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mastering the parts of speech

If you're committed to tuning up your grammar and writing skills, you'll have to get under the hood at some point and analyze the component parts that work together to achieve top performance. 

The parts of speech all have specific and vital functions, as well as interrelationships. In this section we'll lay them all out in plain language and help you understand what they do and how they work together.

CONTENTS

Nouns

Nouns are words that represent people, places, things and ideas. Common nouns are generic labels such as leaders, cities and candy. Proper nouns represent specific, named people, places and things such as Gandhi, Mumbai (formerly Bombay) and Snickers. Here are some more:

Common nouns Proper nouns
automobile, car Chevrolet, Renault, Fiat
city, town, village London, Geneva, Seoul
celebrity Matt Damon, k.d. lang
athlete Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps
wristwatch Timex, Rolex
television LG, Sony

In a sentence, nouns are used as subjects or subject complements (words that mean the same as the subject):

  • The car sped past and turned at the next corner. Car is subject of the verbs sped and turned.
  • A car is a necessity for many people. Necessity is a subject complement, meaning the same thing as the subject, car. When the verb is some form of to be (is is a form of to be), it will often link the subject to another word or group of words meaning the same as the subject.

Nouns are also used as objects: the direct object or indirect object of a verb, or the object of a preposition:

  • The baseball struck the window. Window is direct object of the verb struck. It is the direct receiver of the action.
  • Our boss gave Arturo a long list of things to do before day’s end. Arturo is the indirect object of the verb gave. The direct object is list, which is what the boss gave (to Arturo).
  • We stored our surplus furniture in the garage. Garage is the object of the preposition in. (The prepositional phrase in the garage modifies the verb stored; it tells where we stored the furniture.)

A test to identify nouns: A test often used to confirm that a word is a noun is to place the directly before it. (Common nouns can be modified by adjectives, and the is an adjective.) What are all the nouns in the sentences immediately above? Baseball, window, boss, list, things, end, furniture, garage. Each makes sense when you place the before it: the baseball, the window, the boss, and so on. So they are nouns for sure.

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Verbs

Verbs are words that express action or describe a state of being:
Jeremy studied the poem intently and pondered its meaning. Both verbs (studied and pondered) describe what Jeremy is doing.
Natasha is the first member of her family to attend university. The verb (is) links the subject (Natasha) with a subject complement (member) that means the same as Natasha: Natasha = member.

Here are some more examples of action verbs:

  • Serena mailed her college applications and waited for a response.
  • Maria tended her flower garden with loving care.
  • Gustavo dreamed about fame and fortune.

Here are some more examples of linking verbs:

  • We were completely fatigued. The verb (were) links the subject (we) with an adjective (fatigued) that describes the subject.
  • Sergio became increasingly morose. Morose modifies Sergio.
  • Lisbeth seemed anxious. Anxious modifies Lisbeth.
  • The trumpet notes sounded shrill and tinny. Tinny and shrill modify notes.
  • Albert Einstein was a brilliant physicist. Physicist means the same as Albert Einstein.

Many words can be used as several different parts of speech:

  • My fancy dress shirt cost (verb) about two hundred dollars.
  • The cost (noun) of gasoline is almost more than I can bear.
  • Our cost (adj.) accounting system helps us maintain profits.
  • Our profit (noun) from the rental business continues to shrink.
  • The profit (adj.) motive is a driver of capitalism.
  • You will profit (verb) from a regimen of careful diet and regular exercise.

You will find a lot more information about verbs in a separate section of this site: making verbs work for you.

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Adjectives

Adjectives (italicized) modify (describe or limit) nouns or pronouns:

