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English grammar explained

by George Sharpley  


The building blocks

We start with things, the essential building blocks. When we speak or think or write, we have to have something in mind. Take ‘food’ for instance. It might be fast food, hot food or delicious food, but the thing is the food. The other words tell us more about it, but by themselves they are nothing; ‘Fast’, ‘hot’ and ‘delicious’ are meaningless in a vacuum. They have to refer to something, a fast runner, perhaps, or delicious dinner. When we say ‘hot today, isn’t it?’, the thing though not stated is obviously the weather, unless you happen to be eating chilli.

These ‘things’ are called nouns. The words which when attached tell us more about these things (e.g. fast, hot and delicious) are called adjectives. But language would be very static if all we had were nouns and adjectives. We also have to know what happens to these things, what is done with them; in other words, some action.

There are lots of things that can happen to food. You can buy it, cook it, chew it, swallow it, wolf it down, spit it out, give it away, lose it and put it in the fridge. These words which state the action are called verbs.


Nouns are things (or people or places), words that can have the or a in front of them:

            an apple; the apple
            a table; the table

Nouns can be subdivided into ‘common’ and ‘proper’ nouns: a common noun includes all nouns except those which begin with a capital letter (i.e. names):

            apple; cash; curiosity; joke; mother; music; tooth

A proper noun is the name of something. Proper nouns are names of people, places and things, and as with all names theyhave capital letters: James Bond, Birmingham and Eastenders are all proper nouns.

Note that in German, all nouns have capital letters, not just proper nouns

Proper nouns are an exception to the ‘the’ and ‘a’ rule. We don’t say ‘the Birmingham’ (although we can say ‘The Simpsons’).

One or two proper nouns are so widely used they turn into common nouns – and lose the capital letter. People talk of their hoover whether Mr Hoover’s company made it or not. Hoover even became a verb: ‘he hoovered the bedroom’.  And likewise Google have stolen a march on their search engine rivals by creating the verb to google.

Similar fame fell to Mr Macadam, the manufacturer of tar for the surfacing of roads. His trademark tarmac is now applied to all road surfaces. Others include the Duke of Wellington who wandered around the battlefield of Waterloo in knee-high boots; the Earl of Sandwich who was fond of snacks of bread with savoury fillings; and Mr Macintosh who was fed up with forever getting soaked. And there are umpteen places which have given their names to things first made or found there: balaclava, cheddar, jersey and champagne.

Most of our nouns are solid things, things we can see and touch. These we call ‘concrete’ nouns. There are also others, which we cannot see or touch, which are known as ‘abstract’ nouns:

            kindness; pain; humour; delay; popularity; overdraft

Singular and plural

Most nouns have a plural form. The usual way to create a plural is to add an ‘s’:

            apples; tables

A few other plural forms have survived from the early days of English:

            mice (mouse);

            teeth (tooth); geese (goose); feet (foot)
            children (child)
            men (man); women (woman)
            loaves (loaf); hooves (hoof)

Some nouns end -es in the plural, or -ies, depending on the stem of the word:

            beaches (beach); brushes (brush)
            babies (baby); ladies (lady)

A few nouns don’t have a plural at all, like information and embarrassment, and one or two (e.g. sheep, fish)  can be either singular or plural. From ancient Greek we have taken plural forms like theses (thesis) and phenomena (phenomenon), and from Latin formulae (formula) and curricula (curriculum). But the majority of words derived from these classical languages have English plurals (e.g. apologies, circuses, computers, craters, ideas, spectators, videos)  Ex-Latin words like data and agenda were plurals themselves in their ancient life, but now in English are treated as singulars. A few French plurals have survived the trip across the Channel (chateaux and gateaux), and one or two from elsewhere (Italian – tempi from tempo).



