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Around 450 A.D., three invading Germanic tribes with similar languages made their way into what is now Britain, and those tribal languages morphed into Old English. Spoken until about 1100 A.D., Old English would be unrecognizable to modern English speakers, but the era built the foundation of the language today. Nearly half of the words spoken in modern English have their roots in Old English, including “water,” “strong,” and “be.”
In 1066, the Normans, led by William the Conqueror, conquered England. The Normans brought an early version of French, which would be spoken in Britain by the upper classes—the lower and servant classes stuck with English. This linguistic class division existed until the 14th century when English again became the primary language for everyone in Britain—only this time, it was infused with French. That language is known as Middle English.
Toward the end of that era, starting around 1500, a phenomenon known as the Great Vowel Shift began. It was a distinct change in pronunciation that made the articulation of vowels shorter and shorter. This was the dawn of the Renaissance, a time of extraordinary advances in science, technology, art, exploration, and philosophy, all of which combined with the Great Vowel Shift to nudge Middle English toward the era of Early Modern English. One advancement, however, had the greatest impact of them all—the invention of the printing press.
Industrial printing not only gave rise to the mass production of the written word, but it standardized the English language. The first English dictionary was printed in 1604. The Era of Late Modern English began around 1800 when many new words began entering the language. The reason for this is twofold. First, the Industrial Revolution created a need for new words to describe new machines, processes, and concepts. Second, the British Empire covered nearly one-quarter of the world, which naturally led to foreign words being absorbed into the language.
The result is the English we know today. Stacker has compiled a list of terms about the English language from a variety of authoritative sources, including 2020 data from the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary and Merriam Webster. The following is a primer on the nuts and bolts of a language that stands on the shoulders of nearly 1,600 years of history and linguistic evolution.
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An oxymoron is a self-contradicting figure of speech. Examples include “civil war,” “small fortune,” “open secret,” “small crowd,” “jumbo shrimp,” and—for several snarky comedians—”happily married.”
Hyperbole is an exaggeration made to emphasize a point that isn’t meant to be taken seriously. People who say they put on a ton of weight during the holidays are being hyperbolic.
Metaphors make either a direct or implied connection between two inherently unrelated things. “The Lord is my shepherd” is a famous metaphor from the Bible. The title of the 1980s Poison song “Every Rose Has its Thorn” is a metaphor for the pain experienced in love.
Like metaphors, similes draw comparisons between unrelated things, but they use “like” or “as” to serve that purpose. Someone who pretends to be foolish but is actually shrewd might be considered to be sly like a fox. In “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” her cheeks were white as snow.
Tautology is the inclusion of redundant words or phrases that repeat the meaning of other words or phrases in the same sentence. “Déjà vu all over again” is a tautology, as is “repeat that again.”
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Metonymy is a device that substitutes a word for a closely associated word to drive home a point. “The pen is mightier than the sword” is a metonymy that means written words are more powerful than physical force.
There are four types of clauses, all of which involve word combinations in sentences that include both predicates and subjects: dependent clauses, independent clauses, noun clauses, and relative clauses. All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” is a famous clause in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States is a clause, albeit one with arbitrary capitalization: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
Adverbials are like adverbs. But unlike adverbs, which are words that modify adjectives, verbs, and other adverbs, adverbials are parts of sentences that modify or give added details to verbs included in that sentence. In the sentence “I eat steak when I have the money,” “when I have the money,” is the adverbial phrase.
Also called, “helping verbs,” auxiliary verbs come before a sentence’s main verb to make the main verb clearer. In the sentence “I have done my chores,” “have” is the auxiliary verb that puts the sentence into the perfect tense and shows that the action happened already.
The base form of a verb is also called the root. It’s the same thing as the infinitive, but without the “to.” “To drink,” for example, is the infinitive, while “drink” is the base form.
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A contraction is a word made by shortening and combining other words with an apostrophe. “I will” becomes “I’ll” and “we are” becomes “we’re.” A woman going into labor might say, “I can’t tolerate another contraction,” with “can’t” being the contraction—the grammatical contraction, that is.
Collective nouns combine groups of people, things, animals, or ideas into one word. “Staff” is a word that represents a group of jurors, which makes it a collective noun. “School” is a regular noun unless it’s in reference to a group of fish—then it’s a collective noun. Similarly, “family,” “children,” “audience” and “stuff” are collective nouns, just to name a few.