  • Marga chose the green dress. Adjectives the and green describe the noun dress. As with most, but not all, adjectives, they immediately precede the nouns they describe.
  • I am weary. The adjective weary describes the pronoun (and subject) I. As explained under Verbs (above), linking verbs such as am (a form of the verb to be) can link the subject to a word or words (predicate adjectives) that modify the subject, even though these adjectives are disconnected from the subject. Verbs other than to be can also be linking verbs. For example:
  • This soup tastes salty. The verb tastes links the adjective salty to the noun (and subject) soup. This also modifies soup. It’s part of a subclass of adjectives that point to a particular noun. These “pointers” include the articles (a, an, the), plus this, that, these, those, along with possessives such as my, your, his, her, our, their, and also proper-noun possessives such as Anwar’s, Lileth’s, and so on.
  • It took twenty minutes to unlock the door. The adjective twenty limits the noun minutes. Notice the difference between adjectives that describe and those that limit. Here’s another one that limits:
    As a child, I earned a weekly allowance. The adjective weekly tells how often the allowance was given; it limits the noun allowance.
  • A large brick house stood at the corner. Three adjectives, a, large and brick, describe the noun house.
  • A spy thriller is my favorite bedtime reading. The adjective spy describes the noun thriller, and the adjectives my, favorite and bedtime describe the noun reading.

Adjectives have degrees of magnitude. A certain kind of jeans could be good, better or best, compared to other kinds. A particular personal electronic device could be small, smaller or smallest. A new dress could be slinky, more slinky or most slinky.

Compound adjectives consist of more than one word and are hyphenated to make the relationship clear:

  • leather-covered book
  • part-time clerk
  • five-speed transmission
  • three-month-old child (hyphens are not needed if you refer to a child who is three months old or a transmission that has five speeds)

Sometimes hyphens are needed to avoid confusion:

antique-book cabinet (not an antique cabinet for books)
headline: Squad Helps Dog-Bite Victim (The hyphen did not appear in the original version; does it change the meaning?)

Do not use a hyphen to connect an adverb to the adjective it modifies:

normally prompt conductor
thinly disguised excuse

Tip: Adverbs often end in –ly.

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Adverbs

Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives and other adverbs.

  • He spoke quietly as he stared fixedly at the letter. The adverb quietly modifies the verb spoke; the adverb fixedly modifies the verb stared.
  • He offered a completely ludicrous excuse. The adverb completely modifies the adjective ludicrous. (The adjective ludicrous modifies the noun excuse.)
  • Her behaviour was somewhat puzzling. The adverb somewhat modifies the adjective puzzling. (The adjective puzzling modifies the noun behaviour; it is a predicate adjective, connected to the subject behavior by the linking verb was.)

Sentence adverbs modify an entire sentence: Luckily, I had a compass with me and we were able to find our way home.

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Pronouns

Pronouns take the place of nouns, which are then referred to as antecedents. These antecedents are usually understood (rather than named, at least in the same sentence) for first-person pronouns (I, me, we, us) and second-person pronouns (you). For example:

  • I saw you marching in the parade last weekend. The identity of I and you is obvious. First person is the speaker, second person is the person spoken to. No antecedent is needed.

Third person, the person(s) spoken about (he, she, him, her, they, them), is a different matter. Antecedents for third-person pronouns need to be named, often in the same sentence as the pronoun and always near enough to avoid leaving the reader or listener hanging, without a clear idea of what is being referred to. Here are some examples:

  • Sloan said he would not be able to attend the party and offered his apology. He and his are pronouns; their antecedent is Sloan.
  • Betsy and her mother cooked furiously for the party. They used some of their most exotic recipes. The antecedent for her is Betsy; the antecedents for they and their are Betsy and mother (together).

Here are some of the ways pronouns are grouped:

Personal pronouns

First person: I, me, we, us
Second person: you
Third person: he, him, she, her, it, they, them

These are the possessive personal pronouns:
First person: mine, ours
Second person: yours
Third person: his, hers, its, theirs

NOTE:

  • There is no apostrophe in its. The apostrophe is used only in the contraction for it is: it’s.
  • My, our, her and their are not included with possessive personal pronouns because they always modify nouns; therefore they are used as adjectives.
    His and its have identical forms as possessive pronouns and adjectives.

Reflexive pronouns

Reflexive pronouns, which end in –self or –selves, refer back to a noun in the same sentence:

  • I whacked myself on the thumb with a hammer. The antecedent for myself is I; the action refers back to I, the subject.
  • You yourselves are clearly responsible for the damage to the camping equipment. You is the antecedent for yourselves, the reflexive pronoun which in this case serves to add emphasis.

