Verbs can be used in the active or passive form:

  • Active: I threw the keys on the floor
  • Passive: The keys were thrown on the floor
    [passive always includes some form of the verb ‘to be’ plus the perfective aspect of the main verb]

It can be useful to label verbs used passively in analytical work, because this often has a particular effect: to hide agency, i.e. who ‘did’ the verb. This is particularly noticeable in political and rhetorical discourse such as news articles, but you can see it in anything opinionated.


Verbs can also be described by their tense and aspect

  • Simple present tense: I run
  • Present tense + progressive aspect: I am running (present progressive)
  • Past tense + progressive aspect: We were running (past progressive)
  • Simple past tense: I ran
  • Present tense + perfective aspect: I have run (present perfective)
  • Past tense + perfective aspect: He had run (past perfective)
  • Future: We have no future tense as such in English – we use the auxiliary “will”
    [progressive conveys duration; perfective conveys completion]

These labels are less likely to be useful in analytical work, but will be helpful when trying to explain deviation from standard usage, such as in regional variation or child development of language.

Types of verb:

  • Main verb – describes an action [NB: there is always a main verb in any main clause]
  • Auxiliary verb – to have, to be, will, must etc {NB: auxiliary verbs are not always present – if there is more than one verb in a string, only one is the main verb]
  • Modal verbs: can, could, will, would, must, shall, should, ought, may, might
  • De-lexical verb – (without meaning) often do or get, e.g. it’ll get broken
  • Primary verb: to be, to have, to do [these can be used as both main and auxiliary verbs]
  • Phrasal – verb + another word: to get away

These labels are more useful for you to know in order to understand descriptions in textbooks/dictionaries and to be able to explain usage yourself. again, they are less helpful in analysis, as they are less likely to relate to meaning.

Frameworks ebook

All the frameworks material on this site will remain freely available here, but if you’d like to download most of it in one neat package*, to be read on a Kindle or in the Kindle app (which is free and works on PC, tablet or phone), it is available as an ebook for £2.50 on Amazon (or free on Kindle Unlimited) – see below. 

*all the pages are there, but a few of them have been updated a bit since I put the book together.


Syntax is concerned with the structure of sentences, and the parts that make them up (i.e. phrases and clauses). It’s sometimes known as ‘group grammar’, while identifying word classes is ‘word grammar’. In analysing syntax in a text, you may simply be talking about word order, particularly in an older text using a word order that would not be used now, or if discussing data relating to CLA or variation. It’s also worth noting that spoken syntax is different to written syntax, so avoid criticising speech as ‘ungrammatical’ for simply not being in sentences such as you’d find in a written text when in fact that’s normal.


  • A unit within a sentence.
  • It centres on a head word, which gives the phrase its name – i.e. a NOUN PHRASE has a noun as its head word.
  • The phrase may also include pre-modifiers (coming before the head word) or post-modifiers (coming after the head word).
    • e.g.: the fat cat (cat = head word, pre-modified by fat)
    • the cat over there (cat = head word post-modified by over there)
  • A noun phrase can consist of a single word: cats chase mice – cats is a noun phrase, as is mice, while chase is a verb phrase.
  • Verb phrases consist of main verbs with or without accompanying auxiliaries.


  • “Bigger” than a phrase and usually contains both a verb phrase and a subject (although sometimes this is implied rather than repeating from an earlier clause: He paused the video and reached for his coffee – ‘he’ is the subject of both clauses here, making them both main clauses).
  • Main or independent clauses can stand alone as simple sentences.
  • Subordinate or dependent clauses cannot stand alone as full (major) sentences.
    • relative clauses open with a relative pronoun, e.g. did you see the man who was here yesterday
    • comment clauses are usually brief and could be removed from the sentence without any real loss of meaning; they tend to be more about relationship between speaker/writer and audience, e.g. you know, I think, as I’ve said before, as we all know


A sentence is a complete ‘sense unit’.  There are five structural types:

