Word Classes in English

Lesson 2.1 Word Classes in English

Word Classes in English

2.1.1   All of the words in the English language are divided into two groups:

  • content words
  • function words

2.1.2  A content word is any word that has an individual meaning on its own, outside of a sentence. The following word classes (groups) are all content words:

nouns   e.g. car, biscuit, lake

main verbs   e.g. go, eat, take (but not ‘be’)

phrasal verbs   e.g. pick up, wake up

negative auxiliary verbs   e.g. don’t, didn’t, haven’t

adjectives   e.g. big, small, happy

adverbs   e.g. usually, strongly, tomorrow

numbers   e.g. one, two, twenty

wh- question words   e.g. what, where, who

interjections   e.g. Hi!

proper nouns   e.g. Canada, Pepsi, John

Each content word has one strong-stressed syllable, e.g. tomorrow.

2.1.3  A function word is a short, unstressed grammar word that doesn’t have an individual meaning on its own, outside of a sentence. Function words are the ‘glue’ or ‘cement’ of the sentence, which keep the content words in place. Function words are usually:

auxiliary verbs   e.g. have, do, will, can

pronouns   e.g. she, they, him

possessive adjectives   e.g. my, your, her

Note: negative forms of auxiliary verbs have stress. (See above.)

prepositions   e.g. to, for, in, on, etc.

conjunctions   e.g. and, but, because

articles  a, an , the (there are only 3 articles)

determiners   e.g. some, many, a few

Verb ‘be’ is also a function word – even when used as a main verb.

Function words are not usually stressed, unless they come at the end of a sentence or special emphasis is required, e.g.

  • at the end of a sentence: ‘What did you do that for?’
  • without stress = normal statement: ‘John said that his sister was a dentist.’
  • with stress and extra emphasis: ‘John said that his sister was a dentist.’ John emphasises that is it his sister, not somebody else’s, who is a dentist.

2.1.4  Let’s look at a few of the most common word classes in more detail:

Adjectives are describing words. We use them to describe nouns (things). For example: the tall building / an interesting novel / a short conversation / a new year, etc.

Adverbs describe the verb in a sentence – the action, how something is being done. For example, ‘Maria spoke loudly’. In this sentence, ‘spoke’ is the verb/action and ‘loudly’ describes how the verb/action was done.

Conjunctions are words that link together clauses and phrases in a sentence. Words like: ‘and’, ‘because’, ‘but’, ‘or’, and ‘so’. For example: ‘I didn’t enjoy watching all the rubbish on television, so I gave away my set to a local school and cancelled my TV licence.’

A determiner is a word that goes before a noun to give further information about that noun. For example, in the phrase ‘some eggs’, ‘some’ is a determiner which matches the plural noun ‘eggs’. We know from the plural determiner ‘some’ and the plural ‘s’ at the end of ‘egg’ that there is more than one ‘egg’. Other common determiners include: articles (‘the egg’, ‘an egg’), possessive determiners (‘my egg’, ‘her egg’), question words (‘which eggs?’, ‘whose eggs?’) and quantity words (‘many eggs’, ‘more eggs’).

Nouns are things. There are lots of different kinds of nouns:

Common nouns are everyday things which we can see and touch (like ‘table’, ‘chair’, ‘coat’ and ‘swimming pool’).

Proper nouns are words which always start with a capital letter, like the names of people, places, companies, days and months (for example: ‘Eric Morrison’, ‘Birmingham’, ‘The Forth Bridge’, ‘The Royal Shakespeare Company’, ‘Monday’ and ‘February’).

Abstract nouns are things that we can’t see or touch but are there all the same. They describe things like feelings (‘happiness’ and ‘love’), qualities (‘loyalty’ and ‘weakness’) or concepts (‘democracy’ and ‘peace’).

Countable nouns (also known as ‘count nouns’) are things which have plural forms – i.e. they can be counted using numbers. For example: ‘one bag, two bags’, or ‘one mobile phone, two mobile phones’.

Uncountable nouns (also known as ‘non-count nouns’) are things which are not separate items and cannot be counted. We don’t know how many of them there are. For example: ‘bread’, ‘A slice of bread’ or ‘Some bread’ not ‘a bread’ or ‘two breads’.

