Back to basics!

By bogotapost April 3, 2015
English Grammar


In the second part of his back-to-basics series, Oliver Pritchard takes a look at word types: nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs. Avoid making mistakes by understanding how to spot them and how to use them

“I have heat” is a classic error made by Spanish-speaking students. In English, we would express this as “I am hot”. There seem to be two reasons for this error: firstly, Spanish sometimes uses different structures than English. Secondly, many students don’t have a complete understanding of Spanish grammar (the same as many English native speakers).

Not understanding your own grammar rarely creates problems, because you speak it as a first language and so ‘edit out’ errors much quicker. Until, that is, you come to study a second language and it becomes useful to know the basic grammar rules.

Having a better understanding of which types of words to use at which times will make your English a lot better. Remember that the word types are basically the same in Spanish as in English.

Words come in ‘families’, which means you can increase your vocabulary very quickly. Let’s look at that word: quickly. It’s an adverb, describing the verb “make”. Quick is the adjective, but since we are describing a verb, we need to use an adverb, so we add -ly to the adjective. Just like that, we have a new word!

Without going into too much detail, this article will look at four families of words, using “know” and “write” as primary examples. You will see that usually, the base word is a verb, but not always.

Verbs (verbos)

Often called action words, verbs can also describe states. Such as: go, be, see, do, run, buy, read, eat, confuse…

Verbs often have to in front of them: To know; to write.

It’s important to note that verbs are our primary way of describing how and what we do. This means that they are difficult to translate from one language to another, as they often have many meanings depending on context. For example, tomar and “take” are both flexible words but in different ways. Another example could be quedar and hacer, both of which are very flexible in Spanish and difficult to directly translate as a single verb in English.

It’s important to study and check which verbs can be used as nouns, for example “a sleep” is OK, but “a play” has a different meaning and you should use “a game” instead. Also, when describing a verb as the subject of a sentence, you should use the gerund or -ing form eg. Cycling is fun.

Nouns (sustantivos)

Nouns are things, places, people or ideas – basically something that can be named. Such as: Bogotá, pen, elephant, cyclist, antidisestablishmentarianism, terror, terrorist, relaxation…

Common noun endings are:

 -er; -or; -ist for people: writer, journalist

-tion; -edge for things: question, knowledge

Nouns usually work as subjects and/or objects in basic sentences. David kicked the ball. Remember that in English we don’t normally use adjectives as nouns. Therefore, you cannot say “the olds” for “los viejos”.

Some nouns have become verbs, a process is known as verbing. This is often criticised by native speakers, who don’t know that it actually started with Shakespeare. A recent example is the verb to google and an older example, to pleasure.

Adjectives (adjetivos)

Words that describe nouns (see above). Such as: blue, good, big, fantastic, delicious, communist, beautiful…

Common adjective endings are:

–en; –al; -ious; -ist; -ful; –able: written, knowledgeable

The correct word order puts adjectives before the noun they describe. A scary dog. Also, they can come after the verb ‘to be’, just like in Spanish. The dog is scary.

The most important thing to note about adjectives in English is that they are more common than in Spanish. There are also some common errors in the usage of adjectives:

“I have 24” instead of “I am 24”

Here, there is a difference in the language: we use an adjective where Spanish uses tener+noun. Other examples of this include hot, cold, sleepy, hungry and thirsty.

“I am confuse” instead of “It confuses me” or “I am confused”

This error occurs because Spanish prefers a verb phrase. It’s possible to do this in English “it confuses (third person ‘s’) me”, but it is more commonly used as an adjective structure “I am confused”.

Another mistake happens with -ed and -ing. It’s actually quite simple: -ed adjectives are passive and describe your state, -ing adjectives are active and express what you are doing. Remember, -ed adjectives have the same form as the passive voice (participle) and -ing the same as the present continuous; what you are doing. Eg “I am bored” (state), but “The class is boring”.

Adverbs (adverbios)

As the name suggests, these are like adjectives, but for verbs instead of nouns. They can also be used to describe adjectives. There are also lots of other adverbs that describe things like time and frequency. Such as: quickly, cheerfully, promptly…

The most common sign of an adverb is –ly: knowledgeably. This is almost exactly the same as -mente in Spanish. However, remember that there are a lot of adverbs that follow different rules: they don’t all end in –ly, and not everything that ends in –ly is an adverb.

It’s very common for students to make the mistake of using an adjective for an adverb, for example “I speak English good” instead of “I speak English well”. Avoid these mistakes by trying to remember which words take -mente in Spanish and by thinking about what you are describing, not just that you are describing something.

So, there you go: a review of the basics. Hopefully, it will help you to write quickly, speak well and google less.

By Oli Pritchard