Comparatives are commonly used adjectives or adverbs used to compare two nouns—they can be one word or two. One stove, for example, might be hotter than another, with “hotter” being the comparative. In the sentence “this party is more crowded than the last one,” “more crowded” is comparative.
Unlike compliments, which are nice things to say to people, complements are terms found in most sentences that are required to complete a sentence’s meaning. Nelson Mandela once said, “It always seems impossible until it is done.” That sentence contains two complements: “impossible” and “done.”
Prepositions indicate that two other words in a sentence are related, and they’re often used to say where something is or when something happened. There’s a common misconception that prepositions can’t be used at the end of a sentence, which isn’t true unless they’re not needed for the sentence to make sense. It’s wrong, for example, to ask, “Where is he at?” but it’s OK to ask, “Where did you come from?”
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This grammatical tense uses words like “might,” “could,” and “should” to indicate that past events had the potential to unfold differently. For example, “I could have been on time, I might have been on time, I should have been on time, if not for traffic.”
Future perfect is a grammatical tense that indicates something is expected to happen in the future. The ingredients are “will,” “have,” and a past participle, like “the movie will have ended by then.”
Past participles come from verbs but can function as adjectives, or they can be used to form verb tenses. “Deliver” is a verb, but “delivered” is a past participle that can be used as an adjective to describe something, like “the delivered package.”
Past perfect is a verb tense used to describe something that happened before the sentence was spoken or written. The formula here is “had” plus a past participle. For example, “After the accident, I was happy I had worn a seatbelt.”
Past progressive changes the infinitive of the verb “to be” to indicate the action happened in the past, which is accomplished by using “were” or “was” plus a present participle. In the song “Scarlet Begonias,” Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia sings, “As I was walking ’round Grosvenor Square, not a chill to the winter but a nip to the air.” “Was walking” is the past progressive.
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Just like past participles, present participles come from verbs and can be used as adjectives or to create verb tenses. They end in “ing,” so as an adjective, a present participle could be “running water.” As a verb tense, it could be “running for office.”
When you take “have” or “has” and add a past participle, you have the present perfect tense. Shortly before he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said in his impromptu final speech, “I have been to the mountaintop,” speaking in the present perfect to indicate that something happened at an indeterminate time in the past.
To create the present progressive tense—which indicates an action that’s happening now for an indeterminate amount of time—all that’s needed is “am,” “is,” or “are” and a present participle (a verb+ing). An example is, “I am hoping we can get dinner before the movie.
Simple tense can indicate the past, present, and future, and unlike verbs, which determine whether an action is completed or ongoing, the simple tense doesn’t make that determination. It can be used to describe behaviors or facts, like “he loves tennis” or “he plays tennis on weekends,” or to describe future events, like “the movie starts at midnight.” It can also be used to start a story or a joke, like “a cow walks into a bar.”
Progressive, too, can describe events in the past, present, or future, but in this case, those events are ongoing. All it takes is a form of the verb “to be,” plus a present participle (an “ing” verb). An example is Bob Dylan’s famous lyrics “the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind”—but it could have “been blowing” in the past or that it will “be blowing” in the future.
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Nominal relative clause
Nominal relative clauses are introduced with relative words, which usually begin with “wh” and contain the antecedent of the relative word it contains. In the sentence, “We don’t know what really happened,” “what really happened” is the nominal relative clause, which was introduced by the relative word “what.
The perfect participle is formed by following the present participle “having” with a past participle. The result is an indication that an action has been completed. A common variant is “that having been said…”
This verb tense is appropriate when talking or writing about things that happened in the past. It’s achieved by adding “ed” to a root verb, or just “d” if the verb ends in “e.” “To ask” becomes, “asked,” but “to use” becomes “used.”
Postmodifiers go after the words or phrases they qualify or limit, but they come in many forms. The book and movie franchise “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” includes the postmodifier “with the dragon tattoo,” which modifies “the girl.”
Superlatives attach “est” or “iest” to adjectives to indicate that an object of a sentence is the highest order of something—the tallest, meanest, fastest, or manliest, for example. Sometimes the last letter of the adjective has to be repeated to make it work, particularly in the uncommon form, as Mike Tyson had to do when he proclaimed himself to be the “baddest man on the planet.”
One of the four types of clauses, subordinate clauses is also called dependent clauses. They contain subjects and verbs and begin with subjective conjunctions or relative pronouns. They aren’t complete sentences on their own and instead depend on the rest of the sentence to make sense. An example is, “unless my son finishes his homework,” the reader needs more information for this to become a complete sentence.
