Top of chapter Contents Bibliography 3.1. Parts of speech
3.1.1. Nouns 3.1.2. Pronouns 3.1.3. Verbs 3.1.4. Adjectives 3.1.5. Adverbs 3.1.6. Prepositions 3.1.7. Conjunctions 3.1.8. Interjections
3.2. Phrases 3.3. Clauses 3.4. Elements of the sentence or clause
3.4.1. Subject 3.4.2. Verb 3.4.3. Object 3.4.4. Complement 3.4.5. Predicate

3. Basic Grammar: A Review

The remaining chapters of this book will often employ grammatical terminology. If you are not familiar with (or need to be reminded about) such terms as the names of the parts of speech and the elements of the sentence, or such concepts as the phrase and the clause, read this chapter.

3.1. Parts of speech

Traditional grammar defines eight parts of speech for English: nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions and interjections. Grammars often define these categories according to the meanings of the words they contain: a noun names a thing, a verb describes an action, and so forth. A better way to define a part of speech is by its morphology—the way its form can change (in English most commonly by adding an ending) or by its syntax—the rules that govern its relationship to other words in the sentence (in English, frequently, its position relative to other words). Words often slip out of the part of speech to which we assign them by their meaning, as when King Lear says:

when the thunder would not peace at my bidding.

The traditional grammarian shudders when anyone but Shakespeare makes a noun into a verb, as when a computer technician ‘accesses his hard drive’. But if we think of the part of speech as defined by the word’s grammatical characteristics rather than its meaning, we see that both Shakespeare and the computer technician are quite correct: peace is a verb when it comes in a periphrastic verb construction, and access is a verb when it has a verb ending.

Words can move from one part of speech to another in Old English as they can in Modern English: often the same word can function as a conjunction or an adverb, for example, or as a pronoun or an adjective. In addition, Old English, like Modern English, has rules for altering a word’s part of speech. In this section, and in the rest of this book, we will keep in mind that the “part of speech” is a grammatical and not a semantic category; but we will allude to the more traditional way of defining parts of speech when it is helpful to do so.

3.1.1. Nouns

A noun is the name of a person, place or thing. The “thing” need not be concrete: for example, it can be a thought, an activity, or a principle.

The noun may be inflected (endings supplied or its form altered) to mark its number (singular or plural) or case (in Modern English, subjective/objective or possessive—but there are more cases in Old English).

3.1.2. Pronouns

According to the classic definition, a pronoun is a word used in place of a noun. However, a pronouns can also work like an adjective, modifying the meaning of a noun rather than replacing it. While the more familiar kind of adjective may modify or limit the meaning of a noun in a novel way, creating, just possibly, a concept that has never been spoken of before (“a transcendental cow,” “a nuclear teapot”), the pronominal adjective modifies the sense of the noun by narrowing its reference in a very limited and stereotyped way: “this cow” (the one here with me), “each teapot” (all of them, but considered one by one). As the “classic” pronoun and the pronominal adjective generally have the same form, this book treats them as equivalent.

Pronouns are of seven types: personal, demonstrative, interrogative, indefinite, relative, reflexive, and reciprocal. Here is a rundown of these types:


The personal pronouns (Modern English I, you, she, he, it, etc.) refer to specific objects and are inflected for person—the first person referring to the speaker, the second person to someone or something the speaker is addressing, and the third person to any other person or thing.


These pronouns point out specific things (Modern English this, that). The Modern English definite article the is in origin a demonstrative pronoun, and Old English used a demonstrative where we now use the definite article.


Interrogative pronouns introduce questions, either direct (e.g. “Who are you?”) or indirect (e.g. “He asked who you were”).


This is a relatively large group of pronouns that indicate that we are speaking about one or more members of some category of things but do not specify exactly which. Modern English examples are all, any, anyone, each, few, many, none, one, and something.


A relative pronoun introduces an adjective clause (also called a relative clause). In Modern English the most common relatives are that and who.


A reflexive pronoun is used as a direct object, indirect object, or object of a preposition to refer to the same thing as the subject. Examples:

Direct object: The cat grooms himself.
Indirect object: The president gave himself a raise.
Object of a preposition: Look within yourself.

These pronouns refer individually to the things that make up a plural antecedent and indicate that each of those things is in the position of object of the other as subject. That sounds complicated, and it is; but the idea is well known to speakers of Modern English, who use the phrases each other and one another to express it.

When a pronoun has an antecedent (a noun it refers back to), it agrees with that antecedent in gender and number. This rule of concord holds in both Old and Modern English, though not without exception (see §§11.3, 11.5).

3.1.3. Verbs

A verb usually describes an action (they run, he jumps, we think) or a state of being (we lack, insects abound, I am). In both Modern and Old English, verbs can be marked for person, number, tense and mood, and some forms can be used as nouns and adjectives.

