Table of Contents
English word families and sentence structures
If you want to learn more about word families and sentence structures in English this page will help you.
This information is very useful when learning to speak English. If you know the basics of how the English language works, you will have a good foundation on which to become an advanced speaker. The information in this article is also very useful to know and learn if you want to study for the FCE or CAE exams. These exams give you the qualifications you need to get better jobs or get into universities in English speaking countries. If you would like to find out more about how these exams can help you, sign up to receive my free e-book with lots of information on this and other topics.
If you are unsure what types of words go where in a sentence, here are a few basic guidelines to follow:
Adjectives and Nouns
Adjectives (describing words) come before nouns (things/objects/people/places).
E.g. This is a funny (adjective) book (noun).
Adverbs of Frequency
Frequency adverbs (often, rarely, sometimes) go before the main verb in a sentence, but after an auxiliary verb or after a form of the verb ‘be’.
E.g. I often go to the supermarket on Sundays.
I have (auxiliary) never been (main verb) so insulted in my life.
I am (‘be’) always in a good mood after I eat.
There are a lot of exceptions to this rule though, for example adverb phrases normally go at the beginning or end of a clause.
E.g. Once a year, my brother comes to visit me.
My brother comes to visit me once a year.
Other adverbs typically start a sentence or paragraph. These are followed by commas (,).
E.g. Consequently, we decided not to go to the cinema.
Verbs + ing
Verbs which end –ing (Running, walking, looking etc.) can be used at the beginning of a clause, when acting like a noun.
E.g. Running is a very tiring activity.
*Watch out – the word ‘tiring’ above is an adjective and comes before the noun ‘activity’. Lots of adjectives end –ing or –ed.
Verbs+ing are also used in continuous tenses.
E.g. I was walking to the supermarket when I saw Billy.
Billy is going to the supermarket.
Verbs are often preceded by a subject (I, you, he, she etc.) and followed by an object.
E.g. I went to the supermarket.
Auxiliary verbs (have, be, do, will) come before the main verb in a sentence. These are used for various reasons, often in different verb tenses to help you know whether a person is talking about something in the past or the future.
Sometimes an adverb of frequency will be situated between the auxiliary verb and the main verb in a sentence.
Examples: can/could, may/might, must/have to/ought to, shall/should, will/would etc.
Modal verbs (may, might, should, could, ought to etc.) also affect our understanding of a sentence. They have many uses, e.g. when a person is speculating and deducing. Modal verbs are always followed by a bare infinitive (unless used in a negative sentence when ‘not’ is used).
E.g. We should go to watch the new James Bond film.
The car might be broken.
We might not eat dinner until 9pm.
Modal verbs are used to show: ability, probability, obligation, permission, to make offers, to make conclusions about past, present and future events etc.
E.g. I can climb that mountain! (ability)
E.g. He should be here by 6pm. (probability)
E.g. You mustn’t smoke inside this building. (obligation)
E.g. You don’t have to smoke inside this building, but you can if you want to (permission)
Notice that ‘mustn’t’ and ‘don’t have to’ have different meanings in the above sentences.
E.g. Shall I collect you from the station? (offer)
in a question the word order changes to: modal-subject-bare infinitive.
E.g. Charlie is sick! He must have eaten some gone off food. (Here the modal verb is used to make a conclusion about the past – to answer the question - why is he sick).
When modal verbs are used to make past conclusions, they are followed by have + past participle)
E.g. It’s 2.30pm. Charlie should be in Paris by now! (Here the modal verb is used to make a conclusion about the present and is followed by a bare infinitive.
E.g. Charlie will be in Paris this time tomorrow. (Here the modal verb will is used to make a statement/conclusion about the future and is followed by a bare infinitive).
Here are some typical noun endings: -ment, -ion, -ty,
Here are some typical adjective endings: -al,
Here are some typical adverb endings: -ly, ally,
This book has some really useful exercises for understanding word endings. It is C1 Advanced (CAE) level:
This book is also very useful with similar exercises for B2 First (FCE) level:
This page also has some fun word family exercises.