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Concourse 2

Word class: the essentials


Generally, 10 classes of words are recognised in English.  These are sometimes called 'parts of speech'.
Take a piece of paper and see how many you can remember from school and then click here.


Determiners: the missing class

There is, in fact, a word class missing from this list which is used in more modern grammars: determiners.
Determiners are words which modify nouns (just as adjectives, demonstratives and articles do).  In older grammars, determiners were often classed as adjectives (we can have few dogs and fewer dogs) or as demonstratives (these books, that man) or as articles (the car, some sugar) or even as pronouns.
This is not satisfactory in many ways so the modern term for words such as each, all, more, the, a, several, these, either etc. when they come before nouns is simply determiner.
How determiners work in English is not a simple matter to analyse and is the subject of a separate guide.  Following that guide successfully will be quite difficult if the area is new to you.  You will almost certainly need to understand issues of (un)countability in nouns before tackling it.

Now click for a test to see if you can identify what these different word classes actually do in the language.  Don't worry if you don't get it all right.  It's explained below.


Overlapping word classes

It is a mistake to assume that we can look at a word and from its meaning or appearance, consign it to one of the 10 or 11 word classes we have identified.  That's not how it works.
In fact, we consign words to classes by their positions in sentences and their grammatical function.  Meaning comes a distant third.
This is what is meant:

  1. Some words are only members of one word class.  So, for example, ceiling is a noun and nothing else, decide is a verb only, between is a preposition and so on.
  2. Many thousands of words can be members of two or more word classes, however, depending on what they are doing in a sentence so, for example, in:
        Please clean the car
    the word clean is operating as a verb but in:
        The car is clean already
    the word is operating as an adjective.
  3. Some words have characteristic of more than one word class so, for example:
    that is a demonstrative determiner which has a plural form (those)
    little is a determiner (and sometimes a pronoun) which has comparative and superlative forms (less and least) which makes it work like an adjective.
    Another example is that in
        He is running
    the word running is clearly a verb but in
        Running is good exercise
    the word is operating as a noun but still looks like a verb (and retains its meaning).

And so on.  Do not be tempted to jump to conclusions and suggest to learners that a word is always assigned to one of the main classes.  Context is vital.
The phenomenon we see here is called gradience or categorical indeterminacy which simple means that we accept that word-class boundaries are sometimes fuzzy.


Key characteristics of word classes

The following briefly covers the nature of ten word classes in English.  For more detail, you can refer to the individual guides on this site to each class.  Use the search facility to do that or use the links at the end of the page.



Apart from obvious (and slightly inaccurate) distinctions between abstract nouns (beauty, hope etc.), concrete nouns (apple, table etc.) and proper nouns (James, Canada etc.), there is a key distinction learners (and you) need to understand:
countability and uncountability.
Countable nouns can be preceded by a number (two cats), some (some dogs) and a few.  They usually take plural endings.  In the plural, we use a plural form of the verb with them (are not is, for example).
Uncountable nouns are better referred to as mass nouns and cannot be preceded by a number or a few (but can be preceded by some) and only take plurals in unusual meanings when we make them countable.  We use the singular form of the verb with these.
Divide these

sugar, pea, furniture, happiness, sheep, army, money, attention, pliers, coffee, teacher, food, door, discomfort, information, luggage, suitcase, chair

and then click here for some comments.



There is another key distinction here.  Can you divide this list into three groups?  Think about how you use the words in a sentence.

smoke, give, go, enjoy, breathe, beat, come, arrive, listen, see, hear, feel, say, speak, think, carry, jump, reciprocate

Click here when you've done that.



Here's another list to categorise.  Conjunctions can coordinate two clauses or they can subordinate one clause to another (making one clause depend on the other).
For example:
    He makes the beds and he does the washing up
is an example of and working as a coordinating conjunction.  Both parts of the sentence are meaningful without the other.
    I won't make the beds unless you do the washing up
is an example of unless acting as a subordinating conjunction.  We can't understand the second clause without reference to the first.
Here's the list to categorise.

but, after, although, as, and, as soon as, because, before, if, in order that, so, unless, until, when

Click here for the answer.

There is a third type of conjunction you need to know about: correlating (or correlative) conjunctions.  Here's the list:
both ... and, just as ...so, (n)either ... (n)or, whether ... or, not only ... but (also)
Can you make an example using these?  Note that this class of conjunctions is confined pretty much to linking ideas inside sentences rather then linking sentences together.  Click here for some examples of them in use.



