English is a West Germanic language that was first spoken in early medieval England and is now a global lingua franca. It is spoken as a first language by the majority populations of several sovereign states, including the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand and a number of Caribbean nations; and it is an official language of almost 60 sovereign states. It is the third-most-common native language in the world, after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. It is widely learned as a second language and is an official language of the European Union, many Commonwealth countries and the United Nations, as well as in many world organisations.

English arose in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and what is now southeast Scotland. Following the extensive influence of Great Britain and the United Kingdom from the 17th to mid-20th centuries through the British Empire, it has been widely propagated around the world. Through the spread of American-dominated media and technology, English has become the leading language of international discourse and the lingua franca in many regions.

Historically, English originated from the fusion of closely related dialects, now collectively termed Old English, which were brought to the eastern coast of Great Britain by Germanic settlers (Anglo-Saxons) by the 5th century; the word English is derived from the name of the Angles, and ultimately from their ancestral region of Angeln (in what is now Schleswig-Holstein). The language was also influenced early on by the Old Norse language through Viking invasions in the 9th and 10th centuries.

The Norman conquest of England in the 11th century gave rise to heavy borrowings from Norman French, and vocabulary and spelling conventions began to give the appearance of a close relationship with those of Latin-derived Romance languages (though English is not a Romance language itself) to what had then become Middle English. The Great Vowel Shift that began in the south of England in the 15th century is one of the historical events that mark the emergence of Modern English from Middle English.

In addition to words inherited natively from Anglo-Saxon and those derived from Norman French, a significant number of English words are constructed on the basis of roots from Latin, because Latin in some form was the lingua francaof the Christian Church and of European intellectual life and remains the wellspring of much modern scientific and technical vocabulary.

Owing to the assimilation of words from many other languages throughout history, modern English contains a very large vocabulary, with complex and irregular spelling, particularly of vowels. Modern English has not only assimilated words from other European languages, but from all over the world.




Nouns form the largest English word class. There are many common suffixes used to form nouns from other nouns or from other types of words, such as -age (as in shrinkage), -hood (as in sisterhood), and so on, although many nouns are base forms not containing any such suffix (such as cat, grass, France). Nouns are also often created by conversion of verbs or adjectives, as with the words talk and reading (a boring talk, the assigned reading).

Unlike in many related languages, English nouns do not have grammatical gender (although many nouns refer specifically to male or female persons or animals, like mother, father, bull, tigress). Nouns are sometimes classified semantically (by their meanings) as proper nouns and common nouns (Cyrus, China vs. frog, milk) or as concrete nouns and abstract nouns (book, laptop vs. heat, prejudice). A grammatical distinction is often made between count (countable) nouns such as clock and city, and non-count (uncountable) nouns such as milk and decor. Some nouns can function to be either countable or uncountable such the word "wine" (This is a good wine, I prefer red wine).

Countable nouns generally have singular and plural forms. In most cases the plural is formed from the singular by adding -ge]s (as in dogs, bushes), although there are also irregular forms (woman/women, foot/feet, etc.), including cases where the two forms are identical (sheep, series).

Certain nouns can take plural verbs even though they are singular in form, as in The government were... (where the government is considered to refer to the people constituting the government). This, a form of synesis, is more common in British than American English.

English nouns are not marked for case as they are in some languages, but they have possessive forms, formed by the addition of -'s (as in John's, children's), or just an apostrophe (with no change in pronunciation) in the case of -[e]s plurals and sometimes other words ending with -s (the dogs' owners, Jesus' love). More generally, the ending can be applied to noun phrases (as in the man you saw yesterday's sister). The possessive form can be used either as a determiner (John's cat) or as a noun phrase (John's is the one next to Jane's).


Noun phrases

Noun phrases are phrases that function grammatically as nouns within sentences, for example as the subject or object of a verb. Most noun phrases have a noun as their head.

An English noun phrase typically takes the following form (not all elements need be present):

Determiner + Pre-modifiers + NOUN + Postmodifiers/Complement

In this structure:

  • the determiner may be an article (the, a[n]) or other equivalent word, as described in the following section. In many contexts it is required for a noun phrase to include some determiner.
  • pre-modifiers include adjectives and some adjective phrases (such as red, really lovely), and noun adjuncts (such as college in the phrase the college student). Adjectival modifiers usually come before noun adjuncts.
  • a complement or postmodifier may be a prepositional phrase (... of London), a relative clause (like  ...which we saw yesterday), certain adjective or participial phrases (... sitting on the beach), or a dependent clause or infinitive phrase appropriate to the noun (like ... that the world is round after a noun such as fact or statement, or ... to travel widely after a noun such as desire).


An example of a noun phrase that includes all of the above-mentioned elements is that rather attractive young college student to whom you were talking. Here that is the determiner, rather attractive and young are adjectival pre-modifiers, college is a noun adjunct, student is the noun serving as the head of the phrase, and to whom you were talking is a post-modifier (a relative clause in this case). Notice the order of the pre-modifiers; the determiner that must come first and the noun adjunct college must come after the adjectival modifiers.

Coordinating conjunctions such as and, or, and but can be used at various levels in noun phrases, as in John, Paul, and Mary; the matching green coat and hat; a dangerous but exciting ride; a person sitting down or standing up.

Noun phrases can also be placed in apposition (where two consecutive phrases refer to the same thing), as in that president, Abraham Lincoln,... (where that president and Abraham Lincoln are in apposition). In some contexts the same can be expressed by a prepositional phrase, as in the twin curses of famine and pestilence (meaning "the twin curses" that are "famine and pestilence").

Particular forms of noun phrases include:

  • phrases formed by the determiner the with an adjective, as in the homeless, the English (these are plural phrases referring to homeless people or English people in general);
  • phrases with a pronoun rather than a noun as the head;
  • phrases consisting just of a possessive;
  • infinitive and gerund phrases, in certain positions;
  • certain clauses, such as that clauses and relative clauses like what he said, in certain positions.




An important role in English grammar is played by determiners – words or phrases that precede a noun or noun phrase and serve to express its reference in the context. The most common of these are the definite and indefinite articles, the and a(n). Other determiners in English include demonstratives such as this and that, possessives such as my and the boy's, and quantifiers such as all, many and three.

In many contexts the presence of some determiner is required in order to form a complete noun phrase. However, in some cases complete noun phrases are formed without any determiner (sometimes referred to as "zero determiner" or "zero article"), as in the sentence Apples are fruit. Determiners can also be used in certain combinations, as in my many friends or all the chairs.



The terminology used in accounts of English grammar to refer to determiners is very varied. Sometimes the term is not used at all, and the words classed here as determiners (apart from the articles) are classed as adjectives. In the present article a broad view is taken of what constitutes a determiner; it includes the articles and words and phrases that can substitute for them, as well as words and phrases serving as quantifiers. This means that determiners as construed here include words from the determiner class, such as the, this, my, many, etc., as well as nominal possessives (John's, the tall boy's) and other specifying or quantifying phrases such as more than three, almost all, and this size (as in this size shoes).

Note that many words or phrases that serve as determiners can also play the role of pronouns; for example, the word all is a determiner in the sentences All men are equal and I know all the rules, but a pronoun in All's well that ends well. In other cases there is a related but distinct pronoun form; for example the determiners my and no have corresponding pronouns mine and none.


Common determiners

The following is a rough classification of determiners used in English, including both words and phrases:

  • Definite determiners, which imply that the referent of the resulting noun phrase is defined specifically:
    • The definite article the.
    • The demonstratives this and that, with respective plural forms these and those.
    • Possessives, including those corresponding to pronouns – my, your, his, her, its, our, their, whose – and the Saxon genitives formed from other nouns, pronouns and noun phrases (one's, everybody's, Mary's, a boy's, the man we saw yesterday's). These can be made more emphatic with the addition of own or very own.
    • Interrogatives which, what (these can be followed by -ever for emphasis).
    • Relative determiners: which (quite formal and archaic, as in He acquired two dogs and three cats, which animals were then...); also whichever and whatever (which are of the type that form clauses with no antecedent: I'll take whatever money they've got).
  • Indefinite determiners:
  • The indefinite article a or an (the latter is used when followed by a vowel sound).
  • The word some, pronounced [s(ə)m], used as an equivalent of the indefinite article with plural and non-count nouns (a partitive).
  • The strong form of some, pronounced [sʌm], as in Some people prefer dry wine; this can also be used with singular count nouns (There's some man at the door).
  • The word any, often used in negative and interrogative contexts in place of the article-equivalent some (and sometimes also with singular count nouns). It can also be used to express alternative.
  • Basic words indicating a large or small quantity: much/many, little/few, and their comparative and superlative forms more, most, less/fewer, least/fewest. Where two forms are given, the first is used with non-count nouns and the second with count nouns (although in colloquial English less and least are frequently also used with count nouns). The basic forms can be modified with adverbs, especially very, too and so (and not can also be added). Note that unmodified much is quite rarely used in affirmative statements in colloquial English.
  • Phrases expressing similar meanings to the above: a lot of, lots of, plenty of, a great deal of, tons of, etc. Many such phrases can alternatively be analyzed as nouns followed by a preposition, but their treatment as phrasal determiners is supported by the fact that the resulting noun phrase takes the number of the following noun, not the noun in the phrase (a lot of people would take a plural verb, even though lot is singular).
  • Words and phrases expressing some unspecified or probably quite small amount: a few/a little (learners often confuse these with few/little), several, a couple of, a bit of, a number of etc.
  • Cardinal numbers: zero (quite rare as determiner), one, two, etc. In some analyses these may not be treated as determiners.
  • Other phrases expressing precise quantity: a pair of, five litres of, etc.
  • Words and phrases expressing multiples or fractions: half, half of, double, twice, three times, twice as much, etc. Those like double and half (without of) are generally used in combination with definite determiners.
  • Words expressing maximum, sufficient or zero quantity: all, both, enough, sufficient, no.
  • Note that many of these quantifiers can be modified by adverbs and adverbial phrases such as almost, over, more than, less than, when the meaning is appropriate.
  • each, every (note that every can be modified by adverbs such as almost and practically, whereas each generally cannot. However, also note every other, which refers to each second member in a series.)
  • any (as in any dream will do), either, neither
  • The words you and we/us, in phrases like we teachers; you guys can be analysed as determiners.
  • Quantifiers, which quantify a noun:
  • Words that enumerate over a group or class, or indicate alternatives:
  • Personal determiners:


"As all we teachers know . . ."

"Us girls must stick together. " (informal)

These examples can be contrasted with a similar but different use of pronouns in an appositional construction, where the use of other pronouns is also permitted but the pronouns cannot be preceded by the (pre-) determiner "all".


"I/we, the undersigned, . . . , "

"We, the undersigned, . . . , "

but not

  • All we, the undersigned, . . ."
  • Other cases:
    • The words such and exclamative what (these are followed by an indefinite article when used with a singular noun, as in such a treat, what a disaster!)
    • Noun phrases used as determiners, such as this colour and what size (as in I like this colour furniture; What size shoes do you take?)
    • Words such as same, other, certain, different, only, which serve a determining function, but are grammatically more likely to be classed simply as adjectives, in that they generally require another determiner to complete the phrase (although they still come before other adjectives). Note that the indefinite article in combination with other is written as the single word another.


Zero determiner

In some contexts a complete noun phrase can exist without any determiner (or with "zero determiner"). The main types of such cases are:

  • with plural or uncountable nouns used to refer to a concept or members of a class generally: cars are useful (but the cars when specific cars are being referred to); happiness is contagious (but the happiness when specific happiness is referred to, as in the happiness that laughter engenders...).
  • with plural or uncountable nouns used to refer to some unspecified amount of something: there are cats in the kitchen; I noticed water on the floor (here it is also possible to use some cats, some water).
  • with many proper names: Tom Smith, Birmingham, Italy, Jupiter.
  • with singular common nouns in some common expressions: smiling from ear to ear, leaving town today.


Combinations of determiners

Determiners can be used in certain combinations. Common examples are listed below:

  • A definite determiner can be followed by certain quantifiers (the many problems, these three things, my very few faults).
  • The words all and both can be followed by a definite determiner (all the green apples, both the boys), which can also be followed by a quantifier as above (all the many outstanding issues).
  • The word all can be followed by a cardinal number (all three things).
  • The word some can be followed by a cardinal number (some eight packets, meaning "approximately eight").
  • Words and phrases expressing fractions and multiples, such as half, double, twice, three times, etc. can be followed by a definite determiner (half a minute, double the risk, twice my age, three times my salary, three-quarters the diameter, etc.
  • The words such and exclamative what can be followed by an indefinite article (as mentioned in the section above).
  • The word many can be used with the indefinite article and a singular noun (many a night, many an awkward moment).
  • The words each and every can be followed by a cardinal number or other expression of definite quantity (each two seats, every five grams of flour).

To specify a quantity within a definite class (as opposed to a definite class of a given quantity), it is often possible to use a quantifier in pronoun form (often identical to the determiner form), followed by of and a definite determiner. For example, three of the mice, few of my enemies, none of these pictures, much of John's information. An alternative construction with possessives is to place of and the pronoun form of the possessive after the noun: few enemies of mine, much information of John's.

As with other parts of speech, it is often possible to connect determiners of the same type with the conjunctions and and or: his and her children, two or three beans.


Determiners and adjectives

In traditional English grammar, determiners were not considered a separate part of speech – most of them would have been classed as adjectives. However there are certain differences between determiners and ordinary adjectives (although the boundary is not always entirely clear).

  • Determiners take the place (or can take the place) of articles in noun phrases, whereas adjectives do not. For example, my house (not *the my house), but the big house.
  • Adjectives can generally be used in combination without restriction, whereas only certain combinations of determiners are allowable. For example, a big green book is grammatical, but *every his book is not.
  • Most adjectives can be used alone in predicative complement position, as in he is happy; determiners cannot (*he is the is not a grammatical sentence), except where the same words are used as pronouns (the problem is this).
  • Most adjectives have comparative and superlative forms (happier, happiest; more beautiful, most beautiful), whereas determiners generally are not (except much/many, few, little).
  • Determiners often have corresponding pronouns, while adjectives do not.
  • Adjectives can modify singular or plural nouns, while determiners are sometimes restricted to one or the other (as with much and many).

When determiners and adjectives (or other modifiers) occur in the same noun phrase, the determiner generally comes first: the big book, not *big the book. However there are certain exceptions when the determiner is the indefinite article a(n): that article normally comes after an adjective modified with so, as, too or how. For example:

  • It was so terrible a disease that... (alternatively: ...such a terrible disease that...)
  • He was as rude a man as I have ever met.
  • That was too good an opportunity to miss.
  • I know how good a swimmer she is.




The articles in English are the definite article the and the indefinite articles a and an (and sometimes some). Use of the definite article implies that the speaker assumes the listener knows the identity of the noun's referent (because it is obvious, because it is common knowledge, or because it was mentioned in the same sentence or an earlier sentence). Use of an indefinite article implies that the speaker assumes the listener does not have to know the identity of the referent. In some noun phrases no article is used.

Articles are a special case of determiners in English.


Use of articles

The rules of English grammar require that in most cases a noun, or more generally a noun phrase, must be "completed" with a determiner to clarify what the referent of the noun phrase is. The most common determiners are the articles the and a(n), which specify the presence or absence of definiteness of the noun. Other possible determiners include words like this, my, each and many. There are also cases where no determiner is required, as in the sentence John likes fast cars. Or the sentence Bob likes cool trains.

The definite article the is used when the referent of the noun phrase is assumed to be unique or known from the context. For example, in the sentence The boy with glasses was looking at the moon, it is assumed that in the context the reference can only be to one boy and one moon. However, the definite article is not used:

  • with generic nouns (plural or uncountable): cars have accelerators, happiness is contagious, referring to cars in general and happiness in general (compare the happiness I felt yesterday, specifying particular happiness);
  • with many proper names: John, France, London, etc.

The indefinite article a (before a consonant sound) or an (before a vowel sound) is used only with singular, countable nouns. It indicates that the referent of the noun phrase is one unspecified member of a class. For example, the sentence An ugly man was smoking a pipe does not refer to any specifically known ugly man or pipe.

No article is used with plural or uncountable nouns when the referent is indefinite (just as in the generic definite case described above). However, in such situations, the determiner some is often added (or any in negative contexts and in many questions). For example:

  • There are apples in the kitchen or There are some apples in the kitchen;
  • We do not have information or We do not have any information;
  • Would you like tea? or Would you like some tea? and Would you like any tea? or Would you like some good tea?

Additionally, articles are not normally used:

  • in noun phrases that contain other determiners (my house, this cat, America's history), although one can combine articles with certain other determiners, as in the many issues, such a child
  • with pronouns (he, nobody), although again certain combinations are possible (as the one, the many, the few).
  • preceding noun phrases consisting of a clause or infinitive phrase (what you've done is very good, to surrender is to die).

If it is required to be concise, e.g. in headlines, signs, labels, and notes, articles are often omitted along with certain other function words. For example, rather than The mayor was attacked, a newspaper headline might say just Mayor attacked.


Word order

In most cases, the article is the first word of its noun phrase, preceding all other adjectives and modifiers.

  • The little old red bag held a very big surprise.

There are a few exceptions, however:

  • Certain determiners, such as all, both, half, double, precede the definite article when used in combination (all the team, both the girls, half the time, double the amount).
  • The determiner such and exclamative what precede the indefinite article (such an idiot, what a day!).
  • Adjectives qualified by too, so, as and how generally precede the indefinite article: too great a loss, so hard a problem, as delicious an apple as I have ever tasted, I know how pretty a girl she is.
  • When adjectives are qualified by quite (particularly when it means "fairly"), the word quite (but not the adjective itself) often precedes the indefinite article: quite a long letter.


Definite article

The only definite article in English is the word the, denoting person(s) or thing(s) already mentioned, under discussion, implied, or otherwise presumed familiar to the listener or reader. The is the most commonly used word in the English language.

"The" can be used with both singular and plural nouns, with nouns of any gender, and with nouns that start with any letter. This is different from many other languages which have different articles for different genders and/or numbers.



In most dialects "the" is pronounced as /ðə/ (with the voiced dental fricative /ð/ followed by schwa) when followed by a consonant sound. In many dialects, including Received Pronunciation (standard educated speech of England), the pronunciation [ði] is used before words that begin with vowel sounds. The emphatic form of the word is /ðiː/ (like thee).

In some Northern England dialects of English, the is pronounced [t̪ə] (with a dental t) or as a glottal stop, usually written in eye dialect as ⟨t⟩; in some dialects it reduces to nothing. This is known as definite article reduction. In dialects that do not have the voiced dental fricative /ð/, the is pronounced with the voiced dental plosive, as in /d̪ə/ or /d̪iː/).



The and that are common developments from the same Old English system. Old English had a definite article se, in the masculine gender, seo (feminine), and þæt (neuter). In Middle English these had all merged into þe, the ancestor of the Modern English word the.



The principles of the use of the definite article in English are described above under Use of articles. (The word the is also used with comparatives, in phrases like, the sooner the better, and, we were all the happier for it; this form of the definite article has a somewhat different etymology from other uses of the definite article.

An area in which the use or non-use of the is sometimes problematic is with geographic names. Names of rivers, seas, mountain ranges, deserts, island groups and the like are generally used with the definite article (the Rhine, the North Sea, the Alps, the Sahara, the Hebrides). Names of continents, islands, countries, regions, administrative units, cities and towns mostly do not take the article (Europe, Skye, Germany, Scandinavia, Yorkshire, Madrid). However, there are certain exceptions:

  • Countries and regions whose names are modified common nouns, or are derived from island groups, take the article: the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, the Czech Republic, the Middle East, the Philippines, the Seychelles. Note also the Netherlands.
  • Certain countries whose names derive from mountain ranges, rivers, deserts, etc. are sometimes used with an article (the Lebanon, the Sudan), but this usage is declining, although the Gambia is the recommended name of that country. Since the independence of Ukraine (formerly sometimes called the Ukraine), most style guides have advised dropping the article (in some other languages there is a similar issue involving prepositions). Use of the Argentine for Argentina is now old-fashioned.
  • Some names include an article for historical reasons, such as The Bronx, or to reproduce the native name (The Hague).
  • Names beginning with a common noun followed by of take the article, as in the Isle of Wight (compare Christmas Island). The same applies to names of institutions: Cambridge University, but the University of Cambridge.


Indefinite article

The indefinite article of English takes the two forms a and an. Semantically they can be regarded as meaning "one", usually without emphasis. They can be used only with singular countable nouns; for the possible use of some (or any) as an equivalent with plural and uncountable nouns.


Distinction between a and an

The form an is used before words starting with a vowel sound, regardless of whether the word begins with a vowel letter. This avoids the glottal stop (momentary silent pause) that would otherwise be required between a and a following vowel sound. Where the next word begins with a consonant sound, a is used. Examples: a box; an apple; an SSO (pronounced "es-es-oh"); a HEPA filter (HEPA is pronounced as a word rather than as letters); an hour (the h is silent); a one-armed bandit (pronounced "won..."); an heir (pronounced "air"); a unicorn (pronounced "yoo-"); an herb in American English (where the h is silent), but a herb in British English.

Some speakers and writers use an before a word beginning with the sound /h/ in an unstressed syllable: an historical novel, an hotel. However, where the "h" is clearly pronounced, this usage is now less common, and "a" is preferred.

Some dialects, particularly in England (such as Cockney), silence many or all initial h sounds (h-dropping), and so employ an in situations where it would not be used in the standard language, like an 'elmet (standard English: a helmet).

There used to be a distinction analogous to that between a and an for the possessive determiners my and thy, which became mine and thine before a vowel, as in mine eyes. Other more or less analogous cases in different languages include the Yiddish articles "a" (אַ) and "an" (אַן) (used in essentially the same manner as the English ones), the Hungarian articles a and az (used the same way, except that they are definite articles; juncture loss, as described below, has occurred in that language too), and the privative a- and an- prefixes, meaning "not" or "without", in Greek and Sanskrit.



Both a and an are usually pronounced with a schwa: /ə/, /ən/. However, when stressed (which is rare in ordinary speech), they are normally pronounced respectively as /eɪ/ (to rhyme with day) and /æn/ (to rhyme with pan).



An is the older form (related to one, cognate to German ein; etc.). An was originally an unstressed form of the number ān 'one'.



The principles for use of the indefinite article are given above under Use of articles.

In addition to serving as an article, a and an are also used to express a proportional relationship, such as "a dollar a day" or "$150 an ounce" or "A sweet a day helps you work, rest and play", although historically this use of "a" and "an" does not come from the same word as the articles.


Juncture loss

In a process called juncture loss, the n has wandered back and forth between the indefinite article and words beginning with vowels over the history of the language, where for example what was once a nuncle is now an uncle. The Oxford English Dictionary gives such examples as smot hym on the hede with a nege tool from 1448 for smote him on the head with an edge tool, as well as a nox for an ox and a napple for an apple. Sometimes the change has been permanent. For example, a newt was once an ewt (earlier euft and eft), a nickname was once an eke-name, where eke means "extra" (as in eke out meaning "add to"), and in the other direction, a napron (meaning a little tablecloth, related to the word napkin) became an apron, and a naddre became an adder. The initial n in orange was also dropped through juncture loss, but this happened before the word was borrowed into English.


Use of some

The word some is sometimes used as a functional equivalent of a(n) with plural and uncountable nouns (also called a partitive). For example, Give me some apples, Give me some water (equivalent to the singular countable forms an apple and a glass of water). Grammatically this some is not required; it is also possible to use zero article: Give me apples, Give me water. The use of some in such cases implies a more limited quantity. (Compare the forms unos/unas in Spanish, which are the plural of the indefinite article un/una.)

In most negative clauses, and often in questions, the word any is used instead of some: Don't give me any apples; Is there any water?

The determiner some can also have a more emphatic meaning: "some but not others" or "some but not many". For example, some people like football, while others prefer rugby, or I've got some money, but not enough to lend you any. It can also be used as an indefinite pronoun, not qualifying a noun at all (Give me some!) or followed by a prepositional phrase (I want some of your vodka); the same applies to any.

Some can also be used with singular countable nouns, as in There is some person on the porch, which implies that the identity of the person is unknown to the speaker (which is not necessarily the case when a(n) is used). This usage is fairly informal, although singular countable some can also be found in formal contexts: We seek some value of x such that...

When some is used with merely the function of an indefinite article, it is normally pronounced weakly, as [s(ə)m]. In other meanings it is pronounced [sʌm].


Effect on alphabetical order

In sorting titles and phrases alphabetically, articles are usually excluded from consideration, since being so common makes them more of a hindrance than a help in finding a desired item. For example, The Comedy of Errors is alphabetized before A Midsummer Night's Dream, because the and a are ignored and comedy alphabetizes before midsummer. In an index, the former work might be written "Comedy of Errors, The", with the article moved to the end.




Pronouns are a relatively small, closed class of words that function in the place of nouns or noun phrases. They include personal pronouns, demonstrative pronouns, relative pronouns, interrogative pronouns, and some others, mainly indefinite pronouns.


Personal pronouns

The personal pronouns in English take various forms according to number, person, case and natural gender. Modern English has very little inflection of nouns or adjectives, to the point where some authors describe it as an analytic language, but the Modern English system of personal pronouns has preserved some of the inflectional complexity of Old English and Middle English.


Forms of personal pronouns

Unlike nouns, which are undeclined for case except for possession (woman/woman's), English personal pronouns have a number of forms, which are named according to their typical grammatical role in a sentence:

  • subjective (nominative) case (I, we, etc.), used as the subject of a verb.
  • objective (oblique) case (me, us, etc.), used as the object of a verb or of a preposition. The same forms are also used as disjunctive pronouns.
  • reflexive form (myself, ourselves, etc.). This typically refers back to a noun or pronoun (its antecedent) within the same clause (for example, She cut herself). This form is also sometimes used optionally in a non-reflexive function, as a substitute for a non-reflexive pronoun (for example, For someone like myself, . . ., This article was written by Professor Smith and myself), though some style guides recommend avoiding such use. The same reflexive forms also are used as intensive pronouns (for example, She made the dress herself).
  • two possessive (genitive) forms, used to indicate the possessor of something (in a broad sense). The first group (my, our, etc.) are used as determiners (possessive determiners, also called possessive adjectives), coming together with a noun, as in my house. The second group (mine, ours, etc.) are used as pronouns (as in I prefer mine) or as predicate adjectives (as in this book is mine).


Table of basic personal pronouns

The basic personal pronouns of modern English are shown in the table below.

Personal pronouns in standard Modern English





Possessive determiner

Possessive pronoun




Possessive determiner

Possessive pronoun

















































Other English pronouns which have distinct forms of the above types are the indefinite pronoun one, which has the reflexive oneself (the possessive form is written one's, like a regular English possessive); and the interrogative and relative pronoun who, which has the objective form whom (now confined mostly to formal English) and the possessive whose (which in its relative use can also serve as the possessive for which).


Archaic and non-standard forms

Apart from the standard forms given above, English also has a number of non-standard, informal and archaic forms of personal pronouns.

  • An archaic set of second-person singular pronouns is thou, thee, thyself, thy, thine. They were used as a familiar form, like French tu and German du. They passed out of general use between 1600 and 1800, although they (or variants of them) survive in some English and Scottish dialects and in some Christian religious communities.






Possessive determiner

Possessive pronoun









 In archaic language, mine and thine may be used in place of my and thy when followed by a vowel sound.

  • An archaic form of plural you as a subject pronoun is ye. Some dialects now use ye in place of you, or as an apocopated or clitic form of you.
  • A non-standard variant of my (particularly in British dialects) is me. (This may have its origins in the fact that in Middle English my before a consonant was pronounced [mi:], like modern English me, (while me was [me:], similar to modern may) and this was shortened to [mi] or [mɪ], as the pronouns he and we are nowadays; [hi wɒz] he was; versus [ɪt wɒz hi:] it was he. As this vowel was short, it was not subject to the Great Vowel Shift, and so emerged in modern English unchanged.)
  • Informal second-person plural forms (particularly in American dialects) include you all, y'all, youse. Other variants include: yous, you/youse guys, you/youse gals, you-uns, yis, yinz. Possessives may include you(r) guys's, you(r) gals's, yous's, y'all's (or y'alls). Reflexives may be formed by adding selves after any of the possessive forms. Yous is common in Scotland, particularly in the Central Belt area (though in some parts of the country, ye is used for the plural you).
  • In informal speech them is often replaced by 'em, believed to be a survival of the late Old English form heom, which appears as hem in Chaucer, losing its aspiration due to being used as an unstressed form. (The forms they, them etc. are of Scandinavian origin.)
  • The plural forms they, them, etc. are sometimes used with singular meaning when referring to a person, particularly to avoid awkwardness when the gender of the referent is unknown or unspecified.
  • Non-standard reflexive forms ourself and themself are sometimes used in contexts where we and they are used with singular meaning.
  • Non-standard reflexive forms hisself and theirselves/theirself are sometimes used (though would be considered incorrect in standard English).

A more complete table, including the standard forms and some of the above forms, is given below. Nonstandard, informal and archaic forms are in italics.



Personal pronoun















mine (before vowel)

me (esp. BrE)










Standard (archaic formal)






Archaic informal






thine (before vowel)















you all




you all



y'all's (or y'alls) selves

y'all's (or y'alls)

y'all's (or y'alls)


















































Interrogative/relative pronoun







* In religious usage, the pronouns He, Him, and His are often capitalized when referring to the deity.


Generic you

The pronoun you (and its other forms) can be used as a generic or indefinite pronoun, referring to a person in general. A more formal equivalent is the indefinite pronoun one (reflexive oneself, possessive one's). For example, you should keep your secrets to yourself may be used in place of the more formal one should keep one's secrets to oneself.


Use of he, she and it

It and its are normally used to refer to an inanimate object or abstract concept. The masculine pronouns, he and his are used to refer to male persons, whereas the feminine pronouns, she and her are used to refer to female persons; however babies and young children of indeterminate gender may sometimes be referred to as it (e.g. a child needs its mother).

Traditionally, in English, if the gender of a person was not known or ambiguous, then the masculine pronouns were often used by default (e.g. a good student always does his homework). Increasingly, though, singular they is coming to be used in such cases.

Animals are often referred to as it, but he and she are sometimes used for animals when the animal's sex is known and is of interest, particularly for higher animals, especially pets and other domesticated animals. Inanimate objects with which humans have a close relationship, such as ships, cars and countries considered as political, rather than geographical, entities, are sometimes referred to as she. This may also be extended to other entities, such as towns.

It is often considered rude to use a pronoun instead of a person's proper name while that person is present. A typical rebuke common in British English if a third party in the room is referred to as "she" is: "Who's 'she'? The cat's mother?"


Singular they

The plural pronoun they (and its derived forms them, their, etc.) can also be used to refer to one person, particularly when the sex or social gender of that person is unknown or unspecified. This is a way of producing gender-neutral language while avoiding disjunctive constructions like he or she, he/she, or s/he.

Even when used with singular meaning, they takes a plural verb: If attacked, the victim should remain exactly where they are.

Some usage writers condemn the use of the singular they, but it is commonly used, both in speech and in writing (e.g. "If a customer requires help, they should contact..."), and its use can be traced back as far as Middle English. This usage is authorised and preferred by the Australian Government Manual of Style for official usage in government documents. Those who wish to avoid the use of the "singular they" can sometimes do so by rephrasing the sentence using a plural noun (e.g. "For assistance, customers should contact their...").


Case usage

As noted above, most of the personal pronouns have distinct case forms – a subjective (nominative) form and an objective (oblique, accusative) form. In certain instances variation arises in the use of these forms.

As a general rule, the subjective form is used when the pronoun is the subject of a verb, as in he kicked the ball, whereas the objective form is used as the direct or indirect object of a verb, or the object (complement) of a preposition. For example: Sue kicked him, someone gave him the ball, Mary was with him.

When used as a predicative expression, i.e. as the complement of a form of the copula verb be, the subjective form was traditionally regarded as more correct (as in this is I, it was he), but nowadays the objective form is used predominantly (this is me, it was him), and the use of the subjective in such instances is normally regarded as very formal or pedantic; it is more likely (in formal English) when followed by a relative clause (it is we who sent them to die). In some cases the subjective may even appear ungrammatical, as in *is that we in the photograph? (where us would be expected).

When a pronoun is linked to other nouns or pronouns by a coordinating conjunction such as and or or, traditional grammar prescribes that the pronoun should appear in the same form as it would take if it were used alone in the same position: Jay and I will arrive later (since I is used for the subject of a verb), but between you and me (since me is used for the object of a preposition). However in informal and less careful usage this rule may not be consistently followed; it is common to hear Jay and me will arrive... and between you and I. The latter type (use of the subjective form in object position) is seen as an example of hypercorrection, resulting from an awareness that many instances of and me (like that in the first example) are considered to require correction to and I.

Similar deviations from the grammatical norm are quite common in other examples where the pronoun does not stand alone as the subject or object, as in Who said us Yorkshiremen [grammatical: we Yorkshiremen] are tight?

When a pronoun stands alone without an explicit verb or preposition, the objective form is commonly used, even when traditional grammarians might prefer the subjective: Who's sitting here? Me. (Here I might be regarded as grammatically correct, since it is short for I am (sitting here), but it would sound formal and pedantic, unless followed by am.)

A particular case of this type occurs when a pronoun stands alone following the word than. Here the objective form is again predominant in informal usage (they are older than us), as would be expected if than were analyzed as a preposition. However traditionally than is considered a conjunction, and so in formal and grammatically careful English the pronoun often takes the form that would appear if than were followed by a clause: they are older than we (by analogy with ...than we are), but she likes him better than me (if the intended meaning is "...than she likes me").


Demonstrative and interrogative pronouns

The demonstrative pronouns of English are this (plural these), and that (plural those), as in these are good, I like that. Note that all four words can also be used as determiners (followed by a noun), as in those cars. They can also then form the alternative pronominal expressions this/that one, these/those ones.

The interrogative pronouns are who, what, and which (all of them can take the suffix -ever for emphasis). The pronoun who refers to a person or people; it has an oblique form whom (though in informal contexts this is usually replaced by who), and a possessive form (pronoun or determiner) whose. The pronoun what refers to things or abstracts. The word which is used to ask about alternatives from what is seen as a closed set: which (of the books) do you like best? (It can also be an interrogative determiner: which book?; this can form the alternative pronominal expressions which one and which ones.) Which, who, and what can be either singular or plural, although who and what often take a singular verb regardless of any supposed number.

All the interrogative pronouns can also be used as relative pronouns.


Relative pronouns

The main relative pronouns in English are who (with its derived forms whom and whose), which, and that.

The relative pronoun which refers to things rather than persons, as in the shirt, which used to be red, is faded. For persons, who is used (the man who saw me was tall). The oblique case form of who is whom, as in the man whom I saw was tall, although in informal registers who is commonly used in place of whom.

The possessive form of who is whose (the man whose car is missing...); however the use of whose is not restricted to persons (one can say an idea whose time has come).

The word that as a relative pronoun is normally found only in restrictive relative clauses (unlike which and who, which can be used in both restrictive and unrestrictive clauses). It can refer to either persons or things, and cannot follow a preposition. For example, one can say the song that [or which] I listened to yesterday, but the song to which [not to that] I listened yesterday. The relative pronoun that is usually pronounced with a reduced vowel (schwa), and hence differently from the demonstrative that. If that is not the subject of the relative clause, it can be omitted (the song I listened to yesterday).

The word what can be used to form a free relative clause – one that has no antecedent and that serves as a complete noun phrase in itself, as in I like what he likes. The words whatever and whichever can be used similarly, in the role of either pronouns (whatever he likes) or determiners (whatever book he likes). When referring to persons, who(ever) (and whom(ever)) can be used in a similar way (but not as determiners).


'There' as pronoun

The word there is used as a pronoun in some sentences, playing the role of a dummy subject, normally of an intransitive verb. The "logical subject" of the verb then appears as a complement after the verb.

This use of there occurs most commonly with forms of the verb be in existential clauses, to refer to the presence or existence of something. For example: There is a heaven; There are two cups on the table; There have been a lot of problems lately. It can also be used with other verbs: There exist two major variants; There occurred a very strange incident.

The dummy subject takes the number (singular or plural) of the logical subject (complement), hence it takes a plural verb if the complement is plural. In colloquial English, however, the contraction there's is often used where there are would be expected.

The dummy subject can undergo inversion, Is there a test today? and Never has there been a man such as this. It can also appear without a corresponding logical subject, in short sentences and question tags: There wasn't a discussion, was there? There was.

