Topic: Professional development

Background material for teachers on an array of topics in English language and linguistics. These resources are designed to help teachers feel more confident in their knowledge of the English language, and more adept at leading Englicious lessons, starters, and projects in class.

Want to know more? Or would you like to ask all your questions in a face-to-face session? The Englicious team offers full-day CPD courses entitled English Grammar for Teachers, in conjunction with the UCL Institute of Education and UCL Life Learning. Forthcoming session dates can be found on the IoE and UCL Life Learning websites.

Active and passive

Consider the two sentences below. What is the difference between them?

  1. The council workers cleared the path.
  2. The path was cleared by the council workers.

The same event is taking place in both sentences, but the sentences have been expressed in different ways.

In the first example the focus is on what the council workers did (they cleared the path), whereas in the second example, the focus is on what happened to the path (it was cleared by the council workers).

Active and passive: Creating cohesion

When does a writer or speaker choose to use a passive rather than an active? There can be various reasons. We’ll look here at the effects of using passives in different contexts.

Consider sentence (1). Would it be more natural to follow it with (2) or (3)? Why?

Active and passive: Style and use

In some genres of writing – science reports, for example – the passive voice is encouraged. However, many advocates of ‘plain English’ argue that the passive voice can be confusing to readers, and obscures meaning.

The examples below are from articles on the natural sciences, taken from the ICE-GB corpus. They illustrate the use of the passive voice (verb phrases in the passive are highlighted):

Adjective phrases

An adjective phrase is a phrase whose Head word is an adjective. As with other phrases adjective phrases can consist of only one word (the Head) or of more than one word.

Note that the National Curriculum stipulates that phrases should have at least two words, though it concedes in the Glossary entry for noun phrases that "Some grammarians recognise one-word phrases."

Here are some examples of adjective phrases in sentences. The phrases are marked in square brackets and the Head is highlighted.

Adjectives

A very simple definition of adjectives that has sometimes been used is that they are ‘descriptive’ words. But this isn’t really very helpful. Lots of word classes can be ‘descriptive’: a noun like funeral is fairly descriptive, as is the verb leap. We might also say that the adverb quickly describes the verb ran in a sentence like He quickly ran.

Adjectives: Avoiding adjective overuse

Many writers of fiction use adjectives as a quick way of telling us what a character is like: how they appear, how they feel, how we should view them. Look at the following examples of how adjectives are used to provide a basic description:

Adverb phrases

An adverb phrase is a phrase with an adverb as the Head word. The Head adverb can occur alone or with modifiers, i.e. other words which expand the phrase, for example:

Adverbial

Subjects, Direct Objects and Indirect Objects are typically noun phrases  (and sometimes clauses) which identify participants in the situation described by the main verb – they answer ‘who’ or ‘what’ questions.

Adverbials are rather different. Consider the highlighted phrases in the examples below:

Adverbial: Used as linking device

Adverbials typically modify verbs or clauses, but they can also be useful as linking devices to connect clauses to the content of the preceding text. Here are some examples of Adverbials that have this function. Remember that Adverbials can appear in different shapes: as adverbs (or adverb phrases), as prepositional phrases, as (shortened) clauses, or as set phrases.

Listing

Adverbs

Adverbs are words that typically modify a verb, an adjective or another adverb:

  • ‘I keep hoping they'll come back,’ Tanya said despairingly. [W2F-006 #244]

In this case the adverb is modifying the verb said.

  • It’s a very fast road all the way. [S1A-021 #195]

In this case the adverb is modifying the adjective fast.

Adverbs: Avoiding adverb overuse

Adverbs are quite a varied class of words, which work in several different ways in sentences. Think of examples like obviously, afterwards, extremelygently. These show that adverbs can express many different kinds of meaning.

This makes adverbs a useful word class. However, many experienced writers advise us to avoid overusing adverbs, and instead find other ways of describing actions and events.

Clauses

Clauses are considered to be very important units in the study of language. But what is a clause? What makes it different from a word, a phrase, or a sentence? Why are clauses so important?

A clause is a powerful structure because it can express a whole situation. Here’s an example:

Clauses: Clause types

Compare the following examples. They would usually be used to ‘do different things’:

Clauses: Finite and nonfinite clauses

Look at each of these examples. Do they have present tense or past tense? Can we change the tense?

  • She feels sick.
  • I was watching TV.

In the first example, we have the present tense verb form feels. We could change to past tense: She felt sick.

In the second example, the verb phrase was watching contains the past tense form was. We could change to the present tense: I am watching TV.

Clauses: Further guidance for teachers

Modern grammatical descriptions of English differ in some ways from the accounts in traditional grammars. This can sometimes lead to confusion. Here we note a few important differences in relation to the analysis of clauses and sentences.

Clauses: Main and subordinate clauses

Typically, a clause expresses a particular situation – an event or state of affairs. To do this, it usually needs to contain a verb. Here is an example of a clause:

  • My brother phoned me on Tuesday night.

This expresses an event, with the verb phoned indicating the type of event.

Here are some more examples of clauses, with the verb phrases highlighted:

Clauses: Relative clauses

Look at the highlighted clauses in these examples. What do they add to the meaning of the sentences?

Cohesion

Cohesion refers to the grammatical relationships that exist within a text between words, phrases, etc. When we talk only of the semantic links, i.e. the meaning links, we speak of coherence.

Here we focus on cohesion. However, before we do so, consider the following passage:

The sun is shining. Who is your neighbour? I left the washing in the machine. Without doubt she will succeed.

Conjunctions

Conjunctions are words that link linguistic units such as words, phrases or clauses.

We distinguish coordinating conjunctions such as andor and but from subordinating conjunctions such as because, since, when, while, etc.

Examples of coordinating conjunctions conjunctions are:

Conjunctions: Conjunctions and ambiguity

Look at this sentence:

  • Can I have cheese and tomato sandwiches for lunch?

Do you think the speaker wants sandwiches filled with cheese and tomato or some cheese, and sandwiches with a tomato filling?

Native speakers probably know what cheese and tomato sandwiches are, but they don't realise that the phrase is actually ambiguous (has more than one meaning).

Corpora

A corpus is ‘a collection of pieces of language, selected and ordered according to explicit linguistic criteria in order to be used as a sample of language’ (Sinclair, 1996).

Corpora: Useful web tools

The following are corpus-related websites which we think are helpful for investigating language.

Wordle

Wordle is a simple-to-use site that lets you paste in your own data and then creates an attractive ‘word cloud’ based on the frequency of the words you’ve used. You can use Wordle as a very simple corpus tool for something like a poem, a song lyric, a political speech or a soliloquy from a play and get a visual representation of the language within it. (See also the lesson entitled 'Word clouds in action', which uses Wordle as a way in to analysing a poem).

Determiners

Determiners form a class of words that occur in the left-most position inside noun phrases. They thus precede nouns, as well as any adjectives that may be present.

The most common determiners are the and a/an.

Here are some more determiners:

Direct Object

Consider the examples below. What do the highlighted phrases add to the meanings?

  • He stroked the dog. [W2F-018 #175]
  • They carried mugs of beer. [W2F-018 #140]

These phrases tell us who or what is being 'verbed', i.e. who is undergoing the action denoted by the verbs, in these situations: the dog is stroked, the mugs of beer are carried. Without these phrases, our examples would be incomplete.

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