Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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Poster sessions: A great way of establishing a scholarly ecosystem in the classroom

Posted: Dec 27, 2014 15:12;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03

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For a few years now, I’ve included a poster session component in my assessment. I began using them while I was chair of the Text Encoding Initiative, inspired in large part by the poster slam organised by my friend Susan Schreibman (now of Maynooth, then of the University of Maryland).

Until this year, I didn’t treat them that seriously: students were assessed on a pass/fail basis with the pass threshold being simple submission of a good faith effort; I didn’t really give any instructions on how to make posters (something traditionally humanists have not done); and I didn’t neither evaluated the presentations nor (most years) provided time for students to look at each others’ posters outside of the slam presentation itself.

This year, however, inspired largely by Inge Genee’s practice in her linguistics class, I stumbled upon a much better and educationally valuable way of using them. We did the slam as in previous years, but then we broke the class up into groups, each of which took turns circulating around the posters and asking questions of the presenters (because people want to see and hear from presenters in their own groups, we needed to redo the groups a few times).

The result was superb: students reported themselves to be thrilled by the opportunity to hear what their colleagues were up to, and certainly I heard a number of very intense discussions and Q&A sessions going on among clusters of students.

In retrospect, of course, all I did was take the poster component seriously. But what a result!

Tips and techniques

I have a couple of tips if you are interested in doing this:

  1. Announce to students early on that you are planning to do this and provide guidance on how to put posters together. Especially if your students are humanities majors, they are unlikely to have much experience with this so really basic instruction is required.
    1. Design matters like how to use Powerpoint or Impress to design the slide, tips on layout, size, use of fonts, images, and colour, for example;
    2. Questions of content and rhetoric—e.g. how to extract and summarise an argument for presentation on the poster; using different heading levels to indicate different levels of argumentative detail; how to use the Q&A period to supplement the argument.
    3. Practical questions like how and where to print them off as well as some estimated prices (if you are requiring paper posters); an alternative to this that we used is to book a computer lab and have students display a virtual poster on their workstation screen.
  2. Do a preliminary slam (here’s a model) at the beginning of the room in which students pitch their poster to their colleagues. This helps prime the subsequent discussion. Set a time limit of 1 minute for each presentation, but be flexible (especially with shy students). Some find the timed presentation extremely harrowing.
  3. Plan on several rounds of Q&A to allow students to see and hear from almost everybody. What we did was assign everybody a number from 1-5, an alphabetical group based on their first name, and a third in which they were grouped by seating rows. Several groups would then circulate at a time. This didn’t cover all permutations, but towards the end we let people switch groups if they really realised that somebody they really wanted to hear was always in the same group.

English 1900j (Fall 2012): Blogs

Posted: Sep 04, 2012 16:09;
Last Modified: Sep 04, 2012 17:09

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In this course you are expected to maintain a blog. Postings will be required from you most weeks. And every so often you are asked to review and/or comment on your blog postings and those of your class mates.


Why am I being asked to blog?

You are being asked to blog because experience shows that blogging is a good way of collecting your thoughts on a topic, keeping track of your intellectual development, discovering things you want to talk and write about, and building a community with your classmates. Blogs are helpful because they uncover trends in the interests and thoughts of the community, provide reference to interesting resources, and maintain a record of problems and solutions encountered throughout the year.

They are also useful because they encourage you to read with a computer nearby. One of the most important advantages of the internet age is the ease with which we can look things up. Blogging can be a way of intellectually profiting from and passing on things you have looked up during your reading.

What should I blog about?

What you write about in your blog is up to you. Sometimes, you may want to write about something you looked up about a book or author. Other times, you might want to discuss things you didn’t understand or difficult passages you think you can help others with. It might be about emotional responses you had to something we read; or a reflection on things discussed in class or in the hallway. Or a funny anecdote about something to do with the class. The only requirement is that most blog entries should be recognisably connected in some way to something in the current unit of our syllabus class (you’re allowed the occasional one that is not).

How am I being graded?

You are being graded on a pass-fail basis solely on whether you appear to have made a good faith effort to participate. In weeks where you write nothing or write blog entries that do not show what looks like a good faith effort to participate, you will receive a grade of 0%; blog entries that look like you made at least some good faith effort to participate in the discussion, will receive a grade of 100%.

Can I get bonus marks or redo a missed blog?

Blogs need to be done by the deadline to receive credit. Missed blogs cannot be made up. Everybody is allowed to miss one blog entry in the semester without penalty. This means, for example, that if there are eight blogs assigned in the course, you will receive 100% if you submit seven blogs on time. If you submit eight, you will receive extra credit for the extra blog.

What if I write more blogs than required?

If you right extra blogs in a given week, you will receive 1/2 bonus mark for every extra blog posting, up to a maximum of 1 extra bonus mark per week. Because these are for bonus marks, the standard by which your effort will be judged is a little higher: your entry must show real evidence of effort to receive a bonus mark.

What about comments?

You are not required to comment on blogs. If you do, this will be considered as evidence of participation.

Can I use material from my blog in my essay/unessay?

Yes. Your essay or unessays can reuse material from your blog.


The unessay

Posted: Sep 04, 2012 15:09;
Last Modified: Sep 04, 2012 16:09

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The essay is a wonderful and flexible tool for engaging with a topic intellectually. It is a very free format that can be turned to discuss any topic—works of literature, of course, but also autobiography, science, entertainment, history, and government, politics, and so on. There is often something provisional about the essay (its name comes from French essai, meaning a trial), and almost always something personal.


Unfortunately, however, as the Wikipedia notes,

In some countries (e.g., the United States and Canada), essays have become a major part of formal education. Secondary students are taught structured essay formats to improve their writing skills, and admission essays are often used by universities in selecting applicants and, in the humanities and social sciences, as a way of assessing the performance of students during final exams.

