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English grammar

English grammar is the study of grammar in the English language. Grammars of English can either be prescriptive or descriptive; this article attempts to be primarily descriptive. It is important to realise that experts disagree about many parts of English grammar: what follows is just one analysis among many.

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

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

Table of contents
1 Word Order
2 Nouns
3 Verbs
4 Other Topics in English Grammar

Word Order

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

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

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

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

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


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

English does not have dual or trial numbers for nouns.

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

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

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

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

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


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

Person in Verbs

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

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

Voice in Verbs

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

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

Verbal moods

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

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

Verb tenses

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

Tenses in which the main verb is marked for person:

Tenses in which the auxiliary is marked for person:
"I am listening." This is used to express what most other language use the simple present tense for. Note that this form in English can also be used to express future actions, such as in the phrase "We're going to the movies tonight".
"I was listening." Used to express an ongoing action completed in the past.
"I have listened." This is usually used to express that an event happened at an unspecified or unknown time on the past.
Tenses in which neither the main verb nor the auxiliary is marked for person:
Irregular verbs

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

the "transparently irregular"
  • true irregular verbs.

  • The term "transparently irregular" is used to describe verbs that appear irregular at first, but actually follow a common paradigm. This group of verbs are relics of the older Germanic ablaut system for conjugation. This is generally confined to atypical simple past verb forms. For example: True irregular verbs have forms that are not predictable from ablaut rules. The most common of these in English is the verb "be". A sampling of its verbal paradigm is listed below; the majority of other forms are predictable from the knowledge of these four.

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

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

    Other Topics in English Grammar

    Adjectives and Adverbs

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

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

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


    Paradoxes such as "I am asleep," or "No one wrote this" are not considered grammatically incorrect, necessarily.


    The phrase "Ain't ain't grammar" is wrong, "ain't" is a slang word (or failing that a perfectly acceptable English word. Grammar is to do with which words go where and how they are separated (e.g. by commas) rather than the actual words being used.


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