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.



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

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


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.



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.


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:


Past participles

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


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


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.


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.



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.


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


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.


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.



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.


Here are some examples of interjections:

Oh, uh, um, eh, hey, ah, etc.
gosh, golly, etc.
dear (me)
alas, alack, etc.


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.