The word there in such sentences has sometimes been analyzed as an adverb, or as a dummy predicate, rather than as a pronoun. However, its identification as a pronoun is most consistent with its behavior in inverted sentences and question tags as described above.

Because the word there can also be a deictic adverb (meaning "at/to that place"), a sentence like There is a river could have either of two meanings: "a river exists" (with there as a pronoun), and "a river is in that place" (with there as an adverb). In speech, the adverbial there would be given stress, while the pronoun would not – in fact the pronoun is often pronounced as a weak form.


Other pronouns

Other pronouns in English are often identical in form to determiners (especially quantifiers), such as many, a little, etc. Sometimes the pronoun form is different, as with none (corresponding to the determiner no), nothing, everyone, somebody, etc. Many examples are listed at Indefinite pronoun. Another indefinite (or impersonal) pronoun is one (with its reflexive form oneself and possessive one's), which is a more formal alternative to generic you.




Verbs constitute one of the main word classes in the English language. Like other types of words in the language, English verbs are not heavily inflected. Most combinations of tense, aspect, mood and voice are expressed periphrastically, using constructions with auxiliary verbs and modal verbs.

Generally, the only inflected forms of an English verb are a third person singular present tense form in -s, a past tense (also called preterite), a past participle (which may be the same as the past tense), and a form in -ing that serves as a present participle and gerund. Most verbs inflect in a simple regular fashion, although there are about 200 irregular verbs; the irregularity in nearly all cases concerns the past tense and past participle forms. The copula verb be has a larger number of different inflected forms, and is highly irregular.



Inflected forms

Principal parts

A regular English verb has only one principal part, from which all the forms of the verb can be derived. This is the base form or dictionary form. For example, from the base form exist, all the inflected forms of the verb (exist, exists, existed, existing) can be predictably derived. The base form is also called the bare infinitive; another common way of referring to verbs is to use the to-infinitive, e.g. "to exist".

Most of the irregular verbs have three principal parts, since the simple past and past participle are unpredictable. For example, the verb write has the principal parts write (base form), wrote (past), written (past participle); the remaining forms (writes, writing) are derived regularly. Note that some irregular verbs have identical past tense and past participle forms (as the regular verbs do), as with send–sent–sent.

The verbs do, say and have additionally have irregular third person singular present tense forms. The copular verb be is highly irregular, with the forms be, am, is, are, was, were, been and being. On the other hand modal verbs (such as can and must) are defective verbs, being used only in a limited number of forms. For details on the forms of verbs of these types.


Base form

The base form or plain form of a verb is not generally marked by any ending, although there are certain suffixes that are frequently used to form verbs, such as -ate (formulate), -fy (electrify), and -ise/ize (realise/realize). Many verbs also contain prefixes, such un- (unmask), out- (outlast), over- (overtake), and under- (undervalue). Some verbs are formed from nouns and adjectives by conversion, as with the verbs snare, nose, dry, and calm.

The base form is used in the following ways:

  • It serves as the bare infinitive, and in forming the to-infinitive (e.g. to write).

  • It serves as the simple present tense, except in the third person singular (I/you/we/they write regularly).

  • It is used as an imperative: Write these words.

  • It is used as a subjunctive: I suggested that he write a novel.

For the verb be, which uses different forms for the simple present, and modal verbs, which are not used in the infinitive, imperative or subjunctive.


Third person singular present

Almost all verbs have a third person singular present indicative form, with the suffix -[e]s. In terms of spelling, it is formed in most cases by adding -s to the verb's base form: run → runs. However if the base form ends in one of the sibilant sounds (/s/, /z/, /ʃ/, /ʒ/, /tʃ/, /dʒ/), and its spelling does not end in a silent e, then -es is added: buzz → buzzes; catch → catches. Verbs ending in a consonant plus o also typically add -es: veto → vetoes. Verbs ending in a consonant plus y add -es after changing the y to an i: cry → cries.

In terms of pronunciation, the ending is pronounced as /ɨz/ after sibilants (as in lurches), as /s/ after voiceless consonants other than sibilants (as in makes), and as /z/ otherwise (as in adds). These are the same rules as apply, with nouns, to the pronunciation of the regular plural ending -[e]s and the possessive -'s. The spelling rules given above are also very similar to those for the plural of nouns.

The third person singular present of have is irregular: has /hæz/ (with the weak form /həz/ when used an auxiliary, also contractable to -'s). The verbs do and say also have irregular forms, which however look like regular forms in writing: does /dʌz/ and says /sɛz/.

For the verb be, modal verbs and other auxiliaries.

The form described in this section is used with third person singular subjects as the simple present tense (in the indicative mood): He writes novels all the time. (This tense has other uses besides referring to present time; for example, in I'll be glad if he writes, it refers to future time.)


Past tense

The past tense, or preterite, may be formed regularly or irregularly.

With regular verbs, the past tense is formed (in terms of spelling) by adding -ed to the base form (play → played). Normal rules for adding suffixes beginning with a vowel apply: If the base form ends in e then only d is added (like → liked); if the base form ends in a consonant followed by y then the y is changed to i before adding the ending (try → tried; an exception is the verb sky (a ball), which can form skied or skyed).

Various rules apply for doubling final consonants. If the base form ends in a single vowel followed by a single consonant (except h, silent t, w, x and y), then unless the final syllable is completely unstressed, the consonant is doubled before adding the -ed (ship → shipped, but fathom → fathomed). For most base forms ending in c, the doubled form used is ck, and this is used regardless of stress (panic → panicked; exceptions include zinc → zincked or zinced, arc → usually arced, spec → specced or spec'ed, sync → sometimes synched). In British English, the doubling of l occurs regardless of stress (travel → travelled; but paralleled is an exception), and when two separately-pronounced vowels precede the l (dial → dialled, fuel → fuelled).

If the final syllable has some partial stress, especially for compound words, the consonsant is usually doubled: backflip → backflipped, hobnob → hobnobbed, kidnap → kidnapped etc. In some cases both alternatives are acceptable, e.g. dialog → dialoged or dialogged, gambol → gambolled, hiccup → hiccupped or hiccuped, program → programed or programmed. Note however catalog → cataloged, pyramid → pyramided, format → formatted (but combat → combat(t)ed). Other variations not entirely consistent with these rules include bus → bused or bussed, bias → biased or biassed and focus → focused or focussed.

The pronunciation of the past tense ending follows analogous rules to those for the third person present tense ending described above: if the base form ends in /t/ or /d/ then a new syllable /ɨd/ is added (as in drifted, exceeded); if the base form ends in an unvoiced consonant sound other than /t/ then the ending is pronounced /t/ (as in capped, passed); otherwise the ending is pronounced /d/ (as in buzzed, tangoed). Consequently, in the 17th and 18th centuries, the latter two pronunciations were routinely spelled -'d, but -ed was later restored.

For the past tense of irregular verbs. Some of these can be classed as Germanic strong verbs, such as sing (past sang), while others are weak verbs with irregularly pronounced or irregularly spelt past forms, such as say (past tense said /sɛd/).

The verb be has two past tense forms: was (first and third person singular) and were (plural and second person).

The past tense (preterite) form is used in what is called the simple past, in sentences such as We lit the fire and He liked to dance. One of the uses of this tense is to refer not to a past situation, but to a hypothetical (present or future) situation in a dependent clause: If I knew that, I wouldn't have to ask. This is sometimes called the "past subjunctive", particularly in the case of were, which can replace was in such sentences.


Past participle

The past participle of regular verbs is identical to the preterite (past tense) form, described in the previous section.

Some of these have different past tense and past participle forms (like sing–sang–sung); others have the same form for both (like make–made–made). In some cases the past tense is regular but the past participle is not, as with show–showed–shown.


Present participle

The present participle (also used as a gerund) is formed by adding the suffix -ing to the base form: go → going. A final silent e is dropped (believe → believing); final ie changes to y (lie → lying), and consonant doubling applies as for the past tense: dab → dabbing, panic → panicking.

Some exceptions include forms such as singeing, dyeing, ageing, rueing, cacheing and whingeing, where the e may be retained to avoid confusion with otherwise identical words (e.g. singing), to clarify pronunciation (for example to show that a word has a soft g or ch), or for aesthetic reasons.

In standard English the ending is pronounced /ɪŋ/, although in many regional dialects the final consonant sound is pronounced /n/, sometimes represented in eye dialect by spellings such as huntin'.


Copular, auxiliary and defective verbs

The copular verb be has multiple irregular forms in the present tense: am for first person singular (which together with the subject pronoun is often contracted to I'm), is for third person singular (often contracted to 's), and are for plural and second person (often contracted to 're chiefly after the pronouns you, we, they). It also has two past tense forms: was for first and third person singular, and were for plural and second person (also used as a past subjunctive with all persons). The past participle is been, and the present participle and gerund is the regular being. The base form be is used regularly as an infinitive, imperative and (present) subjunctive.

English has a number of modal verbs which generally do not inflect (most of them are surviving preterite-present verbs), and so have only a single form, used as a finite verb with subjects of all persons and numbers. These verbs are can, could, may, might, shall, should, will, would, must, ought (to), as well as need and dare (when used with a bare infinitive), and in some analyses used (to) and had better. (The forms could, might, should and would are considered to be the past tenses of can, may, shall and will respectively, although they are not always used as such.) These verbs do not have infinitive, imperative or participle forms, although in some cases there exists a synonymous phrase that can be used to produce such forms, such as be able to in the case of can and could. The negation of can is the single word cannot. There are contracted forms 'll and 'd for will and would (in some cases possibly considered to be from shall and should).

Other verbs used as auxiliaries include have, chiefly in perfect constructions (the forms has, have and had can contract to 's, 've and 'd), and do (does, did) in emphatic, inverted and negated constructions.

Another example of a defective verb is beware, which is used only in those forms in which be remains unchanged, namely the infinitive, subjunctive and imperative.


Archaic forms

Formerly, particularly in the Old English period, the English language had a far greater degree of verb inflection than it does now (other Germanic languages generally retain a greater variety of inflected forms than English does). Some of the forms used in Early Modern English have now fallen out of use, but are still encountered in old writers and texts (e.g. Shakespeare, the King James Bible) and in archaisms.

One such form was the third person singular form with the suffix -eth [ǝθ], pronounced as a full syllable. This was used in some dialects rather than the modern -s, e.g. he maketh ("he makes"), he runneth ("he runs"), he goeth ("he goes"). In some verbs, a shortened form -th appears: he hath ("he has"), he doth ("he does"; pronounced as if written duth), he saith or he sayeth ("he says"). The forms hath and doth are found in some proverbs ("Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned", "The lady doth protest too much").

Another set of forms are associated with the archaic second person singular pronoun thou, which often have the ending -est, pronounced as a full syllable, e.g. thou makest ("you make"), thou leadest ("you lead"). In some verbs, a shortened form -st appears: thou hast ("you have"), thou dost ("you do"; rhymes with must). In the case of the verb be, such forms included art (present tense), wast (past), wert (past subjunctive) and beest (present subjunctive; pronounced as two syllables).

For example, several such forms (as well as other archaic forms such as yea for "yes", thy for "your", and mine enemies for "my enemies") appear in Psalm 23 from the King James Bible:

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.


Syntactic constructions


Expressing tenses, aspects and moods

Apart from the simple past tense described above, English verbs do not have synthetic (inflected) forms for particular tenses, aspects or moods. However there are a number of periphrastic (multi-word) constructions with verb forms that serve to express tense-like or aspect-like meanings; these constructions are commonly described as representing certain verb tenses or aspects (in English language teaching they are often simply called tenses).


Simple and progressive

The progressive (or continuous) aspect is expressed with a form of be together with the present participle of the verb. Thus present progressive (present continuous) constructions take forms like am writing, is writing, are writing, while the past progressive (past continuous, also called imperfect) is was writing, were writing. There is a progressive infinitive (to) be writing and a progressive subjunctive be writing. Other progressive forms, made with compound forms of be, are described below.

The basic present and past tenses of the verb are called simple present (present simple) and simple past (past simple), to distinguish them from progressive or other compound forms. Thus the simple present of the above verb is write or writes, and the simple past (also called preterite) is wrote.



The perfect aspect is expressed with a form of the auxiliary have together with the past participle of the verb. Thus the present perfect is have written or has written, and the past perfect (pluperfect) is had written. The perfect combines with the progressive aspect to produce the present perfect progressive (continuous) have/has been writing and the past perfect progressive (continuous) had been writing. There is a perfect infinitive (to) have written and a perfect progressive infinitive (to) have been writing, and corresponding present participle/gerund forms having written and having been writing. A perfect subjunctive (have written) is also sometimes used. Future and conditional perfect forms are given below.


Future and conditional

What is often called the future tense of English is formed using the auxiliary will. The simple future is will write, the future progressive (continuous) is will be writing, the future perfect is will have written, and the future perfect progressive (continuous) is will have been writing. Traditionally (though now usually in formal English only) shall is used rather than will in the first person singular and plural.

The conditional, or "future-in-the-past", forms are made analogously to these future forms, using would (and should) in place of will (and shall).


Passive voice

The passive voice is a grammatical construction (specifically, a "voice"). The noun or noun phrase that would be the object of an active sentence (such as Our troops defeated the enemy) appears as the subject of a sentence with passive voice (e.g. The enemy was defeated by our troops).

The subject of a sentence or clause featuring the passive voice typically denotes the recipient of the action (the patient) rather than the performer (the agent). The passive voice in English is formed periphrastically: the usual form uses the auxiliary verb be (or get) together with the past participle of the main verb.

For example, Caesar was stabbed by Brutus uses the passive voice. The subject denotes the person (Caesar) affected by the action of the verb. The agent is expressed here with the phrase by Brutus, but this can be omitted. The equivalent sentence in active voice is Brutus stabbed Caesar, in which the subject denotes the doer, or agent, Brutus. A sentence featuring the passive voice is sometimes called a passive sentence, and a verb phrase in passive voice is sometimes called a passive verb.

English allows a number of passive constructions which are not possible in many of the other languages with similar passive formation. These include promotion of an indirect object to subject (as in Tom was given a bag) and promotion of the complement of a preposition (as in Sue was operated on, leaving a stranded preposition).

Use of the English passive varies with writing style and field. Some publications' style sheets discourage use of the passive voice, while others encourage it. Although some purveyors of usage advice, including George Orwell (1946) and William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White (1919), discourage use of the passive in English, its usefulness is generally recognized, particularly in cases where the patient is more important than the agent, but also in some cases where it is desired to emphasize the agent.


Identifying the English passive

The passive voice is a specific grammatical construction; not every expression that serves to take focus away from the performer of an action is classified as an instance of passive voice. The essential components of the English passive voice are a form of the auxiliary verb be (or sometimes get), and the past participle of the main verb denoting the action. For example:

  • ... that all men are created equal...
  • We have been cruelly deceived.
  • The captain was struck by a missile.
  • I got kicked in the face during the fight.

The agent (the doer of the action) may be specified, using a prepositional phrase with the preposition by, as in the third example, but it is equally possible to omit this, as is done in the other examples.

A distinction is made between the above type of clause, and those of similar form in which the past participle is used as an ordinary adjective, and the verb be or similar is simply a copula linking the subject of the sentence to that adjective. For example:

  • I am excited (right now).

This would not normally be classed as a passive sentence, since the participle excited is used adjectivally to denote a state, not to denote an action of excitation (as it would in the passive the electron was excited with a laser pulse).

Sentences which do not follow the pattern described above are not considered to be in the passive voice, even if they have a similar function of avoiding or marginalizing reference to the agent. An example is the sentence A stabbing occurred, where mention of the stabber is avoided, but the sentence is nonetheless cast in the active voice, with the verbal noun stabbing forming the subject of the simple past tense of the verb occur. (Similarly There was a stabbing.) Occasionally, however, writers misapply the term "passive voice" to sentences of this type. An example of this loose usage can be found in the following extract from an article from The New Yorker about Bernard Madoff (bolding and italics added; bold text indicates the verbs misidentified as passive voice):

Two sentences later, Madoff said, "When I began the Ponzi scheme, I believed it would end shortly, and I would be able to extricate myself, and my clients, from the scheme." As he read this, he betrayed no sense of how absurd it was to use the passive voice in regard to his scheme, as if it were a spell of bad weather that had descended on him . . . In most of the rest of the statement, one not only heard the aggrieved passive voice, but felt the hand of a lawyer: "To the best of my recollection, my fraud began in the early nineteen-nineties."

The intransitive verbs would end and began are in fact in the active voice. Although the speaker uses the words in a manner that subtly diverts responsibility from him, this is not accomplished by use of passive voice.


Reasons for using the passive voice

The passive voice can be used without referring to the agent of an action; it may therefore be used when the agent is unknown or unimportant, or the speaker does not wish to mention the agent.

  • Three stores were robbed last night. (the identity of the agent may be unknown)

  • A new cancer drug has been discovered. (the identity of the agent may be unimportant in the context)

  • Mistakes have been made on this project. (the speaker may not wish to identify the agent)

The last sentence illustrates a frequently criticized use of the passive – the evasion of responsibility by failure to mention the agent (which may even be the speaker himself).

Agentless passives are common in scientific writing, where the agent may be irrelevant:

  • The mixture was heated to 300°C.

However the passive voice can also be used together with a mention of the agent, using a by-phrase. In this case the reason for use of the passive is often connected with the positioning of this phrase at the end of the clause (unlike in the active voice, where the agent, as subject, normally precedes the verb). Here, in contrast to the examples above, passive constructions may in fact serve to place emphasis on the agent, since it is natural for information being emphasized to come at the end:

  • Don't you see? The patient was murdered by his own doctor!

In more technical terms, such uses can be expected in sentences where the agent is the focus (comment, rheme), while the patient (the undergoer of the action) is the topic or theme. There is a tendency for sentences to be formulated so as to place the focus at the end, and this can motivate the choice of active or passive voice:

  • My taxi hit an old lady. (the taxi is the topic, the lady is the focus)

  • My mother was hit by a taxi. (the mother is the topic, the taxi is the focus)

Similarly, the passive may be used because the noun phrase denoting the agent is a long one (containing many modifiers), since it is convenient to place such phrases at the end of a clause:

  • The breakthrough was achieved by Burlingame and Evans, two researchers in the university's genetic engineering lab.

In some situations, the passive may be used so that the most dramatic word, or punchline, appears at the end of the sentence.


Style advice

Advice against the passive voice

Many language critics and language-usage manuals discourage use of the passive voice. This advice is not usually found in older guides, emerging only in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1916, the British writer Arthur Quiller-Couch criticized this grammatical voice:

Generally, use transitive verbs, that strike their object; and use them in the active voice, eschewing the stationary passive, with its little auxiliary its's and was's, and its participles getting into the light of your adjectives, which should be few. For, as a rough law, by his use of the straight verb and by his economy of adjectives you can tell a man's style, if it be masculine or neuter, writing or 'composition'.

Two years later, in the original 1918 edition of The Elements of Style, Cornell University Professor of English William Strunk, Jr. warned against excessive use of the passive voice:

The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive . . . This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary . . . The need to make a particular word the subject of the sentence will often . . . determine which voice is to be used. The habitual use of the active voice, however, makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative concerned principally with action, but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard.

In 1926, in the authoritative A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), Henry Watson Fowler recommended against transforming active voice forms into passive voice forms, because doing so "...sometimes leads to bad grammar, false idiom, or clumsiness."

In 1946, in the essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell recommended the active voice as an elementary principle of composition: "Never use the passive where you can use the active."

The Columbia Guide to Standard American English (1993) stated that:

Active voice makes subjects do something (to something); passive voice permits subjects to have something done to them (by someone or something). Some argue that active voice is more muscular, direct, and succinct, passive voice flabbier, more indirect, and wordier. If you want your words to seem impersonal, indirect, and noncommittal, passive is the choice, but otherwise, active voice is almost invariably likely to prove more effective.

Krista Ratcliffe, a professor at Marquette University, notes the use of passives as an example of the role of grammar as "...a link between words and magical conjuring [...]: passive voice mystifies accountability by erasing who or what performs an action [...]."


Advice in favor of the passive voice

Jan Freeman, a reporter for The Boston Globe, said that the passive voice does have its uses, and that "all good writers use the passive voice." For example, despite Orwell's advice to avoid the passive, his Politics and the English Language (1946) employs passive voice for about 20 percent of its constructions. By comparison, a statistical study found about 13 percent passive constructions in newspapers and magazines.

Passive writing is not necessarily slack and indirect. Many famously vigorous passages use the passive voice, as in these examples:

  • Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain. (King James Bible, Isaiah 40:4)

  • Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York. (Shakespeare's Richard III, I.1, ll. 1–2)

  • For of those to whom much is given, much is required. (John F. Kennedy's quotation of Luke 12:48 in his address to the Massachusetts legislature, 9 January 1961.)

  • Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. (Winston Churchill addressing the House of Commons, 20 August 1940.)

Merriam–Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1994) recommends the passive voice when identifying the object (receiver) of the action is more important than the subject (agent), and when the agent is unknown, unimportant, or not worth mentioning:

  • The child was struck by the car.

  • The store was robbed last night.

  • Plows should not be kept in the garage.

  • Kennedy was elected president.

The principal criticism against the passive voice is its potential for evasion of responsibility. This is because a passive clause may omit the agent even where it is important:

  • We had hoped to report on this problem, but the data were inadvertently deleted from our files.

However, the passive can also be used to emphasize the agent, and it may be better for that role than the active voice, because the end of a clause is the ideal place to put something you wish to emphasize, or a long noun phrase, as in the examples given in the previous section:

  • Don't you see? The patient was murdered by his own doctor!

  • The breakthrough was achieved by Burlingame and Evans, two researchers in the university's genetic engineering lab.

Geoffrey Pullum writes that "The passive is not an undesirable feature limited to bad writing, it's a useful construction often needed for clear expression, and every good writer uses it."


Passive constructions

Canonical passives

In the most commonly considered type of passive clause, a form of the verb be (or sometimes get) is used as an auxiliary together with the past participle of a transitive verb; that verb is missing its direct object, and the patient of the action (that which would be denoted by the direct object of the verb in an active clause) is denoted instead by the subject of the clause. For example, the active clause:

  • John threw the ball.

contains threw as a transitive verb with John as its subject and the ball as its direct object. If we recast the verb in the passive voice (was thrown), then the ball becomes the subject (it is "promoted" to the subject position) and John disappears:

  • The ball was thrown.

The original subject (the agent) can optionally be re-inserted using the preposition by.

  • The ball was thrown by John.

The above example uses the verb be (in the past tense form was) to make the passive. It is often possible to use the verb get as an alternative (possibly with slightly different meaning); for example, the active sentence "The ball hit Bob" may be recast in either of the following forms:

  • Bob was hit by the ball.

  • Bob got hit by the ball.

The auxiliary verb of the passive voice (be or get) may appear in any combination of tense, aspect and mood, and can also appear in non-finite form (infinitive, participle or gerund). Notice that this includes use of the verb be in progressive aspect, which does not normally occur when be is used as a simple copula. Some examples:

  • The food is being served. (present progressive passive)

  • The stadium will have been built by next January. (future perfect passive)

  • I would have got/gotten injured if I had stayed in my place. (conditional perfect passive with get)

  • It isn't nice to be insulted. (passive infinitive)

  • Having been humiliated, he left the stage. (passive present participle, perfect aspect)


Promotion of indirect objects

Unlike some other languages, English also allows passive clauses in which an indirect object, rather than a direct object, is promoted to the subject. For example:

  • John gave Mary a book. → Mary was given a book (by John).

In the active form, gave is the verb; John is its subject, Mary its indirect object, and a book its direct object. In the passive forms, the indirect object has been promoted and the direct object has been left in place. (In this respect, English resembles dechticaetiative languages.)

It is normally only the first-appearing object that can be promoted; promotion of the indirect object takes place from a construction in which it precedes the direct object (i.e. where there is no to or for before the indirect object), whereas promotion of the direct object in such cases takes place from a construction in which the indirect object follows the direct (this time being accompanied by to or for). For example:

  • John gave Mary a book. → Mary was given a book. (and not normally: ??A book was given Mary.)

  • John gave a book to Mary. → A book was given to Mary. (and not: *Mary was given a book to.)

Similar restrictions apply to the prepositional passive, as noted in the following section.


Prepositional passive

It is also possible, in some cases, to promote the object of a preposition. This may be called the prepositional passive, or sometimes the pseudo-passive (although the latter term can also have other meanings, such as being equivalent to the impersonal passive voice, particularly in descriptions of other languages).

  • They talked about the problem. → The problem was talked about.

In the passive form here, the preposition is "stranded"; that is, it is not followed by an object.

The prepositional passive is common especially in informal English. However some potential uses appear grammatically unacceptable; compare the following examples given by Pullum:

  • Someone has slept in this bunk. → This bunk has been slept in. (fully acceptable)

  • Someone has slept above this bunk. → ??This bunk has been slept above. (barely acceptable)

The second sentence appears unacceptable because sleeping above a bunk does not change its state; the verb phrase been slept above does not express a "relevantly important property" of the bunk.

It is not usually possible to promote a prepositional object if the verb also has a direct object; any passive rendering of the sentence must instead promote the direct object. For example:

  • Someone has put a child in this bunk. → *This bunk has been put a child in. (unacceptable)

  • Someone has put a child in this bunk. → A child has been put in this bunk. (acceptable)

Exceptions occur with certain idiomatic combinations of verb+object+preposition, such as take advantage of:

  • I feel people have taken advantage of me. → I feel I have been taken advantage of. (acceptable)


Stative and adjectival uses

A type of clause that is similar or identical in form to the passive clauses described above has the past participle used to denote not an action, but a state being the result of an action. For example, the sentence The window was broken may have two different meanings:

  • The window was broken, i.e. Someone or something broke the window. (action, event)

  • The window was broken, i.e. The window was not intact. (resultant state)

The first sentence is an example of the canonical English passive as described above. However the second case is distinct; such sentences are not always considered to be true passives, since the participle is being used adjectivally;they are sometimes called false passives. If they are considered to be passives, they may be called stative (or static, or resultative) passives, since they represent a state or result. By contrast the canonical passives, representing an action or event, may then be called dynamic or eventive passives.

The ambiguity in such sentences arises because the verb be is used in English both as the passive auxiliary and as the ordinary copular verb for linking to predicate adjectives. When get is used to form the passive, there is no ambiguity: The window got broken cannot have a stative meaning. If a distinct adjective exists for the purpose of expressing the state, then the past participle is less likely to be used for that purpose; this is the case with the verb open, for which there exists an adjective open, so the sentence The door was opened more likely refers to the action rather than the state, since in the stative case one could simply say The door was open.

Past participles of transitive verbs can also be used as adjectives (as in a broken doll), and the participles used in the above-mentioned "stative" constructions are often considered to be adjectival (in predicative use). Such constructions may then also be called adjectival passives (although they are not normally considered true passives). For example:

  • She was relieved to find her car.

Here, relieved is an ordinary adjective, though it derives from the past participle of relieve. In other sentences that same participle may be used to form the true (dynamic) passive: He was relieved of duty.

When the verb being put into the passive voice is a stative verb anyway, the distinctions between uses of the past participle become less clear, since the canonical passive already has a stative meaning. (For example: People know his identity → His identity is known.) However it is sometimes possible to impart a dynamic meaning using get as the auxiliary, as in get known with the meaning "become known".


Passive constructions without an exactly corresponding active

Some passive constructions are not derived exactly from a corresponding active construction in the ways described above. This is particularly the case with sentences containing content clauses (usually that-clauses). Given a sentence in which the role of direct object is played by such a clause, for example

  • They say (that) he cheats.

it is possible to convert this to a passive by promoting the content clause to subject; in this case, however, the clause typically does not change its position in the sentence, and an expletive it takes the normal subject position:

  • It is said that he cheats.

Another way of forming passives in such cases involves promoting the subject of the content clause to the subject of the main clause, and converting the content clause into a non-finite clause with the to-infinitive. This infinitive is marked for grammatical aspect to correspond to the aspect (or past tense) expressed in the content clause. For example:

  • They say that he cheats. → He is said to cheat.

  • They think that I am dying. → I am thought to be dying.

  • They report that she came back / has come back. → She is reported to have come back.

  • They say that she will resign. → e.g. She is said to be going to resign.

Some verbs are used almost exclusively in the passive voice. This is the case with rumor, for example. The following passive sentences are possible:

  • He was rumored to be a war veteran. / It was rumored that he was a war veteran.

but it is not possible to use the active counterpart *They rumored that he was a war veteran. (This was once possible, but has fallen out of use.)

Another situation in which the passive uses a different construction than the active involves the verb make, meaning "compel". When this verb is used in the active voice it takes the bare infinitive (without the particle to), but in the passive voice it takes the to-infinitive. For example:

  • They made Jane attend classes.

  • Jane was made to attend classes.


Double passives

The construction called double passive can arise when one verb appears in the to-infinitive as the complement of another verb.

If the first verb takes a direct object ahead of the infinitive complement (this applies to raising-to-object verbs, where the expected subject of the second verb is raised to the position of object of the first verb), then the passive voice may be used independently for either or both of the verbs:

  • We expect you to complete the project. (you is raised from subject of complete to object of expect)

  • You are expected to complete the project. (passive voice used for expect)

  • We expect the project to be completed. (passive voice used for complete; now the project is raised to object)

  • The project is expected to be completed. (double passive)

Other verbs which can behave similarly to expect in such constructions include order, tell, persuade, etc., leading to such double passives as The man was ordered to be shot and I was persuaded to be ordained.

Similar constructions sometimes occur, however, when the first verb is raising-to-subject rather than raising-to-object – that is, when there is no object before the infinitive complement. For example, with attempt, the active voice construction is simply We attempted to complete the project. A double passive formed from that sentence would be:

  • The project was attempted to be completed.

with both verbs changed simultaneously to the passive voice, even though the first verb takes no object – it is not possible to say *We attempted the project to be completed, which is the sentence from which the double passive would appear to derive.

This latter double passive construction is criticized as questionable both grammatically and stylistically. Fowler calls it "clumsy and incorrect", suggesting that it springs from false analogy with the former (acceptable) type of double passive, though conceding its usefulness in some legal and quasi-legal language. Other verbs mentioned (besides attempt) with which the construction is found include begin, desire, hope, propose, seek and threaten. Similarly, The American Heritage Book of English Usage declares this construction unacceptable. It nonetheless occurs in practice in a variety of contexts.


Additional passive constructions

Certain other constructions are sometimes classed as passives. The following types are mentioned by Pullum.

A bare passive clause is similar to a typical passive clause, but without the passive auxiliary verb (so it is a non-finite clause consisting of a subject together with a verb phrase based on a past participle with the passive construction). These can be used in such contexts as newspaper headlines:

  • City hall damaged by hail

and as modifiers (adverbial phrases), i.e. nominative absolutes:

  • Our work done, we made our way back home.

  • That said, there are also other considerations.

Other constructions are mentioned in which a passive past participle clause is used, even though it is not introduced by the auxiliary be or get (or is introduced by get with a direct object):

  • I had my car cleaned by a professional.

  • Jane had her car stolen last week.

  • You ought to get that lump looked at.

  • This software comes pre-installed by the manufacturer.

In the concealed passive, the present participle or gerund form (-ing form) appears rather than the past participle. This can appear after need, and for some speakers after want (with similar meaning). For example:

  • Your car needs washing. (meaning "needs to be washed"; some speakers might say needs washed)

  • That rash needs looking at by a specialist.

  • His hair wants cutting.

(An idiomatic expression with the same construction is ... doesn't bear thinking about.)

The verbs need and want also have similar uses with an object:

  • I need/want my room painting.


Middle voice and passival

The term middle voice is sometimes used to refer to verbs used without a passive construction, but in a meaning where the grammatical subject is understood as undergoing the action. The meaning may be reflexive:

  • Fred shaved, i.e. Fred shaved himself

but is not always:

  • These cakes sell well, i.e. [we] sell these cakes [successfully]

  • The clothes are soaking, i.e. [the water] is soaking the clothes

Such verbs may also be called passival.

Another construction sometimes referred to as passival involves a wider class of verbs, and was used in English until the nineteenth century. Sentences having this construction feature progressive aspect and resemble the active voice, but with meaning like the passive. Examples of this would be:

  • The house is building (modern English: The house is being built)

  • The meal is eating (modern English: The meal is being eaten)

This passival construction was displaced during the late 18th and early 19th century by the progressive passive (the form is being built as given above). The grammaticality of the progressive passive, called by some the "imperfect passive," was controversial among grammarians in the 19th century, but is accepted without question today. It has been suggested that the passive progressive appeared just to the east of Bristol and was popularized by the Romantic poets.



Imperatives are expressed with the base form of the verb, normally with no subject: Take this outside! Be good! It is possible to add the second person pronoun you for emphasis: You be good!


Questions, negation, inversion and emphasis

Questions are formed by subject–auxiliary inversion (unless the interrogative word is part of the subject). If there is otherwise no auxiliary, the verb do (does, did) is used as an auxiliary, enabling the inversion. This also applies to negation: the negating word not must follow an auxiliary, so do is used if there is no other auxiliary.

Inversion is also required in certain other types of sentences, mainly after negative adverbial phrases; here too do is used if there is no other auxiliary.

The construction with do as auxiliary is also used to enable emphasis to be added to a sentence.


Use of verb forms

This section describes how the verb forms introduced in the preceding sections are used. More detail can be found in the article Uses of English verb forms and in the articles on the individual tenses and aspects.


Finite forms

In referring to an action taking place regularly (and not limited to the future or to the past), the simple present is used: He brushes his teeth every morning. For an action taking place at the present time, the present progressive construction is used: He is brushing his teeth now. With some verbs expressing a present state, particularly the copula be and verbs expressing a mental state, the present simple is generally used: They are here; I know that. However other state verbs use the present progressive or present simple depending on whether the state is considered temporary or permanent: The pen is lying on the table; Paris lies on the Seine.

For past actions or states, the simple past is generally used: He went out an hour ago; Columbus knew the shape of the world. However for completed actions for which no past time frame is implied or expressed, the present perfect is normally used: I have made the dinner (i.e. the dinner is now ready). For an action in the course of taking place, or a temporary state existing, at the past time being referred to (compare uses of the present progressive above), the past progressive is used: We were sitting on the beach when... For an action that was completed before the past time being referred to, the past perfect is used: We had sat down on the blanket when...

For actions or events expected to take place in the future, the construction with will can be used: The president will arrive tomorrow. Future events are also often expressed using the be going to construction: She is going to arrive tomorrow. Planned events can also be referred to using the present progressive (She is arriving tomorrow) or, if precisely scheduled, the simple present (She arrives tomorrow). The future progressive and future perfect can be used analogously to the past equivalents: We will be sitting on the beach this afternoon; We will have left the house by 4 o'clock. However in subordinate clauses expressing a condition or a time reference, present forms are used rather than the forms with will: If/When you get (not will get) there...

When expressing actions or events lasting up to a specified time, the appropriate perfect construction is used (with the progressive if expressing a temporary state that would generally be expressed with a progressive form): We have been having some problems lately; I have lived here for six years; We had been working since the previous evening; We will have been working for twelve hours by the time you arrive.


Non-finite forms

The bare infinitive, identical to the base form of the verb, is used as a complement of most modal verbs and certain other verbs (I can write; They made him write; I saw you write), including in negated and inverted sentences formed using do-support (He doesn't write; Did you write?).

Preceded by to, it forms the to-infinitive, which has a variety of uses, including as a noun phrase (To write is to learn) and as the complement of many verbs (I want to write), as well as with certain adjectives and nouns (easy to ride; his decision to leave), and in expressions of purpose (You did it to spite me).

The past participle has the following uses:

  • It is used with the auxiliary have in perfect constructions: They have written; We had written before we heard the news. (With verbs of motion, an archaic form with be may be found in older texts: he is come.)

  • It is used as a passive participle, with be or get, to form the passive voice: This book was written last year; Trees sometimes get gnawed down by beavers.

  • It is used to form passive participial phrases, which can be used adjectivally or adverbally (a letter written on his computer; Beaten to a pulp, he was carried away) and as complements of certain verbs (I got my car mended; They had me placed on a list).

  • It may be used as a simple adjective: as a passive participle in the case of transitive verbs (the written word, i.e. "the word that is written"), and as a perfect active participle in the case of some intransitive ones (a fallen tree, i.e. "a tree that has fallen").

The present participle has the following uses:

  • It is used with forms of be, in progressive (continuous) constructions: He is writing another book; I intend to be sitting on the beach.

  • It can form participial phrases, which can be used adjectivally or adverbally: The man sitting over there is drunk; Being a lawyer, I can understand this; I saw her sitting by the tree.

