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Article (grammar)

“Definite article” redirects here. For the Eddie Izzard comedy DVD, see Definite Article.

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An article (abbreviated ART) is a word (or prefix or suffix) that is with a noun to indicate the type of reference being made by the noun. Articles specify the grammatical definiteness of the noun, in some languages extending to volume or numerical scope. The articles in the English language are the and a/an, and (in some contexts) some. ‘An’ and ‘a’ are modern forms of the Old English ‘an’, which in Anglian dialects was the number ‘one’ (compare ‘on’, in Saxon dialects) and survived into Modern Scots as the number ‘ane’. Both ‘on’ (respelled ‘one’ by the Normans) and ‘an’ survived into Modern English, with ‘one’ used as the number and ‘an’ (‘a’, before nouns that begin with a consonant sound) as an indefinite article.

Traditionally in English, an article is usually considered to be a type of adjective. In some languages, articles are a special part of speech, which cannot easily be combined with other parts of speech. It is also possible for articles to be part of another part of speech category such as a determiner, an English part of speech category that combines articles and demonstratives (such as ‘this’ and ‘that’).

In languages that employ articles, every common noun, with some exceptions, is expressed with a certain definiteness (e.g., definite or indefinite), just as many languages express every noun with a certain grammatical number (e.g., singular or plural). Every noun must be accompanied by the article, if any, corresponding to its definiteness, and the lack of an article (considered a zero article) itself specifies a certain definiteness. This is in contrast to other adjectives and determiners, which are typically optional. This obligatory nature of articles makes them among the most common words in many languages—in English, for example, the most frequent word is the

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Types

Articles are usually characterized as either definite or indefinite. A few languages with well-developed systems of articles may distinguish additional subtypes.

Within each type, languages may have various forms of each article, according to grammatical attributes such as gender, number, or case, or according to adjacent sounds.

Definite article

A definite article indicates that its noun is a particular one (or ones) identifiable to the listener. It may be something that the speaker has already mentioned, or it may be something uniquely specified. The definite article in English, for both singular and plural nouns, is the.

The children know the fastest way home.

The sentence above refers to specific children and a specific way home; it contrasts with the much more general observation that:

Children know the fastest way home.

The latter sentence refers to children in general, perhaps all or most of them.

Likewise,

Give me the book.

refers to a specific book whose identity is known or obvious to the listener; as such it has a markedly different meaning from

Give me a book.

which does not specify what book is to be given.

The definite article can also be used in English to indicate a specific class among other classes:

The cabbage white butterfly lays its eggs on members of the Brassica genus.

The definite article is sometimes also used with proper names, which are already specified by definition (there is just one of them). For example: the Amazon, the Hebrides. In these cases, the definite article is strictly speaking superfluous. Some languages also use definite articles with personal names. For example, such use is standard in Portuguese: a Maria, literally: “the Maria”. It also occurs colloquially in Spanish, German and other languages.

Indefinite article

An indefinite article indicates that its noun is not a particular one (or ones) identifiable to the listener. It may be something that the speaker is mentioning for the first time, or its precise identity may be irrelevant or hypothetical, or the speaker may be making a general statement about any such thing. English uses a/an, from the Old English forms of the number ‘one’, as its primary indefinite article. The form an is used before words that begin with a vowel sound (even if spelled with an initial consonant, as in an hour), and a before words that begin with a consonant sound (even if spelled with a vowel, as in a European).

She had a house so large that an elephant would get lost without a map.

Before some words beginning with a pronounced (not silent) h in an unstressed first syllable, such as hallucination, hilarious, historic(al), horrendous, and horrific, some (especially older) British writers prefer to use an over a (an historical event, etc.).An is also preferred before hotel by some writers of British English (probably reflecting the relatively recent adoption of the word from French, where the h is not pronounced). The use of “an” before words beginning with an unstressed “h” is more common generally in British English than American. American writers normally use a in all these cases, although there are occasional uses of an historic(al) in American English. According to the New Oxford Dictionary of English, such use is increasingly rare in British English too. Unlike British English, American English typically uses an before herb, since the h in this word is silent for most Americans. The correct usage in respect of the term “hereditary peer” was the subject of an amendment debated in the UK Parliament.

The word some is used as a functional plural of a/an. “An apple” never means more than one apple. “Give me some apples” indicates more than one is desired but without specifying a quantity. This finds comparison in Spanish, where the singular indefinite article ‘un/una’ (“one”) is completely indistinguishable from the unit number, except where it has a plural form (‘unos/unas’): Dame una manzana” (“Give me an apple”) > “Dame unas manzanas” (“Give me some apples”). However, some also serves as a quantifier rather than as a plural article, as in “There are some apples there, but not many.”

