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Discussing Moral Issues: Important Structures and Terms

Everyday Grammar
Everyday Grammar
Discussing Moral Issues: Important Structures and Terms
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Imagine that you want to talk about moral issues – your opinion about what is correct behavior and what is incorrect behavior.

You might want to talk about your actions or the actions of another. What kinds of terms and structures should you use?

In today’s Everyday Grammar, we will explore a point of connection between grammar and moral issues. You will learn about adjectives, sentence patterns, and expressions of necessity.

Subject + BE + subject complement

Discussions about morality often involve adjectives such as “right” or “wrong.”

For example, an action is right or an action is wrong.

The central structure for these kinds of statements is this:

Subject + BE + subject complement.

The subject complement is often an adjective.

Common positive adjectives include right, correct, appropriate or justified.

Common negative adjectives include wrong, incorrect, terrible, or unjustified.

A person might say, “My decision was appropriate,” “their behavior was terrible,” “we were wrong,” and so on.

But there are many other ways a person can describe their opinion of an action.

Let’s listen to a few words from United States President Joe Biden’s recent State of the Union speech. In the speech, he makes clear that he believes the actions of Russia are incorrect.

Putin’s attack on Ukraine was premeditated and totally unprovoked.

“Putin’s attack on Ukraine” is the subject of the sentence. Was – the past tense of BE – is the main verb. “Premeditated” and “unprovoked” are terms that describe the attack.

“Premeditated” is an adjective that means done or made according to a plan. Legal cases often use this term. A person might be convicted of premeditated murder, for example.

“Unprovoked” means not caused by anything said or done. For example, a news story might describe an “unprovoked attack.” This means that one person or group was not doing or saying anything that would give reason for an attack.


Another key area of grammar that connects with discussions about moral issues is the idea of necessity – an action must or must not be done. English speakers use several structures to express necessity, but some of the important ones are “need to...” and “have got to …” or “have got to do....”

For example, imagine you hear a story about a disagreement between two of your family members.

You might say, “You need to apologize to him,” or “he needs to apologize to you.”

In both examples, you are saying that the right action to take is for one person to apologize to the other.

You might also use “have got to...” to express a similar idea, as in “You have got to apologize to him.”

Let’s listen to UK Prime Ministry Boris Johnson use the structure “have got to do ...” to talk about what he believes is a correct course of action.

We’ve got to do everything we can to change the heavy odds that Ukraine faces.

You might use “have got to do ...” to describe any number of moral issues. Imagine you have a friend who needs your help. You believe it is right to help him or her. You could say, “I have got to do something to help my friend.”


This report explored a few ways that English speakers talk about moral issues. There are certainly many other ways – politicians, religious experts and normal people have debated moral questions for a long time.

This report ends with a kind of homework project. Choose some kind of a moral question that interests you. Then find examples – films, news broadcasts, podcasts, and so on – that explore that moral question. Pay careful attention to the terms and structures that the speakers use. Then try to use what you have learned to describe your own opinion on the issue.

I’m John Russell.

John Russell wrote this lesson for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

subject complement – n. a word or phrase that follows a linking verb and describes something about the subject

appropriate – adj. right or suited for some purpose or situation

justified – adj. having or shown to have a right or reasonable basis