Building Blocks of Grammar

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1 TEACHING & LEARNING TOOLKIT Building Blocks of Grammar Parts of Speech and Grammatical Categories Produced by Central Michigan University s Quality Initiative and Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning Last updated 11/11/15

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3 Years before you went to school for the first time, you effortlessly learned your native language simply by hearing others speak. Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker calls language an instinct because people know how to talk in more or less the sense that spiders know how to spin webs (Pinker, 1994, p. 18). But knowing how to talk and reflecting on the logic of language are different skills: People routinely use the appropriate words in sentences without knowing why those words are correct. Because it is not natural to think about the rules that govern language choices, most students need to learn the building blocks of language before they can become skilled writers or master a foreign language. Surprisingly, students who remember basic terms from their high school English classes might still have trouble using this knowledge to learn new skills. Knowledge exists on a continuum, from information you call to mind slowly and with mental effort (weak knowledge) to information you retrieve rapidly and with little effort (strong knowledge; see Figure 1). Knowledge that takes more effort to retrieve is not always available when you need to use it. Therefore, one goal of this module is to improve the strength of your knowledge about the building blocks of grammar so you will retrieve this knowledge quickly and accurately. You can take a short quiz at the end of each section Table of Contents Nine Parts of Speech Quiz # Quiz # Gerunds, Participles, and Infinitives Grammatical Categories (Features) Quiz # References to test your knowledge, and a companion PowerPoint presentation provides speeded practice that better assesses the strength of your knowledge. Nine Parts of Speech Parts of speech are the basic categories of words that we combine to express a complete thought. Grammarians have traditionally listed eight parts of speech, but some language scholars list nine or even ten. This module describes nine. Verbs The shortest complete thought you can express usually consists of a noun and a verb. Verbs describe what is happening in a sentence; you cannot have a sentence without a verb. There are different types of verbs, but as a group they describe an action, a state, or a relation between two things (Dictionary.com, 2014). Here are some examples: The dog ran. (Ran describes an action.) The cat is yellow. (Is refers to a state and links cat and yellow) She feels tired. (Feels is an action and a link between she and tired.) Nouns Weak Strong Figure 1. Strong knowledge comes to mind rapidly when you need to use it. It is more difficult to define what a noun is, but we usually say that a noun is a person, place, or thing. Nouns function to answer the question Who? or What? Here are the nouns in the previous examples: Central Michigan University 3

4 The dog ran. The cat is yellow. Pronouns Now consider She feels tired. In this sentence, she is a pronoun a word that takes the place of a noun. She is a pronoun because we don t know whom she refers to without reading a previous sentence. For example, consider the sentences Jane worked all day. She feels tired. We know that she refers to, or takes the place of, Jane. Jane is the noun; she is the pronoun. A pronoun can be the subject of a sentence, as in She worked all day, or an object, as in Tyler worked with her. You use the following subject and object pronouns frequently when you speak and write (Owl at Purdue, 2014): Subject Pronouns I We You She He It They Adjectives Object Pronouns Me Us You Her Him It Them Adjectives tell us something about a noun. Another way of saying this is that adjectives modify or qualify a noun. Consider these sentences: I like Spanish food. Here Spanish tells you something about a thing...the noun food. I like salty popcorn. Here salty describes the popcorn. Adverbs Adverbs often tell us something about a verb. I really like Spanish food tells you how much you like it, so really is an adverb. If you say, I ate it fast, fast tells you something about how you ate it, so fast is an adverb. Adverbs can also modify adjectives and adverbs, as in the following examples: It was very cold. ꜜadjective She walked really slowly down the aisle Quiz #1 Prepositions ꜜadverb Read each sentence and jot down the part of speech of the bolded word. (Answers are at the end of this module.) 1a. She likes video games. 1b. She likes video games. 1c. She likes video games. 1d. She likes video games. 2a. Miranda gave him a present. 2b. Miranda gave him a present. 2c. Miranda gave him a present. 2d. Miranda gave him a present. 3a. He is a really great professor. 3b. He is a really great professor. 3c. He is a really great professor. 3d. He is a really great professor. 4a. The dog slowly dug an enormous hole. 4b. The dog slowly dug an enormous hole. 4c. The dog slowly dug an enormous hole. 4d. The dog slowly dug an enormous hole. 4c. The dog slowly dug an enormous hole. Prepositions are among the most frequently used words in English. When you think of prepositions, you probably think of words that occur with a noun to express a relation, such as a spatial or temporal relation. For example, when you say in the bucket, in is the preposition; when you say, throughout the day, throughout is the preposition. The preposition of expresses 4 Central Michigan University

