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Old Thursday, August 28, 2008
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Default Guide to Grammar and Writing

Guide to Grammar and Writing

Articles, Determiners, and Quantifiers

Articles, determiners, and quantifiers are those little words that precede and modify nouns:

the teacher, a college, a bit of honey, that person, those people, whatever purpose, either way, your choice
Sometimes these words will tell the reader or listener whether we're referring to a specific or general thing (the garage out back; A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!); sometimes they tell how much or how many (lots of trees, several books, a great deal of confusion). The choice of the proper article or determiner to precede a noun or noun phrase is usually not a problem for writers who have grown up speaking English, nor is it a serious problem for non-native writers whose first language is a romance language such as Spanish. For other writers, though, this can be a considerable obstacle on the way to their mastery of English. In fact, some students from eastern European countries — where their native language has either no articles or an altogether different system of choosing articles and determiners — find that these "little words" can create problems long after every other aspect of English has been mastered.

Determiners are said to "mark" nouns. That is to say, you know a determiner will be followed by a noun. Some categories of determiners are limited (there are only three articles, a handful of possessive pronouns, etc.), but the possessive nouns are as limitless as nouns themselves. This limited nature of most determiner categories, however, explains why determiners are grouped apart from adjectives even though both serve a modifying function. We can imagine that the language will never tire of inventing new adjectives; the determiners (except for those possessive nouns), on the other hand, are well established, and this class of words is not going to grow in number. These categories of determiners are as follows: the articles (an, a, the — see below; possessive nouns (Joe's, the priest's, my mother's); possessive pronouns, (his, your, their, whose, etc.); numbers (one, two, etc.); indefinite pronouns (few, more, each, every, either, all, both, some, any, etc.); and demonstrative pronouns. The demonstratives (this, that, these, those, such) are discussed in the section on Demonstrative Pronouns. Notice that the possessive nouns differ from the other determiners in that they, themselves, are often accompanied by other determiners: "my mother's rug," "the priests's collar," "a dog's life."

This categorization of determiners is based on Understanding English Grammar by Martha Kolln. 4rth Edition. MacMillan Publishing Company: New York. 1994.

Some Notes on Quantifiers
Like articles, quantifiers are words that precede and modify nouns. They tell us how many or how much. Selecting the correct quantifier depends on your understanding the distinction between Count and Non-Count Nouns. For our purposes, we will choose the count noun trees and the non-count noun dancing:

The following quantifiers will work with count nouns:

many trees
a few trees
few trees
several trees
a couple of trees
none of the trees

The following quantifiers will work with non-count nouns:

not much dancing
a little dancing
little dancing
a bit of dancing
a good deal of dancing
a great deal of dancing
no dancing

The following quantifiers will work with both count and non-count nouns:

all of the trees/dancing
some trees/dancing
most of the trees/dancing
enough trees/dancing
a lot of trees/dancing
lots of trees/dancing
plenty of trees/dancing
a lack of trees/dancing

In formal academic writing, it is usually better to use many and much rather than phrases such as a lot of, lots of and plenty of.

There is an important difference between "a little" and "little" (used with non-count words) and between "a few" and "few" (used with count words). If I say that Tashonda has a little experience in management that means that although Tashonda is no great expert she does have some experience and that experience might well be enough for our purposes. If I say that Tashonda has little experience in management that means that she doesn't have enough experience. If I say that Charlie owns a few books on Latin American literature that means that he has some some books — not a lot of books, but probably enough for our purposes. If I say that Charlie owns few books on Latin American literature, that means he doesn't have enough for our purposes and we'd better go to the library.

Unless it is combined with of, the quantifier "much" is reserved for questions and negative statements:

Much of the snow has already melted.
How much snow fell yesterday?
Not much.

Note that the quantifier "most of the" must include the definite article the when it modifies a specific noun, whether it's a count or a non-count noun: "most of the instructors at this college have a doctorate"; "most of the water has evaporated." With a general plural noun, however (when you are not referring to a specific entity), the "of the" is dropped:

Most colleges have their own admissions policy.
Most students apply to several colleges.

Authority for this last paragraph: The Scott, Foresman Handbook for Writers by Maxine Hairston and John J. Ruszkiewicz. 4th ed. HarperCollins: New York. 1996. Examples our own.

An indefinite article is sometimes used in conjunction with the quantifier many, thus joining a plural quantifier with a singular noun (which then takes a singular verb):

Many a young man has fallen in love with her golden hair.
Many an apple has fallen by October.

This construction lends itself to a somewhat literary effect (some would say a stuffy or archaic effect) and is best used sparingly, if at all.

The predeterminers occur prior to other determiners (as you would probably guess from their name). This class of words includes multipliers (double, twice, four/five times . . . .); fractional expressions (one-third, three-quarters, etc.); the words both, half, and all; and intensifiers such as quite, rather, and such.

The multipliers precede plural count and mass nouns and occur with singular count nouns denoting number or amount:

This van holds three times the passengers as that sports car.
My wife is making double my / twice my salary.
This time we added five times the amount of water.

In fractional expressions, we have a similar construction, but here it can be replaced with "of" construction.

Charlie finished in one-fourth [of] the time his brother took.
Two-fifths of the respondents reported that half the medication was sufficient.

The intensifiers occur in this construction primarily in casual speech and writing and are more common in British English than they are in American English. The intensifier "what" is often found in stylistic fragments: "We visited my brother in his dorm room. What a mess!"

This room is rather a mess, isn't it?
The ticket-holders made quite a fuss when they couldn't get in.
What an idiot he turned out to be.
Our vacation was such a grand experience.

Half, both, and all can occur with singular and plural count nouns; half and all can occur with mass nouns. There are also "of constructions" with these words ("all [of] the grain," "half [of] his salary"); the "of construction" is required with personal pronouns ("both of them," "all of it"). The following chart (from Quirk and Greenbaum) nicely describes the uses of these three predeterminers:
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The Articles

The three articles — a, an, the — are a kind of adjective. The is called the definite article because it usually precedes a specific or previously mentioned noun; a and an are called indefinite articles because they are used to refer to something in a less specific manner (an unspecified count noun). These words are also listed among the noun markers or determiners because they are almost invariably followed by a noun (or something else acting as a noun).

CAUTION! Even after you learn all the principles behind the use of these articles, you will find an abundance of situations where choosing the correct article or choosing whether to use one or not will prove chancy. Icy highways are dangerous. The icy highways are dangerous. And both are correct.

The is used with specific nouns. The is required when the noun it refers to represents something that is one of a kind:

The moon circles the earth.

The is required when the noun it refers to represents something in the abstract:

The United States has encouraged the use of the private automobile as opposed to the use of public transit.

The is required when the noun it refers to represents something named earlier in the text.

We use a before singular count-nouns that begin with consonants (a cow, a barn, a sheep); we use an before singular count-nouns that begin with vowels or vowel-like sounds (an apple, an urban blight, an open door). Words that begin with an h sound often require an a (as in a horse, a history book, a hotel), but if an h-word begins with an actual vowel sound, use an an (as in an hour, an honor). We would say a useful device and a union matter because the u of those words actually sounds like yoo (as opposed, say, to the u of an ugly incident). The same is true of a European and a Euro (because of that consonantal "Yoo" sound). We would say a once-in-a-lifetime experience or a one-time hero because the words once and one begin with a w sound (as if they were spelled wuntz and won).

