Actually, that is a rather boring way to start a list. The letter A. It's the first letter of the alphabet. It's ALPHA in the International Phonetic Alphabet. It's a vowel. So to make it more interesting, I'm going to talk about the fact that it can be said in two ways. Do we say ‘a’ /æ/ as in apple, or ‘A’ /eɪ/ as in able?  When do we say the /ðʌ/ or thee /ðiː/ ? You pronounce a as in animal, at, atom before a countable noun or noun phrase that begins with a consonant sound: a banana, a cat, a dog, a fish, etc. (Vowel sounds are, of course, preceded with an.) But you can pronounce A as in able, ate, ape, alien if you hesitate, or if you are pausing to think about what to say: He’s got a, er, A, caravan, I think. And you can make the same pronunciation (as in able, ate, ape, alien) if you want to put stress or emphasis on the following word: Listen, Kowalski! You have to make A. REAL. EFFORT. in this test! Mind you, the has similar problems, but this website has that miracle cure to make them feel better. See the next entry. There. Hopefully we've made A more interesting. And if you still have problems remembering what to call this letter of the alphabet, perhaps the most famous cultural reference is probably the popular American TV series The A-Team.

A, AN and THE. See definite article and indefinite article. A quick warning here: if you decide to look up article, it'll just say all this again. But there's a very interesting and quite detailed item which has been set out rather like a self-studying course on this website on the subject of a, an and the, so click here for more information...

ABBREVIATION This is a short form of a word or phrase, made by leaving out some of the letters. For example, inc. (short for inclusive), PIN (short for Personal Identification Number) and CIA (short for Central Intelligence Agency) are examples of abbreviations. Those words that are made up of the initial letters (KGB) are usually called initialisms. However, by using only the first letter of each word (Opec, FIFA), recognisable words are formed and are put into general use, and are called acronyms. If it is just a shortened form of a word - usually followed by a full stop - such as Mr. and Mrs., or if taken from another language (e.g., i.e.) then these are just abbreviations. And you thought they were all the same thing (LOL), you Incredibly Dull Individual On Texts. I made that one up, so is that an abbreviation, acronym or initialism?

ABSOLUTE ADJECTIVE These are adjectives such as absolute, impossible, complete, main, unavoidable, entire, fatal, unique, ideal, dead and wrong which, arguably, cannot be 'made' stronger, or intensified. In other words, you shouldn't write absolutely impossible, completely unavoidable, more unique, very fantastic. We are also told not to use the adjective 'more' with comparative adjectives ending in -er and superlative adjectives with -est. However, they couldn't be more wrong as these examples are being used idiomatically to further intensify the adjective, usually to get across a point. That's really impossible! Totally unavoidable! Something's very wrong! There are some absolute adjectives that don't work with certain absolute adjectives, this is simply for collocation reasons. For example, we don't usually say 'very fantastic' but we can say 'really fantastic'. But that doesn't mean we don't use 'very' at all with AAs - to say 'very wrong' or 'very dominant' is okay, for example. I know - it's best to avoid them in English tests, which is most unfortunate. See also intensifiers, double comparisons, adjectives - gradable and ungradable.

ABSTRACT NOUNS These are nouns that refer to something abstract. Obvious really. Okay, okay, here's the proper explanation: an abstract noun is a naming word of something that exists only in thought or as an idea and not having a physical or concrete existence. In other words, these are things that we can't feel, touch, see, hear, or taste. (with concrete nouns you can.) Examples of abstract nouns are love, hate, honesty, knowledge, kindness.

ACADEMIC WRITING See formal writing.

ACCENT Meaning No.1: These are the words that are pronounced in a way that makes it clear what country, region, or social class they come from. For example, in the UK, Received Pronunciation is an accent, in that it is the pronunciation used as Standard English that you find in the IPA examples of dictionaries. In reality, only 4% of the UK population speak RP; everybody else speaks regional accents that are spoken in different parts of the country, for example London, Birmingham, Newcastle, Glasgow and so on. There are also Australian accents and American accents of English, and even in those countries, those standards can vary city to city.


ACCENT Meaning No.2: This is a short line or other mark which is written above certain letters in some languages and which indicates the way those letters are pronounced. An example of a diacritic, these letters include accents over the top: À, É, Ó, Ú, Ý.

