How can you analyze grammar if you don’t even know what a noun is?!

Perhaps because they are the words which many people most readily recognise – or because they are the ones that have the most importance in terms of grammatical structure – nouns and verbs are often seen as the ruling elite of the word class world. The second point is not unreasonable: clauses are built around verbs, and the essential roles of topic, subject and agent are generally played by nouns. But when it comes to using them as the basis of a syntactic analysis, the concept of noun and verb are in fact really rather dull. The words that do these jobs have lots of lovely rich meaning, but it is precisely because their meaning is so rich that, syntactically at least, they are not much to write home about.

Take these two analyses of the use of a word, and ask yourself which student offers more insight:

1. When Smith describes the President with the adjective ‘bellicosity’, she emphasises his war-like and aggressive indifference to peace. As a Latinate word, ‘bellicosity’ also elevates the register, contributing  to the formal style which confers added authority, and provides an ironic contrast with the target of the piece, whom Smith wishes to present as uneducated and ignorant.

2. Smith’s use of the abstract noun ‘bellicosity’ allows her to identify a negative abstract idea which she associates with the President to contribute to her critique of his behaviour.

The writer of 1 may not know their word classes, but they know English far better than the writer of 2 does. 2’s ability to identify ‘bellicosity’ as a noun is, frankly, deadly boring. While there are exceptions, knowing that a noun is a noun is far less interesting than having a good grasp of what it means (and where it comes from – as is shown in 1’s discussion of its contribution to formality). It is not for nothing that nouns and verbs are classified as ‘content’ words – more often than not, it’s their content that students really need to be familiar with, not their grammatical status.

So, while knowing about word meaning, and being able to explain it well, does of course matter, to really understand how meaning is created with syntax, it’s best to steer clear of word class terminology, and focus instead on the idea of syntactic function. It is the arrangement of functions within clauses which has the most important role in creating meaning – meaning resulting from the order and arrangement of words, rather than what they individually ‘point to’. Depending on students’ interest and needs, I’d suggest three much more useful concepts that could in some simplified form be introduced to primary students, and which secondary students could tackle in more detail: clause type; tense and aspect; and given and new.

Clause Type

Of the three concepts discussed here, teachers are perhaps most comfortable with this one, and it is probably of the three the one most likely to actually be taught. Essentially, ‘clause type’ refers to the fact that some clauses are structured to demand information (‘do you know the way to the bank?’) some clauses issue commands or directives (‘take the first road to the left’), others give information (‘it’s on the high street’) while others give information, but with an added emotional punch (‘what a lot of information that was!’). These clause types are usually called, respectively, interrogative, imperative, declarative and exclamative clauses.

While there is more confidence around this idea than the others, there remains a frustrating tendency to refer to it with the confusing term ‘sentence type’, as if the idea we are considering applies to sentences, rather than clauses. This is muddled, as can be seen in example sentences like these ones, each of which contains clauses of two types:

If you don’t like it, get stuffed.

What a mess you will make of me if you leave!

I think it was me who opened the door or was it someone else?

More important than the potential confusion around examples like these, however, is the fact that the unhelpful term ‘sentence type’ encourages people to think that what makes a sentence this way is some feature of the sentence overall.  When dealing with writing, this erroneously leads them to consider the way it has been punctuated as somehow significant. Thus, exclamatives are identified as sentences with exclamation marks, while interrogatives are seen as essentially followed by a question mark. My preference for the term ‘clause type’, then, stems from the fact that it underlines the way that the idea under discussion is syntactic, and just as much a feature of spoken English, where punctuation marks of course cannot be used.

While many students do have an instinctive feel for clause type and, having been shown a range of examples, are able to easily distinguish them, for others it is much harder. And even for those who find it easy, their capacity is usually instinctive, rather than rooted in an understanding of why exactly the clauses differ from each other. As we have seen, identifying the clause types of English is not about spotting punctuation marks. Nor does the ability to identify word classes help much. Again, teachers and curricula which place great stress on the value of ‘knowing what a noun is’ are often leading everyone up the garden path when it comes to this analytical skill.  Instead, it is necessary to grasp two terms much more useful than ‘noun’ or ‘adjective’: form and function.

The idea of syntactic function captures the way that, while clauses obviously fulfil communicative purposes, they are themselves constructed from a range of various sub-purposes – some essential, others optional. The language’s syntactic rules ‘permit’ a variety of possible structures, or forms, to do each of these jobs:

1. They are awful people

2. They are on the bus

3. They are scared.

In these cases, the same function – what we might call for now the ‘bit-that-comes after-are’ – is fulfilled by three quite different syntactic forms. In a typical syntactic analysis, ‘awful people’ would be identified as a noun phrase, ‘on the bus’ a prepositional phrase, and ‘scared’ an adjective. Despite this difference in form, it is pretty intuitive that all three are doing the same job – telling us something importantly true of ‘they’.

