Parts of speech are the building blocks of grammar. You were probably taught them at a very young age, but they can be trickier than you remember. Sure, you know nouns and verbs, but how sure are you of the difference between a preposition and an adverb? If you need a quick refresher, here’s a guide to all of the parts of speech. While you might not have to think about them on a daily basis, being able to call up the definitions can make language learning a lot easier.
For the sake of this article, all of the examples below will be English words (if you’re reading this, you probably know at least some English). But every language has the same parts of speech, even if they appear in different places in the sentence. A noun is a noun, no matter what language it’s in.
And as one last note before starting, remember that words can qualify as many different parts of speech, depending on the context. You can “drive” (verb) or go for a “drive” (noun) or be a “driven” person (adjective). It’s all in how you use the word.
The Parts Of Speech
Examples: piano, cars, theory, planet, waiting room, seesaw, humankind, malleability, cats
A noun is a person, place, thing or idea. It’s one of the largest categories of words, because it needs to encompass, well, pretty much any object you can imagine. Every sentence needs at least one noun, but there are often multiple.
Examples: Detroit, Germany, Thomas, Google, the Beatles
Common nouns, like the ones mentioned above, refer to a category of things. Proper nouns refer to one specific thing. A common noun would be “planet,” which can refer to any of the billions of planets in the universe, but the proper noun “Mars” refers only to our planetary neighbor (or, in a different context, a candy company). In English, proper nouns are often differentiated with capitalization. But be warned that this isn’t the case in every language. German, for example, capitalizes all nouns, but French doesn’t capitalize certain proper nouns, including “Monday” and “September.”
Examples: she, him, they, it, ourselves, both, yours, any
A pronoun is a word that can stand in for another noun or set of nouns. To work in a sentence, it must be obvious who the pronoun is referring to, which can be indicated in the same sentence (“Jenna washed her hair.”) or earlier on (“Jupiter is the fourth planet in the solar system. It is also the largest.”). There is also a category of pronouns called possessive pronouns, which indicate that something belongs to something else (“his car,” “their house,” “the idea is hers”).
Which pronoun you use is based on what the pronoun is referring to. A pronoun will often show how many of something there is (“The cheese? It stands alone.” vs. “The cheeses? They stand together.”). English and a few other languages also express grammatical gender. In some languages, all nouns have a gender, and pronouns will often reflect that. In English, we only use gendered pronouns to refer to people, indicating whether they are male, female, nonbinary or any number of other gender identities.
Examples: drive, cower, charge, self-destruct, walk, manipulate, be
Verbs are the action part of a sentence, and they describe what is happening. “Action” can be a little misleading, though, because verbs don’t have to describe anything literally happening. The sentence “I am.” is complete, though the verb “am” refers to merely existing. Verbs are conjugated in English to show who did an action (“I walk,” “She walks,” “They walk”) and when the action was done (“I walk,” “I walked”).
Examples: will, have, need, should, might
Sometimes, a single verb doesn’t cut it in a sentence. In that case, an auxiliary verb can be added. These can change the meaning of a sentence in many ways. You can say “I might go” to show you’re unsure of whether you’re going; you can say “I could go” to show the possibility of going; and you can say “I will go” to show that at some point in the future, you plan to go. You can find auxiliaries by looking for the primary verbs and seeing if there are any other verbs nearby that affect the meaning of the sentence.
Examples: tall, good, disdainful, incommensurable, green, organic
In a perfect world, adjectives would be called “adnouns” because they add some sort of description to nouns. In English, the adjective almost always appears right before the noun, though in some languages it’s the other way around. It can also appear in a construction like “The car is red.” There is also a specific order that adjectives should appear in, which you might adhere to unconsciously. You would write “the short purple pencil” rather than “the purple short pencil.”
Examples: quite, hopefully, winningly, together, ruefully
Adverbs are slightly more complicated than adjectives because they can be applied to three different parts of speech.
The most obvious — because of the name — is verbs, like in the sentence “He grinned smugly.” Here, the adverb modifies how the verb is being performed.
The second category is adjectives, such as “the very short novel.” The adjective describes the noun, and the adverb describes the adjective. You can tell the difference because the adverb can be taken away (“the short novel”) but not the adjective (“the very novel”).
Lastly, adverbs can describe other adverbs, like in the sentence “He wandered quite slowly.” The “slowly” describes the verb “wandered,” but the “quite” describes the other adverb “slowly.”
The quick tip that you might be taught is that many adverbs end in -ly. This can be useful, but not all adverbs end in -ly, and not all words that end in -ly are adverbs.
Examples: the, a, five, that, neither, another, no
Determiners are perhaps the most tricky part of speech to define easily. They appear before a common noun, and they “determine” what a person is referring to. You can refer to “a car” or “the car” or “any car” or “both cars” or “neither car.” Possessive pronouns technically fit into this category, but you can also just class them as pronouns. Other determiners are also sometimes grouped in with adjectives, like numbers (“there are four dogs”), but they work slightly differently: You can say “The dogs are brown” but not “The dogs are four.” This difference probably doesn’t matter much if you’re not a linguist, though.
Examples: the, a, an
The most common determiners are articles, which are either definite (“the,” referring to a specific thing) or indefinite (“a” or “an,” not referring to a specific thing).
Examples: to, from, after, under, on, behind, despite
Prepositions add additional information to a sentence about the relationship between different things or concepts. They are often about one of four things: location (“we ate at the restaurant”), time (“we’ve been eating since noon”), direction (“we ran to the east”) or space (“we looked over the railing”). They almost always appear before a noun, which is why they’re called “prepositions.” In languages like Turkish, Hindi and Japanese, they’re postpositions because they appear after the noun phrase instead.
Examples: and, but, or, else, furthermore, nevertheless, nor
Conjunctions are pretty straightforward — they conjoin two things. They can conjoin nouns (“cats and dogs,”) clauses (“He went to the movies, yet I went to the bank.”), adjectives (“The dog was neither tall nor fast.”), adverbs (“The turtle slowly but surely won the race.”) and more. The conjunctions “and” and “or” are perhaps the most versatile, but the English language has countless other ways of conjoining sentences and ideas.
Examples: bang, wow, god, no, yes, hey, objection, ow
Interjections don’t really fit in with most other parts of speech. Unless you’re quoting someone, they don’t appear in full sentences. Instead, they’re shouted out by people to show surprise, excitement, anger or any other strong emotion.
Examples: ooh, uh, ahh, um, like
Filler words are often entirely ignored in writing, but they are ever-present in human speech. They are the sounds and words you say when you’re thinking, or they fill the empty space between your other words. They get a bad rap, but they’re an important part of spoken communication.