Ruminations on Writing: Terminology

Recently, I’ve seen quite a few instances of “fumble rules” and other things discussing writing style. This got me thinking about some of the “rules” that are bandied about for style and grammar. I’m going to pick on a few of those rules over the next while, I think.

Before I get into the rules, I think it would make sense to establish a vocabulary for doing so. I’m going to use a number of terms in these commentaries that may not be clear to all my readers. They certainly weren’t clear to me when I started this. I should make it clear that my definitions below may vary somewhat from the definitions used by a linguist. I am not a linguist and I find linguists to be singularly unhelpful in understanding any language.

First, we have the “classic” parts of speech which are simply labels to classify the function of words.

noun. This one should be clear and is about the most obvious definition for a part of speech ever. A noun is a word representing a specific thing, tangible or otherwise. Nouns are thinks like “cat” or “love” or “group”. They also include names (or “proper nouns”) such as “Fred” or “Edmonton” or “Earth”.

pronoun. A pronoun is really just a word that takes the place of a noun which has possibly been inflected in some way. Thus, an pronoun may behave like a noun but it might also behave as an adjective. For instance, “he” would behave like a noun, but the possessive form “his” would behave like an adjective, just like any noun inflected to be possessive.

verb. This is the other obvious part of speech. A verb is a word representing an action. While that action is normally something like running or thinking or eating or hating, it may be somewhat more abstract as represented by verbs like “be” or “become” which represent a “state of being” or associate a description with a noun of some kind.  This particular dichotomy arises from the general structure of English; there is no reason that a verb construction need be used to do the linkage. That just happens to be how English does it.

adjective. An adjective is simply a word or phrase that adds description to a noun. For instance, “fat cat”, “slow car”, “green leaf” and so on all have adjectives before the nouns.

adverb. This is something more confusing. An adverb (or adverbial phrase) modifies the action in some way. That is, it describes when or where or how the action occurs. To further confuse the issue, adverbs can also modify adjectives though if you squint at it carefully, you can realize that adjectives are really describing an action – the state of being as described by the adjective.

conjunction. A conjunction is simply a word or phrase used to join different sentences or phrases together.

preposition. A preposition introduces a phrase describing position or manner. It serves much the same purpose as a conjunction but at a lower level. Words such as “to”, “under”, “beside”, and so on often serve as prepositions.

article. An article is really just an adjective when you get down to it. In English, you have “the” which is the “definite” article and “a” or “an” which is the “indefinite” article. These are used so commonly that it makes some sense to label them separately. Other languages have a much larger complement of articles. A definite article indicates that the following noun phrase is a specific instance of the noun while the indefinite article indicates that the noun phrase is only one instance of a the noun.

interjection. An interjection is simply an emotional outburst that usually stands on its own. It generally ignores any other rules of proper grammar.

Labelling words as a particular part of speech is something of a problem in English. This stems from the fact that much of English is positional rather than inflectional. That is, rather than modifying the word to change its function in a sentence, it can often simply be relocated.  For instance, one could write “a door for a man” in which case it is clear that “man” is a noun. Or, one could use the more common phrase “man door” which means the same thing except that “man” is now serving as an adjective, describing a type of door. To further add confusion, one can “man the pumps” where “man” is now a verb meaning to apply ones own energy to operating the pumps. These are both examples of “zero derivation” in which a word of one type is repurposed to act as another without modifying it in any way. Of course, English also has inflections which are useful in many circumstances. One of the most common is the “-ly” suffix used to convert an adjective into an adverb.

Even though words can usually be labelled as one of the above parts of speech in English, there are cases where that just doesn’t work. Notably, in cases where a verb is multiple words. Let’s consider the example of “go” and “go out”. If you remove “out” from “go out”, you actually change the meaning. The difference is sufficient that “go” and “go out” can be considered distinct verbs. “Out” is not describing “go” in any way but, rather, is part of the verb itself. This is much like “to” in the infinitive form of a verb. Most references I have found seem to agree that “out” in “go out” is an adverb, but my contention is that it is nothing of the sort. That leads to another definition:

particle. A particle is simply a word serving a functional purpose. It may or may not actually behave like a part of speech. The “to” in an infinitive would be a particle. So would the “out” in “go out”. Indeed, one can take the definition to extremes and consider every word that serves as part of a larger unitary construction as a particle. Words that form parts of various verb conjugations, such as “will” or “shall”, while often considered to be verbs, are really particles as well.

There are a few other words I’ve tossed around above that could stand definitions, too.

derivation. This is simply the act of forming a new word from previously existing words by adding affixes or compounding words, or, in the case of zero derivation, simply using the old word as the new one.

conjugation. This is the act of modifying a word for its grammatical function. This is usually used in the context of verbs describing the formation of various verb tenses, voices,  and moods from the base verb form. The conjugation may vary depending on the subject, object, or even sentence position. In some languages, other types of words also conjugate, often adjectives.

mood. This is an obscure term used to describe the context of the action. Such things as “interrogative”, “indicative”, and “infinitive” are all moods. Except to linguists, this term is largely meaningless in English and can be folded into the notion of a “verb tense”.

voice. Grammatically, voice describes the releationship between the verb and its subject and object. If the verb is being done by the subject, this is active voice. If the verb is being done to the subject, this is passive voice.

tense. Strictly speaking, this describes the temporal relationship between the action and the doer. In English, that means past, present, or future. Other languages may have other tenses. In practical terms, mood and tense are often conflated or combined mentally.

inflection. Inflection is simply modification of a base word to fit into a particular function. Examples are verb conjugation and pluralization.

affix. An affix is simply an addition to a base word for some purpose. The addition may be at the start (prefix), in the middle (infix), or the end (suffix). It may even include more than one addition.

suffix. An addition to the end of a word. Generally denoted by a leading hyphen, such as “-ly”.

prefix. An addition to the start of the word. Generally denoted by a trailing hyphen, such as “un-“.

infix. An addition to the middle of a word. Generally denoted by both leading and trailing hyphens.

There are a couple other terms which are likely to come up at some point:

first person. This refers to the speaker or writer. In English, “I”, “me”, “we”, and “us” are all first person.

second person. This refers to another person in proximity to the speaker in some way. This is usually the person being spoken to or the reader. “You” would be second person.

third person. A third person is a person distinct from the speaker or the listener and is often not party to the communication. “he”, “it”, “they”, “them”, etc., are all third person.

singular. This means exactly one, as you would expect. Grammatically, it means the word itself is treated as singular even if it is notionally referring to multiple things. Singular forms are often used to refer to zero as well, depending on context.

plural. This means more than one. It may also refer to zero depending on context.

There will likely be other terms that show up. I will attempt to define those as they do. However, now that we have something of a vocabulary, I can safely proceed with my various ruminations next time.

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