The Eight Parts of Speech in Grammar

"It is the sense in which the word is used," wrote William Cobbett in 1818, "and not the letters of which it is composed, that determines the part of speech to which it belongs" (A Grammar of the English Language in a Series of Letters )
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A "part of speech" is a term used in traditional grammar for one of the eight main categories into which words are classified according to their functions in sentences. Also known as "word classes," these are the building blocks of grammar.

Learning the names of the parts of speech probably won't make you witty, wealthy, or wise. In fact, learning just the names of the parts of speech won't even make you a better writer.

However, you will gain a basic understanding of sentence structure and the English language.

What Are the Eight Parts of Speech?

Every sentence you write or say in English includes a few words that fall into the eight parts of speech. These include nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections.

Part of SpeechBasic FunctionExamples
Nounnames a person, place, or thingpirate, Caribbean, ship, freedom, Captain Jack Sparrow
Pronountakes the place of a nounI, you, he, she, it, ours, them, who, which, anybody, ourselves
Verbidentifies an action or state of beingsing, dance, believe, seem, finish, eat, drink, be, become
Adjectivemodifies a nounhot, lazy, funny, unique, bright, beautiful, healthy, wealthy, wise
Adverbmodifies a verb, adjective, or another adverbsoftly, lazily, often, only, hopefully, softly, sometimes
Prepositionshows a relationship between a noun (or pronoun) and other words in a sentenceup, over, against, by, for, into, close to, out of, apart from
Conjunctionjoins words, phrases, and clausesand, but, or, yet
Interjectionexpresses emotion and can usually stand aloneah, whoops, ouch, Yabba dabba do!

Some traditional grammars have treated articles (e.g., the, a, an) as a distinct part of speech. Modern grammars more often include articles in the category of determiners, which identify or quantify a noun.

The parts of speech are commonly divided into open classes (nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs) and closed classes (pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections).

While we can add to the open classes of words as language develops, those in the closed classes are pretty much set in stone.

In contemporary linguistics, the label part of speech has generally been discarded in favor of the term word class or syntactic category.

How to Determine the Part of Speech

Keep in mind that only interjections ("Hooray!") have a habit of standing alone, though they can also appear alongside complete sentences. The other parts of speech—nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, and conjunctions—come in many varieties and may appear just about anywhere in a sentence.

To know for sure what part of speech a word is, we need to look not only at the word itself but also at its meaning, position, and use in a sentence.

For example, in the first sentence, work functions as a noun; in the second sentence, a verb; and in the third sentence, an adjective:

  • Bosco showed up for work two hours late.
    [The noun work is the thing Bosco shows up for.]
  • He will have to work until midnight.
    [The verb work is the action he must perform.]
  • His work permit expires next month.
    [The attributive noun (or converted adjective) work modifies the noun permit.]

Don't let this variety of meanings and uses discourage or confuse you.

Keep in mind that learning the names of the basic parts of speech is just one way to understand how sentences constructed.

Dissecting Basic Sentences

To form a complete sentence, you really only need two words: a noun and a verb. The noun gives us the subject and the verb tells us the action the subject is taking. 

  • Birds fly.

In this short sentence, birds is the noun and fly is the verb. The sentence makes sense and gets the point across.

It's important to note that no other two-word combination can form a complete sentence. This is exclusive to nouns (or the pronouns that replace them) and verbs unless it involves an interjection. You cannot, for instance, use a pronoun and an adverb alone for a sentence: She softly. This is not a sentence because it lacks a verb so we don't know what she's doing softly.

From here, we can add more information to our first sentence by including the other parts of speech.

  • Birds fly when migrating before winter.

Birds and fly remain the noun and verb. When is an adverb because it modifies the verb migrating. 

The word before is a little tricky because it can be either an adjective or an adverb depending on the context. In this case, it's an adjective because it is modifying the noun winter. Had before modified a verb, adjective, or another adverb, it would be an adverb.