Grammar Lesson 2: The Parts of Speech: Noun Side (with a little historical introduction)

What a funny term – parts of speech. Aren’t there other parts of speech besides the written words? Like gestures.

Well, not strictly speaking. Speaking is, strictly speaking, using words.

Do you know where the parts of speech come from?

Trick question. The come from language.

Do you know who discovered them?

Isn’t that an interesting question? Did you know that Aristotle would not have been able to name the eight parts of speech? I would like to develop this further in another post, but for now let me answer the question I started this paragraph with.

In fact, David Mulroy provides the answer in his The War Against Grammar:

“The individual responsible for dividing words into eight groups is known to posterity as Dionsius Thrax (“the Thracian”)…. He studied under Aristarchus, the head of the library of Alexandria and the greatest of literary scholars in the second century B.C. Later he taught grammar and literature on the island of Rhodes [ed. Note, does that make him a Rhodes Scholar or just a Rhode Islander?], another center of Greek intellectual life. There he did the usual thing for a professional scholar, publishing a number of treatises on language and literature. Of these, only a very brief one survives, Techne Grammatike (“The Grammatical Art”). Despite its brevity, it is reasonable to list Dionysius’ Techne among the most influential books ever written, for it was the work that introduced the eight parts of speech to the world.”

No small achievement!

As an aside, next time a fundamentalist Christian type asks you why you are wasting your time on “pagans” give them a one word answer: “grammar.” All the other answers are contained in that one.

Mulroy continues so we can see the context and magnitude of this accomplishment:

“Before Dionysius’ time, the classification of most words was up in the air. Aristotle and his successor spoke of nouns, verbs, and everything else; various more detailed systems of classification were proposed without catching on. Dionysius’ swept away the competition. His book became a standard textbook for centuries. His system was adopted by Syrian, Armenian, and Roman grammarians. Via the last, especially Donatus and Priscian, his influence pervades the grammars of modern European languages.”

Do you agree that there are eight? Do you agree that an article is an adjective?

Let me turn to the immediately practical: children need to learn the parts of speech as early as possible. Adults find it much more difficult to find the time and mental flexibility to learn them in their dotage (i.e. their twenties).

Notice that, from Aristotle to Dionysius, subject and verbs were clearly understood. It is worth pointing out that the parts all relate to subjects and predicates. Maybe he saw that.

A subject is going to be a noun, even if it is some other part of speech converted into a noun. Only a noun can have something predicated of it.

A predicate will usually be a verb. Can you think of any exceptions?

As soon as I have a noun, I’ll notice (often) that saying the noun is not enough to rightly express my subject. I could say, “X does this” but that would not tell me very much, unless the context tells me the rest.

So I’ll look at that noun and I’ll want to change it, to modify it. The most obvious change to make is to add an adjective.

Adjective comes from the Latin and it means literally “thrown near or next to”. This is, of course, a very concrete definition and doesn’t describe its verbal function, especially not in English. But if we think metaphorically, we can see the point.

An adjective is “thrown next to” the noun because the noun itself needed help or it needed to be modified. So we threw a word at it.

Logically or formally speaking, the attention goes to the noun, and that’s an important point.

There are exceptions. Sometimes the writer wants the attention to go to the adjective. Yet an adjective cannot exist without a noun to contain it, so even if you highlight the adjective, you’ll unavoidably highlight the noun it was thrown near, towards, or next to.

That point is important for some who want to argue that traditional grammar is all wet because some things are so hard to define.

Sometimes they claim that an adjective is a subset of the verb if we extend the meaning of a verb to include what the noun is or is doing.

Verbs and adjectives are remarkably similar. But the difference seems to be that an adjective can exist only “in” a noun, while a verb has an external relationship to the noun.

The other difference was pointed out by Aristotle. His explanation of a verb is probably more reliable than that in most contemporary grammar texts. A verb is difference because it has tense (past, present, future, etc.). Adjectives don’t.

As a speaker you might have another question you need to answer about a noun: are you talking about a particular noun or just any old noun of that kind.

In other words, are you talking about fish generally or the particular fish you want people to look at? Or maybe you are talking about a single fish, but not the specific one that somebody else might have talked about.

If you are talking about a specific fish, you will often use the definite article.

Talk about any old fish: no article.

One fish, but not a particular one: the indefinite article.

So in English we have two kinds of articles.

You could, of course, get sick of the noun you are talking about (I mean, of course, the sound-symbol, not the thing itself) or there might be so many of them that you can’t refer to them all particularly. In those cases, you’d use a pronoun, like “those” or “they.”

You remember “They” don’t you? They’re the ones who always know what to say and everybody knows what They say. I call them, “the Immortal They” and recognize that They rule the world.

There are different kinds of pronoun as well, but we’ll hold that off for another day.

There you have it: The Parts of Speech: Noun Side (not, please note, subject side).

Nouns, adjectives, articles, and pronouns.

Eacho f these helps us to better grasp the subject of our thought in most sentences. Therefore, they enable us to better understand the nouns included in our thoughts and, often, about which we are thinking.

If we know the parts, we can start thinking about the forms they take. That will come later.


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