50 Grammar Terms Every Writer Should Understand—With Literary Examples

50 Grammar Terms Every Writer Should Understand—With Literary Examples

I’ve written this glossary as a convenient reference point for some of the more common grammatical terms, especially for writers wanting to brush up on their explicit knowledge in this area. Note though that these are not lessons but fairly concise explanations with some minor elaboration in places. For more detail, especially if you are a learner of English and would like some practice, I recommend: https://www.grammar-monster.com/

As I’m aware that most grammatical explanations utilize fairly boring examples—which doesn’t help when the subject itself isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs—I’ve used literary extracts here in order to make things more interesting. Most of these have been supplied from the following excellent blog: https://thejohnfox.com/beautiful-sentences/

Adjective

Adjectives are words that describe nouns/pronouns. 

Beauty is an enormous, unmerited gift given randomly, stupidly.

Khaled Hosseini

Adverb

Rather than nouns, adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. 

Beauty is an enormous, unmerited gift given randomly, stupidly.

Here, the adverbs tell us the manner in which the gift is given rather than describe the gift itself. As well as manner, adverbs also express circumstances of place, time, cause, degree etc.

Appositive

An appositive is a noun/noun phrase that when placed next to an adjacent noun/noun phrase, describes or names it differently.

But the moment passed and was followed by an urge, a need, a passionate yearning to share the warmth with the one person left for him to love.

Lois Lowry

Above, “a need” and “a passionate yearning” are other ways of naming “an urge”.

Article

The articles a, an, and the define the level of specificity of a noun/noun phrase

The torch spit sparks and sent chunks of flaming tar spinning into the air behind her as she bolted across the cosmos — the only body in the heavens who was not held to a strict elliptical path.

Elizabeth Gilbert

The use of articles, while generally not an issue for native speakers, can be a significant problem for non-natives. The British Council have a series of short lessons here, which could be useful for those needing more detailed guidance.

Clause

A clause consists of a verb and everything required by the verb in context to complete its meaning, e.g. subject, object, complement etc. 

When he was dry [Clause 1], he believed it was alcohol he needed [Clause 2], but when he had a few drinks in him [Clause 3], he knew it was something else [Clause 4]

Denis Johnson

Clauses are the engines of meaning in language but, along with the sentence, are one of the most ill-defined grammatical terms. For example, though most clauses contain a subject, a subject is definitively not necessary to form a clause, and yet you will often find clauses defined as the part of the sentence containing a subject and a verb. See finite vs non-finite clauses below for more on this.


Dependent Clause

A dependent clause, also known as a subordinate clause, does not express a complete idea and so requires another clause in order to form a sentence.

When he was dry

When he had a few drinks in him


Independent clause

An independent clause is a clause that can either form part of a sentence (in combination with other clauses) or can stand alone as a sentence. 

he believed it was alcohol he needed

he knew it was something else


Non-finite Clause

In a nonfinite clause the verb is in the form of a to-infinitive or a participle, does not show tense, and does not require a subject. Non-finite clauses cannot stand alone as sentences.  

To be, or not to be, that is the question.

Shakespeare

Finite Clause

In a finite clause, the verb in inflected for tense and has a subject. Finite clauses can potentially stand alone as sentences.

To be, or not to be, that is the question.


Restrictive clause

A restrictive clause gives more information about the word or phrase it modifies in such a way that if it is removed the intended meaning of the sentence is changed. Restrictive clauses are not set off with commas.

Saint Rufina, a famous woman who had been a very lovely young princess with long black hair … was in a special chapel all to herself.

Nicholson Baker

Non-restrictive clause

A nonrestrictive clause gives more information about the word or phrase it modifies in such a way that if it is removed the intended meaning of the sentence is not changed. Non-restrictive clauses are set off with commas.

Men are like armored things, mountainous assemblages of armor and leather, masonry even, which you are told will self-dismantle if you touch the right spot.

Norman Rush

Adverbial clause

An adverbial clause is a clause that functions in a sentence as an adverb.

When they saw the car coming, the birds flew violently up and away.

Paul Baden

The clause “When they saw the car coming” modifies the verb “flew” by specifying its time of occurrence.


