Grammar Review Part 2

Word Functions

Now that you've re-familiarized yourself with the various parts of speech, we need to discuss the ways in which these parts are put together to make meaningful sentences.

When we speak or write, we don't just put the words down on the page at random: dog cat towards ran quickly brown black.

We organize them in certain ways to convey meaning: The brown dog ran quickly towards the black cat.


The rules by which we arrange words to convey meaning are called syntax.


Different words, depending on where they are in the sentence, or what endings we attach to them, perform different functions in a sentence. Simplified for the purpose of this grammar, these functions are:


  • Subjects: The subject is the "doer" or "actor." In the sentence "Alfred ate the cakes," "Alfred" is the subject.


  • Verbs: The verb is the action being done. In the sentence "Alfred ate the cakes," "ate" is the verb.


  • Direct Objects: The direct object the receiver of the action. In the sentence "Alfred ate the cakes," "cakes" is the direct object."


  • Indirect Objects: The indirect object is the secondary receiver of the action. In the sentence "Alfred carried the sword to the battle," "battle" is the indirect object (and "sword," which is receiving the action, is the direct object). Indirect objects are often called "objects of prepositions" because in Modern English we use prepositions to indicate the sort of action being secondarily received: in the phrases "to the battle," "with the sword," "under the thorn tree," "by the river" "battle," "sword," "tree," and "river" are the objects of their respective prepositions.


  • Modifiers: Modifiers describe subjects, verbs and objects. Adjectives describe subjects and objects; adverbs describe verbs. In the sentence "Alfred quickly killed the viking with his old sword," "quickly" is an adverb that modifies "killed" (it explains how the killing was done) and "old" is an adjective the modifies "sword," (it describes the condition of the sword). In Old English certain pronouns (demonstratives) are used as modifiers: In the sentence "this sword belongs to that man," both "this" describes the sword and "that" describes the man. Likewise "a," "an," and "the," which we call "articles" in Modern English, are, in Old Englsh grammar, special pronouns (demonstratives) that are used as modifiers: "The sword" is different from "a sword" because the modifiers "the" and "a" are providing different descriptions.

    The Genitives are an important sub-set of modifiers in Old English. Genitives are possessives: they indicate ownership. A noun with a genitive ending, like the Modern English 's, is used as an adjective to modify another noun. In the sentence "Alfred's sword was old," "Alfred's" is a genitive: a noun (Alfred) has had the genitive ending ('s) added to it. A good rule of thumb for dealing with the genitive is to translate it as "of X" where "X" is the noun that has the genitive ending. Thus "Alfred's sword" could be translated as "the sword of Alfred."


  • Function Words: What we are calling "function words" are prepositions and conjunctions that don't mean anything in themselves but serve to indicate the ways other words relate to each other. Prepositions indicate relationships, and conjunctions join things together. In the sentences "Alfred fought with the vikings and won the battle by the thorn tree," "with" and "by" are prepositions that indicate relationships (where the battle was fought and whom it was fought against) and "and" indicates that two parts of the sentence are joined together.


    The above description of word functions is radically simplified, but it should be enough to explain the concepts in the grammar and get you translating Old English as soon as possible. The important point to remember is that we will need to use certain orders of words or put certain endings on words in order to indicate what roles they are playing in a sentence. We will go over these concepts in more detail in the following sections, but first take a few moments to practice identifying the word functions in the exercises.


    Click here for some exercises to practice recognizing the parts of speech.