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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