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Parts of Speech

How a word is used in a sentence can determine what part of speech we call it. A word can be a prepositions or an adverb, for example, or a gerund or a participle. In this article, we help you figure out the difference.

By
Mignon Fogarty ,
March 22, 2018

Articles

Articles are short words that come before nouns. There are two types of articles: indirect articles and direct articles.

The indirect articles are “a” and “an.” “A" comes before words that start with a consonant sound, and “an” comes before words that start with a vowel sound.

  • Will I get a bike for my birthday?
  • Amit wears an orange jersey.

The direct article is “the.”

  • The dog walked down the street.

Some other grammar classification systems group articles with adjectives or call them determiners.

Some nouns need an article before them, and some don’t.

Nouns

Nouns are names of people, places, things, and concepts.

Proper nouns are the given names of people, places, and things. The first letter of a proper noun is capitalized.

  • We visited California last year.
  • Who told Adam that Sarah called?

Common nouns are the generic names of people, places, things, and concepts. Common nouns are written in lowercase.

  • We visited a new city.
  • Who told Adam that a girl called?
  • Sarah showed courage today.

Nouns can also be categories as concrete, abstract, collective, and compound.

Verbs

Verbs can describe actions, help other verbs, and link a subject to descriptors.

Action verbs describe actions:

  • Matteo jumped over the fence.
  • Harry wins every match.

Helping verbs (aka auxiliary verbs) add meaning to the main verb. They can convey a sense of time, possibility, ability, and so on:

  • Maria might take you to the store.
  • Maria can take you to the store.
  • Maria has taken you to the store.

Linking verbs connect a subject to a descriptor.

  • Squiggly is yellow.
  • Aardvark was the best fishing buddy today.

This piece about “bad” and “badly” explains more about linking verbs.

Adjectives

Adjectives modify nouns.

  • Pick the yellow flower.
  • Luka carried the heavy bags.

Some systems call words such as “a" and “the” and “my” and “his” adjectives.

Nouns can also function as adjectives, and when they do, they are called attributive nouns:

  • We visited the tree farm.
  • She hid the letter in a hat box.

Sometimes you need commas between adjectives, and sometimes you don't.

Adverbs

Adverbs can modify verbs (or verb phrases), adjectives (or adjective phrases), other adverbs (or adverb phrases), and whole sentences. Adverbs often end with "-ly," but not always.

  • We made pizza yesterday.
  • Deven expertly added toppings.
  • Thankfully, Hugh couldn’t find the anchovies.

Sometimes, words you might think of as prepositions act like adverbs. When a word such as “over” or “up” is modifying a verb, it’s acting like an adverb.

Some people call such words adverbs and other people call them prepositions. It’s the difference between what something is and what something does: It’s a preposition doing a job that is typically associated with adverbs. Rational people can disagree about this. It’s a gray area of grammar.

For longer explanations about the differences between prepositions and adverbs, see our articles How Many Prepositions Can You Use in a Row and Preposition or Adverb?

Pronouns

Pronouns can take the place of nouns in a sentence or refer to someone who was named earlier in a sentence.

  • He went to the football game.
  • Give the ball to me.
  • Tara and Manuel baked the cake themselves.

Pronouns such as “my,” “your,” and “their” are commonly called possessive pronouns. Others may call them possessive adjectives or possessive determiners, and those terms are also correct.

  • Don’t tell his sister.
  • Our house is always noisy.

A common mistake people make with pronouns is to mix up "I" and "me" in the subject and object positions in a sentence.

Conjunctions

Conjunctions join things and can create transitions. 

Coordinating conjunctions connect things that are grammatically equal, such as two nouns or two clauses:

  • Liam likes milk and cookies.
  • I like milk, but I don’t like cookies.

Subordinating conjunctions head dependent clauses.

  • We were late because traffic was bad.
  • Call me when you get home.
  • Since you paid, you should stay.

Correlative conjunctions are pairs such as “neither ... nor.”

