The average native English speaker seldom gives thought to the words s/he has strung together to form a complete sentence, or to the array and sequence of sentences required to express a complete idea.
On the other hand, those who are learning English as a second language make a conscious effort to learn each word's function and the meaning it gives to the idea s/he is trying to convey.
As the school year has just started, let us lend a hand in your arduous task by providing you an outline of various word types: how to identify them, their place in a sentence and the best way to use them.
If we think of vocabulary as the building blocks of language, it must be vital to understand how they differ from one another and where they should be placed (in a sentence) for maximum effectiveness.
A Noun is a Naming Word
A noun represents a person, place or thing. Anything you can touch, see or talk about is described with a name; thus we call nouns naming words.
There are two types of nouns: common and proper.
Your name is a proper noun. Names of cities, rivers and mountains are proper nouns too. You could say that a proper noun is a given noun, like this example:
Meet my dog, Rover.
Dog is a common noun because it represents something – an animal. Rover is a proper noun – the name given to the dog.
Proper nouns are always capitalized: the first letter of the name is bigger and in a different form than the rest of the name.
Find out more about English language style and form in our dedicated blog.
Points for Capitalizing Nouns
- Names and titles of people: Doctor Jones; Mrs. Smith; Chancellor Merkel.
- In the UK, we capitalize The Queen, but if we are talking about a succession of female royalty, we would say: the queens that have ruled England – queens reverts to being a common noun.
- Important events in time are usually capitalized, too: World War II, for example, or the Ice Age.
- Although birthdays are important, that word is only capitalized when used to address somebody: Here is the Birthday Boy!
- Names of buildings, bridges, monuments and tunnels are always capitalized.
- Specific buildings, such as the Palace of Westminster are capitalized but a general collection of buildings, such as a Council estate or a shopping center, is not.
For more rules on when to capitalize a noun, you can refer to this page.
Pronouns Take the Place of Nouns
If you are speaking of a certain person, place or thing in an ongoing paragraph, there is no need to constantly use the proper noun.
Using a pronoun in the place of the noun gives your text variety.
One word of caution when using pronouns: make sure they relate to the correct noun.
Sally told her sister she should go in her place.
This sentence is very confusing: we don't know if Sally should go in her sister's place or if the sister will take Sally's place!
This sentence is much easier to understand when written like this:
Sally told her sister she should go in Sally's place.
The pronoun relates back to the previous noun, thus 'her' relates to Sally and 'she' relates to 'sister'.
Learn more about English Grammar Clauses in our dedicated blog.
Verbs Indicate Action... Most of the Time.
Verbs have several functions in the English language, the main one being to say what is being done.
Verbs can also tell us about a mental action like thinking, or a state of being.
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We would like to emphasize that verbs tell us when the action happened.
I am going to my English class - happening right now.
I have been to school – an already completed action.
I have been studying English for three years – a continuous action, likely to keep on.
Verb conjugation and usage is one of the most difficult aspects of English grammar for Esl students, especially English learners whose native language verbs never change forms.
The Difference between Will and Going To
This verb and verb phrase, often expressed in slang as gonna, are often used interchangeably by native and non native English speakers alike.
Although similar, they do not have the same meaning.
I am going to take English lessons.
The use of going to + action is used when you have been planning something.
I will take English courses to improve my writing skills.
The use of will is much more definite. It suggests the decision to study English writing was made at that instant.
A further difference between the two is when making a prediction.
I am going to pass my English course. This sentence describes an event that we can sense will surely happen.
I will never be fluent in English! Is an expression based on opinion.
Try exchanging going to for will in any of these sentences... it doesn't work!
The verb will is further used to talk about things we are sure of:
The sun will rise tomorrow.
Use will to make promises:
I will help you learn English grammar.
The average English learner tends more toward 'will' because of its more formal sound but, as we can see, it is not always correct to do so.
Wanna, Gonna and Gotta
These slang forms of the verbs want to, going to and have to are favorites, but often confusing for people learning to speak English.
I wanna learn English with a native speaker.
I'm gonna learn English online.
I gotta improve my listening skills.
These are informal sentences, generally spoken between friends or among students.
It is never correct to write want to, going to and have to in this manner, but you are likely to hear them used abundantly in English conversation.
To improve your English language skills, be sure to make a distinction between how phrases are spoken and how they are written.
Adjectives and Adverbs
These words are describers. They add depth and help us visualize what is being talked about.
The girl wore a dress.
The tall girl wore a flowing dress.
The first sentence gives us enough information to form an idea of what is being described, but the second gives us a clearer picture of the subject and object.
Many who learn English as a second language tend to saturate their speaking and writing with descriptives.
In some cultures, the more adjectives used, the better! Esol students in some countries are actually encouraged to use two or three adjectives per noun.
Warning! Liberally sprinkling such words throughout your spoken or written English can reduce your fluency by making your sentences too cumbersome.
Whereas adjectives describe nouns, adverbs complement verbs.
Why Describe Verbs?
Sometimes, we need to describe how something is done.
I wish to speak English fluently.
That sentence, without its descriptive, gives no idea of which level the speaker wishes to express him/herself in English. By including the adverb, the speaker gives us a better idea of how well s/he wishes to speak English.
However, as with adjectives, those engaged in language learning tend to overuse adverbs.
They quickly signed up for English classes.
This sentence includes an unnecessary (and incorrect!) adverb.
While they probably wanted to enroll in English classes as quickly as possible – and that information might be valuable to the overall idea of what is being said, that particular adverb is not the proper choice.
We will go deeper into the topic of word economy in a later post.
The general rule for adverb and adjective use is: if the idea can be clearly expressed without additional words, don't use them.
Check out our blog on words with multiple meanings in English.
Prepositions and Conjunctions
Prepositions are words that describe a relationship between a noun/pronoun and some other word in the sentence.
The worm ate through the apple.
There is a worm in my apple!
Through and in are prepositions. They describe where the worm is in relation to the apple.
Here is a page to read all about prepositions and how to use them.
A conjunction connects two related ideas.
My English spelling is pretty good, but my speaking skills need improvement.
This sentence describes two related ideas, joined by the conjunction but.
You can refer to this page for a complete list of all conjunctions.
Our Final Word on Words: The Determiner
The function of a determiner is to modify a noun to indicate quantity, possession, specificity, or definiteness. Determiners always precede nouns.
I will sit for the IELTS exam.
They took some vocabulary quizzes.
Those are her books.
Omitting determiners – or using the wrong one is a common mistake made by English learners.
These words are vital to English comprehension. Without determiners, we cannot know exactly what the speaker is talking about. Here is a great lesson on determiners and how to use them.
These are the major parts of speech. Identifying them and adding them to your vocabulary in their proper category will keep you from making grammar mistakes!
Want to practice your English grammar further? Check out these English Grammar exercises.