Learning the parts of speech will help you understand how the language functions in a way that you will be able to improve your reading and writing skills in no time.
Get Down With the Nouns
It’s time for some parts of speech fun (OK, maybe fun’s too strong of a word).
Noun: A noun is a person, place, thing or idea. Most students have no problem remembering or understanding the person, place or thing part of the definition. It’s the idea part of the definition that confuses many. Examples of ideas include liberty, freedom, love, hate, enslavement, hyperactivity, intelligence, stupidity and more.
The key to mastering the concept of an idea as a noun involves understanding the difference between concrete nouns and abstract nouns.
Concrete noun: A concrete noun is something you can experience with the five senses. You can touch a chair, smell perfume, see a dinosaur (if you have a time machine), hear a radio, or taste a hamburger. Chair, perfume, dinosaur, radio, and hamburger are all concrete nouns.
Abstract noun: An abstract noun cannot be experienced with the five senses. They are the aforementioned idea of the noun definition. Just because you can’t touch, taste, hear, see, or smell an idea doesn’t mean it’s not a noun. Abstract nouns are often symbolized by concrete nouns. A flag, for example, is a concrete noun that may symbolize abstract nouns such as freedom or liberty. A ring is a concrete noun that may symbolize abstract nouns such as commitment or love.
Nouns can also be labeled as proper nouns or common nouns.
Common noun: A common noun identifies non-specific people, places, things, or ideas. Woman, river, car, and freedom are examples of common nouns. Common nouns are capitalized only if they begin a sentence or are part of a title.
Proper noun: A proper noun identifies a specific person, place, thing, or idea. Hillary Clinton, Mississippi River, and Volkswagen are examples of proper nouns. Proper nouns are always capitalized unless the specific name of a title or a place chooses not to capitalize it (craigslist, for example).
Always remember when implementing the parts of speech that a part of speech identifies how the word functions in a sentence. Often, words that look like nouns are not. If, for example, you’re told to “walk into a brick building,” you may be tempted to use several inappropriate words. As long as you don’t call brick in that sentence a noun, however, you’ll be fine. Although a brick is a thing, it does not function as a thing in that sentence. It functions as an adjective because it describes the building.
Sometimes words that look like other parts of speech actually function as nouns.
Gerunds: Gerunds are words that look like verbs ending in ing, but they function as nouns. If you think “running is good exercise,” you will think many thoughts alone on a track. As long as one of those thoughts isn’t running in the previous sentence is a verb, you’re OK. Running in that sentence is a noun. It’s a thing; a type of exercise.
Suffixes: Certain suffixes change words that function as other parts of speech into nouns. Common examples include ment, ness, ity, ence, ance, hood, ship.
A Description of Adjectives
Next on the list are descriptive words. They’re called adjectives.
Adjective: A word that modifies or describes a noun or a pronoun.
Common adjective: They’re really is no official grammatical term for common adjectives, so we made one up. A common adjective is your every day run-of-the-mill descriptive word that describes a noun. They fall into one of several categories: opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, material or purpose. Examples include happy, short, tall, green, sad, etc. Unless they begin a sentence, you should never capitalize a common adjective unless it’s part of a title.
Proper adjective: A proper adjective is a proper noun that has been turned into an adjective. Examples include nationalities–American or Canadian, for example.
Articles: Articles are a special type of adjective. They are the words a, an and the. They modify, most often, the noun that follows. A dog, an apple, the cat are examples of an article followed by a noun.
Possessive adjectives: These are sometimes called possessive pronouns, but since they function as adjectives, they’re adjectives. They are my, your, his, her, its, our and their.
Demonstrative adjective: This, that, these and those when they refer to specific nouns are called demonstrative adjectives. Pay attention to how the word functions in the sentence before you classify this, that, these or those as an adjective. Make sure it modifies a noun; otherwise, it’s a pronoun. For example: I love this dog vs I love this. In the first example, this modifies dog, making this an adjective. In the second example, this replaces dog, making it a pronoun.
Indefinite adjectives: These words are similar to demonstrative adjectives insomuch that they can be used as a pronoun. The difference between a demonstrative and an indefinite adjective is that an indefinite adjective does not modify a specific item. Examples include few, many, some. Make sure the word modifies a noun before calling it an adjective.
Other types of words that function as adjectives include numbers and titles.
