Particle Definition and Examples in English Grammar

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The English word "particle" comes from the Latin, "a share, part." In English grammar, a particle is a word that does not change its form through inflection and does not easily fit into the established system of parts of speech. Many particles are closely linked to verbs to form multi-word verbs, such as go away. Other particles include to used with an infinitive and not (a negative particle).

In tagmemics, the term particle refers to "a linguistic unit seen as a discrete entity, definable in terms of its features" (Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, 2008).

Examples and Observations

  • "Particles are short words... that with just one or two exceptions are all prepositions unaccompanied by any complement of their own. Some of the most common prepositions belonging to the particle category:... along, away, back, by, down, forward, in, off, on, out, over, round, under, up."
    (Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum, A Student's Introduction to English Grammar. Cambridge University Press, 2006)
  • "The storm ate up September’s cry of despair, delighted at its mischief, as all storms are."
    (Catherynne M. Valente, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, 2011)
  • "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."
    (Philip K. Dick, "How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later," 1978)
  • "I was determined to know beans."
    (Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854)
  • I was determined not to give up.
  • "[T]he idea (as all pilots understood) was that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line..."
    (Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff, 1979)

    The Escape Category

    "Particle is... something of an 'escape (or cop-out) category' for grammarians. 'If it's small and you don't know what to call it, call it a particle' seems to be the practice; and a very useful practice it is, too, as it avoids pushing words into categories in which they do not properly belong...

    "Do not confuse 'particle' with the similar-looking 'participle'; the latter has a much more well-defined application." (James R. Hurford, Grammar: A Student's Guide. Cambridge University Press, 1994)

    Discourse Particles

    ​"Well and now in English... have been referred to as discourse particles, for example by Hansen (1998). Discourse particles are placed with great precision at different places in the discourse and give important clues to how discourse is segmented and processed...
    "Discourse particles are different from ordinary words in the language because of the large number of pragmatic values that they can be associated with. Nevertheless speakers are not troubled by this multfunctionality but they seem to know what a particle means and be able to use it in different contexts."
    (Karin Aijmer, English Discourse Particles: Evidence from a Corpus. John Benjamins, 2002)

    Particles in Tagmemics

    "The tagmemics system works on the assumption that any subject can be treated as a particle, as a wave, or as a field. A particle is a simple definition of a static, unchanging, object (e.g., a word, a phrase, or a text as a whole)... A wave is a description of an evolving object... A field is a description of a generic object in a large plane of meaning."
    (Bonnie A.

    Hain and Richard Louth, "Read, Write, and Learn: Improving Literacy Instruction Across the Disciplines." Teaching in the 21st Century: Adapting Writing Pedagogies to the College Curriculum, ed. by Alice Robertson and Barbara Smith. Falmer Press, 1999)