William Harris

Prof. Em. Middlebury College

This paper answer to the need of students who use the English language as a matter of course, but are unaware of the grammatical terminology which is used to describe the English language. Terminology has a specific purpose, to identify specific points in a structure which are being studied. Biology and Physics without exact terminology would be impossible to imagine. Iin the case of Language, where there are many kinds of analysis ranging from an obsolete traditional grammar to theoretical studies beyond the comprehension of students and most teachers, there is a need for a basic statement about what the English language is like. This study was written to answer to that need.

1)             A WORD is best identified as:             A string of letters representing sounds, always found in books with a white space to the right and left of it .

2)              WORDS in spoken language are often run together, but when we write, or when we want to analyze written messages, we think of words as separate entities, as in Postulate 1) above.

3)             The LETTERS are signs for SOUNDS, about two dozen serve for many languages, most directly affect meaning ("phonemes") but some only show dialect, age, or local origin ("allophones").

The English vowels " a e i o u " are pure musical notes with full acoustic overtones and length. While the consonants " p b k qu" and their voiced counterparts " b d g gu " as well as the nasal-liquid series " m n l r " and also the "air sounds" which are " h s sh f v " - - - - these are all modifiers which combine with vowels to form syllables".

4)             In SPEECH words are normally combined to a great extent in a continuous flow. We follow 1) above in separating words when speaking on the telephone with a bad connection, when speaking with someone partly deaf, or with a person just learning English. Otherwise spoken English goes along with a continuous flow of words.

5)              WORDS have many different uses which as native speakers we intuitively understand since they have been used from childhood, but often we cannot exactly define them. The purpose of GRAMMAR is to find terminology to describe the different kind of words and the different uses, so that we can make corrections in our spoken and written usage. [Without Grammar, we are as helpless as the person who tells the confused mechanic only "there is something wrong with the car, just fix it!".              What? Where? How?]

6)             If we try to separate out the various types of words, we find that:

             a)             Some are different in form, often something is added on (for example "he/him" or "dog/dogs' or "go/goes".

             b)             Some are differentiated by position in a group. The basic Rule of 3Three , meaning:             1)Subject ---> Verb --->Object.       The words get their function from their specific location in a sentence.

             c)              Some are grouped together with other formative words, for example: "I am going", which is different in use from "I am Joe". There are many of these verb-clusters, they tell us a variety of things which we will go into later.

             d)              Some stand by themselves, and tell us special things:       "Wow!", "watchit!" "uh-huh".

             e)             Some give a special direction to other words, for example:       "in the house", "to school" "on the desk"

             f)              Some tell us how many things are involved: "the sheep" but there is also "a sheep" or "every sheep " or "many sheep", or combined with e) above, "for many sheep".

Noun Function #1: Word Order

For the English language the "Rule of Three" distinguishes NOUNS and VERBS by location or order:

a)            In a "basic" sentence, the first word (subject) is a noun. This marks the do-er of an action.

b)             the second word is a verb which marks the nature of the action, following a "do-er" as above.

c)             the third word (object) is also a noun but is different from a) above since this what is ebing acted upon by the Verb in b) above.

             Example:             "James hits Bill".        S(ubject) V(erb) (O)bject in exactly that order.

The force of location in determining grammatical function as noun or verb is seen in the language's ability to transmute nouns into verbs by re-locating them in the second structural position as verbs, for example:

             The cat climbs trees.

             The dogs trees the cats

             The man burns the field

             Bandages cure the burns

These are obviously specimen examples, but in fact any noun can "become" a verb in situations where a semantic need arises.

But there is a great difference in the use of the two nouns #1 and # 3 as Subject and Object:

             The first noun is a Subject, that is it is doing something in the sentence, it is the basic operator. In the sentence "James hits Bill", it is Jim who is doing the action.

            The second noun (the one after the verb (i.e. in #3 position) is the Object, so Bill gets hit. But if we said "Bill hits James", it would be the other way around. The Place defines the function.

We can use the old rule: "A noun is a person place or thing, a verb is an action." But be sure to note out the incompleteness of this statement, considering nouns like "love, smell, growth" or verbs like "is" or "consists of... "

Noun Function #2 Singular and Plural

Nouns can be Singular or Plural that is ONE or MANY.

