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  Home > TEFL Clinic > Teaching Knowledge > Understanding Grammar

Parts of Speech


The basic building blocks of any language are the words and sounds of that language. English is no exception. We will start with the categories into which we classify the words of English. It is quite likely that you will already know the names of some or all of the parts of speech. Nevertheless, this is where we must begin.

The parts of speech are as follows:

These are also known as word classes. The terms are familiar to most people, and are in everyday use. However, many people would probably admit that their understanding of some of them is a little sketchy. We will now take each in turn and have a closer look.

Nouns

What are nouns? Very few people with a good knowledge of English would expect to experience any difficulty in picking the nouns out of the following list:

briefcase, open, disc, plate, London, knife, write, usually, and, however, football, sing

My guess is that you probably decided that the following were nouns:

  • briefcase
  • disc
  • plate
  • London
  • knife
  • football

Who knows? Perhaps you are right. Briefcase is certainly a noun and London as a place name must be, but what about knife? This is a more difficult decision. We have no context. What if we found this word in a sentence such as 'He knifed me!' - surely here it is a verb? And what about 'plate' - is this a noun? Suppose the context were 'The window was plate glass.' Or perhaps, 'The frame had been plated with silver.' So is 'disc' a noun? Not always, it depends on how it is used in a particular sentence. The lesson here is 'Be careful!' When a student asks you the meaning of a word, always check the context in which it appears before answering. Remember in the world of TEFL, as in the world in general, it is not what you don't know that gives you the biggest problems, but what you think you know!

So how can we define the word class 'noun' then? One apparently acceptable definition might be that a noun is a word that represents one of the following:

a person

David

a place

Paris

a thing

stapler

an activity

hockey

a quality

responsibility

a state

poverty

an idea

communism

Does a noun have to be a single word? What about 'disc jockey,' or 'post office'? Are these nouns? The answer is 'Yes they are'. These are called compound nouns and are quite common in English. So the word class 'noun' is not restricted to single words. Can a noun consist of more than two words then? Once again the answer is 'yes'. An example might be 'football team coach'. These are often found in newspaper headlines, where space is at a premium, since they usually express quite complex ideas in very few words.

In a sentence nouns can be used as either the subject or the object of the main verb.

John (subject) kissed (verb) Maria (object).

Types of Nouns

The word class 'Nouns' can be sub-divided into the following four types:

Abstract

The name of an action, an idea, a physical condition, quality or state of mind

an attack, Communism, liveliness, modesty, insanity

Collective

A name for a collection or group of animals, people or things that are thought of as being one thing

flock, gang, fleet

Common

A name that can be applied to all members of a large class of animals, people or things

puppy, woman, banana

Proper

The name by which a particular animal, organisation, person, place or thing is known

Fido, Microsoft, Julia, Liverpool, the Tower of London. Capital letters are used in order to distinguish between common nouns and proper nouns e.g., broom and Broom, where the former is an implement used for sweeping floors while the latter is a surname.

There are some nouns that can be placed in more than one of these groups depending on how we are thinking at the time of usage. An example would be the noun 'family', which could be a collective if we are thinking of the family as a unit e.g. 'My family is quite large.' Or a common noun if we are thinking in terms of a collection of individuals e.g. Helen's family are coming up next week.' Many Americans may find this particular example unacceptable since in most parts of the US 'family' can never agree with the plural verb form 'is'. In British English, however, this usage is perfectly correct.

Nouns can also be divided into two other groups: countable and uncountable. Water, flour and sand are examples of uncountable nouns. It would be very strange to use them with a number as in six flours or three sands. Countable nouns, on the other hand, can be used with numbers: seven men, two houses, etc. Countable nouns have a plural form. This is usually made by the addition of an 's' or 'es' to the end of the singular form: guitars, books, ships, glasses etc. Some countable nouns, however, have an irregular plural form: men, children, wives, geese, etc. Plural countable nouns are always used with plural verb forms. So 'Coconuts are nice.' and not *'Coconuts is nice.'* Uncountable nouns have only one form and therefore can only be used with singular verbs. So 'Water is used as a coolant.' but never *'Water are used as a coolant.'*

Pronouns

In English, sentences such as 'John ran up to the house, checked to see John wasn't being watched and then John knocked on the door twice.' would cause confusion. How many Johns are involved? Which of them knocked on the door? Probably the solution least likely to occur to a native speaker of English would be that there was only one John and that he carried out all three actions. Why is that? Well, it's because English just doesn't work like that! The sentence should be rendered thus 'John ran up to the house, checked to see he wasn't being watched and then knocked on the door twice.' So what makes the difference? Obviously it must be the use of the word 'he' in place of John in the second instance. What is 'he' then? 'He' is a member of the word class Pronouns. These are words that stand in the place of nouns in order to avoid unnecessary repetition.

