Monday, 4 March 2013

3) Lexical and Grammatical Word Classes

Compound Words

We know, that lexical morphemes carry the main meaning (or significance) of the word it belongs to. The morpheme ‘ready’ in ‘readiness’ carries the meaning of the word, as does ‘bound’ in ‘unbound’, or ‘cran’ in ‘cranberry’. These morphemes, because they carry the lexical meaning, are lexical morphemes.

Grammatical morphemes can become attached to lexical morphemes. The ‘ing’ in ‘singing’ carries no lexical meaning, but it does provide a grammatical context for the lexical morpheme. It tells us that the ‘sing’ is ‘ing’ (as in ‘on-going’). In the same way, the morpheme ‘ely’ in ‘timely’ carries no meaning, but it does turn the noun ‘time’ into a word more frequently used as an adverb. Time the thing becomes the description of an action – as in ‘his intervention was timely’.

Of course, as with so many things in life, these definitions are by no means uncomplicated. For example, if we were to consider the lexical meaning of the words ‘stand’ and ‘under’, then they would be distinctive and straightforward. ‘Stand’, means to be upright, and ‘under’ means to be beneath something. However, when we put these two lexical morphemes together (although technically ‘under’ is actually a preposition), we get the word ‘understand’ which has an entirely different lexical meaning.

The combining of morphemes in order to create a new lexis is known as compounding, and words which are formed by the combination of such morphemes are known as compound words. Compound words do not necessarily have to be the consequence of combining lexical morphemes alone. Certainly, the lexical morphemes ‘earth’ and ‘quake’ combined create ‘earthquake’, but the combination of grammatical morpheme ‘to’ and the lexical morpheme ‘day’ creates ‘today’.

Here is a list of compound words. See if you can identify the lexical and grammatical morphemes:


Whether these compound words are composed of grammatical or lexical morphemes, the compound itself is almost always lexical. ‘Therefore’ is composed of two morphemes which in some ways can both be considered grammatical, but the compound carries a lexical meaning of ‘as a consequence of’.

Word Classes

It is useful to be able to distinguish between lexical and grammatical morphemes, because by doing so we are able to understand that words are constructed using specific mechanisms. Understanding those mechanisms means that we understand more clearly not only how we use words today, but how new words are formed.

If this is true of the morphemes in relation to the construction of words, then is is true also of words in relation to the construction of sentences. This is our next topic: the categorisations of words.

Words are divided into various classes (or 'parts of speech'), each of which has a specific function in relation to creating meaning within sentences. The first and easiest distinction is that between open-class words (or lexical words) and closed-class words (or grammatical words).

Open-class words, or Lexical words

Open-class words, as Leslie Jeffries writes, are “those which contain the main semantic information in a text, and they fall into the four main lexical word classes: noun, verb, adjective and adverb” (Jeffries, 2006, p. 83). Stott and Chapman, in their book Grammar and Writing (2001) define these classes as:

  • Verb: A word or phrase which expresses the action, process or state in the clause (e.g. I’m eating my favourite meal right now; I will go to that football match; I went quietly)

  • Adverb: Single words that modify verbs by adding to their meaning (e.g. The choir sang sweetly). Words or phrases that modify or give extra definition to the verb in terms of place, manner and time (e.g. I’m eating my favourite meal right now; I’m eating my favourite meal in my favourite restaurant), are often referred to as adverbial.

  • Noun: Words that names persons / places / things or abstractions (e.g. Edward, Tanzania, guitar, happiness). In earlier centuries all nouns in the English language were given a capital letter. In German, they still do the same. In English now, only proper nouns are given capital letters.

  • Adjective: Words that modify nouns by adding to their meanings (e.g. That was a long film). Most adjectives have comparative (I’m glad it wasn’t any longer) and Superlative forms (It was the longest film I’ve ever seen).

