Grammar Points

Mr Micawber often adds a new language point here for you to think about! (Courtesy of Cambridge Grammar of English, by Carter & McCarthy)


There are many idiomatic expressions for indicating maximum degree. These are very common in spoken English:

His throat was bone dry.
This car is brand new.
He was fast asleep.
It was pitch dark in the cellar.
The china is pure white.
This chair is rock hard.
I got soaking wet without my umbrella.
The streaker was stark naked.
Grandfather is stone deaf.
I was still wide awake at 3 a.m.


The most common gradable adjectives occur as pairs of antonyms that denote the upper and lower parts of an endless scale.  There are no maximum or minimum point on this scale.  Therefore, adjectives of this kind cannot be modified by degree adverbs indicating totality, such as completely, entirely, utterly, totally, wholly:

It's going to be a totally large stadium. — No
It's going to be a very large stadioum.
— OK

Some other gradable adjectives can denote properties on scales which have a minimum (zero) and/or maximum value:

He is completely blind.
It was utterly impossible to do!


Most everyday adjectives are gradable—that is, their meanings can vary in degree or extent:

He is very tall.
She is smarter than her brother.
This shirt is a little dirty

Non-gradable adjectives cannot be modified in this way; they are absolute and cannot be more or less than they are:

My cat is male. (NOT e.g., 'very male')
My uncle is dead.
This book is unique


The most typical premodifiers of adjectives are adverbs expressing degree:

I was pretty upset at the time
I think my jeans are a bit damp

The major exception is 'enough', which is a post-modifier:

It's not long enough.

Most everyday adjectives are gradable, i.e., they denote qualities, etc., that vary in their degree or extent:

He's very tall.
He's not so tall.
He's taller than his father.


A lexical verb may combine with a particle to form a multi-word verb which behaves as a single unit. The particle may be an adverb or a preposition.

This calls for a celebration.
They've been turned down once already.
Did your parents get away all right?
I think I'm going to drop off soon

Some multi-word verbs have two particles:

He never looks down on the homeless.
I don't think you should put up with his insolence

Multi-word verbs fall into three main classes: phrasal verbs, prepositional verbs, and phrasal-prepositional verbs.


The core modal verbs are can, could, may, might, shall, should, will, would and must. Core modals are used with the base (dictionary) form of a main verb without to:

I must see him at once! (I must to see him)

Core modal verbs are not preceded by auxiliary verbs:

Can you help me, please? (Do you can help me)

Modal verbs may be followed by auxiliary be and have indicating aspect and voice:

I might have gotten killed!
The gates will be locked at ten pm

There are also semi-modal verbs such as dare, need, ought to and used to.


Auxiliary verbs have contractions that are widely used in spoken English.

BE: I'm, you're, he's, she's, it's, we're, they're.  (Note the difference between it's and its.)
DO: D'you.
HAVE: I've, you've, he's, she's, it's, we've, they've.

The contraction '-d' represents 'had' if it is followed by the '-ed' participle or by 'better': I'd studied, I'd better go.

It represents 'would' if it is followed by the base form, or by 'rather' or 'sooner': I'd like that, I'd have done it, She'd rather stay, They'd sooner leave.


BE is used with the '-ing' form of lexical verbs to make progressive (continuous) aspect:  She was working in Kawasaki.
BE is used with the '-ed' form of lexical verbs to make passive voice:  She was rushed to the hospital last week.

DO is used with the base form (dictionary form) of lexical verbs to make negative, interrogative and exclamatory sentences:
I do not trust some people.
Did you see your teacher yesterday?
I really do like natto!

DO is used as a substitute for a lexical verb:  I cried at that movie. — I did, too.

HAVE is used with the '-ed' form of lexical verbs to make perfect aspect:  She has already eaten.


This verb form has 5 distinct uses:

(1)  It indicates the past tense of regular verbs:  I just phoned your office.

(2) It is used as the past participle with auxiliary 'have' to form the perfect verb forms:  I've repaired my glasses; She had never watched a baseball game before.

(3) It is used as the past participle with auixiliary 'be' to form the passive voice:  I wasn't offended by the report; The chair hasn't been repaired yet.

(4) It also appears in non-finite clauses (or phrases):  Encouraged by our teacher, we studied hard.

(5) It is often used as an adjective:  I'm very tired; Do you like fried rice?