Some also serves as a singular indefinite article, as in “There is some person on the porch”. This usage differs from the usage of a(n) in that some indicates that the identity of the noun is unknown to both the listener and the speaker, while a(n) indicates that the identity is unknown to the listener without specifying whether or not it is known to the speaker. Thus There is some person on the porch indicates indefiniteness to both the listener and the speaker, while There is a person on the porch indicates indefiniteness to the listener but gives no information as to whether the speaker knows the person’s identity.

Partitive article

A partitive article is a type of indefinite article used with a mass noun such as water, to indicate a non-specific quantity of it. Partitive articles are used in French and Italian in addition to definite and indefinite articles. The nearest equivalent in English is some, although this is considered a determiner and not an article.

French: Voulez-vous du café ?

Do you want (some) coffee? (or, dialectally but more accurately, Do you want some of this coffee?)

See also more information about the French partitive article.

Haida has a partitive article (suffixed -gyaa) referring to “part of something or… to one or more objects of a given group or category,” e.g., tluugyaa uu hal tlaahlaang ‘he is making a boat (a member of the category of boats).’

Negative article

A negative article specifies none of its noun, and can thus be regarded as neither definite nor indefinite. On the other hand, some consider such a word to be a simple determiner rather than an article. In English, this function is fulfilled by no, which can appear before a singular or plural noun:

No man is an island.

No dogs are allowed here.

Zero article

See also: Zero article in English

The zero article is the absence of an article. In languages having a definite article, the lack of an article specifically indicates that the noun is indefinite. Linguists interested in X-bar theory causally link zero articles to nouns lacking a determiner. In English, the zero article rather than the indefinite is used with plurals and mass nouns, although the word “some” can be used as an indefinite plural article.

Visitors end up walking in mud.

Variation among languages

Articles in languages in and around Europe

indefinite and definite articles

only definite articles

indefinite and suffixed definite articles

only suffixed definite articles

no articles

Note that although the Saami languages spoken in northern parts of Norway and Sweden lack articles, Norwegian and Swedish are the majority languages in this area.

Articles are found in many Indo-European and Semitic languages but are absent from some other large languages of the world, such as Indonesian, Japanese, Hindi and Russian.

Linguists believe the common ancestor of the Indo-European languages, Proto-Indo-European, did not have articles. Most of the languages in this family do not have definite or indefinite articles; there is no article in Latin, Sanskrit, nor in some modern Indo-European languages, such as the families of Slavic languages (not including Bulgarian/Macedonian, which are rather distinctive among the Slavic languages in terms of grammar anyway) and Baltic languages. Although Classical Greek has a definite article (which has survived into Modern Greek and which bears strong resemblance to the German definite article), the earlier Homeric Greek did not. Articles developed independently in several language families.

Not all languages have both definite and indefinite articles, and some languages have different types of definite and indefinite articles to distinguish finer shades of meaning; for example, French and Italian have a partitive article used for indefinite mass nouns, while Colognian has two distinct sets of definite articles indicating focus and uniqueness, and Macedonian uses definite articles in a demonstrative sense, distinguishing this from that (with an intermediate degree). The words this and that (and their plurals, these and those) can be understood in English as, ultimately, forms of the definite article the (whose declension in Old English included thaes, an ancestral form of this/that and these/those).

In many languages, the form of the article may vary according to the gender, number, or case of its noun. In some languages the article may be the only indication of the case, e.g., German Der Hut des Napoleon, “Napoleon’s hat”. Many languages do not use articles at all, and may use other ways of indicating old versus new information, such as topic–comment constructions.

Articles used in the world’s most widely spoken languages

Language

definite article

indefinite article

partitive article

Arabic al- or el ال (prefix) None
Hebrew ha- ה (prefix) None
Greek ο, η, το
οι, οι, τα
ένας, μια, ένα
English the a, an some
German der, die, das
des, dem, den
ein, eine, einer, eines
einem, einen
Dutch de, het
de
een
Tamazight __ yan, yat
ittsn, ittsnt
Spanish el, la, lo
los, las
un, una
unos, unas
Portuguese o, a
os, as
um, uma
uns, umas
French le, la, l’
les
un, une
des
du, de la, de l’
des
Italian il, lo, la, l’
i, gli, le
‘un, uno, una, un del, dello, della, dell’
dei, degli, degl’ , delle
Urdu mohtaram, janab None
Hungarian a, az egy

In the above examples, the article always precedes its noun (with the exception of the Arabic tanween and the Hebrew ה ha-). In some languages, however, the definite article is not always a separate word, but may be suffixed, attached to the end of its noun as a suffix. For example,

