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9.2: Basic Parts of Speech

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    Parts of speech are the basic words that make up phrases, clauses and sentences. The four basic parts of speech—nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs—make up over 95% of all words in the English language.

    For definitions and examples of phrases and clauses, see Chapter 12, lessons 1 and 2.


    We traditionally define a noun as any word that represents a person, place, or thing. However, nouns often do not function on their own; they work with attendant determiners and adjectives to form noun phrases. We can also distinguish further between abstract nouns and proper nouns, those that represent a specific person, historical event, or other name. Proper nouns are always capitalized.

    Example 1 - Mary jogged.

    “Mary” is a proper noun that functions as the subject of the sentence.

    Example 2 - That tall woman jogged.

    “Woman” is a noun, but the word also has the determiner “that” and the adjective “tall” preceding it. All three words working together make up the noun phrase that functions as the subject of the sentence.


    Adjectives modify or describe nouns. Many adjectives have characteristic endings such as –ous (delicious), -ish (waspish), -ful (beautiful), and –ary (wary). You can modify adjectives using qualifiers (very, extremely) and comparative words (more, most, less, least). Just as with nouns, adjectives and attendant modifiers form adjective phrases.

    Examples 1 - I need to find an affordable car.

    The adjective “affordable” is modifying the noun “car.”

    Example 2 - Ms. Chu needs to find a more reliable car.

    Here the adjective “reliable” is preceded by the comparative word “more.” Both of these words make up the adjective phrase modifying the noun “car.”


    Verbs are defined as action words, but may also introduce states or descriptions. They are often marked by auxiliaries (will, shall). A verb and its attendant auxiliaries make up a verb phrase. All verbs require a subject, which in most consists of who or what is conducting the action. Often in sentences that command or suggest to listener, the subject “you” will be omitted. Many verbs require an object (who or what is receiving the action).

    Example 1 - Robert dropped the ball during the final seconds of the game.

    The verb of this sentence is “dropped.” The subject of the verb is the noun “Robert” and the object is the noun “ball.”

    Example 2 - Go to my office and fetch my keys.

    The subject of these verbs is the implied “you,” which is omitted in commands or requests.

    Example 3 - I could finish my essay by eight o’clock tonight.

    The verb “finished” is attended by the auxiliary “could.” Both words make up the verb phrase.

    Here is a list of auxiliaries that can attend a verb. Must and Ought to have no past form. Auxiliaries are defined as part of the verb, not as a separate adverb.

    Present Will Shall Can May Must Ought to
    Past Would Should Could Might


    Adverbs act as modifiers of verbs, describing their time, place, reason, or manner. Like adjectives, adverbs can be qualified (very, quite). Many (but not all) adverbs end with –ly (slowly, apparently, strangely).

    Example 1 - Pierre quickly ran through the main points of his argument.

    The adverb “quickly” is modifying the verb “ran.”

    Example 2 - She threw down the gauntlet quite suddenly.

    The adverb “suddenly” is being qualified by the word “quite.” This adverb phrase modifies the verb “threw.”

    Form Versus Function

    In Lesson 1, we defined the different parts of speech by their form; we looked at the basic meaning of words while ignoring how they might be working within a sentence. However, in order to understand how the parts of speech work grammatically in sentences, we must use a functional terminology.

    Remember, form refers to the part of speech of a word as it is defined, while function refers to how the word works in a sentence. The form of a word is static, whereas its function might change from sentence to sentence.

    Example 1 - Eating an apple a day can keep the doctor away, or so they say.

    In this sentence, the word “eating,” which is formally defined as a verb, functions nominally (as if it were a noun) because it is the subject of the sentence.

    Example 2 - Is this the picture of Jose’s mother?

    By making “Jose” (formally a proper noun) possessive, we are using it as a modifier to describe whose mother we are talking about. Therefore, it is functioning adjectivally.

    Example 3 - Her truck, a red Chevy, was parked around the back of the house.

    Here we are using the noun phrase adjectivally to describe the noun “truck.”

    Review Questions

    Identify the nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs in each sentence. Remember that any part of speech can come in the form of a phrase as well, so make sure to mark the entire phrase.

    1. Should I take that plastic bottle out of the fridge?
    2. Mr. Gonzalez quickly reprimanded the student for using his cell phone in class.
    3. Interestingly, there was a strange inscription on the bottom of the clay pot.
    4. During the weekends, she volunteers at the local homeless shelter.
    5. The balcony collapsed because of a poorly manufactured steel I-beam.

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