What used to be termed the eight "Parts of Speech" in English—and I suppose many teachers still rely on these basic classifications: NOUNS, VERBS, PRONOUNS, ADJECTIVES, ADVERBS, PREPOSITIONS, CONJUNCTIONS, INTERJECTIONS—are now more commonly referred to as "Word Classes." Essentially, linguists have started approaching the study of words through the analysis of both their most recurring behaviors in language as well as any anomalous usages, thus allowing for a more specific accounting of how people actually use English words in their speech, writing, and even thinking.
Lexical Categories are considered "open class" words because they are infinite, as they allow language users to reshape these existing words, combine parts of them into other words, and even add members. They are also known as "content words" because each word carries some meaning even separate from syntactic arrangement. After all, words like mother, jump, ugly, and quickly all convey meaning without other words, while words like it, that, and these do not. There are only four Lexical Categories: NOUNS, VERBS, ADJECTIVES, and ADVERBS.
Functional Categories, on the other hand, are considered "closed class" words because they are limited, fixed, restricted. As such, they do not allow users to reshape existing words or add new words. They are also known as "function words" because most (there are many notable exceptions) words in these categories only engender meaning when they are connected with/related to other words in specific syntactic patterns. There is not a clear number of Functional Categories because there are so many different ways people arrange them hierarchically. Nevertheless, some of the most recurring word function classes include: PRONOUNS, PREPOSITIONS, CONJUNCTIONS, DETERMINERS, AUXILIARY VERBS, MODALS, QUANTIFIERS, DEGREE WORDS, and NUMERALS.
While NOUNS are so often said to name "persons, places, and things," such a definition, while still useful, is also problematic and limiting. After all, is love really a "person, place or thing?" Is freedom? Is the past? A touchdown? A character in a novel? However, there are still certain characteristics that allow for the identification of most NOUNS, which are usually grouped as COMMON vs. PROPER, CONCRETE vs. ABSTRACT, COUNT vs. NON-COUNT (or MASS), COLLECTIVE, COMPOUND, VERBAL, GERUNDS, and GENDER-SPECIFIC.
COMMON NOUNS name just that: general people (mother, friend) , places (home, school), things (car, phone), concepts (hatred, forgiveness), conditions (pain, joy), and so on.
PROPER NOUNS, of course, indicate specific entities instead of generalized notions. This is why they always begin with a capital letter (Harry, Ron, Hermione, J. K. Rowling, Ministry of Magic, Great Britain).
CONCRETE NOUNS express those people, places, or things that are tangible, that can be experienced directly in the "real" world with the five senses (students, teachers, castles, trains, pudding).
ABSTRACT NOUNS specify concepts, ideas, qualities, or feelings that are intangible, that cannot be experienced directly in the "real" world (happiness, fear, beauty, friendship, ignorance).
COLLECTIVE NOUNS describe groups of items that are treated as single entities. (team, pack, class, family). This is why they usually take (in American English anyway; British English is different) singular verbs. So, each COLLECTIVE NOUN in the following examples takes the singular verb is instead of the plural are:
- Our team is leaving for a road trip.
- A pack of wild dogs is running around the yard.
- Our class is known for its crazy parties.
- His family is coming to visit him next summer.
For more examples of COLLECTIVE NOUNS in English (some of which are extremely interesting), please see Englishleap.com's Grammar: Collective Nouns, Rinkworks.com's Fun with Words: Collective Nouns, and/or Enchanted Learning.com's List of Collective Nouns.
COUNT NOUNS indicate those things that can be numbered (quills, books, spells).
NON-COUNT NOUNS, which are also known as MASS NOUNS, are made of such materials that they cannot be clearly numbered (sand, water, air). This is why the following utterances/sentences simply aren't considered acceptable in English:
- *I have lots of sands in my shoes.¹
- *She brought lots of waters to the soccer game.
- *We tend to have a lot of hairs in our family.
Instead, it is much more conventional to say/write something more along the lines of:
- I have a lot of sand in my shoes.
