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Athabasca University

Basic Grammar: Parts of Speech

English Grammar is traditionally divided into parts of speech. Here, we add an extra category, the expletive. Other categorisations of language structures enable us to describe the function of a word or words in a sentence. The parts of speech, however, can be thought of as the building blocks of the language; in English they are arranged in a way that is typical for English. These building blocks are used to construct phrases, clauses, and sentences.

Nouns

A noun is the name of a person, place, thing, or idea. Most nouns may be singular (i.e., represent one person, place, thing, or idea) or plural (i.e., represent more than one person, place, thing, or idea). A plural noun usually ends with an s. There are also many irregular plural forms that must be learned and recognized.

Examples:   Singular Plural
  Person boy boys
    woman women
  Place Lake Erie Great Lakes
    Vancouver  
  Thing house houses
    tree trees
  Idea democracy democracies
    freedom freedoms
    love love

Types of Nouns

A noun may belong to more than one of the following groups.

Proper

  • name a particular person, place, or thing
  • require a capital letter
Examples: Person Place Thing
  Anne Hyde Park (the) Bible
  Gandhi Mt. Everest Concorde
  Mr. Lee Vancouver Ford Escort

Common

  • name a class of persons, places, or things
  • do not require a capital letter
Examples: Person Place Thing
  child city chair
  doctor home expression
  singer restaurant snow

Collective

  • name of groups of persons, places, and things
  • may be singular or plural
Examples: Person Place Thing
  club forest decade
  jury mall dozen
  team   herd
      flock

Abstract

  • name of things not knowable through the five senses (touch, hear, see, smell, taste)
Examples: humour, fatigue, liberty, love, refusal, truth

Concrete

  • name things that are knowable through the five senses (touch, hear, see, smell, and taste)
Examples: Touch Hear See Smell Taste
  snow cry cloud fumes coffee
  tree sigh landscape odour hot dog
  wind whisper moon perfume salt

Count

  • name people, places, and things that can be counted, as in one pen, two pens
  • have irregular forms where the plural is quite different from the singular form, or have the same form as the singular, e.g., sheep.
Examples: Regular Countables Irregular Countables
  cat cats child children
  house houses goose geese
  husband husbands person people
  socialist socialists woman women

Non-count or mass

  • name things that cannot be counted
Examples: advice, information, news, rice, sugar, water

Articles

An article conveys information about the noun. While a, an, and the are called articles, they function much like adjectives.

Indefinite articles (a and an)

  • are used with singular count nouns. A is used with words beginning with consonants while an is used with words beginning with vowels or with a vowel sound. The indefinite article is used to refer to something generally.

    A dog walked towards me. (Begins with a consonant. This is not a specific reference.)
    An idea suddenly popped into her head. (Begins with a vowel. This is not a specific reference.)
    Adding an herb can add much flavour to soup. (Begins with a vowel sound, American pronunciation. This is not a specific reference.)

Definite article (the)

  • can be used with singular or plural count nouns and with non-count nouns. The makes the noun more specific.
  • is also used for unique persons, places, and things, and for musical instruments.

    I ordered a steak. Unfortunately, the steak was cold by the time the waiter brought it to my table. (This is a specific steak, the steak I ordered.)
    The Prime Minister is in China this week. (There is only one Prime Minister.)
    Jasper and Banff are famous resorts in the Canadian Rockies. (There is only one range called the Canadian Rockies.)
    The moon was a golden sliver. (There is only one moon.)
    Samuel plays the piano; Vera plays the flute.

For more information on Articles, please go to Determiners.

Verbs and Verbals

A verb may be singular (indicate the action of a singular noun) or plural (indicate the action of a plural noun). In the present tense, a singular verb ends in s for 3rd person singular.

Principal Parts to the Verb

  Regular Verbs
Examples: Base Form Past Past Participle Present Participle
  consider considered considered considering
  indicate indicated indicated indicating
  model modelled modelled modelling
  walk walked walked walking

Notice that past and past participle forms for regular verbs end with -ed. For other verbs, please see Irregular Verbs. All verbs, however, are regular in the present participle form. The only changes that occur are a result of spelling. All verbs add -ing to the base form.

