27 March, 2010

Grammar 2: Parts of Speech

Learning about the parts of speech is the first step in grammar study just as learning the letters of the alphabet is the first step to being able to read and write. From learning the parts of speech we begin to understand the form, function and use of words, and how words are joined together to make meaningful communication. To understand what a part of speech is, you must understand the idea of putting similar things together into groups or categories. Let's look at some examples of categories.

The 8 parts of speech that are used to describe English words are:

  1. Nouns
  2. Verbs
  3. Adjectives
  4. Adverbs
  5. Pronouns
  6. Prepositions
  7. Conjunctions
  8. Articles


A noun is often defined as a word which names a person, place or thing. Here are some examples of nouns: boy, river, friend, Mexico, triangle, day, school, truth, university, idea, John F. Kennedy, movie, aunt, vacation, eye, dream, flag, teacher, class, grammar. John F. Kennedy is a noun because it is the name of a person; Mexico is a noun because it is the name of a place; and river is a noun because it is the name of a thing.

Some grammar books divide nouns into 2 groups - proper nouns and common nouns. Proper nouns are nouns which begin with a capital letter because it is the name of a specific or particular person place or thing. Some examples of proper nouns are: Mexico, John F. Kennedy, Atlantic Ocean, February, Monday, New York City, Susan, Maple Street, Burger King. If you see a word beginning with a capital letter in the middle of a sentence, it is probably a proper noun. Most nouns are common nouns and do not begin with a capital letter.

Many nouns have a special plural form if there is more than one. For example, we say one book but two books. Plurals are usually formed by adding an -s (books) or -es (boxes) but some plurals are formed in different ways (child - children, person - people, mouse - mice, sheep - sheep).

In the possessive case, a noun changes its form to show that it owns or is closely related to something else. Usually, nouns become possessive by adding a combination of an apostrophe and the -'s.
You can form the possessive case of a singular noun that does not end in "s" by adding an apostrophe and "s," as in the following sentence:
  • The red suitcase is Sara's.
You can form the possessive case of a singular noun that ends in "s" by adding an apostrophe alone or by adding an apostrophe and "s," as in the following examples:
  • The bus's seats are very uncomfortable.
  • The bus' seats are very uncomfortable. 
You can form the possessive case of a plural noun that does not end in "s" by adding an apostrophe and a "s," as in the following example:
  • The men's hockey team will be playing as soon as the women's team is finish
You can form the possessive case of a plural noun that does end in "s" by adding an apostrophe:
  • My uncle spent many hours trying to locate the squirrels' nest.
  • The archivist quickly finished repairing the diaries' bindings.


A verb is often defined as a word which shows action or state of being. The verb is the heart of a sentence - every sentence must have a verb. Recognizing the verb is often the most important step in understanding the meaning of a sentence. In the sentence The dog bit the man, bit is the verb and the word which shows the action of the sentence. In the sentence The man is sitting on a chair, even though the action doesn't show much activity, sitting is the verb of the sentence. In the sentence She is a smart girl, there is no action but a state of being expressed by the verb is. The word be is different from other verbs in many ways but can still be thought of as a verb.

Unlike most of the other parts of speech, verbs change their form. Sometimes endings are added (learn - learned) and sometimes the word itself becomes different (teach-taught). The different forms of verbs show different meanings related to such things as tense (past, present, future), person (first person, second person, third person), number (singular, plural) and voice (active, passive). Verbs are also often accompanied by verb-like words called modals (may, could, should, etc.) and auxiliaries(do, have, will, etc.) to give them different meanings.

One of the most important things about verbs is their relationship to time. Verbs tell if something has already happened, if it will happen later, or if it is happening now. For things happening now, we use the present tense of a verb; for something that has already happened, we use the past tense; and for something that will happen later, we use the future tense. Some examples of verbs in each tense are in the chart below:

Verbs like those in the chart above that form the past tense by adding -d or -ed are called regular verbs. Some of the most common verbs are not regular and the different forms of the verb must be learned. Some examples of such irregular verbs are in the chart below:

The charts above show the simple tenses of the verbs. There are also progressive or continuous forms which show that the action takes place over a period of time, and perfect forms which show completion of the action. These forms will be discussed more in other lessons, but a few examples are given in the chart below:

Simple present tense verbs have a special form for the third person singular. Singular means "one" and plural means "more than one." Person is used here to show who or what does the action and can have the following forms:

  • 1st person or the self (I, we)
  • 2nd person or the person spoken to (you)
  • 3rd person or a person not present (he, she, it, they)
The third person singular forms are represented by the pronouns he, she, it. The chart below shows how the third person singular verb form changes:

A verb must "agree" with its subject. Subject-verb agreement generally means that the third person singular verb form must be used with a third person subject in the simple present tense. The word be - the most irregular and also most common verb in English - has different forms for each person and even for the simple past tense. The forms of the word be are given in the chart below:

Usually a subject comes before a verb and an object may come after it. The subject is what does the action of the verb and the object is what receives the action. In the sentence Bob ate a humburger, Bob is the subject or the one who did the eating and the hamburger is the object or what got eaten. A verb which has an object is called a transitive verb and some examples are throw, buy, hit, love. A verb which has no object is called an intransitive verb and some examples are go, come, walk, listen.

