Introduction

Why Parts of Speech Matter

There are eight parts of speech, and it pays to learn them. If you want to become a better writer, you need to know something about the building blocks of language.

Our approach to parts of speech is fairly straight forward. The primary goal is to help you identify each part of speech in the context of a sentence. That’s why we’ve tried to keep this section as streamlined as possible. Most of the instruction in usage and specific grammatical problems has been set aside for later.

If, after you work through this section, you can spot an adverb or a preposition, then that’s cause for celebration. Any other grammatical rules your pick up along the way are just a nice bonus.

Nouns

Introduction

The word noun comes from Latin nomen, which means name. At a basic level, a noun names a person, place, or thing:

Sarah
dishwasher
ocean
New York

Often you can put an article (the or a) before the noun, a verb afterwards, and before you know it you have a sentence:

The phone rang.

As with all parts of speech, a word’s function in the sentence is dependent on context, on how it interacts with the words around it. With every new part of speech that you learn, the previous ones will come into focus more clearly.

Common and Proper Nouns

There are two types of nouns. Proper nouns refer to specific persons, places, or things, and they begin with a capital letter. The others are called common nouns, and the only time they are capitalized is if they are an important title or if they occur at the beginning of a sentence:

Common Nouns Proper Nouns
boy John
Pope Pope Francis
planet Mars
brand Lego
President Nixon
state Florida
race Daytona 500

Abstract and Concrete Nouns

As mentioned, all nouns are either common or proper nouns. However, we can use two other terms to categorize nouns. Nouns can also be classified as concrete or abstract. A concrete noun is something you can easily experience using your senses. You can see your friend, you can stand on a hill, and you can hear an airplane.

Yet a noun doesn’t have to be just a person, place, or thing. It can also be something that resembles a quality, an idea, or an action. These nouns are more abstract in nature. Here are some examples:

Quality, Concept, Idea Action
difference celebration
juiciness counting
majority competition
absence bungee jumping
religion sewing
freedom water polo
happiness birth

The most confusing here are the action words. Aren’t they supposed to be verbs? The answer is that not every action is automatically a verb. For example, any word that looks like a verb and ends in –ing is a present participle, and present participles are not verbs (they’re called verbals). In fact, sometimes a verbal (e.g., sewing) can be a noun. It all depends on how the word is used in the sentence.

In the next section we will review some of the main uses of nouns. Context will tell you a lot about whether a word is a noun.

The Uses of Nouns

At the core of every sentence is a subject that normally contains at least a noun or pronoun (the pronoun standing in for the noun). This subject does the action of the main verb:

Colleen called.

A noun can also be the direct object of the verb. In other words, it receives the action of the verb:

Emily ran a marathon.

If the noun is the indirect recipient of the action, then we call it the indirect object:

I sent an email to Madeleine.

A noun can also be the object of a preposition:

The wind whispered through the trees.

There are other uses as well, but the point is that nouns don’t exist in a vacuum. They have a job to do.

And that’s what will allow you to recognize the more confusing nouns, especially the ones that are more abstract or look like actions. Take the following example:

Practice took a long time.

The word practice might look like an action, and in another sentence it might be a verb (I practice), but here we already have a main verb (took). So we can figure out that practice has to be the subject (the thing that took a long time).

Pronouns: Intro

Introduction

A pronoun is a word that stands in for a noun. The word goes back to Latin (pronomen), and literally means in the place of (pro) a name/noun (nomen). That’s why pronouns usually come after the noun that they refer back to:

John‘s robot even combs his hair for him.

Here the pronoun his refers back to John, a proper noun. Bonus points if you noticed that the same applies to him.

The noun that comes before the pronoun also has a fancy Latin name: it’s called the antecedent (from Latin antecedere, to go before).

It can happen that the pronoun comes before the noun, as in this example:

In his last will and testament, Carl left his wife the whole kit and caboodle.

It can also happen that a pronoun has no antecedent, as Lewis Carroll famously pointed out in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In this passage, the Mouse is trying to read a history lesson, when the Duck rudely interrupts him:

[Said the mouse,] “…even Stigand, the patriotic archbishop of Canterbury, found it advisable—”

“Found what?” said the Duck.

“Found it,” the Mouse replied rather crossly: “of course you know what “it” means.”

“I know what ‘it’ means well enough, when I find a thing,” said the Duck: “it’s generally a frog or a worm. The question is, what did the archbishop find?”

Whereas the Duck insists that language should follow the rules, and that it must refer to something, the Mouse takes the view that his intended meaning is clear. Intentions are more important rules.

As the Duchess will later say, “take care of the sense, and the sounds will take care of themselves.”

If life were only that easy.

