Parts of speech are the mechanical building blocks of the English language. They’re at the heart of all writing, and each word used to form a sentence is categorized into one of those parts. Those parts can then form clauses and phrases to develop even more complex sentences, which blossom into the beautiful art known as writing. So why is it important to learn them? Well, for one, they help shape your writing. At the core of every work for an individual author is the style in which they structure their sentences. I made a post on Tumblr last week about an article that analyzed four popular authors and their corresponding best-selling series. The article broke down each piece into its main components: parts of speech. The author of the post then went on to describe (quite wonderfully) how each author showed the same patterns throughout their book, and it was pretty easy to see which authors were the better writers just from that. So, what better way to improve your writing than by starting with the very basic elements?
In this post, I’d like to briefly cover each part of speech and its effect on writing. Studying the various elements can really help polish your work and improve your style to be the most effective when it comes to good storytelling.
A noun is a naming word. It names a person, place, thing, idea, or action. Nouns can name something concrete or abstract, can be proper or common, and can be singular or plural. They can also be collective, name a countable or non-countable amount, and can be gerunds (action words usually ending in –ing).
Nouns are one of the strongest parts of speech that you can implement into your writing. Using nouns that are specific and descriptive to the surrounding are typically the best ones to use. Sometimes using a noun that falls into several of the categories is a good fit as well.
Using Nouns to Add Description to the Environment
Original sentence: The front door was surrounded with decorations.
The nouns used here are okay, but let’s see if we can pick some more descriptive ones.
Modified sentence: The entryway was surrounded with beautiful paneling and stained glass.
Much better. The detail makes this door a unique one and gives the reader some vivid imagery to remember it by.
A verb is a word that describes an action or a state of being. They can be action or linking verbs, main or auxiliary verbs, or transitive/intransitive (requiring an object or not) verbs. They also determine the tense of a sentence.
Verbs are your most useful tool in writing. Making a great verb choice will reduce the need for adjectives and adverbs, and it produces concise and powerful sentences. Whenever possible, replacing weak verbs with strong ones—and avoiding linking ones—is always a good idea for a quick way to improve your writing. Verb choice is usually the most problematic area for writers, so it’s important to be especially aware of this during your revisions.
Using Verbs to Strengthen Your Sentences
Original sentence: Jamie looked over her shoulder just in time to see the car driving past.
The verbs here are weak and leave a bit to be desired. Without context, you can’t tell the pace or mood of this scene. Let’s see if we can spruce it up a bit.
Modified sentence: Jamie craned her neck just in time to see the car swerving by.
Not only did we shorten this sentence with the changes, but there is a definite sense of urgency now, and the suspense has been heightened. The pace is picking up.
An adjective is a word that modifies/describes a noun. It tells you something specific that otherwise might not have been known. Typically, the adjective precedes the noun that it modifies, but they can also come after linking verbs. They can be used for comparison or as superlatives. (Note that when they are used as superlatives, you should NEVER use both an –er ending and the word more or an –est ending and the word most.)
Adjectives are most effective when they are used sparingly. You should use them to give specific descriptions that make the noun they are modifying unique, but only when the situation calls for it. Like with verbs, strong—and less common—adjectives make for better writing.
Using Adjectives to Enhance Descriptions
Original sentence: Serena is a beautiful young girl with long, flowing blonde hair.
There are several adjectives here that do tell us a bit about Serena, but some more distinct and descriptive ones would be nice. Replacing a few with stronger parts of speech would help too.
Modified sentence: Serena is a stunning teenage girl with fair hair that flows halfway down her back.
Now we can see that Serena is not just beautiful but stunning. That makes her stand out from everyone else. We also know a more specific age for her and can tell the exact length of her blonde hair.
An adverb is a word that modifies a verb, adjective, or another adverb. It can tell you how something is done or when/where something happened. Many adverbs end in –ly, but not all. Though they typically appear before the verb they modify, they can also come after, especially when it comes to dialogue.
Like adjectives, adverbs are best used sparingly. They are the most effective when giving specifics about an event that the reader otherwise wouldn’t have known and work best in the company of strong verbs. When placed well, they can add to the subtleties of environment and pace in a scene as well as the mood.
