Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Unlike People, Words Like Labels

Should college students be taught the parts of speech? Writing teacher Margaret Hundley Parker explains why she takes the time to work through this seemingly basic aspect of grammar with her students.

I didn't bother teaching the parts of speech—surely college students had them drilled into their heads already—until a semester ended with a student asking, "What's an adjective?" Dag! I'd been throwing words like "adjective" and "noun" around for months.

Should I teach these nifty, shifty categories to college freshmen? After all, if English grammar were math, 2+2 = 4, except when it's 5, or 6, or 1000. There are 8 parts of speech, or maybe 10, depending on whom you ask. And there are pesky words like show that can be an adjective, verb, or noun, as in Let the hand models dance to show tunes as you show them the way to the rock show. To get my students' attention, I mention that a certain other four-letter word can be a verb, an interjection, an adjective, and an adverb. To keep this family-friendly, I won't explain more than that.

Indeed, since the fateful day of the adjective question, and much to the chagrin of precocious students who come prepared to battle for the Oxford comma, I start all my classes off with a rundown of the parts of speech. I do run the risk of aiming too low, and boring those precocious few, but if the students don't know the parts of speech, it's hard to fix sentence problems. We need language in common.

Some books, such as my ancient St. Martin's Guide to Writing (St. Martin's Press, 1985), list 10: noun, pronoun, verb, adverb, adjective, preposition, conjunction, interjection, article and demonstrative. Other books say 9. For the traditional list of 8 (that I teach), remove demonstratives and articles. Demonstratives, such as this, that, and those can join the pronouns. But where do we put an article such as the as in the tiara? Lump it into tiara and call it a noun? Consider it an adjective because it modifies the noun? I start sounding like a psychologist in this discussion with students—what do you think it is?

Nitpicking is not necessary as long as they get the basics. I just don't want to sound like Charlie Brown's teacher when I yammer about parallelism and how the list in the sentence "The story is autobiographical, Southern, and a regular laugh riot" needs another adjective at the end instead of the noun "riot," (try "and funny"), or when I mention that subjects can never be in prepositional phrases so that "One of my friends is getting married" (not are because friends can't be the subject here). Students also need to know the difference between adjectives and adverbs so it makes sense that the umpire was strange and acted strangely, or that the dance was good because the ballerina danced well. And it's easier to replace a lame verb plus an adverb (walk slowly) with one snappy verb  (saunter) if you know what they are.  Also, fixing fragments and run-ons is a snap if you know about subordinating and coordinating conjunctions.

Simply memorizing a list won't necessarily improve their writing, so after going over the parts of speech, I just refer to words as what they are whenever I need to, and hope that the Charlie Brown effect is gone.

If there are students who don't know a preposition from a pinwheel, I divide the class into small groups and pit them against each other in a game of concentration. They must find a match from a board of index cards on which word pairs are hidden. Once they get a pair, they have to tell me what part of speech the word is and use it in a sentence. If they say, for example, that house is a verb—before I hit the buzzer—I wait for the sentence: I will house you on the racquetball court later, son. Score. As long as it's used in the sentence correctly, they're free to use good old fashioned anthimeria, a rhetorical device that lets words jump categories, and transforms a noun like house into a verb, or an adjective like bad into a noun as in my bad.

These days, by the end of the semester, most of my students are clear on the parts of speech, but I still get weird questions sometimes. My favorite one of late? Who invented English grammar? The answer to that required time, and possibly a team of lab-coated experts. So I lied, I told her I invented it. Next semester I better add more etymology.

Margaret Hundley Parker's work has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Time Out New York, Oxygen.com, Bust and performed at the North Carolina Literary Festival, CBGBs, and the 24-Hour Plays, to name a few. She has been an editor at FIT magazine and Road & Travel. Her book, the KISS Guide to Fitness, was published in 2002 by Dorling Kindersley. She has an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She teaches writing at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Pratt Institute, and through the Teachers & Writers Collaborative.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday July 14th 2010, 2:30 AM
Comment by: Noel B.
If it's that infamous expletive - it is also a noun.
Wednesday July 14th 2010, 10:46 AM
Comment by: nannywoo (Wilmington, NC)Top 10 Speller
Bouncing off my morning coffee with face book, where it is possible to both "like" (verb) then "unlike" (verb) someone's post (noun) that they have posted (verb), I first read the lead to Margaret's article in that context. I supposed to "unlike people" would be misanthropy, but for words to like labels they (the words) would have to be anthropomorphosed (verb, spell check unlikes). Everything in context--which is the way I teach parts of speech. My college grammar classes were with Richard Veit, who taught us to parse sentences using tree diagrams--descriptive rather than prescriptive. But I do often find myself in revision conferences suggesting that a student replace an imprecise demonstrative like "this" with a "noun phrase" or a passive construction like "there is" with an active verb, then explaining by example what I mean. Students have told me that some of it sticks and that they are better writers for it. I suffered through years of "grammar" classes in elementary, junior high, and high school, never getting to more interesting concepts like gerunds, subordinate clauses, etc. because we kept spinning our wheels with the difference between an adjective and an adverb. And I bet those kids who didn't get it still don't get it, fifty years later. I like the point about needing a shared vocabulary, though. It can help us talk about both reading and writing. Only a few of us (I include myself) give a (interesting word that can be several parts of speech) about the marvelous manifestations words can take and the rules of grammar that explain them.
Wednesday July 14th 2010, 10:52 AM
Comment by: David D.
I like this. When I was in grade school where I probably should have learned parts of speech, the schools taught grammar one semester and literature the other semester. But each school decided which would be first. My family moved at the semester break so that I had lit twice and grammar was missed. I still confuse parts of speech and I'm 73 by now.
Life does teach one the various ways to use certain expletives but it is a good idea to point out that such a word used this way is a noun and used that way is a verb. It gains interest quickly and spices up the learning process.
Wednesday July 14th 2010, 11:30 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Very observant, Noel!

I had the attention of a high school class one day regarding grammar, usage, etymology (though none of those big words got used!)by simply getting them into a discussion about why two boys who used one of those infamous words weren't guilty as charged with cursing. Instead, we got into a mess of words, scatology, obscenity,blasphemy, and bi-lingualism. (We are bi-lingual up here, and some of the students 'cursed' in French.

I am dismayed that students get into college and university without being able to identify parts of speech! But I am relieved that you care enough to force feed the topic.
Wednesday July 14th 2010, 12:31 PM
Comment by: Lenora H. (Rapid City, SD)
I had a fabulous English instructor when I was in high school -- Miss Constance Haag -- who drilled parts of speech into us with daily diagramming of sentences. She also taught literature but it was the grammar that I loved.
Wednesday July 14th 2010, 6:19 PM
Comment by: Bruce H. (DAYTONA BEACH, FL)
I say to Margaret Hundley . . .Wlk, Don't Run
Friday July 16th 2010, 11:19 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I learned with diagramming, too! And I loved it. I did use it for one year when I taught a class that was also 'immersion French'. It had that 'different' aura to it, and was quite successful.

I find diagramming a very good way to explain the relationships of words to one another, and the role of each in the sentence.

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