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary says that we can use an before an h- word that begins with an unstressed syllable. Thus, we might say an hisTORical moment, but we would say a HIStory book. Many writers would call that an affectation and prefer that we say a historical, but apparently, this choice is a matter of personal taste.

First and subsequent reference: When we first refer to something in written text, we often use an indefinite article to modify it.

A newspaper has an obligation to seek out and tell the truth.
In a subsequent reference to this newspaper, however, we will use the definite article:

There are situations, however, when the newspaper must determine whether the public's safety is jeopardized by knowing the truth.

Another example:
"I'd like a glass of orange juice, please," John said.
"I put the glass of juice on the counter already," Sheila replied.

When a modifier appears between the article and the noun, the subsequent article will continue to be indefinite:
"I'd like a big glass of orange juice, please," John said.
"I put a big glass of juice on the counter already," Sheila replied.

Generic reference: We can refer to something in a generic way by using any of the three articles. We can do the same thing by omitting the article altogether.

A beagle makes a great hunting dog and family companion.

An airedale is sometimes a rather skittish animal.

The golden retriever is a marvelous pet for children.

Irish setters are not the highly intelligent animals they used to be.

The difference between the generic indefinite pronoun and the normal
indefinite pronoun is that the latter refers to any of that class ("I want to buy a beagle, and any old beagle will do.") whereas the former (see beagle sentence) refers to all members of that class.

Proper nouns: We use the definite article with certain kinds of proper nouns:
  • Geographical places: the Sound, the Sea of Japan, the Mississippi, the West, the Smokies, the Sahara (but often not when the main part of the proper noun seems to be modified by an earlier attributive noun or adjective: We went swimming at the Ocean Park)
  • Pluralized names (geographic, family, teams): the Netherlands, the Bahamas, the Hamptons, the Johnsons, the New England Patriots
  • Public institutions/facilities/groups: the Wadsworth Atheneum, the Sheraton, the House, the Presbyterian Church
  • Newspapers: the Hartford Courant, the Times
  • Nouns followed by a prepositional phrase beginning with "of": the leader of the gang, the president of our club
Abstract nouns: Abstract nouns—the names of things that are not tangible—are sometimes used with articles, sometimes not:
  • The storm upset my peace of mind. He was missing just one thing: peace of mind.
  • Injustice was widespread within the judicial system itself. He implored the judge to correct the injustice.
  • Her body was racked with grief. It was a grief he had never felt before.

Zero articles: Several kinds of nouns never use articles. We do not use articles with the names of languages ("He was learning Chinese." [But when the word Chinese refers to the people, the definite article might come into play: "The Chinese are hoping to get the next Olympics."]), the names of sports ("She plays badminton and basketball."), and academic subjects ("She's taking economics and math. Her major is Religious Studies.")

When they are generic, non-count nouns and sometimes plural count-nouns are used without articles. "We like wine with our dinner. We adore Baroque music. We use roses for many purposes." But if an "of phrase" comes after the noun, we use an article: "We adore the music of the Baroque." Also, when a generic noun is used without an article and then referred to in a subsequent reference, it will have become specific and will require a definite article: "The Data Center installed computers in the Learning Center this summer. The computers, unfortunately, don't work."

Common count nouns are used without articles in certain special situations:

idiomatic expressions using be and go
We'll go by train. (as opposed to "We'll take the train.)
He must be in school.

with seasons
In spring, we like to clean the house.

with institutions
He's in church/college/jail/class.

with meals
Breakfast was delicious.
He's preparing dinner by himself.

with diseases
He's dying of pneumonia.
Appendicitis nearly killed him.
She has cancer
(You will sometimes hear "the measles," "the mumps," but these, too, can go without articles.)

with time of day
We traveled mostly by night.
We'll be there around midnight.

Principles of Choosing an Article
Choosing articles and determiners: Briefly defined, a determiner is a noun-marker: when you see one, you know that what follows is a noun or noun phrase. There is a list of such words in the table below. When you place your mouse-cursor over a word or pair of related words (such as either/neither), you will see in the right-hand frame an image describing the kinds of words that word can modify.

Zero article means either that no article would be appropriate with that kind of noun or that that kind of noun can be used (in that context) without an article.


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Adjectives are words that describe or modify another person or thing in the sentence. The Articles — a, an, and the — are adjectives.

the tall professor
the lugubrious lieutenant
a solid commitment
a month's pay
a six-year-old child
the unhappiest, richest man

If a group of words containing a subject and verb acts as an adjective, it is called an Adjective Clause. My sister, who is much older than I am, is an engineer. If an adjective clause is stripped of its subject and verb, the resulting modifier becomes an Adjective Phrase: He is the man who is keeping my family in the poorhouse.

Before getting into other usage considerations, one general note about the use — or over-use — of adjectives: Adjectives are frail; don't ask them to do more work than they should. Let your broad-shouldered verbs and nouns do the hard work of description. Be particularly cautious in your use of adjectives that don't have much to say in the first place: interesting, beautiful, lovely, exciting. It is your job as a writer to create beauty and excitement and interest, and when you simply insist on its presence without showing it to your reader — well, you're convincing no one.

Consider the uses of modifiers in this adjectivally rich paragraph from Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel. (Charles Scribner's, 1929, p. 69.) Adjectives are highlighted in this color; participles, verb forms acting as adjectives, are highlighted in this blue. Some people would argue that words that are part of a name — like "East India Tea House — are not really adjectival and that possessive nouns — father's, farmer's — are not technically adjectives, but we've included them in our analysis of Wolfe's text.

He remembered yet the East India Tea House at the Fair, the sandalwood, the turbans, and the robes, the cool interior and the smell of India tea; and he had felt now the nostalgic thrill of dew-wet mornings in Spring, the cherry scent, the cool clarion earth, the wet loaminess of the garden, the pungent breakfast smells and the floating snow of blossoms. He knew the inchoate sharp excitement of hot dandelions in young earth; in July, of watermelons bedded in sweet hay, inside a farmer's covered wagon; of cantaloupe and crated peaches; and the scent of orange rind, bitter-sweet, before a fire of coals. He knew the good male smell of his father's sitting-room; of the smooth worn leather sofa, with the gaping horse-hair rent; of the blistered varnished wood upon the hearth; of the heated calf-skin bindings; of the flat moist plug of apple tobacco, stuck with a red flag; of wood-smoke and burnt leaves in October; of the brown tired autumn earth; of honey-suckle at night; of warm nasturtiums, of a clean ruddy farmer who comes weekly with printed butter, eggs, and milk; of fat limp underdone bacon and of coffee; of a bakery-oven in the wind; of large deep-hued stringbeans smoking-hot and seasoned well with salt and butter; of a room of old pine boards in which books and carpets have been stored, long closed; of Concord grapes in their long white baskets.

An abundance of adjectives like this would be uncommon in contemporary prose. Whether we have lost something or not is left up to you.

Position of Adjectives
Unlike Adverbs, which often seem capable of popping up almost anywhere in a sentence, adjectives nearly always appear immediately before the noun or noun phrase that they modify. Sometimes they appear in a string of adjectives, and when they do, they appear in a set order according to category. (See Below.) When indefinite pronouns — such as something, someone, anybody — are modified by an adjective, the adjective comes after the pronoun:

Anyone capable of doing something horrible to someone nice should be punished.