There are several ways to divide up the paradigm (the list of inflectional forms) for any verb; the following scheme seems likely to be useful to students of Old English.


In both Old and Modern English, the infinitive is the form that dictionaries use as the headword for verb entries. In Modern English it is the same as the present form, sometimes preceded by to (“ride,” “to ride”), but in Old English it has its own endings that distinguish it from the present forms. It is in origin a noun built on the verbal root. In Modern English we can still see the noun-like quality of the infinitive in constructions where it functions as a subject, object, or complement:

To marry is better than to burn.
Louis loves to run.
The best course is usually to ignore insults.

These usages are also present in Old English. And both Old and Modern English use the infinitive to complete the sense of an auxiliary verb:

We must go.
He ought to stay.
You may do as you like.
Finite verb.

This verb form makes a statement about a subject: the subject is something, or does something:

Larry has brains.
Larry is a fool.
Larry thinks clearly.

The finite verb can be inflected for person (first, second, third), number (singular, plural), tense (past, present, and in Modern English future) and mood (indicative, subjunctive, imperative). The other verb forms cannot be so marked.

The finite clause—the most common type—must contain a finite verb. In general, finding and understanding the finite verb is the key to decoding complex clauses and sentences in Old English, and so it is essential that you get familiar with the finite verb paradigms.

In Modern English, finite verbs are inflected for tense, but only minimally for person, number and mood: only the third person present singular is so inflected. [1] The Old English finite verb has only two tenses, past and present, but it is much more fully inflected than in Modern English for person, number and mood.

Present participle.

This is an adjective-like verb form that generally expresses ongoing, repeated or habitual action. It is sometimes used as an adjective, sometimes as a noun and sometimes as part of a periphrastic verb:

the flowing water
bowling is fun
the Lord was speaking
Past participle.

This verb form is so called because of the resemblance between it and the past-tense form of the verb. It is descended from an Indo-European verbal adjective.

In Old English and all the Germanic languages, the past participle retained its adjectival function; indeed, it is still easy to think of Modern English examples, e.g. “I’ll have a boiled egg.” The past participle is also used to form a periphrastic[2] passive:

A periphrastic verb form is one that requires more than one word, such as “to be” or “have seen”.
The king was slain.
Mistakes were made.

It may also be used to make periphrastic perfect and pluperfect forms (indicating that the action they describe has been completed), though in Old English there are other ways to do so as well:

We have begun this work
When God had made all things

These usages all arise from the perfective sense of the past participle: it expresses the state that is consequent upon an action having been completed.

Infinitives, past participles and present participles are collectively called verbals. They have in common that they are often used with auxiliaries (as you have seen) to make periphrastic constructions in which the auxiliary expresses person, number, tense and mood while the verbal conveys lexical information.

The Modern English verb to be differs from most others in distinguishing all three persons: I am, you are, he is. The modal auxiliaries, on the other hand, do not distinguish person at all: I may, you may, she may.

3.1.4. Adjectives

An adjective modifies or limits the meaning of a noun. If I speak of “a car,” I could be referring to any car in the world. But if I speak of “a green car,” I have modified the meaning of “car” and limited the set of objects to which I am referring.

In Indo-European languages generally, the adjective is inflected to agree with the grammatical characteristics (gender, case and number) of the noun it is modifying. In Modern English we have almost entirely stopped inflecting our adjectives: the only endings that remain are -er to make a comparative and -est to make a superlative. But in Old English the adjective has different endings depending on the gender, case and number of the noun it is modifying.

3.1.5. Adverbs

Adverbs are traditionally defined as words that modify adjectives, verbs and other adverbs. Adverbs like finally, wonderfully, and very are easy to understand in both Old and Modern English. Conjunctive adverbs (also called transitional adverbs), which provide logical transitions between clauses, can be a little trickier. Examples of conjunctive adverbs in Modern English are however, nevertheless, therefore, then, and thus. These are related to conjunctions in meaning and function, and in consequence are often confused with them by both speakers of Modern English and students of Old English.

3.1.6. Prepositions

A preposition introduces a prepositional phrase—that is, a word-group that functions (usually) as an adverb or adjective and consists of a preposition together with a noun, noun phrase or pronoun (the “object of the preposition”). In such phrases, the preposition defines the relationship between the sentence-element the phrase is modifying and the object of the preposition.

In a sentence like this one

Fishes swim in the water.

the prepositional phrase “in the water” acts as an adverb modifying “swim.” The preposition “in” tells us that the phrase has to do with space and, more precisely, location relative to “the water.” Other prepositions work similarly, modifying nouns and verbs by defining the relationships between them and other things.