  • Albanian: plis, a white fez; plisi, the white fez
  • Urdu: mohtaram, janab;
  • Bengali: “Boi”, book; “Boiti/Boita/Boikhana” : “The Book”
  • Romanian: drum, road; drumul, the road (the article is just “l”, “u” is a “connection vowelRomanian: vocală de legătură)
  • Icelandic: hestur, horse; hesturinn, the horse
  • Persian: sib, apple; sibe, the apple
  • Norwegian: stol, chair; stolen, the chair
  • Swedish: hus house; huset, the house
  • Bulgarian: стол stol, chair; столът stolǎt, the chair (subject); стола stola, the chair (object)
  • Macedonian: стол stol, chair; столот stolot, the chair; столов stolov, this chair; столон stolon, that chair

Example of prefixed definite article:

  • Hebrew: ילד, transcribed as yeled, a boy; הילד, transcribed as ha-yeled, the boy

A different way, limited to the definitive article, is used by Latvian. The noun doesn’t change but the adjective can be defined or undefined: galds, a table / the table; balts galds, a white table; baltais galds, the white table.

Evolution

Articles have developed independently in many different language families across the globe. Generally, articles develop over time usually by specialization of certain adjectives.

Joseph Greenberg in Universals of Human Language describes “the cycle of the definite article”: Definite articles (Stage I) evolve from demonstratives, and in turn can become generic articles (Stage II) that may be used in both definite and indefinite contexts, and later merely noun markers (Stage III) that are part of nouns other than proper names and more recent borrowings. Eventually articles may evolve anew from demonstratives.

Definite articles

Definite articles typically arise from demonstratives meaning that. For example, the definite articles in the Romance languages—e.g., el, il, le, la—derive from the Latin demonstratives ille (masculine) and illa (feminine).

The English definite article the, written þe in Middle English, derives from an Old English demonstrative, which, according to gender, was written se (masculine), seo (feminine) (þe and þeo in the Northumbrian dialect), or þæt (neuter). The neuter form þæt also gave rise to the modern demonstrative that. The ye occasionally seen in pseudo-archaic usage such as “Ye Olde Englishe Tea Shoppe” is actually a form of þe, where the letter thorn (þ) came to be written as a y.

Multiple demonstratives can give rise to multiple definite articles. Macedonian, for example, in which the articles are suffixed, has столот (stolot), the chair; столов (stolov), this chair; and столон (stolon), that chair. Colognian prepositions articles such as in dat Auto, or et Auto, the car; the first being specifically selected, focussed, newly introduced, while the latter is not selected, unfocussed, already known, general, or generic.

Indefinite articles

Indefinite articles typically arise from adjectives meaning one. For example, the indefinite articles in the Romance languages—e.g., un, una, une—derive from the Latin adjective unus. Partitive articles, however, derive from Vulgar Latin de illo, meaning (some) of the.

The English indefinite article an is derived from the same root as one. The -n came to be dropped before consonants, giving rise to the shortened form a. The existence of both forms has led to many cases of juncture loss, e.g., transforming the original a napron into the modern an apron.

The Persian indefinite article is yek meaning one.

Conjunction (grammar)

In grammar, a conjunction (abbreviated CONJ or CNJ) is a part of speech that connects two words, sentences, phrases or clauses together. A discourse connective is a conjunction joining sentences. This definition may overlap with that of other parts of speech, so what constitutes a “conjunction” must be defined for each language. In general, a conjunction is an invariable grammatical particle, and it may or may not stand between the items it conjoins.

The definition may also be extended to idiomatic phrases that behave as a unit with the same single-word conjunction (as well as, provided that, etc.).

Many students are taught that certain conjunctions (such as “and”, “but”, and “so”) should not begin sentences, although authorities such as the Chicago Manual of Style state that this teaching has “no historical or grammatical foundation”.

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Coordinating conjunctions

Coordinating conjunctions, also called coordinators, are conjunctions that join two or more items of equal syntactic importance, such as words, main clauses, or sentences. In English the mnemonic acronym FANBOYS can be used to remember the coordinators for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. These are not the only coordinating conjunctions; various others are used, including”and nor” (British), “but nor” (British), “or nor” (British), “neither” (“They don’t gamble; neither do they smoke”), “no more” (“They don’t gamble; no more do they smoke”), and “only” (“I would go, only I don’t have time”).

Here are some examples of coordinating conjunctions in English and what they do:

for

presents a reason (“He is gambling with his health, for he has been smoking far too long.”).

and

presents non-contrasting item(s) or idea(s) (“They gamble, and they smoke.”).

nor

presents a non-contrasting negative idea (“They do not gamble nor do they smoke.”).

but

presents a contrast or exception (“They gamble, but they don’t smoke.”).

or

presents an alternative item or idea (“Every day they gamble or they smoke.”).

yet

presents a contrast or exception (“They gamble, yet they don’t smoke.”).

so

presents a consequence (“He gambled well last night so he smoked a cigar to celebrate.”).

