Grammar Series 1. WORD CLASSES (Basic)

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1 Study Advice Service Grammar Series 1 WORD CLASSES (Basic) Author: Peter Wilson It is very handy to be able to talk about words. This is basic Grammar, and useful if you are learning Languages or Linguistics. But it is also the easiest way, sometimes, for a student and a teacher to talk about writing style. So here is a simple guide to the simplest part of grammar: Word Classes. Experts will point out that it is too simple to be true. They are right. But I hope it is simple enough to help. If you want to know more, there are many textbooks of grammar that will help. The best way of learning, of course, is to practise. But there is not space in this Guide to include exercises. See some of the titles listed at the end of the Guide or attend a language class! if you want to find good learning experiences. Words fall into two main kinds Semantic Words or Lexical Words are words with meaning, sometimes called Form Words. Semantic Words are the words that carry most of the information in a sentence. They can be divided into four main groups: nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. Function Words. These have less meaning, but do useful jobs in language. They are the little words that act as the glue, or connectors, inside a sentence. Without them, the Semantic Words do not make as much sense. They include articles, prepositions, conjunctions and pronouns. As a general rule, Function Words form Closed Sets i.e. new ones do not often enter the language. In contrast, Semantic Words form Open Sets i.e. new ones are constantly being developed. When an inventor produces a new product, or a scientist makes a new discovery, we need new words to describe or name them. And in slang, of course, new words are invented all the time some of which become part of the formal language. 1. Semantic Words A Nouns In Primary School, you may have learnt that a noun is a naming word. This is true as far as it goes. The Secondary School definition is 'a noun is the name of a thing, idea, person or place.' Even easier: if you can put a word, on its own, after 'the' or 'a' and it feels natural, then it is probably a noun e.g. the man, a car, a university, a course, the reference, etc. This does not apply to all nouns e.g. people's names only have 'the' before them in unusual circumstances, but they are Web: Tel:

2 still nouns. For example "the Anne [that I am talking about] is the one in the History Department"; "the Hull I mean is in Canada." There are several kinds of noun. The most important are: Common nouns - the names of ordinary, everyday people, places, things, animals, ideas etc.: a man, a town, a desk, a dog, a car, a bridge, a religion, etc. Proper nouns: the special names given to particular examples of common nouns, e.g. Peter, Hull, Rover [a dog], Rover [a car], the [Humber] Bridge, Christianity, etc. Proper Nouns are the ones you should write with Capital Letters. A different way of classifying nouns is by the sort of thing they mean. Concrete nouns refer to things you can actually experience directly through your senses e.g. a brick, a window, a smell, a song, or a taste. Abstract nouns are the things that only exist in the mind, such as religion, an idea, and an argument. (Note that an abstract noun can be either a common noun e.g. religion or a proper noun e.g. Buddhism, Christianity or Islam.) Collective nouns are the names of collections of things, or, more usually, people. A committee contains several people, but is thought of as a unit. The Cabinet is made up of some 20 Ministers, but is a single body. Ideally you should use a singular verb with a collective noun the Government thinks that but many writers do not follow this rule. They have some justification when they are talking about the behaviour of individuals e.g. The Committee have expressed many opinions (rather than has). B Verbs The Primary School definition is a doing word. In Secondary School, this may have been expanded to a word that expresses an action or a state. A more modern way of looking at it is as a word that can have tense i.e. that can change, or be changed, to express past, present or future (etc). If you can say I do it today (or I am doing it today ) and then change it to I will do it tomorrow or I did it yesterday, then it is probably a verb. This covers the case of verbs that express a state (e.g. to be and to become) as well as verbs of action (e.g. to fight, to play, to run.) (It is sometimes useful to be able to classify verbs into such groups as verbs of utterance (e.g. to say, to argue, to define etc) or verbs of thought (to think, to consider, to agree etc). These can be useful ways of thinking about verbs, particularly for foreign speakers learning some of the patterns of English; but they are not necessary as part of understanding grammar.) C Adjectives In the Primary School, these were describing words. In Secondary School, they were words used to qualify (= say more about) nouns. 2

