The Eight Parts of Speech, naturally!
Have you ever found yourself searching on Google for the proper use of a word or phrase only to find a wall of words pretending to be an explanation!
Link after link seems to have been written by exactly the same smug Gap-Year Word Warrior telling you that your phrase is wrong because there’s an ‘R’ in the month and that you should be using an adjective, conjunction or a preposition but only on Thursdays. Faced with these vague and often contradictory suggestions, most of us give up, and either guess, or allow our language and our meaning to be retarded.
But, here’s the thing. Don’t feel bad! Einstein said, “If you can’t explain something simply you don’t really understand it,” so if our Gap-Year Word Warrior can’t explain English Grammar to you, in a way that helps you, they failed, not you!
Of course, as an adult, we have all heard of nouns, prepositions and even infinitives but we don’t need to remember them to use the language, so over the years our brains dump, what has become, irrelevant information. That is how the brain works.
The truth is that we don’t learn language by learning grammar. We learn language like we listen to music, which is why people often learn to write to a very high standard but may not remember the technical rules of grammar. They just remember what sounds ‘right’.
However, this unlearning can become a problem when we start to become a more advanced writer; then, it becomes really useful to relearn the rules, in order to re-master our own language.
In language the old truism has never been truer: ‘the devil is in the detail‘. And the detail that language teachers seem to omit is the fact that words like nouns, prepositions and infinitives can be thought of as a skeleton – a framework around which our language has evolved. We call that framework the eight parts of speech.
My husband often says that “the only way to learn to fight is to fight.” So let’s wrestle with these eight parts of speech together and see if we can, through practice, make them, once again, our own.
In fact, you can think of language as a tapestry or perhaps as a symphony and these eight parts are the main instruments – the weft and the weave – of the English language. Each individual part must be understood in the context of the holistic whole.
For example: the first thing a child does is learn the names of things and we call those names nouns.
A noun is a word that names something like a person, animal, place, thing or ideas. All of the below are nouns (marked in red):
- Person or animal – Johnny, sister, mother, dog, horse.
- Place – house, London, supermarket, Spain.
- Thing – computer, book, chair, tree.
- Ideas – knowledge, decision, bravery, determination.
For example following the sequence above:
- Johnny ran home.
- The dog ran home
- The book was on the chair
- This knowledge could save your life.
Obviously, there is a lot more that needs to be said about nouns – in fact all of the eight parts of speech – but this blog is an attempt to provide a simple and organic explanation that establishes a bridgehead from which you will be able to explore further.
For example, once a child has learnt his own name, they quickly find that saying “Johnny wants juice” is not as elegant and as saying “I want juice.” In this way we are introduced to pronouns, words that stand in for names (nouns).
A pronoun is a word that is used instead of the noun to avoid repetition.
- Subject pronoun – I, you, he/she/it, we and they.
- Object pronoun – me, you, him/her/it, us and them.
- Possessive pronouns – mine, yours, his, hers, ours and theirs.
- Reflexive pronouns – myself, yourself, himself/herself/itself, ourselves, yourselves and themselves.
Johnny pointed at the bike in the shop window and said “I want it.”
I replaces Johnny (subject pronoun) and it replaces bike (object pronoun).
We will examine pronouns in greater detail in later blogs but for now it is enough to remember that pronouns stand in for nouns.
By the time our hypothetical child has mastered nouns and pronouns they find that they might like to add a little information to the name like “Johnny is a good boy” or “Johnny is a bad boy.” And so we are introduced quite naturally to the use of adjectives.
Adjectives give us information about the noun or pronoun. For example consider the sentence below:
Johnny’s new bike is yellow and matches the colour of his favourite rucksack.
In this sentence we have two nouns (in blue: bike and rucksack) and each of those nouns have their own adjectives (in red: yellow and favourite), which provide further important information.
Adjectives are words of description that further define or modify a noun or a pronoun.
At about the same time that Johnny learns to use adjectives, he will also need to put those nouns into action. He will need to say things like “Johnny runs” or maybe “Johnny swims.” In this way, we learn to use the second main pillar of language, after nouns: the verb (the doing word).
A verb is a word or phrase that describes an action, a condition or an experience.
Johnny raced down the road on his new bike.
(Raced is the active verb, performing an action.)
One of the most important points to remember is that verbs may be used to describe an action carried out by you, yourself, someone you’re talking to or someone not present. Different languages deal with this problem differently. Changing a verb in order to signify who or what it is talking about is called conjugation and in Spanish we change the verb but in English we change the pronoun:
- I raced – 1st person singular
- You raced – 2nd person singular
- He/she/it raced – 3rd person singular
- We raced – 1st person plural (more than one)
- ………….. – 2nd person plural (no longer used in English – was originally ‘Ye’)
- They raced – 3rd person plural
Johnny, being somewhat competitive, will soon need to give more information about an action. For instance he might want to say “Johnny runs quickly” or perhaps “Fred runs slowly.” In this way, he is naturally introduced to the concept of adverbs. Words like quickly that add information to the main verb run.
