The Englicious Glossary includes the new National Curriculum glossary terms, which are shown against a white background. However, there's much more to be found here:

  • we have added many entries that we feel are important, but cannot be found in the NC Glossary (e.g. connective), and
  • in many cases we have added information to the (often very brief) NC entries that need further explanation (e.g. clause and phrase).

Please note that in line with our practice throughout the site, we use capital letters for function terms such as Subject, Direct Object, Indirect Object, Modifier, etc. Although this convention is not followed in the documentation published by the Department for Education we have also done so in the text that forms part of the National Curriculum Glossary.

Tip: Within our units and resources, Glossary items appear highlighted within the text. When you hover over them, or click on them in the Slideshow, a popup is generated.

main clause

A sentence contains at least one clause which is not a subordinate clause; such a clause is a main clause. A main clause may contain any number of subordinate clauses.

  • It was raining but the sun was shining. [two main clauses]
  • The man who wrote it told me that it was true. [one main clause containing two subordinate clauses.]
  • She said, “It rained all day.” [one main clause containing another.]

A main clause is a clause which is not subordinate to any other clause and can stand alone as a sentence, e.g. I saw them last night. It differs from a subordinate clause, which functions as part of a larger clause.

main verb

A verb that conveys the primary action, process or state (e.g. chatter, know, smash), and can be used on its own (e.g. They chattered). It can also be used with one or more helpers called auxiliary verbs (e.g. They were chattering). Sometimes called a lexical verb.

mass noun

A term used for non-count nouns which refer to an undivided mass, e.g. milk, bread, wood.


A word or phrase that is used to describe one thing in terms of another, where the literal ("dictionary-definition") meaning is not expressed. For example, when Shakespeare writes Juliet is the Sun, he does not mean that she actually is the sun! He means that she has some of the same qualities as the sun. The opposite of metaphorical is literal.

Metaphor is, however, pervasive in everyday language and can operate to shape our way of seeing things. Thus, 'argument' is regularly expressed in terms of to 'war' (we defend a point, attack an idea, marshall facts); we live by metaphors of time analogised as if it were a commodity - thus we spend and waste time. Such metaphors are 'dead metaphors' or sufficiently 'frozen' for them to be not really noticed, though they reveal much about how individuals and cultures shape meanings.

modal verb

A modal verb is an auxiliary verb which expresses modality (meanings to do with what is possible, necessary, and so on).

Modal verbs are used to change the meaning of other verbs. They can express meanings such as certainty, ability, or obligation. The main modal verbs are will, would, can, could, may, might, shall, should, must and ought. A modal verb only has finite forms and has no suffixes (e.g. I singhe sings, but not I musthe *musts).

  • I can do this maths work by myself.
  • This ride may be too scary for you!
  • You should help your little brother.
  • Is it going to rain? Yes, it might.
  • *Canning swim is important. [not possible because can must be finite; contrast: Being able to swim is important, where being is not a modal verb]


An area of meaning concerned with what is possible, necessary, desirable and so on. This can involve what may or must be true, or what actions are permitted or required. This kind of meaning is expressed by the modal verbs, e.g. may, must, and also by other forms such as certain adjectives (likely, essential) and adverbs (perhaps, probably).


The channel by which language is produced, i.e. spoken or written. Spoken and written language are often referred to as the two modes of language. In addition, linguists sometimes discuss text messaging or internet chat rooms as representing a mixed-mode, containing features of both spoken and written language.


Modifier is a functional label for an element in a phrase which supports (or 'modifies') the Head word.

One word or phrase modifies another by making its meaning more specific.

Because the two words make a phrase, the ‘modifier’ is normally close to the modified word.

In the phrase primary-school teacher:

  • teacher is modified by primary-school (to mean a specific kind of teacher)
  • school is modified by primary (to mean a specific kind of school).

Other examples of modifiers are happy in the noun phrase a happy bunny, very in the adjective phrase very cheeky and extremely in the adverb phrase extremely quickly.


See Modifier.

monitoring device

An expression in spoken language that is used to confirm a listener's engagement with a speaker. For example, tag questions or phrases such as if you see what I mean, as well as the word innit are often used in this way.


Morphemes are the component parts of which words are made up, e.g. unhappy is made up of the prefix un- and the root word happy.


Morphology is the study of the internal structure of words.

A word’s morphology is its internal make-up in terms of root words and suffixes or prefixes, as well as other kinds of change such as the change of mouse to mice.

Morphology may be used to produce different inflections of the same word (e.g. boyboys), or entirely new words (e.g. boyboyish) belonging to the same word family.

  • dogs has the morphological make-up: dog + s.
  • unhelpfulness has the morphological make-up: unhelpful + ness, where unhelpful = un + helpful and helpful = help + ful

A word that contains two or more root words is a compound (e.g. news+paper, ice+cream).

Morphology looks at how words can be made up from smaller parts, e.g. bright + -er gives brighter; white + board = whiteboard; study + -ed = studied.

multi-clause sentence

A label used in the National Curriculum to refer to sentences that contain two or more clauses. This includes both complex sentences, where one clause is subordinate to another, as signalled by a subordinating conjunction (e.g. I came home [because it was raining]), and compound sentences, where clauses are 'chained' using a coordinating conjunction (e.g. [I came home] and [my sister went out]).

As the distinction between complex and compound sentences is relatively advanced, the National Curriculum recommends that the term ‘multi-clause sentence’ be used up to KS2.
Englicious (C) Survey of English Usage, UCL, 2012-17 | Supported by the AHRC and EPSRC. | Cookies