Pronouns: Eight Types

The Eight Types

There are eight kinds of pronouns, and while you don’t have to memorize their names, it will help you to spend some time with them. Here they are:

Types of Pronouns
Personal Demonstrative
Impersonal Indefinite
Interrogative Reflexive
Relative Reciprocal

The biggest categories are the personal and indefinite pronouns; the other ones are quite small.

Verbs: Main Types

Introduction

Verbs are usually action words. They indicate what the subject of each clause is doing. That’s why you cannot have a sentence without at least one main verb.

Here is a sentence with two clauses, and therefore two verbs:

When I remember my childhood, I become sentimental.

The sentence also reveals that not every verb is clearly an action. The verb become shows a change or a process. These abstract verbs are less about action, and more about describing a state of being (many of them are linking verbs).

So let’s dig in and learn about the different kinds of verbs.

Transitive, Intransitive, and Linking verbs

There are two main types of verbs: transitive and intransitive verbs. However, some intransitive verbs can also be described as linking verbs.

Transitive verbs take a direct object. The word transitive is derived from the Latin verb transire, which means to go or cross over. English actually has quite a few words that start with trans, and in each case the prefix means across / cross:

translate = carry across (from one language to another)

transvestite = cross dresser

transition = crossing over

transport = convey across

trans-Atlantic = across the Atlantic

In the same way, transitive verbs carry the action across to a direct object:

She sold her car.

Transitive verb: sold.

Direct object: her car.

By contrast, intransitive verbs lack a direct object:

I fell down the stairs.

Intransitive verb: fell.

Prepositional phrase: down the stairs.

If we asked fell what? there is no answer. The prepositional phrase explains where these actions took place, but there is no direct object.

However, there are many verbs that can be both transitive and intransitive:

I guessed the answer.

I just guessed.

In most dictionaries, the abbreviations vt and vi will tell you if a verb is transitive, intransitive, or both.

The third category of verbs consists of linking verbs (a kind of intransitive verb). These verbs don’t take a direct object. Instead, they are followed by a noun or adjective that describes the subject:

Henry is a mechanic.

She became angry.

The linking verb acts like an equal sign, linking the subject to the description after the verb. The latter is called the subject complement:

Subject = complement (noun or adjective)

There aren’t that many linking verbs, and most of them are forms of to be. The others tend to describe states of being or are associated with the senses:

“To Be” States of Being Senses
am appear feel
is become look
are grow/turn smell
was stay/remain sound
were seem taste

Note that “to be” can also be a helping verb.

As you study the following examples, look for the way in which the subject complement (the noun or adjective after the linking verb) describes the subject:

Your duet sounded fantastic.

This specimen is a Libellula depressa, a species of dragonfly.

The apple pie smells lovely.

The main dish will be linguine.

Be careful though: some of these linking verbs can be transitive or intransitive verbs in a different context:

Smell the roses!

He tasted the oysters.

She is in the bathroom.

Kendra looked through the telescope.

The first two sentences have direct objects and the last two end with prepositional phrases (so no direct object or subject complement).



Helping Verbs

Helping or auxiliary verbs allow us to create verb phrases. Without them we would have a hard time expressing exactly when something happened (tense), what the tone of the statement is (mood), and whether the action is active or passive (voice).

In addition, a subcategory of helping verbs (called modal auxiliaries) provides other nuances like possibility and necessity.

Three of the most common helping verbs come in quite a few forms (in grammatical terms, they are strongly inflected):

Be Do Have
am do have
are does has
is did had
was doing having
were done
be
being
been

These helping verbs make it easy to create verb phrases:

does suggest

have been talking

did wonder

were harvesting

In a sentence, these phrases may be interrupted by adverbs:

You were not listening

I am fortunately going on holidays then.

Alternatively, in questions a helping verb may come before the subject:

Have you been taking your medication?

The only thing that never changes is that the helping verbs always come before the main verb.


Modal Auxiliaries

There are also quite a few helping verbs that allow you to fine-tune the exact meaning of a verb phrase. These are the modal auxiliaries, and in the chart they are organized by function:

Modal Auxiliary Function
can/could ability/possibility
may/might possibility/permission
must/ought to obligation
should obligation/condition
would condition
shall/will intention/probability

As you can see, some modals have multiple or overlapping uses. Let’s take a closer look at a few that are easily misused.

Shall

There are three ways to use shall:

1. To express a command or make a strong statement:

You shall not pass!

2. To ask a question or make a suggestion:

Shall we go to the mall?

3. To indicate the future tense:

We shall overcome.

Now here’s the rub: traditionally rule three applies only to first person subjects. You can say I shall or we shall (both first person), but you’re not supposed to say you shall or they shall (unless you’re commanding them – see rule 1).

If you find this confusing, you can take comfort from the fact that most people use will just to form the future tense (also in the first person). Even in formal writing will is generally acceptable (more so in North America than in Britain). But if you want to be a stickler you can go around shouting “Thou shalt use shall to indicate the future tense with first person subjects only!”

