2.3 Nouns, Pronouns and Verbs

Preview

This section of Ch. 2 will cover the following topics:

  • understanding
  • using nouns, pronouns, and verbs

There are two ways to be a correct writer:

  • read a lot
  • study

If you were lucky enough to have a family who encouraged you to read books as a child, and your teachers were good so your skills developed, chances are your writing is already correct. Why? Because your brain absorbed the structures and systems we call “standard English usage” as you read, and you are able to repeat those patterns unconsciously when you write.

If that didn’t happen, you probably struggle with writing to some extent.

It is never too late. The more you read good writing, the more you will automatically write correctly. In the meantime, studying grammar will help you make correct choices, getting you closer to the kind of writing you want to be able to do.

Parts of Speech

“Parts of speech” is the system we use to explain how words work in a sentence–which word goes where, why, and in what form.

Even if you struggle with writing, your brain already has a pretty good grasp of how this system works. For example, you know there is something wrong with this sentence:

I love dog my.

If I asked you to explain the problem, I doubt you would say, “The pronoun ‘my’ is being used as an adjective here, to show who owns the dog, and it should come before the noun it modifies.” But you’ve heard enough correct examples that your brain automatically sees a problem.

But can you spot the more subtle errors in the following sentences?

  • The two best things about the party was the music and the food. (Error: verb agreement. The verb “was” does not agree with the subject “things.” It should be “were.”)
  • Natalie found a sparkly girl’s bracelet on the sidewalk. (Error: . It’s not a sparkly girl, it’s a sparkly bracelet.)
  • When John’s dog came back, he was so happy. (Error: unclear pronoun reference. Who was happy? The dog or John?)

There are eight parts of speech in English.  This section of Ch. 2 will cover the first three parts of speech: nouns, pronouns, and verbs. The remaining five are covered in Ch. 2.4.

Graphics

This PowerPoint presentation is a visual introduction to the parts of speech. Click on the image below to open it and view the slides.

Screenshot of the first slide of the Powerpoint presentation

When you’ve finished Ch. 2, come back and work through this slideshow again to review what you’ve learned.

Nouns

The simplest words in English are ; they are easy to understand and found everywhere.

A noun is a word that names people, places, things, or ideas.

Remember “part of speech” is what job a word is doing in a sentence. Naming is a noun’s job.

Most nouns are things you can see (like a mouse or the sun), but nouns can also name ideas that can’t be seen (like democracy or faith). All of the following words are nouns because they name someone, some place, or something:

rabbit, tangerine, paper clip, Mars, democracy, student, Alaska

There are two types of nouns: proper nouns and common nouns.

Proper nouns name specific people, places, things, or ideas. For example:

  • people: Shakespeare, Jean
  • places: Paris, Bugaria
  • things: Kleenex, Oreos
  • ideas: Impressionism, Buddhism

Proper nouns can be more than one word, but they still name one thing. For example:

  • people: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Billie Eilish
  • places: New York City, Republic of Ireland
  • things: House of Representatives, MacBook Pro
  • ideas: Harlem Renaissance, New Deal

The following types of words are usually proper nouns:

  • deities, religions, religious followers, sacred books (Allah, Catholic, Protestants, the Torah)
  • family relationship when used as a name (Mom, Grandpa Lenz)
  • nationalities, languages, races, tribes (Italian, Japanese, African American, Apache)
  • educational institutions, departments, specific courses (Mt. Hood Community College, Humanities Department, Writing 90)
  • government departments, organizations, political parties (Army Corps of Engineers, Doctors Without Borders, Democratic Party)
  • historical movements, periods, events, documents (Black Lives Matter, the Renaissance, March Madness, Declaration of Independence)
  • trade names (Apple, Xerox, Newman’s Own)
  • months, holidays, days of the week, but not seasons (July, Yom Kippur, Friday, but not winter)

    Tip

    Proper nouns are always capitalized.

    Common nouns are never capitalized, unless they are the first word of a sentence.

  • titles when used as part of a person’s name, but not when used alone (Governor Brown, but not the governor of Oregon)
  • titles of books, movies, CDs (The Hunger Games, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Back to Black)

Common nouns name general people, places, things, or ideas. For example:

  • people: students, aunt, dog
  • places: river, country, home
  • things: aquarium, car, hamburger, rose
  • ideas: democracy, love, happiness, religion

Common nouns can also be more than one word, but they still name one thing. For example:

  • people: homeless person, state representative
  • places: high school, swimming pool
  • things: printer cartridge, washing machine
  • ideas: gay pride, public speaking

When two nouns together have a meaning that is different from the two separate words, that is called a compound noun. For example, a “state” is one thing, a “representative” is another, and a “state representative” has a third, slightly different meaning. So “state representative” is a compound noun. Sometimes compound nouns are written as one word (“greenhouse”) or hyphenated (“mother-in-law”). Check a dictionary to be sure.