The ending "-s" is the standard way of showing "manyness" for most words. Thus: "boy/boys, tree/trees" etc.

But there are a few common words which have ancient forms, which must be learned one by one: "child/children, ox/oxen, person/ people" etc. And a few words show no difference at all: "sheep/sheep" etc.

Noun Function #3 The Possessive

Nouns can be Possessive ,that is they show that something belongs to them, as "the boy's hat". We write this with an apostrophe ('), but in speaking it is exactly like "boys" meaning Plural. The only clue is that the two nouns "boy's" and "hat" stand next to each other, so they belong together.

But a noun can be Plural and Possessive at the same time, as: "the boys' hats". In this case we conveniently put the apostrophe (') after for possession, but make an plural without the apostrophe (').

We use the -s in writing, but in speech we have to use our wits to tell things apart. Language does often depend on "horse sense", which is knowing how something works without talking about it.

So we have this set of forms:

             "boy" Subject

             "boy" Object

             "boys" Plural Subject or Object

             "boy's" Singular Possessive

             "boys' " Plural Possessive well as irregular forms:

             "child" Subject

             "child" Object

             "children" Plural Subject or Object

             "child's" Singular Possessive

             "children's" Plural Possessive (very odd!)

Review of The Nouns

The English language Rule of Three distinguishes Nouns and Verbs specifically by their location in a sentence.

Nouns have three basic function forms:

             #1)              They can be Subject, or Object, depending on position.

             #2)             They can be Singular or Plural, usually with a final -s.

             #3)              They can be Possessive, always with a final -s in either Singular or Plural (but Singular spells -'s, Plural spells -s'.)

And all of these three functions can take place at the same time.

             "The man mans the mens' boat..." Odd but possible.

Verb Function #1: The Person

NOUNS have these functions: Subject/Object or Singular/Plural. But the VERBS have many more functions than the nouns . These include Person (who the actor is) and Tense (the time sequence)

Verbs tell us who is doing the "action", if it is "I", or "you" or "he/she". We have these functions:

             First person ---- I

             Second person ----you

             Third person ---- he/she.

Grammar tells soomething about the thinking of ancestors who devised the kind of language we speak. They figured that the almighty "I/me" comes first, then the "you" who(m) I am speaking to, and last over there some "he" or "she" being acted on. Only in this last class does gender count. Language reflects the needs of a society, and some languages will show gender for the "I" person and not for the "he/she"!

Originally there were separate forms with distinct Endings for each of these, but in English only the Third Singular has kept a special ending, the final " -s", as in:

             I go

             you go

             he goes........and the plurals are all the same

Verb Function #2: Singular and Plural

Like Nouns, verbs show forms for Singular and Plural, but there are no special endings to mark them. The accompanying Noun word (Pronouns, but they are really shorthand nouns after all) shows the function as plural.

             we go

             you go (either singular or plural, hence dialect "you-all")

             they go.

Since there are no ways to tell if "you" is one or many, which can be important at times, side-forms have appeared: "You-se" in l930's NewYorkese, and the common "you-all" in the South, even "you guys" for men and sometimes women too, or "you girls". ("You people" is often used in the business world, but it can imply social or even racial difference.)

Since leveling of forms is natural, the Third Singular form is often ignored in sub-standard colloquial speech, hence we can hear in asnwer to a question:

             Does that work?              Yes, it do !      (rare)

             It don't matter

This is common outside schools, but substandard and teacher will say "wrong". However continued usage makes wrong things become right in the end at times.

This use of "don't" is used by highly educated persons on occasion for emphasis, but as a conscious linguistic device. But "ain't" (coming from proper l8th c. English "an't" = "isn't") has been ostracized by generations of schoolteachers and appears mainly as a fossil in dialect literature.

Verb Function #3: Tense as Time

The Verbs have a special role for telling Tense, which is the time of an action. It would seem that the logical human sequence of Past Present and Future would be enough, but there are many subtle classifications.

Among the Factual Functions (the ones that tell about reality in this world, as against sheer possibility) we find:

            a)             PRESENT TENSE (habitual)

             I go

             you go

             he goes etc.

