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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 intensifiers that don't work with certain absolute adjectives but this is simply for collocational 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 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 from city to city.


ACCENT Meaning No.2: This is a short line or other marks which are 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.

ACCENT Meaning No.3: This is when a clear emphasis given to a syllable or word in speech by stress or pitch. So, for example, if you use the verb 'record', the accent falls on the first syllable; for the noun, the accent is on the second syllable.

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!


ALLUSION This is a figure of speech, in which an object or circumstance that is taken from something such as a situation or a person, and which is referred to in a way that is is not particularly obvious, usually secretly or indirectly. It is left to the reader or listener to make the direct connection. Examples of allusions: Don't be like a Scrooge! (from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, in which Scrooge did not like spending money and hated Christmas) Chocolate is my Achilles' heel. (From Greek Mythology, meaning 'a weakness'.)

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.

ANAPHORA this is a rhetorical device that repeats repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive sentences, phrases, or clauses that allows the writer to convey, emphasize, and reinforce meaning. This can be very effective in speeches, lyrics, poetry, and prose. Examples of anaphora are Get busy living or get busy dying, give me liberty or give me death, damned if you do or damned if you don’t, stay safe. Stay well. Stay happy.

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 " 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.)

ARTICULATE There are three definitions of this term: if someone is articulate, they are able to express their thoughts and ideas easily and well: She was very articulate at her interview - she's definitely suitable for the job. Because they didn't speak English and he didn't speak Polish, he was unable to offer an articulate description as to what happened. When you articulate your ideas or feelings, you express them clearly in words: The management were unable to articulate their ideas for moving forward in business.  Also, if you articulate something, you say it very clearly, so that each word or syllable can be heard.


ARTICULATION The noun form of articulate. He may have great ideas, but his articulation was terrible during his presentation - we didn't understand what he wanted at all!

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.

ASPECT This is when we describe the verb form that expresses whether the speaker is talking about something in progress or is complete. These forms are the progressive aspect (-ing forms, past, present, future) or the perfect aspect (present perfect, past perfect, future perfect).

ASSONANCE This is when the sounds of words and/or syllables resemble other words and sounds, or are repeated, or are the same, between their vowels or consonants. This is something you often find in verse and poetry, and particularly in tongue-twisters. It is often used in the same way as alliteration. Some examples (thank you The light of the fire is a sight. (repetition of the long 'i' sound); Go slow over the road. (repetition of the long 'o' sound); Here's a super set saga of sheep-shaving Sam. (repetition of the short 's' and 'sh' sounds); The thirty thousand thistles think this theme's some other thought. (repetition of the 'th' sounds as in 'thing' and in 'this').

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.

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