A word also can be a proper noun in one sentence but a common noun in another.  For example:

  • My sister Fern prefers ferns to flowers. (“Fern” is a proper noun because it is a specific person’s name, but “ferns” is a common noun because it names a general type of plant.)
  • My mother said she was tired, but Dad was ready to go. (“mother” is a common noun because it names the relationship, but “Dad” is what we call him, so it’s a proper noun.)

Graphics

Click on the icon below to view a cartoon video about nouns:

Exercise 1

In your notebook, copy the following sentences. Circle all the nouns, putting “np” above the proper nouns and “nc” above the common nouns.

(Remember: Sometimes a noun can be more than one word.)

  1. Although raised a Catholic, my sister eventually joined the Church of England.
  2. Dad bought three gifts for Mom: a toaster, a blender, and a bathrobe.
  3. My telephone has indicators for different types of messages.
  4. Astrology is fun.  My sign is Aquarius.
  5. The wind last night shook the house.

Pronouns

Notice the word “pronoun” has the word “noun” embedded in it. That gives us a hint that they are connected.

A pronoun is a word that replaces a noun to avoid repetition.

For example:

Maria threw the boomerang and it came back to her. (“it” and “her” are pronouns)

Without pronouns, the above sentence would have to be written like this:

Maria threw the boomerang and the boomerang came back to Maria.

The noun being replaced by the pronoun is called its . “Maria” is the antecedent of “her” and “boomerang” is the antecedent of “it.”

There are half a million nouns in English, but relatively few pronouns. Following is a list of the most common English pronouns:

all him myself somebody your
another himself mine someone yours
any his most something yourself
anyone she neither that yourselves
anybody her nobody their we
anything hers none theirs what
both herself no one them which
each I nothing themselves whichever
either it one these who
everybody its our they whom
everyone itself ours this whoever
everything many ourselves those whomever
few me several use
he my some you

Exercise 2

Copy these sentences into your notebook, adding the correct pronoun. Then draw an arrow from the pronoun to the noun (the antecedent) that the pronoun replaces.

  1. In the current economy, workers don’t want to waste ________ money.
  2. If my sister goes to medical school, ________ must be prepared for the long hours.
  3. The plumbing crew did ________ best to repair the broken pipes.
  4. The commencement speaker said students have an opportunity to improve ________ lives.
  5. Aunt Norma was a talented gardener and ________ worked in the yard nearly every day.
  6. My computer is nearly ten years old. ________ really needs to be replaced.

Pronoun errors are the second most common error in college writing (comma errors are #1), so it’s worthwhile to study pronouns. There are three main pronoun errors.

Error #1: Unclear Pronoun Reference

If we don’t understand which noun the pronoun has replaced, that is called an unclear pronoun reference. For example:

Before syncing my phone with my laptop, I deleted everything on it. (What does the pronoun “it” refer to? The phone or the laptop?)

A clearer explanation would be this:

I deleted everything on my phone before syncing it with my laptop. (Now “it” clearly refers to the phone.)

Error #2: Lack of Noun/Pronoun Agreement

Tip

People in the transgender and gender non-conforming communities often use the plural pronoun “they” to refer to one person. In the past, we would not say, “Mason has a new cat because they love cats.” But respect for an individual’s identity is an important part of the evolution of language.

Do not assume which pronoun a person uses. It is okay to politely ask people their pronoun.

Pronouns must agree in number with the nouns they refer to. If the noun is singular, the pronoun replacing it should also be singular. If the noun is plural, the pronoun should be plural:

The parrot (singular) sat on its (singular) perch.

The parrots (plural) sat on their (plural) perches.

When referring to several people, it can be tempting to avoid sexist language by using both male and female pronouns:

Sexist: An actor must share his emotions.

Not sexist, but awkward: An actor must share her or his emotions.

A better way to fix the problem is to switch to a plural noun and pronoun because although many singular pronouns in English reflect a specific gender (he, she, him, her), most plural pronouns do not (they, them, their, we, us).

Neither sexist nor awkward: Actors must share their emotions.

Error #3: Shifts in Person

To understand what “person” means, imagine a conversation between three people. The first person would speak using “I.” That person would talk to a second person using “you.” When they talk about a third person, they use “he,” “she,” or “they.”

  • First person pronouns: I, me, mine, we, us, ours
  • Second person pronouns: you, yours
  • Third person pronouns: he, him, his, she, her, they, them, theirs, one, anyone, it, its

    Tip

    In college writing, second person (“you”) is too casual. Use first person (“I” or “we”) or third person “(“she,” “he,” “them”) instead.

Avoid “shifts in person.” That is, avoid incorrectly mixing first, second, and third person. For example:

With our delivery service, customers can pay for groceries when ordering or when you receive them. (“you” is a shift in person.)

Here is how the sentence should read:

With our delivery service, customers can pay when they order groceries or when they receive them.

