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.




Upcoming Seminar

Getting Organized: The Parts of Speech
Tuesday, March 2
6:30 to 7:30 p.m. CT

A cluttered sentence, like a cluttered desk, wastes a lot of time and attention, and both can be cleaned up efficiently when we begin to sort things out and toss what we don’t need. The traditional parts of speech are simply the eight ways in which words can be used grammatically, and knowing how they work will help you revise your sentences more confidently. The next Writing Smartly seminar will introduce each of the eight functions, illustrate their uses, and explain how to identity them in a sentence. You may enroll now through this registration link. Tuition is $25. A confirmation and Zoom link will be emailed shortly after your registration. Please note the starting time: 6:30 p.m. CT.




If you can put your hands on a copy of Fallacy: The Counterfeit of Argument by Ward Fearnside and William Holther (and what, really, isn’t available anymore at our fingertips?), the four-page introduction alone will be worth your time and treasure. Published in 1959, this utterly solid (and what is solid may be dense at times) college-level discussion of mistakes in reasoning will help bring some much needed order to the disarraying confusion that is our public discourse—and much of the written word—at the present moment.

Introductions are meant to give an overview, so these first few pages of Fallacy will only, but importantly, whet your appetite for the full course of ideas the authors present in the book. Only a few paragraphs in, and we read this eerily prescient comparison written over 60 years ago:

The triumph of rhetoric is like the spread of a virus infection. When an epidemic spreads through an area, it is said to prevail there, and local measures may be taken. But to say it prevails does not mean that everyone is infected. Some persons escape infection; others are immune. It is not necessary to labor the analogy in order to show that it would be a good idea if the community could somehow develop a serum against some forms of persuasion.

These five sentences could serve in their own right as an instructive entry in a writer’s commonplace book: the simile of the first sentence grows into a more elaborate analogy, which the authors then prune (“it is not necessary to labor the analogy”) before it outgrows its pot. But we concentrate now on the subtle substance the passage carries. The authors’ quarrel is hardly with the right and proper measures taken responsibly to address an epidemic. Rather it is with the unwarranted conclusions that arise and solidify to the harm of many when we do not think closely and clearly about a situation we find ourselves in, when our emotions run riot (“the triumph of rhetoric”) and dispassion enflames with fear.

A fallacy (the word derives from the Latin fallax, deceitful, false, or treacherous) is an error in reasoning, a mistake in the way we argue for or against something: what would you know, you’re not from around here, or he said it, so it must be true. The treacherous quality of fallacious reasoning lies not only with those who knowingly employ deception to confuse others, but also with those—ourselves?—who accept such reasoning unbeknownst. Fallacies are often plausible mistakes in reasoning; they appear acceptable, and are often not suspected at all, because of both the context to which they are marshaled (often of pressing consequence and decision) and the manner in which they are presented (often of passion and emotional flourish). Fallacies risk taking us where we don’t want to go, and they prevail as long as they are not questioned. Upon examination, though, which means if we think about things a little more critically, we find they are specious—their appearance as truth is an illusion.

To speak of thinking critically brings us to the importance of books like Fallacy, and there are, thankfully, many of them, old and new. “Logic,” the authors write, “is the defense again trickery,” and that should be enough to hold our attention through an admittedly tricky subject. The study of logic, or what is more properly called material logic, can be a steep climb because it depends first on our understanding the basics of sentence structure: subjects and predicates, nouns and verbs, clauses both independent and subordinate. Our natural language carries the complexity of our thinking, and the argument for studying logic is that if we can see into the form our thoughts assume as we speak and write, we can work our way more deeply into a clearer understanding of their implications and meaning.

What makes the study of logic so important a complement to the study of grammar and writing is the fact (and we must just admit it, I think) that we are a suggestible species. We want so much, often for the best of reasons and often not, and that inalienable tendency to see things the way we want them to be can leave us wandering around the world of ideas, taking this one or that in an effort to substantiate our position in the hope, often sadly slim, to prove that we are right. A little farther on in the introduction of Fallacy, the authors write, “Ordinary speech, arising in a live situation, is not designed to satisfy the formulas of logicians. What does matter is the taking advantage of ellipsis, complexity, and verbal display to deceive and obfuscate.” It is the mixing of truth with untruth or lies that is the source of so much trouble, and that source is tainted with a special poignancy when we realize we weren’t even aware that such were the goings on around us.