Kinds of pronoun:

Demonstrative

this, that, these, those, the former, the latter ( 'Have you seen this?')

Distributive

each, either, neither ( 'Give me either.')

Emphatic

myself, yourself, his/herself, ourselves, etc. ( 'Do it yourself.')

Indefinite

one, some, any, some-body/one, any-body/one, every-body/one

Interrogative

what, which, who ( 'Who was that?')

Personal

I, you, he, she, it, we, you, they

Possessive

mine, yours hers, his, ours, theirs

Reflexive

myself, yourself, her/himself, ourselves, etc. ( 'She cut herself, while slicing bread.')

Relative

that, what, which, who (as in, 'The car that hit him went that way.')

It should be noted that some of these words may also at times be deemed adjectives. It is a feature of the English language that many words have multiple uses and hence can be different parts of speech according to the context in which they are found.

Adjectives

Adjectives are words that describe/qualify nouns or pronouns:

  • 'She was a quiet woman.'
  • 'That's an unusual one.'

Types of adjective

Demonstrative

this, that, these, those ('I like this picture.')

Distributive

either, neither, each, every ('Either wine is fine by me.')

Interrogative

what? which? ('Which wine would you like?')

Numeral

one, two, three, etc.

Indefinite

all, many, several

Possessive

my, your, his, her, our, their

Qualitative

French, wooden, nice

Not surprisingly, most adjectives fit into the 'Qualitative' category, as their basic function is to describe.

Some adjectives are made from nouns or verbs by the addition of a suffix:

  • comfort - comfortable
  • health - healthy
  • success - successful
  • consume - consumable
  • consider - considerate

Many positive adjectives can be made negative by the addition of a prefix:

  • comfortable - uncomfortable
  • responsible - irresponsible
  • respectful - disrespectful
  • patient - impatient
  • considerate - inconsiderate

Comparative and Superlative Adjectives

Some adjectives are used to compare and contrast things:

  • big - bigger - biggest
  • happy - happier - happiest

There is more information about this important use later.

Verbs

Verbs are words that indicate actions or physical and/or mental states.

Action

Susan slapped Michael.

Mental state

Paul was exhausted.

Physical state

Stephen felt sad.

It is a popular misconception that verbs are 'doing-words'. Unfortunately, this is too simple an explanation as only some verbs fit this description. An example of one that doesn't might be 'seem' as in, ' Sarah seemed puzzled'. What is 'done' in this case? Absolutely nothing! In fact, only verbs indicating actions can be called 'doing-words'.

Most verbs have three forms. The first form (present) also uses an inflection to indicate third person singular:

First form (present)

Second form (past)

Third form (past participle)

do(es)

did

done

give(s)

gave

given

like(s)

liked

liked

hit(s)

hit

hit

As you can see sometimes the second and third forms coincide, and occasionally all three forms coincide as in 'hit'. This is because verbs such as hit, give, take, do, have, etc. are irregular. That is to say that, unlike the vast majority of English verbs, they don't use '-ed' to make their second and third forms. There are only about two hundred irregular verbs in total, but since they tend to be the most common verbs it seems more. These can be quite a problem for EFL students as they simply have to be learnt and remembered.

Auxiliary and Modal Auxiliary Verbs

There is a category of verb known as 'auxiliary verbs' or sometimes 'helping verbs'. This category includes to be, to do and to have. These three verbs are very important. 'Be' is used in forming the 'continuous aspect' - I am flying to France tomorrow.' It is also used to form the 'passive' - 'I was arrested.' 'Do' is used in forming questions and for emphasis. 'Have' is used to form the 'perfect aspect' - 'I have been here before.' More about these later, when we look at the English tense system.

Also included in the category auxiliary verbs are nine very special verbs, which form a sub-category of their own called 'modal auxiliary verbs' or 'modal verbs' for short. This sub-category comprises the verbs can, could, may, might, shall, should, will, would and must. These nine verbs share some important characteristics:

  • They can never be followed by 'to': 'I must to go.' is a badly formed sentence in English.
  • They cannot co-occur in the same verb phrase: 'You must can go' is also unacceptable.
  • They have no 'third person' inflection: 'She likes reading.' is fine, but ' She cans swim.' is not.

