Parts of Speech - Grammar 101 - McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage

McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage, 2nd Edition (2013)

Part I. Grammar 101

The grammar section of this book is a practically painless explanation of how English grammar works. It presumes that the reader has little or no previous exposure to formal grammar. The grammar section covers all the conventional grammar terms and concepts that you are ever likely to encounter.

The approach in this book is substantially different from what you may have experienced back in junior high school for two reasons:

First, you are now a consenting adult who has actually chosen to learn something about grammar (as opposed to the normal junior high school audience). Therefore, the presentation is aimed at a much more sophisticated audience, one that values ideas, evidence, and explanations. Many of the ideas are presented deductively. That is, you are given numerous examples and tests that you can use to see for yourself how the rules actually work.

Second, today’s grammar is substantially different from traditional classroom grammar. There have been quantum leaps in our understanding of what language is and how it works. While the general framework of this presentation is quite conventional, there are many places where traditional grammar has been supplemented with insights from modern linguistics. The resulting picture of English is both more comprehensive and in many ways simpler than what you might have experienced back in junior high school. Enjoy!

Chapter 1. Parts of Speech

The fundamental building block of all language is the word. Words are classified into parts of speech according to the way words function in a sentence. It is important to realize that a word’s part of speech is not inherent in the word itself but in the way the word is used. It is not unusual for a word to belong to more than one part of speech class depending on how the word is used. For example, the word round can be used as a noun, a verb, or an adjective:


So, instead of asking the question, “What part of speech is X?,” we should always ask the question, “What part of speech is X in this sentence?”

There are seven functional parts of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, conjunctions, and prepositions. There is also by some reckoning an eighth part of speech, interjections. Interjections are like asides or commentaries that are really not part of the actual grammar of a sentence. For example, well and dang in the following sentences are interjections:

Well, I don’t know what to tell you.
Dang, I burned my fingers on that pan!

Because interjections, by definition, play no grammatical role in a sentence, we will ignore them from this point onward and concentrate on the remaining seven functional parts of speech.


The word noun comes from a Latin word that means “name.” Accordingly, nouns are often defined by their naming ability: a noun is a word used to name a person, a place, a thing, or an idea.

There are two types of nouns, proper nouns and common nouns. Proper nouns are the names of specific individuals or entities, while common nouns are the names of generic categories. Proper nouns are normally capitalized. (See Chapter 15 for a treatment of the sometimes confusing and arbitrary conventions for capitalizing proper nouns.)

Here are some examples of roughly corresponding proper and common nouns:


Defining a noun as a “name” seems quite natural for proper nouns. However, the definition of noun as a “name” does not work as well for common nouns. It is not that common nouns are not names; they are. The problem is that the concept of “name” is so broad that it is easy to extend “name” to parts of speech that are not nouns. For example, jump is the “name” of an action and blue is the “name” of a color, but in the following sentences, jump is a verb and blue is an adjective:

The children tried to jump over the ditch.
The new dishes are blue.

Another way to identify common nouns is by taking advantage of a unique property of how they are used. Only common nouns are commonly and routinely modified by adjectives. Thus, if a word can be readily modified by an adjective, then that word must be a common noun. A particularly convenient adjective to use as a test word is the.

The the Test for Common Nouns

If the can be put immediately in front of a word and the result makes sense, then that word is a noun.

Let’s apply the the test to the two example sentences we just saw. In the first example, when we put the in front of the word jump, the result is ungrammatical. (We will use X to show that we have intentionally produced an ungrammatical sentence.)


The failure of the the test shows us that the word jump is not being used as a noun in this sentence. (Remember that the the test is only relevant to this use of the word jump in this sentence. In another sentence, jump could be used as a noun.)

In the second example, when we put the in front of the word blue, the result is again ungrammatical:


The failure of the the test shows us that the word blue is not being used as a noun in this sentence.

The the test requires that the word the be immediately in front of the word being tested. The reason for this requirement is that other adjectives can separate the from the noun it is modifying. For example, in the phrase the new dishes, the word the is immediately in front of the adjective new. When you think about it for a second, it is easy to see that the is modifying the noun dishes, not the adjective new. We can confirm this by dropping the adjective. We can say the dishes. Just be sure to put the immediately in front of the word you want to test.

However, the the test for common nouns is not perfect. Some abstract common nouns are not used with the—for example, honesty in the following sentence:

Honesty is the best policy.

Saying The honesty is the best policy sounds odd, at best.

Outside of not being used with a few abstract nouns, the the test is a simple and highly reliable test. It also has the advantage of not giving false positives. That is, the test will never tell you something is a noun when it actually isn’t.


