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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Morphology and destiny: On words for snow and Sapir-Whorf

Posted: Jan 28, 2014 11:01;
Last Modified: Jan 28, 2014 12:01


We had a lot of fun in my grammar class yesterday.

We were beginning a unit on morphology. The night before class, I had carefully prepared lecture notes on my tablet (I’m using a new textbook this year and taking the opportunity to revise all my lesson plans).

For reasons known only to my tablet, however, the notes I prepared were gone when I showed up in class yesterday morning , meaning that I had to wing it after all. Since my goal for the lecture was to derive a typology of English morphology from my students innate grammatical knowledge, I decided simply to write a bunch of different types of words on the board and see where things took us: dog, books, do, does, revert, convert, I’ll, we’d, and… undoifications.

Turned out this last was an inspired choice. One student clapped every time we managed to put one of the sub-forms into a meaningful sentence and the student blogs are full ideas stoked by the example: one student went home and impressed his or her parents with the newly acquired ability to break the word down and demonstrate how its component morphemes worked; another said that while it hadn’t entirely convinced her she should become an English major, it was at least evidence she should stay in the class.

A third mentioned the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and the (admittedly) extremely interesting idea that a language’s grammatical and semantic categories might influence how a native speaker of a language thinks.

This gave me the opportunity to bring out one of my favorite articles on this subject, Geoffrey K. Pullum’s “The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax”, Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 7 (1989): 275-281 (The article is also available in Pullum’s Book by the same name and as a self-archived posting on his University website).

The “Vocubulary Hoax” is the claim—still very often repeated—that “Eskimos” have many more words for snow than speakers of other languages such as English. And that this large vocabulary allows them to have conceptual categories in relation to snow that speakers of other languages cannot easily share (I use the term “Eskimo” here rather than Innuit, because, as Pullum shows, the claim has nothing to do with the actual Innuit: it is really about our perceptions of “the other”).

As Pullum shows (based on work by Laura Martin), the origins of this claim lie in the introduction to Franz Boas’s 1911 Handbook of American Indian Languages (oddly misidentified in Pullum as the Handbook of American Indians, which would be a completely different thing), where he discusses how there is no consistency in the phonological or morphological representation of concepts among languages:

It seems important at this point in our considerations to emphasize the fact that the groups of ideas expressed by specific phonetic groups show very material differences in different languages, and do not conform by any means to the same principles of classification. To take again the example of English, we find that the idea of WATER is expressed in a great variety of forms; one term serves to express water as a LIQUID; another one, water in the form of a large expanse (LAKE); others, water running in a large body or in a small body (RIVER and BROOK)); still other terms express water in the form of RAIN, DEW, WAVE, and FOAM. It is perfectly conceivable that this variety of ideas, each of which is expressed by a single independent term in English, might be expressed in other languages by derivations from the same term.

Another example of the same kind, the words for SNOW in Eskimo, may be given. Here we find one word, aput, expressing SNOW ON THE GROUND; another one, quana, FALLING SNOW; a third one, PIQSIRPOQ, DRIFTING SNOW; and a fourth one, quimuqsuq, A SNOWDRIFT. (25-26)

The point he seems to be trying to make is the one Saussure was making at almost the same time in his course on General Linguistics about the arbitrary nature of language (Boas: “Thus it happens that each language, from the point of view of another language, may be entirely arbitrary in its classifications,” p. 26). What he was not trying to say is that language determines consciousness or controls perception. Indeed, in the final sections of his introduction, Boas, who is quite concerned with such questions about “the primitive mind,” considers and dismisses the idea:

First of all, it may be well to discuss the relation between language and thought. It has been claimed that the consciseness and clearness of thought of a people depend to a great extent on their language… It seems very very questionable in how far the restriction of the use of certain grammatical forms can really be conceived of as a hindrance in the formulation of generalized ideas…. (64).