ACCIDENCE No, this is not a misspelling of more than one accident. This term is used to talk about changes in the form of words; these can be some form of modification of the word, such as foot/feet or I like/she likes (known as inflections), or by adding affixes (intention, intentional, unintention, unintentional). Perhaps this is best demonstrated by a grammar joke in a popular children's book and probably like 99.0 per cent of British children, completely missed. In Asterix the Gaul (the British English translation), Asterix has just fought four Roman legionaries, and in their dazed states, one of the legionaries says: vae victo vae victis, and another says: we decline. In Latin, the first Roman says in Latin 'Has been vanquished/have been vanquished'. Because he is using two inflections (have/has), the other Roman says 'we decline' as, grammatically speaking, that is what the first legionary is doing; using a form of grammar called declension. The area of grammar that deals with declension and conjugation  (changing the verb form such as I like/you like/she likes) is called accidence. Get it now?

ACCUSATIVE CASE In English, these are only the pronouns 'me', 'him', 'her', 'us', and 'them'. It is a case used for a noun when it is the direct object of a verb, or the object of some prepositions. See also the subjective (also known as the nominative).

ACRONYM Also (technically) known as an abbreviation. It is a word made up of letters or sounds of a name or phrase that can be spoken. For example, radar (Radio Detection and Ranging), Laser (Light Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation). Nato is the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, and Scuba is Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. Acronyms should not be confused with initialisms (pronouncing only the letter sounds, such as BBC), although they often are. It's rather complicated: read the previous entry on abbreviations.

ACROPHONY The grammar term to describe spelling out something to a listener, but to ensure that the letter is understood, they might say A for apple, S for sugar, P for Peter, and so on. The best-known example of spelling in this way is by using the NATO phonetic alphabet, as used by airlines and airports for identification purposes.

ACTIVE (verb form) These are verb forms such as plays, will play, played, has played; and will drive, drives, drove, has driven. Compare with the passive verb form, which is usually about the person or thing that does the action. is played, was played, will be played, is driven, was driven, will be driven. See active (voice)passive voice.

ACTIVE (VOICE) We use this to describe something or someone (or the doer) that affects or performs the action, for example: They (the doer) produce cars in Italy. The company (the doer) was planning to make two hundred people redundant. Contrast this to the passive voice, where the doer is not mentioned: Wine is made in France (but we do not say who in France made the wine). They were planning to make two hundred people redundant (but we do not say who).

ADJECTIVE This is a word that is used to describe people and things. Nice, interesting, green are examples of adjectives. These are usually connected to nouns and pronouns, so you get examples such as A nice hat. (Nice describes what the hat is like.) An interesting book. The green door. But some can also follow verbs to form adjective phrases: she looks nice. The chicken tastes excellent. The chair is big. More than one adjective can be used to describe something. Three adjectives before a noun would be usually considered a maximum, but there is no clear, absolute, fixed, immediate or set rule on this. A red car. He’s interesting. A big, modern, 12-storey building. And if we want to break the 'rule' - your choice - then it's probably used for emphasis: You know, you are a stupid, idiotic, thoughtless, brainless, dim-witted individual! I think they don't like this person. See also adjective clause, gradable/ungradable adjectives, adjective phrases, absolute adjectives.

ADJECTIVE CLAUSE This is a clause which does the same job as an adjective. For example: a beautiful woman (here, the word 'beautiful' is an adjective); a woman that wants to study ('that wants to study' is an adjective clause.)

ADJECTIVE, GRADABLE/UNGRADABLE Gradable adjectives can be ‘graded’ – for example, you can have certain degrees of coldness, hunger, and interest: a little/slightly/mildly /really/very hungry, for example.  But starving is ungradable – that is, it is at the end of the scale of hunger. For this reason we do not generally add very to ungradable adjectives. But if you want to add an intensifier a word (an adverb, to be more precise) that makes the adjective or verb that follows stronger - to such a strong adjective, then you can use absolutely, entirely, exceptionally, particularly, really, quite, or totally depending on the adjective used and if it is the right collocation. So you can say I’m really hungry/really starving. So you've not only learnt something here, you've really learnt something. See also absolute adjective, double comparison, double negative.

ADJECTIVE PHRASE This is a word or a group of words where the adjective can become the main word in the phrase. They can be used on their own: He was most arrogant. It was too hot. A: How do you feel? B: Disappointed. They can also be included as part of a noun phrase: It was too hot to go outside. He was a complete embarrassment at the interview. 

