Nouns, Verbs, Adjectives and Adverbs
We’ve been looking so far at four functions of words in sentences. The three structural backbone functions give sentences their basic form:
subject plus finite verb
subject plus finite verb plus completer
Modifiers, the fourth function, are attached to backbone functions and to other modifiers.
On this page we’ll be examining what kinds of words can perform these functions—what kind of word can be a subject or finite verb or completer or modifier. If there is any aspect of language that most people are consciously aware of, it’s that there are different types of words.
The Parts of Speech
The words that make up the vocabulary of English can be organized into groups according to their possible functions. The traditional name for these groups is parts of speech. (The term now used by people studying language is word class.)
Open-Class and Closed-Class Words
The parts of speech fall into two categories: Open-Class and Closed-Class words. The four open-class words are nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.
Open classes are those into which new words can freely enter, to name newly developed or discovered objects, concepts, processes, and the like. When a new noun, verb, adjective, or adverb is needed, it’s formed from elements already present in the language or borrowed from those in another language. Thus, I find on one page of a dictionary that tentacle came into English (from Latin) in 1762, tepee (from the Dakota language) in 1835, and ten-speed (referring to a bicycle) in 1973. Open-class words also freely admit new or metaphorical meanings of already existing words, as when we surf the internet.
There are four closed-class parts of speech: pronouns, determiners, auxiliary verbs, and connectives.
Closed class parts of speech very seldom have words added to them. It’s unlikely that a new connective or pronoun or auxiliary verb will soon appear—although many people wish there was a pronoun that could be used to refer to one person but that would be “gender neutral,” unlike he or she. But otherwise we don’t feel that there’s any limitation to our powers of expression with the set of closed-class words we possess, which have been largely the same for centuries.
The closed-class parts of speech are included in that part of the vocabulary of English that I’ve referred to as structural markers. Structural markers have mainly syntactic roles, such as joining words (as with and, or, and but), for example, or indicating the tense or mood of verbs (have in have gone or would in would go). No one could ever learn every one of the thousands and thousands of nouns, verbs, adjectives, or adverbs in a language, but everyone has to know nearly all of the much smaller number of closed-class words simply in order to communicate.
I’ve been introducing closed-class parts of speech as we’ve come to the structures they relate to: coordinating connectives (and, or, and but) along with coordinate functions, auxiliary verbs with finite verb phrases, and so on. I’ll be discussing pronouns in this present chapter in connection with nouns and will save non-coordinating connectives for the pages in which I describe their functions. Our main concern on this page is with nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.
In Latin, interject means “throw between,” and interjections are words or sounds placed into sentences in order to catch someone’s attention or to express a feeling or sometimes as a kind of filler:
Hey! Watch out! !
Oh, I guess I’ll have pancakes.
Well, y’know…Gee …I mean.. like…
Interjections don’t usually have syntactic functions.
Noun comes from a Latin word meaning “name”: nouns are names of things. Here are some examples:
The individual meanings of each of these words—what each word refers to—is obviously very different, but they all have one type of meaning in common: all nouns refer to things. It’s often said that nouns refer to persons and places as well as to things, but to enable the idea of “thing-ness” to stand out we have to accept the idea that (politeness aside) persons are human things and places are geographical things.
Concrete and Abstract Nouns
Some nouns refer to concrete things, to things that can be perceived by at least one of the five physical senses, like mustard, wool, ducks, stars, Uncle Charlie’s breath, or toothpaste.
Some nouns refer to abstract things, that is, to non-physical things that can be perceived only by the mind, like love, syntax, justice, or college. With a college, you can see the buildings and books and hear the students, but you have to get your mind around the idea of such an institution. The names of actions are abstract also, as in thinking, or floating, or running (a marathon or a business).
Common and Proper Nouns
Some nouns refer to one unique thing, like Napoleon Bonaparte, North Pole, Snow White, or French. These are called proper nouns, from a Latin word proprius, which means “one’s own.” In English, proper nouns are spelled with capital letters to express this sense of there being only one of them—or, at any rate, only one of them close by. There is probably at least one city or town called Kingston in every English-speaking country, but we wouldn’t find two Kingstons in the same province or state. In the same way, we’d wonder about parents who gave two of their children the same first name.