It does not seem likely, therefore, that there is any direct relation between the culture of a tribe and the language they speak, except in so far as the form of the language will be moulded by the state of culture, but not in so far as a certain state of culture is conditioned by morphological traits of the language (67).

In other words, in his passage on English and “Eskimo” words for water and snow respectively, Boas’s point is simply that languages form words for related concepts in one of two arbitrary ways: by creating a series of words based on a common root or, as in these two cases, using completely different roots to express closely related ideas. While he does think that the semantic range of words available to a language will be derived in part from the culture and environment in which its speakers find themselves (we’d hardly expect a language to have words for things or situations its speakers have never come into contacts with), he does not think that this condition is deterministic. As he argues, his own fieldwork suggests that speakers of a given language are perfectly able to grasp and discuss new concepts and experiences when these are presented to them, regardless of the syntax and morphology of their languages (see in particular pp. 64-67).

Ironically, according to Pullum, Whorf formulated his idea that language does dictate understanding in part in response to Boas’ example of Innuit snow vocabulary—even though Boas is, in a certain sense, bringing it forward as a way of anticipating and disproving the argument. His point is not that the Innuit have more words for snow than English speakers do; as Pullum points out, English Speakers have words for many of these and other types of snow: snow, snowfall, snow drift, powder, slush, crud, blizzard) and it seems highly unlikely that the Innuit have ever been amazed at the fact that English speakers have different words for big and small rivers.


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

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


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.


Basic Old English Grammar

Posted: Sep 18, 2008 17:09;
Last Modified: May 23, 2012 18:05


Old English as an Inflectional Language

Old English and Modern English can be deceptively similar from a syntactic point of view. In particular, word order frequently is the same in the two languages (though Old English is actually probably closer in some aspects of its word order to other Low German languages such as Dutch). This means that it is often possible to translate simple declarative sentences from Old English by simply looking up the meaning of each word in a dictionary.

This similarity is deceptive, however, because speakers of Modern English and speakers of Old English thought of their languages’ grammar in different ways. To speakers of Modern English, word order is by far the most important syntactic clue to a sentence’s grammar: we always try to make the subject of a sentence out of the first word or phrase and the verb out of the second, even if other features are telling us otherwise.

To speakers of Old English, on the other hand, word order was only one clue to a sentence’s grammatical sense—and even then not necessarily the most important: a speaker of Old English would pay as much or more attention to a word’s inflections (special endings—like “apostrophe s” in Modern English—that indicate a word’s grammatical function in a sentence) in deciphering a sentence as to a word’s position in the sentence.

This can be best illustrated by an example. Consider the following sentence:

me broke the bridge

Most speakers of Modern English, would understand the above sentence as meaning “I broke the bridge.” Although the “subject” me is actually what most standard varieties of English would consider to be an object form, its position at the beginning of the sentence trumps this consideration: the word comes first, so it must be the subject; the bridge, likewise, must be the object, because it follows the verb—even though its form would also suit a subject. In other words, no speaker of Modern English would allow the information provided by the sentence’s morphology (the form of the words and their endings) to overrule conflicting information from the sentence’s word order. Except in the most extreme cases—such as in the following sentence, which an informal survey suggests most speakers of Modern English have trouble understanding—speakers of Modern English always resolve conflicts between word order and morphology in word order’s favour:

The girl’s breaks the bridge

Speakers of Old English, on the other hand, seem to have privileged morphology over word order. When information from a word’s position in the sentence and its morphology conflict, morphology generally triumphs.

Here are two translations of the first example sentence into Old English:

me bræc þære bricg
me bræc seo bricg

Semantically (in terms of meaning), the words in each sentence are identical to the first Modern English example: me means me, bræc means broke, seo and þære are both forms of a word meaning the, and bricg means bridge.