3.1.7. Conjunctions

Conjunctions are usually defined as words that link sentence elements. This definition can be a little misleading, since conjunctions often come at the beginnings of sentences where they do not appear to link anything.

Coordinating conjunctions join together words and clauses that are grammatically parallel. Modern English examples are and, or and but. Subordinating conjunctions introduce subordinate clauses: they are “linking words” in the sense that they signal the relationship between the subordinate and the principal clause. Modern English examples are when, where, although, and as. Correlative conjunctions come in pairs, for example, either . . . or, both . . . and.

3.1.8. Interjections

An interjection is an exclamation, usually expressing emotion or surprise or establishing a rhetorical level. Modern English examples are Oh! and Gosh! A justly famous interjection in Old English is Hwæt, which begins many poems (including Beowulf); it is sometimes interpreted as a call for attention and sometimes as a signal that what follows is in an elevated style.

3.2. Phrases

The function of a word in a sentence may be performed by a phrase, a group of words that forms a cohesive unit but lacks a subject and verb. The most important kinds of phrase to know about are these:

Noun phrases

consist of a noun or pronoun with modifiers, including pronouns, adjectives, other phrases, and clauses:

The archbishop of York sent to the king.
He who laughs last laughs best.
So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow.
Participial phrases

include present participles or past participles. They are called “participial phrases” when they function as adjectives and “gerund phrases” when they function as nouns, but there is no difference in form.

Giving alms may help you get to heaven.
It is a tale told by an idiot.
Prepositional phrases

consist of prepositions and their objects. They function as adjectives or adverbs:

Variety is the spice of life.
We live in Scottsville.
Never judge a book by its cover.

A phrase can contain any number of words and can also contain clauses and other phrases, which can in turn contain other clauses and phrases.

3.3. Clauses

A clause is a group of words that contains a subject and a finite verb. It is rather like a sentence in this respect, and in fact a simple declarative sentence (such as “I like ice cream”) is nothing more than an independent clause standing by itself—it is indeed the defining characteristic of an independent clause that it can stand by itself.

But a sentence of any complexity also contains one or more subordinate clauses. A subordinate clause is a sentence-like group of words (containing a subject and a verb) that functions as a word in another grammatical structure—in a sentence, clause, or phrase. Subordinate clauses are classified according to the kinds of words they can stand in for: nouns, adjectives and adverbs.

Noun clauses

in Modern English begin with such words as that, which, what, and whoever. A noun clause may function as the subject or object of a verb, as a complement, or as the object of a preposition; in fact, a noun clause can come pretty much anywhere a noun can come. Examples:

You said that you would be here today.
What you thought you saw was an illusion.
Whoever wins will be a wealthy man.
Adverb clauses

are extremely various and very common. They answer such questions as “when?” “where?” “why?” and “with what intention?” The types of adverb clauses that you should know about (with some—not all—of the Modern English conjunctions that introduce them) are conditional (if), concessive (although), temporal (when, before, after), causal (because), place (where), purpose (in order that, so that), result (so that), and comparison (as). A few examples:

When it rains, it pours.
We will be sorry if you leave.
As I write I keep looking for casualties.
I know where the sun rises.
Adjective clauses

modify nouns or pronouns. The most common type is the “relative clause,” which commonly begins with the relative pronoun that or who (whom,).

We do eat from all the trees that are in paradise.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Adjective clauses can also begin with words such as where, when and other conjunctions that begin adverb clauses, which they often closely resemble.

In countries where associations are free, secret societies are unknown.
In the days before there were trains, people often travelled on horseback.

Like phrases, clauses can contains phrases and other clauses. We call a style that features much subordination hypotactic; we call a style that features the concatenation of clauses (either with or without and) paratactic. Some say that Old English literature generally is characterized by parataxis, but this is not true. Rather, some Old English works (such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) tend to be paratactic, while others (such as King Alfred’s Preface to his translation of Gregory’s Pastoral Care) are rather more hypotactic. In poetry it can be difficult to tell independent clauses from subordinate clauses, and for that reason it is a matter of some controversy how paratactic or hypotactic Old English poetry is.

3.4. Elements of the sentence or clause

Sentences and clauses are made up of elements such as subjects, verbs and objects. Such an element may be a single word, but a clause or phrase can also function as an element of a sentence or clause.

3.4.1. Subject

The subject names what the sentence or clause is about. It may be a noun, pronoun, noun phrase or a list (a compound subject):

Noun: Warriors should keep their swords sharp.
Pronoun: They won’t do you any good if they’re dull.
Noun phrase: My sword is razor sharp.
Noun phrase: He who has a good sword has a good friend.
List: My sword and my shield are friends in battle.