This verb form has 4 distinct uses:

(1) It is used with auxiliary 'be' to form the progressive (continuous) aspect:  I was doing my homework yesterday; It has been raining every day.

(2) It occurs in non-finite clauses:  Getting no reply, she rang the bell again; The man wearing the funny hat is my uncle.

(3) It functions as a gerund, a noun-like form that occurs at the head of a noun phrase or as the complement of a preposition:  The play had some very good acting; Dancing is good exercise; Thank you for coming.

(4) It can also act as an adjective:  Falling prices means increased consumer spending.


There are thee basic types of English verbs:  lexical verbs, auxiliary verbs, and modal verbs.

LEXICAL VERBS can stand alone.  They have meanings denoting actions, events and states, and they belong to an open class, meaning that new lexical verbs continue to be created:

They laughed.
It rains every day in the jungle.
We  had to catch a bus

The AUXILIARY VERBS are be, do and have.  They add extra information to lexical verbs:

He is studying tonight.
I don't own a car.
I have seen that movie already

(Be, do and have can also be lexical verbs:  I am American; I did my homework; I have a car.)

MODAL VERBS are a closed class of verbs (no new ones are ever created):  can, could, may, might, shall, should, will, would, must, dare, need, ought to, used to.  These verbs add meaning, like degrees of certainty and necessity, to lexical verbs:

I might buy a car.
I must buy a car.
I should by a car.
I will buy a car.
I needn't buy a car.


"I have given them thy word.... I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil.”
—John 17:14-16, King James version of the Bible

Some old forms of the 2nd person singular pronouns are found only in religious texts, poetry, old novels and some rare dialects  Here are their equivalents:

thou = you (subject)
thee = you (=object)
thy = your
thine = yours
thyself = yourself

The old plural of thou, thee, thy and thine is ye (= you, your and yours)


If an infiinitive or a 'that'-clause is the subject of a sentence, 'it' is usually used as a preparatory of anticipatory false subject:

It's nice to meet you (NOT  To meet you is nice.)
It was too bad that they arrived so late. (NOT That they arrived so late was too bad.)

These are also anticipatory 'it's:

It's no trouble meeting you at the station.
He made it difficult to finish the job on time.
It was Donald who reported them to the police.


The so-called empty 'it' and existential 'there' do not refer to any object or entity.  They are used as dummy subject forms (since a subject is needed in non-imperative clauses) and refer to general situations:

It's very not today, isn't it? (Empty 'it' is used for weather, time and general situational references.)
It seems to be getting late.
It's no use complaining.
There were a lot of people at the concert.
There's something in my soup.

-ONE and -BODY

There are no significant differences between pronouns ending in '-one' and and those ending in '-body'.  However, 'somebody, anybody, nobody' are used more often in informal contexts.

When used as subjects, these pronouns normally take a singular verb:  Does somebody need a ride?  Isn't anyone interested?

However, when other pronouns are used to refer to these words, plural forms are usually used:  If anybody calls, tell them I'm out.  Someone has lost their ticket.


'What' is used when specific information is requested from a general or open-ended range of possibilities. 'Which' is used when specific information is requested from a limited range of possibilities.

A:  What's your phone number?
B:  It's 090-732-4321

A: Which is your coat?
B:  It's the black one on the chair.

However, when the range of of options is shared knowledge between speaker and listener, 'What' + noun is often used informally:

What side of the street is the shop on?
What channel is the ball game on?


Reciprocal pronouns are used to indicate mutual relationships:

They are always criticising each other.
The twins certainly look like one another, don't they?

Both pronouns may be used with the "-'s" possessive construction:

My neighbor and I are always borrowing each other's / one another's garden tools.


After as, like, than, but and except, subject forms are used in formal contexts:

She does the same job as he.
She can swim better than he

It is more usual (and more standard) to follow most of these with verbs:

She does the same job as he does.
She can swim better than he can

The object forms of the pronouns are more natural in conversation and other standard contexts:

She does the same job as him.
She can swim better than him


Users of English (even highly educated ones) regularly disagree about what is correct or acceptable with certain pronoun uses. Choices often depend on formality or informality.  In very formal usage, subject forms of personal pronouns are used to complement 'be':

A:  Who's calling?
B:  It is I.

It is he who is causing all of the trouble.

Especially in informal spoken contexts, object pronouns are widely used:

A:  Who's calling?
B:  It's me.

It's him that's causing all the trouble.


