Basic Parts of Speech in English: Nouns, Pronouns and Articles
Although many academics and scientists who conduct advanced research and publish their writing in the English language are familiar with the parts of speech, many are not. Scholars who are not native speakers of English often find it necessary to write in the language in order to disseminate their work effectively. For them, a review of the basic parts of speech may well prove useful, and even those scholarly authors who feel confident about their proficiency in English often run into situations where reminders about precise usage are helpful. Perhaps you have received a rejection from an acquisitions editor who has flagged clauses and sentences in your manuscript as problematic, or maybe you have hired a professional proofreader or editor who has made grammatical changes to your writing. In either case, there may be comments on language and a need for corrections that the following notes on basic parts of speech in English will help you understand and negotiate.
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• Nouns refer to people, places or things, so they act as the subjects and objects of a sentence, explaining who or what is present, acting or acted upon. For example, in ‘The thesis candidate drafted an excellent chapter,’ both ‘candidate’ and ‘chapter’ are nouns, with the first being the subject of the sentence and the second the direct object. Nouns can be either concrete, meaning that their referents have physical presence, as ‘candidate’ and ‘chapter’ do, or more abstract, as the noun ‘intelligence’ is in ‘The student demonstrates great intelligence.’ Proper nouns such as the names of people and places require initial capitals, so ‘They say Billie is a girl’ and ‘I think Germany is a country’ correctly capitalise the names ‘Billie’ and ‘Germany,’ but not the more general nouns ‘girl’ and ‘country.’
• Pronouns are words that can be substituted for nouns, so, like nouns, they act as subjects and objects in English sentences. In ‘She asked him for help with the paper,’ two pronouns are used: ‘she’ as the subject of the sentence and ‘him’ as the direct object. Since a pronoun takes the place of a noun, it must be absolutely clear to which noun each pronoun refers, so pronouns must always be used with care, avoiding any uses that may prove ambiguous or confusing for readers. The number (singular or plural), person (first, second or third), case (subject, object etc.) and gender (masculine, feminine or neuter) of the pronoun must always match those of the noun replaced. To avoid biassed language, both the feminine and masculine pronouns can be used of people when gender is not specified, as in ‘The student should then submit his or her thesis for examination.’
• Articles precede nouns and noun phrases and can be either direct or indirect. The direct article in English is ‘the,’ which is used before a particular or specific noun, and the indirect articles are ‘a’ and ‘an,’ which are used before nouns that are not specific or particular in the context. This can be a subtle distinction at times, but if I say that ‘I wrote the paper,’ I mean that I wrote a specific paper made clear by the context, whereas if I say that ‘I wrote a paper,’ which paper is intended is not specified and it might be any paper. When using an indefinite article, ‘a’ should be used before consonants and consonant sounds, but ‘an’ should be used before vowels and vowel sounds, with pronunciation being the prime concern. ‘A paper’ is therefore correct, but so is ‘a union’ because the ‘u’ sounds like the consonant ‘y,’ and ‘an analysis’ is correct, but so is ‘an hour’ because the ‘h’ in ‘hour’ is silent and the word therefore begins with the vowel sound.
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