Parts of speech are the building blocks for the English language. Using parts of speech, you can create all sorts of amazing sentences just by putting them in different order, adding more parts of speech in, taking some parts of speech out—the possibilities are almost endless! There are eight parts of speech in the English language, and while most of the time you will probably not be asked to label all of them, it is important that you are familiar with each and its purpose so that you can recognize an example of each. One of the fun things about English is that a single word can act as multiple parts of speech depending on how it is used and where it is placed. This is why understanding how all of the parts function is so important; you need to be able to identify how words are being used and if their usage is actually correct.
Nouns are one of the most common parts of speech in the English language and one of the earliest we use. For most of us, nouns are our first words. A noun will name a person (Mary), place (Pennsylvania), thing (cat), or idea (love). They act as the subject in a sentence and tell a reader who or what. There are two types of nouns: common nouns and proper nouns. Nouns can be plural or singular. They can describe something concrete (something tangible that you can touch or feel) or abstract (an idea or belief). Nouns are a very important part of speech.
Common nouns are just that—common. They are everywhere you look, everywhere you go. Common nouns are the generic terms for a class or type of thing (if you get into specifics, you may start getting into proper nouns). Because they are so common, they do not get capitalized. Common nouns may be singular or plural, but there is nothing about them that makes them special or stand out. Here is a brief list of common nouns:
Proper nouns are special. They are specifically named nouns, not just one of the crowd. Proper nouns name a particular, one-of-a-kind noun and because it is called out by name, it gets a capitalized first letter no matter where it appears in the sentence. Here are some examples of common nouns on the left and a proper noun example of each on the right:
Nouns may be singular (only one) or plural (more than one).To make a noun plural, you usually just add an s, but there are exceptions.
If the word ends with:
There are also some irregular plural forms to watch out for, where you may have to change a letter or letters to correctly change the number. Here are a few examples:
When you make man plural, it becomes men
woman becomes women
child becomes children
person becomes people
mouse becomes mice
tooth becomes teeth
And sometimes the plural form is spelled the same as the singular form:
Collective nouns are nouns that name a whole collection or group of people or things as one cohesive (or collective) unit. Although technically numbering multiple things, we refer to them as a single unit:
“The team celebrated a victory.” (multiple people on the team, but considered one whole)
“The army fought to keep its position.” (Not an army of one, but they are working together. In this case even the pronoun its is singular.)
A concrete noun is a person, place, thing, or idea that can be touched, seen, heard, smelled, or tasted. In other words, a concrete noun is something that can be detected through one or more of our senses. If you can point it out to someone else, it’s probably a concrete noun. Concrete nouns may be plural or singular (pools/swing) and may also be common or proper (girl/Mrs. Tescher). In the previous examples, all of those people and things can be pointed out to another person.
Abstract nouns are a little harder to describe to someone because they cannot be detected through our senses. Abstract nouns are generally ideas, qualities, and states of being that are not tangible (cannot be touched or held). Things like love, peace, democracy, bravery, heroism, worry, happiness—you cannot point at these things and show someone what they look like (you may be able to find examples of people who embody these qualities or ideas, but not the qualities or ideas themselves) so they are abstract.
These noun markers are little indicator words that let you know a noun is coming. Articles, determiners, and quantifiers are the three noun markers with which you should be familiar. Articles (a/an/the) are the most common markers. The is used to indicate a specific noun (“The cup is on the table.” In this sentence, we know cup and table are our nouns because there are thes right before each one.) A is used to indicate a singular noun that starts with a consonant or a consonant sound. For example:
“Cheryl will wear a white dress.”
“There was a one dollar bill in the washing machine.”
Even though one starts with a vowel, it sounds like it starts with a consonant [wun], so a is used.).
An is used to indicate a singular noun that starts with a vowel or a vowel sound. As in, “Mark ordered an antique lamp for the dining room.” Or, “It is an honor to make your acquaintance.”
