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Parts of Speech

Different teachers and textbooks have different opinions on how many primary parts of speech there are, but you’ll usually see somewhere between seven and nine on most lists. Here we’ll briefly look at seven, but it really doesn’t matter how you prefer to count them, as long as you know what they all are and how they function. Don’t worry if you don’t fully understand everything about each part of speech just yet. I’ll cover each of them in detail in other lessons.

Verbs

A verb is a word that shows action, existence, or state of being. First let’s look at an action verb.

Andrew hit the ball out of the park.

To find an action verb, all we need to do is look for the action in the sentence. Here, the action is hit. As you can see, in English, the verb is kind of like the backbone of the sentence. Everything hinges on the central action. Andrew tells us who hit, the ball tells us what he hit, and out of the park tells us where he it. The other words and phrases in the sentence don’t convey an intelligible meaning without the verb to tell us exactly what happened. Next let’s look at simple existence.

Grandma is here!

In this sentence, there is no action going on. The verb here is the linking verb is. Who is? Grandma is. However, Grandma isn’t performing an action. She’s just existing. We don’t even know how she’s doing or what condition she exists in. All we know from the verb is that she currently exists here. Finally, let’s look at a verb that shows a more specific state of being.

The cat feels soft.

This example shows another tricky linking verb. When we see the word feel, we are tempted to think that it is an action verb because feeling can be an action sometimes. In fact, we can even feel the cat, and that would be an action. But is the cat physically reaching out its paw and feeling another object in this sentence? Clearly not. Is someone else reaching out and feeling the cat? Nope. No one is performing the physical action of feeling anything in this sentence. In this case, the word feel is saying that the cat exists in a state of softness. There is no action going on. The cat is simply existing in a certain condition.

Verbs can seem really tricky and intimidating at first, but don’t worry! We’ll look at verbs in much more detail in other articles. As we get started, just understand that they show action, existence, and state of being.

Nouns

There are many definitions of nouns, but I like to stick with the simplest way of thinking about them. A noun is a person, place or thing. Other definitions may extend the list to include ideas, events, functions, and more, but I prefer to just allow all that stuff to be lumped together as part of the things mentioned in the short definition. However long or short a definition you prefer, they all boil down to the same thing. Nouns function as subjects or objects. First let’s look at a noun as a subject.

John ran.

In this extremely simple sentence, John is clearly our noun, because he is a person. In this case, John is the subject of the sentence because he is the one doing the action, which is running. Let’s look at another more complex example.

John ran to school, but his brother walked.

Here we have a compound sentence with two subjects and two verbs to consider. Obviously, the subject of the first half hasn’t changed. John is still doing the action of running. In the other half we now have another subject. Brother is doing the action of walking.

The clouds slowly drifted across the sky.

This time we don’t have a person as our subject. Here we have some things, clouds, as our subject doing the action of drifting. Next let’s look at some nouns as objects.

Rachel wants some chocolate.

In this sentence, you probably already recognized the subject Rachel as a noun, but there is another noun here functioning as an object of the verb wants. The object answers the question, “What does the subject, Rachel, want?” Well, clearly, she wants chocolate. That makes the noun chocolate the object of the verb wants. We’ll just cover one more example of a noun as an object for now.

The governor gave a speech.

Hopefully you already noticed that governor is the subject in this sentence. Gave is the action that the governor is doing. Now let’s ask the question, “What did the subject, the governor, give?” He gave a speech, so that makes speech the object of the verb gave.

Again, don’t worry if you don’t understand everything that’s going on. We’ll look at nouns and their functions in much more detail later on. For now, just remember that a noun is a person, place, or thing, and that it can function as a subject or an object.

Pronouns

A pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun. For example, if your name is Brian, you don’t want to have to refer to yourself with your own name and talk in the third person all the time to tell people what you’re doing. You don’t want to be saying things like “Brian is hungry,” or “Brian needs to go to the store later,” all the time. That’s why we have pronouns like I, me, you, us, it, and they. Rather than repeating the specific names of subjects or objects over and over again when it’s already abundantly obvious who or what we’re referring to, we replace specific nouns with pronouns that represent or refer back to the nouns themselves. Since pronouns just replace nouns, their functions are the same as noun functions. Pronouns also function as subjects and objects. Let’s look at some examples of pronouns in action.

Susan tripped on a bump in the sidewalk because she wasn’t paying attention.

Susan is clearly the person who tripped in the first half of this sentence, but who wasn’t paying attention in the second half? She wasn’t paying attention. Who is she? In this context, we automatically understand that she is referring back to Susan because Susan is the only person mentioned so far. Rather than saying Susan twice, we just replace her name with the pronoun she. Here’s another example:

Wayne was hungry, so his mom made him a sandwich.

In this sentence the pronoun him clearly refers to Wayne. We automatically understand from the context that Wayne’s mom must have made the sandwich for Wayne because he is the one who is hungry. We also know that the pronoun him is masculine in gender and that Wayne is the only male given in the context for a masculine pronoun to be referring to. Since it is abundantly obvious that we are still talking about Wayne, we don’t have to say his name twice. We can simply replace his name with a pronoun to refer to him.

Adjectives

An adjective is a word that modifies a noun or, rarely, a pronoun. Adjectives further describe or clarify a noun by giving more information about it. They add descriptions such as size, color, shape, or number. A good way to find adjectives for a particular noun is to look at that noun and ask questions about its descriptive qualities. Think about what it looks like, or where it’s from, and see if there are any adjectives in the sentence that provide those details. Here are some examples.