The traditional definition of verb is “a word used to express action or describe a state of being.” As the definition implies, there are two different types of verbs: action verbs and linking verbs that describe the subjects. Here are some examples of each type:


As you can see, the verbs in the first column express some action that the subject of the sentence is carrying out. In the third example, for instance, Erma is engaged in the action of making soup. In the second column, however, the subjects are not doing anything. In the third example, for instance, the soup is not doing the smelling. Rather, the verb smelled is used to describe the soup. We will examine the distinction between action and linking verbs further in the section on verb phrases in Chapter 2. For now, we will ignore the distinction between action and linking verbs and concentrate on identifying verbs as a part of speech distinct from the other parts of speech.

The defining characteristic of all verbs is that verbs (and only verbs) have tenses: present, past, and future. Unless a word can be used in the present, past, and future tense, it is not a verb—no exceptions. Verbs come in two flavors: regular and irregular. Regular verbs form their past tenses in an absolutely regular way by adding -ed (sometimes just -d if the verb already ends in an e). Irregular verbs form their past tense in some other irregular way, often by changing the vowel of the verb. Here are two examples, one with the regular verb remember and the other with the irregular verb forget:


The helping verb will, which we use to form the future tense, is a convenient test word for identifying verbs.

The Will Test for Verbs

If you can put will in front of a word and the result is grammatical, then that word must be a verb.

To see how simple and effective the will test is, let’s apply it to the three uses of the word round from the beginning of the chapter:


Now let’s apply the will test for verbs:


As we would expect, the will test fails with the noun and the adjective but works with the verb.


Adjectives play two distinct roles: noun modifiers and predicate adjectives. As noun modifiers, adjectives always precede the nouns they modify. As predicate adjectives, adjectives follow linking (descriptive) verbs and describe the subject.

Here are some examples of both types.

Adjectives as noun modifiers (adjectives in italics, nouns in bold)
an awful noise
that dreadful old man
five golden rings
the special, deep-dish, Chicago-style pizza

Adjectives as predicate adjectives (adjectives in italics)
The play was terrific.
Harry sounded excited.
The crust turned brown.
Please remain calm.

We will deal with predicate adjectives as part of the broader discussion of verb phrases in Chapter 2 because we cannot talk about predicate adjectives without also discussing linking (descriptive) verbs in more detail. In this section, then, we will concentrate solely on adjectives as noun modifiers.

Here is a simple test for identifying modifying adjectives:

The Pair Test for Modifying Adjectives

If you can pair up a modifying word with a noun, then that word is an adjective.

Using the last example of adjectives used as noun modifiers from above, here is how the adjectives pair up with the noun they modify:

the special, deep-dish, Chicago-style pizza
the pizza
special pizza
deep-dish pizza
Chicago-style pizza

The pair test shows that each of the words can separately and independently modify the noun pizza. Therefore, they are all valid adjectives.

The pair test is helpful in distinguishing adverbs from adjectives. Here is an example:

that absolutely dreadful old man

Here is what happens when we apply the pair test:

that man

X absolutely man

dreadful man

old man

The pair test shows us that absolutely is not an adjective because it cannot modify the noun man. Absolutely is actually an adverb modifying the adjective dreadful.

Adjectives can be subdivided into two main classes: determiners and descriptive adjectives.


Determiners are a diverse group of modifiers that precede descriptive adjectives. For example, the is a determiner and old is a descriptive adjective. We can say

the old house

but we cannot reverse the order and put the determiner after the descriptive adjective:

X old the house

There are at least five subclasses of determiners:

Articles: the (definite); a and an (indefinite)

Demonstratives: this, that, these, those

Number words: Cardinal numbers: one, two, three … Ordinal numbers: first, second, third (plus other words indicating order: first, last …)

The terms cardinal and ordinal are easily mixed up. Here is a trick to remember which is which: the term ordinal refers to the order in which things occur: first, second, third, etc.

Possessives used as adjectives: John’s, Mary’s … (nouns) my, your, his, her, its, our, their (pronouns)

Part of speech is determined by function. When nouns and pronouns are used in their possessive forms, they are functioning as adjectives and are no longer classified as nouns and pronouns per se.

Quantifiers: some, many, several

Descriptive Adjectives

Most, but not all, descriptive adjectives have comparative and superlative forms. Here are some examples of sentences with comparative and superlative adjectives (in italics):


As you can see, there are two different patterns for forming the comparative and superlative: one with -er and -est, the other with more and most. The -er/-est pattern goes back to Old English. The more/most pattern emerged in the Middle Ages and is probably a kind of translation of the way the comparative and superlative are formed in French. All one-syllable adjectives and some two-syllable adjectives (especially ones of native English origin) follow the -er/-est pattern. All three-syllable (or longer) adjectives and some two-syllable adjectives (especially ones of French origin) follow the more/most pattern.

