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Knowing the Parts of Speech

In a recent business writing class, a participant confessed that she didn’t know a pronoun from a preposition–and she wanted to learn the difference. Why? So she could feel confident about using language correctly.

Knowing the parts of speech can help you:

  • Recognize which words to capitalize in a title and after a greeting.
  • Know which words need an apostrophe to form the possessive.
  • Know when to insert a comma to connect two sentences correctly.
  • Use the right labels to find information in a search.
  • Disagree confidently with people’s out-of-date rules.

Do you know the parts of speech? See whether you can label each one in the example below. Every part of speech except interjections appears.

  • I bought drinks and deli food at the supermarket first.

Did you recognize all of them?

A few parts of speech may have surprised you. You may have thought of drinks as a verb, but in this sentence it’s a noun, a thing. You may have marked deli as a noun. It is, in sentences like this one: “I bought bagels at the deli.” But in the sample sentence it’s an adjective describing the noun food. The adverb first may have fooled you too. Sometimes first is an adjective: “This is her first award”; sometimes it’s a noun: “He ranked first.”

Yes, words can function as different parts of speech depending on where they appear in the sentence.

If you would like to improve your understanding of each of the parts of speech, read on for detailed explanations and chances to check your knowledge.


A noun names a person, place, thing, or idea. 

  • Person: customer, client, entrepreneur, mother, Dr. Singh
  • Place: New York, Mykonos, hospital, home, school
  • Thing: cookie, desk, smoking, wall, sculpture
  • Idea: initiative, loyalty, racism, love, knowledge

Find the nouns in the sentence below. Then label all the parts of speech.

  • Elle wrote cards to the clients in Brussels to express sympathy.  

How many nouns did you label? I found five.

Why it helps to recognize nouns

You need to capitalize all nouns in titles and headings:

  • The Cat in the Hat for President

You capitalize nouns in greetings:

  • Hello Team,    
  • Dear Customer,

When nouns are possessive (showing ownership), they need an apostrophe:

  • Joe‘s  
  • Hillary Clinton‘s  
  • The three employees

You need to recognize the noun (or pronoun) that is the simple subject to choose the right verb:

  • Your knowledge of the ins and out of benefits makes you a valuable employee. (knowledge . . . makes)

definition of noun and examples


A pronoun takes the place of a noun. 

When you introduce a new employee, you don’t have to use her name constantly. You can replace Awatef with she, her, hers, and herself. Those pronouns take the place of the noun Awatef. 

As you review this list of pronouns, recognize how each one might stand in for a noun:

  • I, me, mine, myself
  • You, yours, yourself, yourselves
  • We, us, ours, ourselves
  • He, him, his, himself
  • She, her, hers, herself
  • It, its, itself
  • Who, whom, whose, whoever, whomever
  • Nobody, no one, somebody, someone, anybody, anyone, any, none, everything, everyone, all
  • that, those, this, these

Find the pronouns in the sentence below. Then label the other parts of speech.

  • I myself heard someone say it.

Did  you find four pronouns?

Things to know about pronouns

You need to capitalize all pronouns in titles and headings:

  • Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.?

You do not capitalize pronouns in greetings:

  • Hello everyone,  
  • Hi all,

Most possessive pronouns do not have apostrophes:

  • its (not it’s or its’) 
  • ours  
  • yours  
  • his  
  • hers  
  • their

But:  everyone’s, someone’s, no one’s

Pronouns need to agree with the word they represent:

  • The board has chosen its new chairperson.
  • Board members have chosen their new chairperson.

Some style guides now accept the use of the pronouns they and their as singular forms. This approach frees us from gender concerns in sentences like this:

  • Ask the teacher whether they require a group project.

pronoun definition and examples


Adjectives describe nouns and pronouns.

Often adjectives come before the words they describe; sometimes they come later in the sentence.

Examples with adjectives underlined:

  • I’d like more of that delicious broccoli.
  • That broccoli tastes delicious.
  • He is qualified.
  • Two qualified applicants will come in today.

Words can work as adjectives in some sentences even though they are other parts of speech in other sentences.

  • She wore the purple [adjective] dress.
  • Purple [noun] is her favorite color.
  • The Italian [adjective] people welcomed her.
  • Italians [noun] are welcoming people.

The articles a, an, and the also describe, or introduce, nouns.

  • An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

In the sentence below, find the adjectives. (Hint: They all describe the same thing.) Then identify the other parts of speech.

  • His first talk was better and shorter.

If you didn’t find four adjectives, look again. You may have labeled his as a pronoun. But in this sentence, it’s an adjective describing which talk.