In the first sentence the subject is a single noun, and in the second it’s a single pronoun. More often than not, though, the subject will be a noun phrase—and noun phrases come in many shapes and sizes. In the third sentence the subject consists of a possessive pronoun and a noun, and in the fourth it consists of a pronoun and a relative clause. The fifth shows a very simple example of a compound subject.

In Old English, as in Modern English, subjects can be simple or complex. Old English differs somewhat from Modern English in that a compound subject can be split. In Old English, a sentence structured like this one

My shield protects me and my sword.

could be interpreted as having a compound subject, “my shield and my sword.” But in Modern English, “and my sword” must be taken as part of a compound object, “me and my sword.” Old English also differs from Modern English in that it often omits the subject when the context makes it obvious what it is.

3.4.2. Verb

The verb is both a part of speech and an essential element of the sentence. Grammarians classify Modern English verbs as transitive, intransitive or linking. We will use the first two of those terms, but we’ll call the “linking verb” a copula.

A transitive verb

has a direct object. For example, the verbs in these sentences are transitive:

In this year the Viking army broke the peace.
Sigebryht slew the nobleman who had stood by him longest.

In the first sentence, the object is “the peace”; in the second it is a noun phrase consisting of an article with noun (“the nobleman”) and an adjective clause modifying the noun (“who . . .”).

An intransitive verb

does not have a direct object, though it may be followed by an adverbial element (an adverb, a phrase, or an adverb clause). Some examples:

In this year archbishop Wulfstan died.
This Cynewulf reigned for thirty-one years.

In the second sentence the verb is followed by an adverbial element (a prepositional phrase), but this is not a direct object.

A copula

links the subject of a sentence to a complement (also called a predicate noun or predicate adjecive), which characterizes the subject in some way. The verbs in these sentences are copulas:

Hrothgar was a good king.
They were the first ships of Danish men who sought the land of the English.

The copula is usually a form of the verb to be; the complement can be a noun, pronoun, adjective or noun phrase. In the first sentence the complement is a short noun phrase, “a good king”; in the second sentence the complement is a long noun phrase containing several dependent elements.

In both Old and Modern English the verb may consist of an auxiliary (“helping”) verb and an infinitive (e.g. “may contribute,” “must pay”) or, to make the passive, a form of the verb to be and a past participle (e.g. “was arrested”). And of course these two constructions can be combined (e.g. “must be excused”).

3.4.3. Object

The “direct object” is usually defined as the noun, pronoun or noun phrase that directly receives the action of a verb. Such definitions are usually followed by examples like these:

Rob painted the house.
Let us break bread together.

Here the verbs are “action verbs,” and the direct objects (“the house,” “bread”) are actually affected by the actions that the verbs specify.

But it is always dangerous to bind grammatical concepts too closely to the logical relationships expressed by language. Here is another example of a direct object:

Newton pondered the nature of the universe.

Few persons would claim that Newton affected “the nature of the universe” by pondering it; the direct object in this sentence does not “receive the action of the verb” in anything like the sense in which “the house” and “bread” received the actions of the verbs “painted” and “break.” Further, the sentence about Newton might easily be rewritten thus, with little change of sense:

Newton thought deeply about the nature of the universe.

Here the verb “thought” is followed by a prepositional phrase, “about the nature of the universe”—not a direct object. And yet it says the same thing about Newton that the other sentence says.

What all our examples of direct objects have in common is their grammatical relationships to their verbs: in Modern English, the direct object usually follows the verb and never has a preposition in front of it.

In Old English, the direct object may follow the verb, but may also precede it (especially when the object is a pronoun). It is generally in the accusative case, though some verbs have their direct objects (or what we translate as direct objects) in the dative or genitive case.

An “indirect object” is a thing that has some indirect relationship to the action of a verb. Such relationships are extremely various: one may, for example, benefit from or be disadvantaged by some action, witness some action, or be the destination of some movement. Examples:

Papa’s going to buy you a mockingbird.
Let me tell you a story.

3.4.4. Complement

The complement was defined above; here we will expand on that definition a little. The complement restates the subject of a sentence or clause, characterizing it in some way, for example describing or renaming. It usually follows the verb to be, but it may follow other verbs as well:

Æthelflæd was the ruler of the Mercians.
Beowulf was brave.
Greek is considered a difficult language.
This plant is called cinquefoil.

Notice that the complement may be a noun, pronoun, adjective or noun phrase.

3.4.5. Predicate

The predicate is the finite verb together with the direct object or complement, any other elements (such as indirect objects) that are governed by the verb, and any elements (such as adverbs or prepositional phrases) that modify the verb. In short, it includes everything in the clause except the subject. Predicates may be compound—they may contain more than one verb:

Suzy grabbed her bag, threw a kiss to her mother, and ran out the door.