Last post I mostly just groused about how little grammar most people know. Today, in an attempt at a more useful follow-up, I’ll go over the basic categories of words in English, which you may have learned as the “parts of speech.” I’m drawing from and drastically simplifying Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum’s A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar, which is itself a drastic simplification of their 1,800-page epic saga The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, so feel free to mentally add “usually” to every sentence.
The grammar we learned at school defined word categories by the meanings that the member words usually have. Meaning-based definitions are not 100% useless; they’re good for defining categories across languages. English nouns and Japanese nouns have different grammar, but both include words referring to people, places, and things. Inside one language, though, it’s better to define grammar with grammar – to look at what jobs this category of words can do in a sentence, what endings they can take on, and what they require or abjure¹ in the sentence around them.
If I give an example of something you can’t do, then following the usual linguistic protocol I’ll put an asterisk in front of it: *“The my squirrel ran for it.” Remember, though, that when I say you “can” or “can’t” do whatever, I mean based on the evidence. The great mass of Standard English speakers out there would find “the squirrel” and “my squirrel” totally normal, but would never say “the my squirrel.” Or “the my banana” or “the my turpentine” or “the my” anything. They wouldn’t do it.
And that’s where all this comes from: what Standard English speakers actually say and write. You can absolutely gather up evidence for other varieties of English – or other whole languages – and figure out their rules, but today we’re looking at SE.
There are nine parts of speech: verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, determinatives, prepositions, interjections, subordinators, and coordinators. You probably learned those last two together as “subordinating conjunctions” and “coordinating conjunctions,” but they’re actually so different that there’s no reason to lump them under one umbrella term.
Interjections are the easiest, so let’s knock them out first. In fact, your high-school grammar probably covered these pretty accurately. They’re words like “Whew!” and “Ouch!” and “Daaaayum!” that you, well, interject. Just toss out to react to something. They don’t interact grammatically with other words. So, uh, there isn’t much to say about ‘em.
Verbs are the most important category. You heard of them as the “action” in a sentence, with the subject as the “doer” of the action. In in some sentences that’s ok: “Claudia ate the potatoes” has the action of eating, and Claudia’s doing it.
But, naturally, this is not enough. In “Claudia likes potatoes way, way too much” there’s no action happening; it is how it is, man. And in “The 500-piece all-black jigsaw puzzle infuriated Claudia” the puzzle sure isn’t taking any action. It’s just hanging around being evil.
So let’s get to grammar instead. And here verbs are great, because there’s an obvious way to find them: verbs inflect for tense. They have different forms for past and present: “ate” and “eat,” “liked” and “like,” “infuriated” and “infuriate.” And in the present tense they have two different forms again. When there’s only one of whatever the subject is, and it isn’t you or me, it gets a bonus “-s” on the end: “he eats” and “she eats” and “Claudia eats” and “the puzzle eats (souls).”
This makes verbs super clear. If you want to say that something happened yesterday, it’s not like the prepositions and adjectives are going to be in the past tense. But verbs? Hell yes.
Verbs are also the boss of the sentence. Every sentence has a verb, and the verb requires or allows or forbids other words from taking jobs in the sentence. Some verbs are pickier than others. “Claudia ate potatoes” is fine, and so is “Claudia ate,” but you can’t just have *“The puzzle infuriated.” It has to infuriate someone. The verb “infuriate” requires that some noun come around and do the grammar job of being infuriated; the verb “eat” allows some noun to do the grammar job of getting eaten, but doesn’t require it. This particular grammar job is the object.
“Like” is a little different. It also doesn’t come alone – “Claudia likes” is unfinished – but it has two options for what can come after. “Like” allows an object, as in “Claudia likes potatoes,” but it can also accept a whole other clause, a sentence within a sentence, as in “Claudia likes that you refuse to mash your potatoes with anything but a giant wooden warhammer.”
Nouns I went over last post, so I’ll keep this brief. How do you find a noun in the wild? Look for words that inflect for number. That means they change based on if there’s one or more than one of whatever you’re talking about: “one puzzle, two puzzles,” “one warhammer, six warhammers,” “one Claudia, how can there possibly be twenty-three Claudias in this class.” Nouns can usually be found doing one of four jobs: the subject, the object, the predicate complement (I’ll explain that someday, I swear) or following a preposition. And nouns come after determinatives, which I guess I should get into next.
Determinatives tell you if a noun is definite or indefinite. If a noun is definite, then I think you already know what I’m talking about; if it’s indefinite, then I don’t. There are lots of determinatives, like “some,” “all,” “that,” and “these,” but the most common definite determinative is “the,” indefinite is “a.” If I say “Bring me the gilded oyster shell,” then either there’s only one gilded oyster shell in the house or I think you know which one I want. If I say “Bring me a gilded oyster shell,” then we have a whole bag of them and I don’t care which one I get.
Adjectives I know you learned as “describing words,” and they do usually show properties of whatever noun they’re attached to. They don’t worry about tense, like verbs, and they don’t care about number, like nouns; instead, adjectives are all about grade. For that, they either inflect with “-er” and “-est” forms or they buddy up with “more” and “most.” Adjectives do two main jobs. They can be attributive, which is when they come in front of a noun, like “the terrifying eyes of the ceramic squirrel.” Or they can come after “is” and similar words, as in “The squirrel is ceramic” and “its eyes are terrifying.” They can come in between a determinative and a noun, as in “the maddening stare,” but they don’t take determinatives by themselves; no *“the maddening.”
