The Naming of Parts

henry reedBritish poet Henry Reed (1914-1986) wrote “The Naming of Parts,” a well-known anti-war poem in which a World War II recruit finds himself stuck in a lecture on the assembly and disassembly of the Sten gun, a British semi-automatic rifle. He day-dreams about the natural beauty around him (and, it seems, about love-making), all in lieu of listening to his sergeant drone on about weapons.

The Sten Gun

Well, for you, dear reader, natural beauty and sensual urges are surely more engaging than either British guns or English grammar; so I have tried to keep this post as brief as possible (or at least, “brief-ish”). Relax, for today, we have “Naming of Parts.”

It may not surprise you to know that linguists do not agree on how English words should be classified into parts of speech. They do not even agree on the number of categories, nor in their functionality. To keep it simple, and to stick to the basics, we’ll look at the parts of speech that used to be taught in the schools.

Eight Parts of Speech

parts of speech labeled handsEnglish has eight parts of speech, as shown in the illustration.

Note: Some teachers add “articles” or “determiners” as a ninth and separate class. Determiners include articles, cardinal numbers, possessive pronouns, words like “whatever” and “both,” and any other adjective which, unlike common adjectives, specify the noun referred to, rather than merely describe (or modify) it. But the traditional eight parts of speech is good enough for most people, if you put the articles or determiners in with the other adjectives, where they traditionally have resided.

Identifying the eight parts of speech is not hard, once you become comfortable with the ground rules. It’s like knowing the name of a friend: There was a time — when she was still a stranger — that you had pay close attention and use effort to remember her name; but now you know her name automatically. The same is true with the parts of speech. In a very short time, you will identify them with no effort. But be on guard for the tricky ones, which can be of more than one kind.

The three most important parts of speech in English are verbs and nouns, plus pronouns, as substitutes for nouns. A verb and a noun (or pronoun) are absolutely essential for a sentence to be a sentence. (You may think that a command, like Run!, is a sentence and has no noun or pronoun, but it is not an exception to the rule: Imperatives (commands) have a subject that is implied (not spoken). The implied subject of a command is “you.”)


A verb (per the classic definition) is a word that indicates an action or a state of being. This should be pretty simple: “go” is a verb (because it indicates an action), and “friend” is not (it’s a noun!).

State-of-being verbs are simple bridges that connect the subject to a predicate noun or adjective, as in “I feel good” and “He is a builder.”

Every verb has a few different forms. For example, the infinitive, which is the root of the verb plus the word “to,” as in “to work” or “to goof off.” Infinitives are often used as nouns, which can be confusing. For example, “Go now, if you want to go.” The infinitive “to go” is the direct object of “want.” The same is true of gerunds (verb forms ending in “ing” that look identical to present participles). “Seeing is believing” uses two gerunds: one as the subject, and one as a predicate noun.

pie eaten
The pie was eaten.

There is also a verb form called the “perfect passive participle” (often abbreviated as “ppp”), which is used as an adjective. Example: “dressed,” in “She arrived, dressed for the prom.” Here is another example: Consider “The pie was eaten.” “Eaten” is the perfect passive participle: It is called “perfect,” because the action has been completed. (“Perfect” in its original sense meant (and still means) “completed.”) It is called “passive,” because the subject of the sentence is a “patient,” that is, the target of a verb in the passive voice. And it is called a participle because that term means that it shares some of the characteristics of an adjective, even though it is a verb form. (The word comes from the Latin participium and is related to our word “participate” in the sense of “take part in.”)

Also note that you can say “I have eaten the pie.” In this case, the perfect participle is not passive; it is part of a verb in active voice: “I” is the subject, “have eaten” is the verb, and “pie” is the direct object.

This brings up the subject of auxiliary verbs, also called “helping verbs.” They are special verbs that help to create the several tenses, moods and voices of other verbs. “To have,” “to be” and “to do” are the main ones, used in creating the perfect (completed action) tense,  the progressive (ongoing action) form, and the emphatic form respectively. Other auxiliary verbs are called “modal verbs” and are used to express necessity or possibility. They do not change form. They are: can, could, may, might, must, ought (to), shall/will, should, and would.


nounThe classic definition of a noun is “a word that names a person, place or thing.” Some people think that “places” are also “things,” and thus abbreviate the definition to “person or thing.” Go with whichever version you prefer, but remember that “city” is a noun, and “Pittsburgh” is, too. Proper nouns are the names of specific persons, places or things, and are capitalized. Common nouns are generic, and are not capitalized in English (in German, they are).


calvin and hobbs on pronounsYou probably know that Hobbes is wrong: Pronouns are stand-ins. They take the place of a noun. There are several different kinds to choose from:

  • Personal (I, me, you, he, him, she, her, etc.);
  • Possessive (mine, your, his, her, etc.);
  • Reflexive (myself, yourself);
  • Interrogatory (who? what? when?, why?, etc.);
  • Relative (that, which, who, what, when, why);
  • Demonstrative (here, there);
  • Reciprocal (one another, each other);
  • Indefinite (whatever, anyone, anybody, nothing, nobody).

