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Concourse 2

Word class: the essentials


Because this is an overview of 10 word classes, it contains links as you go along to more focused guides for most word classes.  Those links open in a new tab (except for those in the table at the end) so you can follow them and then close the page to come back to this one.

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.

There is an essential guide to determiners on this site linked in the list of related guides at the end but how determiners work in English is not a simple matter to analyse and is the subject of a separate (and more difficult) in-service guide.  Following the second 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.

test Mini-test
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 appearance or meaning, 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 characteristics of more than one word class so, for example:
    that is a demonstrative determiner which has a plural form like nouns (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 verbal 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 simply means that we accept that word-class boundaries are sometimes fuzzy.


Three ways to judge word class

How we assign words to classes can be managed by considering three factors, the last of which is the most powerful and accurate.  They are:

  1. We can look at the meaning of words so we get rules such as:
    1. Words which describe things or people are adjectives
    2. Words which refer to objects and people are nouns
    3. Words which refer to actions are verbs
    4. Words which say where, when, how often or how an action is done are adverbs

This works OK when the words in question are well behaved but, unfortunately breaks down when we encounter words such as:

  1. We can look at the form of words so we get rules such as:
    1. Words which end in -ly are adverbs
    2. Words which take a plural form with -s or -es are nouns
    3. Words which take -d or -ed to show a past tense are verbs
    4. Words which can be altered to show degree by ending in -er or -est are adjectives

Again, this works well for many thousands of well-behaved words but breaks down when we consider: 

  1. We can look at the grammatical function of a word and see where it occurs in the structure of the language (its distribution is the technical term).  This does give us workable rules because we can suggest:
    1. Nouns fill the gap in
          The __________ broke the window
    2. Verbs fill the gap in
          She __________ the parcel
    3. Adjectives fill the gap in
          She was very __________ to see her mother
    4. Adverbs fill the gap in
          They __________ came to my house

There are other tests we can apply to decide on word class but in what follows, we will be using a combination of all three, depending mostly on the last one.


Key characteristics of word classes

The following briefly covers the nature of ten word classes in English (although other guides on this site recognise only nine, for reasons which we'll explain).  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.
(There is a dedicated guide in this part of the site to mass and count nouns linked in the list of related guides at the end.)

  1. Countable nouns can be preceded by a number (two cats), a or an (a dog) and a few (a few letters).  They usually take plural endings.  In the plural, we use a plural form of the verb with them (are not is, for example).
    So we get, e.g.:
        Two people have arrived and the woman is his sister
  2. 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 a little) and only take plurals in unusual meanings when we make them countable.  We use the singular form of the verb with these.
    The bare form of mass nouns can stand alone so we allow:
        Milk is nourishing
    but not
        *Cigarette is bad for you
write Task
On a piece of paper (or in your head if you have the memory for it), divide these into the two groups: mass or count:
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.

Nouns are quite a complicated area of the language and there is an essential guide to nouns linked at the end and also a more complicated and detailed in-service guide to nouns on this site.



Verbs in English, and many other languages, come in three distinct flavours.  This is what they are:

  1. Lexical or main verbs
    These are what most people think of when they are asked to give an example of a verb.
    The verbs in this class carry their own meaning and can often stand alone and still make sense so, for example, we can understand what is meant if someone says:

    and so on.
    They also have a meaning which can be defined quite easily when they occur in phrases and longer units of language as in, e.g.:
        She left
        We spoke to them
        She altered it
        I drank the beer

    and so on.
    This is an open class of words so we can invent new verbs for actions and states which we want to decribe.  Hence we get, for example:
        Text me with the date
        Google it
        Upload the data

    and so on.
  2. Copular or linking verbs
                        LOOKING GOOD
    These verbs also carry some kind of meaning but cannot be understood when they are used in isolation so, for example, while we can happily understand:
        She grew angry
        They got lost
        We were in London
        That appears correct

    and so on, we cannot understand:
        She grew
        They got
        We were
        That appears

    because we do not know what the subject of the verb is being linked to.  Without that information, the statements make no sense.
  3. Auxiliary verbs
    These verbs carry no meaning at all because they are members of a closed class of functional words and their role in the language is grammatical.  They cannot stand alone and mean anything to most people unless another main verb is understood.
    All the highlighted verbs in the following examples are auxiliary verbs of some sort:
        We were given the money
        She has sent the letter
        I had been told about it
        She can't sing
        I must go soon
        They got their house repaired
        We daren't ask
        That should help a bit

