The Particle in English Grammar

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  • 0:01 What Is a Particle?
  • 0:57 What Do Particles Do?
  • 3:27 What Particles Don't Do
  • 4:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Particles are small words, but they make a world of difference in the English language. In this lesson, we'll look at their use and a debate between experts on if they are adverbs or something else entirely.

What Is a Particle?

Chances are you are familiar with the basic parts of speech. Nouns provide something or someone, while verbs provide the action or inaction. Pronouns substitute for nouns and other pronouns, while adjectives modify nouns and pronouns. Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. By the time you throw in conjunctions, prepositions, and interjections, you've got everything just about covered.

In fact, it sort of starts to resemble a fully-formed train, with verbs providing the engine, nouns providing the boxcars, and conjunctions linking it all together. However, you've got to have some people on those train cars to give them purpose and help them along.

In English, we have other words known as particles, which are perhaps best described as those words that don't fit into any of the other parts of speech, but their use is of the utmost importance. In our train example, they are like the people who help the train along.

What Do Particles Do?

Imagine these two sentences: 'Jack cut the limb' and 'Jack cut off the limb.' It's pretty easy to identify the nouns, the articles, and the verbs. But what about that word 'off' in the second sentence? Is it just part of the verb 'cut off?' Well not exactly. 'Off' is, in that example, exactly what I mean by a particle. After all, 'cut' and 'cut off' are essentially two different verbs.

Now, you might be tempted to call these words adverbs; after all, they are modifying the intensity of a verb. However, that subject is still up for some debate by grammarians. The point is that the world 'off' changes a simple carving in a limb into a full-fledged, ax-wielding method of destruction.

Let's look at another example. Let's say that you were playing catch with a friend. The action that you and your friend are doing could be described by this sentence: 'You threw the ball.' It gives a nice image of two friends playing catch. But let's say that things change a little bit. Turns out you're not playing catch with a friend, but about to have a rapping contest with someone you really don't like. Now the sentence that best describes your actions would be: 'You threw down.' However, that example did give me the chance to use the verb 'throw down'. As I don't condone violence, we'll stick with the meaning of 'throw down' that doesn't involve fisticuffs.

Now, while it's very colloquial, that doesn't mean that we can't apply grammar to it. What exactly are you throwing when you 'throw down?' Unless you are particularly violent with the microphone, chances are you're not physically throwing anything to the floor. However, when we put the particle 'down' after the word 'threw,' the meaning of threw changes from launching an object through the air and instead becomes the act of challenging someone to a rapping contest.

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