  • It can serve as a simple adjective: It is a thrilling book.

The same form used as a gerund has the following uses:

  • It forms verbal phrases that are then used as nouns: Lying in bed is my favorite hobby.

  • It forms similar phrases used as a complement of certain verbs: He tried writing novels.

The logical subject of a phrase formed with a gerund can be expressed by a possessive, as in I do not like your/Jim's drinking wine, although a non-possessive noun or pronoun is often used instead, especially in informal English: I do not like you/Jim drinking wine. The latter usage, though common, is sometimes considered ungrammatical or stylistically poor; it is given names like fused participle and geriple since it is seen to confuse a participle with a gerund.

Gerund forms are often used as plain verbal nouns, which function grammatically like common nouns (in particular, by being qualified by adjectives rather than adverbs): He did some excellent writing (compare the gerund: He is known for writing excellently). Such verbal nouns can function, for instance, as noun adjuncts, as in a writing desk.


Irregular verbs

This is a list of irregular verbs in the English language.

For each verb listed, the citation form (the bare infinitive) is given first. This is followed by the simple past tense (preterite), and then the past participle. If there are irregular present tense forms, these are given in parentheses after the infinitive. (The present participle and gerund forms of verbs, ending in -ing, are always regular. In English, these are used as verbs, adjectives, and nouns.) In the case of modal verbs the present and preterite forms are listed, since these are the only forms that exist.

The right-hand column notes whether the verb is weak or strong and whether it belongs to a subclass, and links to descriptions elsewhere.

In some cases, there are two or more possibilities for a given form. In the table, the preferred or more common usage is generally listed first, though for some words the usage is nearly equal for the two choices. Sometimes the usage depends on the dialect. In many cases, such as spell (spelt vs. spelled), learn (learnt vs. learned), and spill (spilt vs. spilled), American English normally uses the regular form, while British English tends to favor the irregular. In other cases, such as dive (dived vs. dove) and sneak (sneaked vs. snuck), the opposite is true. Australian, New Zealand and South African English tend to follow the British practice, while Canadian English often sides with the American usage.

The table includes selected archaic forms, marked * (some of these forms may survive in dialectal or specialist uses).


Verb forms

Verb class and notes

be (am, is, are) – was, were – been


bear – bore – born/borne

forbear – forbore – forborne

*misbear – *misbore – *misborne

overbear – overbore – overborne

underbear – underbore – underborne

Strong, class 4. The spelling born is used in passive or adjectival contexts relating to birth.

beat – beat – beaten/beat

browbeat – browbeat – browbeaten

overbeat – overbeat – overbeaten/overbeat

Strong, class 7

become – became – become

misbecome – misbecame – misbecome

Strong, class 4

beget – begot/*begat – begotten/begot

misbeget – misbegot – misbegotten/misbegot

Strong, class 5

begin – began – begun

Strong, class 3

bend – bent/bended – bent/bended

overbend – overbent – overbent

unbend – unbent – unbent

Weak with coalescence of dentals

beseech – beseeched/*besought – beseeched/*besought

Weak with Rückumlaut and Germanic spirant law (now regularized)

bet – bet/betted – bet/betted

underbet – underbet – underbet

Weak with coalescence of dentals

beware – (no other forms)

Defective; formed from be with predicate adjective, used as infinitive, imperative and subjunctive only. Inflected forms (bewares, bewared, bewaring) are considered obsolete.

bid [in auctions etc.] – bid – bid

outbid – outbid – outbid

overbid – overbid – overbid

rebid – rebid – rebid

underbid – underbid – underbid

Weak with coalescence of dentals

bid [meaning to request or say] – bade/bid/bidded – bidden/bid/bidded

Strong, class 5

bide – bided/bode – bided/bidden

abide – abided/*abode – abided/*abidden

Strong, class 1

bind – bound – bound

unbind – unbound – unbound

underbind – underbound – underbound

Strong, class 3

bite – bit – bitten

Strong, class 1

bleed – bled – bled

Weak with vowel shortening and coalescence of dentals

bless – blessed/*blest – blessed/*blest

Weak, regular with alternative (archaic) spelling

blow – blew – blown

overblow – overblew – overblown

Strong, class 7

break – broke – broken

outbreak – outbroke – outbroken

rebreak – rebroke – rebroken

Strong, class 4

breed – bred – bred

inbreed – inbred – inbred

interbreed – interbred – interbred

overbreed – overbred – overbred

Weak with vowel shortening and coalescence of dentals

bring – brought – brought

Weak with Rückumlaut and Germanic spirant law

build – built – built

overbuild – overbuilt – overbuilt

rebuild – rebuilt – rebuilt

underbuild – underbuilt – underbuilt

Weak with coalescence of dentals

burn – burned/burnt – burnt/burned

Weak with devoiced ending (or regular)

burst – burst/bursted – burst/bursted

Strong, class 3 (or regular)

buy – bought – bought/*boughten

*abuy – *abought – *abought

overbuy – overbought – overbought

underbuy – underbought – underbought

Weak with Rückumlaut and Germanic spirant law

can [auxiliary verb] – could – (none)

Preterite-present, defective.

cast – cast – cast

broadcast – broadcast – broadcast

downcast – downcast – downcast

forecast – forecast – forecast

miscast – miscast – miscast

overcast – overcast – overcast

podcast – podcast – podcast

precast – precast – precast

recast – recast – recast

simulcast – simulcast – simulcast

telecast – telecast – telecast

typecast – typecast – typecast

undercast – undercast – undercast

upcast – upcast – upcast

webcast – webcast – webcast

Weak with coalescence of dentals. Many of the prefixed forms can also take -ed.

catch – caught – caught

Weak, French loanword conjugated perhaps by analogy with teach–taught

chide – chid – chid/chidden

Also chided - chided

choose – chose – chosen

mischoose – mischose – mischosen

Strong, class 2

clad – clad/cladded – clad/cladded

Developed from clad, the past form of clothe

cleave [meaning to split] – clove/cleft – cloven/cleft

Strong, class 2, sometimes switching to weak with vowel shortening. When meaning "adhere" the verb is regular.

*clepe – *cleped/*clept – *cleped/*clept

Weak with vowel shortening, or regular. Obsolete or dialectal

cling – clung – clung

Strong, class 3

clothe – clothed/clad – clothed/clad

overclothe – overclothed/overclad – overclothed/overclad

unclothe – unclothed/unclad – unclothed/unclad

underclothe – underclothed/underclad – underclothed/underclad

Weak; the regular clothed is from OE claþian, while clad (weak with coalescence of dentals) is from OE clæþan (both OE verbs having similar meaning).

come – came – come

overcome – overcame – overcome

see also under become

Strong, class 4

cost [intransitive sense] – cost – cost

Weak with coalescence of dentals. Regular when meaning "calculate the cost of".

creep – crept/creeped – crept/creeped

Originally strong, class 2; switched to weak with vowel shortening (or regular)

crow – crowed/*crew – crowed/*crown

Strong, class 7. Now usually regular, but crew can still be used of a cock's crowing.

cut – cut – cut

clearcut – clearcut – clearcut

crosscut – crosscut – crosscut

*forcut – *forcut – *forcut

intercut – intercut – intercut

recut – recut – recut

undercut – undercut – undercut

Weak with coalescence of dentals

dare (dares/dare) – dareddared

Preterite-present, now regular except in the use of dare in place of dares in some contexts.

deal – dealt – dealt

misdeal – misdealt – misdealt

redeal – redealt – redealt

Weak with vowel shortening and devoiced ending

dig – dug/*digged – dug/*digged

underdig – underdug – underdug

Originally weak; past form dug developed by analogy with stick–stuck

dive – dived/dove – dived

Weak, the alternative dove (found mainly in American usage) arising by analogy with strong verbs

do (does /dʌz/) – did – done

*fordo – *fordid – *fordone

misdo – misdid – misdone

outdo – outdid – outdone

overdo – overdid – overdone

redo redid – redone

undo – undid – undone

underdo – underdid – underdone

Irregular since Proto-Germanic: past tense formed by reduplication. Past participle from Old English gedon

drag – dragged/drug – dragged/drug

Strong, class 6, now usually regular; drug is used in some dialects

draw – drew – drawn

outdraw – outdrew – outdrawn

overdraw – overdrew – overdrawn

redraw – redrew – redrawn

underdraw – underdrew – underdrawn

withdraw – withdrew – withdrawn

Strong, class 6

dream – dreamed/dreamt – dreamed/dreamt

Weak with vowel shortening and devoiced ending (or regular)

dress – dressed/*drest – dressed/*drest

Weak with alternative (archaic) spelling

drink – drank – drunk/drank

outdrink – outdrank – outdrunk

overdrink – overdrank – overdrunk

Strong, class 3

drive – drove – driven

overdrive – overdrove – overdriven

test-drive – test-drove – test-driven

Strong, class 1

dwell – dwelt/dwelled – dwelt/dwelled

Weak with devoiced ending (or regular)

eat – ate – eaten

overeat – overate – overeaten

undereat – underate – undereaten

Strong, class 5. Past tense usually /eɪt/, sometimes /ɛt/ in British English.

fall – fell – fallen

befall – befell – befallen

*misbefall – *misbefell – *misbefallen

*misfall – *misfell – *misfallen

Strong, class 7

feed – fed – fed

breastfeed – breastfed – breastfed

force-feed – force-fed – force-fed

hand-feed – hand-fed – hand-fed

misfeed – misfed – misfed

overfeed – overfed – overfed

self-feed – self-fed – self-fed

spoonfeed – spoonfed – spoonfed

underfeed – underfed – underfed

Weak with vowel shortening and coalescence of dentals

feel – felt – felt

Weak with vowel shortening and devoiced ending

fight – fought – fought

Strong, class 3

find – found – found

refind – refound – refound

Strong, class 3

fit – fit/fitted – fit/fitted

misfit – misfit/misfitted – misfit/misfitted

Weak with coalescence of dentals

flee – fled – fled

Originally strong, class 2, switched to weak with vowel shortening

fling – flung – flung

Strong, class 3

fly – flew – flown

outfly – outflew – outflown

overfly – overflew – overflown

test-fly – test-flew – test-flown

Strong, class 2. Regular when used for hitting a fly ball in baseball.

forbid – forbade/forbid – forbidden

Strong, class 5

forget – forgot – forgotten

Strong, class 5

*forlese – *forlore – forlorn

Past participle remains in use adjectivally.

forsake – forsook – forsaken

Strong, class 6

freeze – froze – frozen

quick-freeze – quick-froze – quick-frozen

refreeze – refroze – refrozen

unfreeze – unfroze – unfrozen

Strong, class 2

get – got/*gat – gotten/got

*beget – *begat – *begotten

*misget – *misgot – *misgotten

*overget – *overgot – *overgotten

*underget – *undergot – *undergotten

Strong, class 5. Past participle is got in British usage (except in fossilized phrases such as "ill-gotten"), and gotten in American.

gild – gilded/gilt – gilded/gilt

Weak with coalescence of dentals and devoiced ending (or regular)

gird – girded/*girt – girded/*girt

undergird – undergirt/undergirded – undergirt/undergirded

Weak with coalescence of dentals and devoiced ending (or regular)

give – gave – given

forgive – forgave – forgiven

misgive – misgave – misgiven

overgive – overgave – overgiven

Strong, class 5

go – went – gone

*bego – *bewent – *begone

forego – forewent – foregone

forgo – forwent – forgone

*overgo – *overwent – *overgone

undergo – underwent – undergone

*withgo – *withwent – *withgone


*grave – *grove/*graved – graven/*graved

Strong, class 6. Past participle graven remains in use adjectivally, as in graven images in archaic language, e.g. from the 17th Century. The verb engrave is regular.

grind – ground/grinded – ground/grinded

Strong, class 3

grow – grew – grown

outgrow – outgrew – outgrown

overgrow – overgrew – overgrown

regrow – regrew – regrown

undergrow – undergrew – undergrown

upgrow – upgrew – upgrown

Strong, class 7

hang – hung/hanged – hung/hanged

overhang – overhung – overhung

underhang – underhung – underhung

uphang – uphung – uphung

Strong, class 7. Regularized alternative hanged was influenced by OE causative hangian, and is used chiefly for hanging as a means of execution.

have (has) – had – had

Weak; had results from contraction, from OE haefd. Third person present has also a result of contraction.

hear – heard – heard

mishear – misheard – misheard

overhear – overheard – overheard

unhear – unheard – unheard

Weak, originally with vowel shortening (the modern pronunciation of heard in RP has the long vowel /ɜː/)

heave – heaved/hove – heaved/hove/hoven

upheave – upheaved/uphove – upheaved/uphove/uphoven

Strong, class 6, now usually regular except in nautical uses

hew – hewed/hew – hewn/hewed

*underhew – *underhewed – *underhewn/*underhewed

Strong, class 7 (or regular)

hide – hid – hidden

Weak with vowel shortening and coalescence of dentals, influenced by strong verbs

hit – hit – hit

mishit – mishit – mishit

overhit – overhit – overhit

underhit – underhit – underhit

Weak with coalescence of dentals

hoist – hoisted/hoist – hoisted/hoist

Weak, hoist was originally the past form of the now archaic verb hoise

hold – held – held

behold – beheld – beheld

inhold – inheld – inheld

mishold – misheld – misheld

uphold – upheld – upheld

withhold – withheld – withheld

Strong, class 7

hurt – hurt – hurt

Weak with coalescence of dentals

keep – kept – kept

miskeep – miskept – miskept

underkeep – underkept – underkept

Weak with vowel shortening

ken – kenned/kent – kenned/kent

misken – miskenned/miskent – miskenned/miskent

Northern and Scottish dialect word. Weak with devoiced ending (or regular)

kneel – knelt/kneeled – knelt/kneeled

Weak with vowel shortening and devoiced ending (or regular)

knit – knit/knitted – knit/knitted

Weak with coalescence of dentals (or regular)

know – knew – known

*acknow – *acknew – *acknown

foreknow – foreknew – foreknown

misknow – misknew – misknown

Strong, class 7

lade – laded – laden/laded

overlade – overladed – overladen/overladed

Strong, class 6, often regularized (past participle laden is common adjectivally)

laugh – laughed/*laught – laughed/*laught

Originally strong, now weak, regular, with alternative (archaic) spelling

lay – laid – laid

belay – belaid – belaid

*forelay – *forelaid – *forelaid

*forlay – *forlaid – *forlaid

inlay – inlaid – inlaid

interlay – interlaid – interlaid

mislay – mislaid – mislaid

onlay – onlaid – onlaid

outlay – outlaid – outlaid

overlay – overlaid – overlaid

re-lay – re-laid – re-laid

underlay – underlaid – underlaid

unlay – unlaid – unlaid

*uplay – *uplaid – *uplaid

waylay – waylaid – waylaid

Weak, irregular in spelling only

lead – led – led

*belead – *beled – *beled

*forthlead – *forthled – *forthled

inlead – inled – inled

mislead – misled – misled

offlead – offled – offled

onlead – onled – onled

outlead – outled – outled

overlead – overled – overled

underlead – underled – underled

*uplead – *upled – *upled

Weak with vowel shortening and coalescence of dentals

lean – leaned/leant – leaned/leant

Weak with vowel shortening and devoiced ending (or regular)

leap – leaped/leapt – leaped/leapt

beleap – beleaped/beleapt – beleaped/beleapt

forthleap – forthleaped/forthleapt – forthleaped/forthleapt

outleap – outleaped/outleapt – outleaped/outleapt

overleap – overleaped/overleapt – overleaped/overleapt

Originally strong, class 7, now weak with vowel shortening (or regular)

learn – learned/learnt – learned/learnt

mislearn – mislearned/mislearnt – mislearned/mislearnt

overlearn – overlearned/overlearnt – overlearned/overlearnt

relearn – relearned/relearnt – relearned/relearnt

unlearn – unlearned/unlearnt – unlearned/unlearnt

Weak with devoiced ending (or regular)

leave – left – left

beleave – beleft – beleft

*forleave – *forleft – *forleft/*forlaft

overleave – overleft – overleft

Weak with vowel shortening and devoiced ending

lend – lent – lent

*forlend – forlent – forlent

Weak with coalescence of dentals and devoiced ending

let – let – let

*forlet – *forlet – *forlet

sublet – sublet – sublet

*underlet – *underlet – *underlet

Strong, class 7

lie – lay – lain

*forelie – *forelay – *forelain

*forlie – *forlay – *forlain

overlie – overlay – overlain

underlie – underlay – underlain

Strong, class 5. Regular in the meaning "tell an untruth".

light – lit/lighted – lit/lighted

backlight – backlit/backlighted – backlit/backlighted

green-light – green-lit/green-lighted – green-lit/green-lighted

relight – relit/relighted – relit/relighted

Weak with vowel shortening and coalescence of dentals (or regular)

lose – lost – lost

Originally strong, class 2, now weak with vowel shortening and devoiced ending

make – made – made

remake – remade – remade

unmake – unmade – unmade

Weak; made formed by contraction from "maked"

may – might – (none)

Preterite-present, defective.

mean – meant – meant

Weak with vowel shortening and devoiced ending

meet – met – met

Weak with vowel shortening and coalescence of dentals

melt – melted/*molt – melted/molten

Strong, class 3. Now regularized, but molten survives in adjectival uses.

mix – mixed/*mixt – mixed/*mixt

Weak, regular, with alternative (mostly archaic) spelling

mow – mowed – mowed/mown

Strong, class 7. Now regularized in past tense and sometimes in past participle.

must – (no other forms)

Defective; originally a preterite.

need (needs/need) – neededneeded

Weak, regular except in the use of need in place of needs in some contexts, by analogy with can, must, etc.

ought – (no other forms)

Defective; originally a preterite.

pay – paid/payed – paid/payed

overpay – overpaid – overpaid

prepay – prepaid – prepaid

repay – repaid – repaid

underpay – underpaid – underpaid

Weak, irregular in spelling only. The spelling payed is used in the meaning of letting out a rope etc.

pen – penned/pent – penned/pent

Weak with devoiced ending, but usually regular; pent is sometimes used when the verb has the meaning "to enclose", and mainly adjectivally

plead – pleaded/pled – pleaded/pled

French loanword, weak with vowel shortening and coalescence of dentals. In North America, this verb is usually irregular.

prove – proved – proved/proven

French loanword, weak, with the alternative past participle proven by analogy with some strong verbs

put – put – put

input – input – input

output – output – output

*underput – *underput – *underput

Weak with coalescence of dentals

*queath/*quethe – quoth – *quoth/*quethen

bequeath – bequeathed/bequoth – bequeathed/bequethen

Strong, class 5. Past tense quoth is literary or archaic; other parts of that verb are obsolete. Bequeath is normally regularized in -ed.

quit – quit/quitted – quit/quitted

French loanword, weak, with coalescence of dentals (or regular)

reach – reached/*raught – reached/*raught

Weak, now regular (archaic raught from original conjugation like teach)

read /riːd/ – read /rɛd/ – read /rɛd/

*foreread – *foreread – *foreread

lipread – lipread – lipread

misread – misread – misread

proofread – proofread – proofread

reread – reread – reread

sight-read – sight-read – sight-read

Weak with vowel shortening and coalescence of dentals

*reave – *reft – *reft

bereave – bereaved/*bereft – bereaved/bereft

Weak with vowel shortening and devoiced ending. The verb bereave is usually regular, but bereft survives as past participle, with distinct meanings.

rend – rent – rent

Weak with coalescence of dentals

rid – rid/ridded – rid/ridden/ridded

Weak with coalescence of dentals, or regular; ridden by analogy with strong verbs.

ride – rode – ridden

outride – outrode – outridden

override – overrode – overridden

Strong, class 1

ring – rang – rung

Strong, class 3

rise – rose – risen

arise – arose – arisen

uprise – uprose – uprisen

Strong, class 1

rive – rived/rove – rived/riven

From Old Norse, originally followed pattern of strong class 1, later regularized. Now rarely used.

run – ran – run

*forerun – *foreran – *forerun

outrun – outran – outrun

overrun – overran – overrun

rerun – reran – rerun

underrun – underran – underrun

Strong, class 3

saw – sawed – sawn/sawed

Weak; sawn by analogy with strong verbs

say (says /sɛz/) – said – said

*forsay – *forsaid – *forsaid

*gainsay – *gainsaid – *gainsaid

missay – missaid – missaid

*naysay – *naysaid – *naysaid

*withsay – *withsaid – *withsaid

Weak, with vowel shortening in said /sɛd/ and in the third person present says /sɛz/

see – saw – seen

*besee – *besaw – *beseen

foresee – foresaw – foreseen

missee – missaw – misseen

oversee – oversaw – overseen

sightsee – sightsaw – sightseen

undersee – undersaw – underseen

Strong, class 5

seek – sought – sought

beseek – besought – besought

Weak with Rückumlaut and Germanic spirant law

seethe – seethed/*sod – seethed/*sodden

Strong, class 2. Now regular, but sodden survives in some adjectival uses.

sell – sold – sold

outsell – outsold – outsold

oversell – oversold – oversold

resell – resold – resold

undersell – undersold – undersold

upsell – upsold – upsold

Weak with Rückumlaut

send – sent – sent

missend – missent – missent

resend – resent – resent

Weak with coalescence of dentals

set – set – set

beset – beset – beset

handset – handset – handset

inset – inset – inset

misset – misset – misset

offset – offset – offset

overset – overset – overset

preset – preset – preset

reset – reset – reset

upset – upset – upset

*withset – *withset – *withset

Weak with coalescence of dentals

sew – sewed – sewn/sewed

handsew – handsewed – handsewed/handsewn

oversew – oversewed – oversewed/oversewn

Weak; sewn by analogy with strong verbs

shake – shook – shaken

overshake – overshook – overshaken

Strong, class 6

shall – should – (none)

Preterite-present; defective.

shape – shaped – shaped/*shapen

*forshape – *forshaped – *forshapen/*forshaped

misshape – misshaped – misshapen/misshaped

Originally strong, class 6, now regular, but with misshapen (and archaically shapen) still used adjectivally

shave – shaved/*shove – shaved/shaven

Strong, class 6, now regular, but shaven sometimes used adjectivally

shear – shore/sheared – shorn/sheared

Strong, class 4 (or regular)

shed – shed – shed

Strong, class 7

shine – shined/shone – shined/shone

*beshine – *beshone – *beshone

outshine – outshined/outshone – outshined/outshone

overshine – overshined/overshone – overshined/overshone

Strong, class 1

shit/shite – shat/shitted/shit – shat/shitted/shit/*shitten

Strong, class 1

shoe – shoed/shod – shoed/shod/shodden

reshoe – reshod – reshod

Weak with vowel shortening (or regular); shodden by analogy with strong verbs

shoot – shot – shot

misshoot – misshot – misshot

overshoot – overshot – overshot

reshoot – reshot – reshot

undershoot – undershot – undershot

Strong, class 2

show – showed – shown/showed

foreshow – foreshowed – foreshown

reshow – reshowed – reshown/reshowed

Weak, with participle shown perhaps by analogy with sown (from sow)

shrink – shrank/shrunk – shrunk/shrunken

overshrink – overshrank/overshrunk – overshrunk/overshrunken

Strong, class 3; shrunken is mostly used adjectivally

*shrive – *shrove – *shriven

Strong, class 1

shut – shut – shut

reshut – reshut – reshut

Weak with coalescence of dentals

sing – sang – sung

resing – resang – resung

Strong, class 3

sink – sank/sunk – sunk/sunken

Strong, class 3. The form sunken appears in some adjectival uses.

sit – sat/*sate – sat/*sitten

babysit – babysat – babysat

housesit – housesat – housesat

resit – resat – resat

*withsit – *withsat – *withsat/*withsitten

Strong, class 5

slay – slew/slayed – slain/slayed

Strong, class 6 (or regular)

sleep – slept – slept

oversleep – overslept – overslept

undersleep – underslept – underslept

Originally strong, class 7, now weak with vowel shortening

slide – slid – slid/slidden

backslide – backslid – backslid/backslidden

overslide – overslid – overslid/overslidden

Strong, class 1

sling – slung/slang – slung

Strong, class 3

slink – slunk – slunk

Strong, class 3

slip – slipped/*slipt – slipped/*slipt

*overslip – *overslipped/*overslipt – *overslipped/*overslipt

Regular, with alternative (archaic) spelling

slit – slit – slit

Strong, class 1

smell – smelled/smelt – smelled/smelt

Weak with devoiced ending (or regular)

smite – smote/*smit – smitten

Strong, class 1. Largely archaic; smitten is quite commonly used adjectivally.

sneak – sneaked/snuck – sneaked/snuck

Weak, alternative form snuck (chiefly American) by analogy with strong verbs

sow – sowed/sew – sown/sowed

Strong, class 7, with regularized past tense sowed

speak – spoke/*spake – spoken/spoke

bespeak – bespoke – bespoken

*forespeak – *forespoke – *forespoken

*forspeak – *forspoke – *forspoken

misspeak – misspoke – misspoken

Strong, class 5

speed – sped/speeded – sped/speeded

Weak with vowel shortening and coalescence of dentals (or regular)

spell – spelled/spelt – spelled/spelt

misspell – misspelled/misspelt – misspelled/misspelt

Weak with devoiced ending (or regular)

spend – spent – spent

*forspend – *forspent – *forspent

misspend – misspent – misspent

outspend – outspent – outspent

overspend – overspent – overspent

Weak with coalescence of dentals

spill – spilled/spilt – spilled/spilt

overspill – overspilled/overspilt – overspilled/overspilt

Weak with devoiced ending (or regular)

spin – spun/span – spun

outspin – outspun – outspun

Strong, class 3

spit – spat/spit – spat/spit

Weak with coalescence of dentals (for past form spit, which is common in America), or spat by analogy with strong verbs. (In the meaning of roast on a spit, the verb is regular.)

split – split – split

Weak with coalescence of dentals

spoil – spoiled/spoilt – spoiled/spoilt

Weak with devoiced ending (or regular)

spread – spread – spread

*bespread – *bespread – *bespread

Weak with coalescence of dentals

spring – sprang/sprung – sprung

handspring – handsprang – handsprung

Strong, class 3

stand – stood – stood

forstand – forstood – forstood

misunderstand – misunderstood – misunderstood

overstand – overstood – overstood

understand – understood – understood

upstand – upstood – upstood

withstand – withstood – withstood

Strong, class 6

starve – starved/starf/storve – starved/storven

Strong, class 3

stave – staved/stove – staved/stove/stoven

Originally weak; irregular forms developed by analogy with strong verbs.

stay – stayed/*staid – stayed/*staid

Regular, with alternative spelling staid (now limited to certain adjectival uses)

steal – stole – stolen

Strong, class 4

stick – stuck – stuck

Originally weak, irregular forms by analogy with strong verbs

sting – stung/stang – stung

Strong, class 3

stink – stank/stunk – stunk

Strong, class 3

stretch – stretched/*straught – stretched/*straught

Weak, now regular; obsolete past form straught as with teach–taught

strew – strewed/strew – strewed/strewn

bestrew – bestrewed – bestrewn

overstrew – overstrewed – overstrewn

Originally weak, irregular forms by analogy with strong verbs

stride – strode/strided – stridden/strode/strided

bestride – bestrode/bestrid – bestridden

outstride – outstrode – outstridden

overstride – overstrode – overstridden

Strong, class 1

strike – struck – struck/stricken

overstrike – overstruck – overstruck

Strong, class 1. The form stricken is limited to certain adjectival and specialist uses.

string – strung – strung

hamstring – hamstrung – hamstrung

overstring – overstrung – overstrung

Originally weak, irregular forms developed by analogy with strong verbs

strive – strove/strived – striven/strived

outstrive – outstrove – outstriven

overstrive – overstrove – overstriven

Strong, class 1 (or regularized)

swear – swore – sworn

forswear – forswore – forsworn

outswear – outswore – outsworn

Strong, class 6

sweat – sweated/sweat – sweated/sweat

Weak, usually regular, possible past form sweat with coalescence of dentals

sweep – swept – swept

upsweep – upswept – upswept

Weak with vowel shortening

swell – swelled/*swole – swelled/swollen

upswell – upswelled – upswelled/upswollen

Strong, class 3, with regularized forms

*swelt – *swelted/*swolt – *swelted/*swolten

Strong, class 3 (or regularized). Archaic

swim – swam – swum/swam

outswim – outswam – outswum/outswam

Strong, class 3

swing – swung/swang – swung

overswing – overswung/overswang – overswung

Strong, class 3

*swink – *swank/*swonk – *swonken

Strong, class 3

take – took – taken

betake – betook – betaken

intake – intook – intaken

mistake – mistook – mistaken

overtake – overtook – overtaken

partake – partook – partaken

retake – retook – retaken

undertake – undertook – undertaken

*uptake – *uptook – *uptaken

Strong, class 6

teach – taught – taught

Weak with Rückumlaut and Germanic spirant law

tear – tore – torn

uptear – uptore – uptorn

Strong, class 4

tell – told – told

foretell – foretold – foretold

retell – retold – retold

*outtell – *outtold – *outtold

Weak with Rückumlaut

think – thought – thought

outthink – outthought – outthought

rethink – rethought – rethought

Weak with Rückumlaut and Germanic spirant law

thrive – thrived/*throve/*thrave – thrived/*thriven

Of Old Norse origin; followed strong class 1 (now archaic) or weak (regular) pattern

throw – threw – thrown

misthrow – misthrew – misthrown

outthrow – outthrew – outthrown

overthrow – overthrew – overthrown

underthrow – underthrew – underthrown

upthrow – upthrew – upthrown

Strong, class 7

thrust – thrust/thrusted – thrust/thrusted

outthrust – outthrust – outthrust

Weak, with coalescence of dentals (or regular)

tread – trod/treaded – trodden/trod/treaded

retread – retrod – retrodden/retrod

Strong, class 5 (or regularized)

wake – woke – woken

awake – awoke/awaked – awoken/awaked

Strong, class 6

wax – waxed – waxed/*waxen

Strong, class 7, now regularized

wear – wore – worn

*forwear – *forwore – *forworn

outwear – outwore – outworn

overwear – overwore – overworn

Originally weak, fell into a strong pattern by analogy with bear

weave – wove/weaved – woven/weaved

interweave – interwove/interweaved – interwoven/interweaved

*unweave – *unwove – *unwoven

Strong, class 7

wed – wed/wedded – wed/wedded

rewed – rewed/rewedded – rewed/rewedded

Weak with coalescence of dentals (or regular)

weep – wept – wept

*beweep – *bewept – *bewept

Originally strong, class 7, now weak with vowel shortening

wend – wended/*went – wended/*went

Weak, once with coalescence of dentals and devoiced ending, but now regular; went is used as the past of go

wet – wet/wetted – wet/wetted

overwet – overwet/overwetted – overwet/overwetted

Weak with coalescence of dentals (or regular)

will – would – (none)

Preterite-present, defective. (In non-auxiliary uses the verb is regular.)

win – won – won

Strong, class 3

wind – wound – wound

rewind – rewound – rewound

unwind – unwound – unwound

Strong, class 3. (The identically spelt verb wind /wɪnd/, with meanings connected with air flow and breathlessness, is regular.)

work – worked/*wrought – worked/*wrought

overwork – overworked/*overwrought – overworked/*overwrought

Weak, now regular, formerly with Rückumlaut and metathesis of r and o

*worth – *worth/*worthed – *worth/*worthed/*worthen

Strong, class 3, or regularized

wreak – wreaked/wrought/wrack/wroke – wreaked/wrought/*wreaken/*wroken

Weak, usually regular; wrought (which is in fact from work) has come sometimes to be identified with this verb (perhaps by analogy with seek–sought). Other forms by analogy with strong verbs.

wring – wrang/wrung – wrung

Strong, class 3

write – wrote/*writ – written/*writ

cowrite – cowrote – cowritten

ghostwrite – ghostwrote – ghostwritten

miswrite – miswrote – miswritten

overwrite – overwrote – overwritten

rewrite – rewrote – rewritten

underwrite – underwrote – underwritten

Strong, class 1

writhe – writhed/*wrothe – writhed/*writhen

Strong, class 1, now regularized


Present tense irregular verbs

Though the list of verbs irregular in the preterite or past participle is long, the list of irregular present tense verbs is very short. Excepting modal verbs like "shall", "will", and "can" that do not inflect at all in the present tense, there are only four (only two if pronunciation is ignored):

  • be: I am, you are, he is, we are, they are.

  • do (and compounds such as "undo" and "redo"): I do, you do, he does, we do, they do where "does" is pronounced /ˈdʌz/ in contrast to /ˈduː/, the pronunciation of the infinitive and the other present tense forms.

  • have: I have, you have, he has, we have, they have.

  • say (and compounds such as "gainsay" and "naysay"): I say, you say, he says, we say, they say where "says" may be, dependent on regional accent, pronounced /ˈsɛz/ as opposed to /ˈseɪz/ in the manner of the infinitive and the other present tense forms.


Modal verbs

The modal verbs of English are a small class of auxiliary verbs used mostly to express modality (properties such as possibility, obligation, etc.). They can be distinguished from other verbs by their defectiveness (they do not have participle or infinitive forms) and by the fact that they do not take the ending -(e)s in the third-person singular.

The principal English modal verbs are can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will and would. Certain other verbs are sometimes, but not always, classed as modals; these include ought, had better, and (in certain uses) dare and need. Verbs which share some but not all of the characteristics of the principal modals are sometimes called "semimodals".


Modal verbs and their features

The verbs customarily classed as modals in English have the following properties:

  • They do not inflect, except insofar as some of them come in present–past (present–preterite) pairs. They do not add the ending -(e)s in the third-person singular (the present-tense modals therefore follow the preterite-present paradigm).

  • They are defective: they are not used as infinitives or participles (except occasionally in non-standard English), nor as imperatives, nor (in the standard way) as subjunctives.

  • They function as auxiliary verbs: they modify the meaning of another verb, which they govern. This verb generally appears as a bare infinitive, although in some definitions a modal verb can also govern the to-infinitive (as in the case of ought).

  • They have the syntactic properties associated with auxiliary verbs in English, principally that they can undergo subject–auxiliary inversion (in questions, for example) and can be negated by the appending of not after the verb.

The following verbs have all of the above properties, and can be classed as the principal modal verbs of English. They are listed here in present–preterite pairs where applicable:

  • can and could

  • may and might

  • shall and should

  • will and would

  • must (no preterite)

Note that the preterite forms are not necessarily used to refer to past time, and in some cases they are near synonyms to the present forms. Note that most of these so-called preterite forms are most often used in the subjunctive mood in the present tense. The auxiliary verbs may and let are also used often in the subjunctive mood. Famous examples of these are "May The Force be with you," and "Let God bless you with good." These are both sentences that express some uncertainty, hence they are subjunctive sentences.

The verbs listed below mostly share the above features, but with certain differences. They are sometimes, but not always, categorized as modal verbs. They may also be called "semimodals".

  • The verb ought differs from the principal modals only in that it governs a to-infinitive rather than a bare infinitive (compare he should go with he ought to go).

  • The verbs dare and need can be used as modals, often in the negative (Dare he fight?; You dare not do that.; You need not go.), although they are more commonly found in constructions where they appear as ordinary inflected verbs (He dares to fight; You don't need to go). There is also a dialect verb, nearly obsolete but sometimes heard in Appalachia and the Deep South of the United States: darest, which means "dare not", as in "You darest do that."

  • The verb had in the expression had better behaves like a modal verb, hence had better (considered as a compound verb) is sometimes classed as a modal or semimodal.

  • The verb used in the expression used to (do something) can behave as a modal, but is more often used with do-support than with auxiliary-verb syntax: Did she used to do it? and She didn't use to do it are more common than Used she to do it? and She used not (usedn't) to do it.

Other English auxiliaries appear in a variety of inflected forms and are not regarded as modal verbs. These are:

  • be, used as an auxiliary in passive voice and continuous aspect constructions; it follows auxiliary-verb syntax even when used as a copula, and in auxiliary-like formations such as be going to, is to and be about to;

  • have, used as an auxiliary in perfect aspect constructions, including the idiom have got (to); it is also used in have to, which has modal meaning, but here (as when denoting possession) have only rarely follows auxiliary-verb syntax;

  • do.



The modals can and could are from Old English can(n) and cuþ, which were respectively present and preterite forms of the verb cunnan ("to be able"). The silent l in the spelling of could results from analogy with would and should.

Similarly, may and might are from Old English mæg and meahte, respectively present and preterite forms of magan ("may, to be able"); shall and should are from sceal and sceolde, respectively present and preterite forms of sculan ("to owe, be obliged"); and will and would are from wille and wolde, respectively present and preterite forms of willan ("to wish, want").