Something wicked this way comes.
And there are certain adjectives that, in combination with certain words, are always "postpositive" (coming after the thing they modify):

The president elect, heir apparent to the Glitzy fortune, lives in New York proper.

Degrees of Adjectives
Adjectives can express degrees of modification:

Gladys is a rich woman, but Josie is richer than Gladys, and Sadie is the richest woman in town.

The degrees of comparison are known as the positive, the comparative, and the superlative. (Actually, only the comparative and superlative show degrees.) We use the comparative for comparing two things and the superlative for comparing three or more things. Notice that the word than frequently accompanies the comparative and the word the precedes the superlative. The inflected suffixes -er and -est suffice to form most comparatives and superlatives, although we need -ier and -iest when a two-syllable adjective ends in y (happier and happiest); otherwise we use more and most when an adjective has more than one syllable.


more beautiful

most beautiful

Irregular Comparative and Superlative Forms

good better best

bad worse worst
little less least

some more most

far further furthest

Be careful not to form comparatives or superlatives of adjectives which already express an extreme of comparison — unique, for instance — although it probably is possible to form comparative forms of most adjectives: something can be more perfect, and someone can have a fuller figure.

Be careful, also, not to use more along with a comparative adjective formed with -er nor to use most along with a superlative adjective formed with -est (e.g., do not write that something is more heavier or most heaviest).

The as — as construction is used to create a comparison expressing equality:

He is as foolish as he is large.
She is as bright as her mother.

Premodifiers with Degrees of Adjectives
Both adverbs and adjectives in their comparative and superlative forms can be accompanied by premodifiers, single words and phrases, that intensify the degree.

We were a lot more careful this time.
He works a lot less carefully than the other jeweler in town.
We like his work so much better.
You'll get your watch back all the faster.
The same process can be used to downplay the degree:

The weather this week has been somewhat better.
He approaches his schoolwork a little less industriously than his brother does.
And sometimes a set phrase, usually an informal noun phrase, is used for this purpose:

He arrived a whole lot sooner than we expected.
That's a heck of a lot better.
If the intensifier very accompanies the superlative, a determiner is also required:

She is wearing her very finest outfit for the interview.
They're doing the very best they can.
Occasionally, the comparative or superlative form appears with a determiner and the thing being modified is understood:

Of all the wines produced in Connecticut, I like this one the most.
The quicker you finish this project, the better.
Of the two brothers, he is by far the faster.

Authority for this section: A University Grammar of English by Randolph Quirk and Sidney Greenbaum. Longman Group: Essex, England. 1993. Used with permission.


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Adverbs are words that modify

a verb (He drove slowly. — How did he drive?)
an adjective (He drove a very fast car. — How fast was his car?)
another adverb (She moved quite slowly down the aisle. — How slowly did she move?)

As we will see, adverbs often tell when, where, why, or under what conditions something happens or happened. Adverbs frequently end in -ly; however, many words and phrases not ending in -ly serve an adverbial function and an -ly ending is not a guarantee that a word is an adverb. The words lovely, lonely, motherly, friendly, neighborly, for instance, are adjectives:

That lovely woman lives in a friendly neighborhood.

If a group of words containing a subject and verb acts as an adverb (modifying the verb of a sentence), it is called an Adverb Clause:

When this class is over, we're going to the movies.
When a group of words not containing a subject and verb acts as an adverb, it is called an adverbial phrase. Prepositional phrases frequently have adverbial functions (telling place and time, modifying the verb):

He went to the movies.
She works on holidays.
They lived in Canada during the war.
And Infinitive phrases can act as adverbs (usually telling why):

She hurried to the mainland to see her brother.
The senator ran to catch the bus.
But there are other kinds of adverbial phrases:

He calls his mother as often as possible.

Adverbs can modify adjectives, but an adjective cannot modify an adverb. Thus we would say that "the students showed a really wonderful attitude" and that "the students showed a wonderfully casual attitude" and that "my professor is really tall, but not "He ran real fast."

Like adjectives, adverbs can have comparative and superlative forms to show degree.

Walk faster if you want to keep up with me.
The student who reads fastest will finish first.
We often use more and most, less and least to show degree with adverbs:

With sneakers on, she could move more quickly among the patients.
The flowers were the most beautifully arranged creations I've ever seen.
She worked less confidently after her accident.
That was the least skillfully done performance I've seen in years.
The as — as construction can be used to create adverbs that express sameness or equality: "He can't run as fast as his sister."

A handful of adverbs have two forms, one that ends in -ly and one that doesn't. In certain cases, the two forms have different meanings:

He arrived late.
Lately, he couldn't seem to be on time for anything.
In most cases, however, the form without the -ly ending should be reserved for casual situations:

She certainly drives slow in that old Buick of hers.
He did wrong by her.
He spoke sharp, quick, and to the point.
Adverbs often function as intensifiers, conveying a greater or lesser emphasis to something. Intensifiers are said to have three different functions: they can emphasize, amplify, or downtone. Here are some examples:

I really don't believe him.
He literally wrecked his mother's car.
She simply ignored me.
They're going to be late, for sure.
The teacher completely rejected her proposal.
I absolutely refuse to attend any more faculty meetings.
They heartily endorsed the new restaurant.
I so wanted to go with them.
We know this city well.
I kind of like this college.
Joe sort of felt betrayed by his sister.
His mother mildly disapproved his actions.
We can improve on this to some extent.
The boss almost quit after that.
The school was all but ruined by the storm.
Adverbs (as well as adjectives) in their various degrees can be accompanied by premodifiers:

She runs very fast.
We're going to run out of material all the faster
This issue is addressed in the section on degrees in adjectives.

For this section on intensifiers, we are indebted to A Grammar of Contemporary English by Randolph Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik. Longman Group: London. 1978. pages 438 to 457. Examples our own.

Using Adverbs in a Numbered List
Within the normal flow of text, it's nearly always a bad idea to number items beyond three or four, at the most. Anything beyond that, you're better off with a vertical list that uses numbers (1, 2, 3, etc.). Also, in such a list, don't use adverbs (with an -ly ending); use instead the uninflected ordinal number (first, second, third, fourth, fifth, etc.). First (not firstly), it's unclear what the adverb is modifying. Second (not secondly), it's unnecessary. Third (not thirdly), after you get beyond "secondly," it starts to sound silly. Adverbs that number in this manner are treated as disjuncts (see below.)

Adverbs We Can Do Without
Review the section on Being Concise for some advice on adverbs that we can eliminate to the benefit of our prose: intensifiers such as very, extremely, and really that don't intensify anything and expletive constructions ("There are several books that address this issue.")

Kinds of Adverbs
Adverbs of Manner
She moved slowly and spoke quietly.

Adverbs of Place
She has lived on the island all her life.
She still lives there now.

Adverbs of Frequency
She takes the boat to the mainland every day.
She often goes by herself.

Adverbs of Time
She tries to get back before dark.
It's starting to get dark now.
She finished her tea first.
She left early.

Adverbs of Purpose
She drives her boat slowly to avoid hitting the rocks.
She shops in several stores to get the best buys.
Positions of Adverbs
One of the hallmarks of adverbs is their ability to move around in a sentence. Adverbs of manner are particularly flexible in this regard.

