Grammatical Analysis 101

1. Nouns


  • Concrete / Abstract
  • Jargon / Non-Specialist
  • Hypernym / Hyponym / Synonym
  • Connotation / Denotation
  • Semantic Field
  • Proper Nouns


Every noun is chosen above a large list of synonyms because of its particular flavour – its precise denotations and its numerous connotations (or even because it is a very general word and lacks certain specific connotations).


Katie Price, the celebrity, was seen last night…


What are the connotations of the word “celebrity”?

How many different nouns (or noun phrases) could replace the one used in this sentence? Why would an author chose one of them over the others?


Caution: pointing out the semantic field of a word, or a group of words, may make you look like an idiot. That a restaurant review contains words from the semantic-field of food is not very revealing; however, should such a review contain words from the semantic field of romance, or law or war, well then, that’s telling us an awful lot.



2. Adjectives


  • Comparative /Superlative
  • Attributive / Predicative
  • Descriptive/Evaluative/Emotive
  • Concrete/Abstract


As with nouns, adjectives have certain denotations as well as connotations; however, attributive adjectives can be left out of the sentence, so as well as answering the question what other adjectives (or adjective phrases) could have been used, we must ask why use an adjective at all? You must specify what type of adjective you are dealing with in each instance.


The big, fat, greedy man didn’t have a clue how to eat the most beautiful meal.


3. Pronouns


Pronouns tell us so much about what an author is “up to”, therefore they should be our first port of call when analysing any text. E.g. an advert using the second person pronoun is clearly trying to draw you – the reader – in, whilst using the first person plural pronoun is either including the reader or presenting a faceless corporation as a harmless group of people just like you.


Here at NatWest, we treasure you, we love you, and we will do anything for you.

Subject to terms and conditions.


4. Modal Verbs


The “could”, “should”, “would”, “must” words should always be pounced upon – modality is all about the author’s attitude to what they are themselves writing.


Texts can have modes of reassurance or modes of possibility or modes of obligation or modes of necessity or modes of prediction or modes of permission or modes of volition or modes of ability or mixed modes, where any of these modes can mix with any other as a text seeks to hide its purpose or has more than one purpose.


The lion might not like killing the gazelle, but they should feel alright about the whole killing side of things, owing to the gazelle having little or no awarness of moral problems, nor consciousness of their impending doom. Though they may fear death, the gazelle could not be aware of their existence as such, and therefore surely would have little to say about that existence coming to an untimely end. The law of the jungle may strike us as appaling, but we must not project our humanistic values onto the plains of the Serengeti. Thinking this way will make a whole lot of difference: we won’t polute the natural world with our humanistic values nor the burden of consciousness, which we bear admirably.



Adverbs of Modality such as “certainly”, “really”, “indeed” “hardly” “perhaps”, “maybe”, “fortunately”, “hopefully”, also give the game away about the ahthor’s attitude to what they are writing about.



5. Adverbs


Adverbs of Time, Place, Manner, Degree (either Intensifying or Diminishing), Reason and Modality… all open up the author’s head to a thorough examination. Because adverbs can modify verbs, adjectives, adverbs themselves as well as whole sentences, they are very versatile words and need to be seen as such – a powerful weapon in the author’s armoury. You must specify what type of adverb you are dealing with in each instance.


Probably, the greatest threat facing our planet is our apathy and refusal to take any interest in it.


The greatest threat facing our planet is probably our apathy and refusal to take any interest in it.


6. Prepositional Phrases / Adverbials


Prepositions (such as at, on, by, past, at, and after) are useful in that they head up adverbials. The easiest phrase to comment on are adverbials because they do the same job as adverbs in a sentence. As with adverbs, (and all other modifiers), they don’t need to be there, so why does the author feel the need for a whole extra phrase in that sentence? The answer will usually be very revealing.


Without doubt, the greatest threat facing our planet is our apathy and our refusal to take any interest in it.


With hatred in both eyes, little Johnny apologised to his grandmother.


7. Imperative Sentences


As with Declarative, Interrogative and Exclamatory sentences, the proportion of sentences with a particular function can be revealing, a text full of imperative sentences can only be trying to do one thing to the reader (even if doing so politely) – tell her what to do. Interrogative sentences could be up to much more.


Pour the flower in carefully.


Get the hell out of my head.

