Like all languages, English has structure. Certain combinations of words make sense, and some don’t. People who grow up speaking English have an intuitive understanding of this, but writers have an added incentive to learn that structure. The more you know about the rules, the better chance you have of effectively playing with them.
Learning the rules of English starts with knowing about parts of speech. At the very least, you'll know what people are talking about when they discuss different uses for count nouns and mass nouns.
A noun is commonly defined as a person, place, thing or idea. There are several ways to describe nouns, each of which refers to a different property a noun can have. The first is the the conrete/abstract distinction:
- concrete nouns
- Concrete nouns refer to a person, place or thing that you can point to, that you can touch.
- Some examples include "chair," "table," "desk," and "dog."
- abstract nouns
- Abstract nouns usually refer to ideas, things you can't touch.
- Some examples include "Saturday," "independence," "freedom," and "life."
Next is whether a noun refers to a group of things:
- collective nouns
- Collective nouns refer to groups of things
- Some examples include "herd" (group of animals), "bunch" (a group of things), and "team" (a group of people).
Finally, English grammar also treats nouns as being either count nouns or mass nouns:
- count nouns
- Count nouns can be made plural, and you can attach a number to them.
- Words like "table," "chair," or "turtle" are count nouns because you can say "two tables," "five chairs," and "three turtles" without sounding strange.
- mass nouns
- Also called non-count nouns, mass nouns talk about things en masse. If you try to make these words plural, or put a number in front of them, they sound strange.
- Words like "heat," "randomness," and "equipment" are mass nouns, because "two heats", "five randomnesses," and "three equipments" isn't really English, but lolcat instead.
Because some words can be used as both count and mass nouns, the distinction can be a bit hard to learn. If you'd like more detailed info, definitions, examples and usage, click here.
Pronouns and Proper Nouns
Pronouns are a special type of nouns that warrant their own category. Most nouns mean more or less than the same thing each time they’re used (water is water), but pronouns are words whose meaning changes depending on context. Some common pronouns are:
I, you, they, he, she, it, we, them
For example, in the sentence:
He gave it to them.
"He," "it" and "them" will have different meanings depending on what the situation is.
Verbs are action words, like "dance," "run," and "snore." They’re what happens, what people do. They are the only mandatory component of a complete sentence. English has three major kinds of verbs.
- transitive verbs
- Sometimes things do things to other things. That's when you have a transitive verb.
- intransitive verbs
- Sometimes things just do things. That's when you have an intransitive verb.
I eat meat. My wife poked me with a stick.
I climbed the mountain.
The dog sleeps.
Great Cthulu dreams.
In general, you look at the noun and the verb, and if the next words answer "To whom?" or "To what?" you have a transitive verb. If there are no next words, or the next words answer “How?”, “Why?” or “Where?” you have an intransitive verb. There really isn’t a firm list of transitive verbs versus intransitive verbs. Most common verbs are used both in a transitive and an intransitive fashion, depending on the sentence.
Finally, you have linking verbs. This site says they’re also called copulative verbs, but that’s the first place I’ve seen that term. I like it though.
- linking verbs
- Sometimes things are just things. That's when you have a linking verb.
I am hungry.
She seemed nice.
That car looks like a fart.
Adjectives describe nouns:
old cheese, green meat, a terrible choice, a ghastly defeat.
That’s really all there is to it.
Adverbs describe verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs...basically everything except for nouns. They often, but not always, end in "-ly."
I quickly ran to the store.
That is an atrociously green piece of meat.
The army marched westward.
We will leave tomorrow.
Prepositional phrases describe either nouns or verbs. If they describe nouns, they add information adjectives don't handle so well on their own:
Those guns from the First World War are valuable collector’s items.
The spaghetti on the wall need to be removed. Now.
If they describe verbs, they tell you where, when, why, how, or for how long.
I ran to the store. (where)
The witches gather at midnight. (when)
I race mountain bikes for the excitement. (why)
They watched in shock. (how)
We waited until dark. (for how long)
Conjunctions are words that join other words and phrases. There are three major types.
- coordinating conjunctions
- Coordinating conjunctions, like "and," "or," and "but," connect two equally important things.
- correlating conjunctions
- Correlating conjunctions are pairs ("both" and "and", "either" and "or", "neither" and "nor", "not only" and "but also") which join two things together more strongly than coordinating conjunctions.
- subordinating conjunctions
- Honestly, the definition boils down to this: If you put a subordinating conjunction at the beginning of a complete sentence, it’s not a complete sentence anymore.
- Some examples include "while," "because," and "even though." The following fragments should sound incomplete by themselves:
I like pork and beans. I eat them all the time, but my wife complains.
I like both pork and beans. Neither my wife nor my cats approve.
While I go to the store
Because the dog chased the cat
Even though the dinosaurs had billions of years of evolution on their side
People have been classifying the parts of speech for centuries, and this is just the basics. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find yourself in a rabbit hole full of dependent clauses, participial phrases, gerunds, determiners, and occasionally semicolons. The parts that make up the machine we call the English language are fluid and constantly moving. Plus, most of the common words can be used as more than one part of speech. In short, it’s grammar nazi heaven.
While it was probably a bit foolish of me to think that I could set out even the basics in a short article, knowing the parts of speech is at the heart of talking about language as language, which is itself an important part of being a writer. The best thing I can suggest is to get a copy of Understanding English Grammar by Martha Kolln and Robert Funk, and to read through at least the first four chapters, doing all of the exercises along the way. (If you have time and interest, read through the whole book.)
The Google Says...
Understanding English Grammar (6th Edition) - by reputation, the best textbook on English grammar published thus far in history. Also, one of my professors complained that editions past 6th aren’t as good, so I’m linking to the 6th edition. It’s 1/5th the price, new, of the most recent one.
http://www.esldesk.com/vocabulary/pronouns - a list of English pronouns
http://www2.gsu.edu/~wwwesl/egw/bryson.htm - a webpage explaining conjunctions in more depth
http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/noncount.htm - a page explaining count and mass nouns in more depth
http://www.esldesk.com/grammar/verbs - a page explaining verbs with a few more examples