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Lecture 3. The parts of the speech

The words of language, depending on various formal and semantic features, are divided into grammatically relevant sets or classes. The traditional grammatical classes of words are called parts of speech. This name was introduced in the grammatical teaching in Ancient Greece, where the concept of the sentence was not yet explicitly identified in distinction to the general idea of speech, and where no strict differentiation was drawn between the word as a vocabulary unit and the word as a functional element of the sentence.

A part of speech is a class of words which is characterized by certain typical features which are typical of all the elements which constitute this class (or words or lexical units).

The problem of parts of speech has been a problem for centuries. The number of parts of speech which specialists distinguish varies from 4 to 13-14 or even 15.

It’s not an easy thing to describe, to give a full adequate definition of a part of speech. A word as belonging to a part of speech should be characterized from at least two different points/aspects. First of all every word even a function word is a unit in itself as such it has a certain phonetic structure, a certain lexical meaning or a certain word building structure. At the same time we don’t speak in words we speak in utterances, in sentences, therefore a word should be regarded as a member of larger unit. If we consider a word as a unit in itself we consider some properties which characterize word as such: its lexical and morphological properties; and if we consider the word as a member of a larger unit we should consider its syntactic characteristics.

There are different approaches in describing and classifying the parts of speech. In English grammar the theory of parts of speech begins in the period of prenormative and normative grammars.


There are four approaches to the problem:

1.Classical, or logical inflectional, worked out by prescriptives.

2. Functional, worked out by descriptivists.

3. Distributional, worked out by structuralists.

4. Complex


1.Classical, or logical inflectional, worked out by prescriptives.

Prescriptive grammar is concerned with norms of or rules for correct usage Prescriptive grammarians, who treated Latin as an ideal language, described English in terms of Latin forms and Latin grammatical constraints. Similar to Latin, words in English were divided into declinable (nouns, adjectives, pronouns, verbs, participles) and indeclinable (adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, interjections, articles). The number of parts of speech varied from author to author: in early grammars nouns and adjectives formed one part of speech; later they came to be treated as two different parts of speech. The same applies to participles, which were either a separate part of speech or part of the verb. The article was first classed with the adjective. Later it was given the status of a part of speech and toward the end of the 19th century the article was integrated into the adjective. The underlying principle of classification was form, which, as can be seen from their treatment of the English noun, was not only morphologic but also syntactic, i.e. if it was form in Latin, it had to be form in English.

The age of prescriptive grammar began in the second half of the 18th century. The most influential grammar at that period was R. Lowth’s grammar, which was called "Short introduction to English grammar". It was published in 1762, and its aim was to reduce the English language to rules and to set up a standard of correct usage. In his classification we have 8 parts of speech. Parts of speech were divided into declinable (nouns, adjectives, pronouns, verbs, participles) and indeclinable (prepositions, conjunctions, interjections). The underlying principle of this classification was the form which was not only morphological but syntactic also, i.e. the English form must correspond to the Latin form [1, 64-67].

William Bullocar wrote the first published grammar of the English language, which appeared in 1586. He divided parts of speech into declinable and indeclinable (he already began to investigate the peculiarities of classes of words).

Ben Johnson distinguished changeable and unchangeable parts of speech but he called them “words with number" and “words without number".

Charles Butler distinguished between declinable and indeclinable parts of speech but he calls them “words with case and number" and “words without case and number".


2. Functional, worked out by descriptivists.

Non-structural descriptive grammarians adopted the system of parts of speech worked out by prescriptivists and elaborated it further. Henry Sweet(1892), , divided words into declinable and indeclinable. To declinables he attributed noun-words (noun, noun-pronoun, noun-numeral, infinitive, gerund), adjective-words (adjective, adjective-pronoun, adjective-numeral, participle), verb (finite verb), verbals (infinitive, gerund, participle) and to indeclinables (particles), adverb, preposition, conjunction, interjection.

Otto Jespersen, another noted descriptivist, also speaks of three principles of classification. In the basis of the three criteria, the scholar distinguishes the following parts of speech: substantives, adjectives, pronouns, verbs, and particles (adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, interjections). Otto Jespersen's system is a further elaboration of Henry Sweet's system. Unlike Henry Sweet, Otto Jespersen separates nouns (which he calls substantives) from noun-words. It was Jespersen who showed that it is impossible to approach a class of words from only one angle. He refers words to a certain class (hence to a certain meaning) through their distribution.

3. Distributional, worked out by structuralists

One of the noted representatives of American structuralism, Charles Fries (1956), rejected the traditional principle of classification of words into parts of speech replacing it with the methods of distributional analysis and substitution. Roughly speaking, the distribution of a word is the position of a word in the sentence. To classify the words of English, Charles Fries used three sentences called substitution frames. He thought that the positions, or the slots, in the sentences were sufficient (достаточный) for the purpose of the classification of all the words of the English language.

Frame A

The concert was good.

Frame B

The clerk remembered the tax.

Frame C

The team went there.

The position discussed first is that of the word concert. Words that can substitute for concert (e.g. food, coffee, taste, etc.) are Class 1 words. The same holds good for words that can substitute for clerk, tax and team- these are typical positions of Class1 words. The next important position is that of was, remembered and went; words that can substitute for them are called Class 2 words. The next position is that of good: words that can substitute for good are Class 3 words. The last position is that of there; words that can fill this position are called Class 4 words. According to the scholar, these 4 parts of speech contain about 67 per cent of the total instances of the vocabulary. He also distinguishes 15 groups of function words set up by the same process of substitution but on different patterns. It is obvious that in classifying words into word-classes Charles Fries in fact used the principle of function or combinability (the position of a word in these sentence is the syntactic function of word).