Spelling rules:

  1. If the base form ends in e, omit the e and add ing
    e.g., bite ® biting

  2. If the base form ends in a single vowel followed by a consonant, double the final consonant and add ing (British and Canadian spelling)
    e.g., travel ® travelling

  3. If the base form ends in ie, change the ie to y and add ing
    e.g., die ® dying

Types of Verbs

Transitive

  • require an object; without an object the sentence or thought is incomplete

    Incorrect: I like. (Like what? This is not a complete thought, so clearly an object is required.)
    Correct: I like coffee. (Coffee is the object. The sentence is now complete.)
    Incorrect: Hundreds of protesters hurled. (Hurled what? This is not a complete thought.)
    Correct: Hundreds of protesters hurled stones and vegetables at police guarding the courthouse. (Stones and vegetables is the object of hurled.)

Intransitive

  • do not require an object to make the sentence or thought complete

    Birds fly.
    She awoke much later than she’d intended.
    He hurried along the sidewalk, side-stepping as many puddles as he could.

Stative or Linking

  • indicate a state of being or condition because they link the subject of a sentence with a noun, pronoun or adjective, anything that identifies the subject

    The most common linking verb is to be. Other frequently used linking verbs are as follows:

    Examples: appear feel look seem sound
      become grow remain smell taste

    Michael is my eldest brother. (My eldest brother is the noun phrase that identifies Michael. Without the noun phrase, the sentence would be incomplete.)
    The soup still tasted bland. (Bland is an adjective that describes soup. The adjective is necessary to complete the sentence.)

Auxiliary (sometimes called helping) verbs

Examples: am   be   did   does   have   shall   would
    are   been   do   had   is   will  
  • are used to indicate tense. The following tenses require auxiliary verbs: present, past, and future progressive (continuous or continued action); simple future; present, past, and future perfect. Auxiliary verbs are always used with a main verb, the word that expresses the action or state to indicate when and for how long an action occurs. Two tenses, the simple present and the simple past, however, do not use auxiliary verbs.

    He works. (present tense)
    He worked. (past tense)
    He will work. (future tense: will is the auxiliary verb indicating that the action work will occur in the future)
    He is working. (present progressive: is is the auxiliary verb indicating that the action work began before, is occurring, and will continue to occur after the time of speaking.)

  • are used to form interrogatives (questions) and negatives. When referring to present and definite past situations, the auxiliaries do, does, did are required.

    Have you been here long?
    I have not seen Pete for ages.
    Have you been to Europe?
    You will not have much success using that type of mower on your grass.
    Would you tell him I called?
    Do you like coffee? (present)
    I don’t like tea. (present)
    He did not go to the meeting. (definite past)
    What did he do there? (definite past)

  • are used to form tag questions that are placed after a statement.

    You went to a movie, didn’t you?
    You didn’t go to a movie, did you?
    She’s the girl you told me about, isn’t she?
    She’s not the girl you told me about, is she?
    They will be there by noon, won’t they?
    They won’t be there by noon, will they?
    We have enough money, don’t we?
    We don’t have enough money, do we?

  • are used to answer yes/no questions. A yes/no question that starts with a negative construction asks for confirmation of a known or suspected situation.

    Did you go to a movie? Yes, I did./No, I didn’t.
    Didn’t you go to a movie? Yes, I did./ No, I didn’t.
    Is she the girl you told me about? Yes, she is./No, she isn’t.
    Isn’t she the girl you told me about? Yes, she is./No, she isn’t.
    Will they be here by noon? Yes, they will./No, they won’t.
    Won’t they be here by noon? Yes, they will./No, they won’t.
    Have we enough money? Yes, we have./No, we haven’t. (uncommon)
    Haven’t we enough money? Yes, we have./No, we haven’t. (uncommon)
    Do we have enough money? Yes, we do./No, we don’t.
    Don’t we have enough money? Yes, we do./No, we don’t.

  • are used to provide emphasis in the simple present tense by using do.

    She does work hard.
    I do enjoy listening to classical music.
    We do intend to pay you back.

Modal

A modal provides additional information about a main verb; it adds a sense of obligation, possibility, ability or permission.

Examples: can, could, be able to   have to   must   would
    can’t   may   shall  
    have got to   might   should

  • When referring to obligations, ability, possibility, or permission in present or future situations, modal verbs are followed by the infinitive (base form of the verb).

