Basic English-learner Terms

Here is a list of some of the most common vocabulary terms used at (and elsewhere in the English-speaking world). If you don’t already know these, it is a good idea to learn them, as well as the abbreviations and punctuation terms listed on another page.

Basic English-learner terms:

(things your teacher expects you to already know IN ENGLISH)
  • abbreviation (缩写, 缩略词): a short form of a word (etc. for etcetera/and so forth), expression (i.e. for “that is”), title (Dr. for Doctor), name (NBA for National Basketball Association), and so forth
  • adjective (or adj) (形容词): [technical] a word that describes (i.e., modifies) a noun or pronoun (the adjective form of this word is “adjectival”)
  • adverb (or adv) (副词): [technical] a word that describes a verb, adjective, another adverb, or a whole sentence (the adjective form of this word is “adverbial”).
  • apostrophe (‘) (省字符,所有格符号): the punctuation mark that looks like a single inverted comma or half of a quotation mark (“) and that is used in contractions (hadn’t = had not) and some possessives (Kathy’s = belonging to Kathy).
  • “be” or “to be”: “to be” is the infinitive form of is/are/was/were
  • capitalize (大写): [vti] to write a letter of the alphabet as a capital letter, i.e., in its large or “upper case” form (e.g., “A” instead of “a”; “B” instead of “b”) (opposite: to make lower case; to write in lower case)
  • clause (分句,从句): [technical] group of words including a subject and verb
  • collocation (搭配,习惯性的搭配): [u&c, technical] the way words are used together, or a particular combination of words that are generally used together
  • colon (:) (冒号): the punctuation mark that looks like a period with a dot over it
  • comparative (比较级): [adj & c; technical] the form of an adjective or adverb that shows a change when something is considered in relation to something else (e.g., smaller is the comparative of small, and more expensive is the comparative form of expensive)
  • contraction (缩写): a shorter, informal way to write some words or word pairs (e.g., hadn’t is the contraction for “had not”; we’re = we are; int’l = international)
  • determiners (限定词): [c; technical] a group of words that come before nouns to say which thing you mean (e.g., the, a, an, some, my, your, each, this, either)
  • direct object (直接宾语): [technical] the person or thing that is affected by the action of a transitive verb: e.g., “Tom” in “Mary loves Tom.”
  • infinitive verb (不定式): [technical] the basic form of a verb, usually used with “to” as in “to be” or “to study”
  • intransitive verb (不及物动词): [technical] a verb that does not need an object: e.g., “They arrived” or “He listened.”
  • lower-case letter (小写): a letter of the alphabet written in its small form (e.g., “a” instead of “A”; “b” instead of “B”) (opposite: upper case)
  • modify (to be modified by) (修饰): [vti, technical] to describe or limit a word’s meaning (e.g., in the phrase “Tom likes fast cars,” the adj fast modifies cars to describe what kind of cars Tom likes; in the phrase “Lily is wearing the dress with red dots,” the phrase “with red dots” modifies dress)
  • omit (省略): [vt] to leave out ; to fail to include something that is normally there
  • phrase (短语): a group of words that have a particular meaning when used together
  • prefix (前缀): [technical] a group of letters added to the front of words to change the meaning (e.g., un-, dis- and multi- in the words unfinished, dishonor and multicolored)
  • preposition (介词): [technical] a word used before a noun or pronoun to show a relationship with some other part of a clause (e.g., before, on, by, with)
  • pronoun (代词): [technical] a word that is used instead of a noun or noun phrase (e.g., “she” instead of “Mary” or instead of “the woman”) (Other pronouns include “I,” “they,” “some,” “these,” and “which,” though not all of these words are ALWAYS pronouns.)
  • reflexive (反身代词): [technical] a word that “points back” to the person doing the action or to a noun/pronoun in the same sentence (e.g., in “I relax” the verb relax is reflexive because this is something I do to myself; in “Mike went by himself” the pronoun himself is reflexive because it points back to Mike)
  • suffix (后缀): [technical] a group of letters added to the end of words to change the meaning (e.g., -ly and -ness in the words quickly and openness)
  • superlative (最高级): [adj & c; technical] a term that expresses the highest degree of sth (e.g., the smallest is the superlative of small, and the most expensive is the superlative form of expensive)
  • tone (语气): [technical] general feeling or character expressed in a piece of writing
  • transitive verb (及物动词): [technical] a verb that must have an object (e.g., “Molly found” is not a complete sentence; the transitive verb found needs an object like “Molly found her keys.”)
  • upper-case letter (大写): a letter of the alphabet written in its large form (e.g., “A” instead of “a”; “B” instead of “b”) (opposite: lower case)
  • verb tenses (时态): (you should know the difference between present, past, perfect, continuous, etc.)



  • Note that many English words have several meanings, so the definitions provided on this website are intended to explain how a word is used in my book, the movie under discussion, etc. (i.e., the definitions are not exhaustive).
  • Verbs are given here in their infinitive form, regardless of how they appear in the text. 
  • This resource was adapted from my book, Successful Writing for the Real World, by DeWitt Scott and Michael Krigline, 2008 — Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press 外语教学与研究出版社; ISBN: 978-7-5600-7264-7; Chinese title: 高级实用英语写作
  • For more information about definitions used at, visit our Standards and Use Policy page.


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