Here are some more examples of each type:


Descriptive adjectives can be easily combined, for example (descriptive adjectives in italics, nouns being modified in bold):

six thin gray cats
that disgusting old man
a shiny new quarter

Sometimes it is necessary to separate descriptive adjectives from each other by commas. The section on commas and adjectives in Chapter 11 gives a simple way to tell when to use (and not use) commas with multiple descriptive adjectives.


Adverbs are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. By far the most common use of adverbs is to modify verbs, so we will deal with them first.

Adverbs That Modify Verbs

Here are some examples of adverbs (in italics) that modify verbs (in bold):

They parked the truck yesterday.
They loaded the truck there.
They drove the truck carefully.
They use the truck frequently.

Adverbs that modify verbs have several characteristics that make them (relatively) easy to identify: they answer adverb questions, and they are movable.

The Adverb Question Test

If a word answers an adverb question (when, where, how, why, how often, etc.), then the word is an adverb that modifies the verb.

Here is the adverb question test applied to the example sentences (adverb question words in bold):


The Adverb Movement Test

If a word can be moved to a different position in the sentence, then the word is an adverb that modifies the verb.

Here is the adverb movement test applied to the same example sentences (adverbs in italics):


As you can see, adverbs that modify the verb can usually be moved to the beginning of the sentence. Sometimes, depending on the particular adverb, they can be moved in front of the verb.

Adverbs That Modify Adjectives

Here are some examples of adverbs (in italics) that modify adjectives (in bold):

a completely false statement
some rather unusual ideas
a terribly hot afternoon

Adverbs that modify adjectives are immobile: they cannot be moved away from the adjective they modify. There is no simple, direct test for adverbs that modify adjectives, but there is a reliable negative test: the pair test for modifying adjectives. Because adverbs can never modify nouns, a modifying word that fails the pair test must be an adverb modifying an adjective. Here is the pair test used to identify adverbs that modify adjectives:

a completely false statement

a statement

X completely statement (Completely fails, therefore it is an adverb modifying false.)

false statement

some rather unusual ideas

some ideas

X rather ideas (Rather fails, therefore it is an adverb modifying unusual.)

unusual ideas

a terribly hot afternoon

an afternoon (We need to change a to an because the following word now begins with a vowel.)

X terribly afternoon (Terribly fails, therefore it is an adverb modifying hot.)

hot afternoon

Adverbs That Modify Other Adverbs

Here are some examples of adverbs (in italics) that modify other adverbs (in bold):

I always answer my calls very promptly.
The students answered the questions quite easily.
Harvard fought rather fiercely.
I did even worse on the test than I had expected.

Adverbs that modify other adverbs are easy to recognize. They are locked into place immediately in front of the adverbs they modify. Adverbs that modify other adverbs belong to a limited class of words that are sometimes called intensifiers: they emphasize the meaning of the adverb they modify.


Pronouns are divided into four subclasses: personal, reflexive, indefinite, and demonstrative.

Personal Pronouns

The conventional definition of pronoun is “a word used in place of one or more nouns.” This definition captures the single most important use of pronouns—namely, to replace or represent a noun or nouns. Here is a simple example of pronouns replacing single nouns:

Tarzan wondered where Jane was.
He wondered where she was.

The pronoun he stands for or replaces Tarzan and ditto for she and Jane.

Here is an example where one pronoun replaces two nouns:

Tarzan and Jane were having a romantic dinner together.
They were having a romantic dinner together.

In this case, the pronoun they stands for or replaces two nouns: Tarzan and Jane.

The pronouns that literally replace specific nouns are called third-person pronouns. There are several third-person pronouns depending on the number, gender, and grammatical function of the nouns that are being replaced (i.e., whether they replace nouns being used as subjects, objects, or possessives). Here is a complete list:



The subject and object forms are obvious, but the possessive is tricky because we need to distinguish between possessives being used as pronouns from similar possessives being used as adjectives. An example will show the difference:


In this first example, hers stands for the noun book (together with the possessive noun Jane’s, which is being used as an adjective to modify the noun book).


In this second example, both the possessive noun Jane’s and the possessive pronoun her (which replaces Jane’s) are used as adjectives to modify the noun book, but they are not used to replace or represent the noun book, so they are not pronouns. They are adjectives.

The distinction between the possessive pronoun hers and the possessive adjective her is a little easier to see in this pair of examples because they have different forms: hers (with the s) is a pronoun; her (without the s) is an adjective. This same distinction holds for theirs (pronoun) and their (adjective), but unfortunately the pronoun and adjective forms of his and its are identical, so good luck with these two.