Solemnly the minister addressed her congregation.
The minister solemnly addressed her congregation.
The minister addressed her congregation solemnly.
The following adverbs of frequency appear in various points in these sentences:

Before the main verb: I never get up before nine o'clock.
Between the auxiliary verb and the main verb: I have rarely written to my brother without a good reason.
Before the verb used to: I always used to see him at his summer home.
Indefinite adverbs of time can appear either before the verb or between the auxiliary and the main verb:

He finally showed up for batting practice.
She has recently retired.

Order of Adverbs
There is a basic order in which adverbs will appear when there is more than one. It is similar to The Royal Order of Adjectives, but it is even more flexible.

More Notes on Adverb Order
As a general principle, shorter adverbial phrases precede longer adverbial phrases, regardless of content. In the following sentence, an adverb of time precedes an adverb of frequency because it is shorter (and simpler):

Dad takes a brisk walk before breakfast every day of his life.
A second principle: among similar adverbial phrases of kind (manner, place, frequency, etc.), the more specific adverbial phrase comes first:

My grandmother was born in a sod house on the plains of northern Nebraska.
She promised to meet him for lunch next Tuesday.
Bringing an adverbial modifier to the beginning of the sentence can place special emphasis on that modifier. This is particularly useful with adverbs of manner:

Slowly, ever so carefully, Jesse filled the coffee cup up to the brim, even above the brim.
Occasionally, but only occasionally, one of these lemons will get by the inspectors.

Inappropriate Adverb Order
Review the section on Misplaced Modifiers for some additional ideas on placement. Modifiers can sometimes attach themselves to and thus modify words that they ought not to modify.

They reported that Giuseppe Balle, a European rock star, had died on the six o'clock news.
Clearly, it would be better to move the underlined modifier to a position immediately after "they reported" or even to the beginning of the sentence — so the poor man doesn't die on television.

Misplacement can also occur with very simple modifiers, such as only and barely:

She only grew to be four feet tall.
It would be better if "She grew to be only four feet tall."

Adjuncts, Disjuncts, and Conjuncts
Regardless of its position, an adverb is often neatly integrated into the flow of a sentence. When this is true, as it almost always is, the adverb is called an adjunct. (Notice the underlined adjuncts or adjunctive adverbs in the first two sentences of this paragraph.) When the adverb does not fit into the flow of the clause, it is called a disjunct or a conjunct and is often set off by a comma or set of commas. A disjunct frequently acts as a kind of evaluation of the rest of the sentence. Although it usually modifies the verb, we could say that it modifies the entire clause, too. Notice how "too" is a disjunct in the sentence immediately before this one; that same word can also serve as an adjunct adverbial modifier: It's too hot to play outside. Here are two more disjunctive adverbs:

Frankly, Martha, I don't give a hoot.
Fortunately, no one was hurt.
Conjuncts, on the other hand, serve a connector function within the flow of the text, signaling a transition between ideas.

If they start smoking those awful cigars, then I'm not staying.
We've told the landlord about this ceiling again and again, and yet he's done nothing to fix it.
At the extreme edge of this category, we have the purely conjunctive device known as the conjunctive adverb (often called the adverbial conjunction):

Jose has spent years preparing for this event; nevertheless, he's the most nervous person here.
I love this school; however, I don't think I can afford the tuition.

Authority for this section: A University Grammar of English by Randolph Quirk and Sidney Greenbaum. Longman Group: Essex, England. 1993. 126. Used with permission. Examples our own.

Some Special Cases
The adverbs enough and not enough usually take a postmodifier position:

Is that music loud enough?
These shoes are not big enough.
In a roomful of elderly people, you must remember to speak loudly enough.
(Notice, though, that when enough functions as an adjective, it can come before the noun:

Did she give us enough time?
The adverb enough is often followed by an infinitive:

She didn't run fast enough to win.
The adverb too comes before adjectives and other adverbs:

She ran too fast.
She works too quickly.
If too comes after the adverb it is probably a disjunct (meaning also) and is usually set off with a comma:

Yasmin works hard. She works quickly, too.
The adverb too is often followed by an infinitive:

She runs too slowly to enter this race.
Another common construction with the adverb too is too followed by a prepositional phrase — for + the object of the preposition — followed by an infinitive:

This milk is too hot for a baby to drink.

Relative Adverbs
Adjectival clauses are sometimes introduced by what are called the relative adverbs: where, when, and why. Although the entire clause is adjectival and will modify a noun, the relative word itself fulfills an adverbial function (modifying a verb within its own clause).

The relative adverb where will begin a clause that modifies a noun of place:

My entire family now worships in the church where my great grandfather used to be minister.
The relative pronoun "where" modifies the verb "used to be" (which makes it adverbial), but the entire clause ("where my great grandfather used to be minister") modifies the word "church."

A when clause will modify nouns of time:

My favorite month is always February, when we celebrate Valentine's Day and Presidents' Day.
And a why clause will modify the noun reason:

Do you know the reason why Isabel isn't in class today?
We sometimes leave out the relative adverb in such clauses, and many writers prefer "that" to "why" in a clause referring to "reason":

Do you know the reason why Isabel isn't in class today?
I always look forward to the day when we begin our summer vacation.
I know the reason that men like motorcycles.
Authority for this section: Understanding English Grammar by Martha Kolln. 4rth Edition. MacMillan Publishing Company: New York. 1994.

Viewpoint, Focus, and Negative Adverbs
A viewpoint adverb generally comes after a noun and is related to an adjective that precedes that noun:

A successful athletic team is often a good team scholastically.
Investing all our money in snowmobiles was probably not a sound idea financially.
You will sometimes hear a phrase like "scholastically speaking" or "financially speaking" in these circumstances, but the word "speaking" is seldom necessary.

A focus adverb indicates that what is being communicated is limited to the part that is focused; a focus adverb will tend either to limit the sense of the sentence ("He got an A just for attending the class.") or to act as an additive ("He got an A in addition to being published."

Although negative constructions like the words "not" and "never" are usually found embedded within a verb string — "He has never been much help to his mother." — they are technically not part of the verb; they are, indeed, adverbs. However, a so-called negative adverb creates a negative meaning in a sentence without the use of the usual no/not/neither/nor/never constructions:

He seldom visits.
She hardly eats anything since the accident.
After her long and tedious lectures, rarely was anyone awake.


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the Essential

A clause is a group of related words containing a subject and a verb A clause can be usefully distinguished from a phrase, which is a group of related words that does not contain a subject-verb relationship, such as "in the morning" or "running down the street" or "having grown used to this harassment." A review of the different kinds of phrases might be helpful.

Words We Use to Talk about Clauses
Learning the various terms used to define and classify clauses can be a vocabulary lesson in itself. This digital handout categorizes clauses into independent and dependent clauses. This simply means that some clauses can stand by themselves, as separate sentences, and some can't. Another term for dependent clause is subordinate clause: this means that the clause is subordinate to another element (the independent clause) and depends on that other element for its meaning. The subordinate clause is created by a subordinating conjunction or dependent word.

An independent clause, "She is older than her brother" (which could be its own sentence), can be turned into a dependent or subordinate clause when the same group of words begins with a dependent word (or a subordinating conjunction in this case): "Because she is older than her brother, she tells him what to do."

