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Writing Center


Parts of Speech

Introduction

The purpose of this section is not to provide a number of complicated terms which may mystify the average person. It is, rather, a place to turn for some practical explanation for how the various parts (words) of the English language function. Listed below are the various terms that are traditionally applied to these functions. A conceptual explanation accompanies each term. If you have a special concern, click on the link below to move to that discussion.


 

Nouns
Pronouns
Verbs
Modifiers
Conjunctions
Prepositions
Interjections


 

Nouns

Nouns are the first type of word babies learn. They touch objects or point to different things, asking with their inquisitive faces to be told what those things are. They are finding names for the objects and people around them. They are discovering nouns. The word noun comes from a foreign word which means "to name." Nouns, therefore, are anything to which we give a name. We give names to people, to animals, to feelings, to objects, even to ideas. We need to have a name for experiences or feelings, to "capture" in that name some of the essence of the thing we are experiencing. This is the function of a noun--to give a "name" to everything from love to bacon, a name that will identify it and help it to be recognizable (and therefore, share-able) to other people. Nouns can function as doers (subjective status) or as receivers (objective status).

Verbs

Children not only observe what objects are around them, they also observe what those objects are doing, and they learn words for the activities they observe. Words that express activity or the expenditure of energy are called verbs. Sometimes the "expenditure of energy" means simply the act of living or breathing; sometimes it means hitting a home run. We have verbs that express states of being (John lives here) as well as verbs that express activity one can observe (John hit the ball).

Pronouns

One of the meanings of the prefix "pro" is "for" as in substitute (the second string team substitutes "for" the first team). When we connect that idea to the noun, we have "noun substitute" which is exactly what the pronoun does. Pronouns sub-in for the noun when using the noun would be redundant or too formal.

Not just any pronoun, however, can substitute for any noun (anymore than a first baseman can substitute for a pitcher). The numbers have to match (a plural pronoun substitutes for a plural noun), and gender has to match (masculine, feminine, neutral). Pronouns also reflect person (first, second, third) and case (subjective, objective, possessive).

Modifiers

The word "modify" expresses the idea of change. Modifiers are words that change the meanings of other words. For example, if a group of people were to close their eyes and think of a tree, each person might think of a different tree. If someone were to tell this same group of people to think of an oak tree, their mental picture would be more closely alike. If someone were to tell this group to think of an old, dead oak tree, the mental pictures would be even more similar. The words oak, old, and dead all modify the wordtree.

Here's another example: If a group of people were told to close their eyes and imagine this sentence--"A man walks," again, each person would likely have a different mental image. If the group were told to imagine this sentence--"A man walks up a hill," their mental images would be more similar. If the group were told to imagine this sentence--"A man walks quickly up a hill," their mental images would be even more similar. The words up and quickly modify the word walks.

These two illustrations reflect the two types of modifiers in our language--adjectives and adverbs. They are strict "unions," however; each type modifies only certain types of words. Adjectives have a restricted work load--they modify only nouns and pronouns, nothing else. Adverbs, on the other hand, modify everything else--verbs, adjectives, adverbs, even whole sentences. Both adjectives and adverbs function the same way--they modify the meaning of other words; the difference between them concerns the type of words they work on.

Conjunctions

The root "junc" means "to join" (as in the word junction--a joining of two roads); the prefix "con" means "together." Logically then, the function of a conjunction is to join together two or more things. Conjunctions can join words, phrases, or even whole sentences together. That's their job. When they join two things together, however, the result is not always the same. Some conjunctions make the two parts equal; other conjunctions make the two parts unequal.

If a conjunction makes the two parts equal, the conjunction is called coordinating ("co" means equal): this and that; ham or beef. Here's a list of coordinating conjunctions: and, but, or, nor, for, yet, so, both/and, either/or, neither/nor, not only/but also, whether/or. The use of the coordinating conjunction suggests that the order could be reversed without changing the meaning. Here's an example:

Mary went with Tom to the dance, but she danced all night with Jim.
She danced all night with Jim, but Mary went with Tom to the dance.

The meaning in both sentences is the same; it didn't matter which part the but went with. That's the way the coordinating conjunction works.

The other kind of conjunction makes unequal the parts it joins together. One of the two parts becomes "subordinate" or "dependent." This kind of conjunction is called subordinating ("sub" means under). Here are some common subordinating conjunctions: after, although, as, because, before, if, once, since, that, though, till, unless, until, when, whenever, where, wherever, and while. A special class of pronouns (called relative pronouns) sometimes act as subordinating conjunctions: that, what, which, who, whoever, whom, whomever, and whose. The use of the subordinating conjunction suggests that the order cannot be reversed without changing the meaning. Here's an example:

I worked because my father needed money.
My father needed money because I worked.

The meaning of the two sentences is not the same even though the only thing that has changed is the position of the two groups of words. Only the first sentence makes sense.

Prepositions

Prepositions are often the most difficult part of speech for students to understand. Many often confuse it with the conjunction. The difference is not always easy to see. A preposition does not join two words (or phrases or clauses), but it does show a relationship between two words. There are several types of relationships--ownership (the book belongs to him), time (after a while, the concert was boring), and the most common type of relationship, spatial (he sat by the girl with red hair). In each case, the preposition shows a relationship between its object (a noun or a pronoun) and some other word in the sentence. Here are some examples:

The book belongs to him. [to shows the ownership relationship between him (the object) and the book]

After a while, the concert was boring. [after shows the time relationship between while(the object) and boring]

He sat by the girl with red hair. [by shows the spatial relationship between the girl (the object) and he; with shows the possession relationship between hair (the object) and girl]

Here are some common prepositions: about, above, across, after, against, along, among, around, at, before, behind, below, beneath, beside, besides, between, beyond, but, by, concerning, despite, down, during, except, excepting, for, from, in , inside, into, like, near, of, off, on, onto, out, outside, over, past, regarding, round, since, through, throughout, till, to toward, under, underneath, until, up, upon, with, within, without. Here's an easy tip for recognizing spatial prepositions: a spatial preposition is anything an airplane can be to a cloud (over it, under it, etc.).

Interjections

Interjections are the easiest part of speech to understand. The root "ject" meets "to insert," while the prefix "inter" means "into." Put the two ideas together "to insert into," and we have the concept of the interjection. Interjections are usually abrupt interruptions into the usual flow of the sentence. Here' are a couple of examples:

Wow! Those fireworks were spectacular.
Oh, Mary, what can I do to earn more money for college?

Interjections are usually followed by either a comma or an exclamation point as the examples show.