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PARTS OF SPEECH. English, like every other language, has what we call syntax and morphology. Syntax describes the structure and function of word groups (see lesson 3, clear and concise sentences, while morphology is the formation, function, and classification of words. Understanding how we use words will help us to make sense of information.

Words in the English language are named according to the way they function in a sentence. The major functions and types in English are:

Function Type Example
Naming Nouns and pronouns soldier, army, rifle, his, it
Predicating (stating or asserting) Verbs march, run, is, was
Modifying Adjectives and adverbs tall, short, slowly, quickly
Connecting Prepositions and conjunctions in, and, or

The following comments give an overview of how you may use the different functions and types to improve your writing.

a.  Naming. Nouns and pronouns serve as subjects and objects of sentences. Nouns and pronouns have gender, person, number, and case. Case describes whether a noun or pronoun is functioning as a subject (subjective case), an object (objective case), or as a possessive (possessive case).

Nouns only have two case forms: possessive and a common form. The common form serves as either subjective or objective case. Pronouns, on the other hand, have subjective, possessive, and objective case.

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A helpful test to determine whether you should use whom or whomever is to place the words in subject-verb-object order. Whom and whomever is always used as the object in subordinate clauses.

(1)  Nouns. Nouns typically serve as the subjects and the objects of verbs and prepositions. Some examples are:

The wind blew. (subject)

CPT Jones assigned the guards. (object of the verb)

SGT Smith locked the door to keep the prisoner inside. (object of the preposition)

Proper nouns name particular people, places, or things (President Lincoln, Fort Knox, Ford Tempo).

(2)  Pronouns. Pronouns are words that are substitutes for nouns. Pronouns, like nouns, can be subjects or objects of verbs or prepositions. There are eight types of pronouns: personal, relative, demonstrative, interrogative, indefinite, reflexive, intensive, and reciprocal. Pronouns will always agree in person and number with their noun (antecedent). We call this pronoun-antecedent agreement.

Classification Pronoun
Personal I, you, he, she, it, etc.
Relative who, which, that
I am the man who lives here.
Interrogative who, which, what
Who are you?
Which is your rifle?
Demonstrative this, that, these, those
Indefinite one, any, each, anyone, somebody, all, etc.
Reciprocal each other, one another
Bill and Bob often argue with each other.
Intensive myself, yourself, himself, etc.
The captain himself was not guilty.
Reflexive myself, yourself, himself, etc.
You yourself must decide

b.  Predicating. Predicating (stating or asserting) is a function of the verb which expresses state of being or action (seem, be and all other forms of to be denote state of being while verbs like run, eat, fly, talk, think, walk, etc., express action). We classify verbs as transitive, intransitive, linking, and auxiliary.

(1)  Transitive verb. A transitive verb is one that expresses a transfer of action from the subject to the object. A transitive verb requires a direct object to complete its meaning; that is, it must be followed by a word that answers the question whom or what. Examples: He wrote a letter. (Wrote what?) Jim pushed. (Pushed whom?)

(2)  Intransitive verb. An intransitive verb is one that expresses no transfer of action; consequently, it does not require an object to complete its meaning. (Examples: The troops marched to the theater. The old man died.)

(3)  Linking or state-of-being verb. A linking verb links the subject to some word that names it or describes it. This verb denotes a state of being or condition. The most common linking verbs are forms of to be (is, are, was, were, be, being, been, am), seem, become, appear, prove, look, remain, feel, taste, smell, sound, turn, and grow. For example:

He is my friend.
The room appears different.

A linking verb is always followed by a complement of the subject. A subject complement following a linking verb identifies or describes the subject of the sentence. When the complement is a noun or pronoun it is a predicate nominative.

Captain Wilson is the instructor. (Noun used as a predicate nominative.)
It is I. (Pronoun used as a predicate nominative.)

An adjective complement modifies the subject of the verb and is known as a predicate adjective.

I am very ill. (Adjective ill completes the linking verb am.)

(4)  Auxiliary verb. An auxiliary (helping) verb helps another verb. A verb with its auxiliary is called a verb phrase. (Examples: can, go, had been done.) Some verbs commonly used as auxiliaries are as follows: be (is, are, was, were, been, am), have, has, had, do, did, shall, will, may, can, might, could, would, and should.

(5)  Characteristics of verbs. Characteristics of verbs are person, number, voice, tense, and mood.