Adjectival clause

An adjectival clause is a clause that functions in a sentence as an adjective.

And mortality is, after all, the reason all glory must fade.

Paul Baden

“All glory must fade” describes the noun phrase “the reason”.

Complement

A complement is a word, clause, or phrase that’s required to complete the meaning of an expression.

They were all scarecrows, blown about under the murdering sunball with empty ribcages.

Cynthia Ozick

The verb “to be” here requires both a subject and something to relate to or identify the subject. The phrase “all scarecrows” identifies the subject “they”.

Conjunction

A conjunction is a linking word used to join other words, phrases, or clauses.

He knows your name and you know his, and you almost killed him and you got so close to doing so but didn’t, you want to fall on him, weeping, because you are so lonely, so lonely always, and all contact is contact, and all contact makes us so grateful we want to cry and dance and cry and cry.

Dave Eggers

Coordinating Conjunction

Coordinating conjunctions join nouns, phrases, and clauses of the same level in a sentence.

He knows your name and you know his, and you almost killed him and you got so close to doing so but didn’t, you want to fall on him, weeping…


Subordinating Conjunction

Subordinating conjunctions connect subordinate/dependent clauses to main/independent clauses.

because you are so lonely, so lonely always

Interjection

Interjections are words/phrases that convery strong emotions or sentiments in sentences; they are often followed by exclamation points. 

O God! Ghost. Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder. 

Shakespeare

Noun

Nouns are words that function to name people, animals, places, actions, objects, and abstractions, such as ideas and qualities.

They were sorry, they were saying with their bodies, they were accepting each other back, and that feeling, that feeling of being accepted back again and again, of someone’s affection for you always expanding to encompass whatever new flawed thing had just manifested in you, that was the deepest, dearest thing he’d ever—

George Saunders

Object

The object is that which is acted upon by a verb and can normally be found directly after it. 

His toe scuffs a soft storm of sand, he kneels and his arms spread in pantomimic celebration, the immigrant, as in every moment of his life, arriving eternally on the shore of his Self.

E.L. Doctorow

Direct Object

The direct object is that which is most directly acted upon by the verb

His toe scuffs a soft storm of sand

In the case above there is only a direct object “a soft storm of sand”.


Indirect Object

Some verbs can have both a direct object and an indirect object.

He gave him the gift of life.

The most common of these is probably “give” as in the example above. What is acted upon directly here by the verb “give” is the “gift of life”, so this is the direct object, and the recipient “him” is the indirect object (despite the fact that it is the latter that is directly adjacent to the verb).


Object Complement

Where a linking verb has an object, the object complement follows that object and gives more information about it.

And they made him King of all the wild things.

Maurice Sendak

Parenthesis

A parenthesis is a word, phrase, or clause that explains or elaborates on some idea in a sentence and can be removed without affecting the grammar of the sentence.

It was just noon that Sunday morning when the sheriff reached the jail with Lucas Beauchamp though the whole town (the whole county too for that matter) had known since the night before that Lucas had killed a white man.

William Faulkner

Participle

A participle has the form of a verb but can function as an adjective or a noun in a sentence. Participles come in two forms, the present and the past.

Present Participle

The present participle is a verb form that can also function as an adjective or a noun. Present particples end in -ing.

Jack put his arm out the window, waving his hat like a visiting dignitary, backed into the street, and floated away, gentling the gleaming dirigible through the shadows of arching elm trees, light dropping on it through their leaves like confetti as it made its ceremonious passage.”

Marilynne Robinson

Past Participle

The past participle is a verb form that can also function as an adjective. Regular past participles end in -ed.

Sea and sky were a single ash-gray thing and the sands of the beach, which on March nights glimmered like powdered light, had become a stew of mud and rotten shellfish.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Phrase

Phrases are groups of words that function as a single unit in a clause or a sentence. They don’t contain both a subject and a verb and don’t express a complete thought. 

It was just noon that Sunday morning when the sheriff reached the jail with Lucas Beauchamp though the whole town (the whole county too for that matter) had known since the night before that Lucas had killed a white man.

William Faulkner

Noun phrase

A noun phrase is a word or group of words that functions as a noun, e.g. as a subject, object, complement, etc.