The aforementioned Old English verbs cunnan, magan, sculan and willan followed the preterite-present paradigm (or in the case of willan, a similar but irregular paradigm), which explains the absence of the ending -s in the third person on the present forms can, may, shall and will. (The original Old English forms given above were first and third person singular forms; their descendant forms became generalized to all persons and numbers.)

The verb must comes from Old English moste, part of the verb motan ("to be able to, be obliged to"). This was another preterite-present verb, of which moste was in fact the preterite (the present form mot gave rise to mote, which was used as a modal verb in Early Modern English; but must has now lost its past connotations and has replaced mote). Similarly, ought was originally a past form – it derives from ahte, preterite of agan ("to own"), another Old English preterite-present verb, whose present tense form ah has given the modern (regular) verb owe (and ought was formerly used as a past tense of owe).

The verb dare also originates from a preterite-present verb, durran ("to dare"), specifically its present tense dear(r), although in its non-modal uses in Modern English it is conjugated regularly. However, need comes from the regular Old English verb neodian (meaning "to be necessary") – the alternative third person form need (in place of needs), which has become the norm in modal uses, became common in the 16th century.



A modal verb serves as an auxiliary to another verb, which appears in infinitive form (the bare infinitive, or the to-infinitive in the cases of ought and used as discussed above). Examples: You must escape; This may be difficult.

The verb governed by the modal may be another auxiliary (necessarily one that can appear in infinitive form – this includes be and have, but not another modal, except in the non-standard cases described below under Double modals). Hence a modal may introduce a chain (technically catena) of verb forms, in which the other auxiliaries express properties such as aspect and voice, as in He must have been given a new job.

Modals can appear in tag questions and other elliptical sentences without the governed verb being expressed: ...can he?; I mustn't.; Would they?

Like other auxiliaries, modal verbs are negated by the addition of the word not after them. (The modification of meaning may not always correspond to simple negation, as in the case of must not.) The modal can combines with not to form the single word cannot. Most of the modals have contracted negated forms in n't which are commonly used in informal English: can't, mustn't, won't (from will), etc.

Again like other auxiliaries, modal verbs undergo inversion with their subject, in forming questions and in the other cases described in the article on subject–auxiliary inversion: Could you do this?; On no account may you enter. When there is negation, the contraction with n't may undergo inversion as an auxiliary in its own right: Why can't I come in? (or: Why can I not come in?).


Past forms

The preterite (past) forms given above (could, might, should and, would, corresponding to can, may, shall and will, respectively) do not always simply modify the meaning of the modal to give it past time reference. The only one regularly used as an ordinary past tense is could, when referring to ability: I could swim may serve as a past form of I can swim.

All the preterites are used as past equivalents for the corresponding present modals in indirect speech and similar clauses requiring the rules of sequence of tenses to be applied. For example, in 1960 it might have been said that People think that we will all be driving hovercars by the year 2000, whereas at a later date it might be reported that In 1960, people thought we would all be driving hovercars by the year 2000.

This "future-in-the-past" usage of would can also occur in independent sentences: I moved to Green Gables in 1930; I would live there for the next ten years.

In many cases, in order to give modals past reference, they are used together with a "perfect infinitive", namely the auxiliary have and a past participle, as in I should have asked her; You may have seen me. Sometimes these expressions are limited in meaning; for example, must have can only refer to certainty, whereas past obligation is expressed by an alternative phrase such as had to.


Conditional sentences

The preterite forms of modals are used in counterfactual conditional sentences, in the apodosis (then-clause). The modal would (sometimes should as a first-person alternative) is used to produce the conditional construction which is typically used in clauses of this type: If you loved me, you would support me. It can be replaced by could (meaning "would be able to") and might (meaning "would possibly") as appropriate.

When the clause has past time reference, the construction with the modal plus perfect infinitive is used: If they (had) wanted to do it, they would (could/might) have done it by now. (The would have done construction is called the conditional perfect.)

The protasis (if-clause) of such a sentence typically contains the past tense of a verb (or the past perfect construction, in the case of past time reference), without any modal. The modal could may be used here in its role as the past tense of can (if I could speak French). However all the modal preterites can be used in such clauses with certain types of hypothetical future reference: if I should lose or should I lose (equivalent to if I lose); if you would/might/could stop doing that (usually used as a form of request).

Sentences with the verb wish (and expressions of wish using if only...) follow similar patterns to the if-clauses referred to above, when they have counterfactual present or past reference. When they express a desired event in the near future, the modal would is used: I wish you would visit me; If only he would give me a sign.


Replacements for defective forms

As noted above, English modal verbs are defective in that they do not have infinitive, participle, imperative or (standard) subjunctive forms, and in some cases past forms. However in many cases there exist equivalent expressions that carry the same meaning as the modal, and can be used to supply the missing forms. In particular:

  • The modals can and could, in their meanings expressing ability, can be replaced by am/is/are able to and was/were able to. Additional forms can thus be supplied: the infinitive (to) be able to, the subjunctive and (rarely) imperative be able to, and the participles being able to and been able to.

  • The modals may and might, in their meanings expressing permission, can be replaced by am/is/are allowed to and was/were allowed to.

  • The modal must in most meanings can be replaced by have/has to. This supplies the past and past participle form had to, and other forms (to) have to, having to.

  • When will or shall expresses the future, the expression am/is/are going to has similar meaning. This can supply other forms: was/were going to, (to) be going to, being/been going to.

  • The modals should and ought to might be replaced by am/is/are supposed to, thus supplying the forms was/were supposed to, (to) be supposed to, being/been supposed to.


Contractions and reduced pronunciation

As already mentioned, most of the modals in combination with not form commonly used contractions: can't, won't, etc. Some of the modals also have contracted forms themselves:

  • The verb will is often contracted to 'll; the same contraction may also represent shall.

  • The verb would (or should, when used as a first-person equivalent of would) is often contracted to 'd.

  • The had of had better is also often contracted to 'd. (The same contraction is also used for other cases of had as an auxiliary.)

Certain of the modals generally have a weak pronunciation when they are not stressed or otherwise prominent; for example, can is usually pronounced /kǝn/. The same applies to certain words following modals, particularly auxiliary have: a combination like should have is normally reduced to /ʃʊd(h)ǝv/ or just /ʃʊdǝ/ "shoulda". Also ought to can become /ɔːtǝ/ "oughta".


Usage of specific verbs

Can and could

The modal verb can expresses possibility in either a dynamic, deontic or epistemic sense, that is, in terms of innate ability, permissibility, or possible circumstance. For example:

  • I can speak English means "I am able to speak English" or "I know how to speak English".

  • You can smoke here means "you may (are permitted to) smoke here" (in formal English may or might is sometimes considered more correct than can or could in these senses).

  • There can be strong rivalry between siblings means that such rivalry is possible.

The preterite form could is used as the past tense or conditional form of can in the above meanings. It is also used to express possible circumstance: We could be in trouble here. It is preferable to use could, may or might rather than can when expressing possible circumstance in a particular situation (as opposed to the general case, as in the "rivalry" example above, where can or may is used).

Both can and could can be used to make requests: Can/could you pass me the cheese? means "Please pass me the cheese" (where could indicates greater politeness).

It is common to use can with verbs of perception such as see, hear, etc., as in I can see a tree. Aspectual distinctions can be made, such as I could see it (ongoing state) vs. I saw it (event).

The use of could with the perfect infinitive expresses past ability or possibility, either in some counterfactual circumstance (I could have told him if I had seen him), or in some real circumstance where the act in question was not in fact realized: I could have told him yesterday (but in fact I didn't). The use of can with the perfect infinitive, can have..., is a rarer alternative to may have... .

The negation of can is the single word cannot, only occasionally written separately as can not. Though cannot is preferred (as can not is potentially ambiguous), its irregularity (all other uncontracted verbal negations use at least two words) sometimes causes those unfamiliar with the nuances of English spelling to use the separated form. Its contracted form is can't (pronounced /kɑːnt/ in RP and some other dialects). The negation of could is the regular could not, contracted to couldn't.

The negative forms reverse the meaning of the modal (to express inability, impermissibility or impossibliity). This differs from the case with may or might used to express possibility: it can't be true has a different meaning than it may not be true. Thus can't (or cannot) is often used to express disbelief in the possibility of something, as must expresses belief in the certainty of something. When the circumstance in question refers to the past, the form with the perfect infinitive is used: he can't (cannot) have done it means "I believe it impossible that he did it" (compare he must have done it).

Occasionally not is applied to the infinitive rather than to the modal (stress would then be applied to make the meaning clear): I could not do that, but I'm going to do it anyway.


May and might

The verb may expresses possibility in either an epistemic or deontic sense, that is, in terms of possible circumstance or permissibility. For example:

  • The mouse may be dead means that it is possible that the mouse is dead.

  • You may leave the room means that the listener is permitted to leave the room.

In expressing possible circumstance, may can have future as well as present reference (he may arrive means that it is possible that he will arrive; I may go to the mall means that I am considering going to the mall).

The preterite form might is used as a synonym for may when expressing possible circumstance. It is sometimes said that might and could express a greater degree of doubt than may.

May (or might) can also express irrelevance in spite of certain or likely truth: He may be taller than I am, but he is certainly not stronger could mean "While it is (or may be) true that he is taller than I am, that does not make a difference, as he is certainly not stronger."

May can indicate presently given permission for present or future actions: You may go now. Might used in this way is milder: You might go now if you feel like it. Similarly May I use your phone? is a request for permission (might would be more hesitant or polite).

A less common use of may is to express wishes, as in May you live long and happy.

When used with the perfect infinitive, may have indicates uncertainty about a past circumstance, whereas might have can have that meaning, but it can also refer to possibilities that did not occur but could have in other circumstances.

  • She may have eaten the cake (the speaker does not know whether she ate cake).

  • She might have eaten cake (this means either the same as the above, or else means that she did not eat cake but that it was or would have been possible for her to eat cake).

Note that the above perfect forms refer to possibility, not permission (although the second sense of might have might sometimes imply permission).

The negated form of may is may not; this does not have a common contraction (mayn't is obsolete). The negation of might is might not; this is sometimes contracted to mightn't, mostly in tag questions and in other questions expressing doubt (Mightn't I come in if I took my boots off?).

The meaning of the negated form depends on the usage of the modal. When possibility is indicated, the negation effectively applies to the main verb rather than the modal: That may/might not be means "That may/might not-be", i.e. "That may fail to be true". But when permission is being expressed, the negation applies to the modal or entire verb phrase: You may not go now means "You are not permitted to go now" (except in rare cases where not and the main verb are both stressed to indicate that they go together: You may go or not go, whichever you wish).


Shall and should

The verb shall is used in some (particularly formal) varieties of English in place of will, indicating futurity, when the subject is first person (I shall, we shall).

With second- and third-person subjects, shall indicates an order, command or prophecy: Cinderella, you shall go to the ball! It is often used in writing laws and specifications: Those convicted of violating this law shall be imprisoned for a term of not less than three years; The electronics assembly shall be able to operate within a normal temperature range.

Shall is sometimes used in questions (in the first, or possibly third, person) to ask for advice or confirmation of a suggestion: Shall I read now?; What shall we wear?

Should is sometimes used as a first-person equivalent for would (in its conditional and "future-in-the-past" uses), in the same way that shall can replace will. Should is also used to form a replacement for the present subjunctive in some varieties of English, and also in some conditional sentences with hypothetical future reference.

Should is often used to describe an expected or recommended behavior or circumstance. It can be used to give advice or to describe normative behavior, though without such strong obligatory force as must or have to. Thus You should never lie describes a social or ethical norm. It can also express what will happen according to theory or expectations: This should work. In these uses it is equivalent to ought to.

Both shall and should can be used with the perfect infinitive (shall/should have (done)) in their role as first-person equivalents of will and would (thus to form future perfect or conditional perfect structures). Also shall have may express an order with perfect aspect (you shall have finished your duties by nine o'clock). When should is used in this way it usually expresses something which would have been expected, or normatively required, at some time in the past, but which did not in fact happen (or is not known to have happened): I should have done that yesterday ("it would have been expedient, or expected of me, to do that yesterday").

The negative forms are shall not and should not, contracted to shan't and shouldn't. The negation effectively applies to the main verb rather than the auxiliary: you should not do this implies not merely that there is no need to do it, but that there is a need not to do it.


Will and would

The modal will is often used to express futurity (The next meeting will be held on Thursday). Since this is an expression of time rather than modality, constructions with will (or sometimes shall) are often referred to as the future tense of English, and forms like will do, will be doing, will have done and will have been doing are often called the simple future, future progressive (or future continuous), future perfect, and future perfect progressive (continuous). With first-person subjects (I, we), in varieties where shall is used for simple expression of futurity, the use of will indicates particular willingness or determination.

Future events are also sometimes referred to using the present tense, or using the going to construction.

Will as a modal also has a number of different uses:

  • It can express habitual aspect; for example, he will make mistakes may mean that he frequently makes mistakes (here the word will is usually stressed somewhat, and often expresses annoyance).

  • It can express strong probability with present time reference, as in That will be John at the door.

  • It can be used to give an order, as in You will do it right now.

The preterite form would is used in some conditional sentences, and as a past form of future will as described above under Past forms. (It is sometimes replaced by should in the first person in the same way that will is replaced by shall.) Other uses of would include:

  • Expression of politeness, as in I would like... (for "I want") and Would you (be so kind as to) do this? (for "Please do this").

  • Expression of habitual aspect in past time, as in Back then, I would eat early and would walk to school.

Both will and would can be used with the perfect infinitive (will have, would have), either to form the future perfect and conditional perfect forms already referred to, or to express perfect aspect in their other meanings (e.g. there will have been an arrest order, expressing strong probability).

The negated forms are will not (contracted to won't) and would not (contracted to wouldn't). In the modal meanings of will the negation is effectively applied to the main verb phrase and not to the modality (e.g. when expressing an order, you will not do it expresses an order not to do it, rather than just the absence of an order to do it).


Must and had to

The modal must expresses obligation or necessity: You must use this form; We must try to escape. It can also express a confident assumption (the epistemic rather than deontic use), such as in It must be here somewhere.

An alternative to must is the expression had to (in the present tense sometimes have got to), which is often more idiomatic in informal English when referring to obligation. This also provides other forms in which must is defective and enables simple negation.

When used with the perfect infinitive (i.e. with have and the past participle), must expresses only assumption: Sue must have left means that the speaker confidently assumes that Sue has left. To express obligation or necessity in the past, had to or some other synonym must be used.

The formal negation of must is must not (contracted to mustn't). However the negation effectively applies to the main verb, not the modality: You must not do this means that you are required not to do it, not just that you are not required to do it. To express the lack of requirement or obligation, the negative of have to or need can be used: You don't have to do it; You needn't do it.

The above negative forms are not usually used in the sense of confident assumption; here it is common to use can't to express confidence that something is not the case (as in It can't be here or, with the perfect, Sue can't have left).

Mustn't can nonetheless be used as a simple negative of must in tag questions and other questions expressing doubt: We must do it, mustn't we? Mustn't he be in the operating room by this stage?


Ought to and had better

Ought is used with meanings similar to those of should expressing expectation or requirement. The principal grammatical difference is that ought is used with the to-infinitive rather than the bare infinitive, hence we should go is equivalent to we ought to go. Because of this difference of syntax, ought is sometimes excluded from the class of modal verbs, or is classed as a semimodal.

The reduced pronunciation of ought to is sometimes given the eye dialect spelling oughta.

Ought can be used with perfect infinitives in the same way as should (but again with the insertion of to): you ought to have done that earlier.

The negated form is ought not or oughtn't, equivalent in meaning to shouldn't (but again used with to).

The expression had better has similar meaning to should and ought when expressing recommended or expedient behavior: I had better get down to work (it can also be used to give instructions with the implication of a threat: you had better give me the money or else). The had of this expression is similar to a modal: it governs the bare infinitive, it is defective in that it is not replaceable by any other form of the verb have, and it behaves syntactically as an auxiliary verb. For this reason the expression had better, considered as a kind of compound verb, is sometimes classed along with the modals or as a semimodal.

The had of had better can be contracted to 'd, or in some informal usage (especially American) can be omitted. The expression can be used with a perfect infinitive: you'd better have finished that report by tomorrow. There is a negative form hadn't better, used mainly in questions: Hadn't we better start now? It is more common for the infinitive to be negated by means of not after better: You'd better not do that (meaning that you are strongly advised not to do that).


Dare and need

The verbs dare and need can be used both as modals and as ordinary conjugated (non-modal) verbs. As non-modal verbs they can take a to-infinitive as their complement (I dared to answer her; He needs to clean that), although dare may also take a bare infinitive (He didn't dare go). In their uses as modals they govern a bare infinitive, and are usually restricted to questions and negative sentences.

Examples of the modal use of dare, followed by equivalents using non-modal dare where appropriate:

  • Dare he do it? ("Does he dare to do it?")

  • I daren't (or dare not or dasn't) try ("I don't dare to try")

  • How dare you!; How dare he! (idiomatic expressions of outrage)

  • I dare say (another idiomatic expression, here exceptionally without negation or question syntax)

The modal use of need is close in meaning to must expressing necessity or obligation. The negated form need not (needn't) differs in meaning from must not, however; it expresses lack of necessity, whereas must not expresses prohibition. Examples:

  • Need I continue? ("Do I need to continue? Must I continue?")

  • You needn't water the grass ("You don't have to water the grass"; compare the different meaning of You mustn't water...)

Modal need can also be used with the perfect infinitive: Need I have done that? It is most commonly used here in the negative, to denote that something that was done was (from the present perspective) not in fact necessary: You needn't have left that tip.


Used to

The verbal expression used to expresses past states or past habitual actions, usually with the implication that they are no longer so. It is followed by the infinitive (that is, the full expression consists of the verb used plus the to-infinitive). Thus the statement I used to go to college means that the speaker formerly habitually went to college, and normally implies that this is no longer the case.

Used to may be classed among the modals or semimodals on the ground that it is invariant and defective in form like the other modals, and can follow auxiliary-verb syntax: it is possible to form questions like Used he to come here? and negatives like He used not (rarely usedn't) to come here. More common, however, (though not the most formal style) is the syntax that treats used as a past tense of an ordinary verb, and forms questions and negatives using did: Did he use to come here? He didn't use to come here.

Note the difference in pronunciation between the ordinary verb use /juːz/ and its past form used /juːzd/ (as in scissors are used to cut paper), and the verb forms described here: /juːst/ and (when supported by did) /juːs/.

The verbal use of used to should not be confused with the adjectival use of the same expression, meaning "familiar with", as in I am used to this, we must get used to the cold. When the adjectival form is followed by a verb, the gerund is used: I am used to going to college in the mornings. (The pronunciation of the adjectival used in this expression is also /juːst/.)


Double modals

In formal standard English usage, more than one modal verb is not used consecutively, as modals are followed by an infinitive, which they themselves lack. They can only be combined with non-modal constructions that have a modal function, such as have to, which in spite of its function is not a modal verb. Thus, might have to is acceptable, but might must is not, even though must and have to can normally be used interchangeably.

A greater variety of double modals appears in some regional dialects. In Southern American English, for example, phrases such as might could or ought to should are sometimes used in conversation. The double modal may sometimes be redundant, as in "I ought to should do something about it", where ought to and should are synonymous and either one could be removed from the sentence. In other double modals, the two modal verbs convey different meanings, such as "I might could do something about it tomorrow", where could indicates the ability to do something and might shows uncertainty about that ability.

These kinds of double modal phrases are not regarded as standard, although a combination of a modal with a modal-like construction may be used instead. "I might could do something about it" is more often expressed as "I might be able to do something about it", which is considered more standard. Similarly used to could, which appears for example in country singer Bill Carlisle's 1951 song "Too Old to Cut the Mustard":

I used to could jump just like a deer,

But now I need a new landing gear.

I used to could jump a picket fence,

But now I'm lucky if I jump an inch.

is usually expressed as used to be able to. Double modals can also be avoided by replacing one of the modal verbs with an appropriate adverb, such as using probably could or might possibly in place of might could.




Objects and complements

Verbs are used in certain patterns which require the presence of specific arguments in the form of objects and other complements of particular types. (A given verb may be usable in one or more of these patterns.)

A verb with a direct object is called a transitive verb. Some transitive verbs have an indirect object in addition to the direct object. Verbs used without objects are called intransitive. Both transitive and intransitive verbs may also have additional complements that are not considered objects.

A single (direct) object generally follows the verb: I love you. If there is an indirect object, it precedes the direct object (I gave him the book), although an indirect object can also be expressed with a prepositional phrase following the direct object (and this method is usual when the direct object is a personal pronoun): I gave the book to John; I bought them for you.

Other complements may include prepositional phrases, non-finite clauses and content clauses, depending on the applicable verb pattern. These complements normally follow any objects. For example:

  • I insist on coming. (this use of the verb insist involves a prepositional phrase with on)

  • I expect to arrive tomorrow. (this use of expect involves a to-infinitive phrase)

  • I asked him whether he was coming. (this use of ask involves a direct object (him) and an interrogative content clause)

More examples can be found at Gerund: Verb patterns with the gerund.

English has a number of ergative verbs: verbs which can be used either intransitively or transitively, where in the intransitive use it is the subject that is receiving the action, and in the transitive use the direct object is receiving the action while the subject is causing it. An example is sink: The ship sank (intransitive use); The explosion sank the ship (transitive use). Other common examples include open, sink, wake, melt, boil, collapse, explode, freeze, start, sell.


Phrasal verbs

The term phrasal verb is commonly applied to two or three distinct but related constructions in English: a verb and a particle and/or a preposition co-occur forming a single semantic unit. This semantic unit cannot be understood based upon the meanings of the individual parts in isolation, but rather it can be taken as a whole. In other words, the meaning is non-compositional and thus unpredictable. Phrasal verbs that include a preposition are known as prepositional verbs and phrasal verbs that include a particle are also known as particle verbs. Additional alternative terms for phrasal verb are compound verb, verb-adverb combination, verb-particle construction, two-part word/verb, and three-part word/verb (depending on the number of particles), and multi-word verb.



One can discern at least three main types of phrasal verb constructions depending upon whether the verb combines with a preposition, a particle, or both. The words constituting the phrasal verb constructions in the following examples are in bold:

Verb + preposition (prepositional phrasal verbs)

a. Who is looking after the kids? – after is a preposition that introduces the prepositional phrase after the kids.

b. They pick on Joseph. – on is a preposition that introduces the prepositional phrase on Joseph.

c. I ran into an old friend. – into is a preposition that introduces the prepositional phrase into an old friend.

d. She takes after her mother. – after is a preposition that introduces the prepositional phrase after her mother.

e. Sam passes for a linguist. – for is a preposition that introduces the prepositional phrase for a linguist.

f. You should stand by your friend. – by is a preposition that introduces the prepositional phrase by your friend.

Verb + particle (particle phrasal verbs)

a. They brought that up twice. – up is a particle, not a preposition.

b. You should think it over. – over is a particle, not a preposition.

c. Why does he always dress down? – down is a particle, not a preposition.

d. You should not give in so quickly. – in is a particle, not a preposition.

e. Where do they want to hang out? – out is a particle, not a preposition.

f. She handed it in. – in is a particle, not a preposition.

Verb + particle + preposition (particle-prepositional phrasal verbs)

a. Who can put up with that? – up is a particle and with is a preposition.

b. She is looking forward to a rest. – forward is a particle and to is a preposition.

c. The other tanks were bearing down on my panther. – down is a particle and on is a preposition.

d. They were really teeing off on me. – off is a particle and on is a preposition.

e. We loaded up on Mountain Dew and chips. – up is a particle and on is a preposition

f. Susan has been sitting in for me. – in is a particle and for is a preposition.

The difference between these types of phrasal verbs lies with the status of the element(s) that appear in addition to the verb. When the element is a preposition, it is the head of a full prepositional phrase and the phrasal verb is a thus a prepositional phrasal verb. When the element is a particle, it can not (or no longer) be construed as a preposition, but rather it is a particle by virtue of the fact that it does not take a complement. Finally, many phrasal verbs are combined with both a preposition and a particle.

The aspect of these types of phrasal verbs that unifies them under the single banner phrasal verb is the fact that their meaning cannot be understood based upon the meaning of their parts taken in isolation. When one picks on someone, one is not selecting that person for something, but rather one is harassing them. When one hangs out, one is in no way actually hanging from anything. The meaning of the two or more words together is often drastically different from what one might guess it to be based upon the meanings of the individual parts in isolation.

As a class, particle phrasal verbs belong to the same category as the so-called separable verbs of other Germanic languages. They are commonly found in everyday, informal speech as opposed to more formal English and Latinate verbs, such as to get together rather than to congregate, to put off rather than to postpone (or to deter), or to do up rather than to fasten.


Some notes on terminology

The terminology of phrasal verbs is inconsistent. Modern theories of syntax tend to use the term phrasal verb to denote particle verbs only; they do not view prepositional verbs as phrasal verbs. The EFL/ESL literature (English as a foreign or second language), in contrast, tends to employ the term phrasal verb to encompass both prepositional and particle verbs. The terminology used to denote the particle is also inconsistent. Sometimes it is called an adverb, and at other times an intransitive prepositional phrase. The inconsistent use of terminology in these areas is a source of confusion about what does and does not qualify as a phrasal verb and about the status of the particle or a preposition.

Concerning the history of the term phrasal verb, Tom McArthur writes:

"...the term phrasal verb was first used by Logan Pearsall Smith, in Words and Idioms (1925), in which he states that the OED Editor Henry Bradley suggested the term to him."

The value of this choice and its alternatives (including separable verb for Germanic languages) is debatable. In origin the concept is based on translation linguistics; as many single-word English and Latinate words are translatable by a phrasal verb complex in English, therefore the logic is that the phrasal verb complex must be a complete semantic unit in itself. One should consider in this regard that the actual term phrasal verb suggests that such constructions should form phrases. In most cases however, they clearly do not form phrases. Hence the very term phrasal verb is misleading and a source of confusion, which has motivated some to reject the term outright.


A diagnostic

When a particle phrasal verb is transitive, it can look just like a prepositional phrasal verb. This similarity is another source of confusion, since it obscures the difference between prepositional and particle phrasal verbs. A simple diagnostic distinguishes between the two, however. When the object of a particle verb is a definite pronoun, it can and usually does precede the particle. In contrast, the object of a preposition can never precede the preposition:

a. You can bank on Susan. – on is a preposition.

b. *You can bank her on. – The object of the preposition cannot precede the preposition.

a. You can take on Susan. – on is a particle.

b. You can take her on. – The object of the particle verb can precede the particle.

a. He is getting over the situation. – over is a preposition.

b. *He is getting it over. – The object of a preposition cannot precede the preposition.

a. He is thinking over the situation. – over is a particle.

b. He is thinking it over. – The object of the particle verb can precede the particle.

The object of a preposition must follow the preposition, whereas the object of the particle verb can precede the particle especially if it is a definite pronoun, since definite pronouns are very light.


Origin of phrasal verbs

Prepositions and adverbs can have a literal meaning which is spatial or "orientational", and then, as happens with all words, metaphorical meanings develop that are systematic extensions from the original core meaning. Many verbs in English can interact with an adverb or a preposition, and the verb + preposition/adverb complex is readily understood when used in its literal sense.

  • He walked across the square.
  • She opened the shutters and looked outside.
  • When he heard the crash, he looked up.

The function of the prepositional phrase/particle in such clauses is to show the relationship between the action (walked, opened, looked) and the relative positioning, action or state of the subject. Even when such prepositions appear alone and are hence adverbs/particles, they have a retrievable prepositional object. Thus, He walked across clearly shows that the "walking" is "across" a given area. In the case of He walked across the square, across the square is a prepositional phrase (with across as its head word). In both cases, the single-word/multi-word expression (across and across the square) is independent of the verb. The action of the subject (walking) is being portrayed as having happened in/at/on/over a certain location (across the square). Similarly in She opened the shutters and looked outside and When he heard the crash, he looked up, outside is logically outside (of) the house, and up is similarly an adjunct (= upwards, in an upwards direction, he is looking in a direction that is higher than where his eyes were previously directed).

Phrasal verbs are represented in many languages by compound verbs. An intermediate state is in Dutch, where de lamp aansteken (to light the lamp) becomes, in a principal clause, ik steek de lamp aan (I light the lamp).


Phrasal nouns

An extension of the concept of phrasal verb is that of phrasal noun, where a verb+particle complex is nominalized. The particles may come before or after the verb.

standby: We are keeping the old equipment on standby, in case of emergency.

back-up: Neil can provide technical backup if you need it.

onset: The match was halted by the onset of rain.

input: Try to come to the meeting – we'd value your input.

If the particle is in first place, then the phrasal noun is never written with a hyphen, if the particle comes second, then there is sometimes a hyphen between the two parts of the phrasal noun.

The two categories have different values. Particle-verb compounds in English are of ancient development, and are common to all Germanic languages, as well as to Indo-European languages in general. Those such as onset tend to retain older uses of the particles; in Old English on/an had a wider domain, which included areas which are now covered by at and in in English. Some such compound nouns have a corresponding phrasal verb but some do not, partly because of historical developments. The modern English verb+particle complex set on exists, but it means "start to attack" (set itself means start a process). In modern English there is no exact verbal phrase equivalent to the older set on, but rather various combinations which give different nuances to the idea of starting a process, such as winter has set in, set off on a journey, set up the stand, set out on a day trip, etc. Verb-particle compounds are a more modern development in English, and focus more on the action expressed by the compound; that is to say, they are more overtly "verbal".


Auxiliaries and contractions

In English grammar, certain verb forms are classified as auxiliary verbs. Exact definitions of this term vary; an auxiliary verb is generally conceived as one with little semantic meaning of its own, which modifies the meaning of another verb with which it co-occurs. In English, verbs are often classed as auxiliaries on the basis of certain grammatical properties, particularly as regards their syntax – primarily whether they participate in subject–auxiliary inversion, and can be negated by the simple addition of not after them.

Certain auxiliaries have contracted forms, such as 'd and 'll for had/would and will/shall. There are also many contractions formed from the negations of auxiliary verbs, ending in n't (a reduced form of not). These latter contractions can participate in inversion as a unit (as in Why haven't you done it?, where the uncontracted form would be Why have you not done it?), and thus in a certain sense can be regarded as auxiliary verbs in their own right.


Auxiliary verbs

Auxiliaries as helping verbs

An auxiliary verb is most generally understood as a verb that "helps" another verb by adding grammatical information to it. On this basis, the auxiliary verbs of English may be taken to include:

  • forms of the verb do (do, does, did), when used with other verbs to enable the formation of questions, negation, emphasis, etc.;

  • forms of the verb have, when used to express perfect aspect;

  • forms of the verb be, when used to express progressive aspect or passive voice;

  • the modal verbs, used in a variety of meanings, principally relating to modality.

The following are examples of sentences containing the above types of auxiliary verbs:

Do you want tea? – do is an auxiliary accompanying the verb want, used here to form a question.

He had given his all. – had is an auxiliary accompanying the past participle given, expressing perfect aspect.

We are singing. – are is an auxiliary accompanying the present participle singing, expressing progressive aspect.

It was destroyed. – was is an auxiliary accompanying the past participle destroyed, expressive passive voice.

He can do it now. – can is a modal auxiliary accompanying the verb do.

However the above understanding of auxiliary verbs is not always strictly adhered to in the literature, particularly in the case of forms of the verb be, which may be called auxiliaries even when they do not accompany another verb. Other approaches to defining auxiliary verbs are described in the following sections.


Auxiliaries as verbs with special grammatical behavior

There is a group of English verbs which have certain special grammatical (syntactic) properties that distinguish them from other verbs. This group consists mainly of verbs that are auxiliaries in the above sense – verbs that add grammatical meaning to other verbs – and thus some authors use the term "auxiliary verb", in relation to English, to denote precisely the verbs in this group. However not all enumerations of English auxiliary verbs correspond exactly to the group of verbs having these grammatical properties. This group of verbs may also be referred to by other names, such as "special verbs".

The principal distinguishing properties of verbs in this special group are as follows:

  • They can participate in what is called subject–auxiliary inversion, i.e. they can swap places with the subject of the clause, to form questions and for certain other purposes. For example, inversion of subject and verb is possible in the sentence They can sing (becoming Can they sing?); but it is not possible in They like to sing – it is not correct to say *Like they to sing? (instead do-support is required: Do they like to sing?).

  • They undergo negation by the addition of not after them. For example, one can say They cannot sing, but not *They like not to sing (again do-support is required: They don't like...).

  • Other distinct features of verbs in this group include their ability to introduce verb phrase ellipsis (I can sing can be shortened to I can in appropriate contexts, whereas I like to sing cannot be shortened to I like), and the positioning of certain adverbs directly after them (compare I can often sing with I often like to sing).

The group of verbs with the above properties consists of:

  • the finite indicative forms of the verb be: am, is, are, was, were;

  • the finite indicative forms of the verb have: have, has, had, principally when used to make perfect verb forms;

  • the finite indicative forms of the verb do: do, does, did, when used to provide do-support;

  • the principal modal verbs can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would;

  • certain other verbs, sometimes but not always classed as modals: ought; dare and need in certain uses; had in had better; and sometimes used in used to.

If membership of this syntactic class is considered to be the defining property for auxiliary verbs, it is therefore the above-listed verbs that will be considered as auxiliaries. Additionally, non-indicative and non-finite forms of the same verbs (when performing the same functions) are usually described as auxiliaries too, even though all or most of the distinctive syntactical properties do not apply to them specifically. This concerns be (as infinitive, imperative and subjunctive), being and been; and when used in the expression of perfect aspect, have, having and had.

The chief difference between this syntactic definition of "auxiliary verb" and the functional definition given in the section above is that the syntactic definition includes the verb be even when used simply as a copular verb, in sentences like I am hungry and It was a cat, where it does not accompany any other verb.

Sometimes, non-auxiliary uses of have follow auxiliary syntax, as in Have you any ideas? and I haven't a clue. Other lexical verbs do not do this in modern English, although they did so formerly, and such uses as I know not... can be found in archaic English.


Differences in listings of auxiliary verbs

Lists or sets of auxiliary verbs in English, as given by various authors, generally consist of most or all of the verbs mentioned in the above sections, though with minor discrepancies.

The main differences between the various proposed sets of auxiliary verbs are noted below.

  • For the reasons mentioned above, forms of the verb be may or may not be regarded as auxiliaries when used as a copula not accompanying any other verb.

  • The verb ought is sometimes excluded from the class of auxiliaries (specifically the modal auxiliaries) on the grounds that, unlike the principal modals, it requires the to-infinitive rather than the bare infinitive.

  • The verbs dare and need are not always considered auxiliaries (or modals); their auxiliary-like syntactic behavior (and their modal-like invariance) applies only to some instances of these verbs.

  • The verbs had and used in the expressions had better and used to are not always included among the auxiliaries or modals; in the case of used to questions and negations are in any case more frequently formed using do-support than with auxiliary syntax.

  • Other verbs with modal-like or auxiliary-like function may sometimes be classed as auxiliaries even though they do not have auxiliary-like syntactic behavior; this may apply to have in the expression have to, meaning "must".

As mentioned below, the contractions of negated forms of auxiliary verbs (isn't, shouldn't, etc.) behave in a certain sense as if they were auxiliaries in their own right, in that they can participate as a whole in subject–auxiliary inversion.


Meaning contribution

Forms of the verbs have and be, used as auxiliaries with a main verb's past participle and present participle respectively, express perfect aspect and progressive aspect. When forms of be are used with the past participle, they express passive voice. It is possible to combine any two or all three of these uses:

The room has been being cleaned for the past three hours.

Here the auxiliaries has, been and being (each followed by the appropriate participle type) combine to express perfect and progressive aspect and passive voice.

The auxiliary do (does, did) does not necessarily make any meaning contribution (?), although it can be used to add emphasis to a clause. This is called the emphatic mood in English. An example of this use is found in "I do go to work on time every day." Also, "Do" does help in the formation of questions, negations, etc., as described in the article on do-support. Some other languages, such as German do not have an emphatic mood, and such emphasis is given either by the tone of voice of the speaker or by the use of adverbs.

Other auxiliaries – the modal verbs – contribute meaning chiefly in the form of modality, although some of them (particularly will and sometimes shall) express future time reference. Their uses are detailed at English modal verbs, and tables summarizing their principal meaning contributions can be found in the articles Modal verb and Auxiliary verb.



Contractions are a common feature of English, particularly in ordinary speech and informal writing. They usually involve the elision of a vowel – an apostrophe being inserted in its place in written English – possibly accompanied by other changes. Many of these contractions involve auxiliary verbs and their negations, although not all of these have common contractions, and there are also certain other contractions not involving these verbs.

