The Oxford English Dictionary lists over 600,000 words but, if you count all the names of insects, animals, medical and scientific terms, then English could have as many as 3 million words – no one really knows for sure. In fact, English is out of control. It borrows words from other languages and makes up new meanings and words at a staggering rate.

A well-read person probably has a vocabulary of over 15,000 words, but only uses 1500 or so in conversation in any week. So, what are these words we use? There is some debate about how many parts of speech actually exist, but grammarians have traditionally identified eight:

  1. Nouns:

    A common noun is a word used to identify places, things and people: man, mountain, supermarket, warship, government department.

    A proper noun is one that actually names (personalises) any of those: John, Mt Vesuvius, Wal-Mart, HMAS Sydney, Department of Trade.

  2. Pronouns:

    These are words that mostly take the place of proper nouns and refer to the participants in a discourse. Here are a few types:

    • Personal: you, I, we, they, it, them, me, he, she, her, him.
    • Possessive: your, my, their, his, her, our, its. [Note: ‘its’ does not take an apostrophe.]
    • Demonstrative: this, that, these and those.
    • Indefinite: anyone, nobody, each, both, all, no one, etc. [Note: ‘no one’ does not take a hyphen.]
    • Interrogative: who, which, why, where and how.
  3. Verbs:

    These are the words that describe an action, occurrence, or state of something, and form the main part of the predicate in a sentence. Verbs are complex in type and operation, so I have devoted an entire page to them: Working with Verbs.

  4. Adjectives:

    Adjectives describe, introduce or modify a noun (e.g. tall, brown, thin, smooth), and they usually have degrees like tall, taller, tallest, etc.
    Articles (a, an, the), determiners (that, those, either, whatever), and quantifiers (many, few, several) are often placed in a class of their own, but for our purposes we can view them as different types of adjectives. There is a recognised, though impossible to define, order to placing adjectives before a noun. Take these examples:

    • I live in a brown little house. [Doesn’t sound right, does it?]
    • I live in a little brown house. [Ah! That’s better.]
    • I drive an Italian red sports car. [Not quite right!]
    • I drive a red Italian sports car. [Correct!]

    As you can see, the first example in each case is wrong. But why? The answer is: no one really knows; it is one of those perplexing idiosyncrasies of the English language. Scholars, however, suggest that the following order is natural, and I quote it here for interest: determiner + observation + size + shape + age + colour + origin + material + qualifier + noun.

    Confused? Well, if you ever use that many adjectives before a noun, your editor will remove most of them! But, linguistically, the following sentence is correct (if horrific): A battered, huge, oblong, antique, red-tinted, French, mahogany dressing table stood in the foyer. I did warn you!

  5. Adverbs:

    Words that modify or qualify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. They can be single words, phrases, or clauses – and they express manner (slowly, quietly); place (next door; there; on board); frequency (often, every week, usually); time (early, first); or purpose (for fun, to buy a car).

    Like adjectives, adverbs have a natural order when using more than one: verb + manner + place + frequency + time + purpose. So the following is correct: Jack works enthusiastically in the garden every evening before sunset to keep the weeds down.

  6. Prepositions:

    These are little words used to govern nouns and pronouns – and they help to relate those nouns and pronouns to some other element in the phrase or sentence. There are dozens of these prepositions: at, on, before, by, during, over, under, with – and so on.

    • The girl on the swing … [Links ‘the swing’ to ‘the girl’.]
    • John arrived after the others. [Links ‘the others’ to ‘John’.]
    • I enjoy toast with my breakfast coffee.
    If a phrase starts with a preposition, then it is a prepositional phrase: on the scrap-heap; across the wide Missouri; under the Harbour Bridge. A noun in a prepositional phrase can never be the subject of a sentence:
    • The constable from the local police left his notebook in his car. [‘Constable’ is the subject.]
    • The questions in the exam were written by my professor. [‘Questions’ is the subject.]

    Note: it is worth mentioning that there is no rule preventing the use of a preposition at the end of a sentence. A 17th-century dramatist once erroneously suggested that this practice should be prohibited because it is not acceptable in Latin. However, a sentence like ‘Where do you come from?’ could hardly be regarded as wrong. See Grammatical Myth № 2.

  7. Conjunctions:

    These are some more little words, but are used to connect clauses or sentences. There are four types:

    1. The co-ordinating conjunction joins clauses in a sentence – and the good news is that there are only seven of them! These can be remembered by using the mnemonic FANBOYS (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). Two independent clauses joined by a co-ordinating conjunction are separated with a comma:
      • He took responsibility, for no other would.
      • She passed a very difficult ball, but wing attack caught it with ease.
      • George was wealthy, yet he was not a happy man.
    2. The subordinating conjunction is used to introduce a dependent clause – that is, it establishes the relationship of the clause to the rest of the sentence, and makes the clause depend on the rest of the sentence for its meaning. There are dozens of these, and here is a small sample: after, as, because, if, now that, since, till, unless, when, where, while:
      • She cared for the children as though they were her own.
      • He handled the little baby as if she were made of glass.
      • Because he had been drinking, he let his wife drive him home.
      • Whenever she was in town, he would take her to dinner.
    3. Correlative conjunctions come in pairs and join various elements of a sentence, making each element grammatically equal. Some examples are: either/or; neither/nor; not only/but also; not/but.
      • The warranty covered not only the parts, but also the labour.
      • It was an average performance, neither good nor bad.
      • What awed him was both the size and the power of the motorbike.
    4. Conjunctive adverbs are not true conjunctions, but are adverbs that do the same job. They create complex relationships between ideas in a sentence. Some of the common ones are: therefore, however, also, thus, meanwhile, on the other hand, in addition, and consequently. It is important to remember that when using a conjunctive adverb to join two clauses, it is necessary to use a semicolon:
      • He could go to the movies; on the other hand, he could just have a night at home.
      • I rang the doorbell, yelled and thumped the door; however, I got no response.
      • She forgot to add eggs to the baking mix; consequently, the sponge was a disaster.
  8. Interjections:

    These are a special class of words used to show emotion and strong feeling (horror, pain, sadness, disgust, excitement, etc.). Often these words are no more than sounds, but are used to add energy to a story or speech. In writing, they are often used at the beginning of a sentence and are usually punctuated by an exclamation mark! Some examples are: a-ha, hooray, phew, ugh, oops, yuck, ahem, dear me, ahoy, wow.

    • Ouch! That hurt!
    • Oh, no! I’ve missed the bus!
    • Hey! Mind where you’re going!
    • Yoo-hoo! I’ve won the lottery! [I wish!]
    • Good grief, Charlie Brown!

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