    He should study more. (obligation)
    They may go to Jasper this weekend, but then they may decide to stay at home. (possibility)
    Mary can’t swim, but she can ski. (ability)
    The principal has signed a permission slip, so you may have the afternoon off to go to the doctor. (permission)

  • When referring to obligations, ability, possibility, or permission in the past or when speculating about events in the past, modal verbs are followed by have + past participle.

    He should have studied more. (obligation in the past)
    I could have become a great dancer. (possibility in the past)
    He must have been mad to think he could get away with telling such lies. (speculating about a past event)
    He may have lost your address, which would explain his not writing to you. (speculating about a past event)

For more information, please refer to Modals.

Verbals

A verbal is a word derived from a verb but which functions as a noun, adjective, or adverb.

Infinitives

  • name an action, state or condition when they function as a noun
  • describe or modify the noun or verb when they function as an adjective or adverb

    To argue is futile. (To argue is a noun here. It is the subject of this sentence.)
    He likes to talk. (To talk is a noun here. It is the object of likes.)
    It is time to go. (To go is an adjective, modifying time.)
    He had enough money to spare. (To spare is an adjective, modifying money.)
    He is helping to load the truck. (To load is an adverb, modifying helping.)
    We are ready to go. (To go is an adverb, modifying ready.)

For more information, please see Infinitives and Gerunds.

Past participles

  • function as an adjective to describe or modify a noun

    Tired and a little sickened, Paul Bradley opened his bedroom window to release the cigarette smoke. (Tired and sickened are adjectives describing Paul Bradley.)
    Married herself, Lydia had little difficulty empathising with her neighbour’s dissatisfaction. (Married is an adjective describing Lydia.)

Present participles

  • function as an adjective to describe or modify the noun

    Moving away from the mirror, Sonia considered last night’s debate. (Moving is an adjective describing Sonia.)
    Laughing, he scrambled up the hillside. (Laughing is an adjective describing he.)
    He jumped from the top diving board. (Diving is an adjective modifying board.)

Gerunds

  • function as a noun to name an action, state or condition

    Reading is a skill that is difficult to master. (Reading is a gerund and is the subject of the sentence here.)
    I tried pushing the car to get it out of the snow. (Pushing is a gerund and is the object of the verb tried.)

For more information, please see Infinitives and Gerunds.

Prounouns

A pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun or a larger group of words. The word or words to which a pronoun refers is called the antecedent.

Types of Pronouns

Personal Pronouns

  • refer to people

    Examples: Subject Object Possessive Object Possessive Adjective
      I me mine my
      you you yours your
      he him his his
      she her hers her
      it it its its
      we us ours our
      they them theirs their
    Example: With nouns:
      Mary saw Bert give Susan’s lunchbox to Rob and Lisa. “That’s not Rob and Lisa’s!” Mary cried. “That’s Susan’s lunchbox,” Mary said, pointing at Susan.
      With pronouns:
      She saw him give her lunchbox to them. “That is not theirs!” she cried. “That is hers,” she said, pointing at her.

    The example shows how pronouns are used to replace nouns. However, neither example is satisfactory, the first because there are too many proper nouns, and the second because there are too many pronouns. The sentence needs revising:

    Mary saw Bert give Susan’s lunchbox to Rob and Lisa. “That’s not theirs!” cried Mary. “That’s hers,”she said, pointing at Susan.

Relative

  • introduce certain noun clauses and adjective clauses. The pronoun is sometimes omitted, but is understood.

    Example: Persons Things
      who that
      whoever whatever
      whom which
      whomever whose
      whose  

    That’s the woman who won the award for bravery.
    The person to whom I spoke refused to give her name.
    The girl (whom) I met last night looks a lot like you. (no pronoun, “whom” omitted.)
    My friends, whose car I borrowed, are moving to Sarnia.
    My sister, who lives in London, is a doctor.
    The chairperson, whose name I can never remember, has a reputation for getting things done.
    There’s the seafood restaurant (that) the travel guide mentioned. (no pronoun, “that” omitted.)
    You can invite whomever you like.
    He’ll dismiss out of hand whatever argument you present.

