Five O'Clock Somewhere

Welcome to Five O'Clock Somewhere, where it doesn't matter what time zone you're in; it's five o'clock somewhere. We'll look at rural life, especially as it happens in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, cats, sailing (particularly Etchells racing yachts), and bits of grammar and Victorian poetry.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Grammar Moment: How to tell what part of speech a word is in

I’m always willing to respond to public interest

This evening, I was looking over statistics about this blog, and I found that a recent visitor had arrived on a query of “How do you tell what part of speech a word is in?”

That final word is semantically most meaningful.

First, let me say that, no matter what pedantic grammarians may have drilled into your head in the past, it is not – I repeat, NOT – wrong to end a sentence with a preposition. As long as the preposition has a clear object, either implied or planted earlier in the sentence, it is perfectly acceptable to end a sentence with one. As testament, allow me to quote John Masefield: “All I ask is a tall ship, and a star to steer her by.” Yes, by is a preposition, but since the preposition’s object, star, is already mentioned in the sentence and is clearly what the preposition refers to, this sentence is correct.

What’s meaningful about the in at the end of the question asked above is that it is there in the first place. Most people would ask the question “How do you tell what part of speech a word is?” and leave out that last little preposition. To ask the question that way is to imply that a word is always going to be a particular part of speech, and that’s that. To ask the question with the preposition at the end is to acknowledge that words are slippery things. They may play different roles, and so sometimes something that looks like one part of speech is actually playing the role of a different part of speech.

For example, a verb that ends in -ing may not be a verb at all – yes, it has been created from a verb, but it is really a noun. If I say, “I love sailing,” the thing that looks like a verb, sailing, is really acting like a noun; it’s saying what I like, and anything that answers the question what is a noun.

So to determine parts of speech, you need to look at the role the word is in, and not just what the word is.

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Anonymous pedantic_old_geezer said...

"anything that answers the question what is a noun"

What is the first person present tense of the verb "to be"?

What is an example of a preposition?

What is the best word to use to describe what a hen does when she drops an egg?

What is the correct spelling of the word in this sentence that is spelled incerroctly?

Mon Nov 05, 03:06:00 PM MST  
Blogger Carol Anne said...

In each of those questions, the answer is a word spoken of as a word, as opposed to being used in its own right in a sentence; that makes it a noun.

Or, to use a sentence made famous by Bill Clinton: "It depends what the meaning of 'is' is." The first is is a word spoken of as a word, so it's a noun. The second is is used with its own meaning; therefore it's a verb.

Tue Nov 06, 12:36:00 AM MST  
Anonymous pretty_feet said...

What is the meaning of the word "word" when spoken of as a word and not as a word with its own meaning?

Tue Nov 06, 03:09:00 PM MST  
Blogger Carol Anne said...

In that case, it's a metacognitive artifact.

But granddaughters are a lot prettier than feet anyway.

Thu Nov 08, 02:53:00 AM MST  
Blogger Carol Anne said...

FWIW, visitor 26K was somebody in Alpharetta, Georgia, who came on the usual search and left without clicking on any links.

Fri Nov 09, 11:02:00 PM MST  

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