- She brought lots of water to the soccer game.
- We tend to have a lot of hair in our family.
COMPOUND NOUNS are nouns composed of more than one word (court martial, pickpocket, water bottle, babysitter). These compounds can lead to some interesting plural forms:
- attorney general / attorneys general
- bill of attainder / bills of attainder
- court martial / courts martial
- passerby / passersby
- son-in-law / sons-in-law
- chief of staff / chiefs of staff
- teaspoonful / teaspoonsful
- truckful / trucksful
- bucketful / bucketsful
- cupful / cupsful
GENDER-SPECIFIC NOUNS are words which are gendered on their face (man / woman, father / mother, husband / wife, prince / princess) as opposed to GENDER-NEUTRAL NOUNS (person, parent, spouse, ruler).
VERBAL NOUNS are derived from VERBS, but have no VERB-like properties (a building on campus, an attack on a ship, a scare at a Halloween party).
GERUNDS are NOUNS that are also based on VERBS, but which, unlike VERBAL NOUNS, still retain certain VERB-like characteristics (studying, reading, skiing). This is why these words in the following examples are actually acting as NOUNS (subject, complement, object), even though they might look like VERBS:
- Studying helps you earn better grades. (subject)
- Her favorite pastime is reading. (complement)
- I like skiing. (object)
Moreover, NOUNS can also be classified more completely by looking at three elements: their meaning, distribution, and form (Morenberg 23-24). The meaning referred to here is the aforementioned, limiting definition of NOUNS as words that name or describe "people, places, and things." The next notion, that of NOUNS' distribution, refers to where they tend to occur in linguistic expressions (phrases, utterances, sentences). NOUNS, for example, are often preceded by DETERMINERS (the man, a car, an apple, his book, her skateboard, this issue, that problem, these realizations, those cheeseburgers). This frequency of distribution in linguistic expressions can be understood as collocation, the recognition that part of knowing any given language's lexicon is knowing "the company words keep" (Firth, qtd. in Hill 48). and the manner in which words combine in predictable patterns (Hill 48). The idea of form in this case points to the specific ways that NOUNS can be constructed and/or inflected. There are two procedures for inflecting NOUNS that no other words can take. The first is that of the plural. Most English NOUNS are made plural (changed from the singular) by adding -s/-es in written form and /s/, /z/, /Әz/ in phonetic form (cats, dogs, horses). There are, of course, many examples of irregular NOUNS that follow different patterns of plurality. These irregular NOUN plurals, however, actually follow structures from other languages like Old English, Latin, and Greek:
- Old English plurals:
- - internal vowel shift (goose / geese, tooth / teeth, mouse / mice, foot / feet, man / men)
- - no change/zero shift (deer / deer, sheep / sheep, fish / fish, gallows / gallows, species / species, offspring / offspring)
- - -en affix (ox / oxen, brother / brethren, child / children)
- Latin plurals:
- - nouns ending in –us change to –i (syllabus / syllabi, stimulus / stimuli, nucleus / nuclei)
- - nouns ending in –um change to –a (bacterium / bacteria, medium / media, forum / fora, datum / data, stadium / stadia)
- - nouns ending in –a change to –ae (larva / larvae, formula / formulae, antenna / antennae)
- - nouns ending in –ma change to –mata (lemma / lemmata, stigma / stigmata, miasma / miasmata)
- - Greek plurals:
- - nouns ending in –on change to –a (phenomenon / phenomena, criterion / criteria, zoon / zoa)
- - nouns ending in –is change to –es (hypothesis / hypotheses, thesis / theses, parenthesis / parentheses, analysis / analyses, crisis / crises)
There second operation for inflecting NOUNS that no other word class can take is that of the possessive (or genitive) case. There are actually some marked differences between the possessive and genitive cases, but for the sake of clarity and simplicity, I will focus on the possessive (for more information on the possessive and genitive cases, please see Bob Cunningham's page and/or David Bailey's page). The possessive case indicates a specific kind of relationship between NOUNS, that of ownership or possession. There are a few ways that NOUNS can be inflected to show possession:
- singular possessive (Harry’s wand, Ron’s rat, Hermione’s cat)
- singular possessive for words that end in –s, –x, or –z (Mr. Jones’ / Jones’s barbeque,
Jesus’ / Jesus’s shoes, the class’ / class’s exams, Jax’s arms, Ms. Perez’s fruit) NOTE: There is much disagreement regarding how to make these particular plurals.