The noun to which a pronoun refers (or which it replaces) is called the “antecedent” (literally, “that which has gone before.”) Pronouns are supposed to agree with their antecedents in number and gender. For example, “Will everyone please take his seat.” “Everyone” is singular, so the possessive pronoun must be singular. Either “his” or “her” is correct; “their” is wrong. Also, when using pronouns, be careful about the “indefinite antecedent” problem. Years ago I saw a newsletter from a fundamentalist preacher who gave out “magic prayer handkerchiefs” to anyone who sent him money. The newsletter was filled with testimonials: “Dear Brother Bob, I had a tumor on my scalp, so I put the magic prayer handkerchief on it before bed, and when I woke up, it was gone!” All the testimonials followed this pattern, as if written by the same person. You never knew for sure what it was, exactly, that “was gone!”: the bed, the tumor, her scalp or the magic prayer handkerchief. Stay alert, and do not fall into the magic prayer handkerchief problem.


FoxJumpingDogAdjectives describe (the old-fashioned term is “modify”) nouns and, very rarely, pronouns. All the characteristics of a noun will be expressed as adjectives. In the sentence, “The quick, brown fox jumped over the lazy, yellow dog,” the adjectives are “quick,” “brown,” “lazy,” and “yellow.” Numbers (both cardinal and ordinal) can be treated as adjectives, though some linguists put cardinals in the determiner category. Consider: “Hawaii is the fiftieth state of the Union” and “Three blind mice“. The same is true of the articles (definite (“the”) and indefinite (“a” and “an”)). They function as adjectives, and evolved from (demonstrative) adjectives, so let’s consider them to be adjectives. Also, as noted above, the perfect passive participle of a verb acts as an adjective as well.


What adjectives do for nouns (describe), adverbs do for verbs. They also can describe adjectives and other adverbs. Here are three examples:

moonlight sonataMary played “The Moonlight Sonata” perfectly. (The adverb “perfectly” describes how she played, and “played” is a verb.)

mustangThe 1964 Mustang is exceedingly rare. (The adverb “exceedingly” describes “rare,” not the verb (is); neither does it describe the subject (“Mustang”); rather, it tells us how rare it is, and “rare” is an adjective.)

She practiced her routine really smoothly. (The adverb “really” describes “smoothly,” another adverb, indicating how smoothly she practiced.)

Most adverbs, like those in the examples, end in “-ly.” Be careful: not all words ending in “-ly” are adverbs, in fact, there are many non-adverbial, “-ly” words. For example, “early” can be an adverb (“We ate early”), but it is not always an adverb; sometimes it can be an adjective (The early bird . . . ).  A word like “slovenly” looks like an adverb, but it is an adjective. Of the many non-adverbs that end in “-ly,” here is a small sample: chilly, curly, deadly, friendly, ghastly, hilly, homely, lovely, lonely, measly, smelly and ugly.

Adverbs not ending in “-ly” include adverbs that tell you about time (now, yesterday, tomorrow, always, never, often), place (here, there, inside, upstairs), and extent of the action (very, too, almost, also, enough, rather). They do not end in “-ly,” but they are adverbs nonetheless.

Adverbial phrases are combinations of words that act as adverbs. The most common ones are prepositional phrases that describe something about the action of the verb: “He researched the question on a computer.” This prepositional phrase is used as an adverb to tell how he researched the question. The phrases need not be introduced by a preposition, however. For example, “He researches the same question every year.” “Every year” is an adverbial phrase.

The real test is whether the word or phrase tells us something about the action of the verb (rather than information on a noun, pronoun or adjective).


Prepositions have “objects” — nouns or pronouns that elaborate on, or provide context to, the subject, verb or objects in a sentence. Prepositions connect these “objects” to the rest of the sentence. The nature of the connection or relationship varies according to the preposition employed. Consider two sentences:
eat with enjoymenteat without enjoyment

  • He ate his dinner with enjoyment.
  • He ate his dinner without enjoyment.

The two sentences have opposite meanings, and the only difference between them is the preposition used to relate “enjoyment” to the verb “ate.”