These are the reflexive pronouns:
First person: myself, ourselves
Second person: yourself, yourselves
Third person: himself, herself, itself, themselves

Indefinite pronouns

Indefinite pronouns refer to unspecified persons, things, or groups. These are some common ones:
all, another, any, both, each, either, few, many, more, most, much, neither, none, one, other, several, some, such.

  • All for one and one for all.
  • Many are called but few are chosen.
  • None have accepted our offer.
  • More are expected to arrive this morning, but most will come later today.

Compound indefinite pronouns include anybody, anyone, anything, everybody, everyone, everything, nobody, no one, nothing, somebody, someone, something.

  • Everyone had grand ideas but nobody (or no one) was willing to serve on the committee.
  • Everything was in place for the big night.
  • Anything is possible if someone (or somebody) will step forward to volunteer.

Relative pronouns

Relative pronouns take the place of nouns (antecedents) and also connect (or relate, hence the name) those antecedents to clauses* that modify them. They include who, whom, whose, which and that. (For a detailed discussion of who and whom, see Problem: who or whom? in the getting a grip on pronouns section.)
I prefer the painters who worked for the Duncans. Who is a relative pronoun that introduces the subordinate clause who worked for the Duncans. Within this clause, who is subject of the verb worked. The entire clause modifies the noun painters.

Farah chose the same painters whom the Duncans had used. Whom is a relative pronoun that introduces the subordinate clause whom the Duncans had used. Within this clause, whom is the direct object of the verb had used. The entire clause modifies the noun painters.

These are the workers whose contracts need to be renewed. The relative pronoun whose introduces the subordinate clause whose contracts need to be renewed. Within this clause, whose is an adjective modifying the noun contracts. The entire clause modifies the noun workers.

Here is the sporty pickup truck that I was describing to you. The relative pronoun that introduces the subordinate clause that I was describing to you. Within this clause, that is the direct object of the verb was describing. The entire clause modifies the noun truck.

I prefer to go grocery shopping on Wednesday, which is my day off. The relative pronoun which introduces the subordinate clause which is my day off. Within this clause, which is the subject of the verb is. The entire clause modifies the noun Wednesday.

*Clauses are groups of words containing a subject and a verb.
An independent (also called main) clause will stand on its own without any change in wording:

  • Muriel combed her hair

A dependent (also called subordinate) clause will not stand alone as worded:

  • while her mother watched and advised her

Together, a dependent clause and an independent clause make a complete stand-alone sentence:

  • Muriel combed her hair while her mother watched and advised her.

When to choose which or that
Although many people will use which and that interchangeably, they are not equal in the eyes of grammarians. Here are a couple of conventions to guide you:

Never use which to refer to people:

Incorrect: We met some actors which star in Mama Mia.
Correct: We met some actors that (or who) star in Mama Mia.

Use that to introduce restrictive subordinate clauses and which to introduce nonrestrictive subordinate clauses. Here’s how that works:

  • A restrictive subordinate clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence and cannot be removed:
    • We met some actors that star in Mama Mia. This is not just any group of actors. This group includes only actors starring in Mama Mia. So the subordinate clause that star in Mama Mia cannot be removed without changing the meaning of the entire sentence.
  • A nonrestrictive subordinate clause adds information to the sentence but is not essential to its meaning; it can be removed:
    • It was our first trip to Regina, which is the capital of Saskatchewan. The subordinate clause which is the capital of Saskatchewan may be interesting, but it doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence, which says that this was our first trip to Regina.

Additional note: Nonrestrictive clauses are set off with commas because they are not essential to the sense of the sentence. Restrictive clauses are not set off. Review the sentences above to confirm this in your mind.

Interrogative pronouns

The list of interrogative pronouns is similar to that for relative pronouns: who, whom, whose, which, what (not that). Here, however, they are used to ask questions:

  • Who is going camping? Who is subject of the verb is going.
  • With whom are you corresponding? Whom is direct object of the preposition with.
  • Whose boat will be pulling the water skiers? Whose is an adjective modifying the noun boat.
  • Which of you will wash the dishes? Which is the subject of the verb will wash.
  • What is the name of your teacher? What is the subject of the verb is.