Correlative conjunctions

Correlative conjunctions work in pairs to join words and groups of words of equal weight in a sentence. There are six different pairs of correlative conjunctions:

  1. either…or
  2. not only…but (also)
  3. neither…nor (or increasingly neither…or)
  4. both…and
  5. whether…or
  6. just as…so

Examples:

  • You either do your work or prepare for a trip to the office.
  • Not only is he handsome, but he is also brilliant.
  • Neither the basketball team nor the football team is doing well.
  • Both the cross country team and the swimming team are doing well.
  • Whether you stay or you go, it’s your decision.
  • Just as Aussies love Aussie rules football, so many Canadians love ice hockey.

Subordinating conjunctions

Subordinating conjunctions, also called subordinators, are helpful in writing paragraphs with an independent clause and a dependent clause. The most common subordinating conjunctions in the English language include after, although, as, as far as, as if, as long as, as soon as, as though, because, before, if, in order that, since, so, so that, than, though, unless, until, when, whenever, where, whereas, wherever, and while. Complementizers can be considered to be special subordinating conjunctions that introduce complement clauses (e.g., “I wonder whether he’ll be late. I hope that he’ll be on time”). Some subordinating conjunctions (until and while), when used to introduce a phrase instead of a full clause, become prepositions with identical meanings.

In many verb-final languages, subordinate clauses must precede the main clause on which they depend. The equivalents to the subordinating conjunctions of non-verb-final languages such as English are either

  • clause-final conjunctions (e.g., in Japanese), or
  • suffixes attached to the verb and not separate wordsSuch languages in fact often lack conjunctions as a part of speech because:
  1. the form of the verb used is formally nominalised and cannot occur in an independent clause
  2. the clause-final conjunction or suffix attached to the verb is actually formally a marker of case and is also used on nouns to indicate certain functions. In this sense, the subordinate clauses of these languages have much in common with postpositional phrases.

In other West-Germanic languages like German or Dutch, the word order after a subordinating conjunction is different from the one in an independent clause, e.g., in Dutch want (for) is coordinating, but omdat (because) is subordinating. The clause after the coordinating conjunction has normal word order, but the clause after the subordinating conjunction has verb-final word order. Compare:

Hij gaat naar huis, want hij is ziek. (“He goes home, for he is ill.”)

Hij gaat naar huis, omdat hij ziek is. (“He goes home because he is ill.”)

Similarly, in German, “denn” (for) is coordinating, but “weil” (because) is subordinating:

Er geht nach Hause, denn er ist krank. (“He goes home, for he is ill.”)

Er geht nach Hause, weil er krank ist. (“He goes home because he is ill.”)

Phrase

In everyday speech, a phrase may refer to any group of words. In linguistics, a phrase is a group of words (or sometimes a single word) that form a constituent and so function as a single unit in the syntax of a sentence. A phrase is lower on the grammatical hierarchy than a clause.

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Examples

Examine the following sentence:

The house at the end of the street is not red.

The words in bold form a phrase; together they act like a noun. This phrase can be further broken down; a prepositional phrase functioning as an adjective can be identified:

at the end of the street

Further, a smaller prepositional phrase can be identified inside this greater prepositional phrase:

of the street

And within the greater prepositional phrase, one can identify a noun phrase:

the end of the street

Phrases can be identified by constituency tests such as proform substitution (=replacement). For instance, the prepositional phrase at the end of the street could be replaced by an adjective such as nearby: the nearby house or even the house nearby. The end of the street could also be replaced by another noun phrase, such as the crossroads to produce the house at the crossroads.

Heads and dependents

Most phrases have an important word defining the type and linguistic features of the phrase. This word is the head of the phrase and gives its name to the phrase category. The heads in the following phrases are in bold:

too slowly – Adverb phrase (AdvP)

very happy – Adjective phrase (AP)

the massive dinosaur – Noun phrase (NP)

at lunch – Preposition phrase (PP)

watch TV – Verb phrase (VP)

The head can be distinguished from its dependents (the rest of the phrase other than the head) because the head of the phrase determines many of the grammatical features of the phrase as a whole. The examples just given show the five most commonly acknowledged types of phrases. Further phrase types can be assumed, although doing so is not common. For instance one might acknowledge subordinator phrases:

before that happened – Subordinator phrase (SP)

This “phrase” is more commonly classified as a full subordinate clause and therefore many grammars would not label it as a phrase. If one follows the reasoning of heads and dependents, however, then subordinate clauses should indeed qualify as phrases. Most theories of syntax see most if not all phrases as having a head. Sometimes, however, non-headed phrases are acknowledged. If a phrase lacks a head, it is known as exocentric, whereas phrases with heads are endocentric.

