Every word in English can be classified as one of eight parts of speech. The term part of speech refers to the role a word plays in a sentence. And like in any workplace or on any TV show with an ensemble cast, these roles were designed to work together.
Read on to learn about the different parts of speech that the words we use every day fall into, and how we use them together to communicate ideas clearly.
The 8 parts of speech
A noun is a word that names a person, place, concept, or object. Basically, anything that names a “thing” is a noun, whether you’re talking about a basketball court, San Francisco, Cleopatra, or self-preservation.
Nouns fall into two categories: common nouns and proper nouns. Common nouns are general names for things, like planet and game show. Proper nouns are names or titles for specific things, like Jupiter and Jeopardy!
Pronouns are words you substitute for specific nouns when the reader or listener already knows which specific noun you’re referring to.
You might say, “Jennifer was supposed to be here at eight,” then follow it with “She’s always late; next time I’ll tell her to be here a half hour earlier.”
Instead of saying Jennifer’s name three times in a row, you substituted she and her, and your sentences remained grammatically correct. Pronouns are divided into a number of categories, and we cover them all in our guide to pronouns:
Adjectives are the words that describe nouns. Think about your favorite movie. How would you describe it to a friend who’s never seen it?
You might say the movie was funny, engaging, well-written, or suspenseful. When you’re describing the movie with these words, you’re using adjectives. An adjective can go right before the noun it’s describing (“I have a black dog”), but it doesn’t have to. Sometimes, adjectives are at the end of a sentence (“My dog is black”).
Go! Be amazing! Run as fast as you can! Win the race! Congratulate every participant who put in the work and competed!
Those bolded words are verbs. Verbs are words that describe specific actions, like running, winning, and being amazing.
Not all verbs refer to literal actions, though. Verbs that refer to feelings or states of being, like to love and to be, are known as nonaction verbs. Conversely, the verbs that do refer to literal actions are known as action verbs.
An adverb is a word that describes an adjective, a verb, or another adverb.
Quietly is describing how you entered (verb) the room.
Always is describing how frequently a cheetah is faster (adjective) than a lion.
Prepositions tell you the relationships between other words in a sentence.
You might say, “I left my bike leaning against the garage.” In this sentence, against is the preposition because it tells us where you left your bike.
Here’s another example: “She put the pizza in the oven.” Without the preposition in, we don’t know where the pizza is.
Conjunctions make it possible to build complex sentences that express multiple ideas.
“I like marinara sauce. I like alfredo sauce. I don’t like puttanesca sauce.” Each of these three sentences expresses a clear idea. There’s nothing wrong with listing your preferences like this, but it’s not the most efficient way to do it.
Consider instead: “I like marinara sauce and alfredo sauce, but I don’t like puttanesca sauce.
In this sentence, and and but are the two conjunctions that link your ideas together.
A pear. The brick house. An exciting experience. These bolded words are known as articles.
Articles come in two flavors: definite articles and indefinite articles. And similarly to the two types of nouns, the type of article you use depends on how specific you need to be about the thing you’re discussing.
A definite article, like the or this, describes one specific noun.
From the above sentence, we understand that the speaker is referring to a specific previously discussed car.
Now swap in an indefinite article:
See how the implication that you’re referring back to something specific is gone, and you’re asking a more general question?
Figuring out parts of speech
Sometimes, it’s not easy to tell which part of speech a word is. Here are a few easy hacks for quickly figuring out what part of speech you’re dealing with:
- If it’s an adjective plus the ending –ly, it’s an adverb. Examples: commonly, quickly.
- If you can swap it out for a noun and the sentence still makes sense, it’s a pronoun. Example: “He played basketball.” / “Steve played basketball.”
- If it’s something you do and you can modify the sentence to include the word do, it’s a verb. Example: “I have an umbrella.” / “I do have an umbrella.”
- If you can remove the word and the sentence still makes sense but you lose a detail, the word is most likely an adjective. Example: “She drives a red van.” / “She drives a van.”
And if you’re ever really stumped, just look the word up. Dictionaries typically list a word’s part of speech in its entry, and if it has multiple forms with different parts of speech, they are all listed, with examples.
That brings us to another common issue that can confuse writers and language learners.
When a word can be different parts of speech
- “I went to work” (noun).
- “I work in the garden” (verb).
- “She paints very well” (adverb).
- “They are finally well now, after weeks of illness” (adjective).
- “I dropped a penny into the well” (noun).
- “I cooked breakfast and lunch, but Steve cooked dinner” (conjunction).
- “I brought everything but the pens you asked for” (preposition).
And sometimes, words evolve to add forms that are new parts of speech. One recent example is the word adult. Before the 2010s, adult was primarily a noun that referred to a fully grown person. It could also be used as an adjective to refer to specific types of media, like adult contemporary music. But then, at right about the turn of the 2010s, the word adulting, a brand-new verb, appeared in the internet lexicon. As a verb, adulting refers to the act of doing tasks associated with adulthood, like paying bills and grocery shopping.
Open and closed word classes
The parts of speech fall into two word classes: open and closed.
The open word classes are the parts of speech that regularly acquire new words. Language evolves, and usually, that evolution takes place in nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and verbs. In 2022, new words added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary included dumbphone (noun), greenwash (verb), and cringe (adjective).
The closed word classes are the parts of speech that don’t readily acquire new words. These parts of speech are more set in stone and include pronouns, conjunctions, articles, and prepositions.
Are you using the parts of speech correctly?
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