Here’s a collection of words that makes some sense but not complete sense:

            The porter a mouthful of sandwich in the bin

What is missing is an action word like ‘found’ or ‘spat’. In other words, a verb. A verb describes the action, what happens or gets done:

            Clare swallowed the sandwich

A verb can also describe a condition or state (e.g. the verb to be):

            The sandwich is in the bin

One of the reasons why we don’t sit musing on the manifestations of the English verb is that the definitions we have to muse with aren’t up to the job. Historically, the study of English verbs only started to happen as a result of a broader interest in grammar, and in particular the grammar of Latin. English was analysed as if it were Latin, which led to English verbs being forced into the moulds of Latin precedents. The present tense (a single word in Latin) has many equivalents in English:

            laborat            he works (or she works)
                                   s/he does work (or ‘does not’)
                                   s/he is working

Tenses of a verb

The tense of a verb is the timing of the action.

            Now I live in London   (present)
            Last year I lived in Paris    (past)
            Next year I shall live in Madrid    (future)

The ‘–ed’ ending is the regular past form; irregular ones are common too

            write, wrote
            sing, sang

Caesar’s famous three verbs, VENI VIDI VICI are all in the past tense. Again, we have many ways of expressing this tense in English:

            I came I saw I conquered
            I have come I have seen I have conquered
            I did come I did see I did conquer (’onest I did, guvnor)
            I have been coming I have been seeing I have been conquering

All these English expressions can represent the Latin words. So to accommodate the variety of expressions, we have ways of distinguishing tenses like the ‘present continuous’ (he is living) from the present simple (he lives). In the narrowest definition there are only two English tenses, the present and the past: lives and lived. The others are created by a string of words, or auxiliaries as they are sometimes called (‘is’, ‘will’, ‘have’, ‘was’, etc). Thus verbs frequently appear as phrases of two or more words:

            She will live in London
            They have been staying with my aunt

The present tense of an English verb is often used as a future:

            Tomorrow I am washing the car
            She is going to Cardiff University in September

If all this sounds complicated, don’t worry. The thing is to think behind the words. When English verbs were forced into the structural model of Latin ones they needed a good deal of stretching and squeezing to make them correspond. Latin tenses are simply not a good match. They do, however, lie at the root of all the Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese), which all grew directly from Latin; and so, just how far they do match or do not match is worth a second look. In the key below, the English equivalents for each of the Latin/Romance tenses show just how much overlap there is:

The tenses of
French, Italian, Spanish,
Portuguese and Latin

Corresponding tenses
in English
‘I …


am washing
do (not) wash


shall/will wash
am going to wash
shall/will be washing
am washing


was (in the course of) washing
used to wash
began to wash
would wash *

* e.g. every Tuesday he would wash his car


did (not) wash
have washed
have been washing


shall/will have washed


had washed
had been washing

Singular and plural verbs

Like nouns, verbs have singular and plural forms:

            John lives in Bristol (singular)
            The Robinsons live in Manchester (plural)

The ‘number’ of a verb, i..e. whether singular or plural, depends on the number of people doing it. If just one, (John) then the verb is singular. If more than one (The Robinsons) then the verb will be plural. This is called agreement of number.

There are a few nouns that are singular in appearance but describe a group. These are called collective nouns and grammatically are treated as singular nouns even though they describe more than one individual:

            The team is staying near London
            A crowd gathers outside the hotel

These collective nouns take a singular verb (is staying, gathers). But from time to time a collective noun may be treated as a plural – when the attention is on the different parts rather than on the whole:

            The team are all fit and well. (i.e. the different players)
            A number of policemen were at the nightclub within minutes

For ‘a number of policemen’ we might easily say intead ‘a lot of’ or ‘many’, and even though the noun ‘number’ is singular it is treated as a plural. But change ‘a number’ to ‘the number’ – a subtle difference between ‘a’ and ‘the’ – and we’re back to the singular:

            The number of policemen at the enquiry was six

This is because the number itself is uppermost in mind, not the various individual policemen. It all depends on whether you are thinking of a singular concept or several parts:

            The Simpsons is my favourite TV show      (singular verb)

‘The Simpsons’ is plural, but we’re thinking of the show, not the different members of the family. Compare with the genuine plural:

            The Johnsons all live in a caravan       (plural verb)

There are other grey areas with words like each, either, every, everybody, neither, nobody and none. According to Roger Burchfield, a former editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, these may be treated as singular or plural. In practice it is possible to offer more guidance. ‘Every’ is almost always singular:

            Every record was checked

With most of the others again it depends on whether you have several or just one in mind:

            My parents are going to stay. Neither wants to travel in the dark (singular)
            Spaniards and Greeks will not visit Britain. Neither like the weather (plural)



Read this description of Jim and his sandwich. Which nouns don’t we need?

'... Jim took a sandwich out of his pocket. Jim sniffed the sandwich, and then Jim put the sandwich on the table. Jim gazed at the sandwich and after a moment or two Jim picked up the sandwich again and stuffed the sandwich into his mouth as fast as Jim could.'

Once we have met ‘Jim’ and ‘the sandwich’, these two words can be replaced with ‘he’ and ‘it’. They are pronouns.

Long before the word ‘pro’ was short for ‘professional’ it was a Latin word meaning ‘in place of’. A pronoun is a word we use in place of a noun.

Personal Pronouns

If we write something in the first person, we use the pronoun ‘I’.

‘I’ is the first person pronoun. The person(s) we address is the second person, namely ‘you’. And the one other pronoun we use is the ‘third person’, the person referred to but not actually present, i.e. ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘they’ if more than one.

Verbs in other languages are often listed in six rows, i.e. 1st, 2nd and 3rd persons singular, then the same in the plural:









he, she, it








Subjects and objects

The subject noun or pronoun is the one that ‘does’ the action of the verb. The object is the one is on the receiving end and is ‘done to’. In English this distinction is made clear by the order of words:

            The dog chased the cat

            The dog is the subject, the cat the object.

            John does not know Amanda

John is ‘doing it’ – or ‘not’ doing it , but is still the subject – and Amanda is the object.

If we use pronouns instead of their names, note how these pronouns change according to whether they are subject or object:

            He does not know her
            She knows him

English pronouns change their letters or ending according to this subject/object use:

            Subject / object
            I / me
            you / you
            he / him
            we / us
            they / them


Adjectives add an extra touch of detail:

            a delicious dinner
            the slow train
            a frightening story

detail that can be decisive and have a telling effect:

            the dying wish of the condemned man

Adjectives are descriptive tags for nouns. They often appear before the noun they describe:

            a cheerful student

or after a verb like ‘to be’ or ‘to become’

            The student is cheerful

and occasionally after the noun, as in

            We like to keep the students cheerful

Adjectives as nouns

In the film title ‘The Good, the Bad, the Ugly’, all three adjectives are used as nouns. This is a commonplace, not only in English:

            The wise shall prosper
            The poor have less to lose
            The wounded looked after themselves

Nouns as adjectives

Conversely, nouns can play the part of adjectives:

            a football team
            a college lecturer
            a kitchen designer

Newspaper headlines are full of nouns posing as adjectives


The underlined words are nouns acting as adjectives. It’s a perfectly natural way to use a noun, succinct and to the point. But the tendency to pile one on top of the other is seldom pretty, especially in the bland polysyllabic language of ‘professional’ English of business and government:

            ‘A quality commitment review process’ 

Two or more adjectives together

Sometimes we want to describe something in more detail than a single adjective will allow us:

            an angry French farmer

Now we have two adjectives, ‘angry’ and ‘French’. Which comes first and which second we know by instinct. The meaning is a French farmer who is angry. But change the sequence to

            a French angry farmer

and this – apart from sounding odd – suggests a lot of angry farmers from different countries with this one happening to be French. Some sequences are not so easy to explain. We may speak of

            a tall pink building

but not

            a pink tall building

There can be more than two adjectives

            red leather Spanish riding boots

where boots is the one noun and all the rest are adjectives (including leather which is a noun acting as an adjective). The sequence is not flexible. ‘Spanish leather riding red boots’, for example, is all wrong !