Beware of words that look like adjectives but function as nouns. For example, the word blue, in most cases, functions as an adjective–blue dress, blue shoes or blue water. If, however, you were asked what your favorite color is, you might call blue your favorite color. In this instance, blue is a noun. Hopefully, all this information doesn’t give you the blues, which is also a noun.
Sometimes words that look like other parts of speech actually function as adjectives.
Past participles: Past participles are formed by adding ed to the end of a verb. They look like verbs. They feel like verbs. They function as adjectives. They’re often confused with past tense verbs because they look exactly the same. Always remember a word’s part of speech refers to how it functions in a sentence. For example, I parked a car vs. I ran into a parked car. The first parked is a past tense verb. The second parked is a past participle functioning as an adjective. It describes car.
Present participles: Present participles are formed by adding ing at the end of a verb. They look like verbs. They feel like verbs. They look exactly like a gerund. They look exactly like the ing form of a verb. They function as an adjective. For example, I am running vs. Running is fun vs. He is a running man. In the first sentence, running is a verb. In the second sentence, running is a gerund, a noun. In the third sentence, running is a present participle, an adjective.
Fun is a great adjective to describe adjectives, don’t you think?
Leap Into Action With Verbs
Are you ready for some action?
Verb: A word that expresses an action or a state of being. Most students have little trouble identifying action verbs. Some struggle with state-of-being verbs.
Action verb: As the name implies an action verb expresses action–physical and mental action.
State-of-being verb: The most important state-of-being verb is to be. To be verbs take the form of am, is, are, was, were.
In order to understand verbs, one must understand the three main verb tenses.
Present tense: Present tense verbs express an action or state of being in the present.
Future tense: Future tense verbs express an action that takes place in the future. The future tense of a verb is created by placing will or shall before a present tense verb.
Past tense: Past tense verbs express actions that occurred in the past. Past tense verbs usually end in ed.
Helping verbs: A helping verb is a verb that comes directly before the main verb of a sentence and makes the meaning of the sentence more clear. Words that can be used as helping verbs include is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been, has, have, had, do, does, did, will, shall, should, would, can, could, may, might, must. The helping verb combined with the main verb is called a verb phrase.
Remember, not all verbs are created the same. Strong verbs make strong writing.
Be a Pro With Pronouns
If it weren’t for pronouns, we’d keep saying the same words over and over and over and over.
Pronoun: A pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun. There are several different types.
Subject pronoun: A subject pronoun replaces a subject noun. The subject pronouns are I, you, he, she, it, we, you, they.
Object pronouns: An object pronoun replaces a noun that’s the object of the sentence. The object pronouns are me, you, him, her, it, us, you, them.
Demonstrative pronouns: This, that, these,and those sometimes function as pronouns. They differ from demonstrative adjectives insomuch that they replace a noun instead of modifying one. I hope you understand this (this, in this case, is a demonstrative pronoun). I really hope you understand this section (this, in this instance, is a demonstrative adjective; it modifies section).
Indefinite pronouns: Indefinite pronouns function in the same manner as demonstrative pronouns, without referring to a specific object. For example, I have some. In this sentence, some is a pronoun referring to an indefinite amount. Don’t confuse indefinite pronouns with indefinite adjectives. For example, I ate some cake. In this example, some modifies cake, making it an indefinite adjective.
Intensive and reflexive pronouns: Myself, yourself, himself, herself, ourselves, yourselves and themselves can function as intensive or reflexive pronouns. It’s an intensive pronoun when it intensifies a noun or other pronoun. For example, He himself completed the task. It’s a reflexive pronoun when it points back to a noun or pronoun without intensifying it. For example, she congratulated herself for scoring the winning goal.
Possessive pronouns: Mine, yours, ours and theirs are possessive pronouns. They replace an object possessed by the subject. In the sentence; This is mine, mine replaces this, making it a pronoun.
Interrogative and relative pronouns: Who, whom, whose, what and which sometimes function as interrogative or relative pronouns. They replace an unknown noun. For example, Who is the brilliant teacher who wrote this? The first who in this sentence is a pronoun. Because it begins an interrogative sentence, it’s an interrogative pronoun. The second who is a relative pronoun because it begins a subordinate clause that replaces a person or thing in another part of a sentence.
Pronouns are always first person, second person, or third person.
