Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, you should be able to,

  • understand how languages can be described in terms of abstract descriptive rules.
  • use morphology and distribution to determine word categories
  • identify characteristic properties of core parts of speech (e.g., nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, adpositions, etc)

To build a theory of syntax, we need to look at data. We’ll start by considering the following sentences of English.

\ex. \a. The mailman slept. \b. A storm rages. \c. The student cried. \d. A dog barked. \e. The senators lie.

Here’s an obvious observation about these sentences: All the sentences in (1) are different. For instance, they use different words; they mean different things; some of them are in different tenses. Ask any English speaker, and they would agree: these are different sentences.

Here’s a not-so-obvious observation about these sentences: All the sentences in (1) are the same. Why? Well, they all can be described in the same way. They consist of a determiner followed by a noun followed by a verb. Stated schematically, I can say that,

SentenceEnglish → Determiner Noun Verb
“A sentence in English consists of a determiner, followed by a noun, followed by a verb.”

What have we done? We’ve translated English into a system of variables. For whichever values (that is, words) that we choose for each of the variables (Determiner, Noun, Verb) we will generate a sentence of English.

This means that I, as an English learner/speaker, don’t have to memorize every combination of determiner, noun, and verb in English. All I have to know is this rule, and I can generate an infinite number of sentences (…as long I know the possible determiners, nouns, and verbs in English).

The goal for every generative syntactician is the set of rules that describe a human language — and nothing else. That is, we want to find the rules that can accurately describe what is, and is not, a sentence in a language.

In general, syntactic theories (of which there are many) differ on what the rules should look like and what the background assumptions should be (that is, what is given, and what must be stated as part of the rule). But the goal is always the same: a precise and accurate description of language. This is what we are aiming for in this class.

So far we are able to capture only a limited set of data. Obviously it is possible to say many more things in English than sentences with intransitive verbs. Let’s look at some more examples.

\setcounter{ExNo}{1}  \ex. \a. The happy mailman slept. \b. A terrible storm rages. \c. The new student cried. \d. A stubborn dog barked. \e. The stupid senators lie.

Our rule for SentenceEnglish doesn’t allow us to generate the sentences in (2), because the rule doesn’t know what to do with words like happy, terrible, new, stubborn, and stupid. So let’s make another rule.

SentenceEnglish → Determiner Adjective Noun Verb

“A sentence in English consists of a Determiner, followed by an Adjective, followed by a Noun, followed by a Verb.”

By itself, this rule generates all the sentences in (2), but now it over-generates, because according to the rule, every sentence in English must consist of the sequence Determiner-Adjective-Noun-Verb. So according to this new rule, the sentences in (1) are not possible sentences in English because they don’t have adjectives.

So we conclude that we need two rules for English. Now our grammar fragment of English is the following

A grammar fragment of English

Rule 1: SentenceEnglish → Determiner Noun Verb.

“An English sentence consists of a determiner followed by a noun followed by a verb.”

Rule 2: SentenceEnglish → Determiner Adjective Noun Verb.

“An English sentence consists of a determiner followed by an adjective followed by a noun followed by a verb.”

This is simply a logical step. Rule 1 and Rule 2 both correctly generate the sentences in (1) and (2), and they don’t generate any sentences that aren’t in English, like *Mailman happy slept the. Our rules predict that this sentence shouldn’t be an English sentence, because our rules do not allow this sequence of elements.

Together, Rules 1 and 2 are a grammar fragment. They just describe some of what is possible in English. To continue the process and develop a complete grammar, we’d look at more data, and determine the rules that describe the data. We would do this until we developed a set of rules that could generate all the possible sentences in English, and wouldn’t generate any sentences that weren’t in English. We would then have a complete grammar of English.

However, there are a couple of things we seem to be missing in this grammar fragment. Foremost, these rules don’t really capture the relationships between the words. For instance, intuitively, we have the sense that the happy mailman “goes together,” like it’s a unit, more than mailman slept. For instance, I can replace  the happy mailman with he and the sentence means the same thing: He slept.  I cannot replace mailman slept with anything to get an equivalent sentence: *The happy he. (This is called substitution; we’ll talk about it in the next chapter.) Thus, if we want our rules to truly represent English, then we want to represent that the happy mailman goes together to the exclusion of slept.

We can actually re-write our grammar fragment to capture this grouping. We’ll use the term “Determiner Phrase” (abbreviated DP) to refer to the sequence Determiner-Adjective-Noun or Determiner-Noun.

A revised grammar fragment of English

Rule 1:  SentenceEnglish → DP Verb

“A sentence in English consists of a determiner phrase followed by a verb.”