As you can see in the charts above, verbs are often made up of more than one word. The future forms, for example, use the word will and the perfect forms use the word have. These words are called helping or auxiliary verbs. The word be can serve as an auxiliary and will and shall are also auxiliary forms. The chart below shows two other verbs which can also be used as auxiliaries:

There is a type of auxiliary verb called a modal which changes the meaning of a verb in different ways. Words like can, should, would, may, might, and must are modals and are covered in other lessons.


An adjective is often defined as a word which describes or gives more information about a noun or pronoun. Adjectives describe nouns in terms of such qualities as size, color, number, and kind. In the sentence The lazy dog sat on the rug, the word lazy is an adjective which gives more information about the noun dog. We can add more adjectives to describe the dog as well as in the sentence The lazy, old, brown dog sat on the rug. We can also add adjectives to describe the rug as in the sentence The lazy, old, brown dog sat on the beautiful, expensive, new rug. The adjectives do not change the basic meaning or structure of the sentence, but they do give a lot more information about the dog and the rug. As you can see in the example above, when more than one adjective is used, a comma (,) is used between the adjectives.

Usually an adjective comes before the noun that it describes, as in tall man. It can also come after a form of the word be as in The man is tall. More than one adjective can be used in this position in the sentence The man is tall, dark and handsome.

Most adjectives do not change form whether the noun it describes is singular or plural. For example we say big tree and big trees, old house and old houses, good time and good times. There are, however, some adjectives that do have different singular and plural forms. The common words this and that have the plural forms these and those. These words are called demonstrative adjectives because demonstrate or point out what is being referred to.

Another common type of adjective is the possessive adjective which shows possession or ownership. The words my dog or my dogs indicate that the dog or dogsbelong to me. I would use the plural form our if the dog or dogsbelonged to me and other people. The chart below shows the forms of possessive adjectives.

*Person is used here as a grammar word and has these meanings:

  • 1st person or the self (I, me, we),
  • 2nd person or the person spoken to (you)
  • 3rd person or the person spoken about (he, she, him, her, they, them).


An adverb is usually defined as a word that gives more information about a verb, an adjective or another adverb. Adverbs describe verbs, adjectives and adverbs in terms of such qualities as time, frequency and manner. In the sentence Sue runs fast, fast describes how or the manner in which Sue runs. In the sentence Sue runs very fast, very describes the adverb fast and gives information about how fast Sue runs.

Most, but not all adverbs end in -ly as in But not all words that end in -ly are adverbs (ugly is an adjective, supply and reply can both be nouns or verbs). Many times an adjective can be made into an adverb by adding -ly as in nicely, quickly, completely, sincerely.

Adverbs of time tell when something happens and adverbs of frequency tell how often something happens. Below are some common adverbs of time and frequency which you should learn:

                     Adverbs of Time                   Adverbs of Frequency


A pronoun is often defined as a word which can be used instead of a noun. For example, instead of saying John is a student, the pronoun he can be used in place of the noun John and the sentence becomes He is a student. We use pronouns very often, especially so that we do not have to keep on repeating a noun. This chapter is about the kind of pronoun called a personal pronoun because it often refers to a person. Like nouns, personal pronouns sometimes have singular and plural forms (I-we, he-they).

Unlike nouns, personal pronouns sometimes have different forms for masculine/male, feminine/female and neuter (he-she-it). Also unlike nouns, personal pronouns have different forms depending on if they act as subjects or objects (he-him, she-her). A subject is a word which does an action and usually comes before the verb, and an object is a word that receives an action and usually comes after the verb. For example, in the sentence Yesterday Susan called her mother, Susan is the subject and mother is the object. The pronoun she can be used instead of Susan and the pronoun her can be used instead of mother. The form of a personal pronoun also changes according to what person is referred to. Person is used here as a grammar word and means:

  • 1st person or the self (I, me, we),
  • 2nd person or the person spoken to (you),
  • 3rd person or the person spoken about (he, she, him, her, they, them).

There is also a possessive form of the pronoun. Just as we can make a noun possessive as in the sentence That is my father's book to mean That is the book of my father, we can make the pronoun possessive and say That book is his. There are possessive adjective forms (such as my, your, his, her etc.) Possessive pronouns can stand by themselves without nouns, but possessive adjectives, like other adjectives, are used together with nouns.