  • Simple sentences are made up of a single clause.
  • Compound sentences are made up of two or more clauses, joined by a coordinating conjunction (and, or, but).  The clauses are of equal importance, and are therefore both/all main clauses.
  • Complex sentences are made up of two or more clauses, where one or more is subordinate to the main clause.  These are often joined by subordinating conjunctions (eg because, since, although) or relative pronouns (e.g. whose, which, that).
  • Compound-Complex sentences are made up of two or more main clauses with at least one subordinate clause.
  • Minor sentences lack something required to make a full simple sentence, commonly a subject or verb.Sentences can also be described according to their function.  There are four main types.
  • Declarative sentences make statements, and are constructed using a subject-verb word order.
  • Interrogative sentences ask question using an inverted verb-subject word order, or with a dummy verb (‘do you like…?’ – notice that the ‘do’ does not serve any purpose other than to turn the statement ‘I like …’ into a question). Note that although we can ask questions using only intonation (‘You are going to the party?), that form is grammatically a declarative, although you can use a tag question to make it a question: you are going to the party, aren’t you? (tag questions repeat the same verb, or use an auxiliary and reverse the polarity of the verb phrase)
  • Imperative sentences issue commands or instructions, using the bare stem of the verb without a subject: leave now, write this down,
  • Exclamatory sentences are emphatic and usually use an exclamation mark. They are usually incomplete grammatically and often start with ‘what’ or ‘how’ (e.g. ‘how awful!’) Note that every sentence with an exclamation mark is not an exclamatory.  To be an exclamatory, the sentence needs to not also be another type.  In other words, if it could be an imperative or an exclamatory, it’s an imperative; if it looks like an exclamatory but also fits the ‘declarative’ criteria, it’s a declarative.


A pronoun replaces a noun or noun phrase.  They are used to avoid dreary repetition (John woke up. John stretched…)  They are functional, closed class words.

You mainly need to know about personal pronouns at this stage.  They most commonly replace people’s names.  They are described by person (1st/2nd/3rd) and number (singular/plural).

Singular pronouns:

  • I/me – 1st person
  • You – 2nd person
  • He/him/she/her/it – 3rd person

Plural pronouns:

  • We/us – 1st person (remember that if there is a group with you in it, you will say ‘we’ or ‘us’, so those are the plural forms of ‘I’ or ‘me’)
  • You – 2nd person
  • They/them – 3rd person
    NB: the pairs above are subject/object* pronouns

Pronouns and Gender

Third person singular pronouns are gendered in English (i.e. there is one for male subjects and a different one for female subjects). There have been attempts to introduce neutral ones, but these have been mostly unsuccessful (possibly related to the slow speed of change with functional words). It is, however, now acceptable to use the third person plural ‘they’ to refer to a singular subject – something which some people still (somewhat stubbornly) see as wrong. This has been a growing tendency to refer to unknown subjects (e.g. ‘if a customer has a complaint, they should…’), but it is also gaining popularity as a choice to signal genderfluidity or a non-binary identity and is likely to increase further, unless alternatives emerge. Singular ‘they’ was the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year in 2015 for this reason, and the link above will take you to a very informative OED blogpost on the history of the pronoun if you’re interested.

Note that pronouns and titles/address terms (such as Miss/Mr/Mx) are not the same thing grammatically, but are related issues in this context.

Other types of pronoun:

  • Demonstrative pronouns demonstrate which one we mean and are mainly used in speech – Have you seen this? Did you eat that?
  • Interrogative pronouns start questions – Who ate that banana?  Which did you see?
  • Reflexive pronouns refer to things done to the speaker by the speaker – Baby Andrew fed himself today!
  • Relative pronouns introduce a relative (or adjectival) clause, adding more information about something – Do you know the girl who always stands over there? He ate the one that I wanted.

NB: subject and object relate to the verb in the sentence. The subject does or carries out the action of the verb, while the object receives it:

I ate the apple – I = subject; the apple = object

We saw John in town – we = subject; John = object

John seemed happy – John = subject (happy is a complement – an adjective giving information about the subject)


You need to be able to differentiate different classes of noun.

  • Nouns can be common or proper:
    • Proper noun = unique (Claire, Lancashire, Sooty)
    • Common noun = everyday (table, goose, lesson)Common nouns are often further classified as either concrete or abstract (although this is a semantic categorisation and therefore involves some subjectivity):
  • Concrete noun = thing which actually exists in a physical sense (chair, sky, cheese)
  • Abstract noun = a concept rather than a physical object (love, hope, disappointment)
    • Some nouns can be used concretely or abstractly.  Compare: “He was stabbed in the heart” with “He has a kind heart”.

Collective nouns describe a group of things (flock, herd, bunch). Collective nouns are used with singular verbs and can go with ‘a’ – they are not usually plural.

It is often useful to talk about a noun phrase. The noun phrase is the headword (the noun) and everything that belongs with it: any determiner(s) and adjectives. A useful test is to replace the noun with a pronoun. Any other words that have to be removed with the noun belong in the phrase, e.g.: I saw that scruffy black dog twice yesterday – I saw IT twice yesterday, therefore ‘that scruffy black dog’ is the noun phrase.

The noun types discussed so far can be useful to be identified in analytical writing, such as the meanings and representations question. There can be points worth making about the meanings conveyed by these classes of noun. The types of noun below this, however, are less useful in analysis and are more worth noting in the types of question where you are differentiating standard from non-standard usage, such as in CLA or variation.