A full, explicit understanding of the way clause types are distinguished requires teachers to turn away from questions of form (noun or verb, adjective or prepositional phrase etc), and focus instead on the core functional elements, and the way that they typically interact. As is usual in linguistics, exact approaches to defining these differ, but the following simplified list will, I think, do for school English:

1. subject – a word or group of words which refer to the ‘truthmaker’ – the person or thing (concrete or abstract) on which the clause’s truth most depends

2. finite – the essential word (always a single word) which indicates whether the clause’s truth related to a past, present, future or possible timeframe (see ‘A Verb is a Doing Word’ for more explanation)

3. complement – (not all clauses have them) a word or group of words which refer to essential elements in the idea being expressed, but which are not the truthmaker – usually either the verb’s recipient (what an action is happening to) or a property or characteristic of the subject.

4. adverbial – (not all clauses have them) a word or group of words which describe additional, non essential circumstances of the clause’s truth – typically how, when, where or why it is true

Knowing these four terms provides a genuine foundation for much real syntactic analysis in a way that simply knowing ‘noun’ or even ‘verb’ does not. With these items learnt and understood, the following essential, syntactic rules about clause types can be properly absorbed:

1.In declaratives, the subject is followed by the finite, then by any non-finite verbs, then by complements. Adverbials may appear in a range of positions.

The other clause types can then be defined by the way they depart from this rule:

2. In interrogatives, the finite will appear before the subject[1]

3. In imperatives, the subject is not essential. When the subject does appear, it is as a ‘vocative’, and marked as separate with punctuation in writing, and intonation in speech. 

4. In exclamatives, a complement or adverbial appears before the subject, and is introduced by either ‘what a’ or ‘how’

If you feel a little overwhelmed at this point, take some time to consider the following examples. Read back over the explanations, keeping in mind the definitions above, and check to see how the example clauses line up with them:

1. What were you doing?

(this clause refers to the past, as indicated by ‘were’, which is therefore the finite. Its truthmaker is the person being spoken to – ‘you’ – which is therefore the subject. As the finite appears before the subject, this must be an interrogative)

2. Go away

(This clause will only be true if the unmentioned audience does go away – the audience therefore is the truthmaker and so the subject of the clause.  Since this audience does not appear in the wording, this must be an imperative clause)

3. She has eaten all the cheese

(this clause refers to the present, as indicated by ‘has’, which is therefore the finite. The clause’s truthmaker is ‘she’, and so the subject. All other material comes after the finite, so the clause is a declarative.)

4. How beautifully she made that cake

(the clause refers to the past because of ‘made’, which is therefore the finite. The truthmaker is the woman referred to – ‘she’, so this is the subject. An adverbial, modified by ‘how’ appears before both subject and finite, meaning this is an exclamative)

Exactly how much, if anything, of this explanation should be taught to students will very much depend on their needs: this is important content for primary and early secondary students, but should almost certainly be dealt with at an intuitive level at those ages. Thus, rather than introducing terminology, use sorting and differentiating tasks, appealing above all to the meanings being conveyed (teachers themselves, in my view, should know this kind of detail).

It is also important to stress that understanding this kind of terminology is unlikely to have a positive impact on students’ writing. Instead, it is best used as an analytical tool to help students identify patterns and stylistic choices in the kind of language used through a text. One of the most important effects that school students should be aware of is the impact of the use of interaction clause types (interrogative and imperative) when used in more public and impersonal texts. Typically, they create a sense of connection and intimacy which is not typical in such texts, and so can be an important element in persuasive texts whose strategy is to construct a sense of connection with a broad and ultimately anonymous public.

Tense and Aspect

I have stressed here that much of what is interesting about verbs and nouns is their content – their meaning – and that it is not actually necessary to identify their word class in order to understand and explain this. Instead, syntactic analysis should focus on structure – the way that functional elements interact in a clause to produce different kinds of meaning. Some verbs, however, do in fact make a significant contribution to structural meaning. They are known as auxiliaries, and, like other function words, their significance rests, not in any ideas that they carry for themselves, but in the way that they build meaning by forming structures. Here are a few examples, with the auxiliary verbs bolded.

She was making a big mess

They will ask someone else

Have you tried the tea?

I have never been swimming in the sea

In each of these cases, the meaning of the bolded, auxiliary verbs is purely structural – the significance flows not from the word itself, but from its combination with other words. The key combination is with the clause’s lexical verb – the verb which carries the main meaning in the clause (the lexical verbs are underlined in the examples -see ‘A Verb is a Doing Word’ for more explanation of the kinds of meaning they carry). The resulting structures create a two-part meaning: first, they indicate how the time-frame of the clause relates to the moment of speech; and, second, they show how exactly the lexical verb’s meaning is to be seen as happening in that time-frame.

Thus, a perfect tense is formed using the auxiliary ‘have’, usually as the clause’s finite. It conveys the idea the clause has a time-frame with a defined endpoint. In the present perfect this endpoint is the moment of speech itself:

Ouch! I have cut my thumb, look!

In the past perfect, the endpoint was some other moment in the past:

I had cut my thumb before the trouble started.

A progressive tense, on the other hand, emphasises the way that the lexical verb should be seen as describing something fully present – a concrete rather than abstract occurrence. It requires the auxiliary ‘be’, again, typically as finite. The present progressive describes an event that is occurring in front of us, now:

She is losing her grip!