- plural possessive (students’ fireworks, professors’ complaints, headmasters’ portraits)
- compound possessive (depends on specific context and meaning)
- - Miguel’s and Cecilia’s new cars are in the parking lot. (each of them has at least one new car and their ownership is a separate matter)
- - Miguel and Cecilia’s new cars are in the parking lot. (they share ownership of these cars)
- - Lewis and Clark’s expectations were very much the same. (the two held one set of expectations in common)
- - Lewis’s and Clark’s expectations were altogether different. (the two men’s expectations were different)
VERBS, like NOUNS, make up the most important Word Classes because they are used to indicate actions, events, states of being, or conditions. Again, while there is disagreement about how VERBS should be labeled and categorized—and there is potentially a great deal of overlap among these classifications—there are still some aspects of VERBS that recur often enough to be identified and understood according to the following categories: ACTION (or MAIN), LINKING, AUXILIARY (or HELPING), TRANSITIVE, INTRANSITIVE, DYNAMIC, STATIVE, MODAL, REGULAR, IRREGULAR, FINITE, NONFINITE (or INFINITIVE), PARTICIPLES, GERUNDS, INFINITIVES, PHRASAL.
ACTION VERBS, of course, represent what someone is doing (run, jump, fly). As such, these are considered to be an open class. This is because people can, and do, add new ACTION VERBS to our available lexicon all the time (gift, trend, and Google have all started being used as VERBS). For more formation about this ever-expanding word category, please see Anthony Gardner's You've Been Verbed.
LINKING VERBS do not show any kind of action, but rather link a subject to information about it:
- Luke Skywalker is unhappy.
- Han Solo feels disappointing.
- The storm troopers are tired.
AUXILIARY verbs do not show any action either, but instead serve to help main verbs do their work. As such, these VERBS cannot occur by themselves, but must accompany a MAIN VERB. There are three of these in English: be, have, and do.
- I am running.
- They have lost their glasses.
- She does not eat spinach.
TRANSITIVE VERBS are ACTION VERBS that take an object, the "doee" that goes along with the "doer":
- Harry likes magic.
- Hermione controlled her anger.
- Ron enjoyed the Yule Ball.
The VERBS gave, erase, and lost would be incomplete without their respective objects which mark the specific "what?" of the action. It is not considered grammatically complete to say
- *Harry likes.
- *Hermione controlled.
- *Ron enjoyed.
INTRANSITIVE VERBS, on the other hand, do not require any object:
- Harry laughed.
- Hermione cried.
- Ron screamed.
DYNAMIC VERBS denote actions being performed by the subject that can be perceived in a physical sense:
- She is playing volleyball at the beach.
- He threw his math book across the room.
- They are eating birthday cake in the den.
STATIVE VERBS, as their name implies, describe states and/or situations (like, hate, appear, believe), as the following examples demonstrate:
- I like chocolate ice cream.
- You hate watching golf on TV.
- This appears to be some kind of treasure map.
- We believed that the gym teacher was innocent.
No perceivable action is taking place in these examples; instead, these VERBS are expressing notions of feeling, belief, and/or condition.
MODALS, another close class, include can, could, shall, should, will, would, may, might, and must. As their name suggests, these VERBS help to express a mood, or the concepts of "possibility, permission, obligation, necessity, or ability" (LeTourneau 41), as the following examples show:
- You can swim.
- He may swim.
- She might swim.
- We must swim.