Three Helpful Pronoun Rules

  • The words “who,” “whom,” and “whose” refer only to people. The word “which” refers to things. The word “that” can refer to people or things. Never write “I have a dog who bites.”
  • To decide whether to use “me” or “I,” take out the other person’s name and see which sounds right: “The teacher looked at Maria and I.” or “The teacher looked at Maria and me.”
  • Never put a pronoun directly after a noun. For example: “Christine she went to work earlier than usual.” Delete the pronoun “she.”

Graphics

To review pronouns, watch this great cartoon video:

Exercise 3

In your notebook, write the following sentences, correcting any pronoun errors.

  1. The eighth grade students they were behaving mysteriously.
  2. Twyla and me went to the circus on Friday.
  3. The instructor gave Marilyn her notes.
  4. Juan is a man that has high standards.
  5. A gardener is only successful if he or she has good soil.

Verbs

Sentences can be short or long, but you can’t have a sentence without a verb, no matter how many words you write. For example:

The small black dog in my backyard with floppy ears and a long tail.

That’s a . Why? Because it doesn’t have a verb.

A verb shows action or a state of being.

Action verbs are easy: “walk,” “study,” “wash,” “wait,” “dance.” They are words that describe something happening. For example:

The raccoon ate the pizza box. (“ate” is what the raccoon did. “ate” is the verb.)

But a verb can also link subjects with words that describe them. Try to think of “linking” as an action. Common linking verbs include “is,” “am,” “are,” “was,” “seem,” and “became.” For example:

Emmett is a small black dog. (“is” links the subject “Emmett” with the description “a small black dog.” Therefore “is” is the verb.)

A verb that is more than one word is called a . For example:

We have taken many trips together. (“have taken” is a verb phrase.)

Verbs not only tell us what is happening, they tell us when it is happening. This is called . For example:

  • I walk to school. (present tense: I am doing it now.)
  • I walked to school. (past tense: I used to do it.)
  • I will walk to school. (future tense: I am going to do it.)

Verb tense should remain consistent. If you start in present tense, stay there, or if you start in past tense, stay there. For example:

I walked to school on Tuesday. When I arrived, I saw my teacher. She told me to get to class quickly. I ran through the door, sat in my chair, and took a deep breath. (All of the underlined words are past tense verbs.)

However, there are times when we want to shift tense to let a reader know things happened at different times. For example:

To Kill a Mockingbird is Harper Lee’s most famous book. It received a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961. Lee died in 2016, but her book will remain one of the most compassionate novels in American literature.

Lee’s book is currently famous. She received a prize and died in the past. Her book will remain great into the future. All those events happened at different times and we change the tense of the verb to let the reader know when.

Exercise 4

In your notebook, complete the following sentences by selecting the correct form of the verb: present, past, or future tense.

  1. The Dust Bowl _______ (is, was, will be) a name given to a period of destructive dust storms in the United States during the 1930s.
  2. Today, historians _______ (consider, considered, will consider) The Dust Bowl to be one of the worst weather of events in American history.
  3. The Dust Bowl mostly _______ (affects, affected, will affect) Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico.
  4. Dust storms _______ (continue, continued, will continue) to occur in these dry regions, but not to the devastating degree of the 1930s.
  5. The Dust Bowl era finally came to end in 1939 when the rains _______ (arrive, arrived, will arrive).

The most troublesome thing about verbs is that many are “irregular.” Regular verbs change to past tense by adding “d” or “ed.” For example:

walk → walked

dance → danced

But irregular verbs change tense in irregular ways. For example:

is → was or were

think → thought

The best way to learn irregular verbs is simply get familiar with them. Read the list below and notice any verbs which cause you problems:

Present → Past Present → Past Present → Past Present → Past
become → became fight → fought lose → lost sing → sang
begin → began find → found make → made sit → sat
blow → blew fly → flew mean → meant sleep → slept
break → broke forget → forgot meet → met speak → spoke
bring → brought forgive → forgave pay → paid spend → spent
build → built freeze → froze put → put spring → sprang
burst → burst get → got quit → quit stand → stood
buy → bought give → gave read → read steal → stole
catch → caught go → went ride → rode strike → struck
choose → chose grow → grew ring → rang swim → swam
come → came have → had rise → rose swing → swung
cut → cut hear → heard run → ran take → took
dive → dove (dived) hide → hid say → said teach → taught
do → did hold → held see → saw tear → tore
draw → drew hurt → hurt seek → sought tell → told
drink → drank keep → kept sell → sold throw → threw
drive → drove know → knew send → sent understand → understood
eat → ate lay → laid set → set wake → woke
fall → fell lead → led shake → shook wear → wore
feed → fed leave → left shine → shone (shined) win → won
feel → felt let → let shrink → shrank (shrunk) wind → wound

Graphics

To review verbs, watch this great cartoon video:

Takeaways

  • There are eight parts of speech: nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections.
  • Each type of word has a specific job in a sentence. Understanding parts of speech will help a writer avoid grammatical errors.
  • The core of a sentence is nouns, pronouns and verbs.

License

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Write On! by Gay Monteverde is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.