Using Adverbs to Enhance Environment, Pace, and Mood
Original sentence: Earlier that morning, Joe had carefully placed his school supplies in his backpack.
The sentence isn’t too bad, but let’s see if we can make it more specific and replace some of the adverbs and verb with stronger ones. Adverbial phrases work well in situations such as this one.
Modified sentence: Once dressed, Joe had meticulously arranged his school supplies in his backpack.
Because of the adverbial phrase, we now know a more specific time in the morning that Joe performed these actions, and the word meticulous tells us that he’s not only careful but unduly precise in the placement of his belongings. The stronger verb paired with that adverb also improves the sentence.
A pronoun is a word used in place of a noun to avoid repetition of that noun. Personal pronouns can act as subjects or objects; possessive pronouns indicate ownership. Reflexive pronouns are used to indicate that the subject of the verb is also the receiver of that action. Intensive pronouns (which overlap the reflexive ones) simply emphasize the noun they refer back to. The reciprocal pronouns each other and one another are collective pronouns used to express shared actions or emotions. Indefinite pronouns refer to non-specific people or things; demonstrative pronouns (this, that, these, and those) are used to point out specific ones. Interrogative pronouns introduce questions, and relative pronouns, which overlap the interrogative ones, introduce dependent clauses that refer to a noun already mentioned in the sentence (i.e. the antecedent); the clauses they introduce can be restrictive or nonrestrictive.
Regulating between nouns and pronouns can be tricky at times, but when the pronouns are well placed, they drastically improve the flow of the sentence.
Using Pronouns to Improve Sentence Flow
Original sentence: Marcus didn’t realize that Lucy and Mary had already completed more of Lucy’s and Mary’s homework than Marcus had Marcus’s.
This sentence is not only cumbersome to read but it also doesn’t entirely make sense. Let’s clean it up with some pronouns.
Modified sentence: Marcus didn’t realize that Lucy and Mary had already completed more of their homework than he had his own.
The changes make a vast improvement. This sentence makes a lot more sense now and is much easier to read.
A conjunction joins together words, phrases, and clauses. There are three kinds of conjunctions: coordinating conjunctions, correlative conjunctions, and subordinating conjunctions. Coordinating conjunctions are the most common and are used with commas to create compound sentences. However, if one of the clauses is dependent, no comma is used with the conjunction. (See my post on commas for the rules.) Correlative conjunctions work in pairs and typically do not use commas. Subordinating conjunctions join together an independent clause with a dependent, subordinating one. When a subordinating clause is found at the beginning of a sentence, a comma is used after it. When it comes at the end, no comma is used.
There is also a fourth element that I’d like to bring into the picture: conjunctive adverbs. While they are not true conjunctions, they can work as such to join two independent clauses that are related but don’t use typical conjunctions. Like the other kinds of conjunctions, they require additional punctuation around them. However, the type of punctuation depends on placement of the adverb. If it occurs at the beginning of a sentence, a comma is used after it. If it occurs in the middle of a sentence as an interrupter word, it is surrounded by commas. When one is used to join two independent clauses together, a semicolon is required before it, and a comma is then used after it. The only time a conjunctive adverb does not require punctuation is if it falls at the end of sentence. An older rule dictated that a comma must always precede the adverb if that be the case, but this rule is no longer observed. Commas are only used before such an adverb at the end of the sentence for emphasis and clarity. (Refer to the Chicago Manual of Style.)
Each of these conjunctions is great for giving your sentences variety. Without them, you’re stuck with simple sentences that all sound the same—which certainly won’t hold your readers’ attention.
Using Conjunctions to Create Sentence Variation
In this example, let’s start with a whole paragraph so we can see just how big of an effect conjunctions have in creating sentence variation.
Original paragraph: Max’s test lay on the desk in front of him. He was completely unprepared for it. He should have been studying for it last night. He spent the night out with friends. He stared at it now. He wished he could remember the details of the American Civil War. He thought for several minutes. Nothing came to mind. He was certain he would fail at this point.
This paragraph retells a number of events, but it reads more like a laundry list than a story. There isn’t really a distinct voice to it. Let’s throw in some conjunctions to change the pace a bit.
