Sunday, August 24, 2008

Particles of Grammar

I was considering tag questions, today, and wondering how they would be classed in terms of the parts of speech. Much to my surprise, I discovered that linguists consider them to be particles. Naturally, I had to learn more.

Grammarians identify uninflected words that explain the grammatical purpose of other words. The lack of inflection sets particles apart from other parts of speech. They lack the ability to indicate number, gender, tense, or person. Thus "the" operates as a particle while "an" does not. The latter modifies only a singular word or phrase, such as "an open house".

Tag questions are a more interesting subset of grammar particles. They exist as additions to a declarative sentence, either to flip its meaning from positive to negative, or vice versa, or to add a fillip of sarcasm. "You'd like waffles for breakfast, wouldn't you?" "You'd like waffles for breakfast, would you?" The former hints to the addressee that he or she would, indeed, like some waffles. The latter implies that asking for waffles is a bit much, and that perhaps cold cereal would have been a more reasonable request.

I'll be posting more about particles in the future, as I'm not yet clear on the difference between an article and a particle, outside of the additional letter p. If you've got questions or insight to share, I'd welcome it, wouldn't I?