PrepositionsPrepositions can indicate such characteristics as position, direction, location, means or method, ownership, and many other traits of nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. They can be one word only (as in “during,” “except,” “from,” “off” and “underneath.” They can be comprised of two or three words, too. (Examples are: “according to,” “opposite of,” “as soon as” and “in connection with.”)


chain_linksConjunctions are links: that is what “conjunction” really means. The connection is between (or among) words, phrases or clauses. For example:

  • tea and sympathy (words)
  • in the city and in the country (phrases)
  • She likes country music, and I like rock-n-roll (clauses).

Coordinating conjunctions connect two items of the same status or importance. For this reason, they can be used with words in a series, parallel phrases or two or more independent clauses. The coordinating conjunctions are: “and,” “but,” “or,” “nor,” “for” (in the sense of “because”), “yet” and “so.”  By far the majority of instances will employ “and” or “but.”

“Or” is often used with its partner, “Either,” to indicate alternatives among words. “Nor” should be used with “Neither,” to negate those alternatives. It is common to hear (or read) something like: She was neither friend or foe. That should be “neither friend nor foe.”

May you start a sentence with “And” or “But”? Purists will say “no,” because there must be at least two independent clauses in a sentence if the conjunction is to do its job. Others say that there is no prohibition against linking two independent clauses, each of which comprises its own sentence. This is more a question of punctuation than grammar. And starting a sentence with a conjunction can increase the impact of the thought, and enhance its communicative effect. You can adopt the rule that you prefer: professional writers have been doing the same for centuries.

Punctuation with coordinating conjunctions: words and phrases in a series should be offset by commas. The more modern practice is to omit the comma before the last item (sometimes called “the Oxford comma”). Independent clauses are separated by a comma before the conjunction. There is no punctuation immediately after a coordinating conjunction. If the phrase or clauses are internally punctuated with commas, use a semicolon as a separator.

Subordinating conjunctions are used to connect two clauses, when one of them is an independent clause, and the other one is a dependent or subordinate clause. The subordinating conjunction describes the nature of the dependency. The clause not containing the subordinating conjunction should be able to be a complete sentence all by itself, while the clause containing the subordinating conjunction seems incomplete, as it depends upon something outside itself (that is, the independent clause) in order to make sense.

There are many such conjunctions. The more common ones are: although, because, however, if, moreover, since, though, unless, whenever, while.

That” is a subordinating conjunction, too. Much of the time it can be deleted. For example: “He knew that he was in trouble” versus “He knew he was in trouble.” In the second case, the “that” is still there functionally; it is just understood rather than explicit.

Sometimes the order of the clauses in a sentence can be reversed or modified. For example, it is equally correct to say, “Because the weather turned ugly, school recessed early” or “School recessed early because the weather turned ugly.” Some subordinate clauses must follow the independent clause in order to make sense. Try to reverse the order of clauses in this sentence, and you will see the point: “I enjoy western music; however, I can take or leave country music.”

In all events, it is not correct to start a sentence with a subordinating conjunction and then end it without its independent clause. That is a sentence fragment.

Punctuation with subordinating conjunctions: The punctuation for most  subordinating conjunctions is the same as for a coordinating conjunction; that is, a comma separates the clauses. This works with “since,” “though,” “although,” “unless,” “while” and a several others. According to some style manuals, “because” does not need to be preceded by a comma. (“He ate because he was hungry.”) For “moreover” and “however,” use a semicolon after the independent clause, then insert the conjunction, followed by a comma. Note that “however” can also be an adverb: “However mean you be to me, I’ll still love you.”


wowInterjections are utterances without a syntactical role in the sentence. They express emotions, exclamations, protests, greetings or commands. If they are mild, they may be offset by commas. If they are intense, they will be put in a separate sentence and followed by an exclamation point. Here are some examples:

  • Oh well, tomorrow is another day.
  • Yikes!
  • Sorry! or Sorry, we’re out of onion rings.
  • Excuse me! or Excuse me, can you tell me how to go to Elm Street?
  • Hi there!
  • Wow! What a sunset!

Interjections are not often used in formal writing. They are more common in speaking and in written dialogue.

From here, you may want to go on to the following pages and posts:

Use the Right Part
Keeping Subjects and Objects in Line
Order Your Nouns by the Case
Prepositional Phrases and Phrasal Verbs
“Everyone” is Singular
“Waiting on” and “Waiting for”
The “Like/As” Problem
Much, Many, Less and Few
“Woe is me!”

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Born in Pittsburgh, educated at Yale. Practiced law in Washington DC. Moved to Colorado. Lived in Mexico. Translator and internet content writer.

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