    Note: Who usually refers to a person or persons, which to things, and that to persons or things, and all can function as subordinating conjunctions. Which and that can refer to words, phrases, clauses, or whole sentences. Which can refer to groups of people, but not to individuals. When used as a subordinating conjunction, that can be used to introduce only restrictive (essential, defining) clauses: clauses introduced by that are never set off with commas (see Dependent Clauses). Some writers use that only for restrictive clauses.

    Aunt Mary, who recently won a trip to Victoria, was at the fair yesterday.
    The team that won the cup is moving to a new city.
    The team, which is in the process of moving, is playing very well tonight.
    The team that is moving is playing very well tonight.
    My dog, who loved to sing to a harmonica, liked to go for car rides.
    The dog who was crossing the road was hit by a car.
    The car I love has been pelted with hail and quite badly damaged as a result. (Which or that omitted, but understood.)
    The car, which was pelted by hail last night, is running very smoothly after the tune-up.

Interrogative

  • introduce a question

    Examples: how   when   which   whom   why
        what   where   who   whose  

    Who was there?
    Whose coat is this?
    What was the outcome of the meeting?
    By whom was it written? (the interrogative form is preceded by a preposition)

Demonstrative

  • refer to the antecedent

    Examples: that   these   this   those

    Often money is allocated but cannot be spent. This is the case with the hundred thousand earmarked two years ago for the restoration project. (This refers to the whole previous statement.)
    Where was the rent money going to come from? How was he going to feed and clothe himself? These were the questions that remained unanswered. (These refers back to the two questions.)
    “Feeling guilty—that is what life’s about,” Mary explained. (The antecedent for that is feeling guilty.)
    Part of her diary covers the years 1932 to 1934. For the Lenke family, those were the hardest years. (The antecedent for those is the years 1932 to 1934.)

Reflexive

  • reflect back to the antecedent
  • can be used to intensify the antecedent
  • can be used only when the personal pronoun to which it refers has been used in the sentence

    Singular Plural
    myself ourselves
    yourself yourselves
    himself themselves
    herself  
    itself  

    I myself have misjudged people on occasion.
    Jess was able to read by himself when he was only four years old.
    It was his regret that his dear mother could not keep her thoughts to herself.

Reciprocal

  • refer to individual parts of a plural antecedent

    Examples: each other one another

    Out of respect for each other, Lisa and Joan agreed to disagree. (The plural antecedent is Lisa and Joan.)
    Lisa and Joan have been avoiding one another for the past week. (One another is more formal than each other, and can be used to refer to more than two.)

Indefinite

  • refer to nonspecific (indefinite) persons or things

    Examples: everyone everybody everything everywhere whoever
      someone somebody something somewhere another
      anyone anybody anything anywhere each
      no one nobody nothing nowhere either
      one neither person    

    Everyone has been asked to donate a dollar.
    By the look of things, nobody has lived in this house for years.
    Whoever lived here last must have welcomed death.

Adjectives

An adjective modifies, describes, limits or adds meaning to a noun or pronoun.

Types of adjectives

Of quality

Examples: round, yellow, thin, heavy, silk, etc.

The little girl played with a round, yellow ball.
He wore a thin, blue silk scarf round his neck.

Demonstrative

Examples: this, that, these, those

This purple skirt is a better bargain than that one.
These lettuces look fresher than those over there.

This, that, these, and those function as adjectives here, not as pronouns. As adjectives, they are adding to the reader’s understanding of the nouns, not referring to the antecedent as they would do if they were functioning as pronouns, as below:

That is not a relevant question. (That is a pronoun here referring to the previous sentence.)

Distributive

Examples: each, every, either, neither

Each student should have his own personal copy of the text.
Every citizen over the age of eighteen has the right to vote.
Either pen will do.
Neither proposal was accepted.

Each, every, either, and neither function as adjectives here because they add meaning to the reader’s understanding of the noun they precede. If they were pronouns they would refer to the antecedent as in the following:

Six students attended the seminar. Each contributed to the discussion. (Each is a pronoun here referring to students.)

Quantitative

Examples: some, any, no, few, many, much, one, two, etc.

She dug out a few grubby coins from the bottom of her bag.
Did you offer your grandmother some tea?
Six years later, the insurgents are struggling to survive along the country’s eastern border.
No objections to the hiring were raised.