Modified paragraph: Max’s test lay on the desk in front of him, but he was completely unprepared for it. He should have been studying for it last night; instead, he spent the night out with friends. He stared at it now and wished he could remember the details of the American Civil War. After several minutes, nothing came to mind. He was certain he would fail at this point.
Now the details of the situation are a bit clearer, and there is a distinct flow to the narrative. By doing nothing more than adding in a few conjunctions and connecting some of the ideas, a picture is starting to form, and a narrative is created.
A preposition connects a noun, pronoun, or noun phrase to the rest of the sentence. Together, the preposition and the noun or noun phrase form a prepositional phrase. Prepositional phrases act as adjectives or adverbs and provide extra information in a sentence.
Prepositional phrases help add detail to a piece. They should be used to provide essential information and to help form imagery.
Using Prepositions to Add Context
Original sentence: Lacey found her notebook.
This is a pretty simple sentence. We get only the bare essentials and no other context. Let’s see if adding in a prepositional phrase or two can give us the information we’re missing.
Modified sentence: At the last second before the bus arrived, Lacey found her notebook next to the armchair.
With just a few prepositions, we can get quite a bit of context in one sentence. We now know that Lacey didn’t just find her notebook; she was also running late and found it just seconds before her bus arrived. We also know a generalized age for Lacey as well as where she found the notebook.
An interjection is a word or phrase that can stand alone and expresses emotion or surprise. They can be set off with commas or exclamation points depending on the strength of the emotion being expressed. Examples: Oh! Wow! Hey! Yikes! Hooray!
When used sparingly, interjections can be an effective way of enhancing creative writing, particularly dialogue. They should be used to add subtle undertones to a conversation or scene and are a great way to avoid amateur tags in dialogue that directly state, rather than illustrate, characters’ emotions, especially when coupled with strong body language.
Using Interjections to Express Emotion
Original sentence: “That’s not fair,” Tom said, disappointed that he would be unable to go to the movie.
While it’s clear what Tom’s emotions are here, the writing itself is somewhat drab and doesn’t leave much for the reader to picture. Let’s add an interjection to the dialogue to give some emotion to it and then couple that with some body language to further illustrate his frustration.
Modified sentence: “Hey, that’s not fair!” Tom whined, staring at his feet and kicking up some dirt.
Now there’s a definite mood he’s expressing, and his body language confirms that. We can tell that he is both frustrated and disappointed without ever having it be directly stated. The only thing that is needed by altering the sentence is context.
An article is used to introduce a noun. It lets the reader know whether the noun is a specific one or a general one. There are only three articles in the English language: a, an, and the. The is used to indicate a very particular noun, and a/an is used to indicate one that is being mentioned when there are other possibilities. Whether or not there is a need to use an article depends on the noun it’s modifying.
If you’re using one of the general articles, you’ll have to decide whether a or an is appropriate. The trick is to pick out the initial sound of the word, regardless of how it’s spelled. For instance, you would say “an honest statement” rather than “a honest statement” because the h in honest is silent; therefore, the word’s beginning sound is that of a short o. Another thing to note is that the word immediately following the article is the one that dictates which of the two articles should be used. Even if the noun being modified has several adjectives or adverbs in front of it, the one that comes directly after the article is the one that will determine which article is correct. (E.g. “a perfectly honest opinion.”)
The biggest thing to watch out for with articles is to be certain you’re using the right one. Using a specific article vs. a general one—and vice versa—can drastically change the meaning of a sentence. Note that adjectives are more often coupled with specific articles than general ones.
Using Articles to Indicate Importance of a Noun
Original sentence: Mikey threw a ball.
The sentence implies that there is more than one item that Mikey could choose to throw. It also implies that which ball he threw isn’t really all that important.
Modified sentence: Mikey threw the ball.
This sentence implies that Mikey threw the only ball available to him. If you add in an adjective, the sentence becomes even more specific: Mikey threw the red ball.
Now we know that there were several kinds or colors of balls, but Mikey chose to throw the red one specifically. Details such as that generally indicate an object of importance.
From nouns to articles, each part of speech builds on the others. By breaking down sentences and tweaking individual words, writers can practice small changes to enhance their writing and produce well-crafted sentences.