Certain contractions tend to be restricted to speech and very informal writing, such as John'd or Mary'd for "John/Mary would" (compare the personal pronoun forms I'd and you'd, which are more likely to be encountered in relatively informal writing). This applies in particular to constructions involving consecutive contractions, such as wouldn't've for "would not have".

Contractions in English are generally not mandatory as in some other languages. It is almost always acceptable to use the uncontracted form, although in speech this may seem overly formal. This is often done for emphasis: I am ready! The uncontracted form of an auxiliary or copula must be used in elliptical sentences where its complement is omitted: Who's ready? I am! (not *I'm!).

Some contractions lead to homonymy, which sometimes causes errors in writing. Confusion is particularly common between it's (for "it is/has") and the pronoun possessive its, and sometimes similarly between you're and your.

Contractions of the type described here should not be confused with abbreviations, such as Ltd. for "Limited (company)". Abbreviations also include acronyms and initialisms.


Contracted auxiliaries

The following contractions of auxiliary verbs (including forms of be, whether as a strict auxiliary or as a copula) are used:

  • 'm for am, in I'm (for I am)

  • 's for is, as in it's (for it is), the man's (for the man is, although the same form is used for the possessive)

  • 're for are, mostly in we're, you're and they're

  • 've for auxiliary have, mostly in I've, you've, we've and they've

  • 's for auxiliary has (the examples given above for is could also be intended as it has and the man has)

  • 'd for auxiliary had, mostly in I'd, you'd etc. and who'd (including in the expression had better), and similarly for would

  • 'll for will (sometimes interpreted as shall)

  • in very informal English, 's for does and 'd for did, as in What's (What does) he do there? Who'd (Who did) you see there?

The contraction 's (representing is, 'has or does) is pronounced in the same way as the regular plural ending -(e)s and possessive ending 's, namely as /ɨz/ when following a sibilant sound, as /s/ when following any other voiceless consonant, and as /z/ otherwise.


Negative contractions

Contractions of negated auxiliary verbs in Standard English are formed by reducing the negative grammatical particle not to n't, a clitic or suffix which is fused to the root verb form (which is modified in a few cases). The n't may form a separate syllable, as in isn't and wouldn't (which are two-syllable words), or may become part of the preceding syllable, as in the monosyllables don't, aren't and weren't.

The standard contractions for negation of auxiliaries are as follows:

  • From forms of be: isn't, aren't, wasn't, weren't

  • From forms of have: haven't, hasn't, hadn't

  • From forms of do: don't, doesn't, didn't

  • From modal verbs: can't (the full form is the single word cannot), couldn't, mayn't (rare), mightn't, mustn't, shan't (for shall not), shouldn't, won't (for will not), wouldn't, daren't, needn't, oughtn't, usedn't (rare).

The above contractions can appear when the verb follows auxiliary-type syntax as defined in the section Auxiliaries as verbs with special grammatical behavior. This includes all uses of be, and for some speakers have when used to denote possession (as in I haven't a clue).

The following four of the standard negative contractions involve changes to the form of the auxiliary.

  • In can't (for cannot), the vowel may change – can has /æ/ in the strong form and /ə/ in the more common weak form, whereas can't has /ɑː/ in RP and /æ/ in standard American pronunciation. It was formerly written "ca'n't".

  • In don't there is again a vowel change, from the /uː/ of do to the /oʊ/ (/əʊ/) of don't.

  • In shan't (for shall not), the /l/ sound is dropped, and the vowel changes (in RP, from the /æ/ or weaker /ə/ of shall to the /ɑː/ of shan't). This contraction is not common in American English. It evolved from "shalln't", and was formerly written "sha'n't".

  • In won't (for will not), again the /l/ sound is dropped, and the vowel is /oʊ/ (/əʊ/) rather than the /ɪ/ of will. It derives from "woll not", a former alternative form of will not. It was formerly written "wo'n't", the first apostrophe representing the missing "ll".

Note that there is no standard contraction for am not. This is known as the "amn't gap". Some non-standard contractions for this and certain other negations are described in the following sections.


Contractions representing am not

Although there is no contraction for am not in standard English, there are certain colloquial or dialectal forms that may fill this role. These may be used in declarative sentences, whose standard form contains I am not, and in questions, with standard form am I not? In the declarative case the standard contraction I'm not is available, but this does not apply in questions, where speakers may feel the need for a negative contractions to form the analog of isn't it, aren't they, etc.

The following are sometimes used in place of am not in the cases described above:

  • The contraction ain't may stand for am not, among its other uses.

  • The word amnae for "am not" exists in Scots, and has been borrowed into Scottish English by many speakers.

  • The contraction amn't (formed in the regular manner of the other negative contractions, as described above) is a standard contraction of am not in some dialects of mainly Hiberno-English (Irish English) and Scottish English. In Hiberno-English the question form (amn't I?) is used more frequently than the declarative I amn't. (The standard I'm not is available as an alternative to I amn't in both Scottish English and Hiberno-English.) An example appears in Oliver St. John Gogarty's impious poem The Ballad of Japing Jesus: "If anyone thinks that I amn't divine, / He gets no free drinks when I'm making the wine". These lines are quoted in James Joyce's Ulysses, which also contains other examples: "Amn't I with you? Amn't I your girl?" (spoken by Cissy Caffrey to Leopold Bloom in Chapter 15).

  • The contraction aren't, which in standard English represents are not, is a very common means of filling the "amn't gap" in questions: Aren't I lucky to have you around? Some twentieth-century writers described this usage as "illiterate" or awkward; today, however, it is reported to be "almost universal" among speakers of Standard English. Aren't as a contraction for am not developed from one pronunciation of "an't" (which itself developed in part from "amn't"). In non-rhotic dialects, "aren't" and this pronunciation of "an't" are homonyms, and the spelling "aren't I" began to replace "an't I" in the early part of the 20th century, although examples of "aren't I" for "am I not" appear in the first half of the 19th century, as in "St. Martin's Day", from Holland-tide by Gerald Griffin, published in The Ant in 1827: "aren't I listening; and isn't it only the breeze that's blowing the sheets and halliards about?"

There is therefore no completely satisfactory first-person alternative to aren't you? and isn't it? in standard English. The grammatical am I not? sounds stilted or affected, while aren't I? is grammatically dubious, and ain't I? is considered substandard. Nonetheless, aren't I? is the solution adopted in practice by most speakers.


Other colloquial contractions

Ain't (described in more detail in the article ain't) is a colloquialism and contraction for "am not", "is not", "are not", "has not", and "have not". In some dialects "ain't" is also used as a contraction of "do not", "does not", and "did not". The usage of "ain't" is a perennial subject of controversy in English.

"Ain't" has several antecedents in English, corresponding to the various forms of "to be not" and "to have not".

"An't" (sometimes "a'n't") arose from "am not" (via "amn't") and "are not" almost simultaneously. "An't" first appears in print in the work of English Restoration playwrights. In 1695 "an't" was used as a contraction of "am not", and as early as 1696 "an't" was used to mean "are not". "An't" for "is not" may have developed independently from its use for "am not" and "are not". "Isn't" was sometimes written as "in't" or "en't", which could have changed into "an't". "An't" for "is not" may also have filled a gap as an extension of the already-used conjugations for "to be not".

"An't" with a long "a" sound began to be written as "ain't", which first appears in writing in 1749. By the time "ain't" appeared, "an't" was already being used for "am not", "are not", and "is not". "An't" and "ain't" coexisted as written forms well into the nineteenth century.

"Han't" or "ha'n't", an early contraction for "has not" and "have not", developed from the elision of the "s" of "has not" and the "v" of "have not". "Han't" also appeared in the work of English Restoration playwrights. Much like "an't", "han't" was sometimes pronounced with a long "a", yielding "hain't". With H-dropping, the "h" of "han't" or "hain't" gradually disappeared in most dialects, and became "ain't". "Ain't" as a contraction for "has not"/"have not" appeared in print as early as 1819. As with "an't", "han't" and "ain't" were found together late into the nineteenth century.

Some other colloquial and dialect contractions are described below:

  • "Bain't" or "baint", apparently a contraction of "be not", is found in a number of works employing eye dialect, including J. Sheridan Le Fanu's Uncle Silas. It is also found in a ballad written in Newfoundland dialect.

  • "Don't" is a standard English contraction of "do not". However, "don't" also functions colloquially as a contraction of "does not": Emma? She don't live here anymore.

  • "Hain't", in addition to being an antecedent of "ain't", is a contraction of "has not" and "have not" in some dialects of English, such as Appalachian English. It is reminiscent of "hae" ("have") in Lowland Scots. In dialects that retain the distinction between "hain't" and "ain't", "hain't" is used for contractions of "to have not" and "ain't" for contractions of "to be not". In other dialects, "hain't" is used either in place of, or interchangeably with "ain't". "Hain't" is seen for example in Chapter 33 of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: I hain't come back - I hain't been GONE. ("Hain't" is to be distinguished from "haint", a slang term for ghost (i.e., a "haunt"), famously used in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird.)


Contractions not involving auxiliaries

The following contractions used in English do not involve either auxiliaries (as defined in this article) or their negations:

  • let's for let us when used to make first-person plural imperatives

  • in some nonstandard dialects, 's for as used for the relative pronoun that

  • o' in o'clock (originally a contraction of the words of (the))

  • 't for it, archaic except in stock uses such as 'Twas the night before Christmas

  • 'em for them (in fact from the old form hem)

  • 'im, 'er, 'is, etc. for him, her, his, etc.

  • y'all, for you all, used as a plural second-person pronoun, mainly in the Southern United States

  • g'day, for good day, used as a greeting, mainly in Australia

Some forms of syncope may also be considered contractions, such as wanna for want to, gonna for going to, and others common in colloquial speech.


Contractions and inversion

In cases of subject–auxiliary inversion, particularly in the formation of questions, the negative contractions can remain together as a unit and invert with the subject, thus acting as if they were auxiliary verbs in their own right. For example:

He is going. → Is he going? (regular affirmative question formation)

He isn't going. → Isn't he going? (negative question formation; isn't inverts with he)

The alternative is not to use the contraction, in which case only the verb inverts with the subject, while the not remains in place after it:

He is not going. → Is he not going?

Note that the form with isn't he is no longer a simple contraction of the fuller form (which must be is he not, and not *is not he). Some more examples:

Why haven't you washed? / Why have you not washed?

Can't you sing? / Can you not sing? (the full form cannot is redivided in case of inversion)

Where wouldn't they look for us? / Where would they not look for us?

The contracted forms of the questions are more usual in informal English. They are commonly found in tag questions.

The same phenomenon sometimes occurs in the case of negative inversion:

Not only doesn't he smoke, ... / Not only does he not smoke, ...



The English subjunctive—that is, the subjunctive mood in English grammar—is an irrealis mood used to form verbs in statements that do not describe known, objective facts. These include statements about one's state of mind, such as opinion, belief, purpose, intention, or desire. The subjunctive mood is also used for statements that are contrary to fact, such as, If I were a giraffe, ... (subjunctive), as distinguished from, I am a human being. Subjunctive statements often occur in dependent clauses, such as the subjunctive example in the preceding sentence. In contrast, the indicative mood is the English language's realis mood used for unqualified statements of fact, such as, I speak English.

In Modern English the subjunctive form of a verb is in many cases the same as a corresponding indicative form, and thus subjunctives are not a very visible grammatical feature of English. For most verbs, the only distinct subjunctive form is found in the third-person singular of the present tense, where the subjunctive lacks the -s ending: It is necessary that he see a doctor (contrasted with the indicative he sees). However, the verb be has not only a distinct present subjunctive (be, as in I suggest that they be removed) but also a past subjunctive were (as in If they were rich, ...).

These two tenses of the subjunctive have no particular connection in meaning with present and past time. Terminology varies; sometimes what is called the present subjunctive here is referred to simply as the subjunctive, and, the form were may be treated just as an alternative irrealis form of was rather than a past subjunctive.

Another case where present subjunctive forms are distinguished from indicatives is when they are negated: compare I recommend they not enter the competition (subjunctive) with I hope they do not enter the competition (indicative).



English has present subjunctive and past subjunctive forms, which can be compared with the corresponding present indicative and past indicative forms (the familiar present and past tense forms of verbs). The distinction between present and past is one of tense; the distinction between indicative and subjunctive is one of mood. Note that these terms are used here merely as names for forms that verbs take; the use of present and past forms is not limited to referring to present and past time. (Sometimes the term subjunctive is used only to refer to what is called here the present subjunctive.)

The present subjunctive is identical to the bare infinitive (and imperative) of the verb in all forms. This means that, for almost all verbs, the present subjunctive differs from the present indicative only in the third-person singular form, which lacks the ending -(e)s in the subjunctive.

  • Present indicative: I own, you own, he/she/it owns, we own, they own

  • Present subjunctive: (that) I own, (that) you own, (that) he/she/it own, (that) we own, (that) they own

With the verb be, however, the two moods are fully distinguished:

  • Present indicative: I am, you are, he/she/it is, we are, they are

  • Present subjunctive: (that) I be, (that) you be, (that) he/she/it be, (that) we be, (that) they be

Note also the defective verb beware, which lacks indicative forms, but has a present subjunctive: (that) I beware...

The two moods are also fully distinguished when negated. Present subjunctive forms are negated by prepending the word not before them.

  • Present indicative: I don't own, you don't own, he/she/it doesn't own...; I am not...

  • Present subjunctive: (that) I not own, (that) you not own, (that) he/she/it not own...; (that) I not be...

The past subjunctive exists as a distinct form only for the verb be, which has the form were throughout:

  • Past indicative: I was, you were, he/she/it was, we were, they were

  • Past subjunctive: (if) I were, (if) you were, (if) he/she/it were, (if) we were, (if) they were

In the past tense there is no difference between the two moods as regards manner of negation: I was not; (if) I were not. Verbs other than be are described as lacking a past subjunctive, or possibly as having a past subjunctive identical in form to the past indicative: (if) I owned; (if) I did not own.

Certain subjunctives (particularly were) can also be distinguished from indicatives by the possibility of inversion with the subject, as described under Inversion below.


Compound forms, auxiliaries and modals

A compound past subjunctive form is made with were (the past subjunctive of be) followed by a verb's to-infinitive (corresponding to indicative forms like I was to own). For example:

  • (if) I were to own, (if) you were to own, (if) he were to own, ...

Another compound past subjunctive form made using were is the subjunctive of the past continuous: (if) he were singing.

A pluperfect subjunctive may be considered to exist; its form (had with past participle) does not differ from the corresponding indicative, but a distinction can be sought in the possibility of inversion: had I sung... (equivalent to if I had sung).

Occasionally a present perfect subjunctive is seen, as in It is important that he have completed two years of Spanish before graduation.

The English modal verbs do not have present subjunctive forms, except for synonyms such as be able to as a subjunctive corresponding to the indicative modal can. However would, should, could and might can in some contexts be regarded as past subjunctives of will, shall, can and may respectively. (They may also be described simply as the past forms of the latter modals, or as modals or auxiliaries in their own right.)

The auxiliary should is used to make another compound form which may be regarded as a subjunctive, and in any case is frequently used as an alternative to the simple present subjunctive. For example:

  • With present subjunctive: It's important that he be cured.

  • With should: It's important that he should be cured.

The should form can undergo inversion as described below.


Use of the present subjunctive

The main use of the English present subjunctive, called the mandative or jussive subjunctive, occurs in that clauses (declarative content clauses; the word that is sometimes omitted in informal and conversational usage) expressing a circumstance which is desired, demanded, recommended, necessary, or similar. Such a clause may be dependent on verbs like insist, suggest, demand, prefer, adjectives like necessary, desirable, or nouns like recommendation, necessity; it may be part of the expression in order that... (or some formal uses of so that...); it may also stand independently as the subject of a clause or as a predicative expression.

The form is called the present subjunctive because it resembles the present indicative in form, not because it need refer to the present time. In fact this form can equally well be used in sentences referring to past, future or hypothetical time (the time frame is normally expressed in the verb of the main clause).


  • I insist (that) he leave now.

  • We asked that it be done yesterday.

  • It might be desirable that you not publish the story.

  • I support the recommendation that they not be punished.

  • I braked in order that the car stay on the road.

  • That he appear in court is a necessary condition for his being granted bail.

Note that after some words both indicative and subjunctive are possible, with difference in meaning:

  • I insist that he is here (indicative, a forceful assertion of the fact that he is here)

  • I insist that he be here (subjunctive, a demand that the condition of his being here be fulfilled)

Notice that the subjunctive is not generally used after verbs such as hope and expect, or after verbs that use a different syntax, such as want (it is not usual to say *I want that he wash up; the typical syntax is I want him to wash up).

Another use of the present subjunctive is in clauses with the conjunction lest, which generally express a potential adverse event:

  • I am running faster lest she catch me (i.e. "in order that she not catch me")

  • I was worried lest she catch me (i.e. "that she might catch me")

The present subjunctive is occasionally found in clauses expressing a condition, such as If I be found guilty... (more common is am or should be). This usage is mostly old-fashioned or excessively formal, although it is found in some common fixed expressions such as if need be. Perhaps somewhat more common is the use after whether in the sense of "no matter whether": Whether they be friend or foe, we shall give them shelter. In both of these uses it is possible to invert subject and verb and omit the conjunction. Analogous uses are occasionally found after other conjunctions, such as unless (and possibly until), whoever, wherever, etc.: I shall not do it unless I be instructed; Whoever he be, he shall not go unpunished.

In most of the above examples a form with should can be used as an alternative: I insist that he should leave now etc. This is more common in British English than American English. In some cases, such as after in order that, another alternative is to use may or (especially with past reference) might:

  • I am putting your dinner in the oven in order that it (may) keep warm.

  • He wrote it in his diary in order that he (might) remember.

A present subjunctive verb form is sometimes found in a main clause, with the force of a wish or a third-person imperative (and such forms can alternatively be analyzed as imperatives). This is most common nowadays in established phrases, such as (God) bless you, God save the Queen, heaven forbid, peace be with you, truth be told, so be it, suffice it to say, long live..., woe betide... It can be found used more broadly in some archaic English. An equivalent construction is that with may and subject-verb inversion: May God bless you etc.


Use of the past subjunctive

As already mentioned, the only distinct past subjunctive form in English (i.e. form that differs from the corresponding past indicative) is were, which differs when used with a first- or third-person singular subject (where the indicative form is was). As with the present subjunctive, the name past subjunctive refers to the form of the verb rather than its meaning; it does not have to (and in fact usually does not) refer to past time.

The main use of the past subjunctive form is in counterfactual if clauses:

  • If I were a badger, I would choose that color.

  • He would let us know if he were planning to arrive late.

Note that the indicative form was can be used equally well in sentences of this type, but were is sometimes preferred especially in more formal English. According to the Random House College Dictionary, "Although the [were] subjunctive seems to be disappearing from the speech of many, its proper use is still a mark of the educated speaker." When were is used, an inverted form without if is possible; this is not possible with was. A common expression involving were is if I were you.

The same principles of usage apply to the compound past subjunctive form were to..., which appears in "second conditional" condition clauses, usually with hypothetical future reference:

  • If she were/was to go... or Were she to go... (equivalent to if she went)

The past subjunctive form may be used similarly to express counterfactual conditions after suppose, as if, as though, unless, etc.

  • Suppose that I were there now.

  • She looks as though she were going to kill him.

There is also the set expression as it were.

The past subjunctive can also be used in some that clauses expressing a wish contrary to fact or unlikely to be fulfilled:

  • I wish [that] he were here now.

  • If only the door were unlocked.

  • I would rather [that] she were released.

As above, was cannot be used instead of were in these examples except in "informal" English conversation. After it's (high) time... the use of the past subjunctive is occasionally found, but the present subjunctive is far more common. The example with would rather can also be cast in the present subjunctive, expressing greater confidence that the action is feasible: I would rather she be released.


Distinguishing from past indicative after if

Confusion sometimes arises in the case of if clauses containing an ordinary past indicative was. Compare:

  1. If he was in class yesterday, he learned it.

  2. If he were in class today, he would be learning it.

The first if clause contains a simple past indicative, referring to past time (it is not known whether or not the circumstance in fact took place). The second, however, expresses a counterfactual circumstance connected with the present, and therefore contains (or should contain) a past subjunctive.

Since in sentences like the second example were is preferred in formal registers, failure to distinguish between the two types sometimes leads were to be inappropriately substituted for was in sentences like the first. This is an example of hypercorrection.

This hypercorrection of was to were can also occur in cases where if does not express a condition, but serves as an alternative to whether in indirect questions. Some examples of this usage are quite old:

  • Johnny asked me if I were afraid. (Barbara in Night of the Living Dead, 1968)

  • ... he asked me if I were about to return to London ... (Mary Shelley, The Last Man, 1833)

  • He asked me if I were a Priest. (The Wesleyan-Methodist Magazine Vol. 3, December 1824)



As noted in the sections above, some clauses containing subjunctive verb forms, or other constructions that have the function of subjunctives, may exhibit subject–auxiliary inversion (an auxiliary or copular verb changes places with the subject of the clause).

The most common example of this is in condition clauses, where inversion is accompanied by the omission of the conjunction if. This is described in more detail at English conditional sentences: Inversion in condition clauses. The principal constructions are:

  • Inversion with should: Should you feel hungry,... (equivalent to If you (should) feel hungry)

  • Inversion with were as simple past subjunctive: Were you here,... (equivalent to If you were here,...)

  • Inversion with were in compound forms: Were he to shoot,... (equivalent to If he were to shoot, i.e. If he shot)

  • Inversion with had in the pluperfect, referring to usually counterfactual conditions in the past: Had he written,... (equivalent to If he had written)

Inversion is also possible in the case of the (rarer) use of the present subjunctive in condition clauses, and in other clauses with somewhat different meaning, where the omitted conjunction would be something like whether, although or even if. These are generally archaic, except for some instances where the meaning of the clause is "no matter whether ... or ... " (second and third examples below).

  • Be he called on by God, ... (equivalent to "If he be (i.e. If he is) called on by God, ...")

  • Be they friend or foe, ... (equivalent to "(No matter) whether they be friend or foe, ...")

  • Be he alive or be he dead (from Jack and the Beanstalk).

  • Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home (from "Home! Sweet Home!"; meaning "even if" or "even though")

In some examples, preserved in set expressions and well-known phrases, inversion may take place with non-auxiliary verbs: come what may; come Monday (etc.). There are also imperative-type (jussive) uses such as Long live the King! A more common way of expressing such jussives is with inversion of the auxiliary may: May they always be happy!


Historical subjunctive forms

The first table below shows the present and past subjunctive endings in use at various stages of the development of English: in Old English, Middle English, Early Modern English and Modern English. Forms which differ from the corresponding indicative are bolded. -Ø denotes zero ending.



Present tense

Past tense





First person

Second person

Third person

First & third person

Second person

Old English








Middle English








Early Modern English




Modern English





For comparison, the corresponding indicative endings are also given:



Present tense

Past tense





First person

Second person

Third person

First & third person

Second person

Old English








Middle English

-e, -Ø

-st, -est

-th, -s





Early Modern English

-est, -st

-s, -th




Modern English






The irregular verb be has a larger number of distinct forms, these being derived from different stems (a case of suppletion).

As the tables show, in Early Modern English the past subjunctive was distinguishable from the past indicative not only in the verb to be (as in Modern English), but also in the informal second-person singular (thou form) of all verbs. For example: indicative thou sattest, but subjunctive thou sat. The -(e)st ending was also absent in principle in the present subjunctive, although it was sometimes nonetheless added; for example, thou beëst appears frequently as a present subjunctive in the works of Shakespeare and some of his contemporaries.


Archaic uses

Subjunctive verb forms were formerly used more widely in English than they are today. Cases of such usage can be encountered in samples of archaic or pseudo-archaic English, and in certain set expressions that have been preserved in the modern language.

Examples of subjunctive uses in archaic English:

  • I will not let thee go, except [=unless] thou bless me. (King James Bible, Genesis 32:26)

  • Though he were dead, yet shall he live. (John 11:25)

  • Murder, though it have no tongue, will speak. (Shakespeare, Hamlet)

Examples of set expressions that preserve archaic subjunctive uses:

  • until death do us part or until death us do part (a part of certain marriage vows)

  • far be it from me

  • would that it were

  • albeit (a synthesis of all be it, i.e. although it be)

  • be it enacted (a common English language enacting clause)

The expression "the powers that be" however does not contain a subjunctive: it is a Biblical quotation from Romans 13:1 where it translates a present participle, using the archaic alternative indicative form "be" for "are". 




Adjectives, as with other word classes, cannot in general be identified as such by their form, although many of them are formed from nouns or other words by the addition of a suffix, such as -al (habitual), -ful (blissful), -ic (atomic), -ish (impish, youngish), -ous (hazardous), etc.; or from other adjectives using a prefix: disloyal, irredeemable, unforeseen, overtired.

Adjectives may be used attributively, as part of a noun phrase (nearly always preceding the noun they modify), as in the big house, or predicatively, as in the house is big. Certain adjectives are restricted to one or other use; for example, drunken is attributive (a drunken sailor), while drunk is usually predicative (the sailor was drunk).



Many adjectives have comparative and superlative forms in -er and -est, such as faster and fastest (from the positive form fast). Spelling rules which maintain pronunciation apply to suffixing adjectives just as they do for similar treatment of regular past tense formation; these cover consonant doubling (as in bigger and biggest, from big) and the change of y to i after consonants (as in happier and happiest, from happy).

The adjectives good and bad have the irregular forms better, best and worse, worst; also far becomes farther, farthest or further, furthest. The adjective old (for which the regular older and oldest are usual) also has the irregular forms elder and eldest, these generally being restricted to use in comparing siblings and in certain independent uses.

Many adjectives, however, particularly those that are longer and less common, do not have inflected comparative and superlative forms. Instead, they can be qualified with more and most, as in beautiful, more beautiful, most beautiful (this construction is also sometimes used even for adjectives for which inflected forms do exist).

Certain adjectives are classed as ungradable. These represent properties that cannot be compared on a scale; they simply apply or do not, as with pregnant, dead, unique. Consequently, comparative and superlative forms of such adjectives are not normally used, except in a figurative, humorous or imprecise context. Similarly, such adjectives are not normally qualified with modifiers of degree such as very and fairly, although with some of them it is idiomatic to use adverbs such as completely. Another type of adjectives sometimes considered ungradable is those that represent an extreme degree of some property, such as delicious and terrified.


Adjective phrases

An adjective phrase is a group of words that plays the role of an adjective in a sentence. It usually has a single adjective as its head, to which modifiers and complements may be added.

Adjectives can be modified by a preceding adverb or adverb phrase, as in very warm, truly imposing, more than a little excited. Some can also be preceded by a noun or quantitative phrase, as in fat-free, two-metre-long.

Complements following the adjective may include:

  • prepositional phrases: proud of him, angry at the screen, keen on breeding toads;

  • infinitive phrases: anxious to solve the problem, easy to pick up;

  • content clauses, i.e. that clauses and certain others: certain that he was right, unsure where they are;

  • after comparatives, phrases or clauses with than: better than you, smaller than I had imagined.


An adjective phrase may include both modifiers before the adjective and a complement after it, as in very difficult to put away.

Adjective phrases containing complements after the adjective cannot normally be used as attributive adjectives before a noun. Sometimes they are used attributively after the noun, as in a woman proud of being a midwife (where they may be converted into relative clauses: a woman who is proud of being a midwife), but it is wrong to say a proud of being a midwife woman. Exceptions include very brief and often established phrases such as easy-to-use. (Certain complements can be moved to after the noun, leaving the adjective before the noun, as in a better man than you, a hard nut to crack.)

Certain attributive adjective phrases are formed from other parts of speech, without any adjective as their head, as in a two-bedroom house, a no-jeans policy.




Adverbs perform a wide range of functions. They typically modify verbs (or verb phrases), adjectives (or adjectival phrases), or other adverbs (or adverbial phrases). However, adverbs also sometimes qualify noun phrases (only the boss; quite a lovely place); pronouns and determiners (almost all); prepositional phrases (halfway through the movie); or whole sentences, to provide contextual comment or indicate an attitude (Frankly, I don't believe you). They can also indicate a relationship between clauses or sentences (He died, and consequently I inherited the estate).

Many English adverbs are formed from adjectives by adding the ending -ly, as in hopefully, widely, theoretically. Certain words can be used as both adjectives and adverbs, such as fast, straight, and hard. The adverb corresponding to the adjective good is well (note that bad forms the regular badly, although ill is occasionally used in some phrases).

There are also many adverbs that are not derived from adjectives, including adverbs of time, of frequency, of place, of degree and with other meanings. Some suffixes that are commonly used to form adverbs from nouns are -ward[s] (as in homeward[s]) and -wise (as in lengthwise).

Most adverbs form comparatives and superlatives by modification with more and most: often, more often, most often; smoothly, more smoothly, most smoothly. However, a few adverbs retain irregular inflection for comparative and superlative forms: much, more, most; a little, less, least; well, better, best; badly, worse, worst; far, further (farther), furthest (farthest); or follow the regular adjectival inflection: fast, faster, fastest; soon, sooner, soonest; etc.

Adverbs indicating the manner of an action are generally placed after the verb and its objects (We considered the proposal carefully), although other positions are often possible (We carefully considered the proposal). Many adverbs of frequency, degree, certainty, etc. (such as often, always, almost, probably, and various others such as just) tend to be placed before the verb (they usually have chips), although if there is an auxiliary or other "special verb", then the normal position for such adverbs is after that special verb (or after the first of them, if there is more than one): I have just finished the crossword; She can usually manage a pint; We are never late; You might possibly have been unconscious. Adverbs that provide a connection with previous information (such as next, then, however), and those that provide the context (such as time or place) for a sentence, are typically placed at the start of the sentence: Yesterday we went on a shopping expedition.

A special type of adverb is the adverbial particle used to form phrasal verbs (such as up in pick up, on in get on, etc.) If such a verb also has an object, then the particle may precede or follow the object, although it will normally follow the object if the object is a pronoun (pick the pen up or pick up the pen, but pick it up).


Adverb phrases

An adverb phrase is a phrase that acts as an adverb within a sentence. An adverb phrase may have an adverb as its head, together with any modifiers (other adverbs or adverb phrases) and complements, analogously to the adjective phrases described above. For example: very sleepily; all too suddenly; oddly enough; perhaps shockingly for us.

Another very common type of adverb phrase is the prepositional phrase, which consists of a preposition and its object: in the pool; after two years; for the sake of harmony.




Prepositions form a closed word class, although there are also certain phrases that serve as prepositions, such as in front of. A single preposition may have a variety of meanings, often including temporal, spatial and abstract. Many words that are prepositions can also serve as adverbs. Examples of common English prepositions (including phrasal instances) are of, in, on, over, under, to, from, with, in front of, behind, opposite, by, before, after, during, through, in spite of or despite, between, among, etc.

A preposition is usually used with a noun phrase as its complement. A preposition together with its complement is called a prepositional phrase. Examples are in England, under the table, after six pleasant weeks, between the land and the sea. A prepositional phrase can be used as a complement or post-modifier of a noun in a noun phrase, as in the man in the car, the start of the fight; as a complement of a verb or adjective, as in deal with the problem, proud of oneself; or generally as an adverb phrase.

English allows the use of "stranded" prepositions. This can occur in interrogative and relative clauses, where the interrogative or relative pronoun that is the preposition's complement is moved to the start (fronted), leaving the preposition in place. This kind of structure is avoided in some kinds of formal English. For example:

What are you talking about? (Possible alternative version: About what are you talking?)

The song that you were listening to... (more formal: The song to which you were listening ...)

Notice that in the second example the relative pronoun that could be omitted.

Stranded prepositions can also arise in passive voice constructions and other uses of passive past participial phrases, where the complement in a prepositional phrase can become zero in the same way that a verb's direct object would: it was looked at; I will be operated on; get your teeth seen to. The same can happen in certain uses of infinitive phrases: he is nice to talk to; this is the page to make copies of.




Conjunctions express a variety of logical relations between items, phrases, clauses and sentences. The principal coordinating conjunctions in English are and, or, and but, as well as nor, so, yet and for. These can be used in many grammatical contexts to link two or more items of equal grammatical status, for example:

Noun phrases combined into a longer noun phrase, such as John, Eric, and Jill, the red coat or the blue one. When and is used, the resulting noun phrase is plural. A determiner does not need to be repeated with the individual elements: the cat, the dog, and the mouse and the cat, dog, and mouse are both correct. The same applies to other modifiers. (The word but can be used here in the sense of "except": nobody but you.)

Adjective or adverb phrases combined into a longer adjective or adverb phrase: tired but happy, over the fields and far away.

Verbs or verb phrases combined as in he washed, peeled, and diced the turnips (verbs conjoined, object shared); he washed the turnips, peeled them, and diced them (full verb phrases, including objects, conjoined).

Other equivalent items linked, such as prefixes linked in pre- and post-test counselling, numerals as in two or three buildings, etc.

Clauses or sentences linked, as in We came but they wouldn't let us in. They wouldn't let us in, nor would they explain what we had done wrong.


There are also correlative conjunctions, where as well as the basic conjunction, an additional element appears before the first of the items being linked. The common correlatives in English are:

  • either ... or (either a man or a woman);

  • neither ... nor (neither clever nor funny);

  • both ... and (they both punished and rewarded them);

  • not ... but, particularly in not only ... but also (not exhausted but exhilarated, not only football but also many other sports).


Subordinating conjunctions make relations between clauses, making the clause in which they appear into a subordinate clause. Some common subordinating conjunctions in English are:

  • conjunctions of time, including after, before, since, until, when, while;

  • conjunctions of cause and effect, including because, since, now that, as, in order that, so;

  • conjunctions of opposition or concession, such as although, though, even though, whereas, while;

  • conjunctions of condition: such as if, unless, only if, whether or not, even if, in case (that);

  • the conjunction that, which produces content clauses, as well as words that produce interrogative content clauses: whether, where, when, how, etc.


A subordinating conjunction generally comes at the very start of its clause, although many of them can be preceded by qualifying adverbs, as in probably because ..., especially if .... The conjunction that can be omitted after certain verbs, as in she told us (that) she was ready.


Clause Syntax


Clause Syntax is the way of combining and ordering constituents such as verbs and noun phrases to form a clause.


Types of clause

Clauses can be classified as independent (main clauses) and dependent (subordinate clauses). A typical sentence consists of one independent clause, possibly augmented by one or more dependent clauses.

An independent clause can be classified according to the sentence type; it may be declarative (making a statement), interrogative (asking a question), or imperative (giving an order).

In interrogative main clauses, unless the subject is or contains the interrogative word, the verb precedes the subject: Are you hungry? Where am I? (but Who did this?, without inversion, since the interrogative who is itself the subject). However such inversion is only possible with an auxiliary or copular verb; if no such verb would otherwise be present, do-support is used.

In most imperative clauses the subject is absent: Eat your dinner! However imperative clauses may include the subject for emphasis: You eat your dinner!. The form of the verb is the base form of the verb, such as eat, write, be. Modal verbs do not have imperative forms. Negation uses do-support, even if the verb is be. The imperative here refers to second-person forms; constructions for other persons may be formed periphrastically, e.g. Let's (let us) go; Let them eat cake.

A dependent clause may be finite (based on a finite verb, as independent clauses are), or non-finite (based on a verb in the form of an infinitive or participle). Particular types of dependent clause include relative clauses, content clauses and adverbial clauses.

In certain instances, clauses use a verb conjugated in the subjunctive mood.

Clauses can be nested within each other, sometimes up to several levels. For example, the sentence I know the woman who says she saw your son drinking beer contains a non-finite clause (drinking beer) within a content clause (she saw your son drinking beer) within a relative clause (who says she saw your son drinking beer) within an independent declarative clause (the whole sentence).


Non-finite clauses

A non-finite clause is one in which the main verb is in a non-finite form, namely an infinitive, past participle, or -ing form (present participle or gerund).

The internal syntax of a non-finite clause is generally similar to that of a finite clause, except that there is usually no subject (and in some cases a missing complement). The following types exist:

  • bare infinitive clause, such as go to the party in the sentence let her go to the party.
  • to-infinitive clause, such as to go to the party. Although there is no subject in such a clause, the performer of the action can (in some contexts) be expressed with a preceding prepositional phrase using for: It would be a good idea for her to go to the party. The possibility of placing adjuncts between the to and the verb in such constructions has been the subject of dispute among prescriptive grammarians.
  • past participial clause (active type), such as made a cake and seen to it. This is used in forming perfect constructions, as in he has made a cake; I had seen to it.
  • present participial clause, such as being in good health. When such a clause is used as an adjunct to a main clause, its subject is understood to be the same as that of the main clause; when this is not the case, a subject can be included in the participial clause: The king being in good health, his physician was able to take a few days' rest.
  • gerund clause. This has the same form as the above, but serves as a noun rather than an adjective or adverb. The pre-appending of a subject in this case (as in I don't like you drinking, rather than the arguably more correct ...your drinking) is criticized by some prescriptive grammarians.