May vs. Might

Often we use may and might interchangeably, but there is a subtle difference between them: may suggests a stronger possibility than might. The latter is more hypothetical, and is especially useful to describe situations that are contrary to fact (they didn’t happen, but they might have).

Let’s first look at some examples where may and might are interchangeable:

I may order a cheese burger.

I might go for a swim later.

By contrast, the following sentences clearly require might rather than may:

If you had stopped smoking decades ago, your lungs might now be clean.

Had I not slammed on the breaks, you might now be in a hospital.

In these cases we are dealing with hypothetical situations, where might is preferred.

And that’s it for helping verbs. Use them together with transitive, intransitive, and linking verbs to form complex verb phrases.

More Exercises


Verbs: Characteristics

Introduction

In our first section on verbs, we introduced the different kinds of verbs, including transitive and intransitive verbs, linking verbs, and helping verbs.

On this page we turn our attention to the different parts of each verb, and how we can change the verb to indicate tense, mood, and voice.

Principal Parts

Now that we know the types of verbs we might encounter, we are ready to look at the main parts that make up a verb.

There are four principal parts:

Principle Part Example
Basic Form

(An action in the present: I + present tense)

kick
Past Tense

(An action in the past: I + past tense)

kicked
Past Participle

(Often the same as the past tense. Usually formed by adding -ed to the present tense)

kicked
Present Participle

(Formed by adding -ing to the basic form)

kicking

Not all grammar books include the present participle, but we’ve done so to show that all verb tenses can be formed from these principal parts.

Also, by themselves past and present participles cannot be verbs (they’re called verbals), but with helping verbs they can be part of the verb phrase (e.g., will be seeing).

There are some verbs that are a bit irregular in how they form these four principal parts. That’s why they are called irregular verbs! Here are some examples:

Basic Form Past Tense Past Participle Present Participle
drive drove driven driving
read read read reading
sing sang sung singing
swim swam swum swimming

If you’re a native speaker, but you’re not quite sure how to form the past participle, you can ask yourself, how would I finish a phrase such as he had or it was … ? For example, if the verb is swear you might say he had sworn and know that the past participle is sworn.

If English is not your first language, it will take you some time to study the few hundred irregular verbs that have different principal parts.

Verb Tenses

Now that we know about helping verbs and about the principal parts, we can move on to the different tenses of the verb. These allow us to make subtle distinctions about when something is happening.

The following chart provides a quick overview of the twelve different tenses, as applied to both a regular and irregular verb:

For more information about all twelve tenses, please see our detailed introduction to verb tense.

Mood

You can think of the mood as the tone or manner in which something is expressed. English has three moods: the indicative, imperative, and subjunctive.

The indicative is the one we use most often. It includes statements of fact and questions:

The time passes so quickly.

We will be doing a fundraiser.

Aren’t you glad I didn’t say “banana”?

We want justice.

By that time I will have been waiting for five hours.

Indicative statements can use any of the twelve verb tenses described above.

The imperative mood covers commands, requests, and instructions. The subject of an imperative verb is implied (it’s usually you):

Do the right thing and buy me a coffee. (you do and buy)

Please join me in applauding a fine performance. (you join)

Follow these simple instructions to put together your new table. (you follow)

The subjunctive is the mood that gives writers the most trouble, in part because it is little used. These days we tend to use modal helping verbs (like should, would, etc.) to create the same effect.

The subjunctive expresses conditions that are contrary to fact, hypothetical situations that have not happened or are not likely to happen.

Here’s how the subjunctive is formed:

Subjunctive Verbs

Now that you know how to form the subjunctive, let’s look at some situations in which the subjunctive should be used.

Hypothetical Statements:

If I were rich, I would live in a hotel. (indicative: I was; I will live)

Wishes and desires:

I wish I were older.

Clauses that start with that and express commands, advice, wishes, and so on:

I suggest that he leave at once. (indicative: he leaves)

If you’re not sure if a statement is subjunctive, try inserting a modal helping verb that makes the clause subjunctive (that he should leave). If that works then the subjunctive mood is probably appropriate.

Advanced Information

The subjunctive is disappearing from the English language, which is why you may often find it more natural to use the indicative form. Here’s a good example:

Subjunctive: If I be honest

Indicative: If I am honest

Most of us would pick the indicative, and not feel bad about it.

The one place where the subjunctive will likely survive for quite some time yet is in common expressions:

So be it

Be that as it may

If I were you

God help us / So help me God

Heaven forbid

Long live the King

Finally, even though the subjunctive is on the way out in English, it is frequently used in other languages.

Voice

The last grammatical category that we need to learn is the voice of the verb. The voice refers to the relationship between the subject and the action.

If the verb has an active voice, then the subject is doing the action.