Two adjectives as one (hyphenation)

A double-barrelled name is one name made from two, joined together with a hyphen:


Pairs of adjectives can be similarly joined together to create a single one, with its own individual meaning:

            a bad-tempered man

Bad-tempered means having a weak temper and prone to fits of anger. But replace the hyphen with a comma (‘a bad, tempered man’), and you create the slightly odd impression of an evil man who is tempered and in control of himself.


Articles are the little words which come before nouns:

            ‘the’ is called the definite article
            ‘a’ is the indefinite article  (‘an’ before a vowel)

In many foreign languages these articles change according to the gender of the noun (i.e. masculine, feminine or neuter) and according to number (singular or plural). English articles do not have a difference of gender.


English has a number of different forms for masculine and feminine, and in the case of words which describe family ties, the words themselves are quite different:

            father         mother
            son            daughter
            brother      sister
            husband     wife
            uncle         aunt
            nephew     niece

Similarly with animals:

            bull            cow
            stallion       mare
            cock          hen

These words have been, and no doubt will be, around for a long time. Other words express different gender by a switch of ending:

            actor         actress
            waiter        waitress
            god           goddess
            prince        princess

There used to be many others, like manageress, instructress and authoress, which are now quaintly archaic if not obsolete. In these occupations men and women are theoretically treated the same, and distinction of gender is considered less relevant.

Some feminine forms (diva, temptress) are more active than their masculine partners. Other pairs have moved wider apart than a simple distinction of male/female: a governess was once employed to look after the children of a wealthy family, while a governor (male or female) is a ruling politician or in the UK sits on a school council.

Gender in other languages

In general gender-sensitive words in English are fading away. In some other languages all nouns have a gender, not only those with an obvious tilt towards male or female. For no obvious reason a ‘table’ in French is feminine and a ‘book’ masculine. German adds a third gender, ‘neuter’ (Latin for ‘neither’ – neither masculine nor feminine), to which category, somewhat oddly perhaps, belongs the word Mädchen (‘girl’).

Adjectives in these foreign languages have slightly different forms depending on the gender of the nouns they describe. They also vary according to number (singular or plural). The French for ‘good’ is ‘bon’. But if the noun (the thing described) is feminine, a ‘good table’ for instance, it’s ‘bonne’. And if a plural noun, ‘bons’ (masculine) or ‘bonnes’ (feminine). Thus an adjective’s form is attracted to the noun it describes. This helps you match the adjective with its noun and clarify who or what is being described. In English there is no such variation in the form of an adjective.


In pre-1066 English the endings of words were much flexible to change than today. We still have alterable endings to show a plural (house and houses) or a past tense (jump and jumped) and one or two others. These alterable word-endings we call inflexions.


Prepositions are used with nouns. They often describe a location or moment in time:

            in London
            at the shop
            at midday
            on Tuesday
            near the cinema

They describe other things too:

            half of the cake

            a holiday with my friends

In the early days of English, new words were readily created by putting together two smaller ones. Prepositions and adverbs figure in many of these compounds:


This word-building continued in later centuries when new words were created with a different kind of prepositions. They were from Latin and Greek:

            post-  Latin: ‘after’ 
            trans-  Latin: ‘across’
            sub-  Latin: ‘under’
            anti-  Greek: ‘against’  (but watch out for ante-  Latin: ‘before’)

The joining of words to make new ones has its roots in old (or ‘High’) German, an ancestor English shares with other northern-European languages including modern German, in which the compounding of words is of rabbit-breeding proportions. American English has kept this word-building characteristic very much alive (graveyard, overcoat, knee-jerk, know-how, offline).