ADVERB This is a word such as today, twice, there, nicely, carefully, which adds information about any action or event (which is usually expressed by a verb, but can also modify adjectives, phrases, clauses, sentences and other adverbs such as when, where or how it happens. I really need a drink. Drive carefully. You should play nicely with your brother. Really carefully, okay? Not all adverbs have the -ly ending (which are known as flat adverbs), such as long (this road is very long) and far (He lives far from here), and some have both (drive slow/slowly).

ADVERB CLAUSE This is an example of an adverbial, and its job is the same as an adverb, for example: I'll give you your present when we get home. When we get home is an adverb clause, and works in the same way as a traditional adverb. Indeed, the speaker may say the same thing but using a single word: I'll give you your present soon. Soon = when we get home, which could be her intended meaning. See? See also adverb phrase.

ADVERBIAL Oh dear. This is a real minefield of an area, and as we're not going into massive details, here is the basic definition. An adverbial is a group of words that does the same thing as an adverb, such as adverb phrases and adverb clauses.  

ADVERB OF FREQUENCY See frequency adverb.

ADVERB PHRASE This is when the adverb can be the main word within the phrase. For example: he proceeded very loudly. It was enthusiastically received. The job was completed quite effectively. See also adverbial, adverb clause.

AFFIX The one name that we give to describe prefixes (those extra letters you add to the beginning of a word) and suffixes (to the end of a word). For example, from the root word possible, we can these extra letters at the beginning and the end to make a new one: impossibility.

AFFRICATE This is a speech sound that is made up of a stop (or plosive) and a fricative that is said - or to use a more formal word to mean express clearly, articulated - at the same point, such as the sound written ch, as in chair.

AGENT They're not the ones that are secret or make money from famous footballers. Remember, we're talking grammar here. In grammar, this is the ‘doer’ of an action. For example, Fred is the agent (or the doer) in the following sentence as it is he who is doing the action: Fred has been studying German.

ALLITERATION This is when several words begin with the same letter or sound: And the scene soon seemed super!

ALPHABET To put it simply, this is a set of letters that are usually presented in a fixed order. English's ancestor, dated from around the 14th century BC, is the Phoenician alphabet which was originally nineteen characters (and which were only consonants). It was later used as a model for the Greek alphabet (which added vowels) and in turn influenced the Etrusan alphabet, from which we got Latin and all Western alphabets. These, of course, are used for writing the words of a particular language or group of languages.

AMBIGUITY In the English language, if there is ambiguity in the sentence - or the sentence is ambiguous -  then it is usually unclear and could even be understood in more than one way. Perhaps the best known example is the sentence I'm painting the bedroom with my wife: is his wife helping him paint the bedroom, or is she the paintbrush? Here's some more: I saw her dress (the nice garment she now wears or planning to wear or the act of watching her put some clothes on?); I've got a dog for sale; he eats anything and he's very fond of children! I was admiring my wife in a bikini. Having eaten my dinner, the waiter brought me dessert. (Who ate the dinner - the speaker or the waiter?)

AMBITRANSITIVE VERBS These are verbs that can be used as intransitive verbs in one sentence, and as transitive verbs in another, for example: it is raining (intransitive); it is raining cats and dogs (transitive); You've grown since I last saw you (intransitive); You've grown a beard (transitive).

AMERICAN ENGLISH A form of the English language as spoken by the majority of people in the United States. It originally comes from the standard of English that we would describe as early modern and did not develop as rapidly as in Britain. As an example, the /r/ sound in American pronunciation such as car was generally pronounced in Elizabethan English, but while this disappeared in England this was retained in America. When the country gained independence from England, Noah Webster brought out his dictionary, including the simplification of word spellings such as 'center'. 'color' 'ax' and so on. Indeed, American English is different in hundreds of ways, but thankfully both it and British English maintain a common grammar and vocabulary that allows the two countries to communicate easily.

AMPERSAND This is the sign '&' and is used to replace the word 'and'. Generally, this symbol is not used in regular writing. Although it is commonly used as an abbreviation of 'and' in informal writing, there do appear to be some conventions of usage. They are common in business names formed from partnerships, usually of two people: Marks & Spencer, Piotr & Pawel, Smith & Jones, and in some abbreviations: B&B (Bed and Breakfast), R&D (Research and Development). In writing, you often see the names of two writers that are working together on a specific piece of text using an ampersand: Written by Stephen Moffat & Russell T Davies. However, if the writers have worked on the text separately - either at different times or without working together - then the normal 'and' would be put into place: Written by Stephen Moffat and Russell T Davies. Many of the early Beatles songs were as a result of collaboration between John Lennon and Paul McCartney (hence the credit Lennon & McCartney), although this carried through to the end even though they were mostly writing separately. 