REGULAR VERBS follow a predictable pattern of inflection for showing tense, a semantic/syntactic features that only VERBS exhibit. Most English VERBS usually inflect the notion of the past by adding -ed or -d (jump + -ed = jumped, brake + d = braked). By the same reckoning, it is impossible, at least in most cases, to make a NOUN or ADJECTIVE past tense (boy + -ed = *boyed, girl + -ed = *girled, food + -ed = *fooded).
In fact, English VERBS demonstrate six tenses and two aspects, equaling a total of 12 inflected forms:
- Simple Present: I play soccer everyday.
- Simple Past: I played soccer yesterday.
- Simple Future: I will play soccer tomorrow.
- Present Perfect: I have played soccer this week.
- Past Perfect: I had played soccer for hours before you came to pick me up.
- Future Perfect: I will have played soccer for hours before you come to pick me up..
- Present Progressive (or Continuous): I am playing soccer.
- Past Progressive (or Continuous): I was playing soccer.
- Future Progressive (or Continuous): I will be playing soccer.
- Present Perfect Progressive (or Continuous): I have been playing soccer.
- Past Perfect Progressive (or Continuous): I had been playing soccer.
- Future Perfect Progressive (or Continuous): I will have been playing soccer.
Please see Easy Pace Learning's 12 Verb Tenses Chart With Examples Grammar Lesson, Johanna Rubba's Syntax: Tenses and Aspects of English and/or Anastasia Koltai's 12 (All) English Tenses with Examples for more information and examples regarding tense and aspect in English.²
IRREGULAR VERBS, of course, do not follow these patterns, but require more idiosyncratic inflections to show time. That does not mean, however, that there are not still discernible patterns:
simple present / simple past / past-participle
- bind / bound / bound
- find / found / found
- grind / ground / ground
- wind / wound / wound
- bite / bit / bitten
- hide / hid / hidden
- drive / drove / driven
- ride / rode / ridden
- rise / rose / risen
- write / wrote / written
- bend / bent / bent
- dwell / dwelt / dwelt
- lend / lent / lent
- rend / rent / rent
- send/ sent / sent
- spend / spent / spent
- forget/ forgot / forgotten
- get / got / gotten
- tread / trod / trodden
- forsake / forsook / forsaken
- shake / shook / shaken
- take / took / taken
- bear / bore / born
- swear / swore / sworn
- tear / tore / torn
- wear / wore / worn
For more information regarding patterns of conjugation in and lists of common IRREGULAR VERBS in English, please see David Appleyard's Regular Irregularity in English Verbs (focuses on British English, but is still helpful), Englishpage.com's Irregular Verb Dictionary, and/or Grammar.ccc.commnet.edu's Common Irregular Verbs.
FINITE VERBS are simply VERBS that agree with a subject and are clearly inflected for past or present tense:
- He plays the guitar.
- She spiked the ball right in his face.
- The man walked to the store.
In fact, the "reason FINITE VERBS are so important is their unique ability to act as the sentence-root. They can be used as the only VERB in the sentence, whereas all the others have to depend on some other word, so FINITE VERBS really stand out" (Hudson, qtd. in Nordquist, caps for emphasis added by me).
NONFINITE (or INFINITIVE) VERBS, on the other hand, cannot be the main verb of a clause or sentence as they do not talk about the action that is being performed by the subject or noun. They do not indicate any tense, mood or gender. They are used [instead] as nouns, adverbs and adjectives" (Englishleap.com's Finite and Non-Finite Verbs, caps for emphasis added by me).
- They agreed to pay us $100 for the old car.
- The sleeping dragon needs to be left alone.