Some nouns never use an article to introduce them: names of languages, people, sports, or academic subjects, for instance.
“Xio was learning English in night school.” (However, if you changed the noun English to be an adjective and added language as your noun, then you would use an article: “Xio was learning the English language in night school.”)
“Patricia plays basketball for her high school team.”
“Will you ask Polly if she wants a cracker?”
Any of the following can act as noun markers and can help you find the nouns in a sentence:
Keep in mind that adjectives can come between the noun marker and the noun it is introducing, so the noun will not always be the word directly after the marker.
In a complete sentence, you should be able to identify a subject, a predicate (the part of the sentence where the verb is located), and a complete thought. The subject will generally be a noun (with any words that modify it) and the easiest way to determine which noun is the subject (if there are multiple nouns in the sentence) is to find the verb (the action word) and ask yourself, who or what is doing this action in this sentence? The answer to that question will usually be your subject. Consider this sentence:
“The huge, old horse could run circles around younger animals.”
The subject of this sentence is horse because it is doing the action: running. If you were asked to find the complete subject, it would be huge, old horse and include all the words used to modify horse.
Pronouns are words that replace or refer to previously mentioned nouns. Because they refer to nouns already mentioned, it is important to use the right pronoun so that your readers do not become confused as to who or what you are talking about. We use pronouns so that sentences do not become too wordy, repetitive, or confusing. Look at this sentence, for example:
“Melanie and Melanie’s sister are going to visit Melanie’s uncle on a small farm Melanie’s uncle owns in Minnesota and Melanie and Melanie’s sister are going to stay on the uncle’s farm for three weeks.”
Phew! But look what happens when we replace some of those nouns with pronouns:
“Melanie and her sister are going to visit their uncle on a small farm he owns in Minnesota and they are going to stay on his farm for three weeks.”
All of the ideas of the original sentence are still there, but by using pronouns instead of repeating Melanie, we cleaned up the sentence and made it easier to understand.
Agreement in Number
When you use a pronoun, the noun it is replacing or referring to is called the antecedent. Pronouns must agree in number and person with their antecedent. Agreement in number means:
If the pronoun is replacing a singular noun, the pronoun must be singular. If it is replacing a plural noun, then the pronoun must be plural. For example:
“Geri walked her dogs down the street; they were very well-behaved.”
In this sentence, her is the pronoun for the antecedent Geri. Geri is one female, so the appropriate pronoun for that is her. If you were going to write another sentence about her:
“She made sure to pick up after her dogs, too.”
In this sentence, she and her are both pronouns still referring to Geri. The pronoun they is referring to the noun dogs; because dogs is plural, so is the pronoun they.
This sentence has an issue with pronoun-antecedent agreement:
“If a customer is dissatisfied with a purchase, they can bring it back for a full refund.”
A customer is a single noun, but they is a plural pronoun referring to a group of more than one. To fix the pronoun-antecedent agreement, you would change the pronoun:
“If a customer is dissatisfied with a purchase, he or she can bring it back for a full refund.”
Now we have a singular pronoun (he or she, since the customer could be male or female) referring to our singular noun (customer).
Tricky Agreement Issues
Remember that pronouns like everybody, anyone, no one, somebody, etc. are actually singular and therefore require singular pronouns.
“Everybody was responsible for bringing his or her own drinks to the party.”
“No one will miss his or her opportunity to be entered into the drawing.”
“Neither of the boys brought his dirty laundry home to be washed.”
Agreement in Person
Pronouns must also agree with their antecedents in terms of person. What this means is that when writing is done in the first person (I, me, we), you cannot switch to second person pronouns (you) or third person pronouns (he, she, they, it, etc.). Same rule applies if the writing is done in second or third person voice: pronouns must match the tense used. Look at this sentence as an example:
“When a person buys a used car, you get what you pay for.”
Here we started in third person (a person) and switched to second person (you) when it came time to replace with a pronoun. To fix it, we want to keep all of the pronouns consistent in person with the voice already established in the sentence.