A Swedish manager of the England football team once said that he watched the television to improve his grammar. Odd this, as his knowledge of English grammar seemed at least on a par with that of the English players he was coaching. The first thing he will have learned is to drop the adverb to an adjective:

            Denis came on after halftime and played brilliant

This idiom appears to be limited to the world of sport. Musicians, actors, card-players and others, if they perform well, tend to say they played ‘brilliantly’. We can talk of a ‘brilliant player’ for that is the adjective. But if we want to describe how something is done, and add a descriptive tag not to the noun but to the verb, then we use an adverb:

            The train moved slowly   (adverb)
            a slow train   (adjective)

Many of our adverbs are formed by the addition of ‘–ly’ to the end of the adjective. There are exceptions, such as the adverbs often, always, well, fine, never and sometimes, and one or two adjectives already end ‘-ly’ (silly, jolly). Fast can be either adjective or adverb:

            a fast train
            The train moved fast

Use ‘quick’ instead of ‘fast’ and the difference is clear:

            a quick train
            The train moved quickly

Combining adjectives and adverbs

In each of the above phrases the adjectives describe the noun. Sometimes we want to add a descriptive tag not to the noun, but an adjective that describes it, and qualify it in some way:

            a partly dressed vicar

‘Partly’ is telling us how he is dressed, and so describes the adjective. The descriptive tags of adjectives are adverbs:

            a highly paid dwarf   (‘highly’ an adverb, qualifies ‘paid’ not ‘dwarf’)

The adverb ‘very’ is probably the most commonly used of these adverbs that qualify adjectives:

            a very frightening film

            She was very elegant

An adverb is not only used to qualify an adjective, but even another adverb:

            a very happily married couple

'More' : the comparative

The comparative form of an adjective expresses a comparison between two. A thing may be ‘bigger’ or ‘smaller’ or ‘richer’ or ‘poorer’, but only relative to something else. An ant may be bigger than a flea, but that is not to say that an ant is particularly big.

An adjective in the comparative form ends with the suffix ‘–er’, or is preceded by ‘more’:

            the larger animal
            the more vicious animal

As for which adjectives end ‘–er’ and which are governed by ‘more’, the rule usually quoted is one of word length: the short ones tend to have the ending added, while longer adjectives have the separate word (e.g. more psychological, more fascinating, more courageous). In general it is the older, Anglo-Saxon adjectives that have the ending, while later arrivals do not. We say, for instance, deeper, longer, busier, sweeter, merrier and narrower, but more irate, more apt, more digestible.

'Most' : the superlative

This is the form which expresses ‘the most’. A comparison of two things uses the comparative ‘more’ or ‘–er’, while a comparison of three or more things will use the superlative form ‘most’ or ending ‘–est’. The same adjectives that end ‘–er’ in the comparative have ‘–est’ added to show the superlative; the others are preceded by ‘most’:

            the largest animals
            the most vicious animals

The apostrophe

One inflexion to have survived from ancient times is the word-ending that shows possession. The prepositional phrase with ‘of’ has settled along side, without ever replacing it:

            The cakes of Aelfred   (prepositional phrase)
            Aelfred’s cakes   (possessive inflexion)

The apostrophe (’) is used to show that a letter is missing:

            have not  >  haven’t
            we are  >  we’re

The possessive is no exception. The ‘e’ of the possessive ending disappeared long ago:

            Now:   Aelfred’s                Before:   Aelfredes

The owner or possessor has the apostrophe tagged at the end which is followed by an ‘s':

            the bishop’s gown   (the bishop is the one that the gown belongs to)
            the car’s brakes   (the car is the one that the brakes belong to)

If there is an ‘s’ already on the end of the word, then just add an apostrophe:

            the players’ wages

Where there is already an ‘s’, but not to show a plural (e.g. James), you can do either. Both James’ car and James’s car are used.

