Oxford Guide to English Grammar


The Oxford Guide to English Grammar is a systematic account of grammatical forms and the way they are used in standard British English today. The emphasis is on meanings and how they govern the choice of grammatical pattern.

The book is thorough in its coverage but pays most attention to points that are of importance to intermediate and advanced learners of English, and to their teachers. It will be found equally suitable for quick reference to details and for the more leisured study of broad grammar topics.

A useful feature of the book is the inclusion of example texts and conversations, many of them authentic, to show how grammar is used in connected writing and in speech.

Language changes all the time. Even though grammar changes more slowly than vocabulary, it is not a set of unalterable rules. There are sometimes disagreements about what is correct English and what is incorrect. ‘Incorrect’ grammar is often used in informal speech. Does that make it acceptable? Where there is a difference between common usage and opinions about correctness, I have pointed this out. This information is important for learners. In some situations it may be safer for them to use the form which is traditionally seen as correct. The use of a correct form in an unsuitable context, however, can interfere with understanding just as much as a mistake. To help learners to use language which is appropriate for a given occasion, I have frequently marked usages as formal, informal, literary and so on.

How to use this book

Any user of a reference book of this kind will rely on a full and efficient index, as is provided in the Oxford Guide (pages 404 to 446). In addition, there is a summary at the beginning of each chapter which gives a bird’s eye view, with examples, of the grammar covered in the chapter as a whole and gives references to the individual sections which follow.



The author and publisher would like to thank all the teachers in the United Kingdom and Italy who discussed this book in the early stages of its development. We are also grateful to John Algeo, Sharon Hilles and Thomas Lavelle for their contributions to the chapter on American English and to Rod Bolitho, Sheila Eastwood and Henry Widdowson for their help and advice.

In addition, we would like to thank the following, who have kindly given their permission for the use of copyright material: Bridgwater Mercury; Cambridge University Press; Consumers’ Association, London, UK; Fodor; Ladybird Books; The Mail on Sunday; Nicholson; Octopus Books; Rogers, Coleridge and White; Mary Underwood and Pauline Barr.

There are instances where we have been unable to trace or contact copyright holders before our printing deadline. If notified, the publisher will be pleased to acknowledge the use of copyright material.

Other symbols

The symbol / (oblique stroke) between two words or phrases means that either is possible. I will be/shall be at home tomorrow means that two sentences are possible: I will be at home tomorrow and I shall be at home tomorrow.

We also use an oblique stroke around phonetic symbols, e.g. tea /ti:/.

Brackets ( ) around a word or phrase in an example mean that it can be left out. I’ve been here (for) ten minutes means that two sentences are possible: I’ve been herefor ten minutes and I’ve been here ten minutes.

The symbol -* means that two things are related. Discuss * discussion means that there is a relationship between the verb discuss and the noun discussion.

The symbol ~ means that there is a change of speaker.

The symbol L is a reference to another section and/or part of a section where there is more information. For example, > (2) means part 2 of the same section; [> 65 means section 65; and > 229(3) means part 3 of section 229.

  • Summary

Grammatical units • 2

The grammatical units of English are these: word, phrase, clause and sentence.

Word classes • 3

The main word classes are these: verb, noun, adjective, adverb, preposition, determiner, pronoun and conjunction.

Phrases • 4

There are these kinds of phrase: verb phrase, noun phrase, adjective phrase, adverb phrase and prepositional phrase.

Sentence elements • 5

The sentence elements are these: subject, verb, object, complement and adverbial.

English compared with other languages • 6

English words do nor have a lot of different endings for number and gender.

Word order is very important in English.

The verb phrase can have a complex structure.

There are many idioms with prepositions.

  • Grammatical units


’Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. On behalf of British Island Airways, Captain Massey and his crew welcome you on board the Start Herald Flight to Southampton. Our flight time will be approximately forty-five minutes, and we shall be climbing to an altitude of eight thousand feet and cruising at a speed of two hundred and fifty miles per hour.’

(from M. Underwood and P. Barr Listeners)

The grammatical units of English are words, phrases, clauses and sentences.

  • Sentences

A sentence can be a single clause.

On behalfofBritish Island Airways, Captain Massey and his crew welcome you on board the Start Heraldflight to Southampton.

A written sentence begins with a capital letter (On) and ends with a mark such as a full stop.

We can also combine two or more clauses in one sentence. For example, we can use and to link the clauses.

