Back in my university days, I used to work in the school’s tutoring office, helping students pass their basic English requirements. Most of my students were English language learners, but a few were native English speakers for whom grammar, writing and literature were challenging topics.
One day I was working with a very bright young chemistry major who was struggling to pass English 090. I went on and on about nouns and verbs and clauses, until finally she stopped me. “I don’t know what those terms mean,” she said, with a blush.
A common problem
She needn’t have been embarrassed. In fact, I was at fault for not making sure she knew some of these basic terms. I was doubly at fault, really, because I had grown up in the same school environment she had, and should have known better.
There was a trend, in American public schools in the ’70s and ’80s, to avoid teaching grammar formally. In fact, I didn’t encounter basic grammar terms until I moved to the Catholic school system in 7th grade!
Even where grammar was formally taught, the terms were often oddly technical, rather intimidating, and poorly defined. I didn’t really start to get them sorted myself until I started studying Latin and French in 9th grade.
And there’s the thing. You don’t need these terms to speak your own language, but they’re extremely useful when you’re learning another. Which, if you’re reading this, you’re either doing now or thinking of doing. So let’s see if we can sort them out.
A mystery no more!
If you’re like a lot of language learners, chances are you’re beginning to encounter some of these terms in your text books…and if you’re like I was in 9th grade, some of them are about to make your head explode with frustration!
Well, we can’t have that. There’s enough to deal with in language learning without struggling with unfamiliar terminology.
So grab a cup of tea and some biscuits (or cookies for my fellow Americans), sit back and relax. We’re going to take a look at some of these terms and see if we can de-mystify them.
In the spirit of Bitesize, I’m going to keep these short and sweet. In this post, we’ll look at three biggies — nouns, pronouns, and verbs.
If you had any grammar instruction in school, you probably remember the phrase “a noun is a person, place, or thing.”
In fact, nouns are usually the first words we learn when we learn our native language, and often the first things we want to know about when we learn a new language.
Picture a baby pointing at various things and saying “doggie!” “baby!,” etc., or Helen Keller in the movie “The Miracle Worker” frantically touching things and prompting her teacher to give her their names. Nouns are important to us because they represent who or what we want to talk about.
Pretty much anything you might want to talk about — be it a person, a place, an animal, an object, a language, a city, a course of study, or a thought — is a noun.
Nouns fall into two general categories: “proper” and “common.
“Proper noun” is just a fancy way of saying “name.” When you call a person or a pet by his or her name, you’ve used a proper noun. When you say the name of a city or a country or a language, you’ve used a proper noun.
Some examples of proper nouns are:
Irish (when referring to the language)
In English (and in Irish), we give special status to proper nouns by always starting them with a capital (uppercase) letter.
A “common noun” is simply any noun that is NOT a name. For example:
“Pronouns” are short words that we use instead of a noun. They exist because repeating nouns over and over is an awkward way to speak.
If you’ve been following this blog, you may remember this post I did a while back on pronouns and their importance in the Irish language. You may also remember this silly, but extremely effective video on learning pronouns, from the “Grammar Rock” series of the 1970s and 1980s:
(If you haven’t heard it already, be warned…you’ll be humming it all day!)
The first verse of that song is a perfect illustration of what pronouns are and why we need them:
Oh I have a friend named Rufus Xavier Sarsparilla,
And I could say that Rufus found a kangaroo that followed Rufus home,
And now that kangaroo belongs to Rufus Xavier Sarparilla…
Whew! I could say that, but I don’t have to! ‘Cause I’ve got pronouns, so I can say:
He found a kangaroo that followed him home and now it is his.
Quite a bit less awkward, isn’t it?
In English, the basic pronouns are:
I/me, you, he/him, she/her, we/us, they/them, and it.
Some languages, including Irish, have different pronouns for “you” depending on whether you are talking about one person or multiple people, but contemporary English generally makes do with “you” for both.
“Possessive pronouns” are a special class of pronouns that who or what something belongs to. In English, these are:
Mine, yours, his, hers, ours, theirs, and its.
That pen is mine.
That paper is yours.
This house is ours.
That bowl is its.
(Important caveat: It’s easy to confuse the possessive pronoun its with the contraction it’s. Don’t fall into that trap! It’s is a short way of writing “it is” — that apostrophe stands in for the missing “i” in is. The possessive is written “its,” with no apostrophe.)
Pronouns are particularly important in the Irish language because of a special structure we have called “the prepositional pronoun.” We’ll talk more about prepositions in the next “Tea and Grammar” post.
In the meantime, if you want to have a look at the prepositional pronoun and how it’s used in Irish, you can check out the following posts:
Bitesize members might also want to have a look at the lesson Prepositional Pronouns.
You may remember a teacher saying at some point that “verbs are action words.” That’s true, to an extent. Because some verbs aren’t particularly active in nature (“sleep” for example, or “be” or “stay”) I prefer to say “nouns tell you what something is; verbs tell you what it is doing.”
I walk to the store every morning.
Johnny is a soldier. (Yes…”be” is a verb!)
She said “open the door.”
Verbs can be something of a complex subject, and we’ll touch on other “verb” terminology in later posts, but for most language learners, the most important thing to know about verbs right from the start is that some are “regular” and some are “irregular.”
Put away the All-Bran…regularity in verbs has nothing to do with their fiber consumption! When we say that a verb is “regular,” we mean it follows a specific set of rules (the word “regular” comes from the Latin regula, meaning “rule”).
In English, “run” is a nice example of a regular verb:
I run. You run. He runs. She runs. We run. They run.
Just remember the “s” when using “he” and “she,” and you’re golden!
One of the nice things about learning Irish is that most of the verbs are regular. There are two “conjugations” (classes) of verbs in Irish, and once you learn the rules for each, you’ll have no trouble figuring out the correct form of the verb to use.
Irregular verbs are verbs that DON’T follow the rules. Some verbs are so irregular that you wonder how their various forms could possibly be connected. “Be” is the classic example of an irregular verb:
I am. You are. He is. She is. We are. They are.
Most languages have some irregular verbs (English has a lot of them!). The nice thing for Irish learners is that Irish only has 11 irregular verbs, and one of them is only irregular in the future tense.
Bitesize members have access to lessons on the regular verbs (for example: Verbs: The Present Tense), as well as special memorization lessons on the irregular verbs (for example: Irregular Verbs: Bí: Part 1).
The basic building blocks of language
Getting a basic handle on nouns, pronouns, and verbs is so important because these are the most basic building blocks of just about any language.
If you have nouns, pronouns, and verbs, you can communicate. It won’t necessarily be great communication (think Tarzan and Jane), but you can communicate…which is what language is all about.
In the next “Tea and Grammar” lesson, we’ll look at some very useful additions to these three building blocks: Adjectives and Adverbs.
Did you find this post helpful?
Did you have much grounding in basic grammar at school? Can you think of other useful ways to teach these concepts? Let us know your thoughts below!