Representing phrases

Many theories of syntax and grammar represent sentence structure using trees. The trees provide schematic illustrations of how the words of sentences are grouped. These representations show the words, phrases, and at times clauses that make up sentences Any word combination that corresponds to a complete subtree can be seen as a phrase. There are two competing principles for producing trees, constituency and dependency. Both of these principles are illustrated here using the example sentence from above. The constituency-based tree is on the left, and the dependency-based tree on the right:

The constituency-based tree on the left is associated with a traditional phrase structure grammar, and the tree on the right is one of a dependency grammar. The node labels in the trees (e.g. N, NP, V, VP) mark the syntactic category of the constituents. Both trees take a phrase to be any combination of words that corresponds to a complete subtree. In the constituency tree on the left, each phrasal node (marked with P) identifies a phrase; there are therefore 8 phrases in the constituency tree. In the dependency tree on the right, each node that dominates one or more other nodes corresponds to a phrase; there are therefore 5 (or 6 if the whole sentence is included) phrases in the dependency tree. What the trees and the numbers demonstrate is that theories of syntax differ in what they deem to qualify as a phrase. The constituency tree takes three word combinations to be phrases (house at the end of the street, end of the street, and is red) that the dependency tree does not judge to be phrases. Which of the two tree structures is more plausible can be determined in part by empirical considerations, such as those delivered by constituency tests.

Confusion: phrases in theories of syntax

The common use of the term “phrase” is different from that employed by some phrase structure theories of syntax. The everyday understanding of the phrase is that it consists of two or more words, whereas depending on the theory of syntax that one employs, individual words may or may not qualify as phrases. The trees in the previous section, for instance, do not view individual words as phrases. Theories of syntax that employ X-bar theory, in contrast, will acknowledge many individual words as phrases. This practice is due to the fact that sentence structure is analyzed in terms of a universal schema, the X-bar schema, which sees each head as projecting at least three levels of structure: a minimal level, an intermediate level, and a maximal level. Thus an individual noun, such as Susan in Susan laughed, will project up to an intermediate level and a maximal level, which means that Susan qualifies as a phrase. This concept of the phrase is a source of confusion for students of syntax.

Many other theories of syntax do not employ the X-bar schema and are therefore less likely to encounter this confusion. For instance, dependency grammars do not acknowledge phrase structure in the manner associated with phrase structure grammars and therefore do not acknowledge individual words as phrases, a fact that is evident in the dependency grammar trees above and below.

The verb phrase (VP) as a source of controversy

Most if not all theories of syntax acknowledge verb phrases (VPs), but they can diverge greatly in the types of verb phrases that they posit. Phrase structure grammars acknowledge both finite verb phrases and non-finite verb phrases as constituents. Dependency grammars, in contrast, acknowledge just non-finite verb phrases as constituents. The distinction is illustrated with the following examples:

The Republicans may nominate Newt. – Finite VP in bold

The Republicans may nominate Newt. – Non-finite VP in bold

The syntax trees of this sentence are next:

The constituency tree on the left shows the finite verb string may nominate Newt as a phrase (= constituent); it corresponds to VP1. In contrast, this same string is not shown as a phrase in the dependency tree on the right. Observe that both trees, however, take the non-finite VP string nominate Newt to be a phrase, since in both trees nominate Newt corresponds to a complete subtree.

Since there is disagreement concerning the status of finite VPs (whether they are constituents or not), empirical considerations are needed. Grammarians can (again) employ constituency tests to shed light on the controversy. Constituency tests are diagnostics for identifying the constituents of sentences and they are thus essential for identifying phrases. The results of most constituency tests do not support the existence of a finite VP constituent.

Punctuation

Punctuation marks are symbols that indicate the structure and organization of written language, as well as intonation and pauses to be observed when reading aloud.

In written English, punctuation is vital to disambiguate the meaning of sentences. For example, “woman, without her man, is nothing” (emphasizing the importance of men) and “woman: without her, man is nothing” (emphasizing the importance of women) have greatly different meanings, as do “eats shoots and leaves” (to mean “consumes plant growths”) and “eats, shoots and leaves” (to mean “eats firstly, fires a weapon secondly, and leaves the scene thirdly”).

The rules of punctuation vary with language, location, register and time and are constantly evolving. Certain aspects of punctuation are stylistic and are thus the author’s (or editor’s) choice. Tachygraphic language forms, such as those used in online chat and text messages, may have wildly different rules. For English usage, see the articles on specific punctuation marks.