One result of this is that the essay form, which should be extremely free and flexible, is instead often presented as a static and rule-bound monster that students must master in order not to lose marks (for a vigorous defence of the flexible essay, see software developer Paul Graham’s blog). Far from an opportunity to explore intellectual passions and interests in a personal style, the essay is transformed into a formulaic method for discussing set topics in five paragraphs: the compulsory figures of academia.

The unessay

The unessay is an assignment that attempts to undo the damage done by this approach to teaching writing. It works by throwing out all the rules you have learned about essay writing in the course of your primary, secondary, and post secondary education and asks you to focus instead solely on your intellectual interests and passions. In an unessay you choose your own topic, present it any way you please, and are evaluated on how compelling and effective you are.

Choose your own topic

The unessay allows you to write about anything you want provided you are able to associate your topic with the subject matter of the course and unit we are working on. You can take any approach; you can use as few or as many resources as you wish; you can cite the Wikipedia. The only requirements are that your treatment of the topic be compelling: that is to say presented in a way that leaves the reader thinking that you are being accurate, interesting, and as complete and/or convincing as your subject allows.

Present it any way you please

There are also no formal requirements. Your essay can be written in five paragraphs, or three, or twenty-six. If you decide you need to cite something, you can do that anyway you want. If you want to use lists, use lists. If you want to write in the first person, write in the first person. If you prefer to present the whole thing as a video, present it as a video. Use slang. Or don’t. Write in sentence fragments if you think that would be effective. In other words, in an unessay you have complete freedom of form: you can use whatever style of writing, presentation, citation,… even media you want. What is important is that the format and presentation you do use helps rather than hinders your explanation of the topic.

Be evaluated on how compelling and effective you are

If unessays can be about anything and there are no restrictions on format and presentation, how are they graded?

The main criteria is how well it all fits together. That is to say, how compelling and effective your work is.

An unessay is compelling when it shows some combination of the following:

In terms of presentation, an unessay is effective when it shows some combination of these attributes:

Why unessays are not a waste of your time

The unessay may be quite different from what you are used to doing in English class. If so, a reasonable question might be whether I am wasting your time by assigning them. If you can write whatever you want and present it any way you wish, is this not going to be a lot easier to do than an actual essay? And is it not leaving you unprepared for subsequent instructors who want you to right the real kind of essays?

The answer to both these questions is no. Unessays are not going to be easier than “real” essays. There have fewer rules to remember and worry about violating (actually there are none). But unessays are more challenging in that you need to make your own decisions about what you are going to discuss and how you are going to discuss it.

And you are not going to be left unprepared for instructors who assign “real” essays. Questions like how to format your page or prepare a works-cited list are actually quite trivial and easily learned. You can look them up when you need to know them and, increasingly, can get your software to handle these things for you anyway. In our class, moreover, I will be giving you separate instruction on what English professors normally expect to see in the essays you submit to them.

But even more importantly, the things you will be doing in an unessay will help improve your “real” ones: excellent “real” essays also match form to topic and are about things you are interested in; if you learn how to write compelling and effective unessays, you’ll find it a lot easier to do well in your “real” essays as well.


Developing complex arguments

Posted: Nov 16, 2010 13:11;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03

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This is an exercise intended to give students techniques in developing complex literary theses. The problem it addresses is the tendency many students have to argue the obvious: either argue that the plot unfolds the way it does or that certain fairly obvious topics and themes are present in a work. It probably works best at the beginning of a unit on a given work, before any lectures or other directed discussion.

  1. Put the students in groups of 4 or 5.
  2. Ask the students for the most striking things they saw in the work: what it was about, any obvious themes, striking things about the characters, striking events or speeches. In a recent discussion of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night we came up with things like: the play takes place in a day; all the main characters show an addiction to something; the family seems to be very disfunctional; there is no resolution—they sound like they’ve been having this argument forever.
  3. Take a couple of these observations either simultaneously (assigned each to a different group) or collectively (each handled by all the groups in turn) and ask the group to argue the opposite of the observation—in the case of O’Neill’s play, for example, that it is wrong to see the play as taking place all in one day, or that the familiy isn’t disfunctional, or alcohol and drugs aren’t the problem in the story. In constructing their arguments, the groups need to observe the following rules:
    1. They can’t deny actual facts: so you can’t argue, for example, that the characters in Long Day’s Journey into Night are only hallucinating that it is a single day.
    2. They can’t use “might be” or “could be”: all arguments need to be demonstrable textually.
  4. As usual, go round the groups asking for arguments and evidence. Ask other groups for ways of expanding, improving, or contradicting proposals.

Developing Essay Topics in Class

Posted: Oct 07, 2010 17:10;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03

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This is a method I use with some success to develop essay topics collectively, in-class.

  1. Ask each student in the class to prepare in advance an essay topic that would be helpful to somebody else in the class.
  2. On the class day, divide the class into groups of four and ask each group to review all the members’ topics.
    1. Optional: before asking the class to discuss the topics amongst themselves, ask them about essay topics they have had in the past that have worked or not. Try to build a sense of what types of topics exist and what makes for a good (and bad) topic. If discussion falters, ask the groups to come up with something.
  3. After reviewing and discussing the topics amongst themselves, each group is to come up with a single essay topic for the rest of the class. This can be based on one of the four proposals, modified from a proposal, or completely new based on their discussions.
  4. Go through each of the groups in turn, asking to hear what their best topic is. Write up the topic on the board.
  5. After all groups have been heard from, go back through the topics, this time asking others to comment on strengths, weaknesses, ways of extending the topic, focussing it, etc.
  6. At the end of the exercise ask each group to nominate a secretary, whose job it is to mail a single topic to the class based on their group’s proposal and the commentary they received.