Since adjectives have nouns covered, adverbs modify pretty much anything else. They’ll modify verbs, they’ll modify adjectives, they’ll modify prepositions, they’ll modify determinatives, they’ll even modify other adverbs. They can usually take “more” and “most,” like adjectives, though they don’t roll with the “-er” and “-est” endings. And handily enough, they mostly look like adjectives with an “-ly” hanging on, so they’re easy to spot. “Happy” is an adjective; “happily” is an adverb. Ditto “cantankerous” and “cantankerously.” Was there ever a chiller, more easy-going category of words?
And yet this category, I tell you, this very category has been most maligned by school-grammar writers, who try to call whole piles of words “adverbs” because they’re not sure what to do with them. Like “before.” Why would “before” be an adverb? It doesn’t modify a damn thing. Yet they look at a sentence like “I saw her before” and say “before” is modifying… what? “Saw”?
This ends now.
“Before” is a preposition. Even if there’s nothing after it.
That’s right: prepositions do not need to be followed by a noun. Many are, sure. The most common prepositions show how two nouns are connected in space or time, like “I saw Claudia in the movie theater” or “I saw Claudia before lunch.” But prepositions can also be followed by a clause: “I saw her before I gilded my oysters.” They can be followed by another preposition: “I saw her ahead of me.” And they can be followed by nothing at all: “I saw her downstairs.”
This is not a new idea, as Huddleston & Pullum point out. Linguists have been working with this since Otto Jespersen first came out with his revamp in 1924. But somehow it has not managed to trickle into schools, where we’re taught that “before” is sometimes a preposition, sometimes an adverb, and sometimes a so-called subordinating conjunction, even though all three times it has exactly the same meaning and works exactly the same way in the sentence.
Earlier, when I talked about verbs, I mentioned that “like” can be followed by an object or a clause, and “eat” can be followed by an object or by nothing. Did you shriek in rage and say that they couldn’t both be verbs, one had to be an adjective or some such bosh? No! You nodded along! Or more likely just skimmed right past it! So we are not going to sit here now and say that “before” fails at prepositioning because it can be followed by a couple different things.
And yes, “because” is a preposition too. But let me talk about what it’s not first.
Subordinators simply show that one clause is inside another. That is all they do. There aren’t very many of them — “that,” “whether,” “if” (with the same meaning as “whether”**), “to” and “for” pretty much round out the category. The most basic subordinator is “that,” as in “I saw that Claudia was trying to abscond with my warhammer.” It shows that “Claudia was trying to abscond with my warhammer” is inside the larger sentence. The others do the same thing, for different kinds of larger outer sentences.
But “because” is different. First, it doesn’t just add a clause. It adds extra information about a reason, just like how “before” adds a clause and information about time. Second, “because” doesn’t require a clause to follow it. It can also be followed by another preposition, as in “I left because of that damn creepy squirrel.”
And, in modern slang, it can be followed by a simple noun: “I came back… because drama!” Now, I know I said that we’d focus only on the high-fallutinest of Standard English, but this is relevant. If “because” were a subordinator, we’d twist ourselves into knots trying to figure out how that new rule sprang up in teen use. But as a preposition, it’s easy. “Because” used to be a preposition followed by a clause or a prepositional phrase; now in slang it can be followed by a clause, a prepositional phrase, or a bare noun. Done.
Whoa, and I nearly forgot about coordinators. There are only four: “and,” “or,” “but,” and the drastically less popular sibling “nor.” They join up two or more equal sentences or bits of sentences into one larger unit. How do you tell if two things are equal? They could each stand alone and finish the sentence, even if the other wasn’t there to help. So you have “Claudia will never complete that puzzle,” a fine sentence, and “Claudia will never defeat the squirrel,” also fine, and their combo is “Claudia will never complete that puzzle or defeat the squirrel,” a grammatically accurate and unfortunately utterly true statement. Poor Claud.
Now I’m exhausted. But rarely has a single post sparked so many different notes for future post topics. Hit me with your obscure grammar questions: I got firepower now.
The Language Nerd
*Now there’s a word I don’t use often enough.
**If “if” is being used as a conditional, like in this sentence, then it’s not a subordinator.
Got a language question? Ask the Language Nerd! email@example.com
Twitter @AskTheLeague / facebook.com/asktheleagueofnerds
You know how when you write a word too many times in a row it starts feeling like nonsense? Read enough Huddleston & Pullum and that happens to everything you write. This whole post is just words strung together, my mind is meltinggggg.
SIDE NOTE OF FURY: For the first time since I started this site, this post did not go up on Tuesday. Because my freaking server died. Trapped in the airport for seventeen hours? Got the post up. Broke up with my boyfriend? Got the post up. Directed the end-of-the-year 80-middle-and-elementary-schoolers rendition of “Knockoff Glee: The Probably Still Copyright Infringing Musical”? I still got the damn post up. And now my perfect record is ruined. By my freaking server. Oh, I am spitting mad.