Demonstrative pronouns

Demonstrative pronouns (this, these, that, those) point to their antecedents:

  • This is the best dessert in town.
  • These are the only dress shoes I own.
  • That is exactly what I meant.
  • Those are the reasons I can’t commit right now.
  • This job leaves a lot to be desired. This now becomes an adjective, as do these, that and those, below).
  • These flowers have a lovely smell.
  • That jacket is Josh’s.
  • Those points are well taken.

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Prepositions

Prepositions take nouns (and sometimes pronouns) as objects, and the whole package, which may include modifiers and other parts, is a prepositional phrase. The entire prepositional phrase modifies a word or words in the same sentence. Here is an example (entire phrase in boldface, preposition in italics, object of the preposition in [brackets]):

  • For [exercise], they ran up the nearby gravel [road], into the village athletic [field] and around the oval [track].

The phrase for exercise modifies the verb ran (answers the question why).
Three phrases (up the nearby gravel road; into the village athletic field; around the oval track) also modify the verb ran; they all answer the question where. So all four prepositional phrases in this particular sentence are adverb phrases. Within these phrases, you will also see adjectives, such as the, village and athletic, all of which modify the noun (and object of the preposition) road.

  • The chapel in the [woods] was built in the early twentieth [century] by [people] of German [descent].

The prepositional phrase in the woods modifies the noun chapel (tells which one), so it serves as an adjective. The prepositional phrase in the early twentieth century modifies the verb was built (tells when). The prepositional phrase by people also modifies the verb was built (tells by whom). So both of these phrases are adverb phrases. Finally, the prepositional phrase of German descent modifies the noun people (tells which people), so it is an adjective phrase.

Most prepositions are single words, but some are compound adjectives. A short list of these includes as of, because of, on account of, in spite of, on behalf, in case of, in place of, next to, aside from, in addition to.

Here is a not-so-short list of single-word prepositions:

aboard beneath into throughout
about beside like till
above between near to
across beyond notwithstanding toward
after but of under
against by off underneath
along concerning on until
among down out unto
around during outside up
as except over upon
at for past via
before from per with
behind in since within
below inside through without
       

Never end a sentence with a preposition? Why not? Is this sort of thing worth striving for? When writing, is this what we should focus on? Winston Churchill thought not when he said, tongue in cheek, “This is the sort of English up with which I cannot put.”

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Conjunctions

Conjunctions are words that join other words or groups of words.

Conjunctions that join words or groups of words of equal status in the sentence are called coordinating conjunctions. They include and, but, or, nor and yet.
Examples:

  • The circus included clowns and acrobats. And connects two nouns, clowns and acrobats.
  • Tomorrow I will drive to Ikea and look at home-office furniture. And connects two separate but equal verb parts: will drive and (will) look.
  • I like coffee but I can’t drink very much without getting “wired.” But connects two independent clauses: I like coffee and I can’t drink very much without getting “wired.”

Correlative conjunctions, which come in pairs, are a subgroup of coordinating conjunctions. They include: both-and; either-or; if-then; neither-nor; not-but; not only-but also; as-as; so-as; not so much-as; whether-or.
Examples:

  • I am both excited and wary.
  • Neither Corky nor Frieda has responded to our invitation.
  • Jack brought not only two dozen hot dogs but also a case of cola.

Subordinating conjunctions join a dependent clause (which cannot stand by itself) with an independent clause (which can stand by itself).
Examples (dependent clauses are in brackets):

  • I want to believe you, [even though you have not always been truthful with me].
  • I will wait for you [until I have to leave for my dental appointment].
  • You cannot just come and go [whenever you like].
  • [Since you’re the one who suggested we buy a new car], can you tell me where the money will come from?

Subordinating conjunctions include:

after even though lest when
although ever since now that whenever
as except provided that where
as if except that save whereupon
as long as for since wherever
as often as if than whether
as though if only that while
because inasmuch as though  
before in case till  
but that in order that unless  
even if just as until  

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Interjections

Interjections are not part of the grammatical structure of a sentence but rather exclamatory words tossed in before or between sentences. Here are a few possibilities:
Wow
Yikes
Hey
D’oh
Whoa
Good grief
Mmm
Heavens
No way

You get the idea. Add your own. Bravo!

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