3 The more modern basis of Word Classes is to consider the ways words are used. Notice that an adjective is a word that can be placed between the or a and a noun in order to tell us more about the noun. Examples are: a red car; a large drink; a naughty child; a vicious dog; the American people; a beautiful sunset; the cold weather; the third door; a good idea; an Impressionist painting; the Communist theory; etc. D Adverbs In Primary School, these were also describing words, but those used for describing verbs. (Note the etymology: adverb.) In Secondary School, they were words used to modify a verb. (Modify = say more about the way in which a verb is done, or carried out, or happens ). In more modern grammar, adverbs are said to be defined by their being used in several ways. They can be used with verbs, to tell more about the manner, time or place in which the verb is done. Examples: Later, it became dark; She slapped him cruelly; he hit her hard; the car went quickly; then he kissed her; it was here; I ll do it tomorrow; the dog ran forward, fast; he thought carefully; etc. (Note that many adverbs used with verbs but not all end in ly. This is a way of forming adverbs out of adjectives. Compare He drew a rough picture (adjective) with He drew a picture roughly (adverb).) Adverbs can also be used with sentences. Here, their meaning is not limited to modifying the means of the verb. Instead, they have an effect on how we understand the whole sentence. Examples include (as well as Instead above): Importantly, we should consider ; However, it was not to be; Therefore we must reconsider our decision; Consequently the Government lost the argument; (Sometimes it can be hard to separate a Sentence adverb from an ordinary (or verbal) adverb. This distinction is not important in many cases.) Adverbs are also used to modify adjectives and other adverbs such words as very, quite and extremely, etc. 2. Function Words A B Articles There are only two (or three) articles in English the and a (and an). The first is the definite article (called definite because it tends to define a definite or particular one). That is the car I d like means the particular model, or machine. The second (and third) are called the indefinite article(s), because they are much more vague. They tend to mean any one I d like a car means any car. Pronouns As the name suggests, these are words that stand for nouns. There are several kinds. The easiest to start with are the Personal pronouns. These are words like she, which stands for any female person I have just been talking about ; he ( any male person ); I stands for the person who is actually talking ; it any thing that has already been mentioned and sometimes, any thing whose name I don t know at present ; etc. Personal pronouns come in three forms one for whoever is doing the action of the verb in the 3

4 sentence (the subjective form); one for the person to whom it is being done (the objective form); and a form which says belonging to (the possessive). The possessive is usually used, like an adjective, with a noun. There is also a possessive form, used without a noun, which says that belongs to me the demonstrative possessive (e.g. that s mine ). This should not be confused with the demonstrative pronoun (see below). Finally, there is a reflexive form. This is the word we use to refer back to a previously mentioned word. If we say John hit him, we presume that the victim of the assault was another person than John. If, on the other hand, we say John hit himself, we presume that John has had an accident. Reflexive pronouns end in -self. See the complete set of personal pronouns in the table. The complete set of personal pronouns is: Subjective Objective Possessive Demonstrative Possessive Reflexive 1 st person singular I me my mine myself 2 nd person singular you you your yours yourself [In older English thou thee thy thine thyself] 3 rd person singular - masculine he him his his himself feminine she her her hers herself neuter it it its its itself 1 st person plural we us our ours ourselves 2 nd person plural you you your yours yourselves [In older English Ye] 3 rd person plural they them their theirs themselves impersonal one one one s oneself Note: Singular: one of the word, e.g. a boy, a child, he. Plural: more than one e.g. boys, children, they. 1st person: means the person who is speaking I. 2nd person: the person to whom the 1st person is talking you. 3rd person: the one we are talking about he, she, it, they. Relative pronouns sometimes called wh-words are pronouns (words which stand for nouns) which relate one meaning to another meaning. The commonest are which, who and whose. Where and when also fit this pattern. Who is like the personal pronouns in the table. It fits in a similar table: 4

