A Beginners Guide To Grammatical Terms

User Friendly Dictionary of Grammar

My well-loved copy of TUFDOG

If you are either a parent of a child who has a language disorder or you’re planning to train as a speech & language therapist in the future, then this post is for you! When I went to my very first Linguistics lecture way back in October 1992 the lecturer, one Professor Jim Hurford (you’ll find his biog here if you are interested!), handed us all a bundle of paper which he dubbed ‘The User Friendly Dictionary of Grammar’ or ‘TUFDOG’. This document contained definitions of pretty much every grammatical term you could think of from ‘noun’ to ‘relative clause’. Prof Hurford’s reasoning was that, since schools had moved away from teaching the meanings of such terms and a clear understanding of such vocabulary is essential for students of linguistics, he’d best make sure we all knew our adverbs from our adjectives. Over my 4 Years studying Linguistics at Edinburgh, TUFDOG was invaluable and, as you can see, I still have my well-thumbed copy!

I am happy to tell you that TUFDOG was formally published in 1994 in much flashier format as ‘Grammar: A Student’s Guide‘ and it is still available from Amazon!

Anyway, getting to the point of this post, it occurs to me that if you are not someone who uses grammatical terms on a daily basis (so pretty much the whole world except for SLTs, language teachers, journalists, writers and editors) then I thought it might be helpful to have a brief explanation of the basics. This will be particularly useful if you are the parent of a child who has a language disorder as you will most likely be asked to work on one or more of these areas with your child.

Noun – a noun is the name of something. ‘Common nouns’ are the names of objects like ‘ball’, ‘sock’ or ‘house’. A good way to check if something is a common noun is to see if it makes sense if you put ‘the’ before it. For example ‘the house’ makes sense but ‘the drinking’ feels like it’s not finished and ‘the beside’ just plain doesn’t make sense! The names of people and places are also nouns but form a subgroup called ‘proper nouns’. Proper nouns don’t make sense with ‘the’ and typically have a capital first letter; eg ‘Isla’, ‘Edinburgh’, ‘Scotland’

Pronoun – a pronoun is a short word that you can use to replace a noun in a sentence so that you don’t end up repeating yourself all the time.

By way of example, you could say the following: ‘I saw James at the park yesterday. James said James was at the park to meet Polly. James and Polly were planning to go for ice cream together. Polly loves ice cream, Polly says ice cream’s Polly’s favourite food’ however, that sounds a bit repetitive with all the ‘Jameses’ and ‘Pollys’. Most people would probably use some pronouns to make it sound a bit better ‘I saw James at the park yesterday. He said he was at the park to meet Polly. They were planning to go for ice cream together. Polly loves ice cream, she says it‘s her favourite food’.

As you can see, we have different genders of pronoun: male, female, gender neutral as well as plural pronouns. There are also variations on each of these depending on where they come in a sentence. This can be really confusing for children who have a language disorder and they generally try to simplify the system by using only one gender and typically only one variant. In my experience, it is typically the male pronouns a child like this will stick to and if there is only one variant used, it will be either ‘he’ or ‘him’ (eg ‘him is washing him hands’). In English our pronouns are:

A list of English pronounsAdjective – quite simply, an adjective is a word that describes a noun. Some examples of adjectives are colours, sizes like ‘big’ or ‘enormous’ and attributes like ‘nice’, ‘long’ or ‘soft’. If you’re not sure if a word is an adjective, try it with a noun and see if it works; ‘the chair is soft’ works but ‘the chair is in’ sounds unfinished and ‘the chair is quietly’ doesn’t make sense.

Verb – ‘verb’ is another word for ‘action’, it is something you do. Examples of verbs are ‘love’, ‘run’, and ‘eat’. Verbs form the core of a sentence and they dictate what roles (see below) or positions need to be filled to finish that sentence so that it makes sense. For example ‘give’ is a verb. To use ‘give’ in a sentence we first need to have someone to do the giving but ‘Sue is giving’ isn’t a complete sentence. So give also needs something to be given but ‘Sue is giving the cake’ still isn’t a complete sentence. It turns out that ‘give’ also requires someone to receive whatever has been given so our complete sentence is ‘Sue is giving the cake to Bob’. By way of contrast, the verb ‘sleep’ needs only someone to do the sleeping to make a complete sentence ‘The dog is sleeping’ , you can add other things but these are optional. This is why it is so important for children to learn verbs as well as nouns as part of their early vocabulary. Without verbs, it is impossible to build grammatically correct sentences.

Roles – ‘Roles’ are the slots in a sentence that need to be filled to make the sentence complete. As described above, the verb you use dictates which roles need to be filled. The main roles to be aware of are ‘Subject‘, ‘Object‘ and ‘Indirect Object‘. There are others but you only need to know about those if you are studying in detail! The subject is the ‘doer’ of the action and in English, all verbs require at least a subject to make a complete sentence – The boy is drinking. The object is whatever the action is done to and many verbs require an object as well as a subject – The boy is drinking juice. You will also come across indirect objects which are typically the beneficiary of the action – The boy bought some juice for his brother. In English, the order of these roles in a sentence is usually subject, verb, object, (indirect object) or SVO(Oi).

Tenses – verbs in English have different endings and sometimes other words used with them to show when the action happens in time. Examples are:

  • James has tidied his room or James tidied his room – past
  • James is tidying his room or James tidies his room – present
  • James will tidy his room or James is going to tidy his room – future

There are many distinctions of different types of past, present and future tense but discussion of those in detail here will just get confusing! For the purposes of early language development, the most important thing is to ensure a child is able to express the basic 3-way past/present/future distinction.

Adverb – An adverb is a describing word much like an adjective but it describes a verb rather than a noun. Adverbs describe how something is done and very often end in ‘-ly’, examples are: gently, quickly, carefully. You can often turn an adjective into an adverb by adding ‘-ly’ to the end. For example in the sentence ‘Your dress is nice’, the word ‘nice’ is an adjective which describes the dress. On the other hand, in the sentence ‘Your dress is nicely made’, the word ‘nicely’ is an adverb which describes how the dress has been made, ‘made’ being the past tense of the verb ‘make’.

Preposition – a preposition is a word that tells you about a location or position. Examples are: in, on under, between, behind, in front. Many children who have language delays or disorders need some help to learn these. Prepositions are essential for daily understanding and are also fundamental building blocks for sentences.

Plural – a plural simply means ‘more than one’. Typically in English, we put a ‘s’ on the end of a word to show there is more than one, this is called a ‘regular plural’ because it is a regular pattern. Examples of regular plurals are ‘houses’, ‘socks’, ‘plants’. In English there are a subgroup of plurals which don’t follow this pattern and these are called ‘irregular plurals’. Examples of irregular plurals are ‘mice’, ‘geese’ and ‘sheep’.

That just about covers the main ‘parts of speech‘ that you are likely to come across if you are working with a speech and language therapist. Incidentally the term ‘part of speech‘ is a term that means a group of words which share the same characteristics in language. Basically, parts of speech are the building blocks you need to make sentences. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, pronouns, prepositions, adjectives and adverbs are all parts of speech. It’s important to keep parts of speech in mind when you are working with a child who has language problems, particularly if they do not speak in sentences. In order to build sentences, it’s essential for a child to have a variety of words from various parts of speech in their vocabulary. A mix of nouns, verbs, adjective, adverbs and prepositions makes many more combinations available than just nouns and adjectives.

I hope that this article is useful and please do leave me a comment if you’d like further explanation or you’d like me to add something which I haven’t included!