Prepositions

Prepositions tell you about relationships. They can tell you about time, location, position, duration, direction, and more.

  • On Friday, we’ll choose a winner.
  • Drive toward the beach.
  • The clock is over the mantle.
  • He sent the card to Sylvia.

Sometimes prepositions modify verbs in a way that is typically associated with adverbs. (See the adverbs section above.)

  • Clean up the kitchen.
  • He ran over the cat.
  • The tree fell down.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not always wrong to end a sentence with a preposition.

How to Tell Prepositions from Subordinating Conjunctions

Some words, such as “after” and “before,” can be prepositions or subordinating conjunctions depending on how they are used. Here’s how to tell them apart:

If the word is followed by a noun or gerund, it is a preposition. (The noun or gerund is called the object.)

  • After the luncheon, Squiggly needed a nap. (preposition)
  • Before casting the show, Aardvark watched videos. (preposition)

If the word is followed by a main clause (something that could stand as a sentence on its own), it is a subordinating conjunction.

  • After Squiggly ate five kumquats, he felt sick. (subordinating conjunction)
  • Aardvark wept before he posted the list. (subordinating conjunction)

Gerunds

Gerunds are made by adding the “-ing” suffix to verbs. For example, “running” is the gerund of the verb “run.”

Gerunds can act like nouns. Often (but not always) you can replace a “nouny” gerund with a regular noun, such as “cookies.”

  • Running makes me happy.
  • Everyone hates my singing.

Sometimes, gerunds act like verbs. For example, in this sentence, the gerund is modified by an adverb:

  • Lea’s quickly defusing the bomb saved the day.

Participles

Participles typically end in “-ing” or “-ed” and can be in the present tense (“lifting”) or past tense (“lifted”). Some participles take irregular endings (“taken,” “slept,” “done,” “been”).

Participles have multiple uses, making them one of the more difficult parts of speech to master.

Participles can act like adjectives:

  • Stop the speeding car.
  • Left out overnight, the milk spoiled.

Participles can join with certain helping verbs and forms of the verb “to be” to make perfect and progressive verb phrases:

  • Amelia had been walking.
  • Ruby is walking.
  • Oliver will have been walking.

One mistake people make with participles is to use a dangling participle at the beginning of a sentence.

How to Tell Gerunds, Participles, and Adjectives Apart

Nothing is trickier than distinguishing a participle from a gerund. They look identical. “Forgiving,” for example, can be a participle or a gerund (or even an adjective) depending on how it’s used. Use these simple rules to tell the difference.

First, can you modify the word with “very”? If yes, it’s an adjective.

  • Squiggly was in a very forgiving mood. (adjective)

Second, if you can’t modify the word with “very,” can you modify it with an adverb? If yes, it’s a participle. If no, it’s a gerund.

  • Squiggly is graciously forgiving his brother. (participle)
  • Squiggly recited the forgiving spell. (gerund, imagine a spell for forgiving)

You may also have trouble determining whether an “ing”-word in a phrase at the beginning of a sentence is a participle or a gerund. When the word follows a preposition, it's a gerund. 

  • Singing in the rain, Squiggly felt elated. (participle)
  • After singing in the rain, Squiggly felt damp. (gerund)

For the rationale behind these simple tests, see our longer article on participles and gerunds.

Infinitives

Infinitives are the "to" form of verbs.

  • I want to go.
  • I pledge to uphold the law.

Infinitives can play different roles in a sentence. These are just two examples:

  • Subject: To win was his biggest desire.
  • Object: He hoped to win.

Some grammarians also consider the plain form of a verb to be an infinitive in sentences such as “Make him shut up,” and “Let me go.” 

Split infinitives (“to boldly go") aren’t wrong.

Grammar Pop

If you'd like to practice identifying parts of speech, you can try our iOS game, Grammar Pop:

A Grammar Pop screenshot

Optimized for iPad: http://bit.ly/GrammarPopiPad 

For iPad and iPhone: http://bit.ly/GrammarPop 

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