Word classes

Word classes are categories into which we place words. Traditionally these have been called parts of speech, but word class is now the term used by linguists, and by the UK National Curriculum.

The meanings of words can often be helpful in assigning words to a particular category. This is an effective approach for younger students, but older students can take a more sophisticated approach. 

If we rely on a definition such as an adjective being a ‘describing word’, this is very loose: an adjective may well be descriptive in one sense, while an adverb may be equally descriptive in another. You could even argue that nouns and verbs ‘describe’ too. In fact, we often explain to students that words like manufacture are more descriptive than words like make, and so on.

 So, as well as the meaning of a word, we have to look at the behaviour of a word among other words: where it occurs in relation to other words and what it does. In other words, we will be looking at distribution and function.

We will also look at form or morphology: the appearance of a word, and how this might give us clues as to its identity.

The major word classes that Englicious looks at are as follows:

Some linguists have a slightly different list, but this is the one used in the National Curriculum for England.

The following words have all been classified as nouns. Nouns are typically ‘naming words’, but do all the examples label living beings or concrete things that we can see or touch?

dog
elbow
mud
hat
happiness
joy
football
child

Here are some words that have been classed as pronouns

I
you
it
them
ours
mine
herself
who
whom

These words have all been classified as determiners. The help identify the noun in front of which they appear.

a
an
the
any
all
each
my
her
his

The following were classed as adjectives. Adjectives can supply an attribute to a noun.

unclear
good
wide
older
logical
remarkable
grateful
youngest
persuasive
fabulous
darker
newest

The next set of words were classified as verbs. Verbs are traditionally thought of as ‘doing words’. How do these examples fit this description?

haul
lifts
must
played
singing
would
feels
illustrate
dignify
be
am
were
lacking
had

The following words have all been classified as prepositions. What do these words have in common? What role do you think they play?

at
of
on
since
than
beside
within
past
alongside

Here is a set of words which were classed as adverbs. Can you see a connection between them?

very
rarely
quickly
unfortunately
suddenly
gradually
quite
sideways
never
soon
outside

Here are some words that were classified as conjunctions.

but
or
and
yet
whereas
while
so
if
although

It’s not always easy when you look at a word by itself to say what kind of word it is.

One word can have multiple meanings. It can also belong to different word classes, depending on how it is used in a sentence. For example, laugh can be a verb (1) or a noun (2):

  1. He does make me laugh though. [W1B-003 #93]
  2. Ice skating was a laugh except I have forgotten EVERYTHING. [W1B-004 #87]

As an example of a particularly flexible word, look at how round is used in these sentences:

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Word classes: Interjections

Interjections are a group of words which are commonly used in spoken language to express emotions, reactions and so on. It is generally difficult to categorise them into one of the eight major word classes.

Examples include the following:

Interjections can occur on their own, or in sequence (e.g. oh wow), and can also be attached to a sentence. These examples are all from informal conversations:

Although interjections are mainly found in spoken language, some examples do occur in writing. For instance, the following example is from an informal social letter:

Written examples also occur in representations of speech, like the following (taken from a biography):

Interjections are considered a minor word class from a grammatical point of view. They don’t really enter into grammatical combinations with other words (although they can ‘tack on’ loosely to sentences, as we have seen).

However, we would probably find it hard to do without them in conversation, especially the more frequent ones, such as oh. Try avoiding them in a conversation and see how you go, or listen out for them in others’ speech.

Some linguists think that interjections might have been the first kind of word used by our early human ancestors hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) of years ago.

The idea is that these kinds of word can function in a simple way as single-word utterances, so may have been used at a stage before humans developed full grammatical language with words put together into sentences. It is a plausible idea, and intriguing to think about, but we may never know for sure!

 

 

 

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