Basic English grammar

The English language has around a quarter of a million distinct words. Amazingly, these can be divided, grammatically speaking, into just eight kinds of word, which are known as ‘parts of speech‘. These are:

  • nouns
  • verbs
  • prounouns
  • adjectives
  • adverbs
  • prepositions
  • conjunctions
  • interjections

Nouns

The first words your child learns as a baby are likely to be nouns, which are – broadly – words describing things, people or places. Ball, or cat, or milk, or fire-engine are all examples of nouns. A ‘proper noun‘ is a variety of noun which we usually write with a capital letter, which gives a specific name to a particular example of a noun. So ‘man‘ is an ordinary noun, but ‘Grandpa‘ or ‘Mr Smith‘ are proper nouns.

A noun doesn’t have to describe something we can see or touch, although at first these are the nouns your toddler will understand. ‘Abstract nouns‘ describe concepts: for instance beauty, love, greed, happiness.

For more detail, see the Nouns in English grammar page.

Verbs

When your child starts stringing words together to make phrases, they will almost certainly include a verb as well as a noun. A verb is an important part of speech that describes something that is happening, or being done. Examples of verbs are: run, jump, think, like, find. A toddler can communicate pretty well with just nouns and verbs: ‘Johnny want biscuit’, ‘cuddle Mummy’, ‘see Teletubbies’.

Verbs have many forms that help us understand who is being referred to, when the action takes place, and so on. But they all form out of the basicroot which is the simplest form of the verb, the one which a child almost certainly learns first.

For more detail and information, see the Verbs in English grammar page.

Pronouns

If we only had nouns to describe people, places and things, our language would get rather convoluted and awkward. So we use pronouns – simple parts of speech – to refer to nouns we have already mentioned, or which we assume. Examples of pronouns are: me, you, it, him. As your child progresses through toddlerhood you’ll notice that he stops saying, ‘Johnny want biscuit’, and learns instead, ‘I want biscuit’. If you think about it, it’s pretty complex that we all refer to ourselves as ‘I’ even though we all have different names. But, if you use use the pronouns correctly, he will pick up their correct use without too much difficulty, even if he makes a few mistakes along the way.

More information about pronouns can be found on the Pronouns in English grammar page.

Adjectives

Since not every noun has a specific label, we can use another part of speech – an adjective – to describe certain aspects of someone or something we want to talk about. An adjective tells us more about a noun. Examples of adjectives are: nice, greedy, happy, smart. Colours are a form of adjective too. So we might talk about a tall man; a talkative child; a green car; a bouncy ball. A sentence usually makes sense without any adjectives, but they add a bit of interest to our conversation.

Two very important adjectives are the articles, ‘the‘ and ‘a‘ (or ‘an‘). These are also used to refer to specific or general nouns – as I’ve already done in the examples above. We never find these words used on their own; they always refer to a person, place or thing.

For more about adjectives and their uses, see the Adjectives in English Grammar page.

Adverbs

Another part of speech that helps us explain in more detail what we are talking about is an adverb. Adverbs tell us more about the verbs we are using, and often (though not always) end in -ly, such as nicely, greedily, happily, smartly. So we might say: he walked slowly; she spoke thoughtfully; the children played noisily.

More information can be found on the page about Adverbs in English grammar.

Prepositions

The five parts of speech described briefly above form the majority of our conversation. But there are three more important types of word. A preposition is a rather long word describing a word that is usually very short, such as: by, with, after, before. A preposition shows us the relationship of one object to another. So we might say: the cat is in the garden; the girl sat between her parents; my shoes are under the bed.

Conjunctions

Another long word describing something short is a conjunction. This is a word that links words or parts of sentences together, or contrasts them, such as and, so, until, therefore. So we might say: James and John were asleep, but Joshua was awake; I couldn’t get to sleep while the radio was on; if you’re ready, we’ll go out.

Interjections

Finally, and relatively unimportant, comes the interjection. These are just simple words that usually express strong emotion, coming alone or at the start of a sentence, such as Oh!, Well, or Hooray!. So we might say,Wow! That was brilliant; Goodness, I don’t know how you did that; Oh boy, that was tricky.

For further information on some specific parts of speech, see:

Nouns – the different forms of nouns explained, with plenty of examples
Verbs – different forms, tenses, and voices of verbs
Pronouns – how to use pronouns, and their different uses in sentences
Adjectives – what adjectives are, how to use them, comparative and superlative forms
Adverbs – what adverbs are, when and how to use them

You might also like to read the page on basic punctuation in English writing.

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