Clauses are also classified as restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. (The words essential and nonessential are sometimes used and mean the same thing as restrictive and nonrestrictive, respectively. British grammarians will make this same distinction by referring to clauses with the terms defining and non-defining.) A nonrestrictive clause is not essential to the meaning of the sentence; it can be removed from the sentence without changing its basic meaning. Nonrestrictive clauses are often set apart from the rest of the sentence by a comma or a pair of commas (if it's in the middle of a sentence).

Professor Villa, who used to be a secretary for the President, can type 132 words a minute.
Review the Notorious Confusables section on the difference between That and Which for additional clarification on the distinction between restrictive and nonrestrictive.

Relative clauses are dependent clauses introduced by a Relative Pronoun (that, which, whichever, who, whoever, whom, whomever, whose, and of which). Relative clauses can be either restrictive or nonrestrictive. Review the section on Comma Usage for additional help in determining whether relative clauses are restrictive or nonrestrictive (parenthetical or not) and whether commas should be used to set them off from the rest of the sentence. In a relative clause, the relative pronoun is the subject of the verb (remember that all clauses contain a subject-verb relationship) and refers to (relates to) something preceding the clause.

Giuseppe said that the plantar wart, which had been bothering him for years, had to be removed.
(In this sentence, the clause in this color is a restrictive [essential] clause [a noun clause — see below] and will not be set off by a comma; the underlined relative clause [modifying "wart"] is nonrestrictive [nonessential — it can be removed from the sentence without changing the meaning of the sentence] and is set off by commas.)

Some relative clauses will refer to more than a single word in the preceding text; they can modify an entire clause or even a series of clauses.

Charlie didn't get the job in administration, which really surprised his friends.
Charlie didn't get the job in administration, and he didn't even apply for the Dean's position, which really surprised his friends.
A relative clause that refers to or modifies entire clauses in this manner is called a sentential clause. Sometimes the "which" of a sentential clause will get tucked into the clause as the determiner of a noun:

Charlie might very well take a job as headmaster, in which case the school might as well close down.

Independent Clauses
Independent Clauses could stand by themselves as discrete sentences, except that when they do stand by themselves, separated from other clauses, they're normally referred to simply as sentences, not clauses. The ability to recognize a clause and to know when a clause is capable of acting as an independent unit is essential to correct writing and is especially helpful in avoiding sentence fragments and run-on sentences..

Needless to say, it is important to learn how to combine independent clauses into larger units of thought. In the following sentence, for example,

Bob didn't mean to do it, but he did it anyway.

we have two independent clauses — "Bob didn't mean to do it" and "he did it anyway" — connected by a comma and a coordinating conjunction ("but"). If the word "but" is missing from this sentence, the sentence would be called a comma splice: two independent clauses would be incorrectly connected, smooshed together, with only a comma between them. Furthermore, a long series of clauses of similar structure and length begins to feel monotonous, leading to what is called "Dick and Jane" or primer language (after the kind of prose that we find in first grade textbooks or "primers"). (See the section on Avoiding Primer Language for advice and exercises on combining sentences.) It would also be helpful at this time to review the section on Punctuation Between Two Independent Clauses.

Clauses are combined in three different ways: coordination, subordination, and by means of a semicolon. Coordination involves joining independent clauses with one of the coordinating conjunctions: and, but, or, nor, for, yet, and sometimes* so. Clauses thus connected are usually nicely balanced in length and import.

Ramonita thought about joining the church choir, but she never talked to her friends about it.

Subordination involves turning one of the clauses into a subordinate element (one that cannot stand on its own) through the use of a Subordinating Conjunction (sometimes called a dependent word) or a Relative Pronoun. When the clause begins with a subordinating word, it is no longer an independent clause; it is called a dependent or subordinate clause because it depends on something else (the independent clause) for its meaning. There are other ways of combining ideas — by turning independent clauses into various kinds of modifying phrases. Again, see the section on Avoiding Primer Language.

Although Ramonita often thought about joining the choir, she never talked to her friends about it.

Ramonita never talked to her friends about joining the choir, because she was afraid they would make fun of her.

Yasmin is Ramonita's sister. Yasmin told Ramonita to join the choir no matter what her friends said.

Joining these with the use of a relative clause:
Yasmin, [who is] Ramonita's sister, told Ramonita to join the choir. . . .
Semicolons can connect two independent clauses with or without the help of a conjunctive adverb (transitional expression). Semicolons should be used sparingly and only when the two independent clauses involved are closely related and nicely balanced in terms of length and import.

Ramonita has such a beautiful voice; many couples have asked her to sing at their wedding.
Ramonita's voice has a clear, angelic quality; furthermore, she clearly enjoys using it.

Take these two quizzes on recognizing independent clauses before proceeding to the section on dependent clauses.

Dependent Clauses
Dependent Clauses cannot stand by themselves and make good sense. They must be combined with an independent clause so that they become part of a sentence that can stand by itself. (Review the section on Commas Usage for advice and plenty of exercises on the punctuation requirements when dependent and independent clauses are combined.) Unlike independent clauses, which simply are what they are, dependent clauses are said to perform various functions within a sentence. They act either in the capacity of some kind of noun or as some kind of modifier. There are three basic kinds of dependent clauses, categorized according to their function in the sentence. Remember that a dependent clause always contains a subject and a verb, but it cannot stand by itself.

Adverb clauses provide information about what is going on in the main (independent) clause: where, when, or why. "When the movie is over, we'll go downtown." or "John wanted to write a book because he had so much to say about the subject."

Adjective clauses work like multi-word adjectives. "My brother, who is an engineer, figured it out for me." or "The bridge that collapsed in the winter storm will cost millions to replace." A special kind of adjective clause begins with a relative adverb (where, when, and why) but nonetheless functions as adjectivally.

Noun clauses can do anything that nouns can do. "What he knows [subject] is no concern of mine." or "Do you know what he knows [object]?" or "What can you tell me about what he has done this year [object of the preposition "about"]?"

Combinations of Clauses
Review the section on Sentence Variety for help in understanding the variety of sentence patterns. It is difficult to know if you're using different patterns unless you keep in mind the way that clauses are combined in larger sentence-units of thought. Pay special attention to the variety of sentence types: simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences. These are defined by their essential ingredients, the clauses that make them up. There is also a quiz at the end of that section that will test your ability to distinguish among the kinds of clauses that make up a sentence.

Elliptical Clauses
Elliptical Clauses are grammatically incomplete in the sense that they are missing either the relative pronoun (dependent word) that normally introduces such a clause or something from the predicate in the second part of a comparison. The missing parts of the elliptical clause can be guessed from the context and most readers are not aware that anything is missing. In fact, elliptical clauses are regarded as both useful and correct, even in formal prose, because they are often elegant, efficient means of expression. (The omitted words are noted in brackets below).

Coach Espinoza knew [that] this team would be the best [that] she had coached in recent years.
Though [they were] sometimes nervous on the court, her recruits proved to be hard workers.
Sometimes the veterans knew the recruits could play better than they [could play].