PARTICIPLES ***MORE TO COME***
GERUNDS ***MORE TO COME***
PHRASAL VERBS are "usually two-word phrases consisting of VERB + ADVERB or VERB + PREPOSITION" (Englishclub.com's Phrasal Verbs List). They are surprisingly common in many registers of both speech and writing:
- ask around
- back something / someone up
- break in / into / out / up
- bring something up
- calm down
- check in / out / up
- chip in
- cut in
- end up
- get along
- give in / up
- go against
- grow up
- hold on
- log in / on / off
- look something up
- make up
- pass out
- send something back
- set something up
- show off
- turn something on / off
- wake up
- wear off
- wear out
Please see Englishpage.com's Phrasal Verb Dictionary and/or Grammar.ccc.commnet.edu's Common Phrasal Verbs for more information.
VERBS also exhibit the notion of voice, a grammatical construction that indicates some specific relationship(s) between the subject, action, and object in an utterance / a sentence. The commonly held belief is that English only has 2 voices, the active and the passive. The active clearly identifies not only what / which action is taking place, but who / what is responsible for the action:
- My little brother ate my lunch.
- I removed the wheelbarrow from the garage.
In the passive, of course, the grammatical structure is essentially reversed so that the "doer" of the action is moved into postilion after the VERB and the "undergoer" of the action becomes the subject.
- My lunch was eaten by my little brother.
- The wheelbarrow was removed from the garage.
Notice that the passive can allow the "doer" of the action to be concealed, or at least obfuscated. Think about how politicians the world over repeatedly use the passive in order to protect the guilty:
- I made mistakes. (the active identifies the party responsible)
- Mistakes were made. (the passive obscures the party responsible)
The active and the passive a re not the only voices in English. In fact, according to Annie Lobeck and Kristin Denham's Navigating English Grammar, there is such a thing as "middle voice" in English as well (109). They provide the following examples as evidence:
- The bread cuts easily.
- The Mini Cooper sells well.
- The car drives nicely.
- The gate opens smoothly.
- The clothes wash well.
Beyond this, the notions of voice also highlight an additional feature of VERBS, that of the thematic roles that they place in relationship to the kinds of NOUNS, subjects, and objects they can collocate with. There are actually many semantic properties and constraints that native users of English simply internalize from experience that may not have ever been directly explained to them. Some of the major thematic roles include
- AGENT: the initiator of some action, capable of acting with volition
- - Steve left the amps behind.
- PATIENT: the entity undergoing the effect of some action, often undergoing some change of state
- - The ice melted.
- THEME: the entity which is moved by an action, or whose location is described
- - Sherry skipped the rock.
- EXPERIENCER: the entity which is aware of the action or state described by the predicate but which is not in control of the action or state
- - The ref observed the game.
- BENEFICIARY: the entity for whose benefit the action was performed
- - I work hard for my family.
- INSTRUMENT: the means by which an action is performed or something comes about
- - He flipped the burger with a spatula.
- LOCATION: the place in which something is situated or takes place
- - The paintings hang above the staircase.
- GOAL: the entity towards which something moves, either literally or metaphorically
- - We raced to the finish line.
- SOURCE: the entity from which something moves, either literally or metaphorically
- - They drove all the way from California.
For more information on thematic roles, please see http://www.sfu.ca's Thematic Roles (pdf) or ling.upenn.edu's Thematic Roles.
Links for Additional Information on NOUNS
Links for Additional Information on VERBS
Links for Additional Information on Collocation
English Club.com's Definition of Collocation
Oxford's Online English Collocation Dictionary
Links for Additional Information on DETERMINERS
Brighthub Education's Difference between Determiners and Adjectives
Hill, Jimmie. "Revising Priorities: From Grammatical Failure to Collocational Success." Teaching Collocation: Further Developments in the Lexical Approach. Ed. Michael Lewis. Hove, England: Language Teaching Publications, 2000. 47-69. Print.
LeTourneau, Mark. English Grammar. Fort Worth: Harcourt, 2001. Print.
Morenberg, Max. Doing Grammar. 4th ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.
NOTE¹: Any word, phrase, utterance, or sentence marked with a single asterisk (*) is considered by "standard" English to be grammatically unacceptable.
NOTE²: There is disagreement about how the terms "tense" and "aspect" can be precisely defined, but the core concepts they engender still hold true in current grammatical usage.