    You may be able to see from that list that there are two main sorts of auxiliary verbs:
    1. Primary auxiliary verbs
      These function to form tenses and other structures in the language and on this site, we recognise four:
      1. have
        which makes what are called perfect tenses such as in:
            She has finished
            They hadn't arrived in time
            I will have sold it by then

        and also makes what are called causative structures as in:
            She had the work done
            I had my pocket picked
            They had the house swept

        and so on.
      2. be
        which makes progressive tense forms such as in
            She is working tonight
            They are spending a week in France
            She is always thinking of you

        and also operates in English to make what are called passive sentences as in:
            I was told
            Mary isn't being invited
            She will be sacked

        and so on.
      3. do
        which is used in English to make questions and negative forms (and sometimes to emphasise a lexical or main verb) as in, e.g.:
            Do you like this wine?
            Did she see him?
            Didn't he call?
            I don't understand
            We didn't go
            I do enjoy it

      4. get
        which is not always considered a primary auxiliary verb but functions as one, like have, to make a causative as in, e.g.:
            I got the house painted
            She got him to paint the garage

        and can also be used to make what is called a dynamic passive clause as in, e.g.:
            The house got damaged in the storm
            They got allowed into the club
    2. Modal auxiliary verbs
      These do not (with one exception) make tense forms or other grammatical structures.  What these verbs do is to make the speaker / writer's stance clear.  For example:
          I can arrange that (expressing ability or willingness)
          You should go home (expressing obligation)
          I might help (expressing possibility)
          It must break under that pressure (expressing a general truth)
      (The exception is the verb will and its past tense, would.  This verb can express the speaker's point of view as in, for example:
          She will do it if you ask (expressing her willingness)
          I would come earlier if it helped (expressing my willingness)
      but it can also function as a primary auxiliary verb to make a future form as in:
          I will be 40 tomorrow
          She will have told her
          The next train to arrive at platform 3 will be the 4:10 for London Paddington
          They would have arranged it earlier.

All these forms of verbs have their own essential guides on this site and the following guides will open in new tabs:

lexical or main verbs | copular verbs| primary auxiliary verbs | modal auxiliary verbs

If you want to learn much more, try the in-service verbs index.

There is another key distinction which concerns lexical or main verbs only.
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.

There is an essential guide to lexical or main verbs, linked above.



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?  This class of conjunctions is confined pretty much to linking ideas inside sentences rather than 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 postpositions, so we get The bridge along.
But there are some rules.

There is an essential guide to prepositions on this site linked at the end.



There is, of course, a separate essential guide to adjectives linked at the end 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
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



Articles are a sub-class of determiners.  We said above that we would explain why we are usually concerned with only nine word classes and it is because articles used to be considered a separate class but are now included as a subset of determiners.  They have, however, some important characteristics and are usually treated as a separate target for teaching purposes.
Again, there's a guide to the essentials of articles linked at the end and from there you can access 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: Ø.  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. (The choice of a or an is determined by the sound at the beginning of the following word, not the spelling.)
the house, the man I met etc.
Ø people often complain, Ø cars pollute, Ø smoking is bad for you, Ø water is a scarce resource etc.

The rules for deciding which article to use are not easy 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 (Ø people, Ø tigers, Ø computers etc.)
  3. This one exactly – definite specific reference (the woman on the corner, the train for Ø London, the visitors to the park, the tourist industry etc.)



Adverbs are words which modify just as adjectives modify nouns.
In English, adverbs do three things:

  1. They modify verbs (hence the name):
        I walked slowly
        She went outside
        They enjoyed the play immensely
  2. They modify adjectives:
        She is extremely rich
        They were deeply unhappy
        That's an unnecessarily rude thing to do
  3. They modify other adverbs:
        He drove extremely carefully
        She came very late
        They talked quite amicably

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 linked below 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?)
    She mostly enjoyed the party (answering to what extent?)