This is usually called The Present Tense, but it is really the >b>Present Habitual Tense, since it refers specifically to repeated or habitual actions, and cannot be used for all uses in the present time frame. Non-native speakers often use "I go" when they actually mean "I am going".


             "I go to school", meaning that I am a student, I go to school regularly or fairly regularly, that is my occupation.

             If we overheard the following conversation, we would assume the speakers were new immigrants:
                  "What you do?" "Oh, I go downtown." This is of course an incorrect use of the Habitual Present.

            a)             PRESENT TENSE (regular)

             I am going

             you are going

             he is going

             we are going

             you are going

             they are going

This is the form we normally use for "present" time. Examples are:

             "What are you doing?" "Well, I am going downtown...

If the action is not regular or traditional or habitual, this is the form to use, the only way to say it in English

            c)             FUTURE TENSE

There are two ways to speak about the future:

             I will go

             you will go

             he will go.... etc.

             or with the contractions: I'll go, you'll go, etc.

But there is a subtle distinction between the full and the contracted forms. If I say "I'll do it... " it refers to the future pure and simple. And if I write in a letter of paper "I will do it" it means about the same. But if in conversation I say "I will do it", especially if I say "I will do it.. ." something different enters: There is a strong sense of purpose.

Even stronger is the future purposeful phrase : "I shall do it... ", while the second singular "Thou shall not ---covet..." is mandatory. Confusion exists on the precise meaning of some of these usages, despite the efforts of teachers.

But more often the Present (Habitual) Tense ( which is the the simple Present) is regularly used for the Future, as in:

             I am going downtown.

To a new English speaker this would imply that the person is at the moment en route downtown, but we all know that it means immediate Future action. This is the most common usage for Future.

            d)            Compound Future Tense is also very commongly used. It inserts another niche of futurity in a future sentence, as :

             I am going to go.

             you are going to go

             he is going to go....

Redundant as this phrase sounds, it is a common expression for immediate future action, a doubling of the idea of futureness, like:

             I am going to go downtown....

             I am going to go to heaven....

To be sure, this has a little more purposefulness than the simpler usage above, especially if the word "going" is lightly accented in speach. But it is a regular usage in daily speech.

There is also an unusual form which tries to combine the future with the past, going by the dubious name of Future Perfect :

             I will have done....            (presumably as in:       "I will have done my homework by 3:00 PM")

This is a borrowing from Latin grammar, where such form exist but are rarely used. It does make sense, but is not used in English except as an imitation of Ciceronian style or Southern senatorial filibustering, and need not be mentioned for school usage.


ASPECT:       One problem here is that "pastness" encompasses a number of what the linguist calls "aspects", or attitudes toward actions which generally reside in the past. These often involve subtle shades of meaning which spread out fanwise from a central "Concept of Past", and must be defined and handled with care. We do use Aspects in English but are not generally aware of their subtle meanings.

1)             The Past-Continuing Tense is generally called the Imperfect, and has an "aspectual" quality of continuing action in the past.

             I was going

             you were going

             he was going.... etc.

This tense has few complications, it denotes a past time and a past action which could have been terminated then, or could equally well continue into the present time.

"I was going to Medical School in l972" could be stated by a head of Cardiology, or by a medical school dropout, depending on whether the past action was terminated then or not. Only context can tell the truth.

2)             The Simple Perfect Tense. (Greek grammar calls this the Aorist, accurate but too exotic a term for our use ). The action took place in the past and was of a punctual or time-restricted nature, like this phrase:

             "He died".
......with the understanding that we were speaking of a sudden massive heart attack, with the result that he "dropped dead".

But English does not make this perfectly clear, since with additional wording it could have been: "He died as the result of a long terminal illness..." as well as "He died right then while lifting a spoonful of soup to his lips... " The first is Continuative the second Punctual, and both can be housed in the grammatical framework of the Simple English Perfect form.

As soon as we speak of the Past Tenses in English, we have to deal with the Irregular Verbs . There are many irregular forms of the so-called Strong Verb (perhaps implying that irregularity is a sign of strength? ). We have several handfuls of "irregulars" which are commonly used verbs in English, including these odd examples which differentiate Present from Past by a vowel change:

             speak -------> spoke

             ride ------- > rode

             think------- > thought

             go -------> went (suppleted or completed by an entirely different verb)

These had best be put in a list and learned by rote, since there are few of these which are technically the result of an ancient Indo-European Umlaut process. But they turn up everywhere. There can even be a fake item like "dove" created as a past to "dive", often replacing the correct form "dived". Catching them one at a time is a waste of time. This is a matter of recognizing the forms from usage or looking them up in the dictionary.