When even only a corner of the curtain is pulled up and the elaborate gearwork of illusion-making is caught sight of, we have then a chance to understand how language—and we ourselves—can be so masterfully manipulated. The critical thinking that the study of logical fallacies fosters advances the best work of grammar and rhetoric, and those three disciplines together, each tempering the excesses of the other, can help us keep our eye on the truth, particularly in such confusing times as ours.


Upcoming Short Course

Reading Closely to Write, Part B
Thursdays, March 4 through March 25
6:30 to 7:30 p.m. CT

This new section of Reading Closely to Write will take up another eight short stories (each averaging only about 10 pages) by celebrated authors. We will continue our examination of two stories each week, looking closely at the sentence structure, stylistic design, and vocabulary of significant passages. Writers make choices when they compose their work, and if we as their readers can recognize those literary decisions, we gain a closer insight into the meaning the authors intended, consciously or unconsciously.

This second part of Reading Closely stands independent of the first; you need not have taken the first section to enjoy this continuation of the course. New selections will again be taken from 100 Great Short Stories, edited by James Daley (Dover, 2015), readily available at Amazon and elsewhere. Please use this registration link to enroll. Tuition for this four-session online short course is $100; you will receive a Zoom link and reading schedule to confirm your registration. We begin Thursday, March 4, at 6:30 p.m. CT. I hope you can join us.



The Play of Language

The art of language is as attractive as it is to some because it requires, and reconciles, what seem to be two opposing tendencies of this our human condition: the creative and the analytical. And it is right to say what seem to be opposing tendencies, because water flowing without restraint is called a flood, and the sight of a netted bird will move the hardest heart. The creative yes must rightfully meet some resistance if it is to take on meaningful form, and all the defining and comparing and contrasting that are the analytic must have a day of sun and shore to see that the world and its meaning are much wider than the margins of books.

It is probably better, therefore, to speak of the arts of language, not the art, because when we use language, oral or written, to share our state of mind—its feelings and thoughts and opinions and emotions, we must be able to work ably in very different mental terrain, from the wide-open spaces of ideas to the narrow streets of sentences and paragraphs. We must travel comfortably between the two terrains, and we must come to understand that they complement each other, perfect each other, bring each to completion as they work together in common purpose.

When we look into our minds for ideas to express, that’s one kind of art, the art of speculation—a fascinating word of immense implication when we learn that to speculate meant originally to reflect, to mirror. A speculum is a mirror in Latin and to speculate means to see, and so our creative work begins in finding, in watching, not in producing or manufacturing, ideas. We are on the hunt in the first art of language, and we must not disturb the forest with our clamoring hopes and prejudgments. We are to lower our tense shoulders for a moment, let things arise in their good time, and then welcome, welcome whatever might appear. For it is likely we’ve known them all once before.

But here they are now in our camp, these untamed ideas that have found themselves before our minds. Looking, we want to see what they’re about, and so we give them names to define their ways with nouns and pronouns, describe them with adjectives, and declare their actions with all the complexities of verbs and clauses. Our first art of speculation begins to weave itself with another, the art of grammar; the wildness of ideas starts to settle a bit, to cool and temper, to congeal or crystalize into a shape we can understand and others recognize too. The structures of grammar can catch ideas—not catching to capture, but catching to discern, as when we say of someone that he caught what we meant.

And once we have caught the idea, the subsequent arts of logic and rhetoric can bring their work to bear. Logic, or critical thinking, loves the sharp-edged and well-defined, and without its restraining quality, one idea will blur into another and the precious clarity we are seeking will be confused. Consistency there must be, but logic in its nature can run the risk of turning cold and objective, and transforming its fine consistency into a lifeless rigidity. And so finally the art of persuasion, rhetoric, must have its place to bring some mercy, as it were, to the justice of logic, reminding us that the life of the world is and will always be a reflection merely of those ideas we have caught for a time and have put down in another world, the world of language.

This ongoing movement, then, between speculation and expression, between silence and word, is the very life of language. Those ideas we wish to give form to will not play with those who will not play, whose stern gaze frowns too long. We are much better served, and serve much better, by working with a light touch, realizing we must write clearly and think consistently, but knowing, too, that our sentences and paragraphs are fragile things, and can hold only so much light for only so long. And then they burst and we laugh and we try it all over again, playfully.