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History

The first writing systems were mostly logographic and/or syllabic, for example Chinese and Maya script, and they do not necessarily require punctuation, especially spacing. This is because the entire morpheme or word is typically clustered within a single glyph, so spacing does not help as much to distinguish where one word ends and the other starts. Disambiguation and emphasis can easily be communicated without punctuation by employing a separate written form distinct from the spoken form of the language that uses slightly different phraseology. Even today, formal written modern English differs subtly from spoken English because not all emphasis and disambiguation is possible to convey in print, even with punctuation.

Ancient Chinese classical texts were transmitted without punctuation. However, many Warring states era bamboo texts contain the symbols 「└」 and 「▄」 indicating the end of a chapter and full stop, respectively. By the Song dynasty, addition of punctuation to texts by scholars to aid comprehension became common.

The earliest alphabetic writing had no capitalization, no spaces, no vowels and few punctuation marks. This worked as long as the subject matter was restricted to a limited range of topics (e.g., writing used for recording business transactions). Punctuation is historically an aid to reading aloud (vis George Bernard Shaw).

The oldest known document using punctuation is the Mesha Stele (9th century BC). This employs points between the words and horizontal strokes between the sense section as punctuation.

The Greeks were using punctuation marks consisting of vertically arranged dots – usually two (cf. the modern colon) or three – in around the 5th century BC. Greek playwrights such as Euripides and Aristophanes used symbols to distinguish the ends of phrases in written drama: this essentially helped the play’s cast to know when to pause. In particular, they used three different symbols to divide speeches, known as commas (indicated by a centred dot), colons (indicated by a dot on the base line), and periods or full stops (indicated by a raised dot).

The Romans (circa 1st century BC) also adopted symbols to indicate pauses.

“On the page, punctuation performs its grammatical function, but in the mind of the reader it does more than that. It tells the reader how to hum the tune.”

Lynn Truss, Eats, Shoots and Leaves

Punctuation developed dramatically when large numbers of copies of the Christian Bible started to be produced. These were designed to be read aloud and the copyists began to introduce a range of marks to aid the reader, including indentation, various punctuation marks and an early version of initial capitals. Saint Jerome and his colleagues, who produced the Vulgate translation of the Bible into Latin, developed an early system (circa 400 AD); this was considerably improved on by Alcuin. The marks included the virgule (forward slash) and dots in different locations; the dots were centred in the line, raised or in groups.

With the invention of moveable type in Europe began an increase of printed material. “The rise of printing in the 14th and 15th centuries meant that a standard system of punctuation was urgently required.” The introduction of a standard system of punctuation has also been attributed to Aldus Manutius and his grandson. They have been credited with popularizing the practice of ending sentences with the colon or full stop, inventing the semicolon, making occasional use of parentheses and creating the modern comma by lowering the virgule. By 1566, Aldus Manutius the Younger was able to state that the main object of punctuation was the clarification of syntax.

By the 19th century, punctuation in the western world had evolved “to classify the marks hierarchically, in terms of weight”. Cecil Hartley’s poem identifies their relative values:

The stop point out, with truth, the time of pause

A sentence doth require at ev’ry clause.

At ev’ry comma, stop while one you count;

At semicolon, two is the amount;

A colon doth require the time of three;

The period four, as learned men agree.

The use of punctuation was not standardised until after the invention of printing. According to the 1885 edition of The American Printer, the importance of punctuation was noted in various sayings by children such as:

Charles the First walked and talked

Half an hour after his head was cut off.

With a semi-colon and a comma added it reads:

Charles the First walked and talked;

Half an hour after, his head was cut off

Shortly after the invention of printing, the necessity of stops or pauses in sentences for the guidance of the reader produced the colon and full point. In process of time, the comma was added, which was then merely a perpendicular line, proportioned to the body of the letter. These three points were the only ones used until the close of the fifteenth century, when Aldo Manuccio gave a better shape to the comma, and added the semicolon; the comma denoting the shortest pause, the semicolon next, then the colon, and the full point terminating the sentence. The marks of interrogation and admiration were introduced many years after.

The standards and limitations of evolving technologies have exercised further pragmatic influences. For example, minimisation of punctuation in typewritten matter became economically desirable in the 1960s and 1970s for the many users of carbon-film ribbons, since a period or comma consumed the same length of expensive non-reusable ribbon as did a capital letter.

Conventional styles of English punctuation

Main articles: Quotation mark#Punctuation and Quotation mark

There are two major styles of punctuation in English: American or traditional punctuation; and British or logical punctuation. These two styles differ mainly in the way in which they handle quotation marks.