Watch out for one exception … a possessive form that does not have an apostrophe is the possessive form of ‘it’:

            The dog wagged its tail

This prevents a possible confusion with ‘it’s’ which is a shortened form of  ‘it is’.

In the UK you still see the ‘greengrocer’s plural’:

            potato’s                             apple’s
            20p lb                                60p lb

This grammatical oddity is a quaint tradition in fruit and vegetable shops, which is not to be imitated by the rest of us for it will not impress examiners and employers (with the exception of my boss in a fruit and vegetable shop where I worked as a student: I corrected his potato’s to potatoes and he swiftly corrected them back again).

An apostrophe is also used to show the plural of one or two imported words whose plural remains uncertain as in virtuoso’s or grotto’s and also in made up phrases like do’s and don’t’s

More pronouns

Other words we use in place of nouns are this, that, these and those:

            This belongs to my brother
            Those are more expensive

These pronouns can also act as adjectives:

            That house is haunted
            These shoes were made by hand

The adjective is used with a noun, the pronoun stands alone. These words when used as adjectives are often called determiners.

Interrogative words

The same is true of ‘interrogative’ pronouns – ones that ‘interrogate’, i.e. ask questions:

            Which do you want?   (pronoun)
            Which car do you want?   (adjective)

            What time do you call this?   (adjective)
            What is the matter?   (pronoun)

In each case, when the word is used with a noun, it acts as an adjective. When it is alone, it is a pronoun.

The interrogative pronoun ‘who’

‘Who?’ asks for a name, an identity. Put a preposition in front, and then we add an ‘m’ to ‘who’:

            by whom?
            for whom?

This ‘m’ is also added when ‘who’ is the object instead of the subject.

            Who saw them?  (subject)
            Whom did they see?  (object)

But this object ‘m’ is fading. In a casual conversation most of us now leave it out:

            Who did they see ?  (object)

The ancient Romans had the same final ‘m’ to show an object, but by the time Latin had evolved into French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese this ‘m’ had disappeared.


Determiners are words used with nouns, often to show a quantity or amount:

            each player
            few survivors
            every year
            several visits
            enough food

This, that, these and those are determiners when used with nouns (i.e. the adjectival use above):

            this website
            that newspaper
            those questions

So some words can be adjectives and determiners. But the overlap is not complete. Articles (the and a) are also determiners:

            the vicar
            a nurse


Active and passive

A verb can be active or passive. The active verb is the usual form. The subject ‘does it’ and the object is ‘done to’:

            The dog chased the cat

The passive puts it round the other way, with the same meaning but the subject is now a ‘done to’ subject, not a ‘doing’ subject:

            The cat was chased by the dog

Passive verbs can seem a touch remote and pompous:

            We might be persuaded to come back next year

or formal and official:

           It is anticipated that the conference will last four hours only

The usual advice for students learning to write is if they are to avoid sounding longwinded then stick to the active. But there are times when it will be right, particularly when the ‘doing’ noun (in the passive expressed with ‘by’ and called an agent) is not mentioned at all:

            The prisoner was led into the courtyard
            Maize is harvested in the autumn
            Rome wasn’t built in a day

Or when the one who is done to (the object of an active verb or subject of a passive one) is uppermost in mind and needs to come early in the sentence:

            Jesus was mocked by the Pharisees


This is the form of a verb used to give an order. In English the form is the same as the simple verb:

            Wash the dishes! 
            Work harder!
            Come here!

Sometimes the actual verb is omitted from an order, but clearly understood, e.g. a verb like ‘come!’ or ‘go!’. In the absence of the verb itself the other words take on the function of an imperative:

            In your kennel!

The subject of an imperative, normally an invisible one, is the person being given the order. The subject of 'Wash the dishes!' is whoever it is who has to wash the dishes. Some other languages have singular and plural forms of the imperative which change according to whether one or more people are being given the order.