This a notoriously difficult area of English because there's seems little rhyme or reason to which preposition we use where.  The other issue, as usual, is that languages differ.  Some languages don't use prepositions at all, preferring post-positions, so we get The bridge along.
But there are some rules.

  • Distinguish between movement and position:
    • I went to the station (direction of movement)
    • I arrived at the station (position)
  • Distinguish between exact place and general place:
    • He is in the station at the booking office
    • He is in London at the station
  • Distinguish between prepositions which describe absolute position and those which describe things from the speaker's point of view:
    • The house is between two trees / the house is next to / near the cinema / the house is opposite the church (wherever you are standing)
    • The house is behind the trees / the house is in front of the garage (from where you are standing)

There is a guide to prepositions on this site.



There is, of course, a separate essential guide to adjectives so this will be brief.
Adjectives in English modify nouns (usually) to distinguish them in some way and (usually) come in one of two places:

Before the noun they describe (attributive use):
a fat cat, a huge house etc.
After the noun they describe and linked to it by a verb such as be, look like, taste, smell, appear etc. (predicative use):
The cat is fat, the house appeared huge etc.



Articles are a sub-class of determiners.
Again, there's a more advanced guide to articles on the site.
There are only three true articles in English: a, an and the.  The other choice in English is no article at all and that is usually represented by a zero sign, like this: .  The zero article is important because it is used in English to refer to all instances of something.
(Some analyses will include some in the list but it's actually not an article although it can work in a very similar fashion.)
A few examples are all that's needed here:
a house, a university, an apple etc. (Note that the choice of a or an is determined by the sound of the following word, not the spelling.)
the house, the man I met etc.
people often complain, cars pollute etc.

The rules for deciding which article to use are not simple so go to the guide to articles for more detail.  Essentially, the rule is:

Decide what you are talking about.  There are only three choices:

  1. One of many – indefinite specific reference (a house, a person, an idiot etc.)
  2. All of them, everywhere – generic reference ( people, tigers, computers etc.)
  3. This one exactly – definite specific reference (the woman on the corner, the train for London, the visitors to the park, the tourist industry etc.)



Adverbs are words which modify verbs just as adjectives modify nouns.  In many languages they are not distinguished from adjectives but English is not like that.
There is an essential guide to adverbs on this site so a few examples of what is meant will do here:
    He walked slowly and carefully to the door (answering how?)
    He's is coming soon (answering when?)
    He sometimes tells tall stories (answering how often?)
    They wandered around (answering where?)



Again, there are guides to pronouns on this site accessible from the initial plus training index.
Pronouns stand in for or replace nouns so instead of saying The rain fell and the rain was heavy we can say The rain fell and it was heavy. Essentially, there are two sorts:

Personal pronouns.  For example:
Mary didn't have a pen so I gave her mine (instead of Mary didn't have a pen so this person gave Mary the pen belonging to this person)
Other pronouns.  For example:
Somebody is at the door (instead of An unknown person is at the door)
Nothing is too much trouble (instead of No action is too much trouble)
He wanted money so I gave him some (instead of The male person wanted money so this person gave the male person some money)



Demonstratives are a sub-class of determiners.
There are four of these in English (this, that, these, those) and they refer to what we want to talk about.  In other words, they demonstrate or point out what we are referring to.  There are two decisions to make:

Is it near or far?
Use this or these for things near to you:
    I want this one, I can give you these tickets
Use that or those for things further away:
    Can I have that one? Take those tickets over there
Is it singular, uncountable or plural?
Use this and that for singular or uncountable nouns:
    Give him that wine, I didn't ask for this meal
Use these and those for plural nouns:
    Can I take these glasses? I haven't opened those bottles yet

Note that demonstratives can also act as pronouns:
    I don't want these apples (demonstrative), I want those (pronoun).



This is the simplest class of all.  These words are not, in a sense, 'real' words because they represent noises things and people make.  For example:
    "Ouch!" he cried.
"Aaargh! I've done it again."
"Pssst." he said.
    The car went 'clunkety-clunk' and stopped

Click for a test of the key elements of word class.

Related guides
determiners for a guide to key words which define or limit nouns
conjunctions for a guide to the essentials of these words
prepositions for more on this word class
adjectives for more on this word class
verbs for an explanation of the three main sorts of verbs
personal pronouns for a guide to words which stand in for nouns
nouns for a guide to a major word class
articles for the more advanced guide to the use of articles
adverbs for an essentials-only guide to the most variable word class