We use adverbs to add more information about a verb, an adjective, another adverb, clauses and even whole sentences. For example:
‘Johnny cycles badly’.
Badly (adverb) is adding information about how he cycles (verb).
‘Johnny is an extremely bad cyclist.’
The adverb ‘extremely’ modifies the word ‘ bad’, which is itself an adjective belonging to the noun ‘cyclist’.
Libertad note: I cycle, you cycle is a doing word and therefore a verb but if I say ‘the cyclist’ it is a noun because it defines identity. Remember, nouns tend to stay nouns, verbs tend to stay verbs but the word order of a sentence will often change the job that those words do. For example:
‘Johnny cycles extremely badly’.
The adverb ‘extremely’ is highlighting the adverb ‘badly’ to show how poorly he cycles.
As Johnny gets older he starts to get more specific. He soon finds that he doesn’t want just any bike; he wants the bike in the shop window and not a bike. In this way, Johnny naturally learns the concept of articles of speech, both the definite article (the) and indefinite article (a).
Articles are, in reality, a kind of adjective and are therefore used before a noun or a noun equivalent.
The is a direct article and refers to a specific thing (noun). The indirect article a or an is nonspecific or generic.
‘Johnny’s mum bought the bike he really wanted, the blue one’.
The is specific to which bike, the blue one.
‘The man who sold that bike to Johnny’s mum is a scoundrel.’
But note the difference:
‘The man who sold that bike to Johnny’s mum is an artist.’
Libertad Note: use ‘an’ before a vowel sound (A,E,I,O,U) not ‘a’.
You may have noticed that when our precocious hypothetical child demands a specific bike, he has to identify a location, quote “he wants the bike in the shop window.” In this way, Johnny is introduced to the concept of defining location with words like: in, on, under, above, etc.; in other words, prepositions (pre meaning before the noun or pronoun and position defining location).
There are over 100 prepositions in the English language. For example (prepositions of time): on, in, at, since, for , ago, before, past, to/till/until, by. There are also prepositions of place, location, spatial relationships.
We use them to show a relationship in time or space or a connection between two or more people, places and things.
‘Johnny always puts his bike on the stand against the wall just outside the back door’.
What happens to the bike, it goes on the stand. Where is the stand, against the wall. Where is the wall, outside the back door.
Assuming that Johnny doesn’t grow up to be a script writer working for Disney, he will soon need to link two ideas together. For example, “I rode my bike and saw mommy.” “I rode my bike to school because I wanted to show it to my friends.”
In this way, Johnny naturally comes to use words that link two ideas – two concepts together, which we call conjunctions. For example: and, but and because etc.
A conjunction is a linking word that joins thoughts, actions and ideas together. For example:
‘Johnny walks or cycles to school, depending on his mood’.
The conjunction ‘or’ joins two actions – walking and cycling.
‘Johnny loves his new bike, but he still wants a car when he is old enough’.
‘But’ is linking two thoughts together, his bike and wanting a car.
Libertad Note: linking words (conjunctions) don’t necessarily have to be put in the middle of the sentence nor are they destined to forever be alone, for example: ‘As long as’ and ‘provided that’ are concepts that link to other ideas and are used as a common phrase:
‘As long as the waves are high enough, we can go surfing’.
Blue phrase equals idea No. 1
Green phrase equals idea No. 2
Red phrase is the conjunction.
The truth is that most native English speakers have only a rudimentary knowledge of their own language but it really isn’t their fault.
In comparison to English, Latin (and its derivatives) is extremely logical and, in many ways, similar to mathematics in structure (according to Dr Joyce Van Tassel-Baska, professor Emerita of education at William and Mary College).
English grammar, on the other hand, is neither structured nor inflected, which makes it almost impossible to definitively analyse. Ultimately, English is taught through memorisation and practice.
It wasn’t until the 18th century that scholars thought to shoe horn the English language into some old Italian shoes (Latin Grammar) but it was only the children of the elite who actually had the opportunity to learn Latin, as a language, and thereby gain the tools to master the English language.
To be honest, for me personally (not very elite), I found the best way to learn English grammar was to learn Spanish. The process of learning a romance language gives you some of the analytical tools that are essential when it comes to polishing your English grammar.
In future blogs we will discuss each of these eight parts of speech in detail.
For those expats out there that speak Spanish, let me know in the comments if you would like me to include Spanish comparisons to help you learn English quicker.