The Parts of Speech—An Overview




Before I set out to painstakingly write a post for each part of speech (and believe me, it's going to hurt me more than it's going to hurt you), I thought I'd perhaps provide a summary, including my always-unique perspective, of the parts of speech.

I'm doing this because I'm convinced that the parts of speech are the only thing some English teachers actually retained from their college studies. Because of this, the parts of speech seem to be taught with the same rote fascination that we use to memorize the periodic table and subway train numbers. I'm not saying it's as painful as letting a 6'6", three-hundred-pound Samoan (shout out Tulsi!) punch you in the 'nads, but I'd probably flip a coin.

A quick analysis of what matters, and more important, what you can ignore, not only cuts through the bullshit and mystery but also means I don't have to write as much, which is a win–win as far as I'm concerned.


The Traditional Parts of Speech


English has traditionally comprised eight parts of speech:

  • Nouns
  • Pronouns
  • Verbs
  • Adjectives
  • Adverbs
  • Prepositions
  • Conjunctions
  • Interjections (or exclamations)

As with many things geekish, when English nerds gather 'round, drinking decaffeinated tea and discussing things like false attractions to predicate nouns and the subjunctive vagaries of modal auxiliaries, all hell breaks loose when some idiot unwittingly mentions the elephant in the room: "How many parts of speech are there, anyway?"

Well, guess what? I'm happy to be your idiot today, though I'll be doing so in a much more wittingly way.

Let's dispense with one thing right off the bat. Interjections don't deserve to be their own part of speech. Because they quite literally exist in a vacuum with no connection to the other parts of speech, feel free to ignore them for the purposes of understanding the parts of speech.

(Note 1: If you are attending postsecondary school to pursue a degree in, say, English, literature, or linguistics, you ignore interjections at your own peril. Some professor surely loves them. Note 2: This doesn't mean you should swear off interjections in your writing. A hearty "Holy Fuck!!!" can often convey what several paragraphs of drivel cannot.)
Eight Parts of Speech? You Can Forget That Now
You've probably heard an instructor say that each part of speech is equally important for writing and that without being able to identify which part is which, one will be unable to understand syntax and grammatical conventions. First, bullshit. Second, bullshit (though it will make things considerably harder on the student). 

The parts of speech are not equal. I already hanged interjections at the start of this post, and I'm about to make five of the remaining seven elements second-class citizens in the English octagon of death. Nouns and verbs are hands down the two most important parts of speech. Technically, it's not possible to write anything in English without a decent grasp of what nouns and verbs are.  

Now some smartass is thinking, "But what about interjections? And what about one-word sentences such as "Breezy" or one-element phrases rendered as sentences, such as "A really hot one"? Save it for someone who gives a fuck. In all those cases, a noun or verb can be understood from context. So get it straight: Every piece of writing in English uses a noun and a verb (as subject and predicate) to convey meaning either literally or through context

We are then left with two parts of speech, the noun and verb, essentially the king and queen of English, along with five serfs that do their bidding. Because pronouns are basically substitute nouns, we can throw them in as the court jester, leaving us with three important parts of speech and four that are quite relevant but not always necessary. 

Why is this important? First, the next time you write a sentence and think you have to throw in a bunch of adjectives and adverbs to dress it up so it's super-awesome and shit, stop to think about whether you need to do so. Maybe you can communicate just fine without so much stuff. Second, it's easier to understand syntax and grammar if one thinks about English in a more linguistic manner, with all writing created by building onto the base of a noun and verb. Otherwise you'll find yourself running around worrying about some adjective or adverb that could just as easily be taken out back and shot in the head.  
Function over Form
If you've read much of my writing, you may be aware that I have a tendency to ridicule stupidity in the use, and especially the teaching, of English, largely because the most prolific idiots tend to think they are also the smartest and most skilled. Good news—they often are not. Treating the eight parts of speech as equal elements of writing is lazy, and it's wrong. It's evidence that some of those who "know" only do so because they chose the status quo over critical thinking. 

Which leads me to my next axe-grinder. I'm quite aware that most names for the parts of speech are derived from ancient language when cavemen and cavewomen had about 100 total words in their language (for instance, noun is derived from earlier words meaning name). That's still no excuse for continuing to hammer home the definitions while ignoring function. 

Comic of a caveman and cavewoman. The caveman has a spear, while the cavewoman is sitting on the floor of the cave organizing tiles. She tells him that she's gathering parts of speech and asks if he wants to eat a pronoun.

Sure, we need to know the names, or at least to have some passing knowledge of what they represent. But we can always look them up. What's more important is to think about how these words function (keeping in mind that many words—e.g., dwelling—can serve as multiple parts of speech depending on the situation): 

Actors: nouns and pronouns
Actions: verbs
Modifiers: adjectives and adverbs
Connectors: prepositions and conjunctions
Recently deceased: interjections

You can call them whatever you want so long as you come up with a nomenclature that allows you to differentiate how words function in a sentence. 

Because the gods know that we already have enough blowhards running around screaming that modifiers and determiners are completely different things even though they don't sound like two different words at all

Go forth and conquer, Buckeroos. 

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