If the verb has a passive voice then the action is happening to the subject. In other words, the subject would normally be the object of the verb.

Active voice: Treebeard sang a song.

Passive voice: The song was sung by Treebeard.

The passive voice is formed by using some form of to be as a helping verb and adding a past participle. Here are some examples:

To Be + Past Participle
am headhunted
had been praised
will be struck
were seen

Another clue that you’re dealing with the passive voice is that the implied subject is often included after the verb (usually in a by construction):

These cows are milked by robots.

In fact, to make a sentence active you need to figure out who is actually doing the action (robots) and make that the subject:

Robots milk these cows.

However, not all verbs are easily transformed from the active to the passive (or vice versa). Some transitive verbs that take a direct object in the active voice simply don’t make sense in a passive construction. For example, you can’t say that something is lacked.

Usage

As much as possible, write in the active voice. Compare the following two sentences for directness:

If you want to ensure a successful rebellion, the current ruler must be apprehended, all media outlets must be captured and controlled, and innocent civilians should be protected as much as possible.

If you want to ensure a successful rebellion, you should apprehend the current ruler, capture and control all media outlets, and protect innocent civilians as much as possible.

As you can see, the active version is more colorful and concise. That’s why you should use the passive voice sparingly.

The passive voice works best in the following situations:

  • When you don’t know who the subject is or don’t want others to know
  • When you want to draw attention to the action (and its object) rather than the subject
  • When you want your tone to be more abstract and indirect (e.g., in some academic discourse)

However, be selective about when you use the passive voice, also in formal writing. Your default option should be the active voice.

Finally, some grammar books tell you to avoid mixing the active and the passive voice in the same sentence. Our advice is to go with what sounds the most natural. The following sentence has two passive voice verbs:

We were told by our tour guide that the Louvre was closed due to flooding.

In this case the first verb is best made active, whereas the second is fine as is:

Our tour guide told us that the Louvre was closed due to flooding.

Being aware of these subtle differences will give you greater control over your writing.

Exercises


Verbals

Introduction

Verbals are not a separate part of speech, but they do deserve some special attention. While verbals are derived from verbs, they generally function as other parts of speech in a sentence.

Types of Verbals

There are three types of verbals: infinitives, present participles, and past participles.

Infinitives

To form the infinitive, just combine to with the verb:

to milk
to like
to write
to sing
to buy

Note that the to in an infinitive is not considered a preposition.

Present Participles

The present participle is formed by adding -ing to the verb:

milking
liking
writing
singing
buying

Past participles

The past participle is one of the principle parts of the verb. It is usually formed by adding -ed to the verb:

milked
liked

However, some verbs are irregular and have quite a different past participle:

written
sung
bought

An easy way to figure out the past participle is to think about the past perfect tense. Just fill in the blank as follows:

I had ____.

Verb: to write.
Answer: written.

The Functions of Verbals

Although verbals are derived from verbs, they usually take on a different function in the sentence. In fact, the only time a verbal can be part of the main verb is if it’s accompanied by one or more helping verbs:

I would have bought a muffin.

She has written two novels.

Otherwise, verbals tend to take on the role of other parts of speech. Let’s look at a few examples:

Participles as Adjectives

Participles often function as adjectives:

Your caring attitude is rather endearing.

I love your refurbished kitchen.

In the first sentence, the present participle caring modifies the noun attitude. In the second sentence, the past participle refurbished modifies the noun kitchen.

Verbals as Nouns

Present participles and infinitives can take on the role of a noun. Here are some examples:

To collect ice cubes is a foolish endeavour.

Infinitive: To collect.
Main verb: is.

In this sentence, the infinitive is the subject, and so is acting like a noun.

Here’s another example:

Training takes time.

Present participle: training.
Main verb: takes.

Again, training is the subject and functions like a noun. Note that when a present participle acts like a noun it’s called a gerund.

Verbals in Phrases

Verbals can also start phrases. Here are some examples:

To see you happy means a lot to me.

Sue, seizing her chance, stole Mike’s wallet.

Retired recently, Brad spent his days on the golf course:

Note that the first participial phrase contains a present participle and the last a past participle. All these phrases act like parts of speech. For instance, the last participial phrase acts like an adjective, modifying “Brad.”

To find out more about how verbals can be used in phrases, please visit our page on phrases.

Conclusion

To sum up, verbals will never be your main verb unless they have a helping verb. Otherwise they function as other parts of speech (mostly nouns and adjectives) or in phrases.

Prepositions

Introduction

Prepositions are words like in, during, or between. They are normally followed by a noun or pronoun, with which they form a prepositional phrase:

prepositions 1

Here are some more examples:

during recess
between you and me
from Russia
with love

The job of the preposition is to relate the noun or the pronoun (the object of the preposition) to the rest of the sentence. Take, for instance, the following sentence:

I work at the post-office.