In certain uses, a non-finite clause contains a missing (zero) item – this may be an object or complement of the verb, or the complement of a preposition within the clause (leaving the preposition "stranded"). Examples of uses of such "passive" non-finite clauses are given below:

  • to-infinitive clauses – this is easy to use (zero object of use); he is the man to talk to (zero complement of preposition to).
  • past participial clauses – as used in forming passive voice constructions (the cake was made, with zero object of made), and in some other uses, such as I want to get it seen to (zero complement of to). In many such cases the performer of the action can be expressed using a prepositional phrase with by, as in the cake was made by Alan.
  • gerund clauses – particularly after want and need, as in Your car wants/needs cleaning (zero object of cleaning), and You want/need your head seeing to (zero complement of to).


Constituents of a clause

English is an SVO language, that is, in simple declarative sentences the order of the main components is subject–verb–object(s) (or subject–verb–complement).

A typical finite clause consists of a noun phrase functioning as the subject, a finite verb, followed by any number of dependents of the verb. In some theories of grammar the verb and its dependents are taken to be a single component called a verb phrase or the predicate of the clause; thus the clause can be said to consist of subject plus predicate.

Dependents include any number of complements (especially a noun phrase functioning as the object), and other modifiers of the verb. Noun phrase constituents which are personal pronouns or (in formal registers) the pronoun who(m) are marked for case, but otherwise it is word order alone that indicates which noun phrase is the subject and which the object.

The presence of complements depends on the pattern followed by the verb (for example, whether it is a transitive verb, i.e. one taking a direct object). A given verb may allow a number of possible patterns (for example, the verb write may be either transitive, as in He writes letters, or intransitive, as in He writes often).

Some verbs can take two objects: an indirect object and a direct object. An indirect object precedes a direct one, as in He gave the dog a bone (where the dog is the indirect object and a bone the direct object). However the indirect object may also be replaced with a prepositional phrase, usually with the preposition to or for, as in He gave a bone to the dog. (The latter method is particularly common when the direct object is a personal pronoun and the indirect object is a stronger noun phrase: He gave it to the dog would be used rather than He gave the dog it.)

Adverbial adjuncts are often placed after the verb and object, as in I met John yesterday. However other positions in the sentence are also possible. Another adverb which is subject to special rules is the negating word not.

Objects normally precede other complements, as in I told him to fetch it (where him is the object, and the infinitive phrase to fetch it is a further complement). Other possible complements include prepositional phrases, such as for Jim in the clause They waited for Jim; predicative expressions, such as red in The ball is red; subordinate clauses, which may be introduced by a subordinating conjunction such as if, when, because, that, for example the that-clause in I suggest that you wait for her; and non-finite clauses, such as eating jelly in the sentence I like eating jelly.

Many English verbs are used together with a particle (such as in or away) and with preposition phrases in constructions that are commonly referred to as "phrasal verbs". These complements often modify the meaning of the verb in an unpredictable way, and a verb-particle combination such as give up can be considered a single lexical item. The position of such particles in the clause is subject to different rules from other adverbs.

English is not a "pro-drop" (specifically, null-subject) language – that is, unlike some languages, English requires that the subject of a clause always be expressed explicitly, even if it can be deduced from the form of the verb and the context, and even if it has no meaningful referent, as in the sentence It is raining, where the subject it is a dummy pronoun. Imperative and non-finite clauses are exceptions, in that they usually do not have a subject expressed.

Adjuncts are constituents which are not required by the main verb, and can be removed without leaving behind something ungrammatical. Adjuncts are usually adverbs or adverbial phrases or clauses.

Many clauses have as their finite verb an auxiliary, which governs a non-finite form of a lexical (or other auxiliary) verb.


Variations on SVO pattern

Variations on the basic SVO pattern occur in certain types of clause. The subject is absent in most imperative clauses and most non-finite clauses.

The verb and subject are inverted in most interrogative clauses. This requires that the verb be an auxiliary or copula (and do-support is used to provide an auxiliary if there is otherwise no invertible verb). The same type of inversion occurs in certain other types of clause, particularly main clauses beginning with an adjunct having negative force (Never have I witnessed such carnage), and some dependent clauses expressing a condition (Should you decide to come,...).

A somewhat different type of inversion may involve a wider set of verbs (as in After the sun comes the rain).

In certain types of clause an object or other complement becomes zero or is brought to the front of the clause.


Clauses with auxiliary verbs

In many English clauses, the finite verb is an auxiliary verb, whose complement is some type of non-finite clause. For example, in the clause he is eating his dinner, the finite verb is the auxiliary is, whose complement is the participial clause eating his dinner. In some cases the non-finite clause itself has an auxiliary as its main verb, with another embedded non-finite clause as complement. For example:

  • He has (been (eating his dinner)).

Here eating his dinner is the complement of been, and been eating his dinner is the complement of has.

The form of each lexical or auxiliary verb (apart from the first) is determined by the auxiliary preceding it. The first auxiliary is conjugated as a finite verb in present or past tense: the modals are invariant, but the other auxiliaries may take the forms have, has, had, am, is, are, be (subjunctive), was, were, do, does, did. (If the clause being considered is a non-finite clause, then the initial auxiliary form may be having, (to) have, being, or (to) be.)

The principal auxiliaries and the verb forms they govern are:

  • Modal verbs (will, can, could, etc.). They govern a bare infinitive (or to-infinitive in the case of ought and used).
  • The verb have (and its inflected forms) to express perfect aspect. These govern a past participle (with an active meaning).
  • The verb be (and inflected forms) to express progressive aspect. These govern a present participle.
  • The verb be (and inflected forms) to express passive voice. These govern a past participle (used passively, i.e. with a zero object or preposition complement).
  • The verb do (and inflected forms) to supply an auxiliary in functions where one is required, or to provide emphasis. This is described in more detail in the article on do-support.

A modal verb, if present, comes first. Any other auxiliaries come in the order listed above, namely perfect have followed by progressive be followed by passive be. The auxiliary do is not used in combination with any other auxiliary. Otherwise, the above auxiliaries can be used in any combination (but with no more than one instance from each group).

A clause containing the maximum number of auxiliaries might therefore be I will have been being operated on for six hours. Here the modal will is the finite verb; perfect have is in bare infinitive form (since it follows a modal), progressive be is in the past participle form been (following perfect have), passive be is in the present participle form being (following progressive be), and the lexical verb is in the past participle form operated (following passive be; here it is the dependent preposition on that has zero complement).

Constructions of this type serve a variety of functions, including the expression of aspect, voice and modality. The meaning of combinations of these auxiliary verbs are presented in more detail later in this text.

Some of these constructions are described, particularly in teaching contexts, as tenses – for example, is eating is represented as the "present progressive tense" of eat. (This terminology is rejected by many theoretical grammarians, since the construction does not serve purely to indicate present time, but also encodes aspectual information.) The series of auxiliaries and non-finite verb form is treated as a unit. Thus in the examples above, the strings is eating and has been eating may be presented as forms of the verb eat, with his dinner serving as their object. (From a theoretical perspective, these verb series are examples of catenae.)

Non-finite constructions exist for combinations of auxiliary verbs other than the modals verbs or do:

  • infinitive: (to) take, (to) be taken, (to) be taking, (to) have been taking, etc.
  • present participial (or gerund): taking, being taken, having taken, etc. (but not normally in the progressive cases)

The verbs ought and used differ from other modals in that they require the to-infinitive rather than the bare infinitive: He ought to go; We used to go (for this reason they are not always classified as modals). There are certain other auxiliary-like expressions that are variously classified:

  • (be) going to
  • have to
  • am to, was to, etc.
  • (be) able to
  • (be) about to


Fronting and zeroing

In interrogative and relative clauses, wh-fronting occurs; that is, the interrogative word or relative pronoun (or in some cases a phrase containing it) is brought to the front of the clause: What did you see? (the interrogative word what comes first even though it is the object); The man to whom you gave the book... (the phrase to whom, containing the relative pronoun, comes to the front of the relative clause).

Fronting of various elements can also occur for reasons of focus; occasionally even an object or other verbal complement can be fronted rather than appear in its usual position after the verb, as in I met Tom yesterday, but Jane I haven't seen for ages.

In certain types of non-finite clause, and in some relative clauses, an object or a preposition complement is absent (becomes zero). For example, in I like the cake you made, the words you made form a reduced relative clause in which the verb made has zero object. This can produce preposition stranding (as can wh-fronting): I like the song you were listening to; Which chair did you sit on?



A clause is negated by the inclusion of the word not:

  • In a finite indicative clause in which the finite verb is an auxiliary or copula, the word not comes after that verb, often forming a contraction in n't: He will not (won't) win.
  • In a finite indicative clause in which there is otherwise no auxiliary or copula, do-support is used to provide one: He does not (doesn't) want to win.
  • In the above clause types, if there is inversion (for example, because the sentence is interrogative), the subject may come after the verb and before not, or after the contraction in n't: Do you not (Don't you) want to win? (In the case of inversion expressing a condition, the contracted form is not possible: Should you not (not: Shouldn't you) wish to attend...
  • Negative imperatives are formed with do-support, even in the case of the copula: Don't be silly!
  • The negative of the present subjunctive is made by placing not before the verb: ...that you not meet us; ...that he not be punished. The past subjunctive were is negated like the indicative (were not, weren't).
  • A non-finite clause is negated by placing not before the verb form: not to be outdone (sometimes not is placed after to in such clauses), not knowing what to do.


Elliptical clauses

Certain clauses display ellipsis, where some component is omitted, usually by way of avoidance of repetition. Examples include:

  • omitted verb between subject and complement, as in You love me, and I you (where the same verb love is understood between I' and you).
  • tag questions, as in He can't speak French, can he? (where the infinitive clause speak French is understood to be the dependent of can).
  • similar short sentences or clauses such as I can, there is, we will, etc., where the omitted non-finite clause or other complement is understood from what has gone before (for examples involving inversion, such as so/neither do I).


Meanings of clauses using auxiliary verbs



The various constructions with auxiliary verbs can be used to express aspect (with perfective have and progressive be), voice (with passive be) and modality (with the modal verbs).

English clauses can be described as having progressive aspect, perfect aspect, neither ("simple aspect"), or both ("perfect progressive aspect"). They can also be described as having active voice or passive voice. The following table shows these combinations:




Lexical verb




Simple, active





Simple, passive





Progressive, active





Progressive, passive





Perfect, active





Perfect, passive





Perfect progressive, active





Perfect progressive, passive






The constructions given above are third-person singular present indicative. However, by changing the form of the finite (i.e. first) verb in each case, equivalent forms can be constructed for other persons and numbers, for past tense, and for imperative and subjunctive mood (although the imperative is not normally used with perfect aspect, and only rarely with progressive).

The meanings of the aspects are as follows:

  • The simple constructions can be used to express habitual action. In many contexts they can also be used to express single completed actions.
  • Progressive constructions denote ongoing activity at a specific point of time or continuous activity over an extent of time.
  • Perfect constructions are used to express actions or events that happened before a point in time, with an emphasis on the continuing effects of these at this point of time.
  • Perfect progressive constructions are used to express ongoing activity that extends to a certain point in time.

(The meaning of the passive voice can also be expressed with get in some cases, particularly when adverse consequences are implied, as in She got injured. However get is not a grammatical auxiliary; for example, it requires do-support for negation and questions.)

Modal verbs can also be used, such as "will" used as above in future constructions and "would" in conditional constructions. These serve as uninflected auxiliary verbs, even in the third person singular. Most of these have multiple modal uses, depending on context. With the exception of ought, all are followed by the short form of the main verb's infinitive (that is, without the particle to). Dare and need, are infrequently used as modals and are much more frequently used instead as main verbs that are inflected with -s in the present tense third person singular; when they are used as main verbs, the infinitive following them includes the particle to.

This is illustrated in the table below with the modal might.






Lexical verb










































The modals are invariant, so in this case it is not possible to inflect for tense or mood (except insofar as certain modals express these categories; for example, could may serve as a past tense of can). There are no imperative or non-finite forms (periphrasis may be used in some cases; for example, infinitive clauses can be made with to be able to... or to be going to...).

The modal will, in some of its uses, expresses future time. Hence constructions using will as the modal in the above schema are often referred to as being instances of a future tense. Thus forms like will take can be called the simple future, will have taken the future perfect, and so on. Analogous terminology is used for the forms with would (sometimes should); these are referred to as conditional (or "future-in-the-past") forms. Sometimes shall and should are also used in this way.


Simple constructions

The simple constructions can be used to express habitual action. In many contexts they can also be used to express single completed actions.






Negative interrogative


He writes

He does not write

Does he write?

Does he not write? / Doesn't he write?


He wrote

He did not write

Did he write?

Did he not write? / Didn't he write?

Future (will)

He will write

He will not write

Will he write?

Will he not write? / Won't he write?

Conditional (would)

He would write

He would not write

Would he write?

Would he not write? / Wouldn't he write?


The passive voice is formed using the appropriate form of the verb be followed by the past participle (more accurately called the passive participle in this context) of the main verb, e.g. "He is written."



The simple present has three main uses in English: First, it often identifies habitual or customary action referring to no specific time frame:

He writes about beavers (in the past, present, and future)

Second, it is used with stative verbs to refer to a present situation:

She knows a lot about beavers

Third, it can have a future meaning in two contexts (though its use as an indicator of futurity is much less common than in many other languages):

Scheduled future: She goes to Milwaukee on Tuesday, I arrive tomorrow at 5:00.

Future in a dependent clause: I will see you when I get there, I will go tomorrow if I feel like it, It will be Tuesday when I see you.

The simple present has an intensive or emphatic construction with "do": He does write. In the negative and interrogative constructions, of course, this is identical to the non-emphatic constructions. It is typically used as a response to the question Does he write, whether that question is expressed or implied, and says that indeed, he does write.

The different syntactic behavior of the negative particle not and the negative inflectional suffix -n't in the interrogative constructions is also worth noting. In formal literary English of the sort in which contractions are avoided, not attaches itself to the main verb: Does he not write? When the colloquial contraction -n't is used, this attaches itself to the auxiliary do: Doesn't he write? This in fact is a contraction of a more archaic word order, still occasionally found in poetry: Does not he write?



The simple past is also called the preterite.

The preterite is used for the English simple (non-iterative or iterative, but not progressive) past tense. He wrote two more chapters about the dam at Kashagawigamog Lake.

This tense is used for a single event in the past (I went there yesterday), for past habitual action (I went there every day for a year), and in chronological narration. Like the present simple, it has an emphatic variant with "do": he did write.

The simple past is distinct from the present perfect:

I ate fish (Simple statement of event[s] occurring in the past, with no reference to the present state.)

I have eaten fish (My present state is that eating fish is in my past.)

The preterite, when used to indicate habitual aspect, can often be replaced by a compound construction:

  • When I was young, I played football or When I was young, I played football every Saturday. (past tense unmarked for aspect, but by lexical context implying habituality, with either a specific or a non-specific time frame)
  • When I was young, I used to play football. (periphrastic construction explicitly indicating habituality, with a relatively non-specific time frame in the past)
  • When I was young, I would play football every Saturday. (periphrastic construction explicitly indicating habituality, with a specific time frame in the past)



English does not have a dedicated future tense in the sense of a morphological form that always indicates what the speaker views as facts about the future.

Shall can be used in place of will.

Will and would can be used with a different meaning to futurity or conditionality:

  • You will obey me! (insistence)
  • I will not do it! (refusal, i.e. negative insistence)
  • He will probably be home now. (probability)
  • Usually, whenever I get home, I will drink a cup of tea. (present habitual action)
  • At that time, I would always drink tea in the morning. (past habitual action, similar to "used to")
  • I would not do that (if I were you). (suggestion, or implied conditional action)

The will construction can be used to indicate what the speaker views as facts about the future:

The sun will rise tomorrow at 6:14 AM.

It can also indicate a combination of futurity and intentional or volitional modality:

He will go there if he can.

I will pass this exam.

It can also indicate predictive modality — what the speaker intends as predictions about the future:

It will rain later this week.

The will construction is occasionally used for statements about the present to indicate that they are speculative:

Jack: "I have not eaten a thing all day."

Jill: "Well, I suppose you will be hungry now."

Jack: "There is a woman coming up the drive."

Jill: "That will be my mother."

The will construction can be used to indicate strong volition in the present in the first person:

At this moment I will tolerate no dissent.

It can also be used to indicate habituality in the past, present and future:

He will make trouble, won't he?

There is also a future with "go" which is used with the infinitive of the action verb especially for intended actions and for the weather, and which is generally more common in colloquial speech:

I am going to write a book some day.

I think that it is going to rain.

The will/shall construction can be used for spontaneous decisions:

Jack: "I think that we should have a barbecue!"

Jill: "Good idea! I shall go get the coal."


Present subjunctive

This form is always identical to the infinitive. This means that apart from the verb to be, it is distinct from the indicative present only in the third person singular and the obsolete second person singular.

It is used to express wishes about the present or future:

God save our queen. (Not: God saves our queen, which means that it actually happens)

It can be used (in formal writing) to express present doubt, especially after if, whether, and lest and in set phrases:

If that have any validity....

If that be true,....

If he need go,....

If music be the food of love,....

Whether that be true or not,....

Lest he arrive too soon,....

Be that as it may,....

The subordinate conjunction whether can be replaced by inversion of be and the subject:

Be that true or not,....

It is also used in a mandative sense:

He insists that his son have a more conventional celebration. (He strongly wants that to be true in the future; contrast with the indicative usage He insists that his son has a more conventional celebration, in which he asserts that it is a fact.)

It is important that the process be carried out accurately.

I shall work for him on condition that he pay me weekly.

The present subjunctive can be written in the passive voice as in

If it be written,....



The conditional present is formed by combining the modal auxiliary would (never woulds, not even in the third person singular) with the infinitive (without to) of the main verb:

The conditional present is used principally in a main clause accompanied by an implicit or explicit doubt or "if-clause"; it may refer to conditional statements in present or future time:

I would like to pay now if it is not too much trouble. (in present time; doubt of possibility is explicit)

I would like to pay now. (in present time; doubt is implicit)

I would go tomorrow if she asked me. (in future time; doubt is explicit)

I would go tomorrow. (in future time; doubt is implicit)

Some varieties of English regularly use would (often shortened to (I)'d) in if clauses, but this is often considered non-standard: If you'd leave now, you'd be on time. Such use of would is widespread especially in spoken US English in all sectors of society, but these forms are not usually used in writing that is more formal. Nevertheless, some reliable sources simply label this usage as acceptable US English and no longer label it as colloquial.

There are exceptions, however, where would is used in British English too in seemingly counterfactual conditions, but these can usually be interpreted as a modal use of would: If you would listen to me once in a while, you might learn something. In cases in which the action in the if clause takes place after that in the main clause, use of would in counterfactual conditions is however considered standard and correct usage in even formal UK and US usage: If it would make Bill happy, I'd [I would] give him the money.

The auxiliary verbs could and might can also be used to indicate the conditional mood, as in the following:

If the opportunity were here, I could do the job (= "If the opportunity were here, I would be able to do the job")

If the opportunity were here, I might do the job (= "If the opportunity were here, maybe I would do the job")


Progressive constructions

Progressive constructions denote ongoing activity at a specific point of time or continuous activity over an extent of time. All verbal constructions can be made progressive (e.g. "I have written" → "I have been writing"), and these constructions are very common. Progressive constructions are also known as "continuous".






Negative interrogative


He is writing

He is not writing

Is he writing?

Is he not writing? / Isn't he writing?


He was writing

He was not writing

Was he writing?

Was he not writing? / Wasn't he writing?

Future (will)

He will be writing

He will not be writing

Will he be writing?

Will he not be writing? / Won't he be writing?

Conditional (would)

He would be writing

He would not be writing

Would he be writing?

Would he not be writing? / Wouldn't he be writing?


The passive voice of the progressive is formed by the present progressive of to be ("been") followed by the past participle of the main verb ("written"), e.g. "He is being written."



An important difference between the present progressive tense in English and many other languages with similar tenses (e.g. Spanish) is that the English present progressive must be used in many circumstances. In particular, a statement about an ongoing action at the present time normally must use the progressive ("I am writing a letter now" but not "I write a letter now"). The simple present is used in the following circumstances:

  • A habitual statement: "I write letters every day."
  • A general statement: "People write letters when they cannot telephone."
  • A narrative action told in the present tense: "I get home, then I write a letter, then I eat dinner, then the phone rings and it's my girlfriend."
  • With verbs that refer to states rather than actions: "I feel lonely", "I see a bear", "I have a large car", "I am a doctor".

In the latter cases, the progressive is often possible, sometimes with different implications. Generally, it implies an action rather than a state, and an ongoing, often temporary situation. For example, "I am feeling lonely" and "I am seeing a bear" specifically emphasize the perception of the feeling at the current time, which is implied to be temporary.

With "have" and "be" the present progressive is even clearer in imparting a meaning of "currently ongoing action". Hence "I am having a large car" would sound quite strange, and be almost uninterpretable, while "I am being a doctor" still sounds strange but potentially might mean "I'm not a doctor but I'm temporarily trying to act like one". But there are a number of quite acceptable usages of progressive "have" and "be":

  • "I have a baby" (a small child currently exists in the world and I am its parent) vs. "I am having a baby" (I am giving birth right now to a child)
  • "John is a pest" (John generally acts in an annoying way) vs. "John is being a pest" (right now, John is acting in a way that is annoying)
  • "I have a problem" (something in my world is wrong) vs. "I am having a problem" (right now, something in my world is going wrong); e.g. "I am having a problem finding my glasses" (right now, I'm looking for my glasses but I can't find them) vs. "I have a problem finding my glasses" (I often lose my glasses and can't find them).

This construction describes the simple engagement in a present activity, with the focus on action in progress "at this very moment". It too can indicate a future, particularly when discussing plans already in place: I am flying to Paris tomorrow. Used with "always" it suggests irritation; compare He always does that (neutral) with He is always doing that (and it annoys me). Word order differs here in the negative interrogative between the more formal is he not writing and the colloquial contraction isn't he writing?



The past progressive construction indicates ongoing action in the past

This construction is typically used for two events in parallel:

While I was washing the dishes, my wife was walking the dog.

It can also be used for an interrupted action (the past simple being used for the interruption):

While I was washing the dishes, I heard a loud noise.

Further, it can be used to indicate continuing action at a specific time in the past:

At three o'clock yesterday, I was working in the garden.

It can also be used to refer to past action that occurred over a range of time and is viewed as an ongoing situation:

I was working in the garden all day yesterday (it was an ongoing process), as opposed to I worked in the garden all day yesterday (and I am viewing all of that action as a unitary event)



This construction is used especially to indicate that an event will be in progress at a particular point in the future: This time tomorrow I will / shall be taking my driving test.

The passive construction It will be being written is rarely used. If it is desired to express future progressivity in the passive voice, the construction It will be in the process of being written can be used.



The conditional present progressive is used for the continuous aspect of the conditional construction; it describes a situation that would now be prevailing had it not been for some intervening event:

Today she would be exercising if it were not for her injury.

He would be working today had he not been allowed time off.

The passive voice of the conditional present progressive can be formed as It would be being written, but since this construction is awkward the form It would be in the process of being written would be more common.


Perfect constructions

Perfect constructions are used to express actions or events that happened before a point in time, with an emphasis on the continuing effects of these at this point of time.

The following table shows examples of perfect constructions being used with the pronoun "he":






Negative interrogative


He has written

He has not written

Has he written?

Has he not written? / Hasn't he written?


He had written

He had not written

Had he written?

Had he not written? / Hadn't he written?

Future (will)

He will have written

He will not have written

Will he have written?

Will he not have written? / Won't he have written?

Conditional (would)

He would have written

He would not have written

Would he have written?

Would he not have written? / Wouldn't he have written?


The passive voice is formed with by the present perfect of to be ("been") followed by the past participle of the main verb, e.g. "He has been written."



The present perfect was traditionally just called the perfect.

The distinction between the past (I did) and the present perfect (I have done) can be subtle. In general, the present perfect occurs in cases where there is an explicitly or implicitly established present frame of reference. When the frame of reference is explicit, such as in the sentence "Whenever I get home, usually John has already arrived", the usage of the present perfect is clear, but in other cases it is less obvious.

  • When an action indicates a change of state, the present perfect indicates that the resulting state still applies. "I have eaten" means "... and I'm no longer hungry", whereas "I ate" has no such implication. "The sign has changed" means "... and it is now different, so pay attention", whereas "The sign changed" does not specifically have that meaning; e.g. perhaps the sign changed back again.
  • When a repeated or prolonged action is specified, the present perfect indicates that the time period in question goes up to the present. "I have visited Paris three times" specifically means "... in my life, up to the present time" while "I visited Paris three times" would normally only be used when a smaller time period is specifically indicated. "I have lived in Paris for five years" specifically means "I lived in Paris for five years some uncertain time ago and I don't live there now. I have an experience of Paris" (it is, however, relevant to a current conversation; the importance is that of an experience rather than of the specific time of getting that experience) while "I lived in Paris for five years" implies "You (the listener) know what specific time I am talking about and the time when I lived in Paris is as important as the fact that I lived there." If one wants to imply that he/she still lives in Paris, he/she should ideally say: "I have been living in Paris for 5 years". This would imply an ongoing process of still living in Paris. However, people might use Present Perfect for an ongoing process, too and that is why you might hear a lot of follow up questions in conversations.
  • When an explicitly past frame of reference is established by mentioning a particular time in the past, the present perfect cannot normally be used. That is, "I ate two minutes ago" not "I have eaten two minutes ago" regardless of whether I'm hungry or not currently.
  • With "already" or "yet", traditional usage calls for the present perfect: "Have you eaten yet? Yes, I've already eaten." However, current informal American speech tends to use the simple past: "Did you eat yet? Yes, I ate already."

This construction indicates that a past event has one of a range of possible relationships to the present. This relationship may involve a focus on present result: He has written a very fine book (and look, here it is, we have it now). Alternatively, it may indicate a period which includes the present: I have lived here since my youth (and I still do). Compare: Have you written a letter this morning? (it is still morning) with Did you write a letter this morning? (it is now afternoon). The perfect construction is frequently used with the adverbs already or recently or with since clauses. The present perfect can identify habitual and continuing actions (I have written letters since I was ten years old.), continuous and ongoing actions (I have lived here for fifteen years.), or completed actions that still affect the present situation (I have visited Paris twice (and the memory of the experience is still with me)).

In addition to these normal uses where the event is viewed from the present, the "have done" construct is used with a future perspective in temporal clauses where other languages would use the future perfect: When you have written it, show it to me.

The term "perfect" was first applied in discussions of Latin grammar, to refer to a tense which expresses a completed action ("perfect" in the sense of "finished"). It was then applied to a French tense which has a similar use to the Latin perfect, and then was transferred to the English tense which looks morphologically something like the French perfect. In fact, the English perfect is often used precisely in situations where Latin would use the imperfect — for past actions which are not finished but continue into the present.


Have got

In colloquial English, particularly British English, the present perfect of the verb get, namely have got or has got, is frequently used in place of the simple present indicative of have (i.e. have or has) when denoting possession, broadly defined. For example:

  • Formal: I have three brothers; Does he have a car?
  • Informal: I've got three brothers; Has he got a car?

Note that in American English, the form got is used in this idiom, even though the standard past participle of get is gotten.

The same applies in the expression of present obligation: I've got to go now may be used in place of I have to (must) go now.

In very informal registers, the contracted form of have or has may be omitted altogether: I got three brothers.



The past perfect is also known as the pluperfect; it is formed by combining the preterite of to have with the past participle of the main verb:

The past perfect is used when the action occurred in the past before another action in the past. It is used when speaking of the past to indicate the relative time of two past actions, one occurring before the other; i.e. a "past before the past".

The past time of perspective could be stated explicitly:

He had already left when we arrived.

or it can be understood from previous information:

I was eating....I had invited Jim to the meal but he was unable to attend. (i.e., I invited him before I started eating)

The past time of perspective can simply be implied by the context:

I had lost my way. (understood as prior to a later but still past event I am now describing, for example, "when I met the bear".)

It is sometimes possible to use the simple past instead of the past perfect, but only where there is no ambiguity in the meaning. For instance, the second example above could be written:

I was eating....I invited Jim to the meal but he was unable to attend

Understood within the above context, this still means that I first invited Jim then later ate the meal (without him).

However, concurrent past events are also possible, indicated by dual simple past tenses in both verbs. Consider the following:

He left when we arrived.

This means both past events happened at the same time: he left at the same time as we arrived.

The past perfect can also be used to express a counterfactual statement about the past:

If you had done the cleaning by now, you would not need to do it now

Here, the first clause refers to an unreal state in the past (without any comparison of the timing of multiple past events), and the entire construction is a conditional sentence.



The future perfect is formed by combining, in this order, will or shall, the auxiliary verb have, and the past participle of the main verb. It indicates an action that either is completed sometime prior to a future time of perspective or an ongoing action that continues to a future time of perspective:

I shall have finished my essay by Thursday.

By then she will have been there for three weeks.



The conditional perfect construction is used for conditional situations occurring in the past; it expresses thoughts which are or may be contrary to present fact:

I would have set an extra place if I had known you were coming. (The fact that an extra place was not set is implicit; the conditioning event (I had known) is explicit)

I would have set an extra place, but I did not because Mother said you were not coming. (The fact that a place was not set is explicit; the conditioning event is implicit)

I would have set an extra place. (The fact that a place was not set is implicit, and the conditioning event is implicit)

Some varieties of English regularly use would have (often shortened to (I)'d have) in if clauses, but this is often non-standard: If you (would)'ve told me, we could've done something about it. Such use of would is widespread especially in spoken US English in all sectors of society, but is incorrect and is not usually used in more formal writing.

There are exceptions, however, where would is used in British English too in seemingly counterfactual conditions, but these can usually be interpreted as a modal use of would: If you would have listened to me once in a while, you might have learned something. In cases in which the action in the if clause takes place after that in the main clause, use of would in if clauses is however considered standard and correct usage in even formal UK and US usage: If it would have made Bill happy, I'd [I would] have given him the money.


Perfect progressive constructions

Perfect progressive constructions (or perfect continuous constructions) are used to express ongoing activity that extends to a certain point in time.






Negative interrogative


He has been writing

He has not been writing

Has he been writing?

Has he not been writing? / Hasn't he been writing?


He had been writing

He had not been writing

Had he been writing?

Had he not been writing? / Hadn't he been writing?

Future (will)

He will have been writing

He will not have been writing

Will he have been writing?

Will he not have been writing? / Won't he have been writing?

Conditional (would)

He would have been writing

He would not have been writing

Would he have been writing?

Would he not have been writing? / Wouldn't he have been writing?


For passive voice clauses, the present participle ("writing") is replaced with "being" followed by the past participle ("being written").



It is used for unbroken action in the past which continues right up to the present. I have been writing this paper all morning (and still am).

The present perfect progressive is used for denoting the action which was in progress and has just finished or is still going on. For example,

Why are your eyes red? – I have been crying since morning. (The action has already finished but was in progress for some time)

She has been working here for two years already and she is happy. (The action is still in progress).

Sentences referring to an expanse of time use the present perfect continuous if ongoing action (not a static situation) is referred to. For example,

How long have you been working here?I have been working here for three years

However, with stative verbs (such as see, want, like, etc.), or if the situation is considered permanent, the present perfect non-progressive construction is used. For example,

How long have you known her?I have known her since childhood

Thus, if the whole period is referred to, for is used, but when the reference is to the starting point of the action, since is used.

The construction It has been being written, while following the usual pattern for the formation of the passive voice, is very rarely used. Occasionally, when it is desired to express the receiving of an action in the past and continuing to the present, the phrasal construction It has been in the process of being written is used. Here the present perfect construction is applied to to be, and the continuity and the passive voice are applied to the main verb in non-finite form in a noun phrase.



The past perfect progressive is also known as the pluperfect progressive , the past perfect continuous, and the pluperfect continuous. It is formed by combining, in this order, the preterite of to have, the past participle of to be, and the present participle of the main verb.

The past perfect progressive relates to the past perfect as the present perfect progressive relates to the present perfect.

The construction It had been being written is very rarely used. To convey the past perfect progressive in the passive voice, the construction It had been in the process of being written can be used.



The future perfect progressive, also called the future perfect continuous, is formed by combining, in this order, will or shall, the auxiliary have, the past participle been, and the present participle of the main verb.

This construction is used for an event that will still be in progress at a certain point in the future: By 8:00 he will have been writing for five hours (and will still be doing so).

The construction It will have been being written is never used. The construction It will have been in the process of being written can be used to indicate the continuous receiving of an action prior to some time in the future.



Rather than the very rarely used awkward construction It would have been being written, the conditional perfect progressive can be expressed in the passive voice as in It would have been in the process of being written.


Subjunctive constructions

Past subjunctive

The past subjunctive is used to express hypotheses about the present or future: it is used to describe unreal or hypothetical conditions. It consists of the verb were in all persons and numbers (including the first and third persons singular), either as the main verb or as a helping verb combined with the infinitive of the main verb.

It usually appears in "if clauses" of conditional sentences. Examples include:

  • If I were rich, I would retire to the South of France.
  • If I were a boy,....

Especially in formal usage, if may be omitted and the order of the subject and were inverted:

  • Were I to speak, I would do so softly. (This is identical in meaning to If I were to speak,....)

When if means when (a fact) then the indicative is used. Compare

  • If I were walking down the road, I would greet him. (The subjunctive is used for a hypothetical present situation; the main clause is in the conditional.)
  • If I was walking down the road, I would greet him. (The indicative is used for a fact about habitual actions in the past; the main clause is in the past time and habitual aspect.)

The imperfect subjunctive is also used in "that clauses" after a wish:

  • I'd rather that it were more substantial.
  • I wish she were here.

This last example can be contrasted with I want her to be here, in which the indicative rather than the subjunctive is used because there is a substantial possibility that the hypothesis is (or will be) true.

The imperfect subjunctive can be written in the passive voice as in

If it were written....


Were it written....


Future subjunctive

A future subjunctive for use in "if clauses" can be constructed using the conjugated form of the verb "to be" plus the infinitive (including the particle to) or by using the modal auxiliary verb "should" (though the should form is very unusual in American English):

If I were to die tomorrow, then you would inherit everything.

If I should go, then will / would you feed the hens?

These constructions can alternatively be expressed with inversion of the order of were or should and the subject, with if omitted:

Were I to die tomorrow, then you would inherit everything.

Should I go, then will / would you feed the hens?

If the were to constructions is used in the "if clause", the word would is used in the main clause; if the should form is used in the "if clause", either will or would can be used in the main clause, depending on whether the event is very hypothetical (leading to the use of would) or is quite possible (permitting the use of will).

The passive voice can be applied to the future subjunctive as in any of the following:

If it were to be written tomorrow,....

Were it to be written tomorrow,....

If it should be written tomorrow,....


Should it be written tomorrow,....


Uses of non-finite constructions

The various types of non-finite clauses described above have a number of uses besides the constructions with auxiliaries already described.



An infinitive phrase begins with the base form of the verb. Infinitive phrases can be viewed as part of finite clauses where they are introduced in verb catenae by an auxiliary verb or by a certain limited class of main verbs. They are also often frequently introduced by a main verb followed by the particle to. Further, infinitives introduced by to can function as noun phrases, or even as modfifiers of nouns. The following table illustrates these environments:



Introduced by a (modal) auxiliary verb

Introduced by a main verb

Introduced by a main verb plus to

Functioning as noun phrase

Functioning as the modifier of a noun


Do not laugh!

That made me laugh.

I tried not to laugh.

To laugh would have been unwise.

the reason to laugh


They may leave.

We let them leave.

They refused to leave.

To leave was not an option.

the thing to leave behind


You should expand the explanation.

We had them expand the explanation.

We hope to expand the explanation.

To expand the explanation would have been folly.

the effort to expand


An infinitive phrase begins with the bare form of the first verb, and is usually co-ordinated by the word "to":

  • I need to get my work done
  • For them to be with us in this time of crisis is evidence of their friendship.

