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Progressive Vs. Continuous and Other Synonymous Grammatical Terms

January 24, 2013

It’s confusing for students and teachers alike when textbooks use different grammar terms!

It’s not only a difference between countries. Sometimes, in the same country, grammarians choose different terms to represent the same grammatical function. It could be a matter of preference, or maybe it’s what they learned when they were studying grammar. As a teacher, it can be quite frustrating to see a grammatical term referred to in two different ways (e.g., “progressive” in one textbook and “continuous” in another). Our poor students, who already have so much to take in, now have to remember more than one term for the same function!

Let’s look at the list below to get some of the more common mix-ups straightened out.

Progressive Vs. Continuous

These words are used for many tenses to refer to a continuing action (the -ing form), such as the present progressive or the present continuous, the past progressive or the past continuous, etc. Progressive seems to be the preferred choice in the US and continuous seems to be preferred in the UK. In Canada, I have seen many textbooks that use progressive and many that use continuous. I learned it as progressive, but I have had many Canadian co-workers also call it continuous. Telling students right off the bat that there are two terms for this grammatical function may help them avoid confusion down the road.

Word Forms Vs. Parts of Speech

This was the one that inspired this blog post. A teacher wrote us to say that she wasn’t sure what we meant by word form. Both terms refer to the grammatical function of a word in a sentence, such as noun, verb, adjective, adverb, etc.

Subject-Predicate Vs. S-V-O

Both cases refer to the subject and the verb, verb + object, or verb + other type of clause or phrase. Both are ways to describe the basic sentence patterns of English. I always teach using S-V-O. Which do you prefer?

Restrictive/Non-Restrictive Vs. Identifying/Non-Identifying Adjective Clauses

Restrictive, or identifying, adjective clauses don’t use commas because the adjective clause is necessary to identify the noun. (Example: The man who sat next to me on the bus was friendly. There is no way to identify this man from any other man unless we include the info that he sat next to me. Now it is one specific man that I’m referring to.) Non-restrictive, or non-identifying, adjective clauses need commas because the adjective clause is simply extra information that is not required in order to identify the noun. (Example: Mr. Green, who was wearing a funny hat today, seemed tired when he was teaching us about grammar. The teacher, Mr. Green, is already one specific man, and there’s no need to identify him further. The fact that he was wearing a funny hat is just extra information.) Both terms make sense: restrictive means that the clause cannot be omitted from the sentence without affecting the meaning, and identifying means that the clause is necessary in order to identify the noun.

Reported Vs. Indirect Speech

Both terms refer to saying what someone else said. (Example: He told me he was coming to the party tonight.) The term indirect is used in contrast to direct speech. (Example: He told me, “I’m coming to the party tonight.”) But it’s easy to guess where the term reported came from, because that is the purpose it serves, to report someone else’s speech.

Non-Count Vs. Uncountable Nouns

Referring to nouns that are too small or too shapeless to count, such as sand or milk, these terms both use a negative prefix with the word count. You won’t find non-count in the dictionary (whereas uncountable is listed), but in grammar terms, non-count seems to be used much more often.

If you have any other commonly confused grammatical terms to add to the list, please let us know in the comments section below. Here’s to progress(ive)!


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Comments (4)

Tara Benwell(Author)

Fantastic! Thanks for collecting all of these! I hope our subscribers and other teachers around the world find this helpful.

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

Thanks! I hope so, too.


Just a few comments here. I've often come across the term WORD CLASS instead of WORD FORM - although I personally always use PARTS OF SPEECH to talk about this concept.

Likewise there's MASS NOUNS to talk about NON-COUNTABLE NOUNS as well.

Finally, you talk about these being grammatical synonyms: Subject-Predicate Vs. S-V-O

But a predicate can include many other constructions apart from VO. It could be just a V or VC and so on. VO is just one possible form of PREDICATE!

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Thanks for your comment! I've never heard of WORD CLASS, but that makes sense. I also prefer PARTS OF SPEECH. Thanks for the reminder of the term MASS NOUNS.

When I use S-V-O, I always explain to my students that it's not literally always a subject, verb, and an object. I use S-V-O to mean subject + verb + any kind of object, clause, nothing, etc. Sometimes I put the O in parentheses, but in any case, I explain to students that there are many possibilities. Sorry if that wasn't clear, and thanks for pointing it out for others. :)

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