There is also an intensive form of the pronoun which intensifies or emphasizes the noun that it comes after as in the sentence I myself saw him. The reflexive form of the pronoun looks exactly like the intensive form but is used when the subject and object of a verb refers to the same person as in the sentence I saw myself in the mirror.

All of this may sound confusing, but if you study the chart below, it will be clearer:

There are also interrogative pronouns (who, which, what) used for asking questions and relative pronouns (who, which, what, that) used in complex sentences which will be discussed in another place. Some grammar books also talk about demonstrative pronouns (this, that, these, those) and indefinite pronouns (some, all, both, each, etc.) which are very similar to adjectives and do not need to be discussed here.


A preposition is a word which shows relationships among other words in the sentence. The relationships include direction, place, time, cause, manner and amount. In the sentence She went to the store, to is a preposition which shows direction. In the sentence He came by bus, by is a preposition which shows manner. In the sentence They will be here at three o'clock, at is a preposition which shows time and in the sentence It is under the table, under is a preposition which shows place.

A preposition always goes with a noun or pronoun which is called the object of the preposition. The preposition is almost always before the noun or pronoun and that is why it is called a preposition. The preposition and the object of the preposition together are called a prepositional phrase. The following chart shows the prepositions, objects of the preposition, and prepositional phrases of the sentences above.

Prepositional phrases are like idioms and are best learned through listening to and reading as much as possible. Below are some common prepositions of time and place and examples of their use.

Prepositions of time:

  • at two o'clock
  • on Wednesday
  • in an hour, in January; in 1992
  • for a day
Prepositions of place:
  • at my house
  • in New York, in my hand
  • on the table
  • near the library
  • across the street
  • under the bed
  • between the books


A conjunction is a word that connects other words or groups of words. In the sentence Bob and Dan are friends the conjunction and connects two nouns and in the sentence He will drive or fly, the conjunction or connects two verbs. In the sentence It is early but we can go, the conjunction but connects two groups of words.

Coordinating conjunctions are conjunctions which connect two equal parts of a sentence. The most common ones are and, or, but, and so which are used in the following ways:

  • and is used to join or add words together in the sentence:
They ate and drank.
  • or is used to show choice or possibilities as in the sentence:
 He will be here on Monday or Tuesday.
  • but is used to show opposite or conflicting ideas as in the sentence:
               She is small but strong.
  • so is used to show result as in the sentence:
                I was tired so I went to sleep.

Subordinating conjunctions connect two parts of a sentence that are not equal and will be discussed more in another class. For now, you should know some of the more common subordinating conjunctions such as:

after      before    unless

although     if        until

as        since         when

because      than     while

Correlative conjunctions are pairs of conjunctions that work together. In the sentence Both Jan and Meg are good swimmers, both . . .and are correlative conjunctions. The most common correlative conjunctions are:

  • both . . .and
  • either . . . or
  • neither . . . nor
  • not only . . . but also

An article is a word which is always used with and gives some information about a noun. There are only two articles a and the, but they are used very often and are important for using English accurately.

The word a (which becomes an when the next word begins with a vowel - a, e, i, o, u) is called the indefinite article because the noun it goes with is indefinite or general. The meaning of the article a is similar to the number one, but one is stronger and gives more emphasis. It is possible to say I have a book or I have one book, but the second sentence emphasizes that I do not have two or three or some other number of books.

The word the is known as the definite article and indicates a specific thing. The difference between the sentences I sat on a chair and I sat on the chair is that the second sentence refers to a particular, specific chair, not just any chair.

Many nouns, especially singular forms of countable nouns which you will learn about later, must have an article. In English, it is not possible to say I sat on chair without an article, but a demonstrative or possessive adjective can be used instead of an article as in the sentences I sat on that chair and I sat on his chair.

Whenever you see an article, you will find a noun with it. The noun may be the next word as in the man or there may be adjectives and perhaps adverbs between the article and the noun as in the very angry, young man.

Identification of Parts of Speech

Now that you have learned all the parts of speech, you can identify the words in a sentence. This section will give you some clues that will make identification easier.

First of all, a word can be more than one part of speech and you have to look at how the word works in a particular sentence to know what part of speech it is. The chart below shows examples of words that have more than one part of speech.

The verb is the heart of a sentence, so it is a good idea to identify the verb first when looking at a sentence. Verbs can be recognized through:

  • past tense ending (looked)

  • 3rd person singular ending (says)

  • auxiliary verb (will see)

  • modal verb (can hear)
There are also verb endings or suffixes that can help you recognize verbs.

Grammar:©2002 INTERLINK LanguageCenters - Created by Mark Feder