One of the folks who responded to my content survey, Abdul in India, was seeking some more information about “linguistic terms and phrases.” It occurred to me that some of you became technical writers by accident (say, by starting as an engineer or scientist) rather than on purpose; and if you had an English class, it was years ago. Fair enough. The content today will cover parts of speech and how they function in your sentences. Thank you to Abdul and the others who have taken the time to complete the survey!
While I highly recommend Schoolhouse Rock or Khan Academy as great starting places for covering the basics, I will provide you here with my own interpretations of the parts of speech and how they operate in general. The exceptions are the things that make new English speakers crazy, and I’m sorry. I cannot cover all of them.
A noun can be a person, place, thing, or idea:
Exxon Mobil Corporation
Nouns are used as the subjects of sentences. Some of them are considered “proper nouns,” meaning that they refer to specific people, places, things, or ideas, and so are capitalized. In technical writing, they are the objects being discussed, described, designed, tested, or built.
Verbs are actions:
…and so forth. They can form in English depending on whether an action is happening now, in the future, or in the past–this is what is meant by verb tense. Verbs also change form if they are being performed by one entity, two, or more (this is called subject-verb agreement). Verbs that describe actions that occur in the present (running, drinking, falling) are called gerunds.
A verb is active if the action being discussed occurs on its own, without any modifiers. Why would you modify a verb? Sometimes you want to discuss an action happening in the past tense. This can be done by using the past-tense form of the verb or by adding a passive form of the verb “to be” before it–also called “passive voice.”
He had run
She had drunk
They have fallen
Notice how the original verb form changed? Irritating, isn’t it? But that’s the English language for you. The end result of using passive grammar is that “to be” becomes the action and the verb becomes what’s called a past participle, basically a weaker form of the verb, indicating that it occurred in the past.
Depending on your audience and context, you might use active or passive voice. When in doubt and when you can, I highly recommend active rather than passive verbs. For one thing, passive verbs are weaker, the remove much of the vital action from a sentence and slow the sentence down by adding words.
Adjectives & Adverbs
Adjectives are words that are used to describe nouns:
If you require more than one adjective to describe something, there is usually an order to which one you should add first. I must admit, I learned this through observation, not specific teaching, so if you’re looking for the specific process, you can go here.
Adverbs are words that are used to describe verbs, with an eye toward explaining how an action was performed. They often end with an “ly” suffix, but not always.
Bottom line for technical writers: you will use few adjectives (unless you’re writing marketing copy) and practically no adverbs.
Prepositional phrases are conditional or locational phrases that explains when or how actions are taking place. Examples of prepositional phrase include:
before the game
under the boardwalk
during the speech
while making coffee
The prepositions in the examples above are after, before, under, during, and while; those are the words that indicate the verb is subject to a condition. The object of the preposition provides that condition: after lunch, before the game, under the boardwalk, etc.
One side effect of prepositional phrases that creates problems for technical writers is that they often place an extra noun between the subject of the sentence and the verb. For example:
The Space Launch System, like other launch vehicles, continues to orbit using its main engines.
As I noted above, the form of the noun performing the action affects the form of its verb. The subject of this sentence is the Space Launch System. However, the noun closest to the verb is vehicles. Does that mean the sentence should read “The Space Launch System, like other launch vehicles, continue to orbit using its main engines”?
The noun that “controls” the verb form is the subject of the sentence. The other launch vehicles mentioned are merely adding to the context of the verb. In a situation like this, it might be better to remove the words between the subject and the verb to prevent confusion, like so:
The Space Launch System continues to orbit using its main engines, like other launch vehicles.
Another interesting and infuriating part about English is that the position of the preposition in a sentence can change the order of operations, so if you have multiple conditions determining when an action is to be performed, you might be better off breaking the sentence into smaller sentences first.
However many prepositions you lard onto a sentence, the primary subject of a sentence determines the form of the verb you will use, not all the prepositional phrases in between.
Just for fun, if you want an absurd example of how multiple prepositions can be used in a sentence, you might consider this brief section of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life…but please, don’t use this in your documents!
In addition to objects of prepositions, there are verb objects or objects of sentences. These are nouns that the subject of the sentence is acting upon. Examples italicized below:
I moved the magnet.
Baez hit a home run.
The rocket leaves Earth.
This is what’s known in English-major terms as a “subject-verb-object (SVO)” construction, and for whatever reason it’s usually the easiest sentence structure for English speakers to understand. The subjects in the examples are I, Baez, and the rocket. The verbs are moved, hit, and leaves. The objects of the sentences are magnet, home run, and Earth. In all of these cases, the object of the sentence is being acted upon by the initial subject/noun and its verb.
Articles are little words that help English readers determine which specific noun is acting or being acted upon in a sentence. They include words like a, an, and the, as well as possessive words such as his, hers, or their. In sentences, they appear as follows:
A bird flew overhead (not a specific bird)
The bird made a mess on my new paint job (as opposed to the cat, the dog, or some other animal)
that bird crashed into my windshield (a specific bird, as opposed to others that might be in the area)
I made a nest for her bird (as opposed to someone else’s)
Again, the point of articles is to help the reader determine which noun is being used if there are other nouns in the vicinity that might make the sentence unclear.
I hope this is helpful!