5 a relation between a part and a whole, as in the tip of the iceberg. Prepositions include the words on, to, by, for, with, at, from, and as. A prepositional phrase is a phrase with a preposition and the object of the preposition (e.g., to the coffee shop). A preposition by itself has no meaning. Conjunctions Conjunctions join two words or two parts of a sentence. ( Conjoined means brought together. ) The words and, but, or, nor, yet, and so connect two parts of a sentence; so do although and unless. Here are some examples of conjunctions in action: I would like to go, but I have an appointment. Johnny and James joined the band. You are welcome to come, unless you are sick. Some words can play the role of a conjunction or a preposition, depending upon the sentence. For example, if I said, I will study until my roommate comes home, the word until is a conjunction. But if I said, I will study until midnight, the word until is a preposition. Interjections Interjections are short words like Ah!, Oh!, and Errr that express emotion or hesitation. These words have no grammatical relationship to the rest of the sentence. Determiners Traditionally, the previous eight parts of speech were considered the basic parts of speech. Today, some grammarians consider determiners a separate part of speech. Determiners introduce a noun and tell us whether the noun phrase is specific or general. Unlike adjectives, which describe a property of the noun, determiners do not tell us about a quality of the noun itself. The words a, an, and the are a type of determiner called articles. These words tell people whether you are talking about any item, such as when you say a dog or an apple, or a particular item, such as when you say the dog or the apple. Some grammarians consider articles a type of adjective, but others consider them a separate class of word a determiner. Other determiners are possessive nouns (Lynn s bag), numbers (four pastries), indefinite pronouns (each seat) and demonstrative pronouns (those books). Quiz #2 Test how quickly you can label the bolded word in each sentence. Answers are at the end of this module. 1a. The shirt was really ugly. 1b. The shirt was really ugly. 1c. The shirt was really ugly. 2a. She went to the store and then came back. 2b. She went to the store and then came back. 2c. She went to the store and then came back. 3a. Gee, that was a hard test. 3b. Gee, that was a hard test. 3c. Gee, that was a hard test. Gerunds, Participles, and Infinitives Sometimes, a word representing one part of speech is altered to function as another part of speech. This can trick you into misidentifying the role the word plays in a sentence. Here are three other terms that refer to specific types of words. Gerunds In English, you can add ing onto a verb to create a noun. For example, in the sentence Fishing is boring, fishing is a noun. When you use a word that is usually a verb after a preposition, you use the gerund, as in I will text you after arriving. Some grammarians do not like to use the word Central Michigan University 5

6 gerund because it is similar to the next class of words: present participles. Participles A participle is a word formed from a verb that is used as an adjective. Verb Rise Complicate Infinitives Present Participle as an Adjective the rising sun a complicated explanation The word to plus a verb is an infinitive, as in to run, to type, and to sing. Infinitives can function as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs, as in the following examples. Noun: To wait much longer is silly. Adjective: He brought a book to read. Adverb: We must read the book to understand. These examples illustrate how difficult it can be to identify parts of speech. For example, phrases that begin with to can be infinitives, as in We must read to understand, or prepositional phrases, as in We must go to the library. Grammatical Categories (Features) Words and words in phrases sometimes change form for grammatical reasons. English has over 20 grammatical categories, which are reasons for varied word forms. Here are nine of the most important grammatical categories. Number Number is a property of nouns or pronouns that indicates whether we are talking about one thing (singular) or more than one thing (plural). In English, adding an s onto a word is an example of changing an item from singular (girl) to plural (girls). In a sentence, number agreement occurs when the form of the verb matches the form of the noun. For example, we say He goes to work every day, but They go to work every day. A sentence lacks number agreement when the number of the subject of the sentence and the verb do not match. For example, The grammatical categories in this presentation is easy to learn has a problem with number agreement. (You should say, "The grammatical categories in this presentation are easy to learn.") Case Case conveys the relationship between a noun or pronoun and the rest of the sentence. In English, we have the subjective case (I bought the flowers), the objective case (She bought the flowers for me), and the possessive case (The flowers are mine). In the first example, you are performing the action, so you choose I. When you are the recipient of the action, as in the second example, you choose me. When you own something, you choose mine. Gender English recognizes natural gender through a property of pronouns that indicates whether the person referred to is male or female (e.g., he vs. she and her vs. his). Although English does not assign a gender to objects, many languages do. Person Person is a category that differentiates people in a conversation: First person is the speaker (e.g., I), second person is the listener (e.g., you), and third person is all other people or objects (e.g., he or she). Tense Tense is the property of verbs that restricts the time frame of an action or state of being, relative to the present. Tense includes the present tense (I am typing) and the past tense (I typed my paper). Aspect Aspect is a property of verbs that tells us about the speaker s perception of the duration, frequency, or completion of an action: 6 Central Michigan University

7 simple: no information about time (They eat). continuous: the action is ongoing (They are eating). perfect: the action is completed (They have eaten). Mood Mood is a feature of verbs that expresses something about the speaker s view of the event. For example, indicative is a simple statement (He is a careful person); imperative is a command (Be careful!); and subjunctive talks about something that is desired, imagined, a possibility, or not necessarily the current reality (You should be careful). Voice Some verbs require an object in the sentence, as in Jane gave away the table. Such sentences are active when the subject of the sentence performs the action, and passive when the subject receives the action (e.g., The table was given away by Jane). Degree Degree is a property of some adjectives and adverbs that lets you convey whether you have some, more, or the most of something: positive (happy), comparative (happier), and superlative (the happiest). Quiz #3 For the last quiz in this module, compare each set of sentences and jot down the grammatical category that shifts. 1. She took the candy. The candy was taken by her. 2. I am listening. You are listening. 3. The dog is digging. The dogs are digging. 4. He is smart. She is smart. 5. I am looking. I looked. 6. I have a cat. The cat is mine. 7. The students study. The students are studying. 8. You are fast. Go fast! 9. Enjoy good food. Enjoy better food. References Dictionary.com. (2014). Verbs. Retrieved from Owl at Purdue. (2014). Parts of speech overview. Retrieved from owl/resource/730/01/ Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct. New York, NY: W. Morrow and Company. Photographs courtesy University Communications Quiz Answers Quiz #1 1a. pronoun 1b. adjective 1c. noun 1d. verb 2a. noun 2b. verb 2c. pronoun 2d. noun 3a. adjective 3b. verb 3c. noun 3d. adverb 4a. noun 4b. adverb 4c. verb 4d. adjective 4c. noun Quiz #2 1a. adverb 1b. noun 1c. adjective 2a. conjunction 2b. pronoun 2c. verb (came back is called a phrasal verb) 3a. interjection 3b. determiner 3c. adjective Quiz #3 1. voice 2. person 3. number 4. gender 5. tense 6. case 7. aspect 8. mood 9. degree Central Michigan University 7

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