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The Concourse

TKT Module 1: Describing language and language skills



What is grammar?

Here's a good definition of grammar:

a description of the structure of a language and the way in which linguistic units such as words and phrases are combined to produce sentences in the language.
Richards, Platt and Platt (1992:161)

Sometimes, the term grammar also includes phonology (the study of sounds) but in this course we will put phonology in a separate section.  Grammar also includes the way we change words and build words from smaller units (morphemes and morphology) but this, too, will be in a separate section in this course on lexis.


Key concepts in this guide

By the end of this guide, you should be able to understand and use these key concepts:

  • grammatical form, grammatical function and inflexion
  • context and co-text
  • content words
    • noun (proper, mass, count), verb (lexical or main, copular, primary auxiliary, modal auxiliary), adjective (predicative and attributive), adverb (manner, time, place, frequency, degree), interjection
  • function words
    • determiner (article, demonstrative, wh-word, possessive, quantifier), preposition (place and time), pronoun (personal and other), conjunction (coordinating, subordinating, correlating)
  • modification
  • tense
  • aspect
  • phrases

Look out for these words like this in the text.
There will be tests at the end of the guide for you to check that you understand the ideas.

form and function

Grammatical form and grammatical function

Grammatical form
refers to how a word or phrase is made in English.  For example:
The base form of the verb is smoke but, when the subject is he, she or it, the form of the verb changes to smokes.
The noun is child but when we make it plural, we change the form to children.
With an adjective in English such as happy we can change the form and make it a noun: happiness.  There is more on how we do that in the guide to lexis.
When we change the grammatical form of a word in English, the change is called an inflexion.  For example:
smoke → smokes: this is the third-person, -s inflexion.
printed → printed: the verb is inflected to show the past tense with -ed.
house → houses: this is the plural, -s inflexion.
the man → the man's: this is the possessive, -'s inflexion.
Inflexion is sometimes spelled inflection, by the way.  Both are correct.
Grammatical function
refers to what a word is doing in the language.  For example:
In I cut my finger yesterday, the word cut has the grammatical function of a verb describing an action.
In I have a bad cut on my finger, the word cut has the grammatical function of a noun for a thing.
In The English are strange people, the word English is a noun for the people who live in England.
In Mary is English, the word English is an adjective describing her nationality.  It is modifying the noun Mary.

It is easy to see that you do not know what a word is doing when you look at it.  You must see or hear it in a context to know what it means and what sort of word it is.  Where, socially, or in a text the word is used is referred to as context.  The words around the word in a text, written or spoken, is referred to as co-text.

two different

Two different sorts of words

There are two kinds of words in English.

  1. Content words
    When they are alone, these words still have a meaning.  For example:
    house, school, beauty, dislike, begin, jump, happy, sad, important, quickly, now, fortunately
    When you see or hear these words you can provide a definition and, often, a translation into another language.
  2. Grammar or function words
    These words mean nothing when they are alone but they make the grammar of the language work.  For example:
    in, out, up, the, a, an, this, that, he, she, them, and, when, but
    When you see or hear these words you cannot define them or provide a translation until you know what they are doing in the sentence by looking at the co-text.

Stop and check

It is very important to understand the difference between content words and function or grammar words.
In this sentences there are 7 function or grammar words and 7 content words.  What are they?
    Mary came into the room and sat in her favourite chair by the fire.
Click here when you have an answer.

five bottles

Content words

There are 5 types of content words in English.

  1. NOUNS
    boxes and boxes
    Nouns are words for people, places, things and feelings.  Here are some examples of the three types:
    1. Proper nouns refer to people and places:
      is in London
      is huge
      The European Union has lots of members
    2. Mass nouns refer things which do not have a plural:
      milk is expensive here
      sugar is bad for me
      water is very cold
      happiness is important
      beauty doesn't last long
    3. Count nouns refer to things we can have in the plural and most nouns are in this group:
      I have a pencil and two pens
      my house is here
      dogs are not usually dangerous
      I love
      my country is beautiful
      he's a
  2. VERBS
    hit the ball