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Sentence Subjects

The subject of a sentence is the person, place, thing, or idea that is doing or being something. You can find the subject of a sentence if you can find the verb. Ask the question, "Who or what 'verbs' or 'verbed'?" and the answer to that question is the subject. For instance, in the sentence "The computers in the Learning Center must be replaced," the verb is "must be replaced." What must be replaced? The computers. So the subject is "computers." A simple subject is the subject of a sentence stripped of modifiers. The simple subject of the following sentence is issue:

The really important issue of the conference, stripped of all other considerations, is the morality of the nation.
Sometimes, though, a simple subject can be more than one word, even an entire clause. In the following sentence —

What he had already forgotten about computer repair could fill whole volumes,

—the simple subject is not "computer repair," nor is it "what he had forgotten," nor is it "he." Ask what it is that "could fill whole volumes." Your answer should be that the entire underlined clause is the simple subject.

In English, the subject of a command, order, or suggestion — you, the person being directed — is usually left out of the sentence and is said to be the understood subject:

[You] Step lively there or I'll leave you behind!
Before assembling the swingset, [you] read these instructions carefully.

For purposes of sentence analysis, the do-er or the initiator of action in a sentence is referred to as the agent of the sentence. In an active sentence, the subject is the agent:

The Johnsons added a double garage to their house.
The jury returned a verdict of manslaughter.
In a passive sentence, the agent is not the subject. In fact, sometimes a passive sentence will not contain an agent.
The dean's report was reviewed by the faculty senate.
Three cities in the country's interior were bombed.

Subject-Verb Inversion

The normal English order of subject-verb-completer is disturbed only occasionally but under several circumstances. Burchfield* lists about ten situations in which the subject will come after the verb. The most important of these are as follows (subjects in blue):

In questions (routinely): "Have you eaten breakfast yet?" "Are you ready?"
In expletive constructions: "There were four basic causes of the Civil War." "Here is the book."
In attributing speech (occasionally, but optionally): "'Help me!' cried Farmer Brown."

To give prominence or focus to a particular word or phrase by putting the predicate in the initial position: "Even more important is the chapter dealing with ordnance."

When a sentence begins with an adverb or an adverbial phrase or clause: "Seldom has so much been owed by so many to so few."
In negative constructions: "I don't believe a word she says, nor does my brother. Come to think of it, neither does her father."
After so: "I believe her; so does my brother."
For emphasis and literary effect: "Into the jaws of Death, / Into the mouth of Hell / Rode the six hundred."**

There are other uses of inversion, but most of those result in a strained or literary effect.

*The New Fowler's Modern English Usage edited by R.W. Burchfield. Clarendon Press: Oxford, England. 1996. Used with the permission of Oxford University Press. Examples our own.


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The Passive Voice

Passive and Active Voices

Verbs are also said to be either active (The executive committee approved the new policy) or passive (The new policy was approved by the executive committee) in voice. In the active voice, the subject and verb relationship is straightforward: the subject is a be-er or a do-er and the verb moves the sentence along. In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is neither a do-er or a be-er, but is acted upon by some other agent or by something unnamed (The new policy was approved). Computerized grammar checkers can pick out a passive voice construction from miles away and ask you to revise it to a more active construction. There is nothing inherently wrong with the passive voice, but if you can say the same thing in the active mode, do so (see exceptions below). Your text will have more pizzazz as a result, since passive verb constructions tend to lie about in their pajamas and avoid actual work.

We find an overabundance of the passive voice in sentences created by self-protective business interests, magniloquent educators, and bombastic military writers (who must get weary of this accusation), who use the passive voice to avoid responsibility for actions taken. Thus "Cigarette ads were designed to appeal especially to children" places the burden on the ads — as opposed to "We designed the cigarette ads to appeal especially to children," in which "we" accepts responsibility. At a White House press briefing we might hear that "The President was advised that certain members of Congress were being audited" rather than "The Head of the Internal Revenue service advised the President that her agency was auditing certain members of Congress" because the passive construction avoids responsibility for advising and for auditing. One further caution about the passive voice: we should not mix active and passive constructions in the same sentence: "The executive committee approved the new policy, and the calendar for next year's meetings was revised" should be recast as "The executive committee approved the new policy and revised the calendar for next year's meeting."

Take the quiz (below) as an exercise in recognizing and changing passive verbs.

The passive voice does exist for a reason, however, and its presence is not always to be despised. The passive is particularly useful (even recommended) in two situations:
  • When it is more important to draw our attention to the person or thing acted upon: The unidentified victim was apparently struck during the early morning hours.
  • When the actor in the situation is not important: The aurora borealis can be observed in the early morning hours.

The passive voice is especially helpful (and even regarded as mandatory) in scientific or technical writing or lab reports, where the actor is not really important but the process or principle being described is of ultimate importance. Instead of writing "I poured 20 cc of acid into the beaker," we would write "Twenty cc of acid is/was poured into the beaker." The passive voice is also useful when describing, say, a mechanical process in which the details of process are much more important than anyone's taking responsibility for the action: "The first coat of primer paint is applied immediately after the acid rinse."

We use the passive voice to good effect in a paragraph in which we wish to shift emphasis from what was the object in a first sentence to what becomes the subject in subsequent sentences.

The executive committee approved an entirely new policy for dealing with academic suspension and withdrawal. The policy had been written by a subcommittee on student behavior. If students withdraw from course work before suspension can take effect, the policy states, a mark of "IW" . . . .
The paragraph is clearly about this new policy so it is appropriate that policy move from being the object in the first sentence to being the subject of the second sentence. The passive voice allows for this transition.†

Passive Verb Formation
The passive forms of a verb are created by combining a form of the "to be verb" with the past participle of the main verb. Other helping verbs are also sometimes present: "The measure could have been killed in committee." The passive can be used, also, in various tenses. Let's take a look at the passive forms of "design."

Present The car/cars is are designed.
Present perfect The car/cars has been have been designed.
Past The car/cars was were designed.
Past perfect The car/cars had been had been designed.
Future The car/cars will be will be designed.
Future perfect The car/cars will have been will have been designed.
Present progressive The car/cars is being are being designed.
Past progressive The car/cars was being were being designed.

A sentence cast in the passive voice will not always include an agent of the action. For instance if a gorilla crushes a tin can, we could say "The tin can was crushed by the gorilla." But a perfectly good sentence would leave out the gorilla: "The tin can was crushed." Also, when an active sentence with an indirect object is recast in the passive, the indirect object can take on the role of subject in the passive sentence:

Active Professor Villa gave Jorge an A.
Passive An A was given to Jorge by Professor Villa.
Passive Jorge was given an A.

Only transitive verbs (those that take objects) can be transformed into passive constructions. Furthermore, active sentences containing certain verbs cannot be transformed into passive structures. To have is the most important of these verbs. We can say "He has a new car," but we cannot say "A new car is had by him." We can say "Josefina lacked finesse," but we cannot say "Finesse was lacked." Here is a brief list of such verbs*:

look like
agree with

Verbals in Passive Structures
Verbals or verb forms can also take on features of the passive voice. An infinitive phrase in the passive voice, for instance, can perform various functions within a sentence (just like the active forms of the infinitive).

Subject: To be elected by my peers is a great honor.
Object: That child really likes to be read to by her mother.
Modifier: Grasso was the first woman to be elected governor in her own right.
The same is true of passive gerunds.

Subject: Being elected by my peers was a great thrill.
Object: I really don't like being lectured to by my boss.
Object of preposition: I am so tired of being lectured to by my boss.
With passive participles, part of the passive construction is often omitted, the result being a simple modifying participial phrase.

[Having been] designed for off-road performance, the Pathseeker does not always behave well on paved highways.