Grammar Essentials 2: Parts of Speech (Word Classes) Exercise Answers

Posted: Dec 20, 2008 09:12;
Last Modified: May 23, 2012 18:05

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Here are possible answers to the exercises in Grammar Essentials 2: Parts of speech. In some cases more than one right answer might be possible.

1. Place each word in the following sentence in its Word Class using the above tests. Which Word Class(es) is or are missing?:

Over the mountain lived a former mechanic. Suzy forgets his name.

Form Word Class Sample Test(s)
Over Preposition Followed by Noun Phrase the mountain
the Determiner First word in a Noun Phrase, the mountain; would precede any adjectives: the [big] mountain, not *[big] the mountain
mountain Noun You can make the word plural (mountains) or possessive (mountain’s); it is already preceded by a determiner in the sentence (the mountains)
lived Verb You can change its tense (lived :lives) and number (a former mechanic lived : I lived).
a Determiner First word in a Noun Phrase, a mechanic; would precede any adjectives: a [funny] mechanic, not *[funny] a mechanic
mechanic Noun You can make the work plural (mechanics) or possessive (mechanic’s); it is already preceded by a determiner (a mechanic)
Suzy Noun (Proper) Can be made possessive (Suzy’s) (proper nouns normally are not preceded by Determiners and are not usually plural)
forgets Verb You can change its tense (Suzy forgets : Suzy forgot); you can change its person (Suzy forgets : I forget)
his Pronoun It is not a noun (can’t take an article or be replaced by a pronoun), and it is in the possessive); different forms of his can serve as a subject or prepositional object: he is here ; give it to him
name Noun Can be made plural (names); can be made possessive (name’s); can be preceded by a determiner (the name)

2. When Hamlet says that bad acting “out-herods Herod” (Hamlet, III.ii), meaning to rage and rant, he is using a proper name for a verb. What tests can we use to show that out-herods is a verb?

We can show that it is possible to change the

These are all tests for verbs.

3. Although it is impossible for individuals to create new Closed or Structure Class words, the English language has acquired new pronouns over the course of its history: the entire plural pronoun system they, them, their comes from Old Norse (the original English version was hie, hira and him); she is of unknown origin (the original was heo).

Can you suggest some reasons why it is possible for languages to add or change such words but not for individuals?

One possible explanation is that structure words primarily express relationships (look up the definitions of and or but in a dictionary for example), unlike Open Class words, which are signifiers for some external idea, event, concept, or the like. So a new pronoun for “feminine singular subject” can be introduced into the language only when a group of people understand that the new form expresses this relationship.


Transcription Guidelines

Posted: Nov 19, 2007 12:11;
Last Modified: May 23, 2012 19:05

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The following is a list of typographical conventions to use when transcribing medieval manuscripts in my classes.


Strikethrough indicates the physical deletion of text in a witness. Deletion may be by any method (underlining, punctum delens, erasure, overwriting, etc). You should indicate the precise method of deletion by a note at the end of your transcription. The deleted text is recorded whenever possible. If deleted text cannot be recovered, it is replaced by colons.

You indicate strikethrough in HTML as follows <strike>Text struck through</strike>


Upward sloping brackets indicate that the enclosed text has been added above the manuscript line. If a caret was used, this is indicated with a preceding comma or caret symbol (⁁): ⁁\addition above the line/.


Vertical brackets indicate that the enclosed text has been inserted between existing characters within the manuscript line. Insertion is distinguished from overwriting (i.e. the conversion of one character to another or the addition of a new character in the space left by a previously deleted form).


Brackets indicate that the enclosed text has been added over some pre-existing form. This addition may involve the conversion of one letter to another (for example, the conversion of to by the addition of an ascender), or the addition of new text in the place of a previous erasure. The overwritten text is treated as a deletion.


Downward sloping brackets indicate that the enclosed text has been added below the manuscript line.

addition| or |addition

A single vertical bar indicates that the text has been added at the beginning or end of a manuscript line. Text preceded by a single vertical bar has been added at the end of a manuscript line. Text followed by a single vertical bar has been added at the beginning of a manuscript line. Text between two vertical bars has been added “within the line” (i.e. between pre-existing letters or words).


Underlining indicates that text has been damaged. When damaged text is unclear or illegible, additional symbols are used.

In HTML, you indicate text is underlined as follows: <u>Underlined text</u>.


Angle brackets indicate that the enclosed text is unclear for some physical reason (e.g. rubbing, flaking, staining, poorly executed script).

In HTML, there is a distinction between angled brackets ( and ) and the greater than and less than signs (> and <). If you use the greater and less than signs, your text will not appear as the browser will think your text is an HTML code.

[supplied] or [emended]

Square brackets indicate that the enclosed text is being supplied or emended. “Supplied text” refers to the hypothetical restoration of original readings from a specific witness that have become lost or illegible due to some physical reason. “Emended text” refers to the replacement of legible text from extant witnesses by a modern editor or transcriber.

Colons represent text that is completely effaced or illegible. The number of colons used corresponds roughly to the number of letters the transcriber believes are missing. Note that colons are used for text that was in the manuscript but is not physically missing due to erasure or other damage. They are not used to indicate text that has not been copied into the manuscript but appears in other versions.


How to Study Old English (or Latin or any other dead language) for a Test or an Exam

Posted: Oct 08, 2007 19:10;
Last Modified: May 23, 2012 19:05

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Students who study Old English need to call on skills and learning techniques that they probably have not had much opportunity to use in other university-level literature classes, especially if this literature was in their native language. They need to know and keep in the front of their minds the grammar of both Old English and Modern English; they need to do intensive work with dictionaries and glossaries; and they are working with texts that can seem quite alien to modern sensibilities.

So how should you study in Old English class? Here are some tips I’ve compiled from personal experience and asking other scholars of my generation who have studied ancient or medieval languages (e.g. Latin, Greek, Old English, Old Frisian, etc.).