Interrogative

Examples: which, what, whose

To which university did she apply?
What scoundrel dares disturb my sleep in this fashion?
Whose coat is this?

Possessive adjective pronouns

These adjectives affect the meaning of the noun that follows.

Examples: their, my, your, his, her, its, our, your

He laid his jacket neatly over the back of the chair.
Traditional economic theories assume that people save or borrow so as to spread their income over their lifetime.

Possessive nouns

Examples: the University’s, Peter’s, New York’s, etc.

The University’s Educational Services department organizes on-site programmes.
Have you seen Adam’s new car?

The possessive noun modifies or adds to the reader’s understanding of the following noun.

Articles

A, an, and the can also be considered adjectives because they affect the reader’s understanding of the noun that follows.

A girl crossed the road. (The A tells the reader that there is only one girl, and also that the girl is unknown to the writer.)
The girl crossed the road. (The tells the reader that there is one girl, but she is familiar to the writer.)

For more information, please refer to the main information on Articles.

Proper adjectives

adjectives derived from nouns

Examples: Spanish, Moslem, Biblical, Victorian, etc.

We were served by a Spanish waiter who could barely speak English. (Spanish is a proper adjective used to describe waiter.)
In the corner of the room stood an old, Victorian desk. (Victorian is a proper adjective used to describe desk.)

Adverbs

An adverb modifies verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, or the idea in or contained in a phrase or clause.

He walked hurriedly along the corridor. (Hurriedly modifies the verb walked.)
Jan thought her colleague indescribably dull. (Indescribably modifies the adjective dull.)
Maria always talked very softly. (Very modifies the adverb softly.)
Unfortunately, there was little anyone could do to help. (Unfortunately modifies the whole sentence.)

Of manner

  • answer the question how?

    Examples: carefully, courageously, cheerfully, hard, fast, well, etc.

    He climbed the ladder carefully.
    She smiled cheerfully.
    You’re looking well these days.

Of place

  • answer the question where?

    Examples: above, across, here, there, before, behind, etc.

    The sculpture sat next to the fireplace. The painting hung above. (Above is an adverb here modifying hung.)
    She sat across the room from me. (Across modifies the verb sat.)

Of time

  • answer the question when?

    Examples: now, soon, yet, still, today, already, afterwards, recently, tomorrow, etc.

    You can take a break now, if you like.
    There were other students still to come.
    Not all the registered guests have arrived yet.

Of frequency

  • answer the question how often?

    Examples: twice, often, seldom, rarely, hardly ever, sometimes, etc.

    Rarely had he been so moved by a performance.
    She often despaired of the human race.
    We hardly ever eat out.

Of certainty

Examples: absolutely, certainly, definitely, obviously, surely, etc.

He certainly seemed upset.
The teacher was obviously annoyed with Jack for handing in his assignment so late.
The product is definitely improved.

Of degree

Examples: very, fairly, rather, quite, so, too, hardly, etc.

She walked very slowly towards the cliff’s edge.
He talked so quietly that listening was a strain.
I hardly know what to say.
Kate rather liked Simon’s impish ways.

Interrogative

  • when? = at what time?
  • where? = in what place?
  • why? = for what reason?
  • how? = in what way?

    When did you hear about it?
    How was she sitting?
    Where was the car parked?
    How often do you hear from your family?

Relative

  • are used to introduce adjective (relative) clauses in the same way that relative pronouns are used in such clauses.

    Examples: when, where

    July 1st is when Canadians celebrate Canada Day.
    The hotel where we stayed overlooked the sea.

Conjunctive Adverbs

A conjunctive adverb modifies the action by creating logical connections in meaning between independent clauses. Unlike conjunctions, conjunctive adverbs are not always at the beginning of the clause.

Types of Conjunctive Adverbs

Of addition

Examples: also, besides, furthermore, moreover, etc.

The condo complex has tennis courts; besides this, it has an indoor pool.
He must have got stopped at the border crossing; otherwise, he would have arrived by now.
The lecturer had a monotonous voice; furthermore, he jumped from one idea to another so that the lecture was very difficult to follow.

Of contrast

Examples: however, still, nevertheless, conversely, nonetheless, instead, etc.