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Tenses in english



The PRESENT TENSE uses the verb's base form (write, work), or, for third-person singular subjects, the base form plus an -s ending (he writes, she works).
The PRESENT TENSE indicates that an action is present, now, relative to the speaker or writer. Generally, it is used to describe actions that are factual or habitual -- things that occur in the present but that are not necessarily happening right now: "It rains a lot in Portland" is a kind of timeless statement. Compare that to the present progressive -- "It is raining in Portland" -- which means that something is, in fact, going on right now. "I use my bike to get around town." is in the present, but I'm not actually on my bike right now. An instantaneous sense of the present can be conveyed with either the simple present or the progressive: "Watch him now: he holds [is holding] down the control key at the same time that he presses [is pressing] the letter d."

The present tense is used to describe events that are scheduled (by nature or by people): "High tide is at 3:15 p.m. The Super Bowl starts at 6:15 p.m."

The present tense can be used to suggest the past with what is sometimes called the fictional (or historic) present: "We were watching the back door when, all of a sudden, in walks Dierdre." With verbs of communicating, the present tense can also suggest a past action: "Dierdre tells me that she took her brother to the dentist." Most oddly, the present tense can convey a sense of the future, especially with verbs such as arrive, come, and leave that suggest a kind of plan or schedule: "The train from Boston arrives this afternoon at two o'clock."

Authority for this section: A University Grammar of English by Randolph Quirk and Sidney Greenbaum. Longman Group: Essex, England. 1993. Used with permission.

Present tense habitual activities are frequently signaled by time expressions such as the following:
all the time
every class
every day
every holiday
every hour
every month
every semester
every week
every year
most of the time

I walk to work every day.
The Chicago Bulls sometimes practice in this gymnasium.
Dr. Espinoza operates according to her own schedule.
Coach Calhoun recruits from countries outside the U.S.A.
Tashonda tells me she has committed to UConn.
We work really hard to make this a success, and then look what happens.
Every time that kid finishes a sandcastle, the waves come in and wash it away.
The shipment arrives tomorrow at 2 p.m.


The PAST TENSE indicates that an action is in the past relative to the speaker or writer.
when the time period has finished: "We went to Chicago last Christmas."
when the time period is definite: "We visited Mom last week."
with for, when the action is finished: "I worked with the FBI for two months."
Regular verbs use the verb's base form (scream, work) plus the -ed ending (screamed, worked). Irregular verbs alter their form in some other way (slept, drank, drove).
Students for whom English is a second language sometimes (quite understandably) have trouble distinguishing between the Simple Past and the Present Perfect tenses. There is more information about the difference between these two tenses available under the Present Perfect description.

When I was a girl, I walked five miles to school every day.
Carmelita slept through the entire class.
We worked really hard to make this a success, but then Chuck ruined it with his carelessness.
Every time I finished a sandcastle, the waves came in and washed it away.
Tarzan dove into the swamp and swam toward the alligator.


The FUTURE TENSE indicates that an action is in the future relative to the speaker or writer. There are no inflected forms for the future in English (nothing like those -ed or -s endings in the other tenses). Instead, the future tense employs the helping verbs will or shall with the base form of the verb:
She will leave soon.
We shall overcome.
The future is also formed with the use of a form of "go" plus the infinitive of the verb:
He is going to faint.

We will be victorious!
We shall overcome.
We are going to win this race.
The bus arrives at three this afternoon.
The boss is announcing his retirement at today's meeting.
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The PRESENT PERFECT TENSE is formed with a present tense form of "to have" plus the past participle of the verb (which can be either regular or irregular in form). This tense indicates either that an action was completed (finished or "perfected") at some point in the past or that the action extends to the present:

I have walked two miles already [but I'm still walking].
I have run the Boston Marathon [but that was some time ago].

The critics have praised the film Saving Private Ryan since it came out [and they continue to do so].

The choice between Present Perfect and Simple Past is often determined by the adverbial accompanying the verb. With adverbs referring to a period gone by, we would use the simple past:

I studied all night/yesterday/on Wednesday.

With adverbs beginning in the past and going up to present, we would use the present perfect:

I have studied up to now/lately/already.

An adverbial time-marker such as "today, this month," or "for an hour" can take either the simple past or present perfect:

I worked/have worked hard today.

We tend to use the Present Perfect when reporting or announcing an event of the recent past:

The company's current CEO has lied repeatedly to her employees.

But we tend to use the Simple Past when reporting or announcing events of the finished, more distant past:

Washington encouraged his troops.

Because the time limits for Present Perfect are relatively elastic (stretching up to the present), it is somewhat less definite than the Simple Past:

Brett has worked with some of the best chefs of Europe [in the course of his long and continuing career].
Brett worked with Chef Pierre LeGout [when he lived in Paris].

(Notice how the topic of Brett's work is narrowed down as we move from Present Perfect to Simple Past.)

For five generations, members of my family have been doctors.
Vaughan has batted clean-up since he came to the Redsox.
She has swum the English Channel every summer.
How long has it been since the last time we met?


The PAST PERFECT TENSE indicates that an action was completed (finished or "perfected") at some point in the past before something else happened. This tense is formed with the past tense form of "to have" (HAD) plus the past participle of the verb (which can be either regular or irregular in form):
I had walked two miles by lunchtime.
I had run three other marathons before entering the Boston Marathon .

Prior to the Revolutionary War, Washington had been a surveyor and land speculator.
Aunt Glad had invested heavily in the air-conditioning industry before the Great Crash of 1988.
She had swum the English Channel every summer until 1997.
How long had it been since you saw each other?


The FUTURE PERFECT TENSE indicates that an action will have been completed (finished or "perfected") at some point in the future. This tense is formed with "will" plus "have" plus the past participle of the verb (which can be either regular or irregular in form): "I will have spent all my money by this time next year. I will have run successfully in three marathons if I can finish this one."

By this time next week, I will have worked on this project for twenty days.
Before he sees his publisher, Charles will have finished four chapters in his new novel.
A Democratic president will have been in the White House for nearly half of the twentieth century.
How long will it have been since we were together?



The PRESENT PROGRESSIVE TENSE indicates continuing action, something going on now. This tense is formed with the helping "to be" verb, in the present tense, plus the present participle of the verb (with an -ing ending): "I am buying all my family's Christmas gifts early this year. She is working through the holiday break. Dierdre is being a really good girl in these days before Christmas".
The present progressive can suggest that an action is going to happen in the future, especially with verbs that convey the idea of a plan or of movement from one place or condition to another: "The team is arriving in two hours. He's moving to Portland this summer." Because the present progressive can suggest either the present or the future, it is usually modified by adverbs of time.

Generally, progressive forms occur only with what are called dynamic verbs and not with stative verbs.

The summer is passing too quickly.
Raoul is acting like his father.
Some football players are not being good role models for youngsters.
Is he being good to you?


The PAST PROGRESSIVE TENSE indicates continuing action, something that was happening, going on, at some point in the past. This tense is formed with the helping "to be" verb, in the past tense, plus the present participle of the verb (with an -ing ending):
I was riding my bike all day yesterday.
Joel was being a terrible role model for his younger brother.

The past progressive indicates a limited duration of time and is thus a convenient way to indicate that something took place (in the simple past) while something else was happening:
Carlos lost his watch while he was running.