Thus in Сh. Fries's classification, we find that he classifies words into 4 "form-classes", designated by numbers, and 15 groups of "function words", designated by letters. The 4 major parts of speech (Noun, Verb, Adjective, Adverb) set up by the process of substitution in Ch. Fries recorded material are thus given no names except numbers: class 1, class 2, class 3, class 4. Then come fifteen groups of so-called function-words which have certain characteristics in common. (4 main classes +15 functional elements = 19 classes of words).

John Brightland featured a new approach. He completely abandoned the old classes and names and distinguished between four parts of speech: names (noun), qualities (adjective), affirmations (verb), particles (all the predicative parts of speech).



In modern linguistics, parts of speech are discriminated on the basis of the three criteria "semantic", "formal", "functional". This approach may be defined as complex. The semantic criterion presupposes the evaluation of the generalized meaning, which is characteristic of all the subsets of words constituting a given part of speech. This meaning is understood as the categorical meaning of the part of speech. The formal considers the specific inflexional and derivational features of all the lexemic subsets of a part of speech. The functional criterion concerns the syntactic role of words in the sentence typical of a part of speech. Thus, when characterizing any part of speech we must describe: a) its semantics; b) its morphological features; c) its syntactic peculiarities.


In accord with the three criteria words on the upper level of classification are divided into notional and functional, or changeable and unchangeable.

To the notional parts of speech of the English language belong the noun, the adjective, the numeral, the pronoun, the verb, the adverb


The features of the noun:

  • the categorical meaning of substance;
  • the changeable forms of number and case, the specific suffixal forms of derivation;
  • the substantive functions in the sentence (subject, object, substantival predicative), prepositional connections, modification by an adjective.

The features of the adjective:

  • the categorical meaning of property(qualitative and relative);
  • the forms of degrees of comparison, the specific suffixal forms of derivation;
  • adjectival functions in the sentence.

The features of the numeral:

  • the categorical meaning of number (cardinal and ordinal);
  • the narrow set of simple numerals, the specific forms of composition for compound numerals, the specific suffixal forms of derivation for ordinal numerals;
  • the functions of numerical substantive and numerical attribute.

The features of the pronoun:

· the categorical meaning of indication;

· the narrow sets of various status with the corresponding formal properties of categorical changeability and word-building;

· the substantival and adjectival functions for different sets.

The features of the verb:

· the categorial meaning of process — finite and non-finite;

· the forms of verbal categories of person, number, tense, aspect, voice, mood, the opposition of the finite and non-finite forms;

· the function of the finite predicate for the finite verb, the mixed verbal-other than verbal functions for the non-finite verb.

The features of the adverb:

· the categorical meaning of the secondary property;

· the forms of the degree of comparison for qualitative adverbs, the specific suffixal forms of derivation;

· the functions of various adverbial modifiers.


On the principle of "generalized form" only unchangeable words are traditionally treated under the heading of functional parts of speech. As for their individual forms as such, they are simply presented by the list, since the number of these words is limited, so that they needn't be identified on any general, operational scheme.

To the functional parts of speech in English belong the article, the preposition, the conjunction, the particle, the modal word, the interjection. The article expresses the specific limitation of the substantive functions. The preposition expresses the dependences and interdependences of substantive referent. The conjunction expresses connections of phenomena. The particle unites the functional words of specifying and limiting meaning. The modal word expresses the attitude of the speaker to the reflected situation and its parts. The interjection occupying a detached position in the sentence is a signal of emotions.

The syntactic-distributional classification of words is based on the study of their combinability by means of substitution testing. The testing results in developing the standard model of four main positions of notional words in the English sentence: those of the noun, verb, adjective, and adverb. Words standing outside the "positions" in the sentence are treated as function words of various syntactic values.

According to Fries the groups of functional words can be distributed among the 3 main sets.

The words of the first set are used as specifies of notional words. Here belong determiners of nouns, modal verbs serving as specifies of notional verbs, functional modifiers and intensifiers of adjectives and adverbs.

The word of the second set play the role of interposition elements, determining the relations of notional words to one another. Here belong prepositions and conjunctions.

The words of the third set refer to the sentence as a whole. Such are question-words, inducement words, attention-getting words, words of affirmation and negation, sentence introducers.

One of the major truths as regards the linguistic mechanism arising from the comparison of the two classifications is the explicit and unconditional division of the lexicon into the notional and functional parts.

The unity of notional lexemes finds its essential demonstration in an inter-class system of derivation that can be presented as a formal four-stage series. Each stage of the series can in principle be filled in by a number of lexemes of the same stem with possible hierarchical relations between them. (friend — to befriend —friendly)

This derivational series that unites the notional word-classes can be named the "lexical paradigm of nomination". The general order of classes in the series evidently corresponds to the logic of mental perception of reality, by which a person discriminates, first, objects and their actions, then the properties of the former and the latter.

Functional words, considered by their role in the structure of the sentence, are proved to be exposers of various syntactic categories, they render structural meanings referring to phrases and sentences in constructional forms similar to derivational (word-building) and relational (grammatical) morphemes in the composition of separate words.


1. Give the definition of a "part of speech".

2. What two aspects characterize the word?

3. Name four approaches to a problem of a part of speech.

4. Name the principle of the prescriptives and the brightest grammarian of that period.

5. Name the principle of the descriptivists and the brightest grammarians of that period.

6. Name the principle of the descriptivists structuralistsand the brightest grammarians of that period.

7. Name three components of the complex approach.

8. Illustrate the classification of functional words given by Fries.


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