed below; the majority of other forms are predictable from the knowledge of these four.

Person: 1st singular 3rd singular 1st plural 3rd plural 2nd
to be
Simple present: I am He is, she is, it is We are They are You are
Simple past: I was He was, she was, it was We were They were You were
Present continuous: I am being He/she/it is being We are being They are being You are being

Irregular verbs include "eat", "sit", "loan", "keep", among many others. Some paradigms are based on obsolete root words, or roots that have changed meaning. Others are derived from old umlaut patterns that changes in phonemic structure and grammar have distorted (keep ~ kept is one such example). Some are unclear in origin, and may date back to Proto Indo-European[?] times.

Other Topics in English Grammar

Adjectives and Adverbs

These are modifiers for nouns and verbs, respectively. Not all languages distinguish them, but English does in both grammar and word formation. Grammatically, adjectives precede the noun they modify, whereas adverbs follow the verb they modify. English also has a means of converting adjectives into adverbs: the addition of the suffix <-ly> changes an adjective to an adverb (in addition to moving it to the appropriate place in a sentence).

There are other ways of changing words from one lexical class to another. Nouns are easily transformed into verbs by moving them to the appropriate position in a sentence, and then conjugating them according to the default paradigm. Nouns can also be changed to other kinds of nouns (<-er>, <-ist>), into adverbs of state/condition (<-ness>), and into adjectives (<-ish>, as in "bullish"). Verbs can be turned into adjectives with <-ing> ("dancing school"), into adverbs with <-ly>, and sometimes even into nouns with <-er> ("dancer", "listener").

These processes provide the English language with greater flexibility in choosing words, expanding vocabulary, and re-shuffling words to add subtlety of meaning that might otherwise not be available in an analytic language.


1. Some North American dialects use "y'all" and related forms for the second person plural pronoun: other forms include "you guys", "yu'uns", and "youse". These forms are generally regarded as colloquial and non-standard. Many English speakers also use forms of "they" as a gender-unspecified singular pronoun: e.g. "If a reader finds a book interesting, they will often tell their friends about it".

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