First person singular pronouns: When the speaker, writer or narrator replaces him or herself with a pronoun, it’s a first person singular pronoun. Examples include I, me, mine, myself.
First person plural pronouns: These are first person pronouns that involve at least one additional person other than the speaker, writer or narrator. Examples include we, us, our, ourselves.
Second person pronouns: Second person pronouns replace the person being spoken to. They are the same for singular and plural. Examples include you, yours, yourself.
Third person singular pronouns: Third person pronouns replace a noun that does not include the person speaking or the person being spoken to. Third person singular pronouns change based on gender. Male examples include he, him, his, himself. Female examples include she, her, hers, herself.
Third person plural pronouns: Third person plural pronouns replace more than one thing, person, place or idea. Examples include they, them, theirs, themselves.
A pronoun always refers to an antecedent. An antecedent is a fancy word for the noun a pronoun replaces.
Learn How Conjunctions Function
Learning how conjunctions function will help you combine sentences more effectively.
Conjunction: a word that connects words, phrases or clauses. There are a few types of conjunctions.
Coordinating conjunctions: These are what most students think of when they think conjunctions. These conjunctions are used to show a relationship between two equally important words, phrases or clauses. They are and, but, or, for, nor, yet, so.
Correlating conjunctions: Correlating conjunctions serve the same function as coordinating conjunctions in a more emphatic manner. They exist in pairs, with the first of the pair followed by at least one word followed by the second of the pair. They include both…and, not only…but also, either…or, neither…nor, whether…or. For example, You could either read this or remain clueless about correlating conjunctions.
Subordinating conjunctions: Subordinating conjunctions begin subordinating or dependent clauses. They begin clauses that must be attached to an independent clause or it is considered a sentence fragment. Sentence fragments are bad. Examples of subordinating conjunctions include before, after, because, since, where, and if.
Conjunctive adverbs: The naming of conjunctive adverbs proves that English teachers really do want you to suffer (hint: they’re not adverbs). Conjunctive adverbs are used to show the relationship between two independent clauses. Use them sparingly. For example, You studied conjunctions in 3rd grade; however, you need to review them for your quiz tomorrow.
The next time you watch School House Rock, you’ll be able to answer grammar’s most famous question: “Conjunction junction, what’s your function?”
Prepare for Prepositions
You’ve been memorizing preposition lists for years only to discover that sometimes words that are prepositions can function otherwise. That’s why learning the definition helps.
Preposition: a word that shows the relationship between two words or clauses in a sentence. A prepositional phrase consists of a preposition plus the object of the preposition. In the sentence, “The apple is in the box,” in is the preposition, box is the object of the preposition. In shows the relationship between the apple and the box.
Now that you know the definition of preposition, you don’t need to memorize that ridiculously long list.
An Advertisement for Adverbs
Young scholars often confuse adverbs with adjectives. Young scholars who read and understand this section never confuse adverbs with adjectives.
Adverb: An adverb modifies a verb, an adjective or another adverb. They usually end in ly. Common adverbs that do not end in ly include very, almost, too, also, apart, away, between, well, far, less, left, right, forward, backward, back, there, behind and now.
- Adverbs answer the question “how?” as in “He drove slowly.”
- Adverbs answer the question “when?” as in “He ate before.”
- Adverbs answer the question “where?” as in “He ate there.”
- Adverbs answer the question “how often? as in “He eats seldomly.”
- Adverbs answer the question “to what extent?” as in “I am really hungry.”
Use adverbs sparingly when writing.
It’s Time for an Interjection!
If you were asked to name the eight parts of speech, you’d be most likely to forget interjections…until now.
Interjection: a sudden short utterance that expresses emotion and can stand alone. They’re generally set apart from a sentence by an exclamation point or by a comma when the feeling’s not as strong. They should not be used in formal writing unless it’s a direct quote. Wow, that’s a brief exclamation. (The previous sentence contains the interjection wow.)
Now that you understand the eight parts of speech, you can put them to good use and write the essay, story, book report, or award-winning composition you have dreamed of.
- Image: Blue Ribbon courtesy of public domain clip art.
- Thirteen Years Teaching Experience
- Elements of Language, Third Course. New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston. 2009.
- Image: Flag of the United States by Dbenbenn/Wikimedia Commons under Commons Licensing.