There is one principle running through them all: the point of an Old English class is to learn Old English. In everything you do you should keep the Old English at the centre of your work.

1. Do not write in your text book

The first tip is to avoid writing in your text book. When you come to study for a final exam, you will find a clean text book is much more useful for self-testing than one that has all your glosses marked on the page.

2. Write out the original text (in Old English) in your note book (1 side of the page, triple or quadruple spaced)

Writing out the target language is a useful habit to get into in the early days of your language study. It gets you used to the spelling conventions and trains your eye as to standard linguistic and lexical patterns. You may even find by the end of the semester that you are beginning to recognise unusual forms (particularly morphology) as you copy them out.

Triple or quadruple space your text in order to give you plenty of space for glossing, arrows, and corrections from your seminar.

You should write out your text on one side of the page only so that you can use the back of the previous page for additional notes: writing down words you find yourself looking up constantly (I used to write out every word I looked up), explanatory notes or idiomatic translations.

3. Gloss both sense and syntax.

As we’ve mentioned in class, translating from Old to Modern English involves two distinct types of translation: lexical/semantic and syntactic. It is not enough to know what a word means, you also need to understand what its inflections and position tell you it is doing in the sentence. Get in the habit early of writing both the meaning and information about grammatical form of words in the specific context you are translating—e.g. case, gender, number, person, tense, part of speech, etc. as applicable.

When you are glossing words, be sure to reflect the Old English syntax in your gloss. If you discover that a form like scipes is genitive singular, for example, gloss it as “of a ship” or “a ship’s” not as “ship”—this will help you put the sentence together in your head by preventing you from placing the form in the wrong place in your sentence.

This approach is particularly important with personal pronouns: the dative singular third person plural personal pronoun should be glossed initially as “by/with/to/for them” and not as “they” (which would be nominative, after all).

4. Leave the words in Old English word order and use arrows or numbers to indicate the correct order for your translation.

While it is tempting, especially in the early weeks of a class, to bring a finished running translation to class, this is less useful in the end than a glossed text. If you make a mistake in a finished translation, it can be difficult to correct—you need to rewrite your translation and this can be very difficult to do quickly in class. The problem is worse if you bring only a modern English translation to class: you’ll end up having no idea what went wrong because you won’t have a glossed Old English to consult.

If you leave the text in Old English word order and use arrows or numbers to help you figure out the order you should be using in your Modern English, you’ll find in-class correction much easier. Made a mistake in word order? Just scratch out the wrong arrows and add new ones showing the correct order.

5. Study by rereading everything—Two or three times!

The best way of studying for a translation exam is by rereading everything several times.

This may seem like an impossible task—how could you possibly reread in reading week or the week before an exam texts that took the entire class an entire semester to translate the first time?

In actual fact, you’ll find the translation goes much fast the second and third and fourth times:

  1. You know a lot more than you did at the beginning of the semester
  2. Your notebook has all the dictionary work and syntactic information and arrows you need, so you don’t need to look everything up again
  3. You know what the texts are about now, and, if you’ve been attending class, should recognise the difficult passages as soon as they show up in your reading.

I recommend the following approach to rereading your material

  1. On your first pass, read the Old English from your text book (fortunately you’ve not marked it up!). Keep your notebook open beside you. Consult your notebook as often as you need, but focus on your text book: you are trying to retranslate everything, not study your previous translations.
  2. On your second pass, try to read the Old English from your text book. This time, try not to consult your notebook except when you are really stuck. If you find yourself looking up words that you know you should know, write down these words and their translations on a list that you can use to study/memorise later.
  3. On your third and fourth passes try to read the Old English from your textbook with your notebook closed. If you really need to look something up, go ahead (either in your notebook or using the gloss at the back of the book), but push yourself not to. If you are stuck, try guessing before you look things up. Guessing is also a good skill to practice before you go into the exam!

By the time you’ve completed your third or fourth pass you are as prepared as you are ever going to be: get a good night’s sleep and come to the exam with a clear head!


Grammar Essentials 2: Parts of Speech (Word Classes)

Posted: Jan 04, 2007 12:01;
Last Modified: Jan 25, 2014 14:01

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Words are different from each other in meaning—car and unwelcome mean different things, after all.

But they can also differ from each other in more than meaning: they can also differ in the way they are used in sentences.

Thus sentences can be about a word like car more easily than they can be about a word like unwelcome:

With a word like car, we also can talk about one or more examples: a car is here, cars are here. We can describe its qualities using other words like red, fast, or good: “red cars are here”, “fast cars are here”, “good cars are here”. And a word like car can be said to possess things: the car’s tires, cars’ steering wheels

None of this is true of a word like unwelcome. But unwelcome can be used in ways a word like car cannot: it can be used to describe qualities of other words (The unwelcome news, This news was unwelcome, vs. *The car news or [*This news was car); it can be made more intense using words like very or really (it was very unwelcome, vs. *It was very car).

The real test, of course, is that the two words can’t be switched in a sentence. We couldn’t replace car with unwelcome in the example above, and it is impossible2 to replace unwelcome with car in this following sentence:

It is possible, on the other hand, to replace car and unwelcome with other words, even if the meaning of the new words is nothing like that of the words they replace:

So why can car be replaced by bartender and not unwelcome or good? And why can unwelcome be replaced by good but not bartender or car?

The answer is that car and bartender, on the one hand, and unwelcome and good, on the other, are different types of words. As we will learn, car and bartender show in normal use most of the properties we associate with nouns while unwelcome and good show in normal use most of the properties we associate with adjectives. The fact that you can replace car with bartender and unwelcome with good shows that you can replace nouns with nouns and adjectives with adjectives more easily than you can replace words of one type with words of a different type.