Rule 2: DP → Determiner Noun

“A determiner phrase consists of a determiner followed by a noun.”

Rule 3: DP → Determiner Adjective Noun

“A determiner phrase consists of a determiner followed by an adjective followed by a noun.”

By adding the term Determiner Phrase, we can now correctly represent that the words the happy mailman go together. Putting a determiner phrase together with a verb makes a sentence in English. I can choose either one of the DP rules, Rule 2 or Rule 3, and put it into Rule 1 to make a sentence. Importantly, our revised grammar fragment does all the things that our first attempt did, that is, it gets all the words in the right order, and does not generate sentences of English that don’t exist.

This level of abstraction raises two issues.

Issue 1What are the chunks? How do we divide up the sentence? How do we know what goes with what?  For instance, how do know that there isn’t a verb phrase as well? And if so, how do we determine what gets included in the determiner phrase, and what is in the verb phrase. 

This topic is addressed in the chapter titled Constituency and so we’ll put it aside for now. 

Issue 2: What do we call the chunks? Assuming that we can divide up every sentence into chunks, what do we call each of the chunks? Stated differently, What are the categories for the variables? For example, why did I choose to call the happy mailman a Determiner Phrase and not a Noun Phrase, or an Adjective Phrase?

The second question is asking about syntactic categories. A noun has the syntactic category of N. A determiner has syntactic category D. A verb has the syntactic category of V, an adjective has the syntactic category of A, etc. A noun phrase  is a group of words that “acts like” a noun. A determiner phrase is a group of words that “acts like” a determiner, etc.

The names are essentially arbitrary. We’re simply saying that there are classes of things that behave similarly. Table, dog, teacher, brick, honesty, …, all behave in a similar fashion (in some respects). Lick, sit, own, jump, describe, believe, …, all behave in a similar fashion (in some respects).  When we say that something is a “noun” and has category N all we’re saying is that that thing “acts like” the other noun-words. Likewise, when we say that something is a verb, we’re simply saying that that thing “acts like” the other verb-words. 

What does it even mean to “act like noun” or “act like a verb?” In what way are “nouns” differentiated from “verbs” or “adjectives?” In defining syntactic categories, it is tempting to rely on what you were probably taught in school: nouns are “people, places, or things” and verbs are “actions,” adjectives “describe,” etc. That is, we can attempt to define syntactic category using meaning.

This turns out be wrong for a number of reasons. For instance, we can all agree that idea is a noun, but it’s debatable whether it’s a person, place, or thing. Or what about the (uncontroversial) noun destruction. That’s an action! The destruction of the city by Godzilla describes an event—it’s clearly not a person, a place, or a thing. 

Likewise, not all verbs are actions. Tasha owns a car contains the verbs owns.  Is owning an action? Only under a very loose definition of “action.” What about the verb seems in  Abigail seems tired. Is seem an action?  Doubtful…

Perhaps most problematic for the idea that we can use meaning to define syntactic category comes when we look at languages other than English. For instance, if you’ve studied a Romance language, you’ve learned that certain concepts which are expressed in English using adjectives are expressed in Romance using verbs and nouns. This happens to be a robust strategy found across the world’s languages, occurring beyond Romance languages, like, e.g., Swahili.

\setcounter{ExNo}{2}  \ex. \ag. Yo tengo hambre\\ 1\textsc{sg} have.1\textsc{sg} hunger\\ \trans `I'm hungry.' (Literally: `I have hunger.') \hfill Spanish \bg. J'-ai faim\\ 1\textsc{sg}-have.\textsc{1sg} hunger\\ \trans `I'm hungry' (Literally: `I have hunger.') \hfill French \cg. nina njaa\\ have.1\textsc{sg} hunger\\ \trans `I'm hungry' (Literally: `I have hunger.') \hfill Swahili

If we (as English speakers) were to use meaning to define word category, we might be tempted to call words like hambre, faim, and njaa adjectives meaning “hungry.” This would clearly be wrong, because in fact they’re nouns, as the literal translations suggest. So we simply cannot use meaning to determine syntactic category; it doesn’t help us to define categories within a language, and it doesn’t help us define across categories across languages.

So how actually do I know that idea, table, hambre, faim, and njaa are nouns if I can’t use meaning? Or stated differently, how can I uniquely define a class of words in any particular language? There are two kinds of reliable evidence we can use to classify syntactic categories.

Morphological properties. What are the pieces of morphology that distinguish a particular word class?

  • For instance, in English only nouns can appear with plural morpheme (typically -s). Again in English, only verbs can appear with tense morphology (like past tense -ed). Morphological properties are going to be specific to a language. The morphological properties of nouns in Swahili are different from the morphological properties of nouns in English.