Ourflight time will be approximately forty-five minutes, and we shall be climbing to an altitude of eight thousand feet and cruising at a speed of two hundred and fifty miles an hour.

For details about sentences with more than one clause, • 238.

  • Word classes
  • There are different classes of word, sometimes called ‘parts of speech’. The word

come is a verb, letter is a noun and great is an adjective.


Some words belong to more than one word class. For example, test can be a noun or a verb. He passed the test. (noun) He had to test the machine. (verb)


There are five kinds of phrase.

Verb phrase: come, had thought, was left, will be climbing

A verb phrase has an ordinary verb (come, thought, left, climbing) and may also have an auxiliary (had, was, will).

Noun phrase: a goodflight, his crew, we

A noun phrase has a noun (flight), which usually has a determiner (a) and/or adjective (good) in front of it. A noun phrase can also be a pronoun (we).

Adjective phrase: pleasant, very late

An adjective phrase has an adjective, sometimes with an adverb of degree (very).

Adverb phrase: quickly, almost certainly

An adverb phrase has an adverb, sometimes with an adverb of degree (almost).

5 Prepositional phrase: after lunch, on the aircraft A prepositional phrase is a preposition + noun phrase.

  • English compared with other languages
  • Endings

Unlike words in some other languages, English words do not have a lot of different endings. Nouns take s in the plural (miles), but they do not have endings to show whether they are subject or object.


Verbs take a few endings such as ed for the past (started), but they do not take endings for person, except in the third person singular of the present tense (it starts).

Articles (e.g. the), Possessives (e.g. my) and adjectives (e.g. good) do not have endings for number or gender. Pronouns (e.g. lime) have fewer forms than in many languages.

  • Word order

Word order is very important in English. As nouns do not have endings for subject or object, it is the word order that shows which is which.

  • Summary

This story contains examples of different clause patterns.


A man walked into a hotel, saw a nice coat, put it over his arm and walked out again. Then he tried to hitch a lift out of town. While he was waiting, he put the coat on. At last a coach stopped and gave him a lift. It was carryingforty detectives on their way home from a conference on crime. One of them had recently become a detective inspector. He recognized the coat. It was his. He had left it in the hotel, and it had gone missing. The thief gave the inspector his coat. The inspector arrested him. ’It seemed a good idea at the time,’ the man said. He thought himself rather unlucky.

There are five elements that can be part of a clause. They are subject, verb, object, complement and adverbial.

  • Intransitive and transitive verbs

1 An intransitive verb cannot take an object, although there can be a prepositional phrase after it.

The man was waiting at the side of the road.

Something unfortunate happened.

The man runs along the beach every morning.

Intransitive verbs usually express actions (people doing things) and events (things happening).

A verb can be intransitive in one meaning and transitive in another. For example, run is transitive when it means ‘manage.

He runs his own business.

  • A transitive verb takes an object.

The man stole a coat.

Everyone enjoyed the conference.

The driver saw the hitch-hiker at the side of the road.

The man had no money.

Transitive verbs can express not only actions (stole) but also feelings (enjoyed), perception (saw) and possession (had).

After some transitive verbs we can leave out the object when it would add little or nothing to the meaning.

The man opposite was reading (a book).      We ’re going to eat (a meal).

A woman was driving (the coach).

We can also leave out the object after these verbs:

ask/answer (a question), draw/paint (apicture), enter/leave (a room/building), pass/fail (a test/exam), play/win/lose (a game), practise (a skill), sing (a song), speak (afew words), study (a subject).

The following verbs can also be without an object ifthe context is clear: begin, choose, decide, hear, help, know, notice, see, start.

  • Linking verb + complement

A complement is an adjective phrase or a noun phrase. A complement relates to the subject: it describes the subject or identifies it (says who or what it is). Between the subject and complement is a linking verb, e.g. be.

The hotel was quiet. The thief seemed depressed.

The book has become a best-seller.       It’s getting dark.

A week in the Lake District would make a nice break.

These are the most common verbs in this pattern.

+ adjective or noun phrase: appear, be, become, look, prove, remain, seem, sound, stay

+ adjective: feel, get, go, grow, smell, taste, turn

+ noun phrase: make

There are also some idiomatic expressions which are a linking verb + complement, e.g. burn low, come good, come true, fall asleep, fall ill, fall silent, ring true, run dry, run wild, wear thin.

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