This tutorial explores this property in greater depth. Traditionally, word classes have been distinguished on semantic grounds (e.g. “Nouns are the names of person places or things”; “verbs are action words”). As this tutorial will demosntrate, these traditional definitions, while not usually wrong, are often quite ambiguous. This is because the class a word belongs to is largely a question of syntax rather than meaning, especially given the ease with which English can move words from one class to another without any change in morphological form.

By the end of this tutorial you should be able to distinguish among word classes confidently.

Previous: Inflections (inflectional morphology) | Next: Grammatical relations

Words and Phrases

If we continue testing like this, we will also soon discover not only that some words are more easily exchanged with one other than with others, but also that individual words can be used to replace entire groups of closely connected words (and vice versa). For example, the word bartenders can replace more than cars in the following sentences; it also can replace entire groups of closely connected words involving cars—groups like the cars, the blue cars, and even the blue cars that sold so well last year:

On the other hand, we still can’t use unwelcome to replace cars:

If we experiment, we will see that we can’t replace just any group of words using bartender: the words need to be somehow more closely related to each other than any other part of the sentence and involve a word like car. In the following sentence, for example, we can use bartenders to replace the blue cars, but not blue cars are on:

Clearly there is something about the words the blue cars that makes us think of them as being more closely connected to each other than to anything else in the sentence. And just as the fact that we can replace car with bartender but not unwelcome in the sentences above suggests that there must be something similar about car and bartender, so to the fact that we can use bartenders to replace cars and groups of closely related words like the cars or the blue cars suggests that there must be something similar about the single word cars and these particular combinations of words.

As we shall discover, combinations of closely connected words that behave in much the same way as individual words are known as Phrases. As we define the different types of words below, we will see that each type of word has an associated type of phrase to which many of the same rules apply. This principle will become very important when we come to talk about how sentences are made.

Open and Closed Word Classes

Another difference that separates words is the question of how easy or difficult it is to make up new examples. If I want to replace car or cars in the above sentences with a new word that I will make up myself—say slipshlup—I can do so very easily:

Likewise, it is not hard to make up a word like unwelcome. How about griopy?

But if it easy to make up new words parallel to cars and unwelcome, it is much harder—impossible, in fact—to make up replacements for words like the, and, but or he, she, and it. For example, try repeating the following sentence with the following made-up words: hin for the, roop for and, and fries for she.

Doesn’t make much sense, does it?

The Parts of Speech/Word Classes

If we compare English words in the way discussed above3, we will discover that it is possible to divide words and closely associated groups of words like them into eight main types, known as the parts of speech or word classes (a minor ninth category contains interjections. like “oh dear!” and “damn!” and is not discussed further in this tutorial). We will also discover that these Word Classes themselves fall into two larger groups based on whether or not we can easily add new examples: the Open Class contains word classes that we easily can add to—nouns, adjectives, most types of verbs, and adverbs; the Closed or Structure Class contains words, like prepositions, pronouns, conjunctions, most determiners, and some adverbs, to which we can not add easily:

Class Word Class Examples
Open Class Nouns car, bartender, experience
Adjectives unwelcome, good, big, blue
Verbs run, glide, listen, jog
Adverbs quickly, well, sometimes, badly
Closed Class Determiners the, this, mine, Susan’s
Prepositions up, underneath, on, with
Pronouns I, they, mine, each, these
Conjunctions and, but, if, because

Open Classes

Nouns and Noun Phrases

Nouns are naming words. Traditionally they are defined as the names of persons, places, and things, but their actual range is much broader: they can name ideas, moods, and feelings (e.g. neoconservatism, anger, and affection); actions (the hiking), or pretty much anything else known or unknown (e.g. Slipshlup, above).

Fortunately, given how hard it can be to define them by what they describe, nouns and noun phrases can be defined relatively easily by their form and the contexts in which they appear. In particular they show one or more of the following unique features:

  1. Nouns are the only words that use “apostrophe s” (i.e. ‘s or s’) to show possession. In the following sentence, we know that Dave, Neoconservatism, and anger are all nouns because they indicate possession by adding -‘s: Dave’s book, Neoconservatism’s origins, anger’s solution.
  2. Nouns are the only words that can be modified by adjectives: blue cars, unwelcome news, clever Sally.
  3. Nouns are the only words that can be made plural by adding -s: DVD : DVDs, cup : cups, theology : theologies.
  4. Nouns are the only words that can be pointed to by determiners. Determiners, as we will see below, are words such as the and a, that and this, and possessives such as his or Brigette’s that point out specific instances of a noun, e.g. the boat, a slipshlup, that hiking, Brigette’s DVD, his anger.
  5. Nouns and Noun Phrases are the only words that can be replaced by a pronoun: The deer grazed quietly at the side of the road : It grazed quietly at the side of the road

Other tests are not entirely exclusive, for example:

  1. Nouns and pronouns are the only words that can function as the subject of a sentence: The car ran through the red light : It ran through the red light.

It is important to realise in applying these tests that not all words will fit all categories. Some nouns do not form their plural with -s, for example: e.g. child : children; sheep : sheep. What is important is that one or more of these tests be true.


Verbs are traditionally defined as “action words.” Even more than with nouns, however, this definition fails to cover more than a narrow range of possible examples or rule out obvious counter-examples. While some verbs do express action (e.g. she hit the wall with a hammer), others do not (e.g. I am the king, he knows his baseball). Moreover, actions can also be named by nouns: This hiking is very hard; I don’t like all this hitting).

Like nouns, verbs can be defined more accurately on grammatical criteria. Particularly useful ones include:

  1. Verbs are the only words that show tense (i.e. past or present): he loves cheesecake : he loved cheesecake; I drive fast : I drove fast.
  2. Verbs are the only words that indicate third person singular, present by adding -s at the end: I drive, he drives
  3. Verbs are the only words that can be made into participles (i.e. adjective forms) using the endings -ed, -en, or -ing: I love : loving : loved; They drive : driving : driven

Verb Phrases include the verb plus all objects and modifiers. These can get quite large. One test for some verb phrases is replacement by do in questions designed to be answered with “yes” or “no”.