In a verb phrase they always occupy the first position - 'It must have been my aunt.' Likewise, they do not have three forms.

So what exactly do these 'modal verbs' do? An interesting question! The following table should give you some idea.

Modal verbs are used to express:

Degrees of certainty

Certainty (positive/negative)

We shall/shan't come.
I will/won't be late.
That must/can't be her.

Probability/Possibility

She should arrive at about midday.
It shouldn't be a problem.
We may (not) go to France after all.

Weak probability

She might call - you never know!
Don't worry! It might never happen.
I suppose you could be right.

Theoretical/habitual possibility

You may have a problem
understanding this.
Moscow can be very hot in the summer.
How quickly do you think it could be done?

Conditional certainty/possibility

If you had asked me, I would
have told you.
I'm sure he wouldn't mind if you called him.
I couldn't possibly go without you.

Obligation

Strong obligation

All employees must clock in and out.
Must I go?
Passes will be issued to authorised personnel.

Prohibition

Staff must not make personal calls.
You may not smoke in this building.
You can't bring that dog in here.

Weak obligation/recommendation

When shall we leave?
You should drink less.
It might be a good idea to phone her first.

Willingness/Offering

Can I help you?
Would you like a lift to work?
I could collect it for you.

Permission

Might I ask a favour?
May I use your telephone
Could I bring a friend?

Ability

Can you swim?
How many languages could he speak?
He can type quite quickly.

Other uses

Habitual behaviour

When I was a boy, I would often go skiing.
Most days he'll just sit quietly in the garden.
Before we argued he'd call me every day.

Irritation

Must you do that?
He will keep making stupid jokes all the time!
Will you please shut up?

Requests

Would you open the window please?
Could you tell him I'll be late.
Will you get me one too please?

Some linguists include verbs such as dare, need and ought in the modal verb sub-category. There is some justification for this, as they display the relevant characteristics some of the time. However, since they do not do so all the time it is better to leave them out of this group.

Adverbs

Adverbs describe or add to the meaning of verbs, prepositions, adjectives, other adverbs and even sentences. They answer questions such as 'How', 'Where' or 'When'. Many, but by no means all, adverbs are made from adjectives by simply adding the suffix 'ly'.

Types of adverb:

Adverbs of manner

carefully, gently, quickly, willingly (She kissed him gently on the forehead.)

Adverbs of place

here, there, between, externally (He lived between a pub and a noisy factory.)

Adverbs of time

now, annually, tomorrow, recently (I only returned recently.)

Adverbs of degree

very, almost, nearly, too (She is very rich.)

Adverbs of number

Adverbs of certainty

not, surely, maybe, certainly (Surely he's not drunk again!)

Interrogative

How? What? When? Why? (What does it matter?)

Adverbials

An adverbial is a general term for any word, phrase or clause that functions as an adverb. The definition is necessary because sometimes whole phrases and clauses act as adverbs:

  • When I arrived she was watching TV. (adverbial time clause)
  • We went to France to visit my brother. (adverbial clause of purpose)
  • After breakfast, I went to work. (adverbial phrase)

An ordinary adverb is a single word adverbial.

The adverb/adverbial is quite a difficult area of the English language to get to grips with. It has been said that, when all the other words of English had been classified as nouns, verbs, prepositions, etc., those remaining were dumped into the adverb class because nobody knew what else to do with them. Even if this is not entirely historically accurate, it certainly describes the confused state of this word class.

Articles

The articles in English are the words 'a', 'an' and 'the'. They are used with nouns to distinguish between the definite and the indefinite. They are not really a word class in themselves but are actually a sub-group of the word class Determiners. However, EFL usually treats them as a class and so they are dealt with separately here.

The definite article is 'the'. Its most common uses are to show that the nouns it is used with refer to:

something known to both speaker and listener

He is in the garage.

something that has already been mentioned

That woman keeps looking at you.
Which one? The blonde woman?

something that is defined afterwards

The house where my mother was born is somewhere near here.

something as a specific group or class

Can you play the piano? (But not 'Can you play the instrument?' - Unless which instrument is being referred to is understood by both speaker and listener.)