'A lot of' and 'lots of' are used in situations where 'much' and 'many' are not appropriate.

'A lot of' and 'lots of' are standard in affirmative sentences in conversation:
— A lot of students get into debt.
— He has lots of money in the bank.

'Much' and 'many' (especially 'much') are more formal:
— There will be much competition for the nomination.
— Many buildings are slated for demolition.


'This' and 'that' are used to identify oneself or to ask the identity of other speakers on the telephone and in answerphone messages:

Hello, this is Mike Tyson.  I'll be late for work today, sorry.
Hi.  Is that Jenny?  This is Bill


In statements, 'some' occurs with affirmatives and 'any' occurs with negatives:

I'd like some coffee, please.
I don't want any coffee, thank you.

Both 'some' and 'any' are used to ask questions.  'Some' suggests that the speaker thinks s/he knows the answer, while 'any' is more open:

Would you like some more soup? (The speaker thinks or hopes that the listener is still hungry.)
Would you like any more soup? (The speaker is not sure if the listener is still hungry.)

Both 'some' and 'any' are used the same way in negative questions:

Didn't you have some trouble with your landlord yesterday? (I think you did.)
Didn't you have any trouble with your landlord yesterday? ( I don't know if you did or not.)


'Some' and 'any' each have strong (stressed) and weak (unstressed) forms.

The weak forms simply indicate indefinite quantities:
  • Would you like any cheese?
  • There's some cheese in the refrigerator.
The strong forms have different meanings.

Strong 'some' typically means 'a certain' or 'a particular' when used with singular count nouns:
  • Some child was crying on the plane and I couldn't sleep.
Strong 'some' also the opposite of 'others', 'all' or 'enough' when used with plural count nouns or non-count nouns:
  • Some students got A's but others failed.
Strong 'any' is used typically with singular count nouns and non-count nouns to mean 'it does not matter which':
  • Any authorized dealer can repair that for you.


Where more than one determiner can be used together, there is a fixed order in which they can occur:  quantifier – article or demonstrative – numeral – head.

All my five cousins
All three pages
Both your nieces
Half a liter
His first examination
Those two girls


Determiners indicate the type of reference made by a noun phrase (e.g., definite, indefinite, possessive, quantity).  Determiners are placed in front position in the noun phrase, before adjectives and other noun modifiers.

Here are ALL of the English determiners:

a, an, all, another, any, both, each, either, neither, enough, every, (a) few, fewer, fewest, half, (a) little, less, least, many, much, more, most, my, your, Jim's (etc.), no, one, two, three (etc.), some, such, several, the, this, that, these, those, what, such, which, whose.

(Of course, some of these words serve other functions, also.)


The English names of rivers use the definite article, and it is normally written in lower case:
the Mississippi River, the River Thames, the Danube, the Tone River.

The English names of lakes and individual mountains do not use the definite article:
Lake Michigan, Kasumigaura Lake, Mount Fuji, Popocatepetl, Pike's Peak. (Exceptions: the Matterhorn, the Eiger)

Mountain ranges, however, use the article:  the Alps, the Himalayas, the Rocky Mountains.

Deserts, oceans, seas, and groups of islands also use the article:
the Sahara (Desert), the Pacific (Ocean), the Mediterranean (Sea), the Galapagos Islands, the Ryukyus.


Proper names often involve agreement choices.  When specific organizations, institutions, teams, countries, etc, are mentioned, both plural and singular verbs can usually be used, depending on whether the entity is considered as a single unit or as composed of multiple individuals.

The CIA is only acting in the public interest.
The CIA are only acting in the public interest.

Vietnam has agreed to join the economic summit.
Vietnam have agreed to join the economic summit.

ISIS is now on the run in northern Syria.
ISIS are now on the run in northern Syria


Proper names normally refer to single individual things, so they take a capital letter, are typically singular and do not take a determiner (the, my, this, etc.).  However, in some contexts they can be treated as countable nouns:

There are three Kyokos in my English class.
You don't need an Einstein to solve that problem.
I remember all the Christmases we spent together.