When the semantic agent of the verb phrase occurs as the object in the co-ordinating clause, "to" does not occur:

  • I heard them shout.

Infinitive phrases are used after particular verbs such as "want" or "need".

The placement of an adverbial modifier directly after the to of an infinitive phrase (to slowly drift away) is called a split infinitive, and is sometimes regarded as a grammatical or stylistic error.


Present participle and gerund

A present participle phrase uses the present participle form of the verb, ending in "-ing".

It may be used in progressive constructions:



Progressive active participle


The guy is fixing my bike.


the flower opening up


the news supporting the point


She is driving our car.


The present participle may be used in non-finite constructions such as the following:

  • Having spoken, he turned and left.
  • Looking out the window, he saw a car go by.
  • Having been beaten at poker, he had little money left.
  • I saw them digging a hole.

The present participle form of a verb may function as a noun, in which case it is referred to as a gerund. Gerunds typically appear as subject or object noun phrases, or even as the object of a preposition:



Gerund as subject

Gerund as object

Gerund as object of a preposition


Solving problems is satisfying.

I like solving problems.

No one is better at solving problems.


Jogging is boring.

He has started jogging.

Before jogging, she stretches.


Eating too much made me sick.

She avoids eating too much.

That prevents you from eating too much.


Investigating the facts won't hurt.

We tried investigating the facts.

After investigating the facts, we made a decision.


Often distinguishing between a gerund and a progressive active participle is not easy; the line between the two non-finite verb forms is not clear.

A present participle may function as an adjective modifying a noun, in which case it is known as a gerundive: "The dancing girls".


Past participle

The past participles of strong verbs in Germanic languages are irregular (e.g. driven); their form is idiosyncratic. The past participles of weak verbs, in contrast, are regular; their form is formed with the suffix -ed (e.g. fixed, supported, opened).

Past participles are used in perfect and passive constructions:



Perfect active participle

Passive participle


He has fixed my bike

My bike was fixed.



The flower has opened up.

The flower has been opened up.



The news has supported the point.

the point supported by the news


She has driven our car.

Our car should be driven often.


Past participles occur in a rare construction in English which may be compared with the ablative absolute construction in Latin:

  • With these words spoken, he turned and left.

As with present participles, past participles may function as adjectives: "the burnt logs".


Conditional Sentences


As is typical for many languages, full conditional sentences in English consist of a condition clause or protasis specifying a condition or hypothesis, and a consequence clause or apodosis specifying what follows from that condition. The condition clause is a dependent clause, most commonly headed by the conjunction if, while the consequence is contained in the main clause of the sentence. Either clause may appear first.

Different types of conditional sentences (depending largely on whether they refer to a past, present or future time frame) require the use of particular verb forms (tenses and moods) to express the condition and the consequence. In English language teaching the most common patterns are referred to as first conditional, second conditional and third conditional; there is also a zero conditional and mixed conditional.



In English conditional sentences, the condition clause (protasis) is a dependent clause, most commonly introduced by the conjunction if. Other conjunctions or equivalent expressions may also be used, such as unless (meaning "if...not"), provided (that), providing (that) and as long as. Certain condition clauses can also be formulated using inversion without any conjunction.

The apodosis, expressing the consequence of the stated condition, is generally the main clause of the sentence. Depending on the sentence type, it may be a statement, question, or order. It may appear before or after the condition clause:

If I see him, I will tell him. (declarative sentence, condition first)

I will tell him if I see him. (declarative sentence, condition second)

If you saw him, would you tell him? (interrogative sentence, condition first)

Would you tell him if you saw him? (interrogative sentence, condition second)

If you see it, photograph it. (imperative sentence, condition first)

Photograph it if you see it. (imperative sentence, condition second)

As with other dependent clauses in English, it is common for a comma to be used to separate the clauses if the dependent clause comes first (as is done in the above examples).

It is possible for the consequence clause to appear alone in a sentence, without a condition clause, if the condition has been previously stated or is understood from the context. It may also be shortened by verb phrase ellipsis; a minimal conditional sentence could therefore be something like "Would you?" or "I would."


English language teaching

In English language teaching, conditional sentences are often classified under the headings zero conditional, first conditional (or conditional I), second conditional (or conditional II), third conditional (or conditional III) and mixed conditional, according to the grammatical pattern followed, particularly in terms of the verb tenses and auxiliaries used.


Zero conditional

"Zero conditional" refers to conditional sentences that express a factual implication, rather than describing a hypothetical situation or potential future circumstance. The term is used particularly when both clauses are in the present tense; however such sentences can be formulated with a variety of tenses/moods, as appropriate to the situation:

If you don't eat for a long time, you become hungry.

If the alarm went off, there's a fire somewhere in the building.

If you are going to sit an exam tomorrow, go to bed early tonight!

If aspirins will cure it, I'll take a couple tonight.

The first of these sentences is a basic zero conditional with both clauses in the present tense. The last is an example of the use of will in a condition clause. The use of verb tenses, moods and aspects in the parts of such sentences follows general principles.

Occasionally, mainly in a formal and somewhat archaic style, a subjunctive is used in the condition clause (as in "If the prisoner be held for more than five days, ...).


First conditional

"First conditional" or "conditional I" refers to a pattern used in predictive conditional sentences, i.e. those that concern consequences of a possible future event. In the basic first conditional pattern, the condition is expressed using the present tense (having future meaning in this context), and the consequence using the future construction with will (or shall):

If you make a mistake, someone will let you know.

If he asks me, I will/shall consider his proposal carefully.

The use of present tense in dependent clauses with future time reference is not confined to condition clauses; it also occurs in various temporal and relative clauses (as soon as he arrives; take the first train that comes; etc.).

The present tense used in the condition clause may take the form of the simple present as in the above examples, or the present progressive, present perfect or present perfect progressive as appropriate (according to general principles for uses of English verb forms):

If he is sleeping when we arrive, we shan't wake him. (present progressive)

Will you wake him if he hasn't stirred by 10 o'clock? (present perfect)

If you have been working for more than ten hours when he returns, he will take your place. (present perfect progressive)

The condition can also be expressed using the modal verb should. This form can be used to make an inverted condition clause without a conjunction:

If you should make a mistake, ... (equivalent to "If you make a mistake")

Should you make a mistake, ... (inverted form again equivalent to the above).

Otherwise, the condition clause in a first conditional pattern is not normally formed with a modal verb, other than can. However there are certain situations (often involving polite expressions) where will, would and could may be used in such clauses. For the occasional use of the subjunctive in the condition clause. In colloquial English, an imperative may be used with the meaning of a condition clause, as in "go eastwards a mile and you'll see it" (meaning "if you go eastwards a mile, you will see it").

Although the consequence in first conditional sentences is usually expressed using the will (or shall) future (usually the simple future, though future progressive, future perfect and future perfect progressive are used as appropriate), other variations are also possible – it may take the form of an imperative, it may use another modal verb that can have future meaning, or it may be expressed as a deduction about present or past time (consequent on a possible future event):

If it rains this afternoon, come round to my place! (imperative)

If it rains this afternoon, we can/could/should/may/might find somewhere to shelter. (other modals)

If it rains this afternoon, then yesterday's weather forecast was wrong. (deduction about the past)

If it rains this afternoon, your garden party is doomed. (deduction placed in the present)

A particular case involves a condition clause that expresses a goal (this is often done using the be + to construction, the going-to future or the verb want), and the main clause expresses something that is necessary for the achievement of that goal, usually using a modal verb of necessity or obligation. In this case it is effectively the main clause, rather than the dependent condition clause, that expresses a "condition".

If we want to succeed, we have to try harder.

If you are to get your pocket money, you must start behaving yourself.

As noted in the following section, it may be possible to express a statement about a hypothetical future situation using either the first or second conditional pattern, with little specific difference in meaning.


Second conditional

"Second conditional" or "conditional II" refers to a pattern used to describe hypothetical, typically counterfactual situations with a present or future time frame (for past time frames the third conditional is used). In the normal form of the second conditional, the condition clause is in the past tense (although it does not have past meaning), and the consequence is expressed using the conditional construction with the auxiliary would:

If I liked parties, I would attend more of them.

If it rained tomorrow, people would dance in the street.

The past tense (simple past or past progressive) of the condition clause is historically the past subjunctive. In modern English this is identical to the past indicative, except in the first and third persons singular of the verb be, where the indicative is was and the subjunctive were; in this case either form may be used. (Was is more colloquial, and were more formal, although the phrase if I were you is common in colloquial language.)

If I (he, she, it) was/were rich, there would be plenty of money available for this project.

If I (he, she, it) was/were speaking, you would not be allowed to interrupt like that.

When were is the verb of the condition clause, it can be used to make an inverted condition clause without a conjunction. If the condition clause uses the past tense of another verb, it may be replaced by the auxiliary construction was/were to + infinitive (particularly if it has hypothetical future reference); if this is done and were is used, then inversion can be applied here too:

If I was rich, ... / If I were rich, ... / Were I rich, ...

If I flew, ... / If I was/were to fly, ... / Were I to fly, ...

Another possible pattern is if it wasn't/weren't for... (inverted form: were it not for ...), which means something like "in the absence of ...".

The conditional construction of the main clause is usually the simple conditional; sometimes the conditional progressive (e.g. would be waiting) is used. Occasionally, with a first person subject, the auxiliary would is replaced by should (similarly to the way will is replaced by shall). Also, would may be replaced by another appropriate modal: could, should, might.

When referring to hypothetical future circumstance, there may be little difference in meaning between the first and second conditional (factual vs. counterfactual, realis vs. irrealis). The following two sentences have similar meaning, although the second (with the second conditional) implies less likelihood that the condition will be fulfilled:

If you leave now, you will still catch your train.

If you left now, you would still catch your train.

Notice that in indirect speech reported in the past tense, the first conditional naturally changes to the second:

She'll kill me if she finds out.

He said I would kill him if I found out.


Third conditional

"Third conditional" or "conditional III" is a pattern used to refer to hypothetical situations in a past time frame, generally counterfactual (or at least presented as counterfactual, or likely to be counterfactual). Here the condition clause is in the past perfect, and the consequence is expressed using the conditional perfect.

If you had called me, I would have come.

Would he have succeeded if I had helped him?

The condition clause can undergo inversion, with omission of the conjunction:

Had you called me, I would have come.

Would he have succeeded had I helped him?

Another possible pattern (similar to that mentioned under the second conditional) is if it hadn't been for... (inverted form: had it not been for ...), which means something like "in the absence of ...", with past reference.

In the main clause, the auxiliary would can be replaced by could, should or might, as described for the second conditional.

If only one of the two clauses has past reference, a mixed conditional pattern is used.


Mixed conditional

"Mixed conditional" usually refers to a mixture of the second and third conditionals (the counterfactual patterns). Here either the condition or the consequence, but not both, has a past time reference.

When the condition refers to the past, but the consequence to the present, the condition clause is in the past perfect (as with the third conditional), while the main clause is in the conditional mood as in the second conditional (i.e. simple conditional or conditional progressive, but not conditional perfect).

If you had done your job properly, we wouldn't be in this mess now.

If I hadn't married Kelly, I wouldn't be living in Scotland now.

When the consequence refers to the past, but the condition is not expressed as being limited to the past, the condition clause is expressed as in the second conditional (past, but not past perfect), while the main clause is in the conditional perfect as in the third conditional:

If we were soldiers, we wouldn't have done it like that.

Other variations on the respective clause patterns are possible, as used accordingly in the second and third conditionals.


Use of will and would in condition clauses

As noted above regarding the first conditional, will (or shall) is not normally used to mark future time reference in a condition clause; instead an ordinary present tense is used:

If she wins (not: will win) tomorrow, I'll eat my hat.

However there are certain situations where will can appear in a condition clause. One type of situation is referred to above under zero conditional, where will expresses futurity, but the sentence as a whole expresses factual implication rather than a potential future circumstance: "If aspirins will cure it, I'll take a couple tonight" (the taking is not a consequence of the curing, but a consequence of the expectation that they will cure).

More commonly, will appears used in condition clauses where it has a modal meaning, rather than marking the future. Relevant meanings include willingness or persistence:

If you will excuse me, I think I will slip into something more comfortable. (willingness)

If you will keep all the windows shut, of course you'll get headaches. (persistence)

In the second sentence will is stressed, and cannot be contracted to 'll.

Similarly, would is not generally used in the condition clauses of the counterfactual patterns (second and third conditional) in standard English:

If I knew (not: would know) him, I would talk to him.

If you had written (not: would have written), it would have put my mind at rest.

However, some varieties of English regularly use would (contracted to 'd) and would have ('d have) in counterfactual condition clauses, although this is often considered non-standard:

If you'd leave (standard: you left) now, you'd be on time.

If you'd have told (standard: you had told) me, we could've done something about it.

Such use of would is widespread especially in spoken American English in all sectors of society. It is not usually found in more formal writing; however some sources describe it as acceptable US English, no longer labeling it colloquial.

There are also cases where would can appear in the condition clause in British English too, but these can be considered to be modal uses of would, indicating willingness:

If you would listen to me once in a while, you might learn something.

Also, in cases where the event of the if-clause follows that of the main clause, use of would in the if-clause is standard usage (this is similar to the aspirin example given above for will):

If it would make Bill happy, I would give him the money.

Would like and could are sometimes used in condition clauses for politeness:

I'll make a pot of tea if you would like some.

Please help Mrs Brown if you could.


Inversion in condition clauses

Certain condition clauses (if-clauses) can be cast without any conjunction such as if or unless, instead using subject–auxiliary inversion to indicate their meaning.

The principal constructions are as follows:

  • In the first conditional (where the condition clause expresses a possible future condition), inversion can be applied to the form of the condition clause constructed using should:

If you feel hungry, ... (usual condition clause; present tense with future meaning)

If you should feel hungry, ... (should form of the condition clause)

Should you feel hungry, ... (inverted form)

  • In the second conditional (where the condition clause expresses a counterfactual present/future condition; this may also occur in the mixed conditional), inversion is possible in the case where the verb is were – the past subjunctive:

If she were here, ... (usual condition clause)

Were she here, ...(inverted form)

  • As a special case of the above, when a condition clause based on a different verb (normally with hypothetical future reference) is formulated using the were to construction, inversion is again possible (provided were and not was is used):

If you shot, ... (usual condition clause; past tense)

If you were to shoot, ... (were to construction)

Were you to shoot, ... (inverted form)

  • In the third conditional (where the condition clause expresses a counterfactual past condition; this may also occur in the mixed conditional), the condition clause formed with the auxiliary had can be inverted:

If he had written, ... (usual condition clause; past perfect)

Had he written, ... (inverted form)

Inversion is also possible when the present subjunctive be is used (e.g. "Be he called on by God..." for "If he be called on by God..."), but this is archaic usage for condition clauses; it is still occasionally found in dependent clauses expressing "no matter whether ...", e.g. "Be they friend or foe ..." (equivalent to "Whether they be friend or foe ...").




English nouns are inflected for grammatical number, meaning that if they are of the countable type, they generally have different forms for singular and plural. This text discusses the variety of ways in which English plural nouns are formed from the corresponding singular forms, as well as various issues concerning the usage of singulars and plurals in English.


Regular plurals

The plural morpheme in English is suffixed to the end of most nouns. Regular English plurals fall into three classes, depending upon the sound that ends the singular form:

Where a singular noun ends in a sibilant sound —/s/, /z/, /ʃ/, /ʒ/, /tʃ/ or /dʒ/— the plural is formed by adding /ɨz/. The spelling adds -es, or -s if the singular already ends in -e:













/məˈsɑːʒɨz/ or /ˈmæsɑːʒɨz/








When the singular form ends in a voiceless consonant (other than a sibilant) —/p/, /t/, /k/, /f/ (sometimes) or /θ/— the plural is formed by adding /s/. The spelling adds -s:


















For all other words (i.e. words ending in vowels or voiced non-sibilants) the regular plural adds /z/, represented orthographically by -s:












Phonologically, these rules are sufficient to describe most English plurals. However, certain complications arise in the spelling of certain plurals, as described below.


Plurals of nouns in -o

With nouns ending in o preceded by a consonant, the plural in many cases is spelled by adding -es (pronounced /z/):



heroes (or heros)




volcanoes or volcanos


However many nouns of foreign origin, including almost all Italian loanwords, add only -s:
















quarto (paper size)





Plurals of nouns in -y

Nouns ending in a y preceded by a consonant usually drop the y and add -ies (pronounced /iz/, or /aiz/ in words where the y is pronounced /ai/):









Words ending in quy also follow this pattern:





However, nouns of this type which are proper nouns (particularly names of people) form their plurals by simply adding -s: the two Kennedys, there are three Harrys in our office. With place names this rule is not always adhered to: Germanys and Germanies are both used, and Sicilies and Scillies are the standard plurals of Sicily and Scilly. Nor does the rule apply to words that are merely capitalized common nouns: P&O Ferries (from ferry).

Other exceptions include lay-bys and stand-bys.

Words ending in a y preceded by a vowel form their plurals by adding -s:







However the plural form (rarely used) of money is usually monies, although moneys is also found.


Near-regular plurals

In Old and Middle English voiceless fricatives /f/, /θ/ mutated to voiced fricatives before a voiced ending. In some words this voicing survives in the modern English plural. In the case of /f/ changing to /v/, the mutation is indicated in the orthography as well; also, a silent e is added in this case if the singular does not already end with -e:




/bɑːðz/, /bæðz/






/kɑːvz/, /kævz/











In addition, there is one word where /s/ is voiced in the plural:






Many nouns ending in /f/ or /θ/ (including all words where /f/ is represented orthographically by gh or ph) nevertheless retain the voiceless consonant:



moths (voiced /mɒðz/ is rare but does occur in New England and Canada)




Some can do either:









roofs (commonly voiced as /ruːvz/ to rhyme with hooves, but rooves is a rare archaic spelling)




turfs/turves (latter rare)


Irregular plurals

There are many other less regular ways of forming plurals, usually stemming from older forms of English or from foreign borrowings.


Nouns with identical singular and plural

Some nouns have identical singular and plural. Many of these are the names of animals:

  • bison
  • buffalo
  • deer
  • duck
  • fish
  • moose
  • pike
  • plankton
  • salmon
  • sheep
  • squid
  • swine
  • trout


The plural deers is listed in some dictionaries. As a general rule, game or other animals are often referred to in the singular for the plural in a sporting context: "He shot six brace of pheasant", "Carruthers bagged a dozen tiger last year", whereas in another context such as zoology or tourism the regular plural would be used. Eric Partridge refers to these sporting terms as "snob plurals" and conjectures that they may have developed by analogy with the common English irregular plural animal words "deer", "sheep" and "trout". Similarly, nearly all kinds of fish have no separate plural form (though there are exceptions—such as rays, sharks or lampreys). As to the word fish itself, the plural is usually identical to the singular, although fishes is sometimes used, especially when meaning "species of fish". Fishes is also used in iconic contexts, such as the Bible story of the loaves and fishes, or the reference in The Godfather, "Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes."

Other nouns that have or may have identical singular and plural forms include:

  • aircraft; watercraft; spacecraft; hovercraft; ocean-going craft
  • the blues
  • cannon (sometimes cannons)
  • head
  • iris (usually irises, but iris can be the plural for multiple plants; in medical contexts irides is used)
  • stone - as a unit of weight equal to 14 pounds (occasionally stones)
  • series, species (and other words in -ies)
  • counsel (barrister, lawyer, opinion/advice)


Certain names of peoples are not inflected for the plural:

  • Chinese (and others in -ese)
  • Swiss
  • Québécois (the feminine plural Québécoises is rarely borrowed into English)
  • This includes most names for Native American peoples, for example:
  • Cherokee
  • Cree
  • Comanche
  • Delaware
  • Hopi
  • Iroquois
  • Kiowa
  • Navajo
  • Ojibwa
  • Sioux
  • Zuni


Some exceptions include Algonquins, Apaches, Aztecs, Black Hawks, Chippewas, Hurons, Incas, Mayans, Mohawks, Oneidas, and Seminoles.

Note that English sometimes distinguishes between regular plural forms of demonyms/ethnonyms (e.g. "five Dutchmen", "several Irishmen"), and uncountable plurals used to refer to entire nationalities collectively (e.g. "the Dutch", "the Irish").

Certain other words borrowed from foreign languages such as Japanese and Māori are not inflected in the plural.


Plurals in -(e)n

The plural of a few nouns can also be formed from the singular by adding -n or -en, stemming from the Old English weak declension. Only the following three are commonly found:




(particularly when referring to a team of draft animals, sometimes oxes in nonstandard American English)



(only possible plural; originated as a double plural, with -en added to Old English plural cildra/cildru, which also led to the archaic plural childer as in Childermas)



(archaic as plural of brother in its most common meaning, but often seen as plural of brother meaning a member of a religious congregation or fraternal organization; originated as a double plural, with -en added to Early Middle English brether)


The following -(e)n plurals are found in dialectal, rare, or archaic usage:




(dialectal, Ireland)



(archaic/regional; actually earlier plural "kye" [cf. Scots "kye" - "cows"] plus -en suffix, forming a double plural)



(rare, found in some regional dialects)






(rare/dialectal, used by Rudyard Kipling in Puck of Pook's Hill)



(rare/archaic, used in King James Version of the Bible)






(archaic/obsolete, used by William Browne)



(alternative plural, also aurochs)


The word box, referring to a computer, may be pluralized semi-humorously to boxen in the hacker subculture. In the same context, multiple VAX computers are sometimes called Vaxen particularly if operating as a cluster, but multiple Unix systems are usually Unices along the Latin model.


Apophonic plurals

The plural is sometimes formed by simply changing the vowel sound of the singular (these are sometimes called mutated plurals):













mice (computer mouse can also take the regular plural form mouses)




women /ˈwɪmɨn/


This group consists of words that historically belong to the Old English consonant declension. There are many compounds of man and woman that form their plurals in the same way: postmen, policewomen, etc.

The plural of mongoose is mongooses. Mongeese is wrong, as it is a back-formation by mistaken analogy to goose / geese. It is often used in a jocular context. The form meese is sometimes also used humorously as the plural of moose (normally moose or mooses).


Miscellaneous irregular plurals

Some words have irregular plurals that do not fit any of the types given here.

person – people (also persons, in more formal contexts; people can also be a singular noun with plural peoples.)

die – dice (in the context of gaming, where dice is also often used as the singular; and also in the semiconductor industry. Otherwise dies is used.)

penny – pence (in the context of an amount of money in Britain). The 1p or 1-cent coins are called pennies. Pence is abbreviated p (also in speech, as "pee").


Irregular plurals from Latin and Greek

English has borrowed a great many words from Latin and Classical Greek. The general trend with loanwords is toward what is called Anglicization or naturalization, that is, the re-formation of the word and its inflections as normal English words. Many nouns (particularly ones from Latin) have retained their original plurals for some time after they are introduced. Other nouns have become Anglicized, taking on the normal "s" ending. In some cases, both forms are still competing.

The choice of a form can often depend on context: for a linguist, the plural of appendix is appendices (following the original language); for some physicians, the plural of appendix is appendixes. Likewise, a radio or radar engineer works with antennas, but an entomologist deals with antennae. The choice of form can also depend on the level of discourse: traditional Latin plurals are found more often in academic and scientific contexts, whereas in daily speech the Anglicized forms are more common. In the following table, the Latin plurals are listed, together with the Anglicized forms when these are more common.

Different paradigms of Latin pronunciation can lead to confusion as to the number or gender of the noun in question. As traditionally used in English, including scientific, medical, and legal contexts, Latin nouns retain the classical inflection with regard to spelling; however the pronunciation of those inflections are anglicized. The entomologist may write antennae but pronounces it /ænˈtɛni/. This may cause confusion for those who have learned a more authentic model of Latin pronunciation. The word alumnus/a is notorious in this regard, as a given inflection according to the traditional Anglicized model of Latin pronunciation sounds the same as a different number or gender in the more authentic model of pronunciation.

The fact that many of these plurals do not end in -s has led some of them to be reinterpreted as singular forms. This is particularly the case with the words datum and medium (as in a "medium of communication"), where the original plurals data and media are now, in many contexts, used more commonly as singular mass nouns: "The media is biased"; "This data shows us that ..." (although a number of scientists, especially of British origin, still say "These data show us that ..."). A similar process is causing words such as criteria and phenomena to be used as singular by some speakers, although this is still considered incorrect in standard usage.

Final a becomes -ae (also ), or just adds -s:






encyclopaedia (or encyclopædia) / encyclopedia

encyclopaedias / encyclopedias (encyclopaediae and encyclopediae are rare)


Scientific abbreviations for words of Latin origin ending in -a, such as SN for supernova, can form a plural by adding -e, as SNe for supernovae.

Final ex or ix becomes -ices (pronounced /ɨsiːz/), or just adds -es:





or indexes








Some people treat process as if it belonged to this class, pronouncing processes /ˈprɒsɨsiːz/ instead of standard /ˈprɒsɛsɨz/. Since the word comes from Latin processus, whose plural in the fourth declension is processūs with a long u, this pronunciation is by analogy, not etymology.

Final is becomes es (pronounced /iːz/):


















Axes (/ˈæksiːz/), the plural of axis, is pronounced differently from axes (/ˈæksɨz/), the plural of ax(e).

Final ies remains unchanged:







Final um becomes -a, or just adds -s:




agendum (obsolete, not listed in most dictionaries)

agenda means a "list of items of business at a meeting" and has the plural agendas




data (Now usually treated as a singular mass noun in both informal and educated usage, but usage in scientific publications shows a strong American/British divide. American usage generally prefers to treat data as a singular in all contexts, including in serious and academic publishing. British usage now widely accepts treating data as singular in standard English, including educated everyday usage at least in non-scientific use. British scientific publishing usually still prefers treating data as a plural. Some British university style guides recommend using data for both the singular and the plural use and some recommend treating it only as a singular in connection with computers.)

In engineering, drafting, surveying, and geodesy, and in weight and balance calculations for aircraft, a datum (plural datums or data) is a reference point, surface, or axis on an object or the Earth's surface against which measurements are made.




media (in communication systems and digital computers. This is now often treated as a singular mass noun)/

mediums (spiritualists, or items of medium size)








spectra (as in power spectrum in electrical engineering)


Final us becomes -i (second declension, [aɪ]) or -era or -ora (third declension), or just adds -es (especially in fourth declension, where it would otherwise be the same as the singular):













prospectuses (plural prospectus is rare although technically correct)




Campuses (The Latinate plural form campi is sometimes used, particularly with respect to colleges or universities; however, it is sometimes frowned upon. By contrast, the common plural form campuses is universally accepted.)






syllabi/syllabuses (in fact the Latin plural is syllabūs)






cactuses/cacti (in Arizona many people avoid either choice with cactus as both singular and plural.)






octopuses (note: octopi also occurs, although it is strictly speaking unfounded, because it is not a Latin noun of the second declension, but rather a Latinized form of Greek ὀκτώ-πους, eight-foot. The theoretically correct form octopodes is rarely used.)


platypuses (same as octopus: platypi occurs but is etymologically incorrect, and platypodes, while technically correct, is even rarer than octopodes)






Final us remains unchanged in the plural (fourth declension - the plural has a long ū to differentiate it from the singular short ǔ):


meatus (or meatuses)


status (but usually statuses)


Colloquial usages based in a humorous fashion on the second declension include Elvii to refer to multiple Elvis impersonators and Loti, used by petrolheads to refer to Lotus automobiles in the plural.

Some Greek plurals are preserved in English:

Final on becomes -a:











Final as in one case changes to -antes:



Atlantes (statues of the Titan); but


atlases (map collections)


Final ma in nouns of Greek origin can become -mata, although -s is usually also acceptable, and in many cases more common.















Irregular plurals from other languages

Some nouns of French origin add an -x, which may be silent or pronounced /z/:



beaux or beaus


bureaux or bureaus


châteaux or châteaus


tableaux or tableaus


Foreign terms may take native plural forms, especially when the user is addressing an audience familiar with the language. In such cases, the conventionally formed English plural may sound awkward or be confusing.

Nouns of Slavic origin add -a or -i according to native rules, or just -s:









Nouns of Hebrew origin add -im or -ot (generally m/f) according to native rules, or just -s:











Ot is pronounced os (with unvoiced s) in the Ashkenazi dialect.

Many nouns of Japanese origin have no plural form and do not change:









Other nouns such as kimonos, ninjas, futons, and tsunamis are more often seen with a regular English plural.

In New Zealand English, nouns of Māori origin can either take an -s or have no separate plural form. Words more connected to Māori culture and used in that context tend to retain the same form, while names of flora and fauna may or may not take an -s, depending on context. Many regard omission as more correct:







Māori/(occasionally Māoris)








Some words borrowed from Inuktitut (spoken in Canada and Alaska) retain the original plurals:







Iqalummiut ("inhabitant of Iqaluit")


Nunavimmiut ("inhabitant of Nunavik")


Nunavummiut ("inhabitant of Nunavut")


Nouns from languages other than the above generally form plurals as if they were native English words:





cwms (Welsh valley)








kindergartens (in the original German, the plural form would be Kindergärten)








Plurals of compound nouns

The majority of English compound nouns have one basic term, or head, with which they end. These are nouns and are pluralized in typical fashion:


able seaman

able seamen

head banger

head bangers

yellow-dog contract

yellow-dog contracts


Some compounds have one head with which they begin. These heads are also nouns and the head usually pluralizes, leaving the second, usually a post-positive adjective, term unchanged:


attorney general

attorneys general

bill of attainder

bills of attainder

court martial

courts martial

director general

directors general

fee simple absolute

fees simple absolute





ship of the line

ships of the line





chief of staff

chiefs of staff

procurator fiscal (in Scotland)

procurators fiscal


It is common in informal speech to instead pluralize the last word in the manner typical of most English nouns, but in edited prose, the forms given above are preferred.

If a compound can be thought to have two heads, both of them tend to be pluralized when the first head has an irregular plural form:






woman doctor

women doctors (no longer in common use)


Two-headed compounds in which the first head has a standard plural form, however, tend to pluralize only the final head:









In military usage, the term general, as part of an officer's title, is etymologically an adjective, but it has been adopted as a noun and thus a head, so compound titles employing it are pluralized at the end:


brigadier general

brigadier generals

major general

major generals


For compounds of three or more words that have a head (or a term functioning as a head) with an irregular plural form, only that term is pluralized:






woman of the street

women of the street


For many other compounds of three or more words with a head at the front —especially in cases where the compound is ad hoc and/or the head is metaphorical— it is generally regarded as acceptable to pluralize either the first major term or the last (if open when singular, such compounds tend to take hyphens when plural in the latter case):


ham on rye

hams on rye/ham-on-ryes






With a few extended compounds, both terms may be pluralized—again, with an alternative (which may be more prevalent, e.g., heads of state):


head of state

heads of states/heads of state

son of a bitch

sons of bitches/sons-of-a-bitch


With extended compounds constructed around o', only the last term is pluralized (or left unchanged if it is already plural):









French compounds

Many English compounds have been borrowed directly from French, and these generally follow a somewhat different set of rules. French-loaned compounds with a head at the beginning tend to pluralize both words, according to French practice:


agent provocateur

agents provocateurs

entente cordiale

ententes cordiales

fait accompli

faits accomplis

idée fixe

idées fixes


For compounds adopted directly from French where the head comes at the end, it is generally regarded as acceptable either to pluralize both words or only the last:


beau geste

beaux gestes/beau gestes

belle époque

belles époques/belle époques

bon mot

bons mots/bon mots

bon vivant

bons vivants/bon vivants

bel homme

beaux hommes


French-loaned compounds longer than two words tend to follow the rules of the original language, which usually involves pluralizing only the head at the beginning:




cri du coeur

cris du coeur

coup d'état

coups d'état

tour de force

tours de force





A distinctive case is the compound film noir. For this French-loaned artistic term, English-language texts variously use as the plural films noirs, films noir, and, most prevalently, film noirs. The 11th edition of the standard Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (2006) lists film noirs as the preferred style. Three primary bases may be identified for this:

  1. Unlike other compounds borrowed directly from French, film noir is used to refer primarily to English-language cultural artifacts; a typically English-style plural is thus unusually appropriate.
  2. Again, unlike other foreign-loaned compounds, film noir refers specifically to the products of popular culture; consequently, popular usage holds more orthographical authority than is usual.
  3. English has adopted noir as a stand-alone noun in artistic contexts, leading it to serve as the lone head in a variety of compounds (e.g., psycho-noir, sci-fi noir).


Plurals of letters and abbreviations

The plural of individual letters is normally written with -'s: there are two h's in this sentence; mind your p's and q's; dot the i's and cross the t's.

Some people extend this use of the apostrophe to other cases, such as plurals of numbers written in figures (e.g. "1990's"), words used as terms (e.g. "his writing uses a lot of but's"). However others prefer to avoid this method (which can lead to confusion with the possessive -'s), and write 1990s, buts; this is the style recommended by the Chicago Manual of Style.

Likewise, acronyms and initialisms are normally pluralized simply by adding (lowercase) -s, as in MPs, although the apostrophe is sometimes seen. Use of the apostrophe is more common in those cases where the letters are followed by periods (B.A.'s), or where the last letter is S (as in PS's and CAS's, although PSs and CASs are also acceptable; the ending -es is also sometimes seen).

English (like Latin and certain other European languages) can form a plural of certain one-letter abbreviations by doubling the letter: p. ("page"), pp. ("pages"). Other examples include ll. ("lines"), ff. ("following lines/pages"), hh. ("hands", as a measure), PP. ("Popes"), ss. (or §§) ("sections"), vv. ("volumes"). Some multi-letter abbreviations can be treated the same way, by doubling the final letter: MS ("manuscript"), MSS ("manuscripts"); op. ("opus"), opp. ("opera" as plural of opus).

However, often the abbreviation used for the singular is used also as the abbreviation for the plural; this is normal for most units of measurement and currency, as in 10 m ("10 metres").


Headless nouns

In The Language Instinct, linguist Steven Pinker discusses what he calls "headless words", typically bahuvrihi compounds, like lowlife and flatfoot, in which life and foot are not heads semantically; that is, a lowlife is not a type of life, and a flatfoot is not a type of foot. When the common form of such a word is singular, it is treated as if it has a regular plural, even if the final constituent of the word is usually pluralized in a nonregular fashion. Thus the plural of lowlife is lowlifes, not "lowlives", according to Pinker. Other proposed examples include:




still life

still lifes




An exception is Blackfoot, of which the plural can be Blackfeet, though that form of the name is officially rejected by the Blackfoot First Nations of Canada.

Another analogous case is that of sport team names such as the Florida Marlins and Toronto Maple Leafs.


Defective nouns


Plurals without singulars

Some nouns have no singular form. Such a noun is called a plurale tantum. Examples include cattle, thanks, clothes (originally a plural of cloth).

A particular set of nouns, describing things having two parts, comprises the major group of pluralia tantum in modern English:

glasses (a pair of spectacles), pants, panties, pantyhose, pliers, scissors, shorts, suspenders, tongs (metalworking & cooking), trousers, etc.

These words are interchangeable with a pair of scissors, a pair of trousers, and so forth. In the American fashion industry it is common to refer to a single pair of pants as a pant —though this is a back-formation, the English word (deriving from the French pantalon) was originally singular. In the same field, one half of a pair of scissors separated from the other half is, rather illogically, referred to as a half-scissor. Tweezers used to be part of this group, but tweezer has come into common usage only since the second half of the twentieth century.

There are also some plural nouns whose singular forms exist, though they are much more rarely encountered than the plurals:













Singulars without plurals

Mass nouns (or uncountable nouns) do not represent distinct objects, so the singular and plural semantics do not apply in the same way. Some examples:

  • Abstract nouns

deceit, information, cunning, and nouns derived from adjectives, such as honesty, wisdom, beauty, intelligence, poverty, stupidity, curiosity, and words ending with "ness", such as goodness, freshness, laziness, and nouns which are homonyms of adjectives with a similar meaning, such as good, bad (can also use goodness and badness), hot, and cold.

  • In the arts and sciences

chemistry, geometry, surgery, the blues, jazz, rock and roll, impressionism, surrealism. This includes those that look plural but function as grammatically singular in English: mathematics (and in British English the shortened form 'maths'), physics, mechanics, dynamics, statics, thermodynamics, aerodynamics, electronics, hydrodynamics, robotics, acoustics, optics, computer graphics, cryptography, ethics, linguistics, etc.; e.g., Mathematics is fun; Cryptography is the science of codes and ciphers; theromodynamics is the science of heat. Data often functions as a singular in terms such as 'data collection' or 'data processing'.