The prepositional phrase tells us a bit more about where I work.

Using prepositional phrases

So far we’ve figured out that prepositional phrases provide extra information. In fact, a prepositional phrase will never be part of the core of the sentence. When you’re analyzing a sentence, you can take away the prepositional phrases to make it easier to find the subject and verb:

prepositions 2

This sentence also shows how prepositional phrases function in a sentence. They act either as an adverb or an adjective.

  • The phrase in the morning clarifies when I like to eat. In other words, it tells us something about the verb (like) by providing a time frame. When you modify the verb, you’re using an adverb, and that is also the role of the prepositional phrase in the morning.
  • The phrase with cream cheese tells us a bit more about the kind of bagel this is. Since bagel is a noun, the prepositional phrase is acting like an adjective.

If you can tell whether a prepositional phrase is adjectival or adverbial, you can give yourself a pat on the back. For most of us (mere mortals) simply spotting a prepositional phrase is good enough.

Ending with a preposition

Contrary to popular wisdom, you are allowed to end a sentence with a preposition. The noun or pronoun (the object of the preposition) can usually be found earlier in the sentence:

You are the only person I am showing this to.  

Which of those girls are you going on a date with?

Check out the treasure we stumbled upon.

Most of the time, though, you can reword the sentence to avoid ending on a preposition.

Common errors

Don’t automatically assume that you’re dealing with a preposition. Take the following sentence:

I must have left behind my monocle.

The word behind can be a preposition or an adverb, and in this case it’s an adverb. It’s modifying the verb (must have left) rather than relating a noun or pronoun to the rest of the sentence.

Common prepositions

Most prepositions have to do with time or place. There is no need to memorize every preposition (in fact, there are many more prepositions than those listed), but it will help you to read through the following list once or twice.

Spatial Abstract Temporal
above about after
across (from) according to around
against as (for) at
ahead of besides by
along/alongside concerning during
among considering past
apart from contrary to since
around despite till
at except (for) to
below in order to until
beneath in relation to
beside in spite of
between like
beyond notwithstanding
by of
down off
in front of on account of
in place of regarding
inside regardless of
into such as
near throughout
next to unlike
on upon
onto with
out (of)
outside
past
round
through
to
toward(s)
under(neath)
up
within

Exercises





Adjectives

Introduction

Adjectives are descriptive words that modify nouns or pronouns:

The blue ribbon
That black cat
A better me
An educational speech

In each case the adjective tells you something about the noun. The adjective answers one of the following questions:

What kind of?

Which? Whose?

How many? How much?

The best way to ask these questions is to combine them with the noun in the sentence:

Twenty-two mice danced in the circus.

Question: how many mice?

Adjective: twenty-two.

As you can see, adjectives usually come before the noun or pronoun. The most common exception is with a linking verb:

The weather is sunny.

The days are long.

He became embittered.

In these cases the adjective comes after the subject it describes.

Tricky adjectives

There are quite few words that at first glance don’t look like adjectives. Often the function of a word depends on how it’s used in the sentence. Let’s review these tricky forms.

Articles

In English, we have two articles: the and a(n). Because they come before a noun, they are considered adjectives:

The soother
A tree
An ability

Pronouns

If a pronoun modifies a noun, then it functions like an adjective:

My friend
Any complaints
Those cousins
Which room

Nouns

At times nouns can take on the role of an adjective:

Student council
Coffee machine
Almond milk
Barber shop quartet

You can categorize these as nouns too, but it’s important to understand how they function.

Participles

Present and past participles can also act like adjectives:

Torn shirt
Ranked player
Captivating show
Streaming media

These examples demonstrate the versatility of language. Participles are derived from verbs, but they can describe nouns.

Clauses and Phrases

Even clauses and phrases can function like adjectives:

The tiger that escaped yesterday

The fountain in the front garden

However, don’t worry too much for now about these larger units. They will be explained in the section on sentence structure.

Comparison of Adjectives

Adjectives (and adverbs) come in three forms: positive, comparative, and superlative.

The positive is the basic form. The comparative, as the name implies, shows a greater or lesser degree. The superlative shows the greatest or least degree. Here are some examples:

Positive Comparative Superlative
blue bluer bluest
funny funnier funniest
remarkable more/less remarkable most/least remarkable

Clearly not all adjectives follow the same pattern. That’s why it’s helpful to know the basic rules.

1. If an adjective consists of a single syllable, add -er for the comparative and –est for the superlative.

2. If an adjective has three or more syllables, add most or least.

3. If an adjective has two syllables, you’ll have to choose between adding -er/-est and most/least. It depends on what sounds better:

Zealous, more zealous, most zealous.

Tiny, tinier, tiniest

If you’re not sure which form to use, consult a dictionary.

Let’s finish with a few exceptions and additional rules.