They classes are referred to as open-class because “they are open-ended and can be added to readily” (Jeffries, 2006, p. 83), but they are also often referred to as lexical words because they carry a lexicial meaning (sometimes they are even referred to as semantic words, for the same reason). Sara Thorne goes on to say:

New words can be added to nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs as they become necessary, developing language to match changes in the society around us. The computer age, for example, has introduced new words like hardware, software, CD-Rom and spreadsheet; the 1980s introduced words like Rambo, kissogram and wimp; the 1990s introduced words like babelicious, alcopop and e-verdict; and the twenty-first century words like bling, chav, sudoko, bluetooth, chuggers (‘charity muggers’), mediatrics (‘media dramatics’ i.e. a story created from nothing), and doorstepping (journalists catching celebrities on their doorsteps to question them about incidents they would prefer not to discuss). Open-class words are often called lexical words and have a clearly definable meaning. (Thorne, 2008. p. 4)

Closed-class words, or Grammatical words

If open-class words tend to change frequently, then closed-class words tend not to change very often. Closed-class or grammatical words (sometimes referred to as function words) have less meaning than open-class or lexical words, but do useful jobs in language. They are the ‘little words’ that act as the glue, or connectors, inside a sentence. Without them, lexical words might still carry meaning but they do not make as much sense.

Grammatical words include articles, prepositions, conjunctions and pronouns.

  • Articles: There are only two articles in English: the definite article, the, and the indefinite article a(n) (Jeffries, 2006. p. 96).

  • Prepositions: Define the relationships that exist between elements. This includes relationships of place (at, on, by, opposite), of direction (towards, past, out, of, to, through), of time (at, before, in, on), of comparison (as, like), of source (from, out of), and of purpose (for) (Thorne, 2008. p. 20). Prepositions are by no means uncomplicated – you will have noticed from this list that the word 'at' can function as both a preposition of place and of time, depending on its contexts.

  • Conjuntions: The function of conjunctions is to link together elements of sentences and phrases. They come in two forms. Co-ordinating conjunctions are words that join two clauses in a sentence, where each clause is of equal importance (i.e., 'and', 'but', 'either', 'or', 'neither', 'nor'). Subordinating conjunctions are words that link sentences where one half is a consequence of the other ('although', 'as', 'because', 'if', 'since', 'that', 'though', 'until', 'where', 'when', 'while', etc.).

  • Pronouns: Pronouns come in two forms. Firstly, the pronoun itself, where words are “used instead of a noun or noun phrase (e.g. it, he, who, theirs)”. Secondly, there is the personal pronoun, in which “[w]ords identify speakers, addressees and others (I, you, she, it, we, they)” (Stott and Shapman, 2001).

What is the significance of word classes?

Note: I am indebted to Dr. Geoffrey Finch for his help with much of this next section, to which I have added some additional notes and material. This means that some parts of this section have doubtless either already appeared in one of Dr. Finch's book, or will imminently do so – but without the details I have been unable to reference them properly.  See here for published works, and buy them all - 'cos they're great.

Word classes are important in the acquisition of language because they enable us to construct sentences with a maximum of economy. Knowing that only a verb can complete the following sentence:


The boy
the dog


or an adverb the one below,

The boy wrote the essay very


means that we don’t have to try out every word in our mental lexicon to see whether it will fit or not.

So classifications of words and grammar enable us to communicate much more efficiently. Not only this, such systems enable us to communicate with much more variety. Humans simply could not memorise a lexicon which contained a different word for every thing they wanted to express. This means that there are only two options – either make do with a limited range of expression, or develop a system which allows for individual words to mean more than one thing. Word classes are part of that very system – as we shall discover more of in a moment.

Bauer, Holmes and Warren (2006) argue that word class systems are like the assembly instructions for language:

Kit-sets for furniture (and other construction toys for older children) generally come with a parts list and a set of instructions. If the parts list of a language is the set of words used by that language, then the grammar is the instruction set. If your build-it-yourself bookcase arrives with a parts list and no instructions, then the construction of a well-formed piece of furniture may be more difficult, if not impossible. If we have a set of words but no grammar then the construction of well-formed sentences is similarly compromised.