  1. Bobbi loves getting presents in the morning, does she?

In asking the question “does she”, the speaker is summing up the whole idea “loves getting presents in the morning” by a single form of do. This shows that “loves getting presents in the morning” is a Verb Phrase.


Adjectives describe qualities to nouns. One easy test, though it is also true of adverbs, is placing very or really in front:

  1. Adjectives and adverbs are the only words that can be made more intense by adding very or really in front: the really fast car was very red

Here are some tests that are only true of adjectives:

  1. Adjectives are the only words that can have endings to indicate that something is more or most in relation to some quality: the fast car was red : the faster car was green : the fastest car was blue. Of course some adjectives don’t use -er and/or -est: more unwelcome not *unwelcomer; best nor goodest.
  2. Adjectives and adjective phrases are the only words that can appear between determiners (like the, a, or possessives) and nouns: the fast car, Dave’s really nice cake, a very sad clown.


Adverbs are traditionally described as words that modify verbs. In fact there are three different kinds of adverbs, each of which can be distinguished by context.

Intensifying adverbs

Intensifying adverbs are words like very that are used to qualify adjectives and other adverbs. They do not qualify verbs directly: his very angry cousin vs. *he very jumps. Some intensifying adverbs can be used with slightly different meaning to modify verbs: he skates really fast, he really skates.

Sentence adverbs

Sentence adverbs qualify sentences and clauses: Unfortunately, the boat sank; I don’t want to, however; then he knew for sure.

Verbal adverbs

Verbal adverbs qualify verbs: He jumped quickly, he wrote well. Like adjectives, they can be intensified by words like very: she drove very quickly, Beatrice cooks really well.

Closed class words


Determiners are words that are used to point out specific instances of a noun. They include the articles (a, the), demonstratives (this/these, that/those), and all possessive nouns and pronouns (this means that a form like Dave’s in Dave’s book is both a noun and a determiner).

The test for determiners is very straightforward:


Prepositions serve to connect nouns or noun phrases (e.g. cars or the car) to a clause or sentence. Examples include up a mountain, down the street, with friends, beside him, without a wooden paddle.

In English, there are a relatively small number of simple prepositions, such as up, down, with. There are also a number of phrasal or compound prepositions, especially in spoken English: outside of the English, apart from Dave’s cat, round and round the mountain.

Many of the prepositions can be memorised. Otherwise, prepositions can be recognised by their syntactic context:


Pronouns are words that can substitute for nouns or noun phrases. Examples include personal pronouns like she/her, I/me/my, they/them/their; demonstratives like this/these, that/those; and other forms, such as each, none, and one:

  1. My sister is here. She wants to talk to you.
  2. The green carrots are probably rotten. I wouldn’t eat them.
  3. My books are here. These over here are yours.
  4. The members of the committee were awstruck. None had expected this.

Because pronouns replace nouns, they can be identified using some of the same tests. In particular,


Conjunctions are used to join grammatical units. Unlike prepositions, which join nouns or noun phrases to sentences, conjunctions always join elements of a similar kind: nouns and noun phrases to other nouns and noun phrases, verbs to verbs, adjectives to adjectives: it is raining cats and dogs (noun to noun); I neither pushed nor pulled (verb to verb); I went out because he didn’t come in (clause to clause).


(Click here for Answers)

The following exercises test you on your ability to apply the above material. The real test of your knowledge of grammar is not whether you are able to memorise terms and definitions, but whether you can supply examples and describe real-life sentences.

1. Place each word in the following sentence in its Word Class using the above tests. Which Word Class(es) is or are missing?:

Over the mountain lived a former mechanic. Suzy forgets his name.

2. When Hamlet says that bad acting “out-herods Herod” (Hamlet, III.ii), meaning to rage and rant, he is using a proper name for a verb. What tests can we use to show that out-herods is a verb?

3. Although it is impossible for individuals to create new Closed or Structure Class words, the English language has acquired new pronouns over the course of its history: the entire plural pronoun system they, them, their comes from Old Norse (the original English version was hie, hira and him); she is of unknown origin (the original was heo).

Can you suggest some reasons why it is possible for languages to add or change such words but not for individuals?


1 An asterisk (i.e. *) in front of a word or group of words means “This word or group of words is not something people would say”. An explanation mark (i.e. !) in front of a word or a group of words means “It is doubtful that this is something people would say” or “People might say this, but only in special circumstances”

2 “Impossible” may seem too definite at first. In fact it is almost always possible to think of a situation in which a grammatical rule might be shown to be wrong: for example, let’s say we were talking about a band called “The Unwelcome“—then they probably could replace car in our example sentences.

As a rule, however, you should always be suspicious of counter-examples that require you to create a “back-story” to explain the conditions under which an exception might work. The fact that you need a story to explain the context is evidence that the counter-example is very unusual in normal speech.

3 You could say “The bartenders’ road” or “The bartender’s road”, but that would not really count, since cars in the original sentence did not have an “apostrophe s.” In the starting sentence, cars was plural, not possessive or plural possessive.

4 Traditionally, students learned to categorise the parts of speech on the basis of meaning. For example, nouns were said to be “the name of a person, place, or thing,” while verbs were described as “action words.” While there is some truth to these definitions in many cases, the distinctions break down very easily in others. The fighting is a noun, even though it describes an action; is, on the other hand, is a verb, even though it describes a state.

Since words are a feature of grammar, the method used here attempts to identify them on the basis of their grammatical properties: the roles they can play in the sentence, the inflections they can take, how they can be converted from one part of speech to another.

