Alphabet    Vocabulary    Parts of Speech    Aspects of Punctuation

Word Definitions


Since words are the means by which we communicate, it seems wise to know as much as possible about them. English is made up from a pool or alphabet of 26 letters, most of which are very similar to the letters of the Greek alphabet. Our word alphabet is made up of the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and beta.

Five of these 26 letters, a, e, i, o, u, are vowels and the other 21 are known as consonants.
The word vowel comes from the Latin vocare, to call. The five vowels a, e, i, o, and u are the voices of the alphabet and supply the sounds in words.

Vowels can be long or short. When we recite the whole alphabet through, the vowels are long; we can hold on to them for a long time. But in many English words vowels are short and hardly heard.

English often uses two vowels together to show that the first vowel is long, i.e. it sounds as we say it in the alphabet. Examples are ai as in tail; ea as in tea; ee as in sheep; ei as in receive; ie as in tie (small words only); oa as in boat; ue as in value; ui as in fruit. Note, however, that there are many exceptions.

The letter y is very versatile, having several uses. It can be a consonant as in yacht; a vowel which says e as in happy, lady, pity, twenty and sadly; a vowel which says i as in my, try, by, satisfy. It also combines with a and e to make those two vowels long, as in day, delay, and key, money, donkey. Here, it isn't pronounced but indicates that the vowel in front of it is long.

The word consonant comes from Latin sonare, to sound and con, with, together. Unless consonants have a vowel with them, they cannot be pronounced. The letter f, for example, needs a short e in front of it to show that it sounds as ef. When it is found in a word like fit, however, its sound is much shorter as it is influenced by the vowel i which comes after it.

Some consonants combine together to make new sounds which are called blends:

Blends, e.g. bl as in black, also br, cl, cr, dr, fl, fr, gl, gr, pl, pr, sc, sk, sl, sp, st, tr, tw.
Triple consonant blends, e.g. spl as in splash and str as in street are also found.

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vocabulary comes from Latin vocatum = (what things are) called, i.e. words, and comes to mean a list of words or a
knowledge of words.

root: the main part of a word from which other words are developed, like the root of a plant.
One such root word is 'fix'.

A prefix: (a letter, syllable, or word) fixum = fixed; pre- = in front of (another word or root to form a new word), e.g.
prejudge, prefix.

A suffix: sub- = under, lower. Sometimes it means from above or after.
The -ous of famous is a common adjectival suffix meaning full of.

An affix: ad- = to, at. An affix is a general term for prefixes and suffixes.
You affix something on or to something else. You affix a stamp on to an envelope.

assimilation: -ion = the act or process of; -at = making; simil = similar; ad = to,
especially of making the last letter of a prefix the same as the first letter of the root word, e.g.
ad + similate = assimilate
ad + fix = affix

To assimilate 1. = to make similar to      2. = to absorb into one's brain, especially of material to be learnt.

Short words, mainly derived from Anglo-Saxon or Old English, are called monosyllabic (mono = one). They consist of one chunk or one syllable, e.g. seen, hunt (mono = one). Polysyllabic words have more than one syllable and usually come from Latin or Greek. Greek poly = many (literally taken together).

A syllable (literally, taken together) is the smallest part of a word that can be pronounced on its own. Every syllable contains a vowel:
The word syllable has three syllables: syl - la - ble.
The word letter has two syllables: let - ter.
The word root is monosyllabic. It has one syllable.

An important rule for dividing words into syllables is to divide between double letters, as in let-ter. This is because the first t, which is unsounded, keeps the e before it short, while the second t, which is sounded, begins the second syllable. The first unpronounced t has a job to do, which is to tell us how to pronounce the vowel before it.

In polysyllabic words, one syllable is stressed more than another or more than the others. Dictionaries usually show how the syllables are divided. They may indicate the accented syllable by a stroke just before the stressed syllable. They may place the accented syllable in italics or place a small / above the accented syllable. If one is unsure of how to pronounce a word, the best way of learning how it is said is to listen for it in conversation or to ask a knowledgeable person.

Synonyms Greek sun = with, together, alike; onoma or onym = name
Antonyms Greek ant- or anti- = against, opposite
Homonyms Greek homo- = same:

Synonyms are words of similar meaning, e.g. act, deed
Antonyms are words of opposite meaning, e.g. dark, light
Homonyms are words which sound the same but are spelt differently, e.g. pail, pale

Homographs Greek grapho = write. These are words spelt the same but each has a separate meaning and derivation, e.g.
minute (on a clock) and minute (with the accent on the first syllable) = very small indeed.

Words can have a literal or a figurative meaning:

(adjective from Latin litera, a letter) = according to the letter, e.g. The literal meaning of a word gives the meaning of each part of the word. The word contradiction literally means the act of saying the opposite of. It takes in a root word, a prefix and suffix, and suggests an opposing statement.