I saw a friendly dog outside.

Let’s look at the noun dog. Are there any words further describing the dog? Do any words tell us additional information like what it looks like or what kind it is? Yes. The word friendly tells us what kind of dog it is, so friendly is and adjective describing dog.

Dad really wanted to buy the big gray truck.

Here we have two adjectives modifying the word truck. We could ask questions like, “What does the truck look like?” or “Which truck does Dad like?” The truck is big and gray. Dad likes the big gray one. Either way, our question is answered by the words big and gray. Big and gray both modify the noun truck.

Adverbs

An adverb is a word that modifies a verb, an adjective, or another adverb. Many adverbs might look like an adjective with -ly attached to the end like easily or thoughtfully, but not all of them are so easy to find. A good way to find adverbs is to consider things that add more information about an action such as how, when, or where it took place. If you’re looking for adverbs modifying adjectives or other adverbs, consider to what extent those adjectives or adverbs are so. Let’s look at some examples of adverbs in their various roles to get a better idea of how they work.

David desperately wanted pizza.

Start by looking at the verb wanted and seeing if there are any words further describing the action. How did David want pizza? He desperately wanted pizza, so here the adverb desperately tells how the verb wanted was taking place.

Ted was in a bad mood yesterday.

This one might be a bit more difficult to notice because the adverb is not very close to the verb it modifies. The verb was just states Ted’s existence. What other information is given about Ted’s existence? Are we told how, where, or when Ted was in a bad mood? Yes, we are told that he was in a bad mood yesterday, so the adverb yesterday modifies the verb was to tell us when the verb took place. Next let’s look at an adverb describing an adjective.

The most difficult part of the test was the grammar section.

The adjective difficult modifies the noun part. But we are given more information as to how difficult the part was, or to what extent it was difficult. The grammar section was not just difficult. It was the most difficult part of the test. The adverb most modifies the adjective difficult to further describe how difficult the section was. Finally, let’s see an adverb modifying another adverb.

Kids grow so fast.

In this sentence the verb grow is modified by the adverb fast. Fast tells how kids grow. We also have another adverb telling us how fast they grow. Kid’s don’t just grow fast. They grow so fast. The adverb so is modifying the adverb fast.

Don’t worry if all the different adverb functions seem a little overwhelming right now. We’ll look at them more carefully in other articles on adverbs. Just don’t forget that they modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.

Prepositions

A preposition shows a relationship between a noun or pronoun and another part of the sentence. There are many prepositions, so the best way to recognize them is to simply memorize the list. A preposition starts a prepositional phrase that contains the object it is relating to another part of the sentence. The full prepositional phrase itself functions as an adjective or adverb in the sentence, depending on what word it is modifying. The best way to understand how a preposition works is to look at some examples.

Jessica lost her phone in her messy room.

The preposition in this sentence is in. The object of this preposition is room. The full prepositional phrase then would include in, its object room, and any modifiers of the object room, which in this case are the adjectives her and messy. The prepositional phrase then is in her messy room. So what word does this prepositional phrase modify? The phrase indicates a location that tells us where Jessica lost her phone. Since the phrase tells us where the verb lost takes place, it is functioning as an adverb. The preposition in relates its object, room, a place, to the action that took place there, lost. Where did Jessica lose her phone? In her messy room. Let’s look at a prepositional phrase being used as an adjective next.

Kyle saw a dog with a red collar.

The preposition here is with, and its object is collar. The prepositional phrase would be with a red collar. What noun is with relating collar to? The nearest noun the phrase could refer to would be dog. The phrase with a red collar is functioning as an adjective to further describe the dog Kyle saw.

Prepositions might seem a bit difficult to spot at first, but the more we study them in the future, the easier they will be to pick out. For now, just try to remember their basic functions. You might also want to start memorizing the list of prepositions so you can locate them more easily.

Conjunctions

A conjunction is a word that joins other words or groups of words. A conjunction can join individual words like nouns and adjectives, or it can join groups of words like entire clauses to make compound sentences. Let’s just take a look at some simple examples for now to get a basic idea of how they work.

Samuel and Alex ate the whole pizza.

In this example the conjunction and is joining two nouns, Samuel and Alex to make a compound subject where both subjects are doing the action. Now let’s look at another way of joining two subjects.

Samuel or Alex ate the whole pizza.

This time the conjunction or joins the two subjects just like and did in the previous section, but notice the different relationship or implies. Or gives us the idea that only one of the subjects ate the pizza, although it doesn’t tell us which one. Next let’s try joining something besides two subjects.

Carol didn’t have time for coffee this morning, but she still had some coffee at the office later.

This time the conjunction but joins two entire clauses to make a compound sentence. But adds an element of contrast to the relationship between the two groups of words it joins.

What about the rest?

Like I mentioned before, different books and teachers have different opinions about which parts of speech should be on the list of primary parts and different ideas of how to categorize some types of words. The remaining parts of speech you might see on other lists include articles, determiners, gerunds, interjections, and particles, and you might even run into some others. I won’t try to get into them all here, but I’ll discuss them at length in their own articles and leave it up to you to decide how you prefer to think about them and categorize them once you’ve learned more about them.