A preposition is a word that describes where something is. For example, ‘in the kitchen’, ‘under the stairs’, ‘on the table’ and ‘opposite the bank’.

Personal subject pronouns are words which go before a verb to replace nouns (the name of somebody or something). For example, instead of saying ‘Robbie said…’ you could use the personal subject pronoun ‘he’ to make: ‘He said…’, or instead of saying ‘The university library was closed’ you could use the personal subject pronoun ‘it’ to make: ‘It was closed’. We use these words in place of nouns when it is clear what or who you are talking about. The personal subject pronouns in English are: I, you, he, she, it, we, and they.

Possessive adjectives – my, your, his, her, its, our and their – are words that give us information about who owns what, for example: ‘This is my banana and that’s your coconut’.

Verbs are action words, or doing words. They tell us what somebody or something is doing in a sentence. For example, in the sentence ‘John washed his car’, ‘washed’ is the verb, or action, John is the person doing the action (the subject), and ‘his car’ is the thing that is having the action done to it (the object). Verbs can be regular and irregular. Most verbs are regular, which means that they all follow the same rules, for example when forming the past tense all regular verbs end with ‘ed’ (‘walk’ becomes ‘walked’ and ‘play’ becomes ‘played’, and so on). However, some very common verbs are irregular, which means they don’t follow the same rules as regular verbs and you just have to learn their forms separately. Common irregular verbs are: ‘to be’, ‘to do’, ‘to have’ and ‘to go’. These four verbs are also the most common auxiliary verbs. Auxiliary verbs are helping verbs: they help a main verb to form a verb phrase. In this sentence: ‘Rick and Jessica are teaching their daughter to swim’, ‘are’ is an auxiliary verb (from verb ‘to be’) which helps the main verb ‘teaching’ (from verb ‘to teach’).


Ex. 2.1.1 Reading  Look at the 100 most common words in written English on this handout: 100-most-common-words-in-written-english. Check that you know all of these words. Notice how many of them are function words. See also the Dolch word list here: dolch-basic-sight-vocabulary-handout.

Ex. 2.1.2 Writing  Look at the exercises on this handout: content-words-and-function-words. Translate the name of each word class into your first language and learn them, then write five more examples (where possible) of each word class.

Ex. 2.1.3 Writing  a) Write the words in the correct boxes. b) Add 4 more words in each box:


Ex. 2.1.4 Reading  Match the word classes and their position in a sentence:


Ex. 2.1.5 Reading  Using a dictionary where necessary, read the sentence and write the word class of each word:


Ex. 2.1.6 Reading  Do the same for the following sentences:

  1. I flew from Heathrow to Copenhagen last night.
  2. Oliver was crossing the road by the museum.
  3. All passengers must show their boarding passes.
  4. If we cycle to work we will arrive quickly.

Ex. 2.1.7 Writing  Using a dictionary where necessary, complete the gaps:


  1. A 5-letter main verb beginning with… e __________________________________
  2. A 2-letter preposition beginning with… i __________________________________
  3. A 4-letter wh- question beginning with… w __________________________________
  4. A 3-letter common noun beginning with… j __________________________________
  5. A 4-letter adjective beginning with… r __________________________________
  6. A 5-letter proper noun beginning with… C _________________________________
  7. A 5-letter auxiliary verb beginning with… d __________________________________
  8. A 9-letter ordinal number beginning with… t __________________________________
  9. A 6-letter phrasal verb beginning with… w _________________ u _______________
  10. A 2-letter interjection beginning with… h __________________________________
  11. A 4-letter pronoun beginning with… t __________________________________
  12. A 6-letter adverb beginning with… n __________________________________
  13. A 4-letter possessive adjective beginning with… y __________________________________
  14. A 7-letter conjunction beginning with… b __________________________________
  15. A 2-letter article beginning with… a __________________________________
  16. A 4-letter determiner beginning with… s __________________________________
  17. A 5-letter common noun beginning with… b __________________________________
  18. A 9-letter adjective beginning with… b __________________________________
  19. A 6-letter main verb beginning with… s __________________________________
  20. A 2-letter preposition beginning with… a __________________________________