The indefinite article is 'a(n)''. I write 'is' because 'a' and 'an' are really the same word: the 'n' is added to the article 'a' for ease of pronunciation when the following word begins with a vowel sound - an egg, an ostrich, an upwards motion but a unicorn, a united front (because unicorn and united begin with consonant sounds).

The most common uses of the indefinite article are to show that the nouns it is used with refer to:

one example of a group or class

I'll buy her an ornament for her birthday.

a typical example of a group or class

A reliable worker deserves a good boss.

It should be noted that the indefinite implies 'oneness' and so cannot be used with plural or uncountable nouns.

Finally, there are some nouns (apart from plural and uncountable) with which articles are not usually used. Examples of these are the names of countries, towns and cities and of people, months, mealtimes (breakfast, lunch, etc.). Where no article is used this is often referred to as the 'Zero article'.

For the EFL student articles either present no difficulty at all, or are a major obstacle in their acquisition of English. The determining factor seems to be whether or not there are articles in the student's first (native) language (L1). If it doesn't have them, then the student will have additional problems to face when studying a second language (L2) that does. Even quite advanced students make frequent slips with articles. Compounding the problem is the fact that there are no good rules as far as articles are concerned. Many course books offer 'rules' but there are so many exceptions that they are difficult to apply and students have to fall back on learning them by heart. Fortunately,

In order to gain some understanding of the difficulty from a teaching perspective, how would you set about explaining to a student with absolutely no understanding of articles why the fourth of the following sentences is unacceptable in English? Then, having done that, how would you explain why the second is fine?

  1. 'I stopped the car and got in.'
  2. 'I stopped a car and got in.'
  3. 'I stopped the car and got out.'
  4. *'I stopped a car and got out.'*

Or perhaps it is easier to explain why 'the Moscow' might be the river Moscow, the hotel Moscow or the restaurant Moscow but couldn't possibly be the city of that name. Or why, in British English at least, if you are 'going to the prison', you are probably visiting someone or maybe you work there, whereas if you are just 'going to prison', you are going because you have been convicted of a crime.

By far the biggest problem with articles is not so much when to use 'a', 'an' or 'the' but when not to use an article at all!

Determiners

As has already been mentioned, the determiners are a word class that would normally include the articles, however, as is usual in TEFL, they have been listed above separately. Even so, it is important for the new teacher to understand that this distinction is false.

Determiners are words that restrict the meaning of the nouns they are used with. For example, 'But I'm certain I put it in this cupboard. Where can it have got to?' Even if we cannot see what is happening, we understand, from the speaker's use of 'this', that there must be more than one cupboard. Despite the obvious similarities, it should be clearly understood that determiners are not adjectives.

Types of determiner:

Articles

a pen, the house

Demonstratives

this hat, these hats, that book, those books

Possessives

my dog, your sunglasses, her car, etc.

Quantifiers

many choices, some people, several hooligans, etc.

Numerals

the second option, seven possibilities, etc.

Determiners can be grouped according to how they are used:

Group A includes the articles, demonstratives and possessives. The use of a Group A determiner allows us to understand whether or not the speaker believes the listener knows which one(s) is being referred to (e.g. a car, the car), or whether the speaker is talking about a specific example(s) or in general. It is not possible to put two group A determiners together in a phrase: so 'the car' is fine but *'the her car'* is not. If for some reason we want to do so, we have to use a structure using 'of' (e.g. 'this husband of yours').

Group B is composed mainly of quantifiers. It is possible to put two Group B determiners together where their individual meanings allow it. For example, 'As a punishment for the city's stubborn resistance, the invaders executed every third person.'

Most Group B determiners do not use 'of' when placed before nouns ('Do you have any cream?' not *'Do you have any of cream?'*). However, when used in combination with a Group A determiner, 'of' must be used ('Several books were badly damaged in the fire.', but 'Several of the books were badly damaged in the fire.'). There are a few cases where a Group B determiner is used in combination with 'of' when placed directly before a noun. These are mostly either place names ('Most of London was destroyed in the great fire.') or uncountable nouns that refer to entire subjects or activities ('It is difficult to determine, with any great certainty, exactly what really happened in the past because much of recorded history was set down by interested parties.').

Another important thing to be aware of, since many EFL students make this mistake, is that the 'of' structure is not used after the Group B determiners 'no' and 'every'. Instead 'none' and 'every one' are used ('Every student was happy.', but 'Every one of her students were happy.').

The correct use of 'of' with determiners is a complex area and warrants more space than is available here. Those wishing to delve into this more deeply are again advised to refer to Michael Swan's Practical English Usage.

