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The "Parts of Speech" as Functions

     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.
     Paul Roberts clarifies the problem in a brief discussion of "Three Bases of Definition":

     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.
     For illustration, let us make three brief and incomplete definitions of noun:

Formal: A noun is a word that forms a plural in -s.
Syntactic: A noun is a word that may serve as subject of a verb.
Notional: A noun is the name of a person, place, or thing.

Obviously none of these adequately defines noun, but each of them might be expanded and qualified so as to approach adequacy. Grammarians use sometimes one kind of definition and sometimes another, and sometimes a combination, as circumstances require or as their temperament leads them.
(Understanding Grammar, emphasis)

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.
Subordinate clauses: They came after we had breakfast.
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.
Adjective: They gave a like sum to the church.
Verb: They like her.
Preposition: I don't know anyone like him.
Subordinate Conjunction: No one sings like he does.
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, possessives, etc.
     Because pronouns simply function in any way that a noun can, KISS does not pay much attention to pronouns. Young students should be introduced to the concept of pronouns, but I'm not sure that they need either to memorize the words that so function, or, with one exception, memorize the various sub-types. The exception is the personal pronouns -- first person ( those that refer to the speaker: "I," "we," etc.), second person (that refer to the person or people spoken to: "you," "your," etc.), and third person (those that refer to the person, people or things spoken about: "she," "he," "it," :"they," etc.).
     The reason for the exception is simple -- these terms are used outside the direct study of grammar. In studying literature, for example, most students will be expected to learn about point-of-view -- first person narrators as opposed, for example, to third-person omniscient. And, on an even more practical level, first person is prohibited in the writing styles of many academic professions and disciplines. Instructors in social services, civil engineering, and many other disciplines will simply tell students not to use "first person." Students have told me that they have either had to rewrite papers, or lost a full letter grade, because they did not follow those directions. Never, on the other hand, have I heard of the other sub-types of pronouns ("demonstrative," "interrogative," etc.) being discussed outside the context of the formal study of grammar.

     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. 
     This functional, "slot" approach can then be extended as students progress through the KISS Approach. Whatever functions as a subject has to be a noun or a pronoun. Complements must be either nouns (pronouns) or adjectives. (If they are not predicate adjectives, they must be a noun or a pronoun.

# 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.
     The easiest way to enable students to identify finite verbs is to rely on their already very well developed sense of sentence structure and to use what Wittgenstein calls an "ostensive" definition -- point to them. Simply give students texts in which the finite verbs are underlined  or in bold such that the students can see the examples. Then give the students the same (or other) texts in which the finite verbs have not been identified and have the students underline the finite verbs. Repeat the process until the students can identify all the finite verbs. This procedure is best done in grades four through six, before the students' writing becomes "cluttered" with verbals.
     "Cluttered" was in quotation marks because verbals are "clutter" only in the sense that they confuse older students who are trying to learn to identify the finite verbs in their own writing. Verbals are actually important signs of mature writing, but they do not add to the parts of speech. Every verbal is simply a verb that functions as a noun, adjective, or adverb.

# 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.
     If I were to change the traditional "eight parts of speech," the only thing I would do would be to make them nine in number by distinguishing coordinating from subordinating conjunctions. Coordinating conjunctions ("and," "or," and "but") join grammatical (and ideally logical) "equals" -- subject and subject, verb and verb, adjective and adjective, main clause and main clause, etc. ("So" and "for," which can function as either coordinating or subordinating conjunctions are the two exceptions. See the essay on "Sliding Constructions.").
     Subordinating conjunctions form subordinate clauses that function to make one whole sentence (predication) a noun or a modifier in another sentence. Thus every subordinate clause functions as a noun, adjective, or adverb within another S/V/C pattern. Simple examples would be:

Noun: He was late. She knew it. She knew [that he was late].
Adjective: He was expecting someone. Someone could help him. He was expecting someone [who could help him].
Adverb: He was expecting her. She could help him. He was expecting her [because she could help him].

# 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.