Figurative (adjective)
When we say someone becomes a star overnight, we mean that suddenly their talent is recognised and they shine like a star in the sky. The word figurative is related to the term figures of speech, which are found mainly in poetry. They probably began as striking uses of words intended to attract the reader's attention. The figurative meaning of a word or phrase is unusual but not unrelated to the basic meaning, e.g. You can burst a balloon (literally) or you may burst into tears (figurative sense). The tears flow so fast and suddenly that it seems the tear ducts have burst.

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Parts of Speech belong to Grammar, which is the study of a language, its rules and the relationship between words.

I am indebted for some definitions to the late Dr John Moffat, who was my lecturer at Teachers' College, Christchurch, New Zealand, and who wrote 'The Structure of English' (Pegasus 1968).

Nouns represent the person or thing one is talking about, e.g. a lad
Verbs tell what a noun does or has done to it, e.g. The lad speaks.

Adjectives give more information about nouns, e.g. a success story.
Adverbs give more information about verbs, e.g. He played successfully. The suffix -ly is often the sign of an adverb.

Prepositions introduce phrases, which consist of a preposition followed by a noun,
e.g. from the bus; to school; after our lunch; with friends; over the fence.
Common prepositions are:
at, to, towards, after, before, over, under, below, beneath, above, behind, in, on, among, near, beyond, by,
beside, down, up, for, except, from, through, against, during, with, without, of.

Conjunctions join sentences or introduce clauses, e.g. He woke up and found the house on fire. While I was waiting, a car flipped over.
A clause always contains a verb.
Common conjunctions are:
as, after, before, because, since, till, until, when, whenever, while, and, but. The conjunction and may join
similar parts of speech, e.g. Penny and Mary.

Articles go with nouns and are definite or indefinite: the is definite and a or an are indefinite, e.g. the boy = the particular boy, the boy who is talking.
e.g. a boy = any boy

Pronouns take the place of nouns. Instead of repeating the noun Mary, we say, "She ran."
Common pronouns are: I, me, you, he, she, it, we, us, they, them.

There are two main classes of nouns:

  1. Concrete nouns refer to things we can see, feel or touch, e.g. spoon, table, bread.
  2. Abstract nouns refer to emotions, ideas, qualities, states, happenings, actions which we can't see, reach out and touch, e.g. love, beauty, excitement, pity, sorrow, charm, heat, disappointment, clatter, conversation.
    Concrete nouns also include proper, common, and collective nouns:
    Proper nouns refer to particular people, places or titles, e.g. Tim, London, China, India, Lake Victoria,
    Jane Eyre.
    Common nouns usually refer to everyday things. They are less specific than proper nouns and common to
    any number of things of the same kind, e.g. There are many kinds of books.
    So it is with chair, grass, hill, fruit, man, dog.
    Collective nouns refer to groups of things, people or animals, and suggest an undivided whole, so have
    a singular verb, e.g. The team has succeeded. Other examples are army, fleet, batch, cluster,
    company, swarm.
    Collective nouns are often followed by the preposition of, e.g. a set of tools.

A noun and a verb make up the basic sentence, e.g. The girl smiles.

A sentence is a group of words which are complete and make sense. The full-stop (.) shows the end of a sentence. The shortest sentence can be a question, command or exclamation, e.g. "Why?", "Hurry!", "Halt!". In the command and exclamation the noun subject is understood: "(You) hurry!"

Nouns can be singular or plural,
subjects of verbs,
objects of verbs or
objects of prepositions.

This has importance for some pronouns which change their form according to whether they are subject or
object of a verb, e.g.
Subjective form = I he she we they who
Objective form = me him her us them whom
e.g. I see her and she sees me. I chase after her (object after a preposition).

Tenses indicate the time at which actions take or took place. Verbs have past, present, future, continuous or perfect tenses, e.g. She speaks (present). She is speaking (present continuous). She will speak (future). She will be speaking (future continuous). She spoke (past). She has spoken (perfect). She had spoken (pluperfect). Notice how many extra verbs are called in to help form the various tenses.

Verbs are said to be in the active or passive voice, e.g. I call her is active because I, the subject of the verb, is doing the calling, but in I am called, the verb called is said to be passive because the subject I is not doing the calling. A passive verb is often followed by the preposition by, e.g. I am called in by my boss.

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The word punctuation comes from the Latin punctum, pricked or pierced, and, like pointing on brickwork or in needlework, it highlights patterns or groups.  In the written language it separates words into manageable groups so that we can grasp the meaning more readily.  

It seems that in most languages there was no punctuation to begin with. With the introduction of printing in England about 1476, stops or punctuation marks were standardised, and Ben Johnson (1572-1637) set forth the rules of punctuation in 'The English Grammar'. 

The chief punctuation marks are:

1. The full-stop or period indicates the longest pause and shows

  1. the close of a sentence
  2. an abbreviation or shortened form, e.g. M.P. = Member of Parliament. But even in abbreviations we are beginning to omit full-stops, especially where the last letter of the abbreviation is the same as that of the full word, e.g. Mr may be the shortened form of Mister, and you will even find MP for Member of Parliament.