Distributional properties. Where do members of a particular noun appear with respect to other categories.

  • For instance, a determiner in English must always be the first thing in a determiner phrase. A verb in English must always be preceded by a determiner phrase. Distributional properties, too, are going to be specific to a language. In Swahili, determiners generally follow nouns, whereas in English, they strictly precede nouns.

Morphology refers to pieces of words. In any particular language, every word class may have its own specific morphological pattern. In English, only nouns can take a plural suffixideas, tables, children, etc. Adjectives cannot inflect for plural in English: *reds, *sadsetc. Only verbs in English can inflect for (be marked with) tense and aspect information. walked, walking, *childed, childing. Only adjectives in English can inflect for the comparative suffix: sadder, *childer

Importantly, morphological properties are going to be language specific. For instance, in Estonian, nouns inflect for number (singular or plural), just like in English and also for case (which indicates the role the noun plays in the sentence).

Partial declension of the word vend “brother” in Estonian
Singular Plural
Nominative vend venna
Genitive venna venda
Partitive venda vendi
Illative vennasse vendasse

Thus, in Estonian, if a word inflects for both number and case in the same way, then we have evidence that it’s a noun. Just like in English, if a word inflects for tense and aspect, then we conclude that it’s a verb. If a word in English can take the comparative morpheme -er, then we conclude that it’s an adjective.

The second piece of evidence we can use to determine syntactic category is distributional evidence. Every word class goes in a particular position with respect to other word classes. In English, the only thing that can appear in the underlined space is a noun: The ____ is… . That is, only nouns can appear between a determiner and copula. Or stated differently: only certain words can appear between a determiner and copula in English, and we call those words “nouns.” In French, the only thing that can appear in the underlined space in a comparative construction is an adjective.

\setcounter{ExNo}{3}  \exg. Marie est plus {\underline{\hspace{50pt}}} que Anne\\ Marie is more {\underline{\hspace{50pt}}} than Anne\\ \trans `Marie is {\underline{\hspace{50pt}}} than Anne \hfill French

Or stated slightly differently, the only kind of word that can appear in the configuration above is a word like grande “tall,” or intelligente, “smart,” and we give those words the label “adjective.” (Notice that adjectives in French also have a morphological distinction: they inflect for masculine and feminine gender, in addition to singular and plural.)

Again, distributional properties of syntactic categories are going to be language-specific. We can’t make general statements like “adjectives always precede nouns” because there are many languages in which they come after nouns. Similarly we can’t say something like “verbs always come after subjects” because there are many languages in which the verb comes after the object, or even before the subject. To distinguish syntactic categories for any particular language, you have to look at the properties of that particular language.

Parts of speech (length: 2m 46s)

Where we’re going

Now that we can identity parts of speech (using distribution and morphology), we can use that information to write our abstract rules about language, as demonstrated earlier. That is, we can translate any language into a system of variables.

We can also determine the category of groups of words. For instance, suppose I wanted to know what category the group of words happy mailman is. From distributional evidence, we would conclude that it behaves like a noun, not like an adjective (or a verb, adverb, etc). For instance, we can’t use this phrase to modify another noun (5a), and it can go in the location that only nouns can go (5b).

\setcounter{ExNo}{4}  \ex. \a. *The happy mailman table \b. The {\underline{happy mailman}} is {\ldots}

We’re going to use this information to help us determine how to “chunk up” the sentences we find, and in turn how to write the rules that are in our grammar fragment.

Things to remember

  • Language description in terms of abstract rules
  • Using data to create a grammar fragment
  • How to use morphological and distributional properties of words to determine syntactic categories.


Changing categories

One of the complications that frequently crops up when we’re considering category is that words can change category. Consider the English word cut.  If I asked you what category cut was you could say, “It’s a verb.” Or you could say, “It’s a noun.” Both answers would be correct.

\setcounter{ExNo}{5}  \ex. \a. Sarah cut the bread. \hfil Verbal \textit{cut} \b. It was a deep cut. \hfil Nominal \textit{cut}

One question that this raises is, for any particular word, which category (if any) is the  “true” form? That is, is the word cut fundamentally a verb which can be turned into a noun? Or is it a noun which can be turned into a verb? A third option is that it’s fundamentally neither a noun nor a verb! It’s simply some abstract semantic information which can be used either as a noun or a verb.

