Word and Word Classes

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Lecture 1

1 Words and word classes

In grammar, we first need to identify the types of grammatical units, such as words and phrases, before describing the internal structure of these units, and how they combine to form larger units. Grammatical units are meaningful elements which combine with each other in a structural pattern. Essentially, grammar is the system which organizes and controls these form - meaning relationships.

The types of grammatical units can be graded according to size of unit, as shown below:


1. sentence: If I wash up all this stuff somebody else can dry it.

2. clauses: If I wash up all this stuff / somebody else can dry it.

3. phrases: if / I / wash up / all this stuff / somebody else / can dry it.

4. words: If / I / wash / up / all / this / stuff / somebody / else / can / dry / it.

5. morphemes: If / I / wash / up / all / this / stuff / some / body / else / can / dry / it.

In the simplest cases, a unit consists of one or more elements on the level below:

• A clause consists of one or more phrases.

• A phrase consists of one or more words.

• A word consists of one or more morphemes.

Morphemes are parts of words, i.e. stems, prefixes, and suffixes. For example, un + friend + ly contains three morphemes: a prefix un-, a stem friend and a suffix -ly. The part of grammar dealing with morphemes is morphology. The part of grammar dealing with the other types of grammatical units shown above (i.e. words, phrases, clauses, and sentences) is known as syntax.

Grammatical units can be combined to form longer written texts or spoken interaction, which is known as discourse. At the other extreme, language can be analyzed in terms of its phonemes (the individual sounds which make up the language) and graphemes (the written symbols we use to communicate in language). These are the smallest units of speech and writing, respectively.

In this course of lectures we focus mainly on the three central types of unit: word, phrase, and clause. (Note: in some grammars, the word 'sentence' is used in a sense close to 'clause' in this course.)

In general, grammatical units are described in terms of four factors: their structure, their syntactic role, their meaning, and the way they are used in discourse.

A Structure

Units can be described in terms of their internal structure: e.g. words in terms of bases and affixes, phrases in terms of heads and modifiers, and clauses in terms of clause elements.

B Role

Units can be described in terms of their syntactic role. For example, a phrase can have the syntactic role of object in a clause:

In November, Susie won those tickets.

In this example, Susie is the subject, in November is an adverbial.

C Meaning

Units can be described in terms of meaning. For example, adverbs (a class of words) can express information about time, place, and manner.

D Use (or discourse function)

Units can be further described in terms of how they behave in discourse. This can include their use in different registers, their frequency in those registers, and the factors which influence their use in speech or in written texts. For example, pronouns like it and they are often used to refer back to things mentioned earlier in the same discourse:

Isn't Cindy coming? Did she call you?

Such pronouns are more common in speech than in written texts.

1.1 What are words?

Words are generally considered to be the basic elements of language. They clearly show up in writing, and they are the items defined in dictionaries. Yet the definition of 'word' is not simple.

Words are relatively fixed in their internal form, but they are independent in their role in larger units. For example, insertions can usually be made between words but not within words:

There were two bikes against the wall.

There were two (large new) bikes (standing) against the (side) wall.

Notice how, in the above example, it is possible to insert words between other words to form a longer sentence without losing clarity of meaning. On the other hand, we could not easily interrupt a word, by inserting another word or morpheme inside it, as in *pedal-(new)-bins.

1.2 Different senses of the word 'word'

The notion of 'word' is complex, and so it is useful to identify a number of slightly different senses of 'word’:

• Orthographic words: These are the words that we are familiar within written language, where they are separated by spaces. For example, They wrote us a letter contains five distinct orthographic words.

• Grammatical words: A word falls into one grammatical word class (or 'part of speech') or another. Thus the orthographic word leaves can be either of two grammatical words: a verb (the present tense -s form of leave) or a noun (the plural of leaf). This is the basic sense of 'word' for grammatical purposes.

• Lexemes: This is a set of grammatical words which share the same basic meaning, similar forms, and the same word class. For example, leave, leaves, left, and leaving are all members of the verb lexeme leave. This is the meaning of 'word' that is employed in dictionaries.


Biber D., Conrad S., Leech G. (2002) Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English, Longman

Downing A (2006) English Grammar. A University Course, Routledge

Greenbaum S., Quirk R. (1990) A Student’s Grammar of the English Language, Longman

Huddleston R., Pullum G., et al. (2002) The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, CUP,

Leech G. (1989) An A – Z of English Grammar and Usage, Nelson,

Quirk, R., Greenbaum S., Leech G., Svartvik J. (1972) A Grammar of Contemporary English, Longman

Celce-Murcia M., Larsen-Freeman D. (1999) The Grammar Book, Heinle and Heinle

Vereş G., Cehan A., Andriescu I. (1998) A Dictionary of English Grammar, Polirom

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