Things to know about adjectives 

You need to capitalize all adjectives in titles and headings (but not articles unless they are the first word):

  • One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish
  • The Secret Life of Bees
  • A Bend in the River

You need to capitalize proper adjectives (those made from proper nouns):

  • the Brazilian people   
  • warm French bread  
  • Hodgkin’s disease

Sometimes replacing adjectives with verbs and nouns can strengthen your writing:

  • The book was fascinating. [adjective]
  • The book fascinated [verb] me.
  • The house was huge. [adjective]
  • The mansion [noun] sits atop two acres.

adjective definition and examples


Verbs show action or state of being. A verb can be a word or a phrase.

Action verbs:

  • He wrote both recommendations.
  • Are you going to work on the project?
  • I would have liked to take today off.

State-of-being verbs:

  • I feel excited about the outcome.
  • Rob is the new manager.
  • You have been productive this week.

Identify the verbs in the sentence below. Also mark the other parts of speech.

  • Do you plan to relax or work in NYC?

Did you mark four words as verbs?

A few things to know about verbs 

You need to capitalize all verbs in titles and headings, even if they are very short:

  • Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It
  • Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? (Can’t is the contraction of can, a verb, and not, an adverb.)

Often replacing state-of-being verbs with action verbs strengthens your writing:

  • The class was [state of being] helpful.
  • The class helped [action] everyone.
  • There is [state of being] a lack of uniformity in the procedures.
  • The procedures lack [action] uniformity.

Verbs often paint stronger pictures than adjectives–in resumes, for example:

  • I am detail oriented. [adjective]
  • I created and compiled [action verbs that paint a picture] evaluations.

Action verbs are typically more concise than their noun counterparts:

  • We made a determination [noun] about our strategy.
  • We determined [action verb] our strategy.
  • We came to agreement [noun].
  • We agreed [action verb].

verb definition and examples


Adverbs describe, or modify, verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. 

Adverbs (underlined) describing verbs:

  • writes quickly
  • beautifully depicts
  • skis well
  • is leaving now

Adverbs describing adjectives:

  • richly expressive
  • terribly wordy
  • consistently punctual
  • rather unusual

Adverbs describing other adverbs:

  • really well
  • too quickly
  • very pointedly
  • extremely awkwardly

Find the adverbs and other parts of speech in this sentence:

  • He worked too fast and scored very poorly today.

If you didn’t find five adverbs, try again.Here’s an explanation:

  • Fast modifies the verb worked. (How did he work? Fast.)
  • Too modifies the adverb fast. (How fast? Too fast.)
  • Poorly modifies the verb scored. (How did he score? Poorly.)
  • Very modifies the adverb poorly. (How poorly? Very poorly.)
  • Today modifies the verbs worked and scored. (When did he work and score? Today.)

Tips on adverbs

You need to capitalize all adverbs in titles and headings, even when they are very short:

  • The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live
  • What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

You can use concise adverbs to replace wordy phrases:

  •  on an annual basis = annually
  • at the present time = now
  • in a consistent manner = consistently
  • most of the time = usually

Watch out for redundant adverbs, those that repeat a meaning that is clear from the verb the “modify”:

  • refer back
  • reply back
  • recur again
  • continue on
  • combine together
  • finish up 

Overusing adverbs such as really and very leads to weak writing. Rather than modify a word with adverbs like those, find the right word that doesn’t need an adverb boost. Make changes like these:

  • “She is a very careful editor” = “She is a meticulous editor.”
  • “He writes really well” = “He writes beautifully.”
  • “It’s way too hot” = “I’m roasting.”

adverb definition and examples


A preposition begins a phrase that leads to a noun or pronoun. Common prepositions are in, with, to, from, at, of, for, on and through.

Examples of prepositional phrases:

  • I wrote to the author.
  • The roses are in the reception area.
  • On the other hand, he works at home.
  • This information stays between you and me.
  • He works from 9 to 5.
  • With Carol, it’s difficult to know. (“To know” is not a prepositional phrase. It’s an infinitive, a verb form that begins with the preposition to, like “to be or not to be.”)

Look for three prepositional phrases in this sentence:

  • I spoke to the managers on Friday at their weekly meeting.

The prepositions are to, on, and at. Each of those prepositional phrase ends in a noun: managers, Friday, and meeting. 

Helpful hints on prepositions

Style guides differ on whether to capitalize prepositions in titles. The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago) and the MLA Handbook don’t capitalize any prepositions in titles. The AP Stylebook (AP) and The Gregg Reference Manual capitalize all prepositions of four or more letters.