  • Chemical elements and other physical entities:

aluminum (US) / aluminium (UK), copper, gold, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, equipment, furniture, traffic, air and water

Some mass nouns can be pluralized, but the meaning in this case may change somewhat. For example, when I have two grains of sand, I do not have two sands; I have sand. There is more sand in your pile than in mine, not more sands. However, there could be the many "sands of Africa" — either many distinct stretches of sand, or distinct types of sand of interest to geologists or builders, or simply the allusive The Sands of Mars.

It is rare to pluralize furniture in this way and information is never pluralized.

There is only one class of atoms called oxygen, but there are several isotopes of oxygen, which might be referred to as different oxygens. In casual speech, oxygen might be used as shorthand for "oxygen atoms", but in this case, it is not a mass noun, so it is entirely sensible to refer to multiple oxygens in the same molecule.

One would interpret Bob's wisdoms as various pieces of Bob's wisdom (that is, don't run with scissors, defer to those with greater knowledge), deceits as a series of instances of deceitful behavior (lied on income tax, dated my wife), and the different idlenesses of the worker as plural distinct manifestations of the mass concept of idleness (or as different types of idleness, "bone lazy" versus "no work to do").

The pair specie and species both come from a Latin word meaning "kind", but they do not form a singular-plural pair. In Latin, specie is the ablative singular form, while species is the nominative form, which happens to be the same in both singular and plural. In English, species behaves similarly —as a noun with identical singular and plural— while specie is treated as a mass noun, referring to money in the form of coins (the idea is of "[payment] in kind").


Singulars as plural and plurals as singular


Plural words becoming singular

Plural in form but singular in construction

Certain words which were originally plural in form have come to be used almost exclusively as singulars (usually uncountable); for example billiards, measles, news, mathematics, physics etc. Some of these words, such as news, are strongly and consistently felt as singular by fluent speakers. These words are usually marked in dictionaries with the phrase "plural in form but singular in construction" (or similar wording). Others, such as aesthetics, are less strongly or consistently felt as singular; for the latter type, the dictionary phrase "plural in form but singular or plural in construction" recognizes variable usage.


Plural form became a singular form

Some words of foreign origin are much better known in their (foreign-morphology) plural form, and are often not even recognized by English speakers as having plural form; descriptively, in English morphology many of these simply are not in plural form, because English has naturalized the foreign plural as the English singular. Usage of the original singular may be considered pedantic, hypercorrective, or incorrect by some speakers. In the examples below, the original plural is now commonly used as a singular, and in some cases a regular English plural (effectively a double plural) has been formed from it.


Original singular

Original plural/

common singular

Common plural


















data (mass noun)



graffiti (mass noun)






paninis (currently gaining use)






spaghetti (mass noun)


Magazine was derived from Arabic via French. It was originally plural, but in French and English, it is always regarded as singular.

Some other words whose plurals are sometimes misused as singulars include:








Some words have unusually formed singulars and plurals, but develop "normal" singular-plural pairs by back-formation. For example, pease (modern peas) was in origin a singular with plural peasen. However, pease came to be analysed as plural by analogy, from which a new singular pea was formed; the spelling of pease was also altered accordingly, surviving only in the name of the dish pease porridge or pease pudding. Similarly, termites was the three-syllable plural of termes; this singular was lost, however, and the plural form reduced to two syllables. Syringe is a back-formation from syringes, itself the plural of syrinx, a musical instrument. Cherry is from Norman French cherise. Phases was once the plural of phasis, but the singular is now phase.

Kudos is a singular Greek word meaning praise, but is often taken to be a plural. At present, however, kudo is considered an error, though the usage is becoming more common as kudos becomes better known. The name of the Greek sandwich style gyros is increasingly undergoing a similar transformation.

The term, from Latin, for the main upper arm flexor in the singular is the biceps muscle (from biceps brachii); however, many English speakers take it to be a plural and refer to the muscle of only one arm, by back-formation, as a bicep. The correct —although very seldom used— Latin plural would be bicipites.

The word sastrugi (hard ridges on deep snow) is of Russian origin and its singular is sastruga; but the imaginary Latin-type singular sastrugus has sometimes been used.


Geographical plurals used as singular

Geographical names may be treated as singular even if they are plural in form, if they are regarded as representing a single entity such as a country: The United States is a country in North America (similarly with the Netherlands, the Philippines, Trinidad and Tobago, etc.) However if the sense is a group of geographical objects, such as islands or mountains, a plural-form name will be treated as plural: The Hebrides are a group of islands off the coast of Scotland.


Singulars with collective meaning treated as plural

A number of words like army, company, crowd, family, fleet, government, majority, mess, number, pack, party and team may refer either to a single entity or the members of the set composing it. If the latter meaning is intended, the word (though singular in form) may be treated as if it were a plural, in that it may take a plural verb and be replaced with a plural pronoun: the government are considering their position (alternatively the government is considering its position).

Thus, as H. W. Fowler describes, in British English they are "treated as singular or plural at discretion"; Fowler notes that occasionally a "delicate distinction" is made possible by discretionary plurals: "The Cabinet is divided is better, because in the order of thought a whole must precede division; and The Cabinet are agreed is better, because it takes two or more to agree."


Plurals of numbers

The following rules apply to the plurals of numerical terms such as dozen, score, hundred, thousand, million, and similar:

  • When modified by a number, the plural is not inflected, that is, has no -s added. Hence one hundred, two million, four score, etc. (The resulting quantitative expressions are treated as numbers, in that they can modify nouns directly: three dozen eggs, although of is used before pronouns or definite noun phrases: three dozen of them/of those eggs.)
  • When not modified by a number, the plural takes -s as usual, and the resulting expression is not a number (it requires of if modifying a noun): I have hundreds, dozens of complaints, the thousands of people affected.
  • When the modifier is a vaguer expression of number, either pattern may be followed: several hundred (people) or several hundreds (of people).
  • When the word has a specific meaning rather than being a simple expression of quantity, it is pluralized as an ordinary noun: Last season he scored eight hundreds [=scores of at least 100 runs]. The same applies to other numbers: My phone number consists of three fives and four sixes.
  • Note the expressions by the dozen etc. (singular); in threes g=in groups of three] etc. (plural); eight sevens are fifty-six etc.


Nouns used attributively

Nouns used attributively to qualify other nouns are generally in the singular, even though for example, a dog catcher catches more than one dog, and a department store has more than one department. This is true even for some binary nouns where the singular form is not found in isolation, such as a trouser mangle or the scissor kick. This is also true where the attribute noun is itself qualified with a number, such as a twenty-dollar bill, a ten-foot pole or a two-man tent. The plural is used for pluralia tantum nouns: a glasses case is for eyeglasses, while a glass case is made of glass (but compare eyeglass case); also an arms race versus arm wrestling. The plural may be used to emphasise the plurality of the attribute, especially in British English but very rarely in American English: a careers advisor, a languages expert. The plural is also more common with irregular plurals for various attributions: women killers are women who kill, whereas woman killers are those who kill women.


Teams and their members

In the names of sports teams, sometimes a noun will be given a regular plural in -s even though that noun in normal use has an irregular plural form (a particular case of headless nouns as described above). For example, there are teams called the Florida Marlins and the Toronto Maple Leafs, even though the word marlin normally has its plural identical to the singular, and the plural of leaf is leaves. (This does not always apply; for example, there is the Minnesota Lynx, not Lynxes.) Some teams use a non-standard plural spelling in their names, such as the Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox.

When a sport team's name is plural, the corresponding singular is often used to denote a member of that team; for example a player for the Cincinnati Reds may be referred to as a (Cincinnati) Red. This also applies to the St. Louis Blues ice hockey team, even though it is named after the song the "St. Louis Blues", and thus blues was originally a singular identical to its plural.

When a team's name is plural in form but cannot be singularized by removing an -s, as in Boston Red Sox, the plural is sometimes used as a singular (a player may be referred to as "a Red Sox").

When a team's name is singular, as in Miami Heat and Colorado Avalanche, the same singular word may also sometimes be used to denote a player (a Heat, an Avalanche). When referring to more than one player, it is normal to use Heat players or Avalanche players (although in the latter case the team's plural-form nickname Avs is also available).


Adjectives as collective plurals

Certain adjectives can be used, uninflected, as plurals denoting people of the designated type. For example unemployed and homeless can be used to mean "unemployed people" and "homeless people", as in There are two million unemployed. Such usage is common with the definite article, to denote people of a certain type generally: the unemployed, the homeless.

This is common with certain nationalities: the British, the Dutch, the English, the French, the Irish, the Spanish, the Welsh, and those where the adjective and noun singular and plural are identical anyway, including the Swiss and those in -ese (the Chinese etc.). In the case of most nationalities, however, the plural of the demonym noun is used for this purpose: (the) Americans, (the) Poles. Cases where the adjective formation is possible, but the noun provides a commonly used alternative, include the Scottish (or more commonly (the) Scots), the Danish (or (the) Danes), the Finnish (or (the) Finns), the Swedish (or (the) Swedes).

The noun is normally used anyway when referring to specific sets of people (five Frenchmen, a few Spaniards), although the adjective may be used especially in case of a group of mixed or unspecified sex, if the demonym nouns are gender-specific: there were five French (or French people) in the bar (if neither Frenchmen or Frenchwomen would be appropriate).




A compound is a word composed of more than one free morpheme.

English compounds may be classified in several ways, such as the word classes or the semantic relationship of their components.

Examples by word class:





















































Compound nouns

Most English compound nouns are noun phrases (= nominal phrases) that include a noun modified by adjectives or attributive nouns. Due to the English tendency towards conversion, the two classes are not always easily distinguished. Most English compound nouns that consist of more than two words can be constructed recursively by combining two words at a time. Combining "science" and "fiction", and then combining the resulting compound with "writer", for example, can construct the compound "science fiction writer". Some compounds, such as salt and pepper or mother-of-pearl, cannot be constructed in this way.


Types of compound nouns

Since English is a mostly analytic language, unlike most other Germanic languages, it creates compounds by concatenating words without case markers. As in other Germanic languages, the compounds may be arbitrarily long. However, this is obscured by the fact that the written representation of long compounds always contains spaces. Short compounds may be written in three different ways, which do not correspond to different pronunciations, however:

  • The "solid" or "closed" forms in which two usually moderately short words appear together as one. Solid compounds most likely consist of short (monosyllabic) units that often have been established in the language for a long time. Examples are housewife, lawsuit, wallpaper, basketball, etc.
  • The hyphenated form in which two or more words are connected by a hyphen. Compounds that contain affixes, such as house-build(er) and single-mind(ed)(ness), as well as adjective-adjective compounds and verb-verb compounds, such as blue-green and freeze-dried, are often hyphenated. Compounds that contain articles, prepositions or conjunctions, such as rent-a-cop, mother-of-pearl and salt-and-pepper, are also often hyphenated.
  • The open or spaced form consisting of newer combinations of usually longer words, such as distance learning, player piano, lawn tennis, etc.

Usage in the US and in the UK differs and often depends on the individual choice of the writer rather than on a hard-and-fast rule; therefore, open, hyphenated, and closed forms may be encountered for the same compound noun, such as the triplets container ship/container-ship/containership and particle board/particle-board/particleboard.

In addition to this native English compounding, there is the classical type, which consists of words derived from Latin, as horticulture, and those of Greek origin, such as photography, the components of which are in bound form (connected by connecting vowels, which are most often -i- and -o- in Latin and Greek respectively) and cannot stand alone.


Analyzability (transparency)

In general, the meaning of a compound noun is a specialization of the meaning of its head. The modifier limits the meaning of the head. This is most obvious in descriptive compounds (known as karmadharaya compounds in the Sanskrit tradition), in which the modifier is used in an attributive or appositional manner. A blackboard is a particular kind of board, which is (generally) black, for instance.

In determinative compounds, however, the relationship is not attributive. For example, a footstool is not a particular type of stool that is like a foot. Rather, it is a stool for one's foot or feet. (It can be used for sitting on, but that is not its primary purpose.) In a similar manner, an office manager is the manager of an office, an armchair is a chair with arms, and a raincoat is a coat against the rain. These relationships, which are expressed by prepositions in English, would be expressed by grammatical case in other languages. (Compounds of this type are known as tatpurusha in the Sanskrit tradition.)

Both of the above types of compounds are called endocentric compounds because the semantic head is contained within the compound itself—a blackboard is a type of board, for example, and a footstool is a type of stool.

However, in another common type of compound, the exocentric or (known as a bahuvrihi compound in the Sanskrit tradition), the semantic head is not explicitly expressed. A redhead, for example, is not a kind of head, but is a person with red hair. Similarly, a blockhead is also not a head, but a person with a head that is as hard and unreceptive as a block (i.e. stupid). And, outside of veterinary surgery, a lionheart is not a type of heart, but a person with a heart like a lion (in its bravery, courage, fearlessness, etc.).

Note in general the way to tell the two apart:

  • Can you paraphrase the meaning of the compound "[X . Y]" to A person/thing that is a Y, or ... that does Y, if Y is a verb (with X having some unspecified connection)? This is an endocentric compound.
  • Can you paraphrase the meaning if the compound "[X . Y]" to A person/thing that is with Y, with X having some unspecified connection? This is an exocentric compound.

Exocentric compounds occur more often in adjectives than nouns. A V-8 car is a car with a V-8 engine rather than a car that is a V-8, and a twenty-five-dollar car is a car with a worth of $25, not a car that is $25. The compounds shown here are bare, but more commonly, a suffixal morpheme is added, esp. -ed. Hence, a two-legged person is a person with two legs, and this is exocentric.

On the other hand, endocentric adjectives are also frequently formed, using the suffixal morphemes -ing or -er/or. A people-carrier is a clear endocentric determinative compound: it is a thing that is a carrier of people. The related adjective, car-carrying, is also endocentric: it refers to an object, which is a carrying-thing (or equivalent, which does carry).

These types account for most compound nouns, but there are other, rarer types as well. Coordinative, copulative or dvandva compounds combine elements with a similar meaning, and the compound meaning may be a generalization instead of a specialization. Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example, is the combined area of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but a fighter-bomber is an aircraft that is both a fighter and a bomber. Iterative or amredita compounds repeat a single element, to express repetition or as an emphasis. Day by day and go-go are examples of this type of compound, which has more than one head.

Analyzability may be further limited by cranberry morphemes and semantic changes. For instance, the word butterfly, commonly thought to be a metathesis for flutter by, which the bugs do, is actually based on an old bubbe meise that butterflies are petite witches that steal butter from window sills. Cranberry is a part translation from Low German, which is why we cannot recognize the element cran (from the Low German kraan or kroon, "crane"). The ladybird or ladybug was named after the Christian expression "our Lady, the Virgin Mary".

In the case of verb+noun compounds, the noun may be either the subject or the object of the verb. In playboy, for example, the noun is the subject of the verb (the boy plays), whereas it is the object in callgirl (someone calls the girl).


Sound patterns

Stress patterns may distinguish a compound word from a noun phrase consisting of the same component words. For example, a black board, adjective plus noun, is any board that is black, and has equal stress on both elements. The compound blackboard, on the other hand, though it may have started out historically as black board, now is stressed on only the first element, black. Thus a compound such as the White House normally has a falling intonation which a phrase such as a white house does not.


Compound modifiers

English compound modifiers are constructed in a very similar way to the compound noun. Blackboard Jungle, leftover ingredients, gunmetal sheen, and green monkey disease are only a few examples.

A compound modifier is a sequence of modifiers of a noun that function as a single unit. It consists of two or more words (adjectives, gerunds, or nouns) of which the left-hand component modifies the right-hand one, as in "the dark-green dress": dark modifies the green that modifies dress.


Solid compound modifiers

There are some well-established permanent compound modifiers that have become solid over a longer period, especially in American usage: earsplitting, eyecatching, and downtown.

However, in British usage, these, apart from downtown, are more likely written with a hyphen: ear-splitting, eye-catching.

Other solid compound modifiers are for example:

  • Numbers that are spelled out and have the suffix -fold added: "fifteenfold", "sixfold".
  • Points of the compass: northwest, northwestern, northwesterly, northwestwards. In British usage, the hyphenated and open versions are more common: north-western, north-westerly, north west, north-westwards.


Hyphenated compound modifiers

Major style guides advise consulting a dictionary to determine whether a compound modifier should be hyphenated; the dictionary's hyphenation should be followed even when the compound modifier follows a noun (that is, regardless of whether in attributive or predicative position), because they are permanent compounds (whereas the general rule with temporary compounds is that hyphens are omitted in the predicative position because they are used only when necessary to prevent misreading, which is usually only in the attributive position, and even there, only on a case-by-case basis).

Generally, a compound modifier is hyphenated if the hyphen helps the reader differentiate a compound modifier from two adjacent modifiers that modify the noun independently. Compare the following examples:

  • "small appliance industry": a small industry producing appliances
  • "small-appliance industry": an industry producing small appliances

The hyphen is unneeded when capitalization or italicization makes grouping clear:

  • "old English scholar": an old person who is English and a scholar, or an old scholar who studies English
  • "Old English scholar": a scholar of Old English.
  • "De facto proceedings" (not "de-facto")

If, however, there is no risk of ambiguities, it may be written without a hyphen: Sunday morning walk.

Hyphenated compound modifiers may have been formed originally by an adjective preceding a noun, when this phrase in turn precedes another noun:

  • "Round table" → "round-table discussion"
  • "Blue sky" → "blue-sky law"
  • "Red light" → "red-light district"
  • "Four wheels" → "four-wheel drive" (historically, the singular or root is used, not the plural)

Others may have originated with a verb preceding an adjective or adverb:

  • "Feel good" → "feel-good factor"
  • "Buy now, pay later" → "buy-now pay-later purchase"

Yet others are created with an original verb preceding a preposition.

  • "Stick on" → "stick-on label"
  • "Walk on" → "walk-on part"
  • "Stand by" → "stand-by fare"
  • "Roll on, roll off" → "roll-on roll-off ferry"

The following compound modifiers are always hyphenated when they are not written as one word:

  • An adjective preceding a noun to which -d or -ed has been added as a past-participle construction, used before a noun:
    • "loud-mouthed hooligan"
    • "middle-aged lady"
    • "rose-tinted glasses"
  • A noun, adjective, or adverb preceding a present participle:
    • "an awe-inspiring personality"
    • "a long-lasting affair"
    • "a far-reaching decision"
  • Numbers, whether or not spelled:
    • "seven-year itch"
    • "five-sided polygon"
    • "20th-century poem"
    • "30-piece band"
    • "tenth-storey window"
    • "a 20-year-old man" (as a compound modifier) and "the 20-year-old" (as a compound noun) – but "a man, who is 20 years old"
  • A numeral with the affix -fold has a hyphen (15-fold), but when spelled out takes a solid construction (fifteenfold).
  • Numbers, spelled out or not, with added -odd: sixteen-odd, 70-odd.
  • Compound modifiers with high- or low-: "high-level discussion", "low-price markup".
  • Colours in compounds:
    • "a dark-blue sweater"
    • "a reddish-orange dress".
  • Fractions as modifiers are hyphenated: "five-eighths inches", but if numerator or denominator are already hyphenated, the fraction itself does not take a hyphen: "a thirty-three thousandth part". (Fractions used as nouns have no hyphens: "I ate only one third of the pie.")
  • Comparatives and superlatives in compound adjectives also take hyphens:
    • "the highest-placed competitor"
    • "a shorter-term loan"
  • However, a construction with most is not hyphenated:
    • "the most respected member".
  • Compounds including two geographical modifiers:
    • "Afro-Cuban"
    • "African-American" (sometimes)
    • "Anglo-Indian"
  • But not
    • "Central American".


The following compound modifiers are not normally hyphenated:

  • Compound modifiers that are not hyphenated in the relevant dictionary or that are unambiguous without a hyphen.
  • Where there is no risk of ambiguity:
    • "a Sunday morning walk"
  • Left-hand components of a compound modifier that end in -ly and that modify right-hand components that are past participles (ending in -ed):
    • "a hotly disputed subject"
    • "a greatly improved scheme"
    • "a distantly related celebrity"
  • Compound modifiers that include comparatives and superlatives with moremostless or least:
    • "a more recent development"
    • "the most respected member"
    • "a less opportune moment"
    • "the least expected event"
  • Ordinarily hyphenated compounds with intensive adverbs in front of adjectives:
    • "very much admired classicist"
    • "really well accepted proposal"


Using a group of compound nouns containing the same "head"

Special rules apply when multiple compound nouns with the same "head" are used together, often with a conjunction (and with hyphens and commas if they are needed).

  • The third- and fourth-grade teachers met with the parents.
  • Both full- and part-time employees will get raises this year.
  • We don't see many 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old children around here.


Compound verbs






overrate, underline, outrun



downsize, upgrade



whitewash, blacklist, foulmouth



browbeat, sidestep, manhandle



out-Herod, out-fox


A compound verb is usually composed of a preposition and a verb, although other combinations also exist. The term compound verb was first used in publication in Grattan and Gurrey's Our Living Language (1925).

From a morphological point of view, some compound verbs are difficult to analyze because several derivations are plausible. Blacklist, for instance, might be analyzed as an adjective+verb compound, or as an adjective+noun compound that becomes a verb through zero derivation. Most compound verbs originally have the collective meaning of both components, but some of them later gain additional meanings that may supersede the original, emergent sense. Therefore, sometimes the resultant meanings are seemingly barely related to the original contributors.

Compound verbs composed of a noun and verb are comparatively rare, and the noun is generally not the direct object of the verb. In English, compounds such as bread-bake or car-drive do not exist. Yet, we find literal action words, such as breastfeed, and washing instructions on clothing as for example hand wash.



Compound verbs with single-syllable modifiers are solid, or unhyphenated. Those with longer modifiers may originally be hyphenated, but as they became established, they became solid, e.g.,

  • overhang (English origin)
  • counterattack (Latin origin)

There was a tendency in the 18th century to use hyphens excessively, that is, to hyphenate all previously established solid compound verbs. American English, however, has diminished the use of hyphens, while British English is more conservative.


Phrasal verbs

English syntax distinguishes between phrasal verbs and prepositional verbs. Consider the following:

I held up my hand.

I held up a bank.

I held my hand up.

I held a bank up.

The first three sentences are possible in English; the last one is unlikely. When to hold up means to raise, it is a prepositional verb; the preposition up can be detached from the verb and has its own individual meaning "from lower to a higher position". As a prepositional verb, it has a literal meaning. However, when to hold up means to rob, it is a phrasal verb. A phrasal verb is used in an idiomatic, figurative or even metaphorical context. The preposition is inextricably linked to the verb; the meaning of each word cannot be determined independently but is in fact part of the idiom.

The Oxford English Grammar (ISBN 0-19-861250-8) distinguishes seven types of prepositional or phrasal verbs in English:

  • intransitive phrasal verbs (e.g. give in)
  • transitive phrasal verbs (e.g. find out [discover])
  • monotransitive prepositional verbs (e.g. look after [care for])
  • doubly transitive prepositional verbs (e.g. blame [something] on [someone])
  • copular prepositional verbs. (e.g. serve as)
  • monotransitive phrasal-prepositional verbs (e.g. look up to [respect])
  • doubly transitive phrasal-prepositional verbs (e.g. put [something] down to [someone] gattribute to])

English has a number of other kinds of compound verb idioms. There are compound verbs with two verbs (e.g. make do). These too can take idiomatic prepositions (e.g. get rid of). There are also idiomatic combinations of verb and adjective (e.g. come true, run amok) and verb and adverb (make sure), verb and fixed noun (e.g. go ape); and these, too, may have fixed idiomatic prepositions (e.g. take place on).


Misuses of the term

"Compound verb" is often used in place of:

  1. "complex verb", a type of complex phrase. But this usage is not accepted in linguistics, because "compound" and "complex" are not synonymous.
  2. "verb phrase" or "verbal phrase". This is a partially, but not entirely, incorrect use. A phrasal verb can be a one-word verb, of which compound verb is a type. However, many phrasal verbs are multi-word.
  3. "phrasal verb". A sub-type of verb phrase, which have a particle as a word before or after the verb.




In English, possessive words or phrases exist for nouns and most pronouns, as well as some noun phrases. These can play the roles of determiners (also called possessive adjectives when corresponding to a pronoun) or of nouns.

Nouns, noun phrases and some pronouns generally form a possessive with the suffix -'s (or in some cases just by adding an apostrophe to an existing -s). This form, particularly in English language teaching, is sometimes called the Saxon genitive, reflecting the suffix's derivation from a genitive case ending in Old English (which in older scholarship was known as Anglo-Saxon). Personal pronouns, however, have irregular possessives, and most of them have different forms for possessive determiners and possessive pronouns, such as my and mine or your and yours.

Possessives are one of the means by which genitive constructions are formed in modern English, the other principal one being the use of the preposition of. It is sometimes stated that the possessives represent a grammatical case, called the genitive or possessive case, though many linguists do not accept this view, regarding the -'s ending as a clitic rather than as a case ending.


Formation of possessive construction

Nouns and noun phrases

The possessive form of an English noun, or more generally a noun phrase, is made by suffixing a morpheme which is represented orthographically as 's (the letter s preceded by an apostrophe), and is pronounced in the same way as the regular English plural ending -(e)s: namely as /ɨz/ when following a sibilant sound (/s/, /z/, /ʃ/, /ʒ/, /tʃ/ or /dʒ/), as /s/ when following any other voiceless consonant (/p/, /t/, /k/, /f/ or /θ/), and as /z/ otherwise. For example:

  • Mitch /mɪtʃ/ has the possessive Mitch's /ˈmɪtʃɨz/
  • luck /lʌk/ has the possessive luck's /lʌks/
  • man /mæn/ has the possessive man's /mænz/

Note the distinction from the plural in nouns whose plural is irregular: man's vs. men, wife's vs. wives, etc.

In the case of plural nouns ending in -s, and in the case of certain other nouns ending in -s, the possessive is indicated in writing just by adding an apostrophe, and is not indicated in the pronunciation:

  • the possessive of cats is cats', both words being pronounced /kæts/
  • the possessive of Jesus is most commonly Jesus', both words being pronounced /ˈdʒiːzəs/

Singular nouns ending in -s can also form a possessive regularly by adding -'s, as in Charles's /ˈtʃɑː(r)lzɨz/. The Chicago Manual of Style recommends this more modern style, while stating that adding just an apostrophe (e.g. Jesus') is also correct. The Elements of Style and the Canadian Press Stylebook prefer the form in -s's with the exception of classical and Biblical proper names (Jesus' teachings, Augustus' guards) and common phrases that do not take the extra s (e.g. "for goodness' sake").

More generally, the -'s morpheme can be attached finally to noun phrases, even if the head noun does not end the phrase. For example, the phrase the king of Spain can form the possessive the king of Spain's, and the phrase the man we saw yesterday can form the man we saw yesterday's. This property is taken as evidence that -'s is a clitic rather than a case ending.



Unlike with other noun phrases which only have a single possessive form, personal pronouns in English have two possessive forms: possessive determiners (used to form noun phrases such as "her success") and possessive pronouns (used in place of nouns as in "I prefer hers", and also in predicative expressions as in "the success was hers"). In most cases these are different from each other.

For example, the pronoun I has possessive determiner my and possessive pronoun mine; you has your and yours; he has his for both; she has her and hers; it has its for both (though rarely used as a possessive pronoun); we has our and ours; they has their and theirs. The archaic thou has thy and thine.

Note that possessive its has no apostrophe, although it is sometimes written with one in error, by confusion with the common possessive ending -'s and the contraction it's used for it is and it has. Possessive its was originally formed with an apostrophe in the 17th century, but this was dropped in the early 19th century, presumably to make it more similar to the other personal pronoun possessives.

The interrogative and relative pronoun who has the possessive whose. In its relative (but not interrogative) use, whose can also serve as a possessive of which (i.e. to refer to things and abstracts as well as people).

Other pronouns that form possessives (mainly indefinite pronouns) do so in the same way as nouns, with -'s, for example one's, somebody's (and somebody else's). Certain pronouns, such as the demonstratives this, that, these, those, do not have possessive forms.


Syntactic functions of possessive words or phrases

English possessives play two principal roles in syntax:

  • the role of possessive determiners (more popularly called possessive adjectives) standing before a noun, as in my house or John's two sisters;
  • the role of possessive pronouns (although they may not always be called that), standing independently in place of a noun, as in mine is large; they prefer John's.


As determiners

Possessive noun phrases such as "John's" can be used as determiners. When a form corresponding to a personal pronoun is used as a possessive determiner, the correct form must be used, as described above (my rather than mine, etc.).

Possessive determiners are not used in combination with articles or other definite determiners. For example, it is not correct to say *the my hat, *a my hat or *this my hat; an alternative is provided in the last two cases by the "double genitive" as described in the following section – a hat of mine (also one of my hats), this hat of mine. Possessive determiners can nonetheless be combined with certain quantifiers, as in my six hats (which differs in meaning from six of my hats).

A possessive adjective can be intensified with the word own, which can itself be either an adjective or a pronoun: my own (bed), John's own (bed).

In some expressions the possessive has itself taken on the role of a noun modifier, as in cow's milk (used rather than cow milk). It then no longer functions as a determiner; adjectives and determiners can be placed before it, as in the warm cow's milk, where idiomatically the and warm now refer to the milk, not to the cow.

Possessive relationships can also be expressed periphrastically, by preceding the noun or noun phrase with the preposition of, although possessives are usually more idiomatic where a true relationship of possession is involved. Some examples:

  • the child's bag might also be expressed as the bag of the child
  • our cats' mother might be expressed as the mother of our cats
  • the system's failure might be expressed as the failure of the system

Another alternative in the last case may be the system failure, using system as a noun adjunct rather than a possessive.


As pronouns

Possessives can also play the role of nouns or pronouns; namely they can stand alone as a noun phrase, without qualifying a noun. In this role they can function as the subject or object of verbs, or as a complement of prepositions. When a form corresponding to a personal pronoun is used in this role, the correct form must be used, as described above (mine rather than my, etc.).


  • I'll do my work, and you do yours. (here yours is a possessive pronoun, meaning "your work", and standing as the object of the verb do)
  • My car is old, Mary's is new. (here Mary's means "Mary's car" and stands as the subject of its clause)
  • Your house is nice, but I prefer to stay in mine. (here mine means "my house", and is the complement of the preposition in)


Double genitive

  • that hard heart of thine ("Venus and Adonis" line 500)
  • this extreme exactness of his ("Tristram Shandy", chapter 1.IV)
  • that madness of yours, (Cicero, Against Catiline, often so translated)
  • Any Friend of Nicholas Nickleby's is a Friend of Mine, and frequent uses of the title Friend of Mine
  • a picture of the king's (that is, a picture owned by the king, as distinguished from a picture of the king, one in which the king is portrayed)

Some writers regard this as a questionable usage, although it has a history in careful English. "Moreover, in some sentences the double genitive offers the only way to express what is meant. There is no substitute for it in a sentence such as That's the only friend of yours that I've ever met, since sentences such as That's your only friend that I've ever met and That's your only friend, whom I've ever met are not grammatical." "The construction is confined to human referents: compare a friend of the Gallery/ no fault of the Gallery." Some object to the name, as the "of" clause is not a genitive. Alternative names are "post-genitive", "double possessive" and "oblique genitive". The Oxford English Dictionary says that this usage was "Originally partitive, but subseq[uently became a] ... simple possessive ... or as equivalent to an appositive phrase ...".


In predicative expressions

When they are used as predicative expressions, as in this is mine and that pen is John's, the intended sense may be either that of a pronoun or of a predicate adjective; however their form (mine, yours, etc.) in this case is the same as that used in other sentences for possessive pronouns.


Use of whose

The following sentences illustrate the uses of whose:

  • As the possessive of interrogative who: Whose pen is this? Whose do you prefer? For whose good is this being done?
  • As the possessive of relative who (normally only as determiner, not pronoun): This is the man whose pen we broke. That is the woman in whose garden you woke up.
  • As the possessive of relative which (again, normally only as determiner): It is an idea whose time has come (alternatively ...of which the time has come).



Possessives, as well as their synonymous constructions with of, express a range of relationships that are not limited strictly to possession in the sense of ownership. Some discussion of such relationships can be found at Possession (linguistics) and at Possessive: Semantics. Some points as they relate specifically to English are discussed below.



When possessives are used with a verbal noun or other noun expressing an action, the possessive may represent either the doer of the action (the subject of the corresponding verb) or the undergoer of the action (the object of the verb). The same applies to of phrases. When a possessive and an of phrase are used with the same action noun, the former generally represents the subject and the latter the object. For example:

  • Fred's dancing (or the dancing of Fred) – Fred is the dancer (only possible meaning with this verb)
  • the proposal's rejection or the rejection of the proposal – the proposal is rejected
  • Fred's rejection of the proposal – Fred is the rejecter, the proposal is rejected


Time periods

Time periods are sometimes put into possessive form, to express the duration of or time associated with the modified noun:

  • the Hundred Years' War
  • a day's pay
  • two weeks' notice

The paraphrase with of is often un-idiomatic or ambiguous in these cases.


Expressing for

Sometimes the possessive expresses who the thing is for, rather than to whom it belongs:

  • women's shoes
  • children's literature

These cases would be paraphrased with for rather than of (shoes for women).


Appositive genitive

Sometimes genitive constructions are used to express a noun in apposition to the main one, as in the Isle of Man, the problem of drug abuse. This may be occasionally be done with a possessive (as in Dublin's fair city, for the fair city of Dublin), but this is a rare usage.



The 's clitic originated in Old English as an inflexional suffix marking genitive case. In the modern language, it can often be attached to the end of an entire phrase (as in "The King of Spain's wife" or "The man whom you met yesterday's bicycle"). As a result, it is normally viewed by linguists as a clitic, i.e. an affix that cannot be a word by itself but is grammatically independent of the word it is attached to, as in forms such as 'm (as in I'm) or n't (as in don't).

A similar form of the clitic existed in the Germanic ancestor of English, and exists in some modern Germanic languages.

In Old English, -es was the ending of the genitive singular of most strong declension nouns and the masculine and neuter genitive singular of strong adjectives. The ending -e was used for strong nouns with Germanic ō-stems, which constituted most of the feminine strong nouns, and for the feminine genitive singular form of strong adjectives.
















m. / f. / n.




In Middle English the -es ending was generalised to the genitive of all strong declension nouns. By the sixteenth century, the remaining strong declension endings were generalized to all nouns. The spelling -es remained, but in many words the letter -e- no longer represented a sound. In those words, printers often copied the French practice of substituting an apostrophe for the letter e. In later use, -'s was used for all nouns where the /s/ sound was used for the possessive form, and the -e- was no longer omitted. Confusingly, the -'s form was also used for plural noun forms. These were derived from the strong declension -as ending in Old English. In Middle English, the spelling was changed to -es, reflecting a change in pronunciation, and extended to all cases of the plural, including the genitive. Later conventions removed the apostrophe from subjective and objective case forms and added it after the -s in possessive case forms.

In the Early Modern English of 1580 to 1620 it was sometimes spelled as "his" as a folk etymology, e.g. "St. James his park".

Another remnant of the Old English genitive is the adverbial genitive, where the ending -s (without apostrophe) forms adverbs of time: nowadays, closed Sundays. There is a literary periphrastic form using of, as in of a summer day. There are also forms in -ce, from genitives of number and place: once, twice, thrice; whence, hence, thence.

There is also the "genitive of measure": forms such as "a five-mile journey" and "a ten-foot pole" use what is actually a remnant of the Old English genitive plural which, ending in /a/, had neither the final /s/ nor underwent the foot/feet vowel mutation of the nominative plural. In essence, the underlying forms are "a five of miles (O.E. gen. pl. mīla) journey" and "a ten of feet (O.E. gen. pl. fōta) pole".


Status of the possessive as a grammatical case

English possessives are sometimes said to represent a grammatical case, called the "possessive case" or "genitive case". Historically, the possessive morpheme represented by -'s was a case marker, as noted in the previous section. In Modern English, however, many grammarians consider it to be a clitic rather than a case ending. This is evidenced by phrases like the king of England's horse – if the -'s were a true case ending, it would be expected on king rather than England (*the king's of England horse), since the horse belongs to the king and not to England. (Compare the German das Pferd des Königs von England, where König "king" takes the genitive case. Older English provides constructions like the King's dochter of Noroway, from the ballad "Sir Patrick Spens", meaning "the daughter of the King of Norway".)

Because the ending is in fact separable from the head noun (king) and attaches to the noun phrase as a whole, it is more likely to be analyzed as a clitic. It is claimed that traditional grammarians are uncomfortable with this analysis because they like to view English grammar through the lens of classical languages like Latin and Ancient Greek, which had well-developed case systems.