(a)  Person, is the same as nouns and pronouns: first, second, and third. Number refers to singular or plural. For example:



Singular Plural


I take We take


You take You take


He/She takes They take

(b)  Voice is either active or passive. Active voice is when the subject performs the action and in passive voice the subject is acted upon. For example, examine the active and passive forms of the verb "to take":

Person Active Passive
1st I take I have been taken
2d You take You were taken
3d He/She took He/She was taken

(c)  Tense refers to the action or state of being of the verb. There are six tenses: present, past, future, present perfect, past perfect, and future perfect. For example:

Tense Example
Present I take
Past I took
Future I shall take
Present perfect I have taken
Past perfect I had taken
Future perfect I shall have taken

(d)  Mood shows how the action is viewed by the speaker. There are three moods: indicative, imperative, and subjunctive. Indicative states a fact or asks a question. Imperative expresses a command or a request. Subjunctive expresses doubt, wish, or condition contrary to fact.

Indicative: The soldiers are ready.
Will they go?
Imperative: Report at once to the first sergeant.
Please clear your desk.
Subjunctive: The trees look as though they were dying.
I wish he were more friendly.

c.  Modifying. Words and phrases that describe or limit the meaning of a noun or its equivalent are known as adjectives. Words and phrases that describe or limit the meaning of a verb, an adjective, or a whole sentence are adverbs.

(1)  Adjectives. Adjectives modify a noun or pronoun. The position of the adjectives in the sentence determines whether it is (a) attributive, that is, placed next to the nouns they modify, or (b) predicative, placed after a linking verb. Adjectives may be (a) descriptive, naming some quality; (b) proper, derived from proper nouns; or (c) limiting. Limiting adjectives may indicate possession, point out, number, or be articles.

Descriptive: green house, small soldier, leaking radiator
Proper: Roman fountain, American custom
Limiting: my, his (possession)
this, former (point out)
three, second (number)
a, the (article)

(2)  Adverbs. An adverb describes or limits the meaning of a verb, adjective, another adverb, or a whole sentence.

Modify single words: went quickly, nearly all men
Modify sentences: Maybe he will go.
Ask questions: When did he go? Where is the book?
Indicate manner: secretly envious
Indicate time: never healthy
Indicate place: outside the office
Indicate degree: quite easily pacified

d.  Connecting. Connecting words (prepositions and conjunctions) help us to link one word or word group with another and to combine them in ways that help us to express our ideas more concisely and to clearly express relationships between ideas. For example, we don't have to say "We had bacon. We had eggs. We had toast." We can say, "We had bacon, eggs, and toast." Nor do we need to say, "We had dinner. We played cards. We went home." Rather we could say, "After eating dinner and playing cards we went home." The words that help us to make these connections are called prepositions and conjunctions.

(1)  Preposition. A preposition connects a noun or pronoun (called its object) with some other word in the sentence and shows the relationship between the object and the other word. A preposition and its object form a prepositional phrase. For example:

The convoy drove over rough roads. Over links the verb drove; over rough roads is the prepositional phrase that modifies drove.
He dodged through the traffic. Through links the verb dodged; through the traffic is the prepositional phrase that modifies dodged.

The most common prepositions are:

about below into through
above beside near to
across by next toward
after down of under
among during off until
around except on up
as for out upon
at from over with
before in past within
behind inside since without

(2)  Conjunctions. A conjunction joins words, phrases, or clauses. Conjunctions show the relationship between the sentence elements they connect. The three classes of conjunctions are coordinating conjunctions, correlative conjunctions, and subordinating conjunctions.

Coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet) joins words, phrases, or clauses of equal rank.

Words joined: We ate ham and eggs.
Phrases joined: Look in the closet or under the bed.
Clauses joined: We wanted to go, but we were too busy.

Correlative conjunctions work in pairs to join words, phrases, clauses, or whole sentences. The most common correlative pairs are both ... and, either ... or, neither ... nor, not ... but, and not only ... but also.

He is both courageous and loyal.
You must complete the inspection either before you go or after you get back.
This company is neither a circus nor a sideshow.
Not only did she act this way as a child but also as an adult.

Subordinating conjunctions join clauses that are not equal in rank. Clauses introduced by a subordinating conjunction is called a dependent or subordinate clause. A subordinate clause cannot stand by itself as a sentence; it must be joined to a main, or independent, clause. Following are the most common subordinating conjunctions:

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

David L. Heiserman, Editor

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Revised: June 14, 2016