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Wisdom From the Grammar Goddess: Back to the Basics, Darkly

By Diane Sandford, Published on January 19, 2004
Diane Sandford is the Director of Library Services for the Washington, DC office
of Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson LLPShe has many years of experience
in editing and as a grammar expert within the firm.

Can you name the eight parts of speech? Before you even start, why should a busy person bother to remember these terms? To explain the fine points of grammar, authors of grammar books require a special set of technical terms—e.g., gerund, infinitive, participle, appositive, nominative, pluperfect, and idiom. Unfortunately, most of us cannot remember the precise definitions and applications of these terms, so our understanding of grammar handbooks remains superficial. These terms provide a structure for discussing grammatical functions that change as language evolves.

I think we’re all in agreement that the so-called eight parts of speech are nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections. Articles (a, an, and the) are adjectives. Now the frustration factor sets in. Let me offer the following observations:

Observation #1:The “parts of speech” classification is arbitrary.

It has to be memorized to be recalled; it cannot be derived by analyzing the structure of our language. In fact, linguists prefer other classifications. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language lists nine categories: noun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, determinative (the, some, every), subordinator (that, for, whether, if), coordinator (and, or, but, nor), and interjection.

Let’s start with the deceptively simple. Nouns are classified as proper nouns and common nouns. A proper noun is a particular person, place, or thing, and is always capitalized. And, already, we have trouble. A merry-go-round is a particular kind of child’s ride, but it is not capitalized. Isn’t verb a particular part of speech? Should we capitalize earth, the name of our planet? Half of the college textbooks I consulted do not capitalize earth. On the other hand, there are a number of different people called John, yet John is capitalized. What is going on? Here is what the linguist Otto Jespersen wrote in 1924.

It is customary to begin the teaching of grammar by dividing words into certain classes, generally called “parts of speech”—substantives [nouns], adjectives, verbs, etc.—and by giving definitions of these classes. . . . but the definitions are very far from having attained the degree of exactitude found in Euclidean geometry. Most of the definitions given even in recent books are little better than sham definitions in which it is extremely easy to pick holes; nor has it been possible to come to a general arrangement as to what the distinction is to be based on—whether on form (and form changes) or on meaning or on function in the sentence, or on all of these combined.—Otto Jespersen, The Philosophy of Grammar (University of Chicago Press, 1924, page 59).

Observation #2: Grammatical definitions are imprecise. Get used to it.

One of the simplest parts of speech is the pronoun (literally, “for a noun”). Definition: A pronoun is a word used in place of one or more nouns—e.g., he, she, it, they, who. We will ignore the fact that a pronoun seems to be a special kind of noun—a noun that refers to a previously understood antecedent.

Problems quickly arise: Nobody is classified as a pronoun. What noun can nobody stand for? Why isn’t today a pronoun? If a pronoun substitutes for a previously understood noun, then why would anyone make a statement like, “I, Arnold Schwarzenegger, declare my candidacy for the Governor of California” (all politics aside, of course).

It is a shock to discover that possessives like my and mine are classified as relative pronouns, not possessive adjectives or pro-adjectives. Consider this sentence: “The book is mine.” Here mine does not mean the proper noun Diane; it means “belonging to Diane.” Clearly, mine is not a word used in place of a noun or even a noun phrase. George O. Curme’s scholarly English Grammar (Barnes & Noble, 1925, page 13) states: “My, mine . . . were once used as personal pronouns . . . and are sometimes still so used. They are now usually possessive adjectives.”

That made sense to me, but several college handbooks of English that I checked claimed that my and mine are once again relative pronouns. You would think this confusing classification would deserve some discussion, but I found nothing in these handbooks.

Contrary to the handbooks, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition, insists my is always an adjective. Webster’s also says that mine can be an adjective, but is a pronoun when “used without following a noun as a pronoun equivalent in meaning to the adjective my.” Huh? If I understand this clause (and I may not), it seems to be a contradiction.

We should just commit to memory that certain possessives (my, mine, our, ours, you, yours, his, hers, its, their, theirs, whose, more) function as adjectives (actually replacements for adjective phrases), but are called relative pronouns—at least in today’s college English handbooks.

Back to the original question:  Is it important to know the eight parts of speech?  Absolutely, but bear in mind that this superficial convention is primarily a tool imposed on language that allows us to discuss language. We do not completely understand the structure of language. At best, definitions are practical approximations, and they change as language evolves.

Do you have a grammar question? Comments? Suggestions? Please let me know.