It’s a common experience: The English teacher hands out a paragraph to each student in class. The instructions at the top read Underline each common, proper, or collective noun. Or perhaps they direct students to Write a verb to complete each of the following sentences, or List the ten adjectives that appear in the following passage. Students reluctantly pick up their pencils to begin the task, and soon after someone utters the despairing phrase:
“Why do we have to know this?”
Or better yet:
“When am I ever going to use this?”
These common refrains invite us to consider why we should even spend time learning parts of speech. After all, how often are most people asked to identify nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, conjunctions, prepositions, and interjections in their daily lives? What can teachers tell students to explain why this is useful? And what can homeschool parents tell their kids when faced with the same questions?
As an English teacher who has heard these objections more than a few times, I have had to justify to students why they have to know the FANBOYS or identify linking verbs. Thus far, I’ve come up with three compelling reasons to give students as to why it’s important to learn the parts of speech.
1. You can’t make (or understand) sentences without them.
This sounds basic, right? Sentences are made of words, and all words fall into one or more of the parts of speech categories, so… duh! How does that help?
Let’s say your teacher tells you that you are using incomplete sentences, and your grades are suffering because of it. In order to improve your performance in class, you need to first understand what makes a sentence complete. So you look up the definition of a complete sentence only to find this:
A complete sentence has two basic parts: a subject and a predicate. The subject is the part of the sentence about which something is being said. The predicate is the part that says something about the subject. A simple subject is the key noun or pronoun that tells what the sentence is about. A simple predicate is the verb or verb phrase that communicates the essential idea about the subject of the sentence.
If you made it through that paragraph-long definition, you can already start to see the value of knowing your parts of speech. It is not possible to decipher what a subject is unless you know that a noun is a person, place, thing, or idea. Moreover, good luck teasing out what a predicate is if you don’t know that a verb describes an action or state of being.
And sentences are just the start of our troubles! What do we do if we’re asked to fix the passive voice in a paper or minimize our use of adverbs? This brings us to the second reason that knowing the parts of speech is, in fact, a great idea.
2. It helps you master writing techniques.
If you want to be a better writer, there are techniques you can learn to elevate your prose and dazzle your readers. However, it’s much harder to learn those techniques if you don’t know your parts of speech. A great example of this is the use of parallel structure in writing.
What is parallel structure?
Also called parallelism, it’s the use of repeating grammatical constructions in a sentence. Parallelism is powerful because it creates unity in writing, establishes a rhythm, and calls attention to our words. One famous example comes from the last sentence of the Gettysburg Address:
“… that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
What stood out to you in that sentence? I bet it was Abraham Lincoln’s use of parallelism. He used repeating prepositional phrases (of the people, by the people, for the people) to underscore the fragility of this newfangled form of government that privileged the people.
If Lincoln hadn’t been the masterful writer that he was, that sentence could have read something like this:
“… that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, created for them, important to preserve our country, shall not perish from the earth.”
It doesn’t have quite the same punch, does it? The problem boils down to parallel structure, and parallel structure can’t be achieved without knowing your parts of speech.
However, even if you don’t plan on becoming a celebrated speech writer, there is still one simple reason that parts of speech are worth the trouble to learn.
3. It makes writing (and life) easier.
Now, you might be thinking, “I could just look this up when I need to know it.” That’s true; you could. But is that what you really want?
Let’s step away from English for a moment and look to a math analogy to shed light on why knowing parts of speech makes life easier:
Imagine you have nine pet lions. Every day, you need to feed each lion a total of four steaks. How many steaks is that per day?
Odds are that you quickly figured out you would need thirty-six juicy steaks each day. Perhaps you decided that it’s too expensive to own nine lions, and you’re considering just getting a dog. Regardless, you hardly needed to think about the math because you know your multiplication, or “times,” tables from elementary school. It was automatic and easy. This is why we learn our times tables: It gives us more time to set the table (for our lions).
Bad jokes aside, parts of speech are just like multiplication tables in that they are the basic units of grammar. Knowing what a verb is off the top of your head will help you identify if a sentence is incomplete because it is missing a verb; recognizing that your first two list items are nouns will help you see that you should end the list with a noun to maintain parallel structure. The more work you put in on the front end to learn your parts of speech, the less time you will put in on the back end to fix your mistakes.
Like anything else, learning parts of speech takes time and effort. To my mind, it’s worth every agonizing sentence that requires one to Write the word that is being modified by an adverb or Write the conjunction that appears in each sentence.
What do you think? Are parts of speech worth the time to learn? What do you tell your students? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
Additionally, your students can always get a refresher on parts of speech and other ELA concepts on the Terms page.