  • Chicago style: Across the River and into the Trees
  • AP style: Across the River and Into the Trees
  • Chicago style: Dogs Never Lie about Love
  • AP style: Dogs Never Lie About Love

It’s perfectly acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition–no matter what your teacher said! However, it’s more formal to keep the prepositional phrase in its normal order:

  • Informal: Type the name you want to search for.
  • Formal: Type the name for which you want to search.
  • Informal: Grace Johns is the lead you have been assigned to.
  • Formal: Grace Johns is the lead to whom you have been assigned.

You still need to watch out for redundant prepositions:

  • There are fees you will have to pay for.
  • What time is the meeting at?
  • Where did Charles go to?

This blog post tells you to Cut Unnecessary Prepositions–But Not These.

preposition definition and examples


Conjunctions connect words, phrases, and clauses. Some common ones are the coordinating conjunctions and, but, or, nor, for, yet, and so, and the subordinate conjunctions when, if, because, although, and since. 

Tips on conjunctions

It’s fine to start a sentence with one, but it’s more formal not to:

  • And we will finish the designs next week.
  • In addition, we will finish the designs next week. (more formal)
  • But we still need to get input from the client.
  • However, we still need to get input from the client. (more formal–however is an adverb, not a conjunction)

Don’t capitalize short conjunctions (and, but, or, nor, for, yet, and so) unless they are the first word of the title or subtitle, or the last word of the title. AP, Chicago, and The Gregg Reference Manual agree on this capitalization:

  • To Have or to Be
  • Ok, so Now You’re a Vegetarian
  • 1,000 Places to See Before You Die

An important comma rule on coordinating conjunctions: When you use a coordinating conjunction to connect two sentences (independent clauses), you need a comma before the conjunction:

  • Gayle will pick up Mika, and John will take the train.
  • Cars are rusting in the lot, but wild flowers are bursting with blossoms.
  • We heard different stories, yet we came to the same conclusion.

When you connect two very short sentences, you don’t need the comma unless leaving it out would cause confusion:

  • I drive and he navigates.

You can remember coordinating conjunctions because they spell out FANBOYS: For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So.

conjunction definition and examples

Test Yourself

How about a final test that covers the last part of speech? 

Label the parts of this sentence:

  • We use interjections sparingly for emotional effect–yes!

Did you find seven different parts of speech? Your dictionary can help you identify the part of speech of any word. Remember: The part of speech can change depending on how the word acts in the sentence.

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

15 comments on “Knowing the Parts of Speech”

  • This is great, and so thorough!! I have a question. In some of the highlighted examples, “to” is marked as a preposition where I think it might be part of an infinitive. (I’m not a grammar expert, so it may not be!) When you talk about the prepositional phrase, you point out that “to know” is not a prepositional phrase, but an infinitive. In the highlighted examples for finding nouns and verbs, “to” in “to express” and “to relax” is marked as a preposition. When “to” is part of an infinitive, is it also a preposition (but not part of a prepositional phrase)? Thank you so much! I love your blog and am learning so much.

  • As always, you provide useful information! Especially for a non-native english speaker…

    This part had me shocked:

    You still need to watch out for redundant prepositions:
    There are fees you will have to pay for.
    What time is the meeting at?
    Where did Charles go to?

    I’m quite sure I learned you have to put those prepositions a the end! Could it be an AE rule only?

  • Thanks for your comments, everyone. I am sorry for the delay in responding. I have been traveling and away from computers (which can be a joy!).

    Kim, you can copy the content into a Word or text document and print it that way.

    Analina, you are welcome!

    Ann, my dictionary indicates that the only part of speech possibility for “to” is preposition. I know that seems weird for an infinitive. When I am back in my office filled with reference books, I will explore the topic further. UPDATE: I checked my dictionaries, and the “to” in an infinitive is labeled as a preposition. However, my dictionary reminded me that “to” can also be an adverb, as in “to and fro” and “Eventually the patient came to.”

    Deborah, these are correct in American English–and in British English, I believe:

    –There are fees you will have to pay.
    –What time is the meeting?
    –Where did Charles go?

    I will do research when I am back in my office to find out who might use the prepositions you learned.


  • Thank you, Lynn, this article is massive and very helpful! It is very important to know parts of speech and after reading your post, there is simply no chance that someone can mix them up.

  • That’s the term I was looking for – preposition! I had some difficulties in identifying these parts of speech when I was in Grade school (30 years ago). 🙂

  • Good morning Lynn
    I came upon your site while searching for proofreading exercises. So glad I found this site. I do, however, have a question with regards to “they” and “their” being used as singular. If so, isn’t the verb then supposed to get an “s” Your example: Ask the teacher whether they require a group project. Shouldn’t it then be “requires?”
    Hope you enjoyed your well-deserved rest.

  • He works as an editor.
    What is the parts of Speech of as in this sentence. Please reply this fast.

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