5 “Always”, except in poetry, where they can sometimes follow the words they connect to the sentence.

6 This rule—pronouns never end in apostrophe -s—might be useful in helping you avoid the common stylistic/prescriptive grammar error of using it’s (actually the abbreviation for it is) in your writing instead of the possessive form, its. In speaking, of course, you can’t hear any difference.

Previous: Inflections (inflectional morphology)


Grammar Essentials 1: Inflections (Inflectional Morphology)

Posted: Jan 04, 2007 11:01;
Last Modified: Jan 25, 2014 14:01

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For the most part, English uses word order to indicate the relationship among words in sentences. When I say “The boy bit the dog”, people listening to me know that it was the boy who did the biting because The boy comes first in the sentence. Likewise, they know that it was the dog that was bitten because the dog comes after bit.

If I reverse the positions of boy and dog the sentence changes meaning as well: now the dog is doing the biting:

But not all relationships among words in sentences are indicated by word order. Sometimes we use special forms of a word or add sounds or syllables (known as inflections) as to the end to indicate particular relationships among words1.

For example, if I say “She broke the girl’s hockey stick”, we know that the hockey stick was owned by the girl because the word girl comes before the hockey stick and has an -’s on it2.

Likewise, we know that she—whoever she might be—broke the girl’s stick both because the word comes first in the sentence and, more importantly, because the word is she and not some other form like her; in fact, if I replace she with her, but make no other changes, the sentence will not make sense to most speakers of English3:

Endings such as -s and changes in form such as between she and her are known broadly as inflections. English now uses very few and relies mostly on word order to express such relationships (other languages and earlier stages of the English language rely much more heavily on inflections than does Modern English).

This tutorial looks at English inflectional morphology. That is to say the grammatical endings used in English.

Previous: Introduction | Next: Parts of Speech (Word classes)

The most common inflection by far in Modern English is -s. This is used with or without an apostrophe to indicate any one of a number of relationships, depending on the type of words involved and the context in which they are found.

On nouns (words like boy and music “the boy” and “good music”), for example, -s is commonly used to indicate

On verbs (words like run in “he runs quickly”), s is used to indicate that the sentence is taking place in the present and is third person singular (i.e. about something that be described using he, she, or it, rather than I or you).

Another inflection used with verbs includes -ed, which is used with some verbs to indicate that the sentence is happening in the past (e.g., “I loved him” compared to “I love him”). Some verbs use changes in form to indicate the same thing (e.g. “They sang well” compared to “They sing well”). Inflections or changes in form can also be used to indicate whether a statement reflects a real or non-real situation (e.g. “She is a police officer; she is nice”, where the situation described is assumed to be real, compared to “Were she a police officer, she would be nice”, where the situation described is not real—i.e. she isn’t a police officer and isn’t nice).

Many adjectives (words like tall in “the tall girl”) use the inflections -er and -est to indicate comparison: “the taller girl” is more tall than “the tall girl” and “the tallest girl” is the most tall of all.

The words that show the most complete set of inflections, however, are the pronouns (words like he, them, _her, she, and its). Here, different forms of the word are used to indicate a number of different types of relationships whether something is the subject or object of a verb (I in “I hit Dave” against me in “Dave hit me”), singular or plural (he against they), or possessive singular against possessive plural (her against their).


As the above suggests, inflections found on different types of word can mean different things. The -s on runs in “he runs quickly”, for example, means something different than the -s on girls in “The girls went to the game”. Likewise, similar types of words can sometimes use different inflections or changes to indicate the same type of relationship. While car and church both use -(e)s to indicate plural, for example, child uses -ren (children) and sheep uses nothing at all (“one sheep, ten sheep”). Sometimes, different versions of English can use different forms for the same word. North American and British people, for example, differ in whether you should say “I dove into the water” or “I dived into the water.” Often these differences reflect forms from earlier stages of the language or are the result of changes in the history of the language.

The following tables are known as paradigms. These lay out information about inflections for each type of word.

Because this is an introductory tutorial, I have only presented the most common examples of each type of word. An exercise at the end asks you to come up with some more unusual examples.

Pronoun Inflections

Pronouns are words like I and them that can stand for nouns in sentences (for example: “This is my sister. She is the tallest woman I know,” where she in the second sentence stands for sister in the first sentence). Pronouns have the most detailed inflectional system in English: depending on the specific example, they can show distinctions to indicate whether a word is singular or plural, the subject or object of a sentence, or singular or plural possessive.

The most complete set of pronouns is found in the first person (i.e. I and we) and the third person singular masculine (i.e. he) and plural (i.e. they). The other pronouns all have more overlap or unchanging forms.

Number Function in sentence Form
(i.e. one)
Subject I you he she it
Object me you him her it
Possession my your his her its
(i.e. more than one)
Subject we you they
Object us you them
Possession our your their

Noun Inflections

Nouns (words like girl, woman, child, and sheep: a more complete definition is given in the next tutorial) have next most complete system. For most nouns (there are some exceptions), we can distinguish singular against plural and between possession and all other functions. Note how in the noun paradigm, the same form of each noun appears for the subject and the object:

Number Function in sentence Form
Singular Subject or Object girl woman child sheep
Possession girl’s woman‘s child’s sheep’s
Plural Subject or Object girls women children sheep
Possession girls’ women’s children’s sheep’s

Adjective Inflections

Adjectives (words like blue, quick, or symbolic that can be used to describe nouns) used to have many of the same inflections found on the nouns and pronouns. In Modern English, however, the only inflections that remain are used to indicate degree of comparison and not all adjectives can show even this: while most short adjective can use -er and -est, longer adjectives use more and most before the word in question:

Degree Form
Positive blue quick symbolic
Comparative bluer or
more blue
quicker more symbolic
Superlative bluest quickest most symbolic

Verb Conjugations

Verbs are words like [he] loves, [I] think. Inflections on verbs indicate tense (past vs. present: he loves vs. he loved), number (singular vs. plural: he loves vs. they love), and person (first vs. second vs. third: I think vs. you think vs. she thinks or the boy thinks).