5 Subjective Objective Possessive Demonstrative Possessive Reflexive who whom whose whose - Note that whom is like him. If you are confused about when to use whom, try substituting he or him. If him sounds more natural, use whom. If he sounds more natural, use who. Relative pronouns often behave like subordinating conjunctions see D on page 6. Beware a common spelling error: whose is the possessive form. Who s is the contracted form of who is. (Contracted forms, like isn t, I m, she s and can t should be avoided in academic English writing.) Demonstrative pronouns show (demonstrate) what you are talking about. Don t confuse them with demonstrative possessives (see above). This, that, these and those are the commonest but they are only pronouns when they are single words, standing for a noun, e.g. That is the one I want. The same words can be used with a noun, e.g. I want that book, when they are called demonstrative adjectives. (This distinction does not really matter, most of the time, unless you are an expert or working with two different languages.) Interrogative pronouns are used to ask questions. In form, they are wh- words, and are the same as relative pronouns. (See above.) C Prepositions These are such short words as in, of, to, etc. They are used to show the relationship of a noun to other words, or to the rest of the sentence. Their meaning is not always very strong, and their use often depends on the idioms of natural native English. As their name suggests, they are usually placed ( positioned ) in front of ( pre- ) the noun or noun phrase they apply to. If you use prepositions with a pronoun, it is correct to use the Objective form of the pronoun. He gave it to me feels natural; but some people become confused with particularly the preposition between. Between you and me is correct; between you and I is wrong. Prepositions form a closed set in English. Sometimes the same word can be used with a noun, and also with a verb. In the first case it is a preposition; in the second it is a subordinating conjunction (see D below). Some prepositions are: as (when it is used with a noun), about, at, by, for, from, in, inside, into, of, on, outside, onto, to, with, etc. Compound prepositions are two (or more) words usually used together. These include because of, out of. Note that, while US and informal UK English use the form out the window (simple preposition), formal academic English in the UK prefers the compound preposition out of the window. The opposite is true of outside: the formal academic form in the UK is outside the house but US English prefers outside of the window. Prepositions are often very confusing for foreign learners of English. They have very unclear meanings, and often a preposition in English may have several equivalents in the foreign language and the other way round. The best way to study them is one by one to learn the particular examples as they occur. There is good help in 5

6 articles of Michael Swan Practical English Usage Oxford, Oxford University Press 2 nd edn D Conjunctions These are joining words words which make a junction between two units. There are two kinds. Co-ordinating conjunctions form a closed class. In English, these are and, but, either, or, neither and nor. As the name suggests, they join two units of equal importance. Subordinating conjunctions are used to link clauses (or sentences) together in such a way as to show their relationship of meaning. The basic structure of a sentence with subordination is: He said that It was a fine day Main Clause Subordinating conjunction Clause Subordinate Clause Here you can see that the subordinating conjunction ( that ) joins the Main Clause, He said to another Clause, the Subordinate Clause, it was a fine day. One problem is that at times the Main Clause, grammatically speaking, is not the most important idea in a sentence, logically speaking. So it can be difficult to be sure which Clause is the Main Clause. If it has no subordinating conjunction inside it, it is probably the Main Clause. Subordinating conjunctions are such words as although, as, because, if, since, that, though, until, where, when, while, etc. As you can see, some of these begin with wh-. They often behave similarly to the other wh-words the relative pronouns. See B above. As with prepositions, there are also compound subordinating conjunctions such as as soon as, so that. Note: in formal academic English, use like as a preposition only (with nouns). With verbs (clauses) use the conjunction as. (In informal English, many people use like with verbs (e.g. like I said ). This is regarded as a mistake in academic writing). Other word classes Grammarians (students of grammar) sometimes argue about how many classes of words there are. The number, for English, usually falls between 8 and 11. Don't worry about this, unless you are a student of linguistics. One other class might be mentioned here: Interjections. These are the single words or short phrases that are normally used only in spoken English, to express a (sudden) emotion or something similar. Examples are gosh! wow! My goodness! Ow! Ouch! etc. One confusing thing about Word Classes is that the same group of letters ('word') can be used in different ways. For example: you can back your car (where back is used as a verb); you can hurt your back (noun); you can go back (adverb); or you can look out of the back window (adjective). As can be a preposition (she was as good as gold) and a conjunction, as you can see. These distinctions are 6

7 important if you are making a study of language, or learning a foreign language. At times, they do not matter if you are simply trying to acquire a rough knowledge of Word Classes. For more about grammar see: Grammar: recommended resources on the website at All web addresses in this leaflet were correct at the time of publication The information in this leaflet can be made available in an alternative format on request. Telephone /2008 7

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