The printers are on strike; registered students will, nevertheless, receive course packages on time.
We were able to run only four courses; still, this compares favourably with other summer programmes.
It’s really cold today; we can’t complain, however, as it’s been mild overall.

Of comparison

Examples: similarly, likewise

Paul went to Lakeland college; his daughter, likewise, did her studies there.
Kate is engrossed in her dogs; Martha is similarly obsessed with her horses.

Of result

Examples: therefore, hence, thus, consequently, etc.

He rarely produced a day’s work; he consequently lost his job.
Caffeine is a stimulant; thus, it can keep a person awake at night.
We discovered Ida’s activities were duplicating those of Marla; we, therefore, assigned Ida other tasks.

Of time

Examples: next, then, meanwhile, finally, subsequently, etc.

The chairman will be late for the meeting; meanwhile, we’re to hand out minutes of the last meeting to the board members.
The network has crashed; next, the power will go off.
First boil the water; then, pour it over the tea bag.

Prepositions

A preposition indicates relationships in time or space, and when combined with its object and any modifiers of the object, forms a prepositional phrase.

She set a table up on the veranda. (The veranda is the object of the preposition on. The prepositional phrase describes a relationship in space.)
They arrived before nightfall. (Nightfall is the object of the preposition before. The prepositional phrase describes a relationship in time.)

The following is a list of commonly used prepositions. The list is by no means comprehensive.

Examples: about below from over until
  above beside in past up
  across between into since with
  along by of through within
  at down of to without
  before during on towards  
  behind for outside under  

Conjunctions

A conjunction is used to join words or groups of words.

Types of Conjunctions

Coordinating conjunctions

  • join grammatically equivalent sentence elements

    Examples: and for or yet
      but nor so  

    Edmonton and Calgary are the two largest cities in Alberta. (And joins two nouns.)
    Look in the cupboard or in the drawer. (Or joins two phrases.)
    You can’t do that kind of heavy work, nor should you be expected to. (Nor joins two clauses.)

Correlative conjunctions

  • pairs of words that join words, phrases, and clauses of equivalent grammatical structure

    Examples: both . . . and
      either . . . or
      neither . . . nor
      not . . . but
      not only . . . but (also)
      whether . . . or

    Both Susan and Bill received their ten-year pin this year.
    Either you get a job or you go back to school.
    Whether you stay or leave is entirely your decision.

Subordinating conjunctions

These join clauses that are not equivalent grammatical structures. Subordinating conjunctions introduce dependent clauses. These clauses cannot stand by themselves but must be joined to a main or independent clause.

The following is a list of words most often used as subordinating conjunctions:

Examples: after even though than wherever
  although if that whether
  as in order that though which
  as if in order to unless while
  as though rather than until who
  because since when  
  before so as to whenever  
  even if so that where  

In order to make feasible projections, we need to have reliable data.
He’s taller than you are.
He looks as if he were about to cry.

Interjections

An interjection is an exclamatory word or expression that conveys surprise or another strong emotion, and is usually used alone and punctuated with an exclamation point. If it is used as part of a sentence, it is set off with a comma. Interjections should be avoided in academic writing.

Examples: oh! gosh! wow! good!
  ouch! hey! yikes! what!

“Wow! Did you see that flash car?”
“Hey! Watch where you're going?”
“Ouch! That hurt.”

Expletives

The grammatical structure called an expletive is more often described by its function—the null subject, the dummy subject, or the existential subject—because it takes the part of subject in a sentence, referring to a real subject used later in the sentence. It is a rhetorical device that is not really a part of speech because it carries no meaning itself. The expletives there and it are used with a form of the verb be to postpone the subject until after the verb; however, it is often possible to avoid using the expletive.

It is having the right skills that matters. (Having the right skills is the postponed subject.)
Having the right skills is what matters. (Expletive is not used.)
It is possible that our proposal will be rejected. (That our proposal will be rejected is the postponed subject.)
That our proposal will be rejected is possible. (Expletive is not used.)
There were over a hundred people at the meeting last night. (Over a hundred people is the subject.)
Over a hundred people were at the meeting last night. (Expletive is not used.)

Although it is always possible to avoid using an expletive, there are instances when placing the subject before the verb sounds awkward and unnatural:

There was no answer.
No answer was there.

Updated April 10 2017 by Student & Academic Services

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