Animals which have a special place in human society are often referred to by the pronouns he, she and who, especially in spoken language.  A degree of subjectivity in labelling the gender of the animal is usually present:

There's a black dog in the street.  He looks lost

Some common animals are given separate words for the male, female, and young.  Here are a few examples:

lion, lioness, cub
fox, vixen, cub
bull, cow, calf
drake, duck, duckling
ram, ewe, lamb
rooster/cock, hen, chick
tom, cat, kitten
boar, sow, piglet


There are still different forms for a small number of personal animate nouns:  actor/actress, host/hostess, policeman/policewoman, steward/stewardess, waiter/waitress, and occasionally a few others (e.g., aviatrix)

Some female forms are no longer used (e.g., poetess, murderess), and in some cases the (formerly) male noun is used for both sexes (e.g., actor, host).

Usually, however, gender-neutral nouns are now preferred (e.g., police officer, firefighter, flight attendant). In some contexts, the word 'person' is preferred to 'man' or 'woman': chairperson, spokesperson.


BULK, COUPLE, MAJORITY, MINORITY, NUMBER, PART, PERCENTAGE, PROPORTION, REST, REMAINDER: These nouns can agree with singular or plural verbs depending on the context and the speaker's image.

Some mental patients are dangerous, but the majority are not. (Speaker conceives of them as individual people.)
Over 100,000 supporters were waiting to see the game, but the majority was outside watching it on a large screen. (Speaker conceives of them as a single group.)


Collective nouns such as committee, government and team can be followed by either a singular or a plural verb form. When the singular verb form and/or singular pronouns are used, the noun is being considered as a unit; when the plural verb form and/or plural pronouns are used, the noun is being considered as a number of individual constituents:

The government has said that it will take action.
The government have said that they will take action.
The team is in good spirits.
The team are in good spirits.

Some other nouns that behave similarly are:  audience, board, community, company, crew, enemy, group, jury, public, staff.


There are two types of non-count nouns, singular and plural.

Singular non-count nouns are not used with the article a/an or in the plural:
I can hear music.
The furniture was very old.
The advice from their teacher was very good
Aerobics is really popular at our sports gym.

Plural non-count nouns are not used in the singular:
The outskirts of the city are rather drab.
The proceeds of the concert are going to charity.
Donald Trump's riches are immense.
Where are my jeans?


With these expressions, singular count nouns normally occur without a/an: What type of shop do you think would be successful here?

However, in informal spoken contexts, the article may be used: What kind of a bird did you see?

With the plural forms (sorts of, kinds of, etc.) either a singular or plural noun may follow:

All sorts of people like sumo.
There are two classes of deposit, short-term and long-term.


A few count nouns have the same singular and plural form:

We encountered a series of problems in the project.
The BBC are planning two new drama series for the autumn

Some other examples are aircraft, chassis*, corps*, gasworks, precis*, species, rendezvous*, deer, salmon, sheep, fish. (The asterisks indicate those which are pronounced differently: plurals pronounce the 's' at the end.)


Noun phrases consist minimally of a noun or pronoun which acts as the 'head' or core of the phrase.  The head may be accompanied by dependent elements before or after it. In the following noun phrases, the heads are in bold letters:

the old man
that table in the corner
the sofa we bought at the fleamarket last week

Noun phrases typically act as subjects, objects, and complements:

We are not amused.
I don't know that old man.
My favorite piece of furniture is that table in the corner.


Conjunctions can be divided into coordinating conjunctions and subordinating conjunctions.

A coordinating conjunction is used to link elements of equal grammatical status, from morphemes to full sentences:

He collects pre- and post-war cameras
There are two or three houses nearby.
The wind was very cold and really biting.
You can join now or you may prefer to wait and discuss this with your partner.
I usually have a boring life.  But today began quite differently

A subordinating conjunction can only relate clauses to one another:

They had to cancel their holiday because her mother became ill.
Ever since I heard the news, I have been afraid to go out at night


Adverbs perform a wide range of functions; they are especially important for indicating the time, manner, place, degree or frequency of an event, action or process.

Most adverbs have the form of their related adjective plus '-ly' ending: beautiful, beautifully; frank, frankly, etc.

Other suffixes which denote adverbs include '-ward(s)' and '-wise':  onward, clockwise.

Several adverbs have the same form as their adjectives:  hard, outside, right, straight, late, well.

Some adverbs are not related to adjectives at all:  just, quite, so, soon, too, very.


There are two main syntactic functions of adjectives:

An attributive adjective directly modifies a noun:

The tall, grey building is my company.
Are you man enough to try bungee-jumping?

A predicative adjective appears in another part of the sentence (the predicate), showing what the subject is, does, or experiences:

The teacher was ill.
That's very good!
You make me very nervous.