Which Part of Speech Makes Up Most of the English Language?

4 Min read

Toolbox, Parts of Speech

1 Book rec, grammar guide

Word nerd alert

Ages 9 to 99

*

Let’s talk about the parts of speech.

As for the seven words in that sentence, the first two– let’s talk–are a sort of conundrum. They’re not spoken at all, though I am saying them in my head. As are you, since you are probably not reading this out loud. I welcome you to do so, to hear the words as you read them, to share such an arrangement of grouped, pixelated characters on a screen with others. It would be an honor. Back to the phrase, parts of speech.

“The parts of speech as units, are ipso facto, the parts of sentences.” Nice, right? I lifted that from a grammar guide slightly older than I am.

If you stop for a moment as you read this, it is fair to say there is no speech involved with the first two words (let’s talk) or the last (speech), as in outright speaking. Words as you read them are spoken in your head. Spoken-In-Your-Head. I learned this from Erich Jarvis.*

His work is fascinating, but back to the parts of speech. There are eight parts of speech and they are covered at length in John B Opdycke’s 1965 Harper’s English Grammar. It’s a seductive little volume in its simplicity, set up in two parts. PART ONE has 218 pages on the parts of speech and PART TWO has 54 pages on the parts of sentences. I’ve read the introductions for both PARTS and found myself culling the corpus of the English language online (well, sites where others have done so, that is) in the wee hours of one sleepless morning, mining the use of words. And, I wanted to share what I learned.

My copy of John Opdycke’s grammar guide and notes on words in common use by part of speech

Have you ever wondered about the heirarchy of the parts of speech? You know them like you know the back of your hand. You could pick your hand out in a line-up of hands, but you don’t give it much thought since they’re part of you. Parts of speech are the same — you use them all the time, but you may not know the names. Anyway. Here are the eight parts of speech in order, according to Harper and Row. I begrudgingly agree that the order makes sense.

  1. Noun
  2. Pronoun
  3. Adjective
  4. Verb
  5. Adverb
  6. Preposition
  7. Conjunction
  8. Interjection

But why care? We care because without these, the evolved use of language, we could not write, talk, read, think and reason. Why is NOUN first in the order? INTERJECTION last? The question of the hour:

Which part of speech makes up most of the English language?

Here’s what I learned on that sleepless morning. The answer is NOT pronoun because there are roughly only 100 pronouns. If you’re extrapolating as I did, then you will know that it is NOT conjunction either because there are roughly only 100 conjunctions. Now you’re getting it. You reason that it’s NOT preposition, since there are roughly only 150 of those handy buggers.

It must be NOUN. That’s the answer and that’s what makes up most of the language. So, HOW MUCH of the language is made up of nouns?

NOUNS make up half the English language. Things, the names of stuff, common and proper. Nouns are made of stuff, ideas, substantives, concrete and abstract.

NOUNS and VERBS are the most imporant parts of speech. For the most part, nouns and pronouns (these are noun substitutes such as she, he, they) precede words used as predicates, or verbs. These two–NOUN and VERB–are used for almost all talk and writing, concerned primarily with names and actions and conditions. In order to express thought then, “more nouns and verbs than other parts of speech have therefore been evolved in the language.”

By order then, nouns come first and then secondly come pronouns which refer back to nouns. ADJECTIVES modify nouns, so that is grouped with them as third. Then VERBS come next for actions with adverbs which modify them. Last three are based on general number and function. There are more PREPOSITIONS than CONJUNCTIONS and both are connective. Last is INTERJECTION with the least signficance because this part of speech requires the least exposition and may stand alone. As a rule, it is last to be considered. Ah.

My notes in summary:

  • Noun — half of the words in common use
  • Pronoun — roughly 100
  • Adjective — quarter of the words in common use; modifies nouns
  • Verb — about 1/7 of the words in common use
  • Adverb – modifies verbs
  • Preposition — about 150 or so
  • Conjunction – just over a 100
  • Interjection – standalones

Acoording to the Oxford English Dictionary, there are 171,476 words in current use. Native English speakers know on average 20,000 words. Grammar is not as important as it was in the curriculum when grammar school meant students learned to diagram sentences. Grammar is the machinery of a sentence, its mechanics. Understanding the parts of speech or sentences helps with expressing thought and communicating with clarity.

Speech rather than writing decides usage for the most part, according to Opdycke. Speech comes first.

*

FOOTNOTES

*ipso facto – by that very fact or act; an inevitable result. I love this Latin phrase though George Orwell would scold its use in No. 5 of his rules for writing. The phrase is fun and well employed by Opdycke. Orwell’s Rule 5: Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

*I learned this from Erich Jarvis on vocal learning. A brilliant professor with his PhD in animal behavior and molecular neurobehavior, he studies birds, animals and vocal learning. In this podcast–which may or may not be the one I listened to, sorry–he argues that there is a particular circuit in the brains of parrots for vocal learning and that is corresponds to similar circuits in the human brain. This has implications for the development of intelligence and other important human characteristics.

*Ellen Asklov, Does Your Vocabulary Size Matter? (Babbel.com, August 27, 2019). Excerpt: “Adults who are native English speakers tend to have a vocabulary of 15,000 to 30,000 words, depending on who you ask and what you mean by vocabulary. The team behind Test Your Vocab has collected data from nearly 10 million (!) participants testing their vocabulary on their site and has found the most common range for adult test-takers to be between 20,000 and 35,000 words. In addition, the average 8-year old knows 10,000 words, and the median vocab size for a 40-year old is 30,000 words, with some people in their middle age ranging up to 38,000. Vocabulary seems to stops growing after 50 years of age. According to the same data, 4,500 words is the most common vocabulary size for non-native English test-takers. However, if they live abroad, they can score well over 10,000. When living in an English-speaking country, non-natives acquire 2.5 new words per day!”

Dec 9, 2022

2 Comments

  1. CrAig O’Connnor

    You went to West Point, Ipso Facto, you’re pretty damn smart!
    Enjoyed this and wish more people would study grammar and learn how sentences are properly formed. I learned through diagraming and if something doesn’t sound right or I’m questioning a word, I always diagram it to make it correct!

    Reply
    • mylinhshattan

      Love this, Craig! Thank you for writing and reading THL. I learned a lot about English by studing Latin and students tell me they learn more grammar by stuyding foreign languages. Go figure. Stay warm and Merry Christmas!

      Reply

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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