Other languages

Other European languages use much the same punctuation as English. The similarity is so strong that the few variations may confuse a native English reader. Quotation marks are particularly variable across European languages. For example, in French and Russian, quotes would appear as: « Je suis fatigué. » (in French, each “double punctuation”, as the guillemet, requires a non-breaking space; in Russian it does not).

In Greek, the question mark is written as the English semicolon, while the functions of the colon and semicolon are performed by a raised point (·), known as the ano teleia (άνω τελεία).

Spanish uses an inverted question mark at the beginning of a question and the normal question mark at the end, as well as an inverted exclamation mark at the beginning of an exclamation and the normal exclamation mark at the end.

Arabic, Urdu, and Persian languages—written from right to left—use a reversed question mark: ؟, and a reversed comma: ، . This is a modern innovation; pre-modern Arabic did not use punctuation. Hebrew, which is also written from right to left, uses the same characters as in English, “,” and “?” .

Originally, Sanskrit had no punctuation. In the 17th century, Sanskrit and Marathi, both written in the Devanagari script, started using the vertical bar (|) to end a line of prose and double vertical bars (||) in verse.

Texts in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean were generally left unpunctuated until the modern era, when they adopted Western punctuation marks[citation needed]. In unpunctuated texts, the grammatical structure of sentences in classical writing is inferred from context. Most punctuation marks in modern Chinese, Japanese, and Korean have similar functions to their English counterparts; however, they often look different and have different customary rules.

Further information: Chinese punctuationHebrew punctuationJapanese punctuation, and Korean punctuation

Novel punctuation marks

“Love point” and similar marks

In 1966, the French author Hervé Bazin proposed a series of six innovative punctuation marks in his book Plumons l’Oiseau (“Let’s pluck the bird”, 1966). Besides a ψ-shaped irony mark (point d’ironie), these were:

  • the “love point” (point d’amour: )
  • the “certitude point” (point de conviction: )
  • the “authority point” (point d’autorité: )
  • the “acclamation point” (point d’acclamation: )
  • the “doubt point” (point de doute: )

“question comma”, “exclamation comma”

Subject-Verb
Agreement

Top of Form

Bottom of Form

Basic Principle: Singular subjects need singular verbs; plural subjects need plural verbs. My brother is a nutritionist. My sisters are mathematicians.

See the section on Plurals for additional help with subject-verb agreement.

The indefinite pronouns anyone, everyone, someone, no one, nobody are always singular and, therefore, require singular verbs.

  • Everyone has done his or her homework.
  • Somebody has left her purse.

Some indefinite pronouns — such as all, some — are singular or plural depending on what they’re referring to. (Is the thing referred to countable or not?) Be careful choosing a verb to accompany such pronouns.

  • Some of the beads are missing.
  • Some of the water is gone.

On the other hand, there is one indefinite pronoun, none, that can be either singular or plural; it often doesn’t matter whether you use a singular or a plural verb — unless something else in the sentence determines its number. (Writers generally think of none as meaning not any and will choose a plural verb, as in “None of the engines are working,” but when something else makes us regard none as meaning not one, we want a singular verb, as in “None of the food is fresh.”)

  • None of you claims responsibility for this incident?
  • None of you claim responsibility for this incident?
  • None of the students have done their homework. (In this last example, the word their precludes the use of the singular verb.

Some indefinite pronouns are particularly troublesome Everyone and everybody (listed above, also) certainly feel like more than one person and, therefore, students are sometimes tempted to use a plural verb with them. They are always singular, though. Each is often followed by a prepositional phrase ending in a plural word (Each of the cars), thus confusing the verb choice. Each, too, is always singular and requires a singular verb.

Everyone has finished his or her homework.

You would always say, “Everybody is here.” This means that the word is singular and nothing will change that.

Each of the students is responsible for doing his or her work in the library.

Don’t let the word “students” confuse you; the subject is each and each is always singular — Each is responsible.

Phrases such as together with, as well as, and along with are not the same as and. The phrase introduced by as well as or along with will modify the earlier word (mayor in this case), but it does not compound the subjects (as the word and would do).

  • The mayor as well as his brothers is going to prison.
  • The mayor and his brothers are going to jail.

The pronouns neither and either are singular and require singular verbs even though they seem to be referring, in a sense, to two things.

  • Neither of the two traffic lights is working.
  • Which shirt do you want for Christmas?
    Either is fine with me.

In informal writing, neither and either sometimes take a plural verb when these pronouns are followed by a prepositional phrase beginning with of. This is particularly true of interrogative constructions: “Have either of you two clowns read the assignment?” “Are either of you taking this seriously?” Burchfield calls this “a clash between notional and actual agreement.”*

The conjunction or does not conjoin (as and does): when nor or or is used the subject closer to the verb determines the number of the verb. Whether the subject comes before or after the verb doesn’t matter; the proximity determines the number.