Third-person pronouns belong to a larger family of pronouns called personal pronouns. There are two other members of the personal pronoun family: first-person pronouns and second-person pronouns. First- and second-person pronouns do not literally replace specific nouns the way that third-person pronouns do. First-person pronouns represent the speaker (or writer) of the sentence. Second-person pronouns represent the hearer (or reader) of the sentence. Here is an example:

I see you.

I (the speaker/writer) is a first-person pronoun. You (the hearer/reader) is a second-person pronoun.

Here is the complete set of first- and second-person pronouns:





Reflexive Pronouns

Reflexive pronouns are a unique and easily recognizable group of pronouns that end in -self or -selves. Here is the complete list:


Reflexive pronouns must refer back to a specific noun (usually, but not always, the subject) in the same sentence. This noun is called the antecedent of the reflexive pronoun. The term reflexive comes from a Latin word meaning “bend back.” The origin of the term may help you to remember that a reflexive pronoun must “bend back” to refer to its antecedent. For example, in the following sentence

The queen saw herself in the mirror.

the reflexive pronoun herself can only refer back to its antecedent queen.

Reflexive pronouns must have an antecedent in the same sentence. A common mistake is to use a reflexive pronoun as a way of avoiding the choice between a subject and object pronoun, for example:

X Snow White smiled at the dwarves and myself.

In this sentence, the writer was not sure whether to use I or me. The writer thought to duck the choice by using the reflexive myself. This is a mistake because there is no antecedent for myself. If the writer had stuck with I and me, the writer would have had a fifty-fifty chance of being right. But the reflexive without an antecedent is wrong 100 percent of the time. Here is the reflexive myself used correctly with an antecedent:

I smiled at myself.

The antecedent of myself is the subject pronoun I.

Indefinite Pronouns

A large number of pronouns refer to unspecified persons, things, or groups. Here are some common indefinite pronouns:


Here is an example of a sentence with two indefinite pronouns:

Many are called, but few are chosen.

It is easy to confuse indefinite pronouns with the same words used as adjectives. Remember: indefinite pronouns stand alone; adjectives modify nouns. Here is an example that illustrates the difference:


Another group of indefinite pronouns is made up of compounds of any, every, no, and some followed by -body, -one, and -thing:


Demonstrative Pronouns

Demonstrative pronouns are a group of four pronouns: this, that, these, and those. As with indefinite pronouns, these same words are often used as modifying adjectives. Again, the difference is that pronouns stand alone; adjectives modify nouns:



Conjunctions are words used to join (or conjoin—conjunction, get it?) words or groups of words. There are two fundamentally different types of conjunctions: coordinating conjunctions and subordinating conjunctions. Coordinating conjunctions are words like and, but, and or that join words or groups of words of equal status. Subordinating conjunctions join groups of words of unequal status. We will deal with subordinating conjunctions in Chapter 3 when we see how dependent clauses are built. For now, we will deal only with coordinating conjunctions.

There are seven single-word conjunctions. A helpful acronym for remembering them is FANBOYS:


Here are some examples using coordinating conjunctions to join single words (the joined words are underlined):

Tarzan loves coconuts and bananas.
Jane wanted coconuts or bananas.
Tarzan’s parents were poor but honest.

Here are examples using the remaining coordinating conjunctions to join groups of words (the joined groups of words are underlined):

Jane and Tarzan are in love, yet they still can’t agree on their china pattern.

It was my turn to cook, so we had something simple.

We turned back, for it was getting dark.

I didn’t want to leave, nor did anybody else.

There is a subgroup of coordinating conjunctions called correlative conjunctions. Correlative conjunctions are two-part conjunctions, for example, both … and; either … or; neither … nor; not only … but also. Here are some examples:

They had both cake and pie for dessert.

I had to either exercise more or eat less.

Not only was it a stupid movie, but it also lasted three hours.


Prepositions are “little words” such as by, to, with, about, over, etc. They are used to make prepositional phrases. Prepositional phrases consist of a preposition plus its object, which can be either a noun (with or without adjective modifiers) or a pronoun. Here are some examples of prepositional phrases (prepositions in italics, objects in bold):

in the morning
under the bridge
by Shakespeare
to them

Prepositions are part of a package deal. They are always bound together with their objects to form prepositional phrases. It is impossible to identify prepositions at the single-word, part-of-speech level in isolation from the rest of their package. Accordingly, we will postpone any further discussion of prepositional phrases until Chapter 2, where we will look at phrases in general and prepositional phrases in particular.