The way nouns work with number can vary:

  • Count nouns can be counted, you can have one___ or any number (lamp, elephant, sheep) – they work with ‘many’, not with ‘much’.
  • Non-count nouns don’t go with numbers (traffic, money) – they go with ‘much’, not with ‘many’.
  • Mass nouns are usually non-count but can be count in some circumstances (tea, sugar, milk)
  • Invariable nouns only have one form, which can be either singular or plural (scissors, music, snow, trousers)


A morpheme is the smallest possible unit of grammatical meaning. It is not the same as a syllable. It can be a single letter eg “s” in “boys” (signifies the plural)

Derivational Morphemes:

  • Suffix: end of word; usually changes class
    • tradition + al = traditional (n – adj)
    • fascinate + ing = fascinating (vb – adj)
    • faithful + ly = faithfully (adj – adv)
  • Prefix: beginning of word; does not usually change class
    • un + happy = unhappy (adj – adj)
    • re +write = rewrite (vb – vb)

Inflectional Morphemes:

  • No change in word class  – suffix to show tense, plural etc.
    • animal+s
    • talk+ed
  • Suffixes and prefixes are grouped together as affixes.Morphemes can also be root/stem (the base of the word).  They can also be divided into free and bound morphemes.  A free morpheme can stand alone (eg man, happy, faith), whereas a bound morpheme cannot (eg un, pre, ed, ing).  All affixes are bound morphemes, root morphemes are usually free (but not absolutely always).

Writing about morphology at A Level:

Morphology is of most use in describing non-standard usage.

For example, children often over-use morphemes when they regularise irregular words: mans instead of men or eated instead of ate.  You may want to talk about the order of acquisition of morphemes, as in Brown’s research. Also of use in spoken acquisition is calculating MLU in terms of morphemes rather than words (but do specify this is the system you’re using, and be consistent).

Or in studying language variation, you may want to describe a dialect which uses “I goes” instead of the standard “I go”. In this case, you’d want to talk about the morpheme usually used to indicate third person present tense.

Derivational morphology is also obviously useful in language change, in discussing the construction of some new words. This is most apparent with affixation (e.g. the suffix -gate to designate a scandal), but it may also help to clarify the construction of a blend or a backformation.

Function Words

These are closed class words – we don’t invent new ones. They are grammatical/functional rather than lexical. If they are deleted from a passage, it often still makes sense. They are usually learnt by babies later than lexical words, as their meaning is more abstract.

  • You should be aware that word class for some of these isn’t fixed – the same word can be a preposition, an adverbial or a conjunction under different circumstances. Always consider what the word is doing in the sentence you are examining, e.g.:
  • I haven’t eaten since lunchtime (prep)
  • I ate at lunchtime and haven’t eaten since (adv)
  • I haven’t eaten since Sue arrived (sub conj)
  • Since the cupboard is bare, I haven’t eaten (sub conj) (same function as last sentence, but different meaning)


all tend to precede nouns

  • definite article – THE – refers to a specific thing
  • indefinite article – A/AN – refers to one of many things
  • possessive determiner – MY/HIS/THEIR – indicates whose
  • demonstratives – THIS/THAT/THESE/THOSE – defines which
  • quantifiers – may be actual numbers (cardinal or ordinal) – ONE, TWO, THIRD – or indefinite – SEVERAL, MANY


link grammatical units together

  • co-ordinating conjunctions – AND, OR, BUT – join equally weighted clauses
  • subordinating conjunctions – e.g. BECAUSE, WHEN, UNTIL – join dependent/subordinate clauses to main/independent clauses

Auxiliary Verbs

support the main verb in constructing tense/aspect – if there is more than one verb in a verb phrase, one will be an auxiliary

  • to BE, e.g. I am leaving, it is recognised
  • to HAVE, e.g. she has left, we had eaten
  • to DO, e.g. do you want to go?; I didn’t find it
  • modal auxiliaries: should, shall, would, will, must, may, might, could, can


express a relationship between things; can be a word or a phrase; usually followed by noun or noun phrase

  • of place: UNDER, BEFORE (in a sequence), BETWEEN
  • of time: BEFORE, AFTER, DURING
  • of person or topic: CONCERNING, ABOUT
  • of agent: BY, BY MEANS OF
  • of comparison: LIKE, SIMILAR TO


Adjectives add information to or describe a noun.

  • Comparative forms end in –er or are preceded by “more”.
  • Superlatives end in –est or are preceded by “the most”.

Note: ‘more’ or ‘the most’ are not the comparative/superlative on their own – you have to quote the base adjective too, just like you wouldn’t only quote the ‘er’ or ‘est’ bit of a shorter adjective (i.e. ‘more clever’, ‘better’ or ‘the most awful’, ‘the tallest’ will get you the marks; just ‘more’ or ‘most’ won’t).