If a noun is not proper it is common. Common nouns refer to things that are enough like other things to have a name “in common,” like cup or notebook (both concrete common nouns), or opinion or time (both abstract common nouns).
As far as function goes, we’re used to seeing nouns as subjects and completers, as in man bites dog. We’ll see shortly that nouns can also function as modifiers.
Pronouns are closed-class words but are like nouns in their functioning. Pronoun means “for a noun,” in the sense of “instead of a noun”; in other words, pronouns are substitutes for nouns. Here are some examples (There’s a complete listing of English pronouns in the reference section):
Nouns and pronouns both refer to things, but there’s a crucial difference between them. Pronouns don’t have any individual reference of their own, but instead refer to the same thing that the noun they are substituting for refers to. It’s this very lack of individual reference that makes pronouns so useful: nouns don’t have to be endlessly repeated. If a sentence says, “Jill and Jack adore flowers,” the following sentence can say, “They collect them and make photos of them, but they don’t eat them.”
The noun that a pronoun refers to is called its antecedent, which is Latin for something that “goes before.” In They collect them and make photos of them, but they don’t eat them, the antecedent of they is Jill and Jack; the antecedent of them is flowers.
Verb is the name of one of the four basic syntactic functions and also of a part of speech. To distinguish these uses, I’ve been calling the syntactic function finite verb. Finite verbs do something in their sentences: in effect, they “power” their sentences; they make them “happen,” or “move.” As parts of speech, some verbs refer to actions:
Besides “action” verbs like these, there are also what are often referred to as “being” verbs (the kind that function as linking verbs in sentences). For example:
We are proud toads!
He seemed somewhat confused.
In spite of a thousand kisses, he remained a frog.
Now, don’t become silly, Sally.
We’ve been looking at verb forms only as components of finite verb phrases (as “sentence” verbs, so to speak), but we’ll be seeing that they can also function in other ways.
Adjectives and adverbs are very closely related. They both function as modifiers, which means that they limit the reference of, or, we could say, they qualify the meaning of, the words they modify. That is, the modifier expresses a quality or characteristic that belongs to the modified word. We can see how this works in the following examples:
an awkward acrobat [Awkward is an adjective expressing a quality of the acrobat.]
poor little me [Poor and little are adjectives: they each express a quality of the person referred to by the pronoun.]
He gave me a tight smile. [ Tight is an adjective expressing the quality of the smile.]
Hold on tight, mates! [Tight is an adverb expressing the manner in which the mates need to hold on.]
As the last two examples illustrate, adjectives and adverbs sometimes have exactly the same form: you can’t necessarily tell them apart by how they look. But you can always distinguish them by how they function. Adjectives modify only nouns or pronouns: they refer to qualities of things. Adverbs modify every other part of speech except for nouns or pronouns – that is, they modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.
When adverbs modify verbs, they refer to such things as the time, place, speed, or manner of the action referred to by the verb. I’ve italicized the adverbs in the following examples:
[time] Fang will hiss tomorrow
[speed] Fang slithers fast
[place] Fang won’t hiss indoors.
[manner] Fang hissed thoughtfully.
When an adverb modifies an adjective or another adverb, it expresses a quality or characteristic of that adjective or adverb. Now, since adjectives and adverbs themselves express qualities, the adverbs that modify them have the effect of making these qualities more or less intense. For example, if you’re happy (an adjective), you could specify the degree of happiness you feel by filling in the blank with an adverb:
Give it to the more deserving duck.
[More, an adverb, intensifies the adjective deserving.]
I hit it fairly hard.
[The adverb fairly modifies the “hardness” of the adverb hard, which itself qualifies the way I hit the ball.]
Well, it was hard enough. [Enough is the only intensifying adverb that follows the word it modifies. You ask what enough?]
It was not easy, but it was not impossible. [Negative modifiers, like the adverb not, are the ultimate de-intensifiers; they reduce the intensity of the modified word to “zero.”]
Adjectives as Completers of Linking Verbs
Besides modifying nouns, adjectives can also function as completers of linking verbs:
Fang is fussy.
But he doesn’t often become frantic.
In fact, he sometimes seems downright serene.
[Downright (meaning “to a great degree”) is an adverb modifying the adjective serene.]
