The Parts of Speech and Thought

If I said that I was reading a book yesterday afternoon when I suddenly realized I had not yet booked the hotel reservation for my vacation, how is the word book being used grammatically in that statement? Of if an accountant speaks of the book value of a company’s assets, what is the grammar of the word book there? We are often impatient with questions like these because they appear so academic or theoretical. But the theoretical (the word in its derivation means to look at) can reveal structure, or form, and therein lies the possibility of mastery and command.

Mastery and command. Listen for a moment to the connotation of those words, the waves of ideas which they might have set moving in your mind. In the context of learning a skill, like writing, they name something good and right and beneficial; it is difficult work to understand what we really mean when we begin to put sentences together, and aiming at mastery and command amidst a sea of words and thoughts will help both ourselves and others to come to understanding. But in a very different context, human relations for example, mastery and command are vicious achievements, ruining the good and hope of perpetrator and perpetrated alike. In writing, understanding context like this is all, and the closer we are able to understand the discrete words and phrases we think with and write, the better are we able to perceive the nuances and subtleties beneath the obvious meaning of what we and others are saying.

It is to this end of structural insight that the device, or scheme, of the parts of speech has a practical purpose. The traditional eight parts are nothing more than categories which each name a way in which an element (a word, phrase, or clause) can be used grammatically. That is the helpful, the essential, theory we need to understand how we have used our words, to test our sentences and find them worthy. But theory without practice is sterile, bookish one might even say, and so these parts of speech serve us practically in explaining how an element is being used in a particular sentence—that is to say, contextually, so that we can change knowingly what we judge did not succeed in conveying the meaning we intended.

The first three parts of speech, nouns, pronouns, and adjectives, name something. When I said that I was reading a book yesterday afternoon, the word book is intended to name directly an object in the world and so it is a noun. If I continued and said that it was an interesting book, the word it would refer to the noun book indirectly, not directly, and so it would be a pronoun, a word that stands on behalf of (pro) a noun. And to say that the book was interesting is to name a quality, or attribute, of the book, and that is the function of an adjective. Adjectives describe, and so in the second example above, the word book in the phrase book value is an adjective describing the noun value, to distinguish it from fair value.

The next two parts of speech, verbs and adverbs, have to do with action or state of being. When I finally booked my reservation, I actually did something, and so in the context of this sentence, the word book becomes a verb, because verbs state action. If I booked it quickly, I would be saying something about the manner in which I undertook the action, and so quickly would be an adverb, a word that qualifies or modifies a verb in some way. The next two parts of speech, prepositions and conjunctions, connect or associate words, and the last part, interjections, do nothing more (thankfully) than express an emotion or reaction: wow, that’s enough of that.

If we can remember that the parts of speech represent a means of analysis, we can use them to good effect in bettering our writing. The complexity of the scheme (intricacy might be a better term) points to how involved and mysterious a thing it is when we perceive the world and wish to say something about it. Far from simple, our perceptions translated into grammatical language can become so elaborate that we confuse ourselves along with others, and that is right where the parts of speech can come to help us sort things out and be understood.

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