The past and future progressive involve a kind of additional imaginative demand on the audience – they are asked to imagine themselves to be, as it were, ‘present’ as some past or future event occurs:

The boys were cleaning their boots

She will be doing he homework

Progressive and perfect can be combined to create a sense of concrete, present event within a defined time-frame:

She has been cleaning her shoes

They will have been eating dinner for three hours by then

Students in my experience are sometimes asked to identify auxiliary verbs, but rarely are they expected to understand why they are actually there. With a clear sense of the tense and aspect meanings, they would be able to identify why, for example, politicians often use the present perfect to list their achievements:

we have increased funding for schools, we have reformed the courts system, we have addressed domestic violence…

The repeated present prefect structure emphasises the achievements of the government as having a present significance – look around you and see what we have done for you, they suggest, and be sure to remember when you next go to vote!.

Fiction writers play with progressive and simple tenses to create layers of impressions, immersing their readers in the moment of the story with progressive clauses and then injecting a sense of action and movement forward in time with simple ones:

She was baking her cake, endlessly beating the mixture and looking out with uncertainty to the yard and the fields beyond. Upstairs he was working on something, knocking and banging in that way he had, loudly reminding everyone of his importance to everything. She was going up to see if he wanted tea when the screaming started.

It should be stressed that, while you may find these ideas hard to compute at first, you almost certainly understand them at an intuitive level, assuming you are a proficient speaker of English. Likewise, while some students learning this material do find it a little overwhelming, they should be continuously reminded that they meanings at stake are already perfectly clear to them: what they are being taught is the implicit structures that make those meanings possible.

Given and New

These final terms are very rarely taught in schools, and yet they are essential understanding language’s real texture. As a way of understanding the choices that writers make (or, if you prefer, the broader linguistic and social structures which shape a text – see ‘A Text is a Tool for Getting Things Done’) they are much more interesting, intuitive and fecund a pair of concepts than many of the word class terms with which students are often tortured. While not in themselves syntactic (concerning the semi-mathematical rules by which words combine) they are grammatical – features of language’s general structure, and syntactic ‘function’ words are often key in managing them.

While linguists have different approaches to explaining the distinction between given and new, and have frustratingly broad and overlapping terms to describe it, they generally agree on its basic shape, as well as on its being pretty important. Generally, most clauses contain something we know about – ‘given’ – and something we don’t – ‘new’. The essential rule is that in most cases, the new information is put towards the end. This makes a lot of sense, of course, since the listener can be primed to hear what really matters by a subtle reminder about what they are already familiar with (there is a clear overlap here with the topic-comment distinction discussed in ‘First Write Good Sentences’).

The use of term ‘given’ rather than ‘old’ (which might more obviously contrast with ‘new’) is pretty important. It reminds us that sometimes given information is not necessarily old, in the sense that we’ve already heard it, but just obvious – we can easily ‘get at it’ from the context. A common example of this sort of ‘givenness’ are those clauses which are dominant especially in speech, and which begin with deictic function words – pronouns and determiners which point immediately to the context of use. Here are some examples, with the key function words bolded:

I love this new computer

This is fantastic cake!
Your finger covered in blood

In each of these cases, the function words refer to something which, while not necessarily already mentioned, is immediately obvious from context (typically an object or person) – before going on to comment on it with new information.

Used to identify the given in the first sentence of a literary text, these deictic function words can immediately evoke an intimate, if somewhat disingenuous, connection with the reader, since they somewhat audaciously assume a shared context that is the fictional world itself:

I have often wondered why we went back there so soon.

This day of summer finds us glad upon the greeting hill

Other function words, though, present given information which can be recovered from previous material in the text itself; it is in this sense genuinely ‘old’. The most important of these words is probably the determiner ‘the’. It is so widely used that in most cases it’s rather dull, and often not worthy of comment:

She watched as an unpleasant looking man opened the door and smiled at her. She walked reluctantly through, and the man looked at her lasciviously.

The’s counterpart,  a/an, is also extremely common. It indicates the opposite idea – that the information which follows it is new to the audience, and something that has not been mentioned yet. For this reason, it is less common to find phrases starting with ‘a’ at the start of a clause. When it happens, it usually creates a rupture in the flow of the message, indicating a fresh perspective or subject matter. It is also for the same reason a common feature of the very first clause of many texts:

She quickly moved through the undergrowth, cutting her way through the vines and breathing heavily as she worked. A distance a way, a high hill could be seen, overlooking her work with a cold indifference.

A man was arrested yesterday in connection with the recent spate of burglaries in the town centre

In a forest on an enchanted island there was once lived an old man with three daughters.

With a relatively basic understanding of given and new, even quite young students can comment on these kinds of structural features – the way that a literary texts draws its readers into a fictional world, the way an informal persuasive piece presumes a sense of community and shared destiny with it audience – in a way that simply knowing that ‘bellicosity’ is a noun could never allow.


[1]. The exceptions are those interrogatives where the subject itself is unknown – in this case, the pronoun comes first – as in ‘who helped you?’  or ‘what was making that noise?’

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