Irregular Adjectives

Some adjectives don’t follow the normal rules for showing comparison. These are considered irregular adjectives:

Positive Comparative Superlative
bad worse worst
good better best
little less least
much/many/some more most
far farther/further farthest/furthest

Adjectives Without a Comparative Form

Other adjectives simply don’t have a comparative form. These words describe an absolute condition, in which case comparison does not work:

final
impossible
perfect
unique
whole

It would be illogical to say that something is the most perfect or more unique since perfection and uniqueness do not allow for degrees of comparison.

Using the Comparative and Superlative

Grammar books will tell you that the comparative is used to compare two things, whereas the superlative is meant for three or more things:

Your grandmother is older than mine.

Which is the longest of the six Oksa Pollock books?

This is a somewhat tricky rule. Take the following example:

Her huskies are more resilient than his.

There are likely more than two huskies involved, but we still use the comparative. One way to make sense of this is to consider that a “thing” (e.g., huskies) might be plural. In other words, we are still comparing just two things (her huskies and his huskies).

Another approach is to understand what is really at issue with this rule. The main thing to watch out for is that you don’t use the superlative to compare two things:

Incorrect: Of these two brands of coffee, which do you like best?

Instead, use the comparative form (better).

Exercises




Adverbs

Introduction

An adverb is the Swiss Army knife of parts of speech. It not only modifies verbs, but also adjectives, verbals, other adverbs, and entire clauses or sentences. Because adverbs are so versatile, we’ll cover each function separately.

Regular and Irregular Adverbs

Many adverbs are formed by adding -ly to an adjective:

nice/nicely
warm/warmly

We call these regular adverbs. Adverbs that don’t follow this rule are called irregular adverbs.

Sometimes adverbs look exactly the same as the adjective form:

The early bird gets the worm.

I came early.

Sometimes they are quite different:

Good shot!

Are you feeling well?

And sometimes they have no corresponding adjective form (often, not).

In fact, even when a word ends in -ly, you can’t assume that it’s an adverb. There are also adjectives that end in -ly (lonely, friendly).

Asking the right question.

To find an adverb in a sentence, you can ask the following questions:

  • How?
  • When?
  • Where?
  • Why?
  • To what degree?

Here’s what this looks like in practice:

In the winter, the bus from Abbotsford was often late.

When? In the winter

To what degree? Often

Be careful, however! By themselves such questions don’t tell us why these words are adverbs. For example, we might ask the question where? and answer from Abbotsford, not realizing that from Abbotsford acts like an adjective to describe what kind of bus (a noun) we’re dealing with.

That’s why in the following sections we’ve broken down the specific uses of adverbs. If you learn these, you will understand exactly why some words are adverbial.

The uses of adverbs

Modifying the Verb

The word adverb literally means “something that is added to the verb” (in Latin ad = to and verbum = word, verb). It’s not surprising, then, that adverbs often modify verbs:

Jennifer bugged Mike relentlessly.

If we ask bugged how? the answer would be relentlessly.

Even prepositional phrases can act like an adverb and modify the verb:

I saw you through the window.

Here the prepositional phrase through the window tells us where I saw you. Prepositional phrases always act like adjectives or adverbs, so context is everything.


Modifying an Adjective

Adverbs also allow us to refine the meaning of an adjective:

Myron drives an extremely old Volkswagen bus.

The adverb extremely answer the question To what degree? Myron’s vehicle is not just old; it is extremely old.

Here are a few more examples:

Her baby is so adorable!

That’s the most flimsy excuse ever.

The children were surprisingly curious.


Modifying Verbals

You’ll recall that verbals look like verbs but often take on a different role in the sentence. If you want to modify a verbal you would use an adverb:

Salana, swinging her bat wildly, somehow hit a home run.

Let’s look at some more examples:

Walking regularly is great for your health.

Left alone, Cindy sat on a bench and read a book.

To ski properly takes practice.

As you can see, to check if a word is an adverb you need to know what other part of speech it’s modifying.


Modifying Other Adverbs

Adverbs can even modify each other:

He broke the news too suddenly.

Here the adverb too answers the question to what degree? and so tells us how suddenly he broke the news.

Here are a few more examples for good measure.

He appeared to accept his award almost reluctantly.

Annette checked her Fitbit very often.

I love your necklace so much.


Modifying Entire Clauses.

Sometimes an adverb modifies not just a specific word but an entire clause or sentence:

Oddly, no one had thought of that solution.

Fortunately, the check was in the mail.

Interestingly, in Erwin Schrödinger’s thought experiment the cat is simultaneously alive and dead.

As you can see from these examples, the adverb is not specific enough to modify one word, but provides a comment on the entire sentence.


The Finer Points of Adverbs

Comparative Forms of Adverbs

Just as with adjectives, adverbs come in three forms: positive (the basic form), comparative (showing a greater or lesser degree) and superlative (showing the greatest or least degree).

