Basic - Parts of Speech




Some people who come here for help with grammar will know some bits and pieces, some more and some very much less. My posts will sometimes be about basic things, sometimes about usage and changes in language. I will label them "basic" if they refer to things which people are missing when they say they have "no formal grammar education" or "I was never taught any grammar at school."

The thing is: we need a language in which to talk about language. This can be called a "metalanguage" but don't worry about that. From time to time, I will post about a particular aspect of grammar, sometimes basic ones and sometimes more advanced questions.

So, just to help with the basics, I'm going to list the "traditional" eight parts of speech here, for reference. You'll get posts on all of them in time so you can just type them into the search box, if you miss one. It's just a handy reference point to check back on if you forget.

VERB - one of the most basic building blocks of language. It's the word that shows what is happening in any sentence. It can be "transitive," i.e. having an OBJECT, or "intransitive," without an OBJECT. (Don't worry - we will come back to SUBJECTS and OBJECTS).

It has different PERSONS (I, you, he, she or it, we, you (again - this time in the plural, meaning more than one of you) and they. (We will have a whole post on the new use of the single "they") I and we are first person, he, she, it and they are third person. "You" and in the past "thou" are second person.

It has different TENSES - simply, present, past, future (though it can get more complicated with tenses like present continuous, pluperfect etc. Don't worry, we will cover them all)

It has different MOODS, though these are not much used in English. The Infinitive, which some purists think you should never split, is the form "to write," "to read," "to know grammar" etc. The Imperative, which is used when telling someone to do something, e.g. "Get offa my cloud!" The Subjunctive, which is barely there in English but can be found in such phrases as "May you be showered with blessings" or "Let him rot in Hell." The Indicative is the plain old mood where none of the above are being used, e.g. "Grandma writes a blogpost."

It has different VOICES. The active voice: "he fed the cat" and the passive voice: "the cat was fed by him." The underlying meaning is the same.

ADVERB - a word that "modifies" a verb, that is describes or expands it. They often end in "-ly" but not always. "Well," for instance is an adverb but "lively" is not. In the sentence "she writes well" "writes" is a verb and "well" is an adverb because it describes how she writes. Likewise, she could write "brilliantly," evocatively," "badly," "excruciatingly" - all these are adverbs.

NOUN - another building block. Nouns can be "common" (no value judgment implied), such as "dog," "cat," "writer," "pedant," "editor", or they can be "proper" (again no judgment) because they are the names of a person (Mary), place (Hobbiton) or thing (Volkswagen). They can be "abstract" (love, hate, grammar) or "concrete" (concrete, avocado, laptop)

PRONOUN - something that stands instead of or "pro" noun. So you can say "Douglas Adams wrote a very funny book" or "he wrote a very funny book" if you have already mentioned Douglas Adams and it is clear who you are referring to (or "to whom you are referring," if you prefer the older construction, which is falling out of use). Pronouns can be "reflexive" (myself, himself, themselves" etc.), or "relative,"
(who, whom) or "possessive" (my, his, hers yours etc.)

ADJECTIVE - a word that modifies or describes a noun. So "funny" in the sentence above, is an adjective. "lively" is an adjective, by the way. Native English speakers instinctively know what order to use for a string of adjectives before a noun (and they usually come before a noun in English); we'd never say "red big bus" for example, always "big red bus."

CONJUNCTION - a linking word like "and," "but" and "so." These are words your old English teacher might have told you not to begin a sentence with. But Grammar Grandma will let you. Words like "when," "since" and "because" are also conjunctions. There are lots of them.

PREPOSITION - Your old English teacher might also have told you you must not end a sentence with a preposition, like the one above, which ends with "with." Prepositions are simple little words like "with," "on," "in" and so on. Often the "rule" about not ending a sentence with one (because it should be in pre-position) is countered by the quotation from Winston Churchill: "This is the kind of English up with which I will not put!" Churchill, if he ever said it at all, is using the "prepositional verb" "to put up with," which gloriously ends in two prepositions. Other prepositional verbs might be "to be sick of," "to be fed up with" (though common usage now prefers the preposition "of"), "to light up"etc.

ARTICLE - this one is quite easy. You have the "Definite" article, which is "the," or the "Indefinite" article, which is "a" or "an" before a noun beginning with a vowel. Luckily, English doesn't vary these articles according to the gender or number of the following noun. 'The' and 'a' do the same work before "dog" or "bitches." If you were using another European language, you would have different forms of the article: Italian has "il," "la," "lo," "i,""gli," "le" for example.

Ninth part of speech?

There used to be a category for EXCLAMATIONS, which were in the old days called EJACULATIONS (really). But your grandma doesn't want to go there. (They are words like "phew!", "alas!" and a lot of swearwords. They were always followed by an exclamation mark).


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