Many of the problems in teaching grammar result
from an unstated confusion about the nature of the eight "parts of speech."
Some people still think of the eight parts of speech as boxes into which
words can be sorted -- this word is a noun, it goes in the noun box. This
view works well with inflected languages, such as Latin and Russian, in
which the endings of words indicate a specific part of speech. But English
does not work this way.
Some confusion and argument can be avoided if we understand the bases of our definitions. There are at least three possible bases, which will be called in this book the formal, the syntactic, and the notional. By formal definition we shall mean definition based on form--sounds in the spoken language, spelling in the written. By syntactic definition we shall mean definition based on syntax--the relation of words to other words in the sentence. By notional definition we shall mean definition based on our understanding of the relationship of words to the actual, real-world phenomena represented by the words.This might seem like much ado about nothing, but it is actually a major point if we want to make instruction in grammar efficient and effective. Students, for example, are often given a formal definition of adverbs as "words that end in -ly." There is nothing wrong with this, unless it is where instruction stops. In an essentially syntactic approach to sentence structure (like KISS), this formal definition can help many students identify many adverbs, but instruction should simultaneously include the functional definition -- adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.
And instruction should be reinforced by having students use both definitions to identify adverbs in real sentences. Pre-school children have an excellent subconscious command of English syntax. If we assume that by third grade students have had some basic work in recognizing nouns and verbs, then in third grade, any child can easily be taught to look at a sentence such as "They came late," and be expected to identify "late" as an adverb modifying "came." Note that this identification is made on the basis of the word's function in the sentence, not on its form. The formal definition is simply a crutch, a tool to help students get started. It is not an end in itself, especially since it does not include all adverbs. The syntactic definition, on the other hand, is the definition that students really need because it applies to all adverbs and will easily enable students to identify other constructions that function as adverbs.
Prepositional phrases: They came in the morning.If we want to make our instruction as simple and as clear as possible, we need to concentrate on syntactic definitions, using formal and/or notional definitions, when helpful, as starting points.
The primacy of syntactic definitions becomes still clearer once we realize that the "part of speech" of many words in context can only be determined by considering their function. The word "like," for example, can function as a
Noun: I have never seen the like.Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary even defines "like" as an adverb and gives "like mad" as an example. Traditional prescriptive grammars often attempted to stop people from using "like" as a subordinate conjunction. Teachers might want to discuss this with students, but it is a question of usage rather than a question of syntax. In "No one sings like he does," "like" clearly functions as a subordinate conjunction.
Although "like" is an extreme case, there are thousands of words in English than can function as more than one part of speech. Many of them, for example, can function as noun, verb, or adjective: His love is a rose. He loves roses. His love life is full of thorns.
Teaching the Eight Parts of Speech as Functions
Given the preceding theoretical (philosophical?) discussion, we are left with the question of a practical approach to teaching the eight parts of speech as functions. From the students' perspective, there are two questions involved here. 1.) Can the word function as a specified part of speech? 2.) Does the word function as that part of speech in a particular sentence? (I am tempted to explore some of the problems for students created by conflicting bases of definitions, but I will try to refrain in order to Keep It Simple, Stupid. [That's me.] As one example, however, note that the formal definition of noun, given by Roberts (above) would exclude "New York" as a noun since the word does not form a plural in -s.)
# 1 & 2: Nouns (and Pronouns)
For primary school children, the best entry
into a formal understanding of nouns is probably the old notional definition
-- "a noun is the name of a person, place, or thing." This definition has
been severely criticized from two different directions. Some people claim
that "thing" is too vague -- it includes everything. Others argue, for
example, that "virtue" is not a "person, place, or thing." Although the
attacks can be justified on a philosophical level, they ignore the fact
that the definition is extremely helpful to young children, children whose
world and especially whose writing is filled with relatively concrete "things."
Thus this definition will enable young children to easily and correctly
identify the majority of nouns in what they read and write. This ability
will enable them to study the basic characteristics of nouns -- plurals,
The notional definition of "noun" enables students
to begin to recognize them before the students begin a study of sentence
structure. The functional definition, obviously, must await the study of
sentence structure. It can begin, however, as soon as students begin to
study prepositional phrases -- whatever answers the question "[Preposition]
what?" functions as a noun. It must, therefore be either a noun or a pronoun.
This functional approach, moreover, expands and clarifies the notional
definition -- any word (or grammatical construction) that can fill the
blank in "They were talking about (a) _____." can be a noun or pronoun.
"Virtue" may or may not be a "thing," but it is clearly a noun because
one can talk about virtue.
# 3: Verbs
Verbs are the most important, and also the
trickiest part of speech. The function of finite verbs is
to make a statement (predication) about a subject: "Bread is ...." "Bread
needs ...." "Bread tastes ...." The old notional definition (A verb is
a word that shows action or a state of being.") is not helpful. Many
nouns (not even considering verbal nouns such as "fighting") show action
-- "a run," "a hit," etc. To understand the meaning of either "shows" or
"state of being" in that definition, once must either already be able to
identify finite verbs or have an advanced course in philosophy.
# 4 & 5: Adjectives and Adverbs -- the Modifiers
As noted in the essay on basic sentence structure, adjectives and adverbs function to modify (clarify, or make more specific) the meaning of nouns, verbs, or other adjectives and adverbs. And, as suggested at the beginning of this essay, the easiest way to teach students to identify adjectives and adverbs is to teach students to rely on their well-developed sense of sentence structure. If a word modifies a noun or a pronoun, the word is an adjective. If it modifies a verb, an adjective, or an adverb, it is an adverb.
# 6 & 7: Prepositions and Conjunctions -- the Connectors
Both prepositions and conjunctions function
to establish connections (usually meaningful) between (or among) the ideas
represented by other words or constructions. The difference between the
two categories is that prepositions connect nouns (or pronoun) to other
words or constructions, whereas conjunctions can connect anything to anything
-- noun and noun, verb and verb, clause and clause, etc. Prepositions,
of course, create prepositional phrases, 99.9% of which function as simple
adjectives or adverbs. The situation with conjunctions is more complex.
Noun: He was late. She knew it. She knew [that he was late].
# 8: Interjections
"Interjection" comes from the Latin for "thrown in," and they are so called because they are thrown into sentences without having a regular syntactic function, i.e., unlike the other words and constructions, they do not "connect" to a specific word or other construction in the S/V/C pattern. Instead, they express the writer's or speaker's emotional or intellectual attitude toward the sentence as a whole. (Thus many linguistics call them "sentence modifiers.") The simplest and most common interjections, often found in the writing of young children, are single words or phrases -- "Golly!" "Gee whiz!" "Oh!" These words and phrases tend to disappear in the writing of older students, and are usually verboten in formal writing styles, but they are replaced by interjections in the form of more complex constructions -- prepositional phrases, clauses, etc. [For more on this, click here.]
Looking at the eight parts of speech as functions, rather than as word categories, expands and clarifies much of sentence structure. Students who understand simple adjectives in terms of their function will have little, if any problem in extending this concept to adjectival prepositional phrases, to adjective clauses, to gerundives, or to infinitives that function as adjectives. Every word and every construction in any English sentence can be identified and explained in terms of one of the eight parts of speech -- if the parts are defined as functions.