The language instruction set is useful not only in constructing sentences, but also in deconstructing them, in understanding what someone is saying to us. And understanding what someone is saying is not just understanding the words they use. Compare, for instance, Tama would like to speak to you and you would like to speak to Tama. These sentences share the same words, and the result of the situation expressed might be the same (i.e. the people referred to as you and Tama get together to talk), but our understanding of these sentences involves not just knowing what each word means but also recognizing how the words, as components of sentences, are combined. After all, Max loves Alice does not mean Alice loves Max. Success in communicating the message depends on speakers and listeners working with the same instruction set. It is this type of shared knowledge which constitutes part at least of what we call grammar. (Bauer, Holmes and Warren, 2006. p. 104)

Problems with classifications

The criteria by which linguists assign words to particular classes, however, are less certain. Most people if asked to say what a verb or a noun are rely on what is called ‘notional’ criteria. These are broadly semantic in origin. They include referring to a verb as a ‘doing word’, i.e. a word that denotes an action of some sort (go, destroy, eat), and a noun as a 'naming word', i.e. one that denotes an entity or thing (car, cat, hill). Similarly, adjectives are said to denote states or qualities (ill, happy, rich), and adverbs, the manner in which something is done (badly, slowly, well).

As a rule of thumb this works reasonably well, but it’s not subtle enough to capture the way in which word classification essentially works. Not all verbs are ‘doing’ words. The verbs ‘to be’, and ‘to have’ clearly aren’t. And neither are all nouns necessarily ‘things’. Nouns such as ‘advice’, and ‘consequence’ are difficult to conceive as entities. We’re forced to call them ‘abstract’ nouns, a recognition that in some way they are not typical. Indeed, notional criteria only work for prototypical class members, but there are many others for which such criteria are not adequate. The word ‘assassination’, for example, seems like a verb since it describes a process or action, but it is in fact a noun.

The Lawlessness of English

The English language is flexible. It has, over the centuries developed from a corruption of Latin - the twisting and changing of ‘proper’ Latin with local jargon and slang. “From at least the time of Shakespeare”, Measham says, “the English language has not been overly hampered by rules” (Measham, 1965. P. 83).

To use an example from Measham - look at these three sentences:

  • Gardening is a good way of getting blisters.
  • I was gardening at the time the wall fell down.
  • I had on my gardening boots.

The word ‘gardening’ appears three times. But does it serve the same function each time?

  • Gardening is a good way of getting blisters
here ‘gardening’ functions as a noun.

  • I was gardening at the time the wall fell down
here ‘gardening’ functions as a verb: it describes an action.

  • I had on my gardening boots
here ‘gardening’ functions as an adjective.

Of course, for native English speakers the meaning of these sentences might appear plain, despite the fact that the same word operates in very different functions. 

So how can we classify words at all?

The only secure way to assign words into word classes is on the basis of how they behave in the language. If a word behaves in a way characteristic of a noun, or a verb, then it’s safe to call it one. This, of course, means recognising that words can belong to more than one class. It also means recognising that words may be more or less noun-like or verb-like in behaviour.

Word classes are similar to family groupings in that some members are more recognisably part of their class than others. Basic to word behaviour are two sets of criteria, namely, the morphological, and the syntactic. Morphological criteria, as we have seen, are concerned with the structure of words. Important here are such processes as inflection. Most verbs will inflect to show tense (show + ed), most nouns to indicate plurality (bat + s), and many adjectives to show the comparative and superlative (fat > fatter > fattest). But there is no one criterion which all words in a particular class will obey. As a consequence, linguists also use syntactic criteria, in particular, the distribution of a word in an individual string. This is the topic we will be considering in my next post: Whereabouts a word can occur in a phrase or sentence is an important indication of its class.

Using the behaviour of individual words as an indication of word class means that our approach is descriptive rather than prescriptive. And we shall also find that, because of the variable character of words, each class will contain within it several sub-classes. So there are sub-classes of nouns, verbs, and so on. And because the different classes have features in common it is possible to cross-classify them into larger groups. Linguists, therefore, differentiate between lexical and grammatical classes. The former contain words which have a meaning outside the context in which they are used, and include nouns, lexical verbs, adjectives and adverbs, whilst the latter consist of words which are only meaningful as part of the syntactic frame for example, prepositions, conjunctions, pronouns and auxiliary verbs.


Jeffries, L. (2006). Discovering Language: The Structure of Modern English. Basingstoke, Palgrave.

Thorne, S. (2008). Mastering Advanced English Language. Basingstoke, Palgrave.

Sott, R. and Chapman, J. (2001). Grammar and Writing. Harlowe, Longman

Measham, D. C. (1965). English Now and Then. Cambridge, Cambridge

Bauer, L., Holmes, J. and Warren, P (2006). Language Matters. Basingstoke, Palgrave

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