Conlang/Advanced/Grammar/Government/Parts of speech

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Parts of speech

Constituency, trees, rules

Parts of Speech[edit]

Sentences, as we all know, are made up of words. But not all words are alike; some words represent objects, some represent actions, etc. What a word represents — its part of speech or syntactic category — plays a significant role in its behavior in a language’s syntax. We can identify two major categories of words. Lexical parts of speech convey whole meanings in themselves, and consist of categories like noun and verb. Functional parts of speech, on the other hand, show relationships between words, or provide extra meaning to words, and include categories like preposition and conjunction.


The lexical parts of speech can be divided into the four major categories of nouns (N), verbs (V), adjectives (Adj), and adverbs (Adv). These categories aren’t necessarily universal, and what distinguishes them from one another is a matter of how they behave. Identifying a word as noun or verb is done by looking at what it does: a word is a noun because it behaves like a noun, etc. These particular categories are specific to English and many Indo-European languages, and because this tutorial is in English, and will focus primarily on English syntax, these are the categories that’ll be used.


The typical way of describing what nouns are, in informal or grade school English grammar, is “person, place, or thing”. Nouns can also be emotions, colors, abstract concepts, etc. Nouns can often have quantity, specificity, properties as shown by adjectives, roles in an action, etc.


Verbs are usually actions, involving some change, or states of being, involving one manner of being vs. another. They often can be described as having tense (when it occurred), aspect (how it occurred through time), manner as shown by adverbs, participants as shown by nouns and other phrases, etc.


Adjectives describe qualities of nouns. They can represent colors, shapes, or more abstract qualities like true, honest, or absurd. Adjectives themselves can have quality or manner, described by adverbs.


Adverbs describe qualities of non-nouns, i.e. verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. They’re perhaps the most abstract of the lexical categories. For example, quickly is an adverb that describes the speed of a verb, but there’s no quality of quickness in an action that can be measured, it’s a very abstract and relative notion compared to a quality such as red. Adverbs like very are even more abstract.


Functional categories are even harder to conceptualize than the most abstract adverbs. They convey things like tense, ability, permission, and aspect of verbs, relationships between phrases, specificity of nouns, etc. Some common functional categories in English are prepositions (P), determiners (D), conjunctions (Conj), complementizers (C), tenses (T), and negation (Neg).


Features are abstract semantic properties that can be used to describe words. Some, such as purality, are not as abstract as others, such as modality. They tend to be extra information about a word that’s relevant to the structure of the sentence, governing the relationship between the word and other words around it. Features are generally written between brackets. Having a feature is indicated by prepended “+” to the feature, lacking it is indicated by prepending “–”. Multiple features are separated by commas.

Some examples of features:

  • [+plural]
  • [–definite]
  • [+past,+inchoative]
  • [+Q,–WH]

In the advanced tutorial we’ll see how features themselves can be indicated lexically, and how features can exist in certain places and affect the behavior of words in a sentence to convey certain meanings.

In looking at how various types of words behave, we find that they end up dividing into various classes that govern how they can be placed in a sentence. In some languages these subcategories can be overtly marked on the words (Spanish, for instance, has overtly marked gender subcategories, which governs verb agreement), while in others the subcategories are covert and don’t show any markings of the subcategory they belong to.

In English, nouns can be divided into two categories, count nouns, which represent individual countable items, and mass nouns, which represent uncountable things or substances. Count nouns require an indication of number, while mass nouns don’t:

  • *Dog bit the man.
  • A dog bit the man.
  • The dog bit the man.
  • Dogs bit the man.

Count nouns can also be used only with certain quantifiers, while mass nouns certain others:

  • many cats
  • *much cats
  • much water
  • *many water

If we want to label these nouns for subcategory, we can do so with features. For instance, the distinction between count and mass nouns can be marked with the feature [±count]:

  • dog[+count]
  • cat[+count]
  • water[-count]

Verb Subcategories[edit]

We can also look at some subcategories of verbs in English. By examining the number of arguments a verb takes, and where they’re positioned in the sentence, we can find some useful properties of verbs.

Just by looking at the number of arguments a verb takes (its valency) we find three kinds of verbs in English. Intransitive verbs take only one argument, the subject, transitive verbs take two arguments, the subject and the direct object, and ditransitive verbs take three arguments, the subject, the direct object, and the indirect object. Some verbs seem to have optional transitivity, such as the verb “drive”: You can say “I drive.” but you can also say “I drive a car.”. In these situations we can say that there are actually two verbs with different valency.

Verbs can also require certain things in certain places relative to them in the sentence. Intransitive verbs require their argument before them. We can indicate this with a feature such as [NP __], with the underscore representing the position of the verb and with NP representing a Noun Phrase. Transitive verbs require an argument before them and after them, and this can be indicated by the feature [NP __ NP] or [NP __ {NP/CP}] (CP for Complement Phrase). The curly braces enclose alternate options, separated by slashes. We say that the object of some transitive verbs can be either an NP or a CP because we have examples like “I said nothing.”, as well as “I said that the pie was tasty.”. Ditransitive verbs can be described with yet another feature.

Here’s an example table of English verb subcategories, with their matching features, and with examples:

Verb Subcategories
Subcategory Example
Intransitive: V[NP __] Leave
Transitive Type 1: V[NP __ NP] Hit
Transitive Type 2: V[NP __ {NP/CP}] Ask
Ditransitive Type 1: V[NP __ NP NP] Spare
Ditransitive Type 2: V[NP __ NP PP] Put
Ditransitive Type 3: V[NP __ NP {NP/CP}] Give
Ditransitive Type 4: V[NP __ NP {NP/PP/CP}] Tell
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