There are two ways to form the comparative:

  • Use –er when the adverb is just one syllable long: nearer, later, sooner, slower, straighter.
  • If the adverb is longer than one syllable, add more: more closely, more fully, more incessantly, more jealously.

Similarly, there are two standard ways to form the superlative:

  • Use –est when the adverb is just one syllable long: nearest, quickest, slowest, straightest.
  • If the adverb is longer than one syllable, add most: most impressively, most gleefully.

The only exception to these rules is early, which follows the rules for one syllable adverbs (earlierearliest).

Irregular adverbs

Some irregular adverbs don’t follow the normal rules for comparative and superlative forms:

Positive Comparative Superlative
well better best
badly worse worst
much more most
little less least
far farther/further farther/furthest

Many of these forms are the same as for irregular adjectives.

Adverbs with Two Endings

If you’ve read the previous section, you may have noticed that some adverbs that end in –ly also have a shorter form. Here are some examples:

close, closely
loud, loudly
quick, quickly
slow, slowly

Sometimes the two forms are used in different ways:

He came close and gave me a hug.

I watched her closely.

At other times, the shorter form is simply a more casual way of phrasing something:

Janet laughs so loud that her mom gets embarrassed.

Let’s go slow this time.

In a more formal context you should think about using the –ly ending, but it depends somewhat on preference. You might find that you would readily substitute slowly, but still prefer loud over loudly.

Common Mistakes

There are a few adverbs and adjectives that cause a lot of trouble. Let’s focus on the chief troublemakers:

Adjective Adverb
bad badly
good well

To see which one you’re dealing with, you have to look at the rest of the sentence. Take the following examples:

He treated me badly.
That was a bad idea.

He treated me well.
That was a good idea.

So far so good: the adverb modifies the verb and the adjective describes the noun. The difficulty comes when we use a linking verb:

She felt bad about our breakup.

A linking verb is usually followed by a noun or adjective that describes the subject. That’s why we have to use bad rather than badly. You can see why this is so if you compare a similar sentence:

The weather forecast looked bleak.

The linking verb itself is not being modified—it’s the forecast that’s bleak.

But there is one more thing to watch out for: the adverb well can also be an adjective, in which case it refers to one’s health. Compare these sentences:

After her fever subsided, Belinda was well enough to go to class.

After her fever subsided, Belinda felt good enough to go to class.

In each case we’ve used an adjective to describe Belinda’s health.

More Exercises


Conjunctions

Introduction

Conjunctions are like hinges. They connect words, phrases, and clauses. Let’s review the three types of conjunctions.

Coordinating Conjunctions

The most common conjunctions are called coordinating conjunctions. The word coordinate means to bring different elements into a harmonious and orderly relationship.

Coordinating conjunctions do just that: they relate two parts of the sentence that are given equal weight:

Which is better: Mars or Snickers?

The beach was nice, but the seagulls were annoying.

The great news is that there are just seven coordinating conjunctions; the bad news is that you should probably memorize them. To help you out, someone came up with the acronym FANBOYS:

For – And – Nor – But – Or – Yet – So

Here’s an alternative way to group them:

And, but (create similarity and contrast)

For, nor, or (they rhyme!)

Yet, so (the leftovers)

Use whatever strategy works for you. These are some of the most common building blocks of language and you’ll want to be able to identify them.

Subordinating Conjunctions

The word subordinate means to treat something as being of less importance than another. Just like a king rules over his people (his subordinates), so a sentence has elements that are of lower rank or importance.

In particular, when a sentence has a dependent clause, it is introduced by a subordinating conjunction. This conjunction relates the dependent clause to the main clause:

When Jim went to China, he accidentally ordered a hot dog.

Once we’ve graduated, we can do anything!

You’ll notice that if the dependent clause comes first, it is usually followed by a comma. If it comes later in the sentence, the comma is often left out:

I won’t tell you the story unless you buy me a drink.

I made only two friendship bracelets because I have only two friends.

Here is a list of the most common subordinating conjunctions:

Subordinating Conjunctions
after since
although so that
as (if) than
as long as that
because though
before unless
even if until
even though when
if (only) whenever
in order that where
now that whereas
once wherever
rather than while

Correlative Conjunctions

The last type of conjunction is really a pair of conjunctions that work as a team. If it helps, think of them as being related to each other:

either … or

neither … nor

not only … but also

both … and

whether … or

These pairs can tie together anything from specific words to entire clauses:

Trixie won medals in both shot put and high jump. (connecting nouns)

Olivier studied whether nationalism is dead in Europe or whether it is being revived by fears over immigration. (connecting clauses)

While there are just a few correlative conjunctions, we use them all the time.

Caution

Finally, a word of caution.

Many words can function as multiple parts of speech. Conjunctions are no exception to this rule:

She wrote so many Christmas cards.