Inflections can also be used to distinguish forms of the verb that are used in different kinds of contexts: for example, adding -ing to a verb makes a form that can be used as a noun or an adjective (compare “I fight” against “the fighting ended today” or “the fighting schoolteachers were pulled apart by the principal”). This form can also be used with forms of the verb to be to indicate that the verb is describing something on-going (compare “I walk” with “I am walking” and “I walked” with “I was walking”). This difference is known as aspect.

A similar form can be built using either -ed or -en with a change in the form of the verb (e.g. “loved” and “driven”)4. Forms like “loved” or “driven” can be used as adjectives (e.g. “the loved child” and “the driven snow”) or, when combined with forms of to be, to indicate that the subject was the acted upon rather than acting (compare “I drove the team to the game” against “I was driven by the team to the game“—in the first the subject I was in control of the car; in the second, it was in a car controlled by the team). This contrast is known as voice: “I drove the team” is active voice, “I was driven by the team” is passive voice).

driven and loved, driving and loving are known as participles. driven and loved are past participles (because they refer to the past) and living and driving are present participles because they refer to the present,

The participles, both past and present, are known as non-finite forms of the verb. They are called this because they do not have subjects when they are used in sentences5. Non-finite forms can be contrasted, therefore, to finite forms of the verb, such as (I) drive, (we) drove, (Bob and Henry) thought, (Martha) wins. These are finite because they do agree with subjects.

There is one more non-finite form of the verb, the infinitive. This is the “dictionary form” of the verb (i.e. the form you would look under if you wanted to find out what drive means). In English, it appears in two forms, with and without to: “I want to drive” and “I can drive very well, thank you!”.

As the difference between I love : I loved and I drive : I drove shows, most verbs in English can be placed in one of two main categories: verbs that change into the past by adding -ed (like love) and those that change into the past by changing the form of their stem (like drive). These two types of verbs are known as regular verbs (like love) and irregular verbs (like drive)—though it is not really true to say that drive is irregular, as other verbs follow similar patterns:

Finite vs. Non-finite Tense Number Person Form
Finite Present Singular First and Second
(I / you)
love drive
(he / she / it / the woman)
loves drives
Plural All
(we / you / they / women)
love drive
Past Singular and
(I / you /he / she / it / the woman /
we / you / they / women)
loved drove


Finite vs. Non-finite Grammatical Form Tense Form
Non-finite Participle
(i.e. can be used as adjective or noun)
Present loving driving
Past loved driven
(to) love (to) drive


The following exercises test you on your ability to apply the above material. The real test of your knowledge of grammar is not whether you are able to memorise terms and definitions, but whether you can supply examples and describe real-life sentences.

1. Give examples of four different inflections in sentences. Make sure you can give show on a verb, one on a noun, one on an adjective, and one on a pronoun.

2. How many different ways can -s (with or without an apostrophe) be used as an inflection in English? Give one example in a sentence for each.

3. Give an example in a sentence of a noun that does not use -s to indicate plural

4. Indicate the third person singular present word or words in the following sentence:

Snow White sees the seven dwarves, but they don’t know that she knows who they are.

5. Give an example of an “irregular” verb like drive.

6. What is the plural of these?


1 I say sounds and syllables because I am thinking of how we speak. In writing, of course, we add letters and other symbols (like apostrophes) to do this. In speaking it is sounds.

2 Actually, if I say “She broke the girl’s hockey stick” there isn’t really an apostrophe—there is just an -s on the end.

3 Some speakers of particular types of English might be able to say a sentence like her broke the hockey stick in informal use, but you would not expect to see it in writing in an international or educated context.

4 Although it doesn’t look like there has been a change in the form of the verb between drive and driven, there has been: the sound between dr and v is different. In drive it sounds like the i in bite; in driven like the i in bit. Other verbs make the change more obvious: e.g. speak vs. spoken.

5 You might think that driven does have a subject in the sentence Martha was driven on a train; Martha is the person who was driven after all! Martha is the subject, but not of driven: she is the subject of was. You can test this by trying it in the present: “I am driven” vs. “she is driven“—driven doesn’t change to reflect the change in subject, but look at am vs. is.

Previous: Introduction | Next: Parts of Speech (Word classes)


Grammar: A Guide to the Essentials

Posted: Jan 03, 2007 21:01;
Last Modified: May 23, 2012 19:05

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This tutorial is intended for high school, college, and University students who need a quick guide the essentials of English grammar. Its goal is to help you understand the core grammatical terminology used in textbooks and lectures in courses on foreign languages, the History of English, Old English, or other medieval and classical languages.

The grammar taught here is descriptive rather than prescriptive—that is to say that its focus is on teaching you the terminology used to describe how language is actually used rather than current attitudes towards what is often called “correct grammar.” In this tutorial, “he done real good” or “she didn’t do nothing wrong” are considered legitimate English sentences, even though neither would be acceptable in most high school, college, or university essays1.

This tutorial is also not a complete course in descriptive grammar. In focussing on the essentials, I will ignore or give a very rapid overview of many important aspects of the subject. This guide will help you understand the most basic terminology. You’ll need to do additional research or take a course on descriptive grammar to find out more. You will also find if you know some linguistics or grammar at any level of detail that I sometimes gloss over controversy. Nothing I say here should be wrong (if you find something, please let me know). But there is almost always much more to be said!

The guide is broken into two parts right now:

In the future I hope to add additional sections.


1 The study of so-called correct grammar is better described as style. There are numerous style guides available. See for example, the Library of Congress subject heading: “English language—Style—Handbooks, manuals, etc.” at


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