In any case, at a certain point as she wandered out among the galaxies, among the whirling particles and ineffable numbers, something leaked in her mind, smudging the text of the cosmos, and she was lost.

Deborah Eisenberg

Verb phrase

A verb phrase contains a verb in combination with words indentifying tense, mood, person, or voice.

The circle of an empty day is brutal and at night it tightens around your neck like a noose.

Elena Ferrante

Predicate

The predicate is what is stated about a given subject. This includes the verb and all its complements, objects, and modifiers.

Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.

Iris Murdoch

Compound Predicate

A compound predicate occurs when one subject is attached to two or more verbs joined by a conjunction.

We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves.

Michael Ondaatje

The subject here is “we” and the verbs are “plunged into” and “swum up”.

Preposition

Prepositions act to describe connections of time and space between people, places, and things. They normally come directly before nouns/noun phrases.

I have spread my dreams under your feet
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

W. B. Yeats

Prepositional Phrase

Prepositional phrases are made up of prepositions and nouns/noun phrases/pronouns. They generally function as adverbials.

She wasn’t doing a thing that I could see, except standing there leaning on the balcony railing, holding the universe together.

J.B. Salinger

Pronoun

Pronouns are words that stand in for nouns/noun phrases.

Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this.

Jamaica Kincaid

Demonstrative pronoun

The demonstrative pronouns are the pointing words this, that , these, and those.

… and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this.

Jamaica Kincaid

Personal pronoun

Personal pronouns directly represent people and things. They include the words he, she, it, him, her, them etc.

‘Dear God,’ she prayed, ‘let me be something every minute of every hour of my life.’

Betty Smith

Possessive pronoun

Possessive pronouns are words used with nouns/noun phrases and other pronouns to show ownership.

‘Dear God,’ she prayed, ‘let me be something every minute of every hour of my life.’


Relative pronoun

Relative pronouns introduce adjectival clauses.

It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling, still do not hear us, up here in the tree house, with our thinning hair and soft bellies, calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.

Jeffrey Eugenides

Sentence

A sentence is generally defined as a complete thought that starts with a capital letter and ends in a full stop, an exclamation point, or a question mark (note that sentences only properly apply to written texts and not to the spoken word—where punctuation is not specified).

Simple Sentence

A simple sentence contains one independent clause.

Journeys end in lovers meeting.

Shakespeare

Compound Sentence

A compound sentence contains two or more independent clauses.

There are darknesses in life and there are lights, and you are one of the lights, the light of all lights.

Bram Stoker

Complex Sentence

A complex sentence contains at least one dependent clause and one independent clause.

Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.

Emily Bronte

Compound-Complex Sentence

A compound-complex sentence contains two or more independent clauses and at least one dependent clause. 

Two weeks later, the tape arrived of the race and I memorized it, especially those last hundred yards, Wowie alone, heading for the finish line, his body rhythmically stretching and contracting as his four legs reached and folded, reached and folded

Jane Smiley

Subject

The subject is who or what of which something is said in a sentence or a clause, i.e. who or what is doing something or is put in a relation with something or someone else. The subject must function as a noun, a noun phrase, or a pronoun, and normally can be found directly before the verb.

Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.

Harper Lee

Subject Complement

A subject complement follows a linking (or copular) verb to identify or describe something about a subject.

And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.

John Steinbeck

Verb

Verbs describe actions, states, and occurrences in the broadest sense and are the central building blocks of both clauses and sentences

And so we stood together like that, at the top of that field for what seemed like ages, not saying anything, just holding each other, while the wind kept blowing and blowing at us, tugging our clothes, and for a moment, it seemed like we were holding onto each other because that was the only way to stop us from being swept away into the night.

Kazuo Ishiguro

Copular verb

A copular verb joins an adjective or noun complement to a subject.

She was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world

Kate Chopin

Transitive verb

A transitive verb is a verb that requires a direct object to complete its meaning.

It frightened him to think what must have gone to the making of her eyes.

Edith Wharton

Intransitive verb

An intransitive verb does not require a direct object to complete its meaning. 

I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart; I am, I am, I am.

Sylvia Plath

I hope these explanations have been useful. Please question, comment, and share below.

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