Topic: Word class

These resources relate to word classes (traditionally known as 'parts of speech'). Words are grouped into different classes, such as noun and verb, on the basis of their behaviour: where they occur in relation to other words and what they do within sentences.

Nouns

In terms of meaning, nouns are sometimes described as ‘naming words’ – words for people, animals and things. The noun class does include many words of this kind: brother, baby, rabbit, horse, handbag, chair. These all refer to physical beings or objects – they are concrete nouns. But there are also many abstract nouns – nouns with abstract (non-material) meanings, like pleasure, sight, kindness.

Nouns: Concrete and abstract

Strictly speaking, the distinction between concrete noun and abstract noun is not really a matter of grammar, but of semantics. In other words, the decision to label a noun as concrete or abstract is more to do with the word’s meaning than its grammatical form or function.

There is very little, if any, grammatical difference between the ways in which abstract and concrete nouns operate.

Nouns: Count and non-count

Common nouns are either count or non-count. Count nouns can be ‘counted’, as follows:

one pen, two pens, three pens, four pens...

Non-count nouns, on the other hand, cannot be counted in this way:

*one software, *two softwares, *three softwares, *four softwares...

Phrasal verbs

What is a phrasal verb? Phrasal verbs consist of a combination of a verb and another word, which we’ll call a preposition. Some examples are come over, look (something) up. The first word in a verb-preposition combination can be just about any verb. The verbs that most commonly appear in such combinations are listed below:

Phrasal verbs: New phrasal verbs

There are many phrasal verbs that you won’t find in any dictionary. This is because we commonly create new phrasal verbs based on the meanings of existing phrasal verbs. Usually, new phrasal verbs are either transparent or aspectual – new idiomatic phrasal verbs would usually be too difficult for listeners to decode. Perhaps you’ve heard examples like the following:

Phrasal verbs: Three categories

Non-native speakers are often told that their only option is to memorise each phrasal verb individually. Is it really necessary to do all that work? No. Not only is it unnecessary, it’s inefficient. And it’s inefficient for three reasons:

Prepositions

Prepositions are a closed class of words. They are generally quite short words that often relate to meanings of place and time.

The following are common prepositions:

  • across, after, at, before, by, during, from, in, into, of, on, to, under, with, without

This is not a complete list. More unusual prepositions can be harder to recognise because they do not have a standard form.

Some prepositions are made up of more than one word.

Pronouns

Pronouns are one of the eight word classes in the National Curriculum. Some linguists would treat pronouns as a subclass of nouns, and there are some good reasons for that, but we adhere to the National Currciulum specifications.

Pronouns can sometimes replace a noun in a sentence:

Pronouns: Advanced

Pronouns behave in some ways like nouns and can sometimes replace them in a sentence. For this reason, pronouns are often treated as a subclass of nouns and there are some good reasons for doing this, but they are – in some important ways – different from nouns.

Verbs

Verbs have traditionally been described as ‘doing words’ or ‘action words’. This works well for some verbs, like sprint, chatter, eat. Here are some sentence examples with verbs which describe actions:

Verbs: Auxiliary verbs

A key distinction in the word class of verbs is between main verbs (also called lexical verbs) and auxiliary verbs:

Verbs: Modal verbs

Modal auxiliary verbs (or modals for short), as the name suggests, are a kind of auxiliary verb. They have most of the attributes of auxiliary verbs. They are a closed class that is identifiable as a short list, and they convey particular types of meaning.

Here is a table which lists the most important modal verbs (also called the core modals). It shows most of them in pairs as present and past tense forms, which makes them easier to remember.

Verbs: Nonfinite and finite

Verbs can be divided into finite and nonfinite forms. Finite verbs carry tense. So, past and present tense verb forms are finite. Nonfinite verbs do not carry tense, and do not show agreement with a Subject. Put differently, they are not 'limited' by tense or agreement.

The infinitive form of a verb is nonfinite. It is the form which follows to:

Verbs: Tense

Tense is a grammatical notion that refers to the way in which a language encodes the real world notion of time. Typically this is done through endings on verbs called inflections. Verbs are the only word class that can carry tense inflections (though they don't always do so). Verbs that carry a tense ending are called finite verbs.

Word classes

Word classes are categories into which we place words. Traditionally these have been called parts of speech, but word class is now the term used by linguists, and by the UK National Curriculum.

The meanings of words can often be helpful in assigning words to a particular category. This is an effective approach for younger students, but older students can take a more sophisticated approach. 

Word classes: Interjections

Interjections are a group of words which are commonly used in spoken language to express emotions, reactions and so on. It is generally difficult to categorise them into one of the eight major word classes.

Examples include the following:

  • oh, wow, aha, ouch, tut-tut, ugh, oops, humph, hooray, yuck, whew, yikes, eek

Interjections can occur on their own, or in sequence (e.g. oh wow), and can also be attached to a sentence. These examples are all from informal conversations:

»

Englicious contains many resources for English language in schools, but the vast majority of them require you to register and log in first. For more information, see What is Englicious?

Englicious (C) Survey of English Usage, UCL, 2012-15 | Supported by the AHRC and EPSRC. | Cookies