2. The comma indicates the shortest pause and probably has the greatest number of uses.  Derived from the Greek koptein, to cut, the comma cuts off from the rest of the sentence

  1. words which give extra information about other words in a sentence,
    e.g. Anna, our niece, loves dancing. ('our niece' = a noun in apposition to Anna).
    e.g.The twins returned, both with muddy shoes and dirty knees.
  2. words which are spoken: "Into the bathroom," cried Mother, "and get cleaned up!"
  3. words in the vocative of address: "Hurry up, Jane!"   Someone is calling out to Jane.
  4. words in a list, e.g. We collect stamps, butterflies, spiders, and frogs.
  5. words or phrases where otherwise there might be confusion.

3. Inverted commas cut off the words actually spoken from the narrative:
"I like making mud pies," giggled Joan.
They are used to denote titles of books: "War and Peace" by Tolstoy. Sometimes a single inverted comma is
used, and sometimes titles are placed in italics: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens.

4. The colon (:) is not so widely used. It was called 'two pricks' by Ben Johnson and comes from the Greek kolon = a limb  or  clause, suggesting some link with the information which follows. It can be used

  1. to introduce a quotation: "The secret of success is constancy to purpose" - Lord Brougham (1778-1868).
  2. to introduce a list of items instead of  i.e.(that is to say); e.g.(for an example, from Latin, exempli gratia) and viz.(it may be seen, from Latin, videlicet),
    e.g. Here is what you will need: pens and pencils, readers, and notebooks.
  3. to add suspense and balance to a sentence:  
    The clock struck one: would the ghost appear?  They rushed to the cliff edge: it was beginning to crumble.
  4. to separate numbers as in digital clocks: 9:00, and Scripture references: Genesis 1:3.

5. The semi-colon (;) indicates a longer pause than a comma and links connected statements.

  1. It works with full sentences: The trees were bare; autumn was over; winter had come.
  2. It may also be found in lists of items where the items consist of more than one word: She bore the marks of old age: thin and greying hair; wrinkled, dry, sagging skin, and gnarled hands.

6. The hyphen (-) comes from Greek huphen ('uphen) = together, from hupo ('upo) = under + hen ('en) = one. It is used to

  1. join two or three words into one word, as it were, e.g. a pick-me-up; two-faced.
  2. link dates of birth and death: William Shakespeare (1564-1616).
  3. indicate how syllables are divided: let-ter, pro-vide, mo-tion.

    A syllable with a hyphen after it at the end of a line tells us a word is unfinished: pre-
    Hyphenated words often become compound words and lose their hyphen: Daylight may well have started out as day-light.

7. The dash (-) is generally more conversational or informal than other stops. It is used

  1. to indicate a statement added at the end of a sentence, almost as an afterthought:
    There was a tap on the window - was it a ghost?
  2. after a quotation, to indicate the name of the speaker: "Hasten slowly" - Augustus (63 B.C. - 14 A.D.)

8. The question mark (?) shows an inquiry is being made:"Where is the nearest shop?"

9. The exclamation mark (!) indicates that what is said is expressed with feelings of pain, anger, panic, surprise, authority, etc.

10. The apostrophe (') comes from Greek apo = away from  +  strepho = turn, and generally refers to the omission of letters as in:

  1. contractions often found in everyday speech, e.g. don't (do not); won't (will not); it's (it is); 'tis (it is); you're (you are); she'll (she will); they'd (they had).
  2. possession. This is also a contraction since the giant's feet stands for 'the feet of the giant' and was originally the giant his feet.   Likewise, the heroine's beauty stands for 'the beauty of the heroine' and was originally the heroine his beauty.

The apostrophe is used for clarity before an -s which makes abbreviations, letters and numbers plural, e.g. In the 1800's there were no A.A.'s (Automobile Associations). Mind your p's and q's.  Dot your i's and cross your t's.

11. Capital (from Latin caput, capitis = the head) or upper case letters are more important than small or lower case letters and mark

  1. the beginning of a sentence
  2. titles and proper nouns, e.g.  Queen Elizabeth, Scotland, New York, Mr Smith
  3. names of the days of the week, e.g. Sunday
  4. names of the months of the year, e.g. January. Note that the seasons do not need capitals, e.g. spring, summer, autumn, winter
  5. the beginning of lines of poetry
  6. the pronoun I
  7. many abbreviations or shortened forms, e.g. J.P. or JP (Justice of the Peace); U.S.A. or USA (United States of America);  N.B. or NB (Nota bene = Note well).

Shortened Latin words are generally written in small letters: v. (versus = against);  etc. (et cetera = and the rest);  i.e. (id est = that is);  e.g. (exempli gratia = for an example);  a.m.(ante meridiem = before noon).

Today punctuation is considered somewhat individual and some publishers have their own rules, e.g. You will find someone written as some-one.

To learn English one doesn't need to know much grammar, but it helps to know some terms.

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