3)              The "Compound Perfect", formed with a "have" word and a past participle, has the notion of pastness joined with a modifier which is incidentally the verb "have" but not in the possessive sense. This is a special gramamtical use of a helper -verb.

            "I have completed my doctoral studies"
This refers to past work done, but by a person who is still among the living. So pastness verges into presentness, and we are actually looking from back NOW into THEN. So this is a continuative tense, like the "Imperfect" or Past-Continuing tense, but the focus-point is now.

If we had we this sentence: "I was completing my doctoral studies in l972" the focus of attention would have been back on l972, not now. These are indeed subtle shades of difference, which should be marked out carefully.

4)             The Past Compound Perfect also called the Pluperfect

Perhaps the old Latin term "Plu-perfect" meaning "more than accomplished" (Lat. plus-quam-perfectum), is usable, since it shifts the time frame of this past-tense back a slot to a time before the "past focus-of-attention", removing us from NOW by two echelons.

            "I had completed my doctoral studies in l972" (first focus), but then decided to go into the Navy (second focus)... "       We all know this usage and use it often, but students will often ignore in their writing the subtle time-shift this tense affords. Defining it will perhaps make it more usable.


All of the verbal functions we have been examining up to this point are in the ACTIVE mode, but for most of them there is available a PASSIVE form. Sense precludes some of the possibilities, for example you can say:

             "He goes " is the active form but of course there is no passive for this kind of verb, which cannot take an Object (usually called the Intransitive Verbs).

            "He is gone"       is not the passive of this Present form, but quite a different concept as a Compound Past form.

            "He is beaten"       looks similar, but it is a true passive of the Present.

Many of the forms we have been studying can have a passive form which is made by compounding with a form of the verb "be ---is ----was":

             He beats ------> He is beaten

             He was beating ------> He was being beaten

             He will beat ------> He will be beaten

             He beat ------> He was beaten

             He had beat ------> He had been beaten

There is really nothing hard or odd about the passives, except the fact that they have a specific use and a special name, and the fact that since they use the Past Participle of verbs, they will sooner or later show the irregular verb forms:

             "He sings....... (but the song) is sung "

This goes back to the rote learning of the irregular verb forms, which when learned early will avoid a lot of trouble along the road. And then there are always the unforseeable details, like the difference between "sunk" and "sunken", which have somewhat different meanings.


Associated with the Verb are two subordinate classes of importance, as follows:


1)              The Infinitive is easy to spot in English, since is has one form:        It puts the word "to" (here meaning "purpose") before a verb, thus:

             to go

             to be (or not to be)

             to be beaten (passive form, indeed)

             to have been... (Past Infinitive)

The odd thing about the infinitive is that there are two basic, and quite different uses:

             a)              "He desires to go... ". The Purpose Infinitive, which uses the word "to" before its associated verb, works in close association with the preceding verb, creating a secondary verbal idea dependent on the preceding (main) verb.

             What does he desire? Well, it is "to go".              We have a forward relationship between "to" and "go", but also a backward relationship between "he desires.." and "to go". This sound complicated but is a construction we use all the time.

             b)              The simple infinitive form (for example "to be") can be used as Infinitive used as a Noun, Thus "to be" in the famous Shakespeare line, is exactly equivalent to "being", so he could just as well have said "Being or not being- - -that is the question", and that is the way a philosopher rather than a poet would have put it.

             "To succeed.... is sweet"

             "To love in vain.              is better than not to have loved at all"

Sometimes this use of the Infinitive is called the Gerund in English grammars, following the old terminology of Latin grammar, where the Gerund is however a separate form from the Infinitive. Better consider this construction as an "Infinitive used as a Noun".