ANALOGY A literary device used to make a comparison in which an idea or a thing is compared to another thing that is quite different from it. For example, finding a good grammar website is like trying to find a needle in a haystack; they're as useful as rearranging the chairs on the Titanic. Watching synchronised swimming is like watching paint dry. It aims at explaining that idea or thing by comparing it to something that is familiar. Metaphors and similes are tools that are used to draw an analogy.

ANALYTICAL LANGUAGE This is a language that has a low morpheme-per-word ratio (such as English). Or to put it another way, an analytical language tends to use more individual words that express one meaning, compare to a synthetic language, which one word is often sufficient to express what English can only achieve by using multiple words.

ANECDOTE This is a short, amusing account of something that has happened, usually in the form of some kind of short story which is often brought up in conversation, particularly when everyone's relaxed and in good humour.

ANGLOPHONE Another word for English native speakers, usually referred to those who live in a country where more than one language is spoken or if English is one of the official languages.

ANONYMOUS AUTHORITY No, they're not some kind of secret bosses. they're weasel words. So go there to find out what that means, and that's an order.

ANSWER This is when you say something to someone who has asked you something. This is usually in the form of information that the speaker is asking for. Usually the speaker is hoping that the listener is able to give them the information they want, but it may not always be the correct information or answer that the listener is hoping to get... 


ANTECEDENT This is a word, phrase or sentence that takes the place of another expression that is either before or after it. For example: The man who is baking a cake is a doctor by trade. (The man is the antecedent of who), Look at that new XBOX! I want to buy it! (XBOX is the antecedent of it) If you want one, there's an umbrella in the hall. (umbrella is the antededent of one).

ANTONYM This is a word that means the opposite. So for example, the antonym of sad is happy, but depending on the context, it could also be delighted, cheerful, content, pleased, glad, joyful, cheerful, and so on. So if you're a regular user of Microsoft Word (other office programs are available of course) and you're checking for synonyms,  often the list ends with an example of an antonym. If you haven't noticed this before, then try it...

APOSTROPHE A word that many students have problems pronouncing. A – pos – tro – fee /əpɒstrəfi/. Now repeat that. Got it? Okay, back to business. An apostrophe is actually the mark (‘). It is used to show that either letters have been removed (as in contractions): didn’t, can’t, they’ll, and is also added to nouns to form possessives such as Joanna’s birthday. The dog’s dinner.

ARGUMENT If we go by the Monty Python definition, an argument "...is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition." (It's funnier if you see the video, which I understand is quite freely available on YouTube). If we go for a closer and simpler dictionary definition, there are three of them: it's a statement (or set of statements) used to try to convince listeners that you are correct and that they are not; it's a discussion or debate where people can express different or opposing opinions, and it's a conversation (or even a shouting match) in which people disagree with each other, sometimes loudly or even by shouting at each other! See also contradiction.

ARGOT This is a special language usually made up of specialized vocabulary and idioms used by people who are either in the same job (e.g. those working in computers) or in the same group (e.g. teenagers, footballers and thieves). Often this language can be difficult to understand as it can be made up of jargon and slang. See also dialect.

ARTICLE A, AN and THE. See definite article and indefinite article. See, I told you so. (See a, an & the or, even better, there's a very interesting and quite detailed item which has been set out rather like a self-studying course on this website on the subject of a, an and the, so click here for more information.)

ASKING This is when you say something to someone in the form of a question, usually because you want to know the answer. So you might ask where's Frank? and you would expect an answer, even if it is only 'I don't know'. Compare with request, which is more polite. See also question and interrogative.

ASTERISK The symbol (*), and yes, the inspiration for the name of France's most popular cartoon character. The asterisk is often used to refer to additional information, sometimes found later in a piece of text or on the same page. It also used to replace letters, particularly in the use of profanities when written: sh*t, b*****d, f**k and so on. (Amusingly, software used by TV companies to place asterisks in texts automatically - particularly when displaying channel listings on satellite and cable - can lead to some interesting programmes such as FA Cup 3rd Round: A***nal vs. S****hope United) ... The symbol itself is sometimes referred to as a 'star', particularly with automated telephone menus. On the keyboard, it is also used to represent the multiplication symbol, and in computer science as a 'wildcard' character.

