Glossary

Aspect: A feature that indicates how an event or state extends over time. For example, the progressive aspect indicates that an action is or was ongoing, as in “I am having lunch” (ongoing in the present) or “I was having lunch” (ongoing in the past). The perfect aspect indicates that an event is completed, as in “I’ve had lunch.”

Auxiliary: Sometimes known as "helping verbs," auxiliaries like be, do, and have are used alongside main verbs to express tense and aspect, among other things. For example, in the sentence "I am talking to Mary,"; the auxiliary am indicates the event is taking place in the present, while in "I was talking to Mary," the auxiliary was indicates that the event was taking place in the past. There are a number of ways to diagnose whether a verb is an auxiliary or a main verb. For example, auxiliaries undergo subject-auxiliary inversion to form questions ("He was talking to Mary." / "Was he talking to Mary?") while main verbs cannot ("He talked to Mary." / *"Talked he to Mary?"). Auxiliaries can also have contracted negation, as in didn't or wasn't, while main verbs cannot (*talkedn't or *sawn't).

Cleft: A sentence beginning with “It” and a form of be, followed by the phrase that the speaker is drawing attention to (in turn followed by old information). For example, the sentence “It was a hotdog that I ate” is a cleft that draws attention to the particular item that was eaten, in this case a hotdog; the fact that eating took place is old information.

Complementizer: A word like that, if or for that introduces an embedded (or subordinate) clause. For example, in the sentence “I think that Mary is nice,” that is a complementizer that introduces the embedded clause Mary is nice. In the sentence “I’m hoping for Mary to be there,” for introduces the embedded non-finite clause Mary to be there.

Count noun: Nouns that describe discrete, countable things (like books, marbles and people). They can be preceded by indefinite articles and numbers (a book, four people) and occur with many (rather than much), as in the sentence “How many people were at the party?” They can also occur with fewer, as in the sentence “There are fewer chairs at the table than we need.”

Ditransitive verb: A verb that takes two objects -- a direct object and an indirect object. For example, in the sentence “I gave Mary a book” the verb gave takes two objects: Mary and a book.

Existential interpretation: Indicating that a certain individual or group exists or is performing an action. For example, the sentences “There are beavers gnawing on the log” and “Beavers are gnawing on the log” indicate that there is a group of beavers performing the action of gnawing on a log. They do not comment on the behavior of beavers in general, as a generic interpretation would.

Existential sentence/construction: A type of sentence that specifies the existence of an entity or entities (often in a particular location or at a particular time). Existential is also used to describe particular parts of existential constructions, such as “existential there” to refer to the there in sentences like "There is a book on the table."

Expletive: In linguistics, the term expletive does not refer to a curse word, but rather refers to something that is essentially meaningless, but serves as a kind of syntactic (grammatical) placeholder. The most common expletive words in English are there and it. For example, in the sentence “There is a dog outside,” there is an expletive. In the sentence “It is raining,” it is an expletive.

Finite: A finite verb has tense and can function as a main verb. A finite clause has tense, either marked on the main verb or on a modal or auxiliary.

Focus: A way of emphasizing a certain part of the sentence, which usually concerns new or contrastive information. There are many ways of doing so. One is to use stress to make the sound of the word or words more prominent, as in the sentence “MARY enjoyed the movie.” Another way is to use a cleft, as in “It was Mary who enjoyed the movie.”

Generic (interpretation): Referring to individuals or things of a certain type in general. For example, the sentence “Beavers build dams” has a generic interpretation, meaning that, in general, beavers build dams (regardless of whether or not any individual beaver actually builds a dam). In contrast, in a sentence like “Beavers are gnawing on the log” the interpretation is not that in general beavers gnaw on the log, but rather that some specific beavers are doing so.

Idiolect: The grammar used by a specific individual. Every person’s idiolect is slightly different -- dialects are groups of similar idiolects, and languages are groups of similar dialects.

Ill-formed: Judged unacceptable by a native speaker in terms of grammar or meaning. For example, the sentence “Dogs like she” is ill-formed for most English speakers. Most English speakers judge this sentence unacceptable because it does not conform with their mental grammar, which requires the object pronoun to be her rather than she. The sentence “Green ideas sleep” is ill-formed because native speakers judge that it does not have a sensible meaning. Many of the sentences on our website are ill-formed for some speakers but not for others.

Interlocutor: A participant in a conversation — either the person speaking, writing or signing (the speaker) or the person hearing, reading or seeing the words being produced (the hearer).

Intransitive verb: A verb that does not take an object. For example, in the sentence “I walk slowly,” walk is intransitive.

Island: A part of a sentence out of which words and phrases cannot be moved. Words and phrases are often moved around in a sentence. For example, when forming a question from a declarative sentence, the wh-word (who, what, where, when, etc.) moves to the front of the sentence:

1) a. Mary will see an actor.

b. Which actor will Mary see?

2) a. You claimed that Mary saw an actor.

b. Which actor did you claim that Mary saw?

However, words cannot move out of islands. For example, the question in (3b) is unacceptable because it would require the wh-word to move out of an island, indicated by square brackets:

3) a. You believed [the claim that Mary saw an actor].

b. *Which actor did you believe [the claim that Mary saw]?

Main verb: The verb that describes the primary action or state that the sentence is about. In the sentence “I have talked to Mary already,” talked is the main verb, whereas have is an auxiliary.