The hose was leaking, so I bought some new washers.

They knew each other before the war.

Before we had our staycation, we had no idea how many local attractions there are.

Cathy’s pigeons are more iridescent than mine.

He clearly loves you more than I do.

Everything depends on context. The more parts of speech you learn, the easier it gets to differentiate them. That’s the theory anyway.

Conjunctive Adverbs

Introduction

Even though conjunctive adverbs are not actually a separate part of speech, we’ve given them their own entry. That’s because being able to recognize conjunctive adverbs will help you to avoid some common grammatical errors.

Definition

A conjunctive adverb is an adverb that functions like a conjunction. Simply put, it ties together two independent clauses or sentences.

Here’s a list of the more common ones, organized by function:

Adding Information Cause and Effect
also accordingly
finally consequently
furthermore hence
in addition therefore
moreover thus
Contrast Changing Direction
by contrast anyway
instead incidentally
however meanwhile
nevertheless next
nonetheless still
Similarity Emphasis
equally indeed
likewise in fact
similarly undoubtedly

You might be wondering how these words are different from regular conjunctions. For one thing, conjunctive adverbs can be moved around in the sentence, whereas conjunctions have to stay in the same place:

We bought an old tent trailer. However, it takes forever to set up.

We bought an old tent trailer. It takes forever to set up, however.

By contrast, in the following sentence the conjunction and can go in only one spot:

We went to a board game café and played a game of Ticket to Ride.

How to use conjunctive adverbs

Conjunctive adverbs are the big boys of conjunctions. They do the heavy work of connecting separate clauses or sentences. And that’s why they typically come after a period or a semi-colon, and not after a comma.

Wrong: We see very few birds on our feeder, however, that’s because there is no feed left.

Right: We see very few birds on our feeder; however, that’s because there is no feed left.

Right: We see very few birds on our feeder. However, that’s because there is no feed left.

So be careful that you don’t create a comma splice when you use a conjunctive adverb.

The last rule to remember is that conjunctive adverbs are often set off with commas. When the conjunctive adverb comes later in the clause, it has commas before and after it:

Moreover, Queen Elizabeth I objected to John Knox’s opinions about female rulers.

My parents, meanwhile, were on vacation in Hawaii.

Iron Man 3, by contrast, did not appeal to me.

Finally, you are often allowed to drop the commas if you feel that sounds more natural. This is especially the case when the conjunctive adverb is shorter or comes later in the clause:

Meanwhile the sun was setting.

Your argument is therefore rubbish.

Interjections

Introduction

The word interjection comes from Latin, and literally means something “thrown between.” In English, interjections are expressions of emotion. They don’t normally modify anything else in the sentence.

Interjections are common in everyday speech, but should be avoided in formal writing.

Examples

Here are some examples of interjections:

Oh, uh, um, eh, hey, ah, etc.
hi
well
gosh, golly, etc.
dear (me)
alas, alack, etc.
okay
cheers
ouch
amen
bye
hurray
phew
sorry
wow

Usage

Mild interjections can be set off with commas. Stronger expressions of emotion are often followed by an exclamation point. If an interjection comes in the middle of a sentence, you might place dashes around it.

Here are some examples of how you might punctuate various interjections:

Gee whiz, I never thought of that!

Ouch! Watch your step!

Okay, next goal wins!

She said “bye” and waved.

And we all know—hallelujah!—that we are saved by faith in our good works.

Your contribution to our project has been, well, not the greatest.

Review

Introduction

It’s one thing to learn each part of speech separately. It is quite a bit more challenging to review them all at once. Yet it can be immensely rewarding to start seeing exactly how a sentence has been put together. It’s a bit like staring at an optical illusion, waiting for a picture to emerge. When it does, it’s an amazing experience.

Tips

To be successful at parsing a sentence, it helps to be a bit strategic. Start by looking for parts of speech that you find easy. You might be able to tell right away that a sentence contains an adjective or two. Once you’ve gained some confidence, it’s a good idea to see if the sentence contains any conjunctions. If it does, you might be able to split the sentence up into smaller units (clauses and phrases). After that you can zoom in and start looking for nouns, pronouns, and verbs, as those tend to form the core of most sentences.

There is of course no foolproof way to analyze a sentence, and it gets easier once you’ve learned about the general structure of a sentence. Still, the more you practice and review your parts of speech, the more successful you’ll be.

Example

Before you do the review exercises, here’s an example of how we might take apart a sentence. Here we’ve analyzed the opening sentence of chapter 1 of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein:

A graphic analysis of the opening sentence of the novel Frankenstein

We can also diagram each prepositional phrase, but hopefully this gives you the basic idea. And, as you can tell from this example, learning about parts of speech can reveal how a sentence like this creates balance, as its two clauses are remarkably similar in structure.

Exercises