It’s also interesting to think about  the limit of possibilities For cut, there is an upper bound on the category. It can be a verb, it can be a noun, and it can also be an adjective (technically a participial form): the cut bread. That’s probably it. But other words can definitely have more categories. Consider the word down:

\setcounter{ExNo}{6}  \ex. \a. The ball is down the hole. \hfill Preposition \b. John sat down. \hfill Verbal particle \c. John downed the soda. \hfill Verb \d. The Chiefs fumbled on the first down. \hfill Noun \e. Don't talk to Mary, she's feeling down right now. \hfill Adjective

Given the abundance of forms for down, why are some “alternations” not allowed? For instance, unlike cut, the noun chop doesn’t naturally have similar noun form: Mary chopped the wood. ??It was a deep chop. Why not? Why are some words restricted in “changing” categories, and others less so?

Morphological complexity in word formation

When a word is morphologically ambiguous between different categories, we call it conversion. So the difference between cut as a verb and cut as a noun is descriptively an instance of conversion.

Sometimes, in fact often, there are morphological reflexes of changing category. Consider the (famous) example of the verb destroy, which has the noun form destruction. Unlike cut, the nominalization of destroy involves at least addition of the suffix -tion, plus a change in the stem of the verb from destroy to destruc-

One question we can ask about such processes is how “productive” they are. By this, we mean, “How many words exhibit a similar change?” For instance, what other verbs  form nouns with -tion? If we find that it’s a lot of verbs, we might say that this kind of nominalization is generally productive. If it only happens with a few idiosyncratic verbs, then we might say that it isn’t fully productive.

English has a few fully productive category changing processes. Consider –ness affixation. Basically any adjective can be suffixed with -ness to form a noun.

Adjectival -ness nominalizations in English
Adjective Noun
happy happiness
tough toughness
mean meanness
red redness
sad sadness

Interestingly, such morphological affixation “stacks,” meaning that I can add multiple affixes to a word, each one changing the category.  Consider the following productive affixation processes:[1]

Deverbal derivations in English
Verb Adjective  (-able) Noun (-ity)
break breakable breakability
find findable findability
drink drinkable drinkability

Other languages have a much richer process of category alternations. In Dumi, a Kirati (Tibeto-Burman) language spoken in Eastern Nepal, adjectives can be made from verbs by putting –sa at the end.

Adjective formation in Dumi
Verb Gloss Adjective Gloss
rek ‘sharpen’ reksa ‘sharp’
sur ‘wash’ sursa ‘washed’
tuk ‘keep’ tuksa ‘kept’

In K’iche’, a Mayan language spoken in Guatemala, verbs can be suffixed with -ib’al to forms nouns meaning “location for VERBing.”

Locative deverbal nouns in K’iche’
Verb Gloss Noun Gloss
atin ‘bathe’ atinib’al ‘bath, place for bathing’
war ‘sleep’ warib’al ‘bedroom, dormitory’
el ‘leave’ elib’al ‘(an) exit’

Overt realizations of a category changing affixes introduce a number of interesting theoretical questions. For instance, what actually is a category? Is it just the affix that attaches last? That is, since -ness always “makes” a noun, can we just say that -ness is the category noun? This is schematized below.

\setcounter{ExNo}{7}  \ex. sad\textsubscript{A}+ness\textsubscript{N}

But if that’s true, does that mean when we have conversion (e.g., cutNoun versus cutVerb), do we have to say that there’s a null affix, corresponding to a noun or verb?

\setcounter{ExNo}{8}  \ex. \a. cut\textsubscript{V}+$\emptyset$\textsubscript{N} \hfil or, \b. cut\textsubscript{N}+$\emptyset$\textsubscript{V}

Another question concerns the stacking noted earlier. Take the word breakability. This consists of three distinct morphemes, each associated with a different category. Break is a verb; -able (here spelled –abil) attaches to verbs and makes adjectives;  -ity attaches to adjectives and makes nouns. It’s clear that there is an order in how the elements stack. -Able has to attach to break before -ity can. What about when there is a suffix and a prefix? Is there also an ordering?

Consider the word unbreakable. This also consists of three morphemes: un-break-able. At first glance, it might not seem possible to determine the order of attachment of un- and -able. But in fact, it must be the case that -able attaches first, to form the word breakable, and then un- attaches after that, to form the word unbreakable. If it happened in the opposite order, we would first make the word *unbreak—but this isn’t a word!

More importantly, the idea that there is a determined order of “introduction” for each piece of a word—and that order might not be the same as the linear order—will be a central observation when we start looking not at individual words, but at groupings of  words, otherwise called constituents. What is remarkable is that the same processes that underlie our understanding of syntax also underlies our understanding of morphology (for the most part). These topics are discussed more in depth in LING 527/727.

  1. Don't be fooled by the orthography! For historical (and phonological) reasons, we sometimes use a slightly different spelling for some affixes, but it's still the same affix.


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