logo ELT Concourse: a simple, illustrated grammar of English
illustrated grammar

Types of words

There are two types of words in English.

  1. Content words
    When they are alone, these words still have a meaning.  For example:
    house, school, beauty, dislike, begin, jump, happy, sad, important, quickly, now, fortunately
  2. Grammar or function words
    These words mean nothing when they are alone but they make the grammar of the language work.  For example:
    in, out, up, the, a, an, this, that, he, she, them, and, when, but


Content words

There are 4 types of content words in English.

  1. NOUNS
    Nouns are words for things, places, people and feelings.
    things venice
    things: lots of boxes places: Venice in Italy
    lincoln happiness
    people: Abraham Lincoln feelings: happiness
    There are 3 main types.  Here are some examples:
    1. Proper nouns are for people and places:
      is in London
      is very large
      There are lots of countries in The European Union
    2. Mass nouns are for things which do not have a plural:
      milk is expensive here
      sugar is bad for me
      water is very cold
      happiness is important
    3. Count nouns refer to things we can have in the plural and most nouns are in this group:
      I have a pencil and two pens
      my house is here
      dogs are not usually dangerous
      I love
      my country is beautiful
      he's a

You can find out more about nouns in the section on Names for things.

  1. VERBS
    Verbs are words for doing, thinking and being.  There are 5 types of verbs.
    golf think
    doing: play golf thinking: know the answer
    lincoln jug
    being: he was the President primary auxiliary: she has broken the jug
    modal auxiliary: we can meet in the café  
    Here are some examples of the five main types of verbs:
    1. Verbs describing actions, behaviour or feelings:
      the ball
      don't worry
      the glass
      I am watching TV
    2. Verbs describing states and thinking:
      I enjoy walking
      I hope she is here
      hates pasta
      it helps me work
    3. Linking verbs join nouns to nouns and nouns to adjectives and show the connection between things:
      I am in London
      became the manager
      the car
      looks wonderful
      got older
      is a house on the corner
    4. Auxiliary or helping verbs make tenses with other verbs:
      I have broken the jug
      she is working in Berlin
      they got the car repaired
      we don't visit museums
    5. Modal auxiliary verbs show how you feel about other verbs.  They do not stand alone but are always with other verbs:
      we can meet in the café
      she will go later
      they must go
      we used to work harder

You can find out more about verbs in the section on Doing and Being words

    Adjectives change nouns.  We can say a house and we can say a big house.
    one red pea
    Adjectives can come before or after the noun they describe.  For example:
    1. It's a large house with a long garden (adjective before the noun)
    2. The house is nice but the garden is very small (adjective after the noun, joined with a linking verb)
    Adverbs change verbs.  We can say she talked and we can say she talked slowly.
    moving quickly
    Adverbs describe verbs (and can describe adjectives and other adverbs as well).
    There are five types which answer different questions:
    1. How?
      Adverbs of manner:
          He drove quickly
          He walked slowly
          She spoke happily
    2. When?
      Adverbs of time:
          I'll arrive soon
          She left early
          I'm flying tomorrow
    3. Where?
      Adverbs of place:
          Sit here
          Please smoke outside
          Come in
    4. How often?
      Adverbs of frequency:
          She often works at home
          They never take a holiday
      sometimes play cards
    5. How much?
      Adverbs of degree:
          I like it a lot
          They really enjoy their food
          He drove
      very quickly
          She mostly enjoyed the play

In e. we have an example of the use of the adverb very which is unusual because it cannot directly modify a verb.  It modifies adjectives and adverbs only.
You can find out more about adjectives and adverbs in the section on Describing words.

Here is the big picture:


Take a test to see if you have understood content words.


Grammar or Function words

These words mean nothing when they are alone.  They must be part of a sentence for you to understand them.  There are 4 different types of function words.

    These words change how we see a noun.  For example, we can have:
    she has one cat, this cat is pretty, my cat is not very clever, some cats are in the garden, the cat wants food, a cat came into the house, which cat is your cat?
    and the determiners change how we understand the words cat, garden and house.
    Determiners always come in front of the noun and there are 5 types:
    cat cat cat
    the cat is sleeping that cat in the tree  whose cat is that? 
    cat cats
    his cat two big cats
    Here are some examples of the 5 types:
    1. a, an, the
      These are articles and they tell you if you are talking about a special noun or not.  For example:
      a cat came in (this is one cat that I don't know)
      the cat came in (this is a cat I know)
    2. this, that, these, those
      These are demonstratives and they tell me where the cat is.  For example:
      This cat here
      Those cats there
      That cat in the garden
      These cats in the garden
    3. wh-words
      These words make questions:
      Which cat?
      What cats?
      Whose cat?
      Who is that?
    4. my, your, his, her, our, their
      These are possessives and show us who has something.  For example:
      my cat is in the house
      his cat is stupid
      their cats are in the garden
    5. some, many, a few, two, three, ten, a little, lots of, no, several
      These are quantifiers and tell us how much or how many.  For example:
      There are four cats in the house
      Several cats came in
      Many cats are white
      No cats are in the garden
    These are small words which stand for things or people.  There are two types:
    golf nobody
    Personal: she is playing golf Other: nobody is in the restaurant
    Here are some examples:
    1. I, me, you, she, he, it, her, him, we, us, they, them
      These are personal pronouns because they stand for people or things.  The pronoun it stands for one thing only and the pronoun they stands for more than one thing or more than one person.
      For example:
      I want a cat
      She wants it
      We gave them a cat
      Please tell us
    2. something, someone, anything, anyone, some, any, nothing etc.
      These do not stand for a special person or thing.  For example:
      Do you want something?
      I have nothing to eat
      Can I give you some?
      Is anyone at home?
    These words usually tell us when or where.  They join the verb to the noun or pronoun and there are two main types:
    place clock
    Place: in the square Time: at 12:03
    1. Place
      For example:
      He is waiting at the bus stop
      She is sitting in my chair
      They have lunch in the square
      The restaurant is in the corner of the square
    2. Time
      For example:
      He will wait until 6 o'clock
      She came on Sunday
      They left after the film
      The train arrived at the right time
    These words join ideas together.  There are three types:
    link subordinate
    Coordinating Subordinating
    Here are some examples:
    1. Joining (coordinating) two equal ideas
      For example:
      He went to the market and he bought a new hat
      I telephoned but nobody answered
    2. Making one idea depend on another (subordinating)
      For example:
      I came because he asked me
      She will come if she has time
    3. Double (correlating) conjunctions put two ideas together
      For example:
      Both John and Mary came
      Whether he comes or not is important

Here is the big picture:


Take a test to see if you have understood function words.

Now, before you go on, take a longer test to make sure you know about types of words.


Study some more words

Now you can go on to look at each type of word.
Use the menu below to choose what you want to do.

nouns types of noun, plurals, count and mass nouns
verbs types of verbs, tenses and aspects
adjectives types of adjective, adjective position and adjective order
adverbs adverbs and verbs, adverbs and adjectives, adverbs and adverbs
prepositions talking about place and time
conjunctions joining ideas together
modal auxiliary verbs like can, will, may, might etc.