    Verbs are words for doing, thinking, speaking and being.  Here are some examples of the five types:

    1. Verbs describing actions, behaviour or feelings.  These are lexical or main verbs which carry meaning even if alone:
      the ball
          don't worry
          the glass
          I am watching TV
    2. Verbs describing states and thinking  These are also lexical verbs or main verbs which carry meaning even if alone:
          I enjoy walking
          I hope she is here
      hates pasta
          it helps me work
    3. Linking or copular verbs join nouns to nouns and nouns to adjectives and show the connection between things:
          I am in London
      became the manager
          the car
      looks wonderful
      got older
      is a house on the corner
      The verbs do not mean anything if they do not connect two things so, e.g.:
          *She got
          *They are
          *It became
      all mean nothing.
    4. Primary Auxiliary verbs make tenses with other verbs:
          I have broken the glass
          she is working in Berlin
          they got the car repaired
          we don't visit museums
      Again, the verbs do not mean anything if they do not make a form with another verb so, e.g.:
          *She has
          *They are
          *We got
      all mean nothing (unless you have clear co-text so you can fill in the missing information in your head).
    5. Modal auxiliary verbs show how you feel about other verbs.  They do not stand alone but are always with other verbs:
          I can come at six
          she will go later
          they must go
          we used to work harder
      Again, the verbs do not mean anything if they do not come with a main verb so, e.g.:
          *She can
          *They will
          *It must
      all mean nothing (unless you have clear co-text so you can fill in the missing information in your head).
    one orange pea

    Adjectives modify (i.e., change) nouns.  They can come before or after the noun they describe.  For example:

    1. It's a huge house with a long garden (adjective before the noun: attributive use)
    2. The house is tiny and the garden is very small (adjective after the noun, joined with a linking verb: predicative use)
    Some adjectives describe the noun.  For example:
    It's a red house
    and some tell us what sort of noun it is, for example:
    It's a detached house
    This is an important difference.
    Words which describe the noun are called epithets.  Words which classify the noun are called classifiers.
    For more on adjectives, see the guide on this site.
    beautifully painted

    Adverbs describe (modify) verbs and some modify adjectives and other adverbs.  There are five types which answer different questions:

    1. How?  Adverbs of manner: he drove quickly, he walked slowly, he spoke happily
    2. When?  Adverbs of time: I'll arrive soon, She left early, I'm flying tomorrow
    3. Where?  Adverbs of place: sit here, please smoke outside, come in
    4. How often?  Adverbs of frequency: she often works at home, they frequently take a holiday, we sometimes play cards
    5. How much?  Adverbs of degree: I like it a lot, they really enjoy their food, he drove very quickly, she hugely enjoyed the play
    Some adverbs also modify adjectives.  For example:
    She was very happy.
    They were slightly interested

    Some adverbs also modify other adverbs.  For example:
    She drove very quickly
    He arrived extremely quickly
    For more on adverbs, see the guide on this site.
  1. INTERJECTIONS (sometimes called exclamations)

    These are words we use, usually in speech, and informally, to show our feelings: surprise, pain, tiredness, fear etc.  Here are some examples:

        Wow!  What a beautiful house!
        Ouch!  That hurts.
        Oh, I didn't know that.
        Yuck!  That's horrible.

Here is the big picture:

content words


Grammar or Function words

These words mean nothing when they are alone.  They must be part of a sentence for you to understand them.  There are 4 different kinds of function words.

    the cat is watching

    These words change how we see a noun.  For example, we can have:
        she has one cat
    cat is pretty
    cat is not very clever
    cats are in the garden
    cat wants food
    cat came into the house
    cat is your cat?

    and the determiners change how we understand the words cat, garden and house.
    Determiners always come in front of the noun and there are five sorts of them:

    1. a, an, the.  These are articles and they tell you if you are talking about a special noun or not.  For example:
          a cat came in (this is one cat that I don't know)
          the cat came in (this is a cat I know)
    2. this, that, these, those.  These are demonstratives and they tell me where the cat is.  For example:
          This cat here
          Those cats there
          That cat in the garden
          Those cats are in the garden
    3. wh-words.  These words make questions:
          Which cat?
          What cats?
          Whose cat?
          Who is that?
    4. my, your, his, her, our, their.  These are possessives and show us who has something.  For example:
          my cat is in the house
          his cat is stupid
          their cats are in the garden
    5. some, many, a few, two, three, ten, a little, lots of, no, several.  These are quantifiers and tell us how much or how many.  For example:
          There are four cats in the house
          Several cats came in
          Many cats are white
          No cats are in the garden
    she looks like her

    These are small words which stand for things, people or whole ideas.  There are three sorts:

    1. I, me, you, she, he, it, her, him, we, us, they, them.  These are personal pronouns because they stand for people.  For example:
          I want a cat
          She wants it
          We gave them a cat
          Please tell us
    2. something, someone, anything, anyone, some, any, nothing etc.
      These do not stand for a special person or thing.  For example:
          Do you want something?
          I have nothing to eat
          Can I give you some?
          Is anyone at home?
      Notice that adjectives in English always come after these words:
          I want something stronger
          She offered nothing useful
          Have you anything bigger?
    3. this, that, it etc. can also stand for whole ideas.  For example:
          He was working in the garden and that is why he didn't hear the telephone
          I was trying to follow the instructions to install my printer but it was very difficult.
    it's in the corner of the square

    These words usually tell us when or where (but they can tell us other things).  They join the verb to the noun or pronoun.  There are two main sorts:

    1. Prepositions of place.  For example:
      He is waiting at the bus stop
      She is sitting in my chair
      They have lunch in the square
      The restaurant is in the corner
    2. Prepositions of time.  For example:
      He will wait until 6 o'clock
      She came on Sunday
      They left after the film
      The train arrived at the right time

    These words join ideas together.  There are three sorts.

    1. Joining (coordinating) two equal ideas.  For example:
      He went to the market and he bought a new hat
      I telephoned but nobody answered
    2. Making one idea depend on another (subordinating).  For example:
      I came because he asked me
      She will come if she has time
    3. Double (correlating or correlative) conjunctions put two ideas together.  For example:
      Both John and Mary came
      Whether he comes or not is important

Here's the big picture:

function words

tense and aspect

Tense and aspect

There are two concepts to be clear about here.

Tense in languages refers to the time something happens.  For example:
I came with him (past time)
I will finish before 6 (future time)
I am smoking too much (present time)
Aspect refers to how we see an event in relation to other events.  For example:
I have been waiting since 6 o'clock
This is the perfect aspect: I am talking about something which started in the past and is still happening now.
She was cycling when the accident happened
This is the progressive aspect followed by the simple aspect: I want to be clear that the cycling was a long event but the accident was short and quick.

If you would like to investigate time, tense and aspect some more, go to the tenses index on this site.

phrases and clauses


We have seen that, for example, a noun or a verb can be a single word with a single grammatical function as in, for example:
    He (pronoun) went (verb) home (noun)
    Mrs Smith (noun) cooked (verb) that (determiner) wonderful (adjective) dinner (noun)
But very often the grammatical function is filled not by a single word but by a phrase of more than one word.  Look at this sentence:
    The old man almost certainly had lived through very interesting times
Can you decide which groups of words are doing the same job as single words?  Click here when you have your answer.

Notice that we talk about a phrase even if it is only one word.  That's the correct way to analyse the grammar.
The most important word in the phrase is called the head.  The heads of the phrases above are: man, certainly, live, through, interesting, times.

This is a course in Teaching Knowledge so we cannot cover all the grammar here.  There are lots of guides on this site which you can follow to learn more about the grammar of English.  A good place to start is the initial plus section.

self test

Self-test questions

Before you go on, make sure you can answer these questions.  If you can't, go back to the sections which give you trouble.

If you are happy with your progress, go on.


Tests and practice for TKT

Test 1 A simple matching task of 7 items
Test 2 A 15-item, multiple-choice test

Return to the Module 1 index: back
or go on to the next guide which is to lexis.

Richards, J. C, Platt, J & Platt, H, 1992, The Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics, Harlow: Longman