Pronouns are a sub-class of what are called pro-forms and stand for nouns or ideas.
There are guides to pronouns on this site accessible from the initial plus words index.
Pronouns usually 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.
And, instead of:
    When I read the book, I realised how good the book was
we can say:
    When I read it, I realised how good the book was
In the first example, the pronoun refers back to the noun (rain) and in the second it refers forward to the noun (book).

Sometimes, pronouns can stand for whole clauses or even longer pieces of language as in, for example:
    Getting the report written up and delivered to the right people on time was difficult but she managed it
in which the pronoun it stands for the whole of Getting the report written up and delivered to the right people on time.

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), although some other expressions work rather similarly, 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, mass or plural?
Use this and that for singular or mass 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

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

Demonstrative determiners are considered in the essential guide to determiners, linked below.



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


Words and phrases

In this guide, for the sake of simplicity, we have been focusing on individual words to identify the classes into which they fall.
However, all word classes can sometimes be represented by phrases so, for example, in:
    Dogs are often faithful
we have four single words acting as representatives of word classes (nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives respectively).
However, in:
    Peter's old dog has been almost always faithful and loving
we have phrases forming representatives of phrase classes but their grammatical functions are parallel.  The phrases are:
    noun: Peter's old dog
    verb: has been
    adverb: almost always
    adjective: faithful and loving

Here are some more examples of phrases acting in the same ways as single word classes:

car : William's old Volvo
house : corner house with a blue door
went : must have been going
have : can't have had
so : in order to
but : either ... or
on : in front of
by : at the back of
black : old, green French
sunny : cold and wet
usually : now and then
carefully : slowly and thoughtfully
my: all the
the : half the many
her : each other
us : one another

There is nothing particularly mystifying about this but it is worth bearing in mind that when we talk of word class, we really mean word or phrase class.


The following is a basic summary which leaves out rather too much but covers the essentials of word classes.
You can click on the green areas of your choice to go to the essential guide to the individual word classes.
You can get it as a PDF document by clicking here.



An important distinction

This distinction is one which confuses people new to the analysis of English (and sometimes, alas, people who should know better).

  1. Word class
    is to do with an item's syntactical function but that does mean that it is the same as grammatical function.
    For example, we know that in something like:
        Put the old __________ on the table
    we can fill the gap only with a noun or a noun phrase to get something like:
        Put the old grammar books on the table
    We know too that the phrase grammar books is a noun phrase and that this is how we talk about its class.
  2. Grammatical function
    is to do with how the items fit together in a sentence or clause.  In the example above, the phrase grammar books is the object of the verb put.
    Other word class items can also perform the grammatical function of the object of a verb and they are highlighted in black in these examples:
        I think in the corner is a good place
        I want
    to go
        She told
    We can also make a noun or noun phrase the subject of a verb and that is the grammatical function of the highlighted items in:
        Fred went home
    The grass grew too long
    The people in the corner have not ordered yet
    and so on.
    But other word-class items can also function grammatically as subjects so we may also find:
        To visit would be wonderful
    Under the stairs is the best place
        We left early

    and so on.
    Grammatical function refers to what the item is doing in relation to the rest of the sentence but that is different from an item's word or phrase class.
    The three grammatical functions are usually confined to:
    1. subjects: The old lady gave her the money
    2. indirect objects: The old lady gave her the money
    3. direct objects: The old lady gave her the money

(The situation regarding grammatical function is actually a bit more complicated than this, but, providing you are clear about the difference between word class and grammatical function, that's enough.)

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

Click on the green sections of the diagram above for the guides to individual word classes.
Other related guides are:
the word-class map this link takes you to the index of guides to word classes on this site including ones in the in-service area
initial plus words and vocabulary index from here you can track down other guides related to words and meaning
in-service lexis index for more advanced and technical guides to various areas of lexis
word and phrase class for a more advanced guide to the area which assumes knowledge of this guide
articles: essentials for the initial plus guide to the area
(un)countability for a guide which focuses on this area