The Participles

             1)             Present Participles are formed from verbs, on which is grafted the adjectival ending "-ing", so that verbal notions can be used in conjunction with nouns to further expand their meaning. The word Participle comes from the Latin parti-ceps, meaning "sharers", since they share verb roots with noun/adjectival functions, and thus stand between the two noun and verb camps. Actually the Participle is an adjective type which is based on a verb stem and Participles are is use jsut another kind of adjective!

These Present Participles are often used in independent Sub-Clauses:

             "Walking in the woods one day, I had a new idea..."              "While walking in the woods one day, I had a new idea..."              "I was walking in the woods one day and I had a new idea..."

These three sentences have pretty much the same idea, and could be used interchangeable. But the first one is somehow neater and tighter, might suit a goven context better.

CAUTION: The Participle must agree in subject , with the main clause of a sentence in grammatical location, or it becomes a "dangling participle", which not only infuriates teachers but also creates strangely humorous effects like:

             I saw the Episcopal Church        walking down Main Street".       What is meant of course is "Walking down Main Street, I saw the Episcopal Church."       The logic of the situation in purely formal terms is: "I, walking down the street, saw the church".

             2)              The Past Passive Participle of the regular verbs (often called the weak verbs) is formed by adding "-ed" to the present tense form:

            "He handed over the gun..." is active in past time (perfect tense so called in aspect based terms)

            "The gun was handed over by him ..."is the passive of the same statement.

Note that this passive participle "walked"is exactly the same in form as the simple past tense of the verb "walk" in the sentence "He walked away...". In use and function these are entirely different.

             3)              The Irregular Past Passive Participle of many common verbs is different. Many of the forms are irregular and belong to a specific verb rather than to the class of these participles. Here are a few examples of the so-called "Strong Verbs", but there is no rule for forming the PPP in this group. The "strong verbs" have an ancient linguistic history and usually show three forms, which are:             Present, Past and PPP:

            sing --> sang ----> sung (the PPP)

             speak --> spoke ---> spoken

             wring ---> wrang ?? --> wrung

             go ---> went -------> gone (using different verb stems !!!)

You know most of these from use in the languages, when in question check with a dictionary which will give these three critical forms, sometimes called Principal Parts after the four PP's of Latin.

Participles are very useful for students to use in their writing, since they provide an introduction to the idea of subordinate clauses being used to develop complex sentences. It is time to relegate to the scrap-heap the typical American "and.. .. and... and" sentence structure. Introduction to the Participle is not just introduction to another grammatical term, it is often the beginning of an introduction to the much more interesting world of written STYLE.

Grammatical Agreement

Perhaps the worst problems which confront students these days is the general matter of Agreement. With a little grammatical awareness and a prod students can be persuaded to understand the basic Rule:

            A singular or plural noun must have a matching singular or plural form in the verb, and vice versa.

It is wise to stay with a given tense, keep Presents with presents, Pasts with past, and also not shift tenses uncontrollably. There is however a proper use of a tense-shift as an artistic device, as use of the Historical Present, or a time-shift as part of a story-line. But most inconcinnities are devised through grammatic laziness.

It is hard to explain Agreement of Number to someone who has never thought of singular/plural or noun/verb. This "explanation" of configurations of words in rational terms is the main reason for teaching Grammar in the first place, but Grammar should be relegated to the grammatical "background" as soon as it is mastered, so that reading can take place in the foreground as the conscious part of the reading process.

THEY / THEIR             There is a new usage which was formerly an error, but now stabilized by social acceptance. It was found so inconvenient to say "he or she" or "s/he", terms which were originally intended to provide gender equality in the face of important socail changes, that modern usage has substituted the Plural "they" as a socially and grammatically acceptable form.

             "If a person wants to vote, they have to register ahead of time."

This may sound strange to older grammatical ears, but no stranger than the inconvenient "he or she has to register...". Here as always it is usage which dominates, over the head of Rules written by any earlier generation.

Un-reality and the IRREALIS

We have been looking at forms and uses of the Factual Functions of Verbs , the ones that tell about reality in this world, as against sheer possibility. Now we are going to examine the Conditional Functions of the Verbs, a complex set of forms which deal with situations which are not perfectly real, which involve terms like "if", "what if", "would" and other unclear statements. These are not factual situations, on the other hand they involve Un-reality, which in linguistics is called the Irrealis

Every language has formulae for "the Unreal". Latin has the Subjunctive, the Indian languages of the Pacific Northwest have as many as five levels of "unreality", which are of real and practical use in a hunting society. Knowing what is real as against what is possible is a basic part of human intelligence.

