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Column: A Word, Please: 5 less-fun-but-very-useful grammar terms

As we saw recently in this column, some language terms are fun to learn. Squinting modifier. Dummy operator. Eggcorn. Larfs all around.

Others, not so much. Grammar is famous for its unfriendly jargon. But some of these less-fun-to-learn terms are very useful. They convey concepts that help you use the language better.

Plus, you can make your own fun with them if you want, for example by trotting them out at a cocktail party to shut down an argument on an unrelated topic.

Fellow party guest: “Fed monetary policy in the 1990s showed increases in the nominal interest rate in direct correlation with the inflation rate.”


You: “Yeah, well, your prepositional phrase is postmodifying your noun phrase! Checkmate.”

So, with those lofty goals in mind, here are five grammar terms to use as you will.

Object pronoun. This one gets my vote for the most useful grammar term. Anytime people struggle with choosing between “John and I” and “John and me,” anytime they wonder how to use “whom” or “whomever,” this term always holds the key.

An object pronoun is a pronoun that receives the action of a verb, as Mary does in “We met Mary,” or it’s the partner of a preposition, as in “Give this to Mary.”


If you wanted to use a pronoun instead of Mary’s name, you would say “We met her” or “Give this to her,” using “her” instead of “she” because “her” is an object pronoun. “Whom” works the same way: as an object of a verb, “Whom did you meet?” or as the object of a preposition, “To whom did you give it?”

Copular verb. Some verbs take objects. They’re called transitive. Some don’t. They’re called intransitive.

But verbs of being, seeming or appearing don’t fit in either category. Instead of conveying action, they refer back to the subject. In “Roger is shortstop,” the verb links the next word, called the complement, back to the subject. “Roger seems nice” and “Roger became angry” are also examples of copular verbs, which are also called linking verbs.

Adverbial. If you’re assuming this means adverb-like, you’re right. But it’s a little more complicated than you might guess. Unlike “adverb,” which is a word class, “adverbial” refers to a function.

Different parts of speech can work the same way as an adverb. Even whole phrases can be adverbials. Compare the sentences “They left quickly” to “They left in the morning.”

In the first, the adverb “quickly” is modifying the verb “left.” In the second, the prepositional phrase “in the morning” is in the same spot doing the same job: shedding more light on that verb. In other words, they’re both functioning adverbially.

Modal auxiliary. Auxiliary verbs are helpers. They team up with particles of other verbs to show when something happened or whether it’s ongoing. Look at “Charlie walks,” “Charlie has walked,” “Charlie had walked” and “Charlie was walking.”

In each case you have a form of “have” or “be” partnering with a participle of “walk” to tell you when he was walking and whether he’s still walking. Modal auxiliaries have more power. They include “can,” “will,” “might,” “must,” “may” and “should.”


Modals add information about ability, necessity or probability. “You must take your pills” conveys importance. “Kelly can attend” deals with ability.

Restrictive. Clauses and words that narrow the scope of nearby nouns are restrictive. Adjectives do this a lot. “A red car drove by” greatly limits the number of cars you might be talking about compared to “A car drove by.”

But phrases and clauses can also restrict the range of possible things you’re referring to with a noun. “A car with airbags is good to have” uses the prepositional phrase “with airbags” to narrow down which cars you’re talking about. “A car that has airbags is good to have” uses the relative clause “that has airbags” to say the same thing.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at