“When you buy a used car, you get what you pay for.”
In this case, it was easier to change the entire sentence to second person than to change the second person pronouns to third person (that would have been a lot of hes and shes and would have made the sentence confusing).
One caveat when using pronouns is to make sure that it is clear who or what your pronouns are referring to so that meaning does not become ambiguous. For example:
“When Sean dropped the vase in the sink, it broke.”
This use of pronouns is ambiguous because we really have no way of knowing if it was the vase that broke or the sink. What is the it?
Before you can use a pronoun, you need to set up a clear antecedent. For example:
“They should elaborate on their stance with regard to human cloning.”
Who is they? This sentence is much better in terms of clarity:
“The candidates should elaborate on their stance with regard to human cloning. They have been vague about their position up to this point.”
Now we have set up a clear antecedent and identified who should elaborate on their stance so that candidates can now be replaced by a pronoun they.
Pronoun Usage Issues
If you encounter a situation where there are two pronouns in a sentence or a noun and a pronoun and you’re not sure which pronoun case to use, try leaving out the other noun and see what makes sense. This happens a lot, especially with me and I. For example:
“Bobby and me wanted to go out for ice cream.”
What if Bobby didn’t want to go? Would you say, “Me wanted to go out for ice cream”? Not unless you were trying to be a caveman. The correct pronoun to use in that example would be I. “I wanted to go out for ice cream.” Now invite Bobby back into the sentence, “Bobby and I wanted to go out for ice cream.” Ta-da! No more caveman talk.
Now here’s an example where I is incorrectly used:
“The usher gave programs to my friend and I.”
Leave the friend out of it and you have, “The usher gave programs to I.” Really? That doesn’t sound right. “The usher gave programs to me” would be the correct version. Bring the friend back in and you have:
“The usher gave programs to my friend and me.”
Now this is correct. Sometimes what is grammatically correct may sound awkward until you become used to it. Apply the test, see what happens, and go with that answer.
There are three main types of pronouns: subjective, objective, and possessive.
When a pronoun is subjective, it just means that the pronoun is serving as the subject of the sentence:
“She is going to the mall.”
She is who or what the sentence is about so she is a subjective pronoun.
Objective pronouns are used as the objects of verbs or prepositions:
“Maggie’s family was hosting a foreign exchange student and Maggie looked forward to meeting her.”
In this sentence, Maggie is the subject of the sentence so the her that refers to the foreign exchange student becomes the objective pronoun.
Possessive pronouns are the pronouns that show ownership or possession:
“My keys are on the kitchen table.”
In this sentence, my is the possessive pronoun because it identifies the owner of the keys.
Although there is a long list of pronouns, it’s important to use real ones and not make up your own versions. When converting between number or person, make sure that you are changing the nouns correctly. Here is a chart to show the changes each pronoun undergoes when shifting between subjective, objective, and possessive:
Pronouns this, that, these, those, and which do not change form; they are the same whether they are acting as subject, object, or showing possession.
“Please give the ball to her.”
“Whose dirty socks are these?”
“We will plan the trip together.”
“Give your brother his train.”
“I think that is their lost dog.”
“That is the lucky hat I was looking for.”
Reflexive pronouns are used when the object and the subject of a verb are the same; a reflexive pronoun is used for the object. Reflexive pronouns are the ones that end in self or selves (himself, herself, itself, themselves, etc.). Take the next sentence as an example:
“Marty pinched himself in disbelief.”
If you change the reflexive pronoun himself into one of the three standard types, you change the whole meaning of the sentence:
“Marty pinched him in disbelief.”
This sentence makes it sounds as though Marty can’t keep his hands to himself and he is pinching another male person. That is far different from pinching himself.
Important Note: Words such as hisself or theirselves just don’t exist. If you are unsure about a pronoun form, ask your instructor, a smart friend, or do some research and look it up. There is no excuse for making up pronoun forms on your own.