AUXILIARY VERB This is a verb that is placed just before the main verb in a sentence or question. There are two kinds of auxiliary verbs: primary auxiliaries (in this case, it is be, have and do): I have got a million pounds. I was thinking of you. It was sent to me last week. Do you watch M jak Miłosc? I don’t like cheese, and modal (auxiliary) verbs. (such as have to, would, might, and so on). The job of the auxiliary verb is to show how the verb that follows is to be understood or in grammar terms, by modifying (or making it clearer) the meaning of the verb that follows.

B The second letter of the alphabet. The IPA pronunciation of the individual letter is /biː/, a consonant, and also BRAVO in the NATO alphabet. For the easy way to remember how to say the letter, think of the letter in BBC.

BACKCHANNEL In the wonderful world of corpus linguistics, backchannelling is the process of using a minimal response (which may be just one short word) to show that the listener is paying attention to what is being said, in that they are showing interest and keeping the conversation going. Examples of backchannels are underlined: A: It's her birthday tomorrow. B: Really? A: Yes, so we need to get a present. B: Uh-huh. A: I thought about a bunch of flowers. B: Sounds good. See also dysfluency.

BACKSLASH This is the mark (\), a small line that slopes to the left and became popular with the introduction of computer keyboards. (For Americans, this is on the third row of the keyboard, far right before 'enter', and on british keyborads, it's on the fourth row, far left after the 'shift' key. Goodness knows where it is on the French keyboard. For contrast, see (forward) slash.

BAD LANGUAGE But it's just simply going to say... see taboo word.

BARE INFINITIVE This is the verb without 'to', often used to follow a modal verb. So for example, we would write this sentence with the bare infinitive: He can play tennis. (NOT: He can to play tennis). See also full infinitive or just infinitive (also known, more formally and therefore more academically, as the infinitive clause).

BASE This is any part of a word that you can add inflections (play/played/playing; fish/fished/fishes) or by adding affixes (that's prefixes [displease) and suffixes [pleasing]). These usually change the meaning or part of speech. So using 'play' as our base, it can be inflected (plays, played, playing) or changed to different words (player, wordplay, playground). So although root words are bases - as they stay the same even when extra letters are added - any new words created from the root can take extra letters and be changed into new words - and so a new base - such as playground, from which  playgrounds and its different meanings can be created. Stems are just bases with changes that are either inflectional or grammatical.

BINOMIAL This is perhaps thought of more of a mathematical term, so it might not be your bread and butter. Also known as a binomial pair, these are expressions that contain two words and which are joined by 'and' or 'or' (known as conjunctions). The word order of these binomials is usually fixed, so for example, we say 'knife and fork' rather than 'fork and knife'. Other examples: husband and wife, up and down, by and large (made more famous by Wall-E), more or less. Sometimes other words used as linkers may also be used in binomials: side by side, back to front, cheek by jowl (meaning very close to each other).

BORROWING A gerund that is a synonym of loanword, the small difference is that while loanwords are words taken from another language and added to another with little or no translation, borrowings may (but not always) see a change in the spelling and sometimes the meaning.  The English language has been borrowing words from the very beginning, borrowing words from Latin (thanks to the Romans) and Norman French (thanks to William the Conquerer) to add to the language. It is believed that up to 80 per cent of the English language is made up of borrowed words. See also calque.

BRACKET In punctuation, these are the marks (  ) - known as round brackets or in American English, parenthesis, and [  ] - known as square brackets. There are also curly brackets or braces {  }  and angle brackets or chevrons ⟨  ⟩ . They have many other names (and many other different kinds of bracket) but you can go to Wikipedia to find all that out. Anyway, the main job of brackets is to be placed around a wordexpression, or sentence so you show that you want to give extra information: This job requires completion by next week (but not tomorrow as I am away). The different marks are often used in various ways, but avoid a full page of explanation, I also suggest that free online dictionary

BRITISH ENGLISH A form of the English language as spoken and written by the people of Great Britain, but mainly in England. It includes vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation that may have some differences to other forms of English. See also American English.

BROADCAST This word has many meanings, but as we're focusing on the language, then we are talking about a programme, performance or speech that is made on the radio or on television. As a more colloquial definition, native speakers often use it as a form of criticism when someone talks too loudly, to the point that more than just their immediate listeners might, or would be able to hear what has been said. Gosh, don't shout! You want to broadcast it to everybody?

BULLET In typography, this is the symbol  ( • ) and is often used in lists, technical writing, reference works, notes, and presentations. These points can also be presented by other symbols. See also bullet point, dot. 

BULLET POINT These are bullets but often used for short phrases or single sentences.

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