  • Compound adjectives are formed by 2 or more adjectives together: bright blue.
  • Other word classes can be used as adjectives, e.g. nouns (boyfriend jeans); perfective verbs (frightened tourists); progressive verbs (infuriating sister).

There are also ways of describing different kinds of adjective semantically, i.e. according to their meaning:

  • Descriptive adjectives simply provide information: the thin boy
  • Evaluative adjectives describe things in a way that also provides a judgement about them (this can be negative or positive): the gangly boy
  • Emotive adjectives are intended to provoke an emotional reaction from the audience: the anorexic-looking boy

Note that it is often possible to describe the same adjective as ‘evaluative’ and ‘emotive’.  That’s the problem with semantic categories – we may all react slightly differently to the same words.  Don’t spend too long wondering whether a word is ‘evaluative’ or ‘emotive’ – just pick one! (and justify it in your analytical comment).


Adverbs add information to verbs, but also to adjectives, another adverb or even a whole sentence.

They often end in –ly.

Adverbials are other words or even phrases acting as adverbs.

Adverb(ial)s of manner tell how something is done: quickly, enthusiastically, “without even looking”.

Adverb(ial)s of place tell where something occurred: here, away, “in the library”.

Adverb(ial)s of time tell when, for how long or how often something occurred: soon, briefly, “a week last Tuesday”.

Adverb(ial)s of degree tell to what degree something is/was: very, hardly, incredibly.

Sentence adverbs qualify the whole sentence rather than just the verb, e.g. “Hopefully, he’ll arrive soon” – this doesn’t mean that he will arrive in a hopeful state, but that the speaker hopes he’ll arrive soon.  Therefore, sentence adverbs are particularly useful when you need to look at writer/audience positioning or attitudes in a text.  If someone starts a sentence with ‘clearly’ or ‘obviously’, for example, they make it very hard for a reader to take a different view.

Using Grammar

It can be difficult to know how to apply grammatical knowledge to text analysis, probably because we’re so used to using some version of “Point Evidence Explain” and that doesn’t really work with grammar: “Dream is an abstract noun because…”  It’s better to work word class knowledge in with everything else: “The abstract noun ‘dream’ is used to convey a strongly positive desire, whilst also carrying connotations of the American Dream.” Because of this, it’s more useful to take a ‘meaning first’ approach to analysis*:

  • first pick out the words and phrases that you feel are worthy of comment.  Then see how precisely you can describe those words/phrases.  
    • Hint: more grammatical detail is always better.  So identifying something as a ‘pronoun’ is good, but ‘first person plural subject pronoun’ is likely to get more marks.  Equally, ‘perfective aspect verbs’ win over ‘verbs’ every time.

*(as opposed to first identifying all the linguistic features that you can and then trying to figure out what they mean)

Grammatical knowledge is also essential for work such as:

  • describing dialect forms – how else can you precisely explain the difference between ‘we was’ and ‘we were’ or define a form like ‘hisself’?
  • explaining children’s uses of language precisely, e.g. non-standard pluralisation (‘mens’, ‘sheeps’) or application of tense to both auxiliary and main verb in a question (did you eated your dinner?)


Textual Analysis work always requires you to analyse the effect of grammatical and lexical features of the text. Therefore, grammar is only one aspect, but a solid knowledge of grammar is often a differentiating feature of a very strong candidate.

All Language students should be comfortable with identifying:

  • Nouns: abstract and concrete, proper and common
  • Pronouns: person (1st etc) and number (singular or plural)
  • Adjectives and adverbs
  • Modifiers and intensifiers
  • Verbs including infinitives
  • Grammatical words vs lexical words
  • Simple sentences

Most of you will also understand all or some of the following:

  • Pronoun use and its effects
  • Pre- and post- modification of nouns
  • Comparatives/superlatives of adjectives
  • Types of adverbs (manner/intensity/time/place)
  • Verbs – aspect/tense; main/modal/auxiliary/primary
  • Verb subjects and objects
  • Adverbials
  • Morphology
  • Different uses/functions of same word (eg “teaching” as verb/noun/adjective)
  • Conjunctions – co-ordinating and subordinating
  • Determiners – usage and effects
  • Prepositions/prepositional phrases
  • Sentence types by function (declarative/imperative etc)
  • Compound and complex sentences

A few of you aiming for a top grade will understand:

  • Passive/active voice verbs
  • Finite/non-finite verb forms
  • Relative clauses

Use these grammar pages to help you learn the word classes.
Please note: Lang-Lit students are not usually expected to use the full range of grammatical terms that Language students are.