Fussy, frantic, and serene each express a quality of the subject to which they are linked. Compare phrases like fussy person or frantic preparations or the serene siren.
Shifting Parts of Speech
Words can change very easily from one part of speech to another. Sing, for example, may start out in the dynamic “action” state of a verb:
They sang all night long.
But its meaning (performing music with the voice) can easily enter into a noun that names the action:
Such singing could drive you crazy.
Then, using a different word ending, we can make another noun meaning “the one who performs the action”:
A crow is one heck of a singer.
Or we can use the -ing ending to make an adjective:
I’ve never seen a singing salamander.
Similarly, with try we can have the following choices:
[finite verb] They tried the door.
[noun] Trying is what counts.
[noun] You get three tries and that’s all.
[adjective] I’ve had a trying day.
Even interjections and connectives can shift their parts of speech, as in this introduction to a catalog:
My free catalogue has 793 Oohs and Ahhs and not a single Ouch. [The three interjections have become nouns.]
In the next example, a coordinating connective has become a verb:
If you disagree with him, he’ll “but” you to death.
Nouns very often function as modifiers of other nouns and also occasionally modify verbs. A noun modifying a noun is called an attributive noun. To attribute means “to give” (the same Latin root is in contribute. All modifiers are “attributive” in the sense of contributing a quality to the words they modify). Attributive nouns refer to the “purpose” of the modified noun or to something that is permanently associated with the modified noun. Here are some examples. The first word in each phrase is the attributive noun; the second is the noun it modifies:
A mud bath or a sun deck is quite different from a muddy bath or sunny deck. A mud bath is a bath in mud; a muddy bath needs to be cleaned. A sun deck is one built to catch the sun; a sunny deck is one on which the sun happens to be shining.
Nouns that modify verbs are called adverbial nouns. They are much rarer than attributive nouns. In the following examples, I’ve printed the adverbial nouns in italics; they all modify the finite verbs in their sentences:
We will never go home.
Instead, we shall remain downtown forever.
That’s what you said last night and also last year.
Marsupials would never act that way.
The Names of Phrases
We’ve been seeing that a phrase is a group of words that performs a syntactical function as a unit or an individual word that performs a function by itself. Phrases are named according to the part of speech of their main words. In the following examples, I’ve indicated the function of each phrase:
A smart cobra never tells a profoundly intelligent elephant dumb jokes.
a smart cobra: noun phrase (subject of tells)
smart: adjective phrase (modifies cobra)
never: adverb phrase (modifies tells)
tells: finite verb phrase
a profoundly intelligent elephant: noun phrase (first double completer of tells)
intelligent: adjective phrase (modifies elephant)
profoundly: adverb phrase (modifies intelligent)
dumb jokes: noun phrase (second double completer of tells)
dumb: adjective phrase (modifies jokes)
Even the biggest big bad wolf can sometimes act rather compassionately.
even the biggest big bad wolf: noun phrase (subject of can act)
even: adverb phrase (modifies the adjective biggest)
biggest: adjective phrase (modifies big bad wolf)
big: adjective phrase (modifies bad wolf)
bad: adjective phrase (modifies wolf)
can act: finite verb phrase
sometimes: adverb phrase (modifies can act)
rather compassionately: adverb phrase (also modifies can act)
rather: adverb phrase (modifies the adverb compassionately)
Review: The Functions of Word Classes
The theme of this page has been the interface of syntax and vocabulary. Syntax, we see, requires an organized vocabulary. Every word in a sentence belongs to a part of speech and at the same time performs one of the five syntactic functions. To review the ways in which parts of speech can function:
1. The main word of the subject of a finite verb is a noun or pronoun.
2. All the words of a finite verb phrase are verbs. The last verb in a finite verb phrase is the main verb: it belongs to the open-class set of verbs .All the verbs preceding the main verb come from the closed-class set of auxiliary verbs.
3. The completer of a finite verb is either a noun (or pronoun) or an adjective.
4. The modifier of a noun is either an adjective or an attributive noun (a noun that modifies another noun).
5. The modifier of a verb is an adverb or, rarely, an adverbial noun (a noun that modifies a verb).
6. The modifier of any modifier is an adverb.