A negative order or imperative is sometimes called a ‘prohibition’:

            Do not stroke the lions
            Do not open the door of the aeroplane
            No smoking

The infinitive

This is a part of the verb, usually the simple form preceded by ‘to’:

            to wash
            to speak
            to eat

The infinitive is used after certain verbs:

            He wants to eat
            She is pretending to frown
            They happened to arrive at that moment

‘To be –ing’ is also an infinitive:

            They seem to be enjoying themselves


This is also a part of the verb. A gerund always ends ‘-ing’ and though formed from a verb works exactly like a noun:

            I do not like smoking (we might have said the noun ‘cigarettes’)
            Seeing is believing  (just as we might say ‘football is a game’)

A gerund, like a noun, may follow a preposition:

            Who is in favour of staying?

A gerund acts as a noun, but it still retains functions of a verb:

            Thank you for having us to stay

where the gerund has an object (‘having us’).

So a gerund is a real grammatical handful, a hybrid verb-cum-noun. Is it possible for a verb to act as a noun? Yes: in these notes you have seen other examples of the lines between these grammatical definitions or parts of speech (nouns, verbs, etc) becoming blurred, with nouns behaving as adjectives, adjectives as nouns, and so on.

Here are more objects that follow gerunds:

            Opening the door during the journey is dangerous;
            My favourite hobby is climbing mountains
            She does not like cleaning the car


Present participles

Like gerunds, the present participle is formed from a verb and ends '–ing':

            a thinking person 

But unlike the gerund, a participle is not a noun but an adjective. We have seen above how a gerund does the job of a noun:

            thinking is good for you (gerund)

The same word ‘ thinking’ can also be used as an adjective:

            a thinking person  (adjective)

The participle forms part of the continuous tenses:

            I am thinking of you, I have been thinking of you, etc

Sometimes the participle can be detached from the noun it is associated with:

            Realising that the bus would never come, they took a taxi

‘Realising’ is a participle (and adjective) which is attached to ‘they’, the ones who are doing the realising. Likewise in

            Opening the door she peeped in

‘She’ is doing the ‘opening’ and is the (pro)noun that the participle is said to ‘agree with’.

A common error is to use a participle without a noun or pronoun in association:

             Realising that the bus would never come, it would be a long walk home

This is called a ‘hanging participle’ and tends to attract the red ink of examiners. The problem is we are left not knowing who is doing the ‘realising’.

But one or two hanging participles are thought to be acceptable, having settled after years of use:

            Strictly speaking she should be here at nine o’clock

Strictly speaking this is incorrect because it is not made clear who is doing the ‘strictly speaking’. Strictly speaking, the last sentence isn’t correct either … but you get the point. Most rules have their exceptions.

Past participles

The past participle is also an adjective, created from a verb:

            a broken plate  (verb : break)
            a misunderstood genius  (verb : misunderstand)

‘Misunderstood’ is an adjective much as we might say an ‘angry’ or ‘generous’ or ‘longhaired’ or ‘bespectacled’.

The past participle appears in the past tense of a verb:

            They have written a letter to the council

and in the passive:

            A letter was written

Distinguish the past participle from the simple past:

            They wrote a letter (simple past)

even though some look identical (e.g. all regular ones that end ‘-ed’):

            They washed the linen  (simple past)
            The linen was washed  (past participle)

Grammar Rules, OK?  © GDA Sharpley 2010

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  The building blocks
  Singular and plural
  Tenses of a verb
  Singular and plural verbs
  Personal pronouns
  Subjects and objects
  Adjectives as nouns  
  Nouns as adjectives  
  Two or more adjectives together  
  Two adjectives as one : hyphenation  
  Gender in other languages  
  Adjectives and adverbs together  
  More : the comparative  
  Most : the superlative  
  The apostrophe  
  More pronouns  
  Interrogative words  
  Interrogative pronouns  
  Active and passive  
  Present participles  
  Past participles  
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