Parts of Speech and How They Help Prevent Mistakes from Happening

So, in this series on grammar mistakes, we’ll be looking not only at what mistakes are made, but how they are made. And one of the most common ways of making those mistakes is by not knowing the basic building blocks of the English language. Those basic blocks are called parts of speech.

And it can be very easy to confuse them. So, today I’m going to do a quick review on what the basic parts of speech are, and ways you can remember them. When you’ve read this through, then perhaps some of the mistakes which originate from confusing parts of speech will make more sense.

What’s a part of speech anyway?

Well, ignoring any modern ideas about what constitutes a “part of speech,” you can think of them as building blocks. Or, ingredients in your Chipotle order if you will. Mixing different parts of speech will give you different sentences with different shades of meaning.

These are ultimately where most grammar issues originate and where most can be solved. You see, not only to the parts of speech define the actual words, but they also work like categories for phrases, clauses, and different forms of the words themselves.

Familiarizing yourself with the parts of speech, and reviewing them as you need is one of the best moves you can make to keep your grammar up to speed and to ensure you have the tools you need to avoid any issues.

The Eight Parts of Speech

Picture from left to right, : a person (man standing on a shoreline), a place (Big Ben in London), and things. From top to bottom on the right side, a plant, a parrot, and a cup of coffee--all of which are things. Although, I could argue for the parrot being a person.

Noun

A person, place, or thing.

The nouns are the what or who of a sentence. They can be names too. Think of a crime novel. A crime has been committed, but if there is a crime, then you must also have a victim and a criminal.

There’s really no better way to put it than that.

Nouns today are sometimes mistaken for verbs, largely because some verbs have a noun form (aka gerunds) and some nouns have a verb form. Unsure which is which? Look for the action in the sentence and then look for what is doing the action.

Pronoun

A word used in substitution for a noun.

Think of pronouns as a different way of stating someone’s name in a sentence without actually changing their name. Ah! See? I used a pronoun there. Their is a pronoun.

The traditional pronounces are she, he, her, him, it, they, them, you, your, we, thee, thy, and thou.

Yes, I used thee and thou. I write a literary blog, so it’s bound to come up somewhere.

Thou, thee, thy, and thine all seem outdated today, but they were a large part of language over 500 years ago. They slowly started to fall out of common useage, largely because the pronouns you and your were status symbols.

There’s an interesting etymology behind them, but I’ll leave that for another time

Picture of some of the pronouns out there. Not only do you have the standard I, you, he, she, we, it and they. You have mine, me, us, our, thee, thou, who, and whom.
Adjectives are words that describe size, type, and shape. So, pictured from left to right, a color wheel, a cube, and a triangular shape.

Adjective

A word which describes a noun or pronoun.

Think in terms of color, number, size, type, flavor, temperature, weight, etc. Please note, these describe nouns.

These are the distinguishing features of a noun or pronoun so that you, the reader, can paint a picture of what the noun looks like in your imagination. Say you have two mugs on your desk and they are completely different from one another. How would you describe those mugs?

Adjectives have always been important, but they’re even more so now because of the requirements for alt text on websites so that those who need a website’s content read to them can fully appreciate everything on the site. If, for instance, you have an online store, and your alt text doesn’t describe your product aside from what it is, then how is your customer to know that you sell a hand-glazed coffee mug with natural green pigments (to use an example)?

Adjectives are also used to describe character, virtue, or quality. This is another stumbling block for people. Mostly because we take nouns we want people to be and then use them as descriptors. “Leader” is a great example of this.

“Leader” is a noun, but I’ve seen it used as a way to describe someone’s character. This is technically not correct. A leader has a mixture of adjectives used to describe them. But it’s not an adjective itself.

Pictures of people doing things like leaping over gulleys, climbing mountains, practicing martial arts, getting a massage.

Verb

A word showing action, conditions of existence, or states of being.

The verb is the most important part of the sentence. The nouns tell you the what or who. The adjectives describe the nouns, but the verb is what that sentence is really all about.

To return to our earlier example of a crime novel. The verb is the crime itself.

Adverb

A word that describes a verb.

Ok, you’re asking why do I need an adverb? Good question. Why would you need an adverb? Let’s go back to our crime novel. Say the crime is murder.

So, you have Criminal 1 murdered Victim 1. Well, how would you describe that murder? Was it quick? Did Criminal 1 torture Victim 1 before murdering them? Was it really an accident?

A good way of telling an adverb apart from a noun is the presence of the suffix -ly. Words like unfortunately, decidedly, apparently, and so forth are all adverbs.

Take care with these, they’re easily confused with adjectives in some cases.

The example I both love (and hate, because it’s so annoying) is you ask someone how they are and they reply “I’m doing excellent” or “I’m doing awesome.”

Both excellent and awesome are adjectives. They’re supposed to describe nouns–not verbs. What you’re trying to convey is a description of your current state of being. States of being are generally verbs in this context. So, you should use an adverb. Not an adjective.

Is this perhaps a little too pedantic? Well, for informal usage, probably. But for those who may be learning English, it can get very confusing. So, perhaps we need to go back

Prepositions describe direction, position, and more. Pictured are on and off switches, an arrow pointing up, an arrow pointing down, and an arrow pointing around.

Preposition

A word that adds meaning to a noun by linking it to another part of the sentence.

Ok, buckle up folks, this is going to work your brain muscles a little bit. You actually know more than you think you do on this one. First of all, take away “pre” at the front of the word. What word do you have left?

Position.

That’s your first clue.

Prepositions tell you things about a noun such as where it is or when it is.

Example:

The murder was committed after dinner in the garden, by the poolhouse.

I used three prepositions here: after, in, and by. Each on tells you something about where the murder committing happened.

Conjunction

A word that connects pieces of the sentence together.

The easiest way to explain this is if you have two short sentences you want to combine.

Criminal 1 murdered Victim 1.

Criminal 1 dumped Victim 1 in the river.

Combine those two and you get:

Criminal 1 murdered Victim 1 and dumped their body in the river.

Think of conjunctions like an intersection when you’re driving, or a highway interchange (see the graphic to the right).

Conjunctions are where different ideas in a sentence come together. So, pictures is a highway interchange, puzzle pieces, and a mind map.

Interjection

A word or phrase that shows strong emotion.

When you hear something yell a cuss word, that is an interjection. Interjections nearly always stand alone as their own sentences.

Sometimes, you’ll even see phrases as interjections, like “oh my god!” or “you don’t say!”

The Parts of Speech are also categories and they have subcategories.

Yes, sorry to burst your bubble, but each part of speech has subcategories in it too. Some, like nouns, are based on number. Others, like verbs, are based on time. That’s where tenses come in. And then there’s the whole issue of phrases, clauses, infinitives, predicates, objects, and more.

It’s enough to make anyone want to pull their hair out in frustration. If you have been there, don’t worry, I think we all have at some point. You’re not alone!

Before you get that far, go back to the eight basic parts of speech. Nearly everything else in grammar comes back down to those eight little building blocks. If you can break a sentence down into its parts and put those parts into one of the parts of speech, half the battle is done.

Don’t believe me? Make sure you subscribe to the blog, put your questions in the comments, and stay tuned for more!

Next week….

Next week, I have a special post planned for Midwinter. This is a particularly sacred time of year for several major religions, and it has particular significance for the Arthurian legends.

If you wonder why a semi-mythical figure still captures imaginations today, then you will not want to miss this!

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