Syntactically, however, only the second sentence makes any kind of sense in Old English—and it means “the bridge broke me.” If we keep me, the object form of the first person pronoun, as the first word of the sentence, the sentence can never mean “I broke the bridge” in Old English1; to an Anglo-Saxon, a subject is only a subject if it has the correct morphological form. In the first Old English sentence, all the words except the verb broke are in the object form (þære is an object form of “the” in Old English): to a speaker of Old English, it is as hard to decipher as “The girl’s breaks the bridge” is to us. In the second Old English example, seo bricg is in the subject form (seo is a subject form of “the”). To an Anglo-Saxon, that means it must be the subject, despite its odd place in the sentence (Anglo-Saxons prefer Subject-Verb-Object word order, just like we do, even if they can understand sentences that violate it).

What this means is that in learning to read Old English, we must train ourselves to privilege morphology over word order. If the endings don’t make sense, we have to train ourselves to find the sentence as being as non-sensical as “The girl’s breaks the bridge,” regardless of whether we think we could come up with a sensible sentence by just following the word order.

It also means that we will have to learn some inflectional morphology (i.e. the pattern of endings, like “apostrophe s” in Modern English, that indicate a word’s grammatical function in a sentence). Modern English has relatively little inflectional morphology: nouns can have ‘s or s’ for the possessive and indicate singular and plural; verbs can use the presence or absence of s to indicate person in the present (i.e. whether the subject is “I”, “you” or “he/she/it.” Only in the case of the personal pronouns (I/we, you/you, he, she, it/they) do we have a more complete set of endings that allow us to do things like distinguish among subjects and objects (a more thorough discussion of basic Modern English morphology can be found in my tutorial Grammar Essentials I: Inflections/Inflectional Morphology):

First person pronoun
Number Function Form
Singular Subject I
Object/Indirect Object me
Possessive my
Plural Subject we
Object/Indirect Object us
Possessive our
Second person pronoun
Number Function Form
Singular Subject you
Object/Indirect Object you
Possessive your
Plural Subject you
Object/Indirect Object you
Possessive your
Third person pronoun
Number Function Form
Singular Subject he she it
Object/Indirect Object him her it
Possessive his her its
Plural Subject they
Object/Indirect Object them
Possessive their

In Old English, similar patterns of inflections are found on other types of words as well: articles (more properly in this case known as demonstrative pronouns), like this, that, and the; nouns; and adjectives. In the same way we can distinguish between subject and object forms of a pronoun by form (even if we sometimes ignore this information), so too Anglo-Saxons can distinguish between subject, object, possessive, and even indirect object forms of their pronouns, nouns, and adjectives (you can brush-up on your knowledge of Modern English word classes with my tutorial Grammar Essentials 2: Parts of Speech/Word Classes).

Learning these forms is a major goal of any Old English course. As you progress with our translations you will become increasingly familiar with the different forms for the various parts of speech. To begin with, however, we can start by learning the endings on the demonstrative and personal pronouns. These both (in the case of the personal pronouns) are the most similar to what we already know as speakers of Modern English, and, fortunately, show endings that we will see over and over again with other forms.

A note about terminology

In the above discussion, I have used the terms “subject,” “object,” “indirect object” when speaking of both word order and morphology. In actual fact this is not really accurate: subject, object, indirect object, and possessive are really syntactic functions (words that describe what a word does in the sentence) rather than morphological categories (some of which can perform more than one function). From now on, we will be using the more tradition inflectional terminology to describe cases:

Syntactic Function Morphological Form
Subject Nominative
Object Accusative
Possession Genitive
Indirect/Prepositional Object Dative

Each morphological form can perform more than one function—in Old English you use the subject form to call people as well as indicate the subject of a sentence, for example. But as a rule of thumb, the above table shows the main equivalences.



1 “Never” is a large claim. In actual fact, of course, writers of Old English, like writers of any other language occasionally commit solecisms and in the very late period the endings became more confused.


Grammar Essentials 2: Parts of Speech (Word Classes)

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


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


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


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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