Today I noticed an answer to a question which included this:

It was [AdjP].

From time to time, I see answers to questions posed by beginning students which make use of an array of terms and abbreviations that must represent to them yet another language they now have to learn!

So, a suggestion: in the Help Center, a glossary of terms which answerers are encouraged to employ, and which questioners can consult. The result will be a more useful and searchable Q&A database. Won't it?

Note that I am not suggesting anything like DEAD's tag name glossary here. This question has more in common with bytebuster's.

2 Answers 2


I am in entire sympathy with this concern. But there are difficulties.

English grammatical terminology is in crisis. The rapid and rapidly accelerating change which formal study of English has undergone in the last century has led to a vast proliferation of competing terminologies, and many of the most central terms have different meanings for different grammarians. This isn't just a matter of conflict between Ancients and Moderns, between the traditional Latin-based and contemporary linguistics-based analyses; it's also a matter of conflict between opposed contemporary schools. And this situation is exacerbated by the fact that few teachers of English (to either native or non-native speakers) are rigorously trained in any of these grammars; they pick up scraps and orts of terminology at third or fourth hand and use whatever addresses their immediate pedagogical needs.

The upshot is that no glossary is going to secure universal assent. The best you can hope for is something like the Linguistics Association of Great Britain's Grammatical terminology recommended by the LAGB for use in schools, 2014. This document frankly acknowledges that it has to be

an exercise in compromise: compromise between the needs of schools [...] and those of universities, and compromise among proponents of different approaches to grammar.

It has an entire page laying out “controversial assumptions” [my emphasis] about the meaning and treatment of key terms like phrase, phrase classes, noun phrases, specifier, determiner, genitive, pronoun, clause, complement, tense, aspect, conjunction—and individual entries still must discriminate carefully between rival understandings and uses. The article on clause, for instance, ends on the caveat that “in spite of its central role in grammar, the notion 'clause' is problematic in relation to other grammatical concepts”, and goes on for three paragraphs sketching some of these problems.

The entire document runs nearly 30,000 words—66 pages of 12-point TNR in the .pdf.

It's an admirable document; I don't think we can do any better. But would it meet our need? —and could our Answerers be brought to use it?

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    So we have people using different terminology for the same ideas, and people using the same terminology for different ideas. Wonderful! :-)
    – user230
    Aug 27, 2016 at 17:33
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    @snailplane It makes for some interesting (but frustrating) conversations. Aug 27, 2016 at 17:43
  • A person would have to be living in the depths of the Ituri to be unaware of the food fight in the world of English grammar. It pops up at ELU from time to time, and here too. My thought was to standardize on a few useful terms and abbreviations under a 72 point disclaimer distancing ourselves from the fracas. Our credo would be: "We have no dog in that fight. The following terms are used here to simplify instruction for beginning and moderately advanced learners. These terms are only official on this site." Aug 27, 2016 at 17:43
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    @P.E.Dant But we are the dogs in this fight! ... How are you going to "standardize" between, say, me and BillJ on what a clause is, when LAGB can't agree? Aug 27, 2016 at 17:57
  • @P.E.Dant Now if we made up our own terminology . . . We could, for instance, call nouns 'P.E.' and verbs Snail. Aug 27, 2016 at 18:12
  • Pistols at twenty paces? I would hope that a shared interest in furthering the needs of the learners might allow you and BillJ (for example) to compromise and say: I hereby commit within the confines of this site to agree that the definition of "franisaw" is "a crobel modified by the anterior pedoble," and to represent it by the term FrW. My use of the term here does not reflect my actual position on the pedobility of the franisaw. Aug 27, 2016 at 18:13
  • @StoneyB Yes! That's exactly the kind of thing I intended. Aug 27, 2016 at 18:15
  • @P.E.Dant The devil lies in that "problematic in relation to other grammatical concepts”. The purpose of Theory is to lend coherence to the description of Praxis. Aug 27, 2016 at 18:16
  • How's that working out so far? From here, it seems incoherence is the rule. If people really can't agree on what a pronoun is.... Aug 27, 2016 at 18:19
  • @P.E.Dant I'll send you a copy of Squishy Syntax when I write it. Aug 27, 2016 at 18:20
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    @Araucaria You know more (i.e. something) about the political pressures on the document than I do. What I see, without that knowledge, is a Quixotic effort to extend linguistic understanding to the pseudo-professionals who might actually accomplish something with it--an effort which I have no doubt has foundered not so much on the necessary squishiness of the understanding as on the aversion of the pseudo-professionals to having their misunderstanding exposed. ... Aug 28, 2016 at 2:10
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    ... me, I'm a Shavian, an Old Fabian: I acknowledge that every scholar is circumstantially implicated in the universal corruption. There's nowhere to stand outside it. Aug 28, 2016 at 2:14
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    @Araucaria Of course it's a ragbag. Your profession is a ragbag, what else could it produce? (Don't take that personally--my own profession is one "for which there is no polite name".) Press down the path of "pure theory" (as it now stands) and you end up with the minimalist Ptolemies and their epicycles. ... And so to bed ... Aug 28, 2016 at 2:28
  • *sigh* So as through a glass, and darkly / The age long strife I see... Plainly, I ought to have affixed a trigger warning to my question. You might have warned me, @StoneyB . Aug 28, 2016 at 4:17
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    @P.E. I can't agree to an abbreviation for something that doesn't exist ;-)
    – user230
    Aug 29, 2016 at 18:20

I think instead of attempting to standardize our vocabulary, we should simply point out when we think something should be clarified for the benefit of the reader.

The community changes continuously with new folks coming in and old timers taking breaks. Instead of having to on-board newcomers, we should just engage with each other and maybe have a few documented but general "best practices".

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