Conjunctions

Conjunctions are words that join words, phrases or clauses together and show the relationships that exist between them. Examples of these are: but, and, or (these are known as co-ordinating conjunctions).

  • 'but'' is most often used to join and emphasise contrasting ideas: 'They were exhausted, but very happy.'
  • 'and' is simply used to join things without unduly emphasising any differences that may exist (which is not to say that 'and'' cannot be emphatic - with the right intonation obviously it can be.): 'He put on his hat, coat and an air of indifference.'

Other conjunctions like 'when', 'because', 'that' are known as subordinating conjunctions and unlike the co-ordinating conjunctions are a part of the clause they join.

  • 'when' is used to join a time clause to the rest of a sentence: 'I was shocked when they announced they were giving the prize to me'.
  • 'because' joins a fact with its cause: 'He lied because he thought the truth would hurt her.'
  • 'that' is used to join clauses that are acting as the object of a verb: He promised her that he would come if he could. (Compare the above with He(subject) promised(verb) her(indirect object) a new dress(object))

Conjunctions can consist of more than one word. Examples of these are: 'such as', 'in order to', etc.

Interjections

Interjections are words such as 'Yuck!', 'Ugh!', and 'Ouch!' which indicate the emotions, like disgust, fear, shock, delight, etc., of the person who utters them.

Prepositions

Prepositions are words which are used to link nouns, pronouns and gerunds ( the '-ing' form of a verb which is being used as a noun e.g. 'At high level Swimming is a very demanding sport.') to other words. They are often short words like 'on', 'in', 'up', 'down', 'about', etc. They can consist of more than one word: in front of, next to, etc.

In TEFL we talk a lot about prepositions of time, place and movement:

Time

I'll see you at six o'clock.

I'll be home by five.

We're having a party on Christmas eve.

Let's have a party at Christmas.

Place

I'm in London at the moment.

He's at work, I'm afraid.

The bookshop is on the second floor.

She always leaves a key under the doormat.

Movement

She went to post office.

He flew here from Guyana.

He leapt over the gate.

An elderly man was slowly climbing up the hill.

These of course are not the only prepositions. The biggest problem for EFL students and therefore for their teachers is that it is almost impossible to predict which preposition combines with which verb, noun or adjective in any particular case, or even whether one is necessary at all. Here are some examples to demonstrate this point:

  • agree with somebody about a subject but on a decision and to a suggestion,
  • angry with somebody about something (at could also be used in both cases), or angry with/at somebody for doing something
  • get/be married to somebody but marry somebody (no preposition)
  • 'pay for the tickets', but 'pay a bill'.

To a native speaker of English these may at first sight seem obvious, but to an EFL student they are impossible to guess. After all what is really wrong with *'get married on somebody'*? This would be perfectly correct in a number of languages. Even native speakers fail to agree on the use of some prepositions: Americans can say 'Congratulations for your exam results!', or 'In America football is different than soccer.' but these feel very wrong to the British, who would prefer to say 'Congratulations on your exam results .', and 'In America football is different from soccer.' Interestingly, British English does allow 'different than' if it is followed by a clause e.g. The situation is different than I expected.' It should be said, however, that the impact of Hollywood on British English seems to be gradually causing these differences to disappear.

Another complication is that it is often very difficult to know whether a word is, in fact, an adverb particle or a preposition as many can be either depending on the particular context in which they are found. This creates a problem in distinguishing between phrasal verbs and prepositional verbs. In the sentence 'She fell off her chair.' Off is a preposition while in the sentence 'She turned off the radio.' it is an adverb particle. Why is this so important? Well, lets take a moment to consider these two examples.

1. She turned off the radio.
What happens to the word order in the above sentence if we replace 'the radio' with the pronoun 'it'? We have to place 'it' between the verb and its adverb particle - 'She turned it off.' We cannot say *'She turned off it.'* We can, however, say 'She turned the radio off.'

2. She fell off her chair.
What if we do the same to this sentence? We get 'She fell off it (because she was laughing so much).' In this case, we cannot insert 'it' into the middle of the prepositional verb. Nor can we say *'She fell the chair off.'*

No problem for a native speaker, of course, they 'know' what is right, but what about the poor EFL student, who doesn't have this 'knowledge'? And what about the poor EFL teacher, who has to find some way to help their students with this?

No matter what language is being studied prepositions are always a problem.

End of Section 1 Parts of Speech







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