Intonation describes how differences in the way words are spoken can change the meaning of what a person says. With falling intonation, the voice falls on the last syllable of a phrase, which is usually the case with “wh”-word questions. Rising intonation lifts the voice at the end of a sentence, and this is common to yes-and-no questions, while fall-rise intonation drops the voice and then raises it to indicate uncertainty.
One of the four basic types of sentences, interrogative sentences, ask questions and end with question marks. Like all sentences, they must contain subjects and verbs, but in this case, the verb comes first. Interrogative sentences begin with who, whom, when, which, whose, what, where, why, and how.
An infinitive is the basic form of a verb that is not bound to a tense or subject—they almost always contain “to” and a verb. “To be, or not to be, that is the question” from “Hamlet” is one of the most famous uses of infinitive verbs in history.
Indirect objects are rare and must follow a direct object and a transitive verb in a sentence. They’re sometimes needed when a sentence’s direct object is a pronoun instead of a noun. For example, “She didn’t have any money for a car, so her dad bought it for her” sounds better than “She didn’t have any money for a car, so her dad bought her it.”
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Imperative can be a noun or an adjective indicating urgent necessity, but grammatically speaking, it’s one of four main verb moods. Verb tenses deal with time while verb moods indicate states and the imperative indicates a state of command. “Turn the radio off and sit down” is an imperative sentence.
Identifying relative clause
When identifying relative clauses are removed from sentences, the meaning of the sentence changes. They begin with “that” or when preceded with a comma, “which.” When you remove “that/which was banned by the library,” it changes the meaning of the sentence “We suggest you read the book that/which was banned by the library.”
Inflection refers to the addition of letters to verbs, adjectives, and nouns to reflect changes in their grammatical forms. The plural inflection of “box” is “boxes.” The irregular plural inflection of “mouse” is “mice.”
Antecedents prop up pronouns, which are generic and nondescriptive on their own. In the sentence “Eddie broke his nose,” “Eddie” is the antecedent that reveals the identity of the generic third-person personal pronoun “his.” Without the antecedent, “his” could refer to any singular male person, animal, or even object.
Articulation is the act of clearly uttering a recognizable sound or word. Someone who speaks well is articulate.
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Nomenclature refers to the act of deciding or choosing a name. When The Dude uses a racial slur in “The Big Lebowski,” his friend Walter takes offense and informs him that the term he used “is not the preferred nomenclature.”
The word “syntax” comes from the Greek phrase “arrange together.” It refers to the rules and procedures around how words combine to form sentences and phrases.
Vernacular refers to the language associated with a specific time, place, culture, or region. In period movies, actors have to learn how to speak in the era’s vernacular.
In the English language, there are four demonstratives: “this” and “these” represent nearness, and “that” and “those” represent farness. Their job is to determine where objects or events are in relation to a person’s perception. Someone might want these doughnuts, not those caramels.
Everyone who has ever read a comic book understands that words like “pow!” or “bam!” represent swift strikes or impacts. These, along with “honk,” “sizzle,” “beep,” “moo,” and “baa” are all perfect examples of onomatopoeias: words that sound like the sounds they represent.
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Aphorisms are terse and pithy statements of principle. “Age ain’t nothing but a number” is an aphorism, albeit a grammatically incorrect one, as is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Consonance describes the intentional repetition of similar sounds, particularly consonants, in close proximity—hip-hop music is full of consonance. Public Enemy’s Chuck D. rapped, “I am a rock-hard trooper to the bone, the bone, the bone. Full-grown, consider me stone.”
Similar to consonance, assonance arranges words with the same vowel sounds that start with different consonant sounds. Here, too, hip-hop is a gold mine. Eminem rapped “… and it sells and it helps in itself to relieve all this tension, dispensing these sentences, getting this stress that’s been eating me recently off of this chest, and I rest again peacefully….”
Polyptoton uses different words to repeat the same root word as a form of rhetorical expression. In “Richard II,” Shakespeare wrote, “With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder.”
Cleft sentences are sentences put into their own clauses for emphasis and introduced with empty words like “it” or “that.” Randy Newman—and many, many other famous musicians—wrote: “It’s money that I love.”
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Caitriona Maria is an education writer and founder of TPR Teaching, crafting inspiring pieces that promote the importance of developing new skills. For 7 years, she has been committed to providing students with the best learning opportunities possible, both domestically and abroad. Dedicated to unlocking students' potential, Caitriona has taught English in several countries and continues to explore new cultures through her travels.