The past progressive can express incomplete action.
I was sleeping on the couch when Bertie smashed through the door.
(as opposed to the simple past, which suggests a completed action:
I slept on the couch last night.
The past progressive is also used to poke fun at or criticize an action that is sporadic but habitual in nature:
Tashonda was always handing in late papers.
My father was always lecturing my brother.

Generally, progressive forms occur only with what are called dynamic verbs and not with stative verbs.

Dad was working in his garden all morning.
During the mid-50s, real estate speculators were buying all the swampland in Central Florida, and innocent people were investing all their money in bogus development projects.
Was he being good to you?


The FUTURE PROGRESSIVE TENSE indicates continuing action, something that will be happening, going on, at some point in the future. This tense is formed with the modal "will" plus "be," plus the present participle of the verb (with an -ing ending): "I will be running in next year's Boston Marathon. Our campaign plans suggest that the President will be winning the southern vote by November. "
Generally, progressive forms occur only with what are called dynamic verbs and not with stative verbs.

By this time tomorrow night, I will be sleeping in my own bed.
Next fall, we will be enjoying all the vegetables we planted last spring.
Will we be spending too much money if we buy that big-screen TV?


The PRESENT PERFECT PROGRESSIVE TENSE indicates a continuous action that has been finished at some point in the past or that was initiated in the past and continues to happen. The action is usually of limited duration and has some current relevance: "She has been running and her heart is still beating fast." The present perfect progressive frequently is used to describe an event of the recent past; it is often accompanied by just in this usage: "It has just been raining."
This tense is formed with the modal "HAVE" or "HAS" (for third-person singular subjects) plus "BEEN," plus the present participle of the verb (with an -ing ending): "I have been working in the garden all morning. George has been painting that house for as long as I can remember."

Maria has been writing her dissertation for the last six years[, but she finished yesterday].
The Redsox have been losing games since the All-Star break [and they continue to do so].
Have we been telling the truth to consumers about tobacco?
Haven't we been lying to teenagers about smoking?


The PAST PERFECT PROGRESSIVE TENSE indicates a continuous action that was completed at some point in the past. This tense is formed with the modal "HAD" plus "BEEN," plus the present participle of the verb (with an -ing ending): "I had been working in the garden all morning. George had been painting his house for weeks, but he finally gave up."

Hemingway had been losing his self-confidence for years before the publication of Old Man and the Sea.
Had they been cheating on the exams before the school put monitors in the classroom?


The FUTURE PERFECT PROGRESSIVE TENSE indicates a continuous action that will be completed at some point in the future. This tense is formed with the modal "WILL" plus the modal "HAVE" plus "BEEN" plus the present participle of the verb (with an -ing ending): "Next Thursday, I will have been working on this project for three years."

By the time he finishes this semester, Gesualdo will have been studying nothing but parasites for four years.
Will they have been testing these materials in the lab before we even get there?


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Verbs and Verbals

Verbs carry the idea of being or action in the sentence.

I am a student.
The students passed all their courses.

As we will see on this page, verbs are classified in many ways. First, some verbs require an object to complete their meaning: "She gave _____ ?" Gave what? She gave money to the church. These verbs are called transitive. Verbs that are intransitive do not require objects: "The building collapsed." In English, you cannot tell the difference between a transitive and intransitive verb by its form; you have to see how the verb is functioning within the sentence. In fact, a verb can be both transitive and intransitive: "The monster collapsed the building by sitting on it."

Although you will seldom hear the term, a ditransitive verb — such as cause or give — is one that can take a direct object and an indirect object at the same time: "That horrid music gave me a headache." Ditransitive verbs are slightly different, then, from factitive verbs (see below), in that the latter take two objects.

Verbs are also classified as either finite or non-finite. A finite verb makes an assertion or expresses a state of being and can stand by itself as the main verb of a sentence.

The truck demolished the restaurant.
The leaves were yellow and sickly.

Non-finite verbs (think "unfinished") cannot, by themselves, be main verbs:

The broken window . . .
The wheezing gentleman . . .

Another, more useful term for non-finite verb is verbal. In this section, we discuss various verbal forms: infinitives, gerunds, and participles.

Four Verb Forms
The inflections (endings) of English verb forms are not difficult to remember. There are only four basic forms. Instead of forming complex tense forms with endings, English uses auxiliary verb forms. English does not even have a proper ending for future forms; instead, we use auxiliaries such as "I am going to read this afternoon." or "I will read." or even "I am reading this book tomorrow." It would be useful, however, to learn these four basic forms of verb construction.

Base form;
I can work.
I work

Past form;
I worked

Present participle
I am working

Past participle
I have worked.

Linking Verbs
A linking verb connects a subject and its complement. Sometimes called copulas, linking verbs are often forms of the verb to be, but are sometimes verbs related to the five senses (look, sound, smell, feel, taste) and sometimes verbs that somehow reflect a state of being (appear, seem, become, grow, turn, prove, remain). What follows the linking verb will be either a noun complement or an adjective complement:

Those people are all professors.
Those professors are brilliant.
This room smells bad.
I feel great.
A victory today seems unlikely.
A handful of verbs that reflect a change in state of being are sometimes called resulting copulas. They, too, link a subject to a predicate adjective:

His face turned purple.
She became older.
The dogs ran wild.
The milk has gone sour.
The crowd grew ugly.

Active and Passive Voice
There is now a separate section dealing with issues raised by a verb's VOICE (active/passive).


Mood in verbs refers to one of three attitudes that a writer or speaker has to what is being written or spoken. The indicative mood, which describes most sentences on this page, is used to make a statement or ask a question. The imperative mood is used when we're feeling sort of bossish and want to give a directive, strong suggestion, or order:

Get your homework done before you watch television tonight.
Please include cash payment with your order form.
Get out of town!

Notice that there is no subject in these imperative sentences. The pronoun you (singular or plural, depending on context) is the "understood subject" in imperative sentences. Virtually all imperative sentences, then, have a second person (singular or plural) subject. The sole exception is the first person construction, which includes an objective form as subject: "Let's (or Let us) work on these things together."

The subjunctive mood is used in dependent clauses that do the following: 1) express a wish; 2) begin with if and express a condition that does not exist (is contrary to fact); 3) begin with as if and as though when such clauses describe a speculation or condition contrary to fact; and 4) begin with that and express a demand, requirement, request, or suggestion. A new section on the uses of the Conditional should help you understand the subjunctive.

She wishes her boyfriend were here.
If Juan were more aggressive, he'd be a better hockey player.
We would have passed if we had studied harder.
He acted as if he were guilty.
I requested that he be present at the hearing.

The subjunctive is not as important a mood in English as it is in other languages, like French and Spanish, which happen to be more subtle and discriminating in hypothetical, doubtful, or wishful expressions. Many situations which would require the subjunctive in other languages are satisfied by using one of several auxiliary verbs in English.

The present tense of the subjunctive uses only the base form of the verb.

He demanded that his students use two-inch margins.
She suggested that we be on time tomorrow.
The past tense of the subjunctive has the same forms as the indicative except (unfortunately) for the verb to be, which uses were regardless of the number of the subject.

If I were seven feet tall, I'd be a great basketball player.
He wishes he were a better student.
If you were rich, we wouldn't be in this mess.
If they were faster, we could have won that race.


faryal shah
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