Mass noun: Nouns that describe uncountable things (like sand, water and air). They cannot be preceded directly by numbers (*one sand, *four airs) and need a unit in order to be counted (one grain of sand, four cubic feet of air). These nouns occur with much (rather than many), as in the sentence “How much water did you drink?”, and cannot occur with fewer. Instead, they use less, as in the sentence “There is less water in your cup than mine.”

Modal: Words like must, can, would and should that occur alongside main verbs (as in “We can swim in the lake”) and indicate notions like necessity, possibility, ability and more. Like auxiliaries, modals can typically have contracted negation (can’t, wouldn’t) and undergo subject-auxiliary inversion (“Should Mary come to the party?”). Some modals, sometimes called periphrastic modals or quasimodals, do not exhibit these properties. Examples include got to, able to, and have to (as in “I have to go to the store today.”): they convey the notion of necessity but do not take n’t, nor do they invert with the subject.

Morphology: The study and description of the form of words and their parts. Also used to refer to the parts of words themselves, or the forms words may take. For example, “plural morphology” refers to the ending -s in the word books, or to the vowel changes in plural feet (from singular foot).

Negative polarity item (NPI): A word or expression that can only occur after a negation or in a related expression such as a question or a conditional sentence. The italicized words in “Have you ever eaten any frogs?” or “I haven’t been there in years” are NPIs. They cannot occur in the corresponding positive declarative sentences (*“You have ever eaten any frogs”, “I’ve been there in years”).

Non-finite: A non-finite verb does not have tense and cannot function as a main verb. In English, non-finite verbs include infinitives (to eat), gerunds (eating) and participles (eaten). A clause with a non-finite main verb (“In order to go there…”) is a non-finite clause.

Predicate: A predicate is a noun phrase, adjective phrase, verb phrase or prepositional phrase that is used to say something about the subject of the sentence. For example, in the sentences “My mom is a judge,” “My mom is smart,” “My mom works hard” and “My mom is in court”, my mom is the subject and the italicized phrases are predicates.

Predicate position: The position, generally following be, seems, or similar verbs, where noun phrases, adjective phrases and prepositional phrases function as predicates. This term is commonly used to describe the position of adjectives in sentences like “The book is red.” This contrasts with “attributive position,” where an adjective modifies a noun as part of a noun phrase (as in “the red book”).

Preposition: Words like to, in or with that combine with a noun, forming a prepositional phrase that often indicates location, time, direction or various grammatical meanings. For example, in the sentence “I went to school,” to is a preposition and to school is a prepositional phrase that indicates a direction. In “I gave the book to my sister”, to is a preposition and to my sister is a prepositional phrase that indicates who received the book.

Pseudocleft: A construction similar to a cleft that begins with a wh-word rather than it. As in a cleft, the wh-word is followed by a form of be and then information that the speaker is trying to highlight. For example, the sentence “What I ate was a hotdog” draws attention to what was eaten (the hotdog); the fact that eating occurred is not emphasized. Unlike in a cleft, in a pseudocleft the important information appears at the end of the sentence, rather than immediately following be.

Quasimodal: A word or phrase, such as better, need to, able to, or supposed to, that has features similar to those of modals but is not a true modal. Quasimodals express possibility, necessity or ability, like modals. However, they cannot take contracted negation (n’t) or undergo subject-auxiliary inversion.

Stative: A verb that refers to a state of being rather than an action. For example, the verb know in “We know French” is stative, while the verb learn in “We learn French” is not. Stative verbs typically cannot appear in the progressive: “*I am knowing French” is ungrammatical because know is stative and cannot be used in the progressive. However, “I am learning French,” which uses the eventive verb learn, is grammatical. Some verbs can have both stative and non-stative (eventive) interpretations. For example, smell can be stative (“The flowers smell good”) or eventive (“I smell something rotten in the fridge”).

Tag question: A question at the end of a sentence that serves an additional function in the conversation. For example, the sentence “It’s cold outside, isn’t it?” has the tag question isn’t it?, which invites the addressee to confirm the content of the statement.

Transitive verb: A verb that can take a direct object. For example, in the sentence “I ate fish,” ate is transitive and takes the direct object fish.

Verbal particle: Words like out and up that often resemble prepositions but function as part of a verb. For example, in verbs like hand out and get up, out and up are verbal particles. Verbal particles can be distinguished from prepositions in several ways. First, verbal particles allow objects to appear either to their right (as in "Hand out the papers") or left (as in "Hand the papers out"). Prepositions only allow their objects to their right (as in "Look out the window"), but not to their left (as in *"Look the window out"). Second, prepositions can move as a chunk with their objects (as in "It was out the window that they looked"), while verbal particles cannot (as in *"It was out the papers that they handed"). Out, then, is a preposition in look out but a particle in hand out.

Volitional: A noun or noun phrase is volitional if it refers to someone who is acting according to their own desires or will. For example, in the sentence “Brutus murdered Julius Caesar,” Brutus is volitional, while in the sentence “The hurricane killed many people,” the hurricane is non-volitional. Verbs are sometimes called volitional verbs when they occur with or require volitional noun phrases.

VP-ellipsis: VP stands for Verb Phrase, and VP-ellipsis is when a previously mentioned verb phrase is left implicit. For example, in the sentence “I might go to the store and he might [go to the store] too,” the second instance of go to the store does not need to be included and can be left out.

Well-formed: Acceptable to a native speaker in terms of its grammar and/or its meaning. For example, the sentence “I like dogs” is well-formed because it is judged grammatical by native speakers and conveys a meaning that makes sense. Meanwhile, the sentence “Green ideas sleep” is ill-formed in terms of its meaning, but well-formed in terms of its grammar.