8. Subordinate Clauses


These are so common in every text that it may lead the analyst to ignore them. Every complex sentence has a main clause and a subordinate clause. Subordinate clauses can be identified by the connective which usually heads them; however, sometimes the subordinate clause and its connective can be separated which can make things a little more complicated. Once a subordinate clause is identified, it’s then left to explain its reason for existence. Subordinate clauses can give reasons, locations, times…


when there wasn’t a hope in hell.

because I really couldn’t give a damn.


            …as with all words, phrases or clauses some are more important that others, and it is this skill that is being tested as much as any other when you analyse a text. Choosing which twenty or se quotations to focus on is a skill that you must refine. Always ask yourself first what a text is trying to do and what strategies it is employing, then use this knowledge to choose the quotations you will focus on as you read through the text a second time – circling the twenty or so most important words, phrases or clauses.


9. Non-finite Clauses


Like prepositional phrases, non-finite clauses are phrases which are added at the beginning, the end or in the middle of a sentence, for a particular purpose. However, instead of modifying the sentence they hang onto it limpet like, they add an extra bit of action for the sentence’s subject, saying what else he or she or it is doing or being. Again, the question to ask of the author is: why bother adding this extra tit-bit?


Running out of time…


Loosing the feeling in his legs…


Looking for meaning in his life…




10. Verb Tense


Whether a text is in the present or the past can be a rather facile observation, but worth a punt in some cases. Where the precise time and the continuation of an action over time is important, you might want to note what the verb’s aspect is, whether it’s perfective – as marked by the auxiliary verb “have” – or the progressive – as marked by the auxiliary verb “be” and the “-ing” suffix.


I had been attending the AA meetings, but that was before I met Lola, who showed me how she had been discovering love in the bottom of a bottle.


11. Simple Sentences Vs Complex Sentences


A rather basic observation – what are complex sentences for but for putting forward complex ideas which cannot be handled by simple (or compound) sentences? And why limit yourself to simple sentences and lose so much expressive power?


I love you.

I love you because you are twelve percent better than Simon and fifteen percent better than Phil.


12. Active &Passive Voice


Nothing strikes fear into the heart of the human more than the active and passive voices. However, they can be easy to spot and can, at times, be very useful in understanding a text. The differences between the following sentences are all too obvious.


The active voice – the normal form:                                    Little Johnny killed the cat.


The passive voice – a choice which should be commented on:             

The cat was killed by little Johnny.


The passive voice with the agent dropped:                       The cat was killed.



The word to look out for is “by” – when the sentence’s subject has been torn from the front of the sentence and twisted into its object to meet the strange needs of the author. Of course, dropping the agent altogether, what should be the sentence’s active subject, is more than suspicious, it’s simply…

8 thoughts on “Grammatical Analysis 101

  1. Hi – I am studying in graduate school to be an ESL teacher. I have been using this site quite often as I learn more about grammar Currently, I am trying to analyze some short paragraphs written by non-native speakers of English and a few of the sentences are confusing me. Can you offer some tips? In this sentence:

    When I leave my house, I always take my phone.

    I know that “When I leave my house” is a subordinate clause, but how does it function? As an adverb clause, adj clause?

    Next, here is a Korean student’s writing that I am supposed to analyze:

    I miss Korean food made by my mother. That is why my cooking skills are improving.

    The phrase “made by my mother” is the passive verb form, right? Does it function as a noun clause? An object of the sentence?

    In his next sentence, “That is why….” how do we label “that”? Is it the non-referential use as in “It is raining” or “There are three dogs.” ? Finally, how do we label the phrase “why my cooking…”? Thanks very much for your help.

    • I know that “When I leave my house” is a subordinate clause, but how does it function? As an adverb clause, adj clause?

      i think terms like adverb clause, adj clause aren’t very helpful – any subordinate clause simply adds moreinformation, more specifically in this instance about when the action in the mian event occurs – if indeed it is time specific as it is in this case

      re “I miss Korean food made by my mother. ” “Korean food made by my mother” is the noun phrase, as well as being that sentence’s direct object.

      “That” and “it” are called dummy subjects -just a quirkof the langugae -an anlysis of their use/effect wouldbe interesting

  2. This site should be good, however the first tbing that jumped out of a page at me was something about “loosing” feeling in a leg. Please change this to “losing”. I look forwrd to reading further entries.

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