Be More Sentence-Savvy, Know Your Parts of Speech

IT is a pity not many students are acquainted with the term, “parts of speech.” From the dozen years of working with students of all stripes, aptitude and attitude, I’d say only about one out of twenty, at their first class, have lit up and said, “Yes, of course, parts of speech! You mean the pronouns and nouns, adjectives and adverbs, those things?” The rest either shrug or respond with the lilt of a question: “Are they the parts that make up a speech?”

True, the term does have an odious, technical ring to it, conjuring all the yuckies associated with grammar. But really, it’s just a category word, nothing frightful or fancy, no different from meat and vegetables, humanities and sciences.

Part of speech, as the Oxford explains, is “a category to which a word is assigned in accordance with its syntactic functions. In English the main parts of speech are noun, pronoun, adjective, determiner, verb, adverb, preposition, conjunction, and interjection.”

Now, that’s a truckload of syntactic functions to remember, so to make life easier, all I ask students to focus on are these four, in this order:

  1. nouns
  2. verbs
  3. adjectives
  4. adverbs

Why nouns and verbs before adjectives and adverbs? From a structural perspective, nouns and verbs are kings, not adjectives and adverbs. Consider the words of Professor William Strunk, author of The Elements of Style, the authoritative guide on writing even writers talk about:

Write with nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak and inaccurate noun out of a tight place.

Consider also the advice of American author E.L. Doctorow:

Cross out as many adjectives and adverbs as you can.

Or Mark Twain, on adjectives:

As to the Adjective: when in doubt, strike it out. 

And William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, on adverbs:

Most adverbs are unnecessary.

All this chatter about nouns and verbs, adjectives and adverbs shows how vital it is for our eyes and ears to be tuned into parts of speech. If your writing teachers at school aren’t quite grooving with this whole structural discussion, make it your own mission to read (and write) with a sense of the basic building blocks of a sentence.

On the reading front, you’ll be watching out how the really fine writers write with nouns and verbs. Consider this excerpt from an “in praise of” piece in the The New York Times by Michael Cooper, Celebrating David Bowie, a Star Who Burned Bright to the Last:

Around the world, fans listened to Bowie songs, sent messages to friends reminiscing about Bowie concerts from decades ago, grappled with his loss and thought about what his music, and his life, had meant to them.    

Only nouns and verbs, and highly active verbs at that: “listened,” “sent,” “reminiscing,” “grappled,” and “thought about.”

Then try this: do a delete test on any adjective or adverb you run into. Let’s do an adjective/adverb strikethrough on two other paragraphs from this same Michael Cooper article:

As fans mourned David Bowie on the streets of London, Berlin and New York on Monday, a flurry of events served as a reminder of just what an outsize — and active — presence he had remained in the worlds of music, art, fashion and performance right up to the very end of his life.

No, we can’t delete those adjectives. And neither can we delete those below:

The breadth of Mr. Bowie’s long, varied career — in which he incarnated different characters and styles — was evident from the testimonials that poured in from collaborators as different as the proto-punk icon Iggy Pop (“David’s friendship was the light of my life”) and the funk master Nile Rodgers (“Your life changed my life”).

But you can certainly try Doctorow’s tip to “cross out as many adjectives and adverbs” on your own work. Oh, the difference it makes!

You may also enjoy:
Sometimes, Adjectives Just Get In The Way
Avoid Using “Very”


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