  • Either my father or my brothers are going to sell the house.
  • Neither my brothers nor my father is going to sell the house.
  • Are either my brothers or my father responsible?
  • Is either my father or my brothers responsible?

Because a sentence like “Neither my brothers nor my father is going to sell the house” sounds peculiar, it is probably a good idea to put the plural subject closer to the verb whenever that is possible.

The words there and here are never subjects.

  • There are two reasons [plural subject] for this.
  • There is no reason for this.
  • Here are two apples.

With these constructions (called expletive constructions), the subject follows the verb but still determines the number of the verb.

Verbs in the present tense for third-person, singular subjects (he, she, it and anything those words can stand for) have s-endings. Other verbs do not add s-endings.

He loves and she loves and they love_ and . . . .

Sometimes modifiers will get betwen a subject and its verb, but these modifiers must not confuse the agreement between the subject and its verb.

The mayor, who has been convicted along with his four brothers on four counts of various crimes but who also seems, like a cat, to have several political lives, is finally going to jail.

Sometimes nouns take weird forms and can fool us into thinking they’re plural when they’re really singular and vice-versa. Consult the section on the Plural Forms of Nouns and the section on Collective Nouns for additional help. Words such as glasses, pants, pliers, and scissors are regarded as plural (and require plural verbs) unless they’re preceded the phrase pair of (in which case the word pair becomes the subject).

  • My glasses were on the bed.
  • My pants were torn.
  • A pair of plaid trousers is in the closet.

Some words end in -s and appear to be plural but are really singular and require singular verbs.

  • The news from the front is bad.
  • Measles is a dangerous disease for pregnant women.

On the other hand, some words ending in -s refer to a single thing but are nonetheless plural and require a plural verb.

  • My assets were wiped out in the depression.
  • The average worker’s earnings have gone up dramatically.
  • Our thanks go to the workers who supported the union.

The names of sports teams that do not end in “s” will take a plural verb: the Miami Heat have been looking … , The Connecticut Sun are hoping that new talent … . See the section on plurals for help with this problem.

Fractional expressions such as half of, a part of, a percentage of, a majority of are sometimes singular and sometimes plural, depending on the meaning. (The same is true, of course, when all, any, more, most and some act as subjects.) Sums and products of mathematical processes are expressed as singular and require singular verbs. The expression “more than one” (oddly enough) takes a singular verb: “More than one student has tried this.”

  • Some of the voters are still angry.
  • A large percentage of the older population is voting against her.
  • Two-fifths of the troops were lost in the battle.
  • Two-fifths of the vineyard was destroyed by fire.
  • Forty percent of the students are in favor of changing the policy.
  • Forty percent of the student body is in favor of changing the policy.
  • Two and two is four.
  • Four times four divided by two is eight.

If your sentence compounds a positive and a negative subject and one is plural, the other singular, the verb should agree with the positive subject.

  • The department members but not the chair have decided not to teach on Valentine’s Day.
  • It is not the faculty members but the president who decides this issue.
  • It was the speaker, not his ideas, that has provoked the students to riot.

THE PARTS OF SPEECH

The eight parts of speech — verbs, nouns, pronouns, adverbs, adjectives, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections — are defined on the pages hyperlinked below. (Some authorities would not list interjections, but would list determiners or articles, instead.) In addition, you can use the Powerpoint presentation on the Parts of Speech. Visit the page on Powerpoint for further information. The terms below — and over 300 others — are also listed in the Guide’s INDEX.

Here’s a little rhyme — by David B. Tower & Benjamin F. Tweed —that teachers used in days gone by to help students learn the parts of speech. (We include it here in response to popular demand. Why the song leaves out pronouns is a mystery. A writer from Richland, Washington, suggests “A PRONOUN replaces any noun: / he, she, it, and you are found. ) It has been set to music, but we’ll leave that up to you to discover or create for yourself:

Three little words you often see
Are ARTICLES: a, an, and the.

A NOUN’s the name of anything,
As: school or garden, toy, or swing.

ADJECTIVES tell the kind of noun,
As: great, small, pretty, white, or brown.

VERBS tell of something being done:
To read, write, count, sing, jump, or run.

How things are done the ADVERBS tell,
As: slowly, quickly, badly, well.

CONJUNCTIONS join the words together,
As: men and women, wind or weather.

The PREPOSITION stands before
A noun as: in or through a door.

The INTERJECTION shows surprise
As: Oh, how pretty! Ah! how wise!

The whole are called the PARTS of SPEECH,
Which reading, writing, speaking teach.

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