1)             The Present Conditional is almost gone from contemporary American usage. The few relics which remain are liable to be thought bookish or over-fussy. Perhaps American preference for "hard thinking about facts" and an aversion to dreaming may be responsible for this lack, as well as the historical development of English which has dispensed with features no longer absolutely needed.

             "If it is true.... " is the normal statement

             "If it be true.... " has disappeared

             "If it were true.... " is disappearing now

This factual phrase replaces the bookish "If it be true", as well as the more common and still usable "If it were true". The loss is one of perception, not just of a grammatical peculiarity.

2)       In a Past Conditional realm, we find:

             "I would suspect... " with a somewhat irrealis tone, and

             "I would have suspected... ", the same attitude but shifted backward into a past-time framework.

Beside these Conditionals, we have the hybrid form:

             "I should think that... ", actually a Conditional but with two meanings, hence easily confused with the Hortative or Directing phrase:

             "One should think that... ", which is quite a different thought based on the same auxiliary verb, but said with a accented syllable. These must be kept apart, this is an entirely different matter.

3)        But in another entirely different vein, stands the Contrary to Fact Conditional , which equivalent to the Pluperfect Subjunctive in Latin, a cumbersome title for a very useful tool, as follows:

             "I would have completed my doctoral studies, but... " (to be frank, I didn't).

By Contrary to Fact, we merely mean that it didn't happen that way, although there was the possibility of it having turned out so. We must understand Possibility, Past Time, and Disappointment in this understandable witches' brew, found in many cups of human experiental tea. This is a function we all know, only note here that it has a name and can be called up in a writing menu at will.

The Modal Verbs

MODAL VERB is the name assigned to a set of English verbs which work in ancillary relationship to another verb, defining an area of meaning which is in some cases similar to that of the Latin Subjunctive "Mood", which however always represents the Irrealis. .

Modal Verbs

The English Modal Verbs are these:

may / might / would / should / can /could / will / would /ought (to) /(and the now rare) shall

This remarkable and unusual set of verbs is never inflected with that "-s" ending of the third person singular. They point to situations involving a sense of the Irrealis to some degree , whether an imaginary situation in the future, or an imaginary situation to be warned or forfended.

They are usually described as working in tandem with a following Infinitive, with the "to" suppressed in all of them except "ought to...". This practice has been called "the short infinitive" but it seems simpler to assume that Modals are followed by a bare Simplex of the verb (as described above) with no actual Infinitive was involved.

We can see the one example "ought to" as a special case which is better realigned with the semi-modals "need..." and "dare..." which always use the "to" before the (infinitival) Simplex.

Beyond the above "Modal List", English has special combinatory verbs, which make up a wide range of commonly used expressions. Those which operate with the verbs "get        make        be" are nmuch used and easily understandable, and can be further extended as need arises.

Note examples like "get going" with the present participle of an action connected to the verb "get", beside "get lost" a similar formation with past participle. Then there is "...when you got to go...(bis) " with an infinitive, an interesting phrase with several meanings. A sentence like:

             "The car must have been really traveling to have been getting smashed up like this..."

      ....may not be ideal term-paper prose but it gets its meaning across, and shows how some of these special constructions can be piled up atop each other, and yet be readable.

The verb "have" has several quite different usages. First is the regular meaning "have = possess, own etc." which can range from statements like "I have an idea..." to "The table has a length of six feet..." or imperatively "Have some (candy)". This is the basic use of "have".

Quite different is the Supplementary grammatical use in past tense formation, like "I have completed the work" which is not the same as "I have the work (and it is) completed" (although that may have been an earlier stage in the language's development).

And there are further complex situations which involve combinations like "I have to get going" with a less formal variant "I got to get going" beside "I ought to have got this done by now" and "I should have got this done" or "I should have had this gotten". There are more possible combinations of such verbal entities in common use, for which I see a full treatment in C J Bailey's Treatise mentioned at the end of this Index page.

And there is a third use, the obligatory use, as "I have to do this work..." (comparable to "ought to... must... should....)

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William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College