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Saturday, April 17, 2010

Word Classes

An Introduction to
Word Classes

Words are fundamental units in every sentence, so we will begin by looking at these. Consider the words in the following sentence:

my brother drives a big car

We can tell almost instinctively that brother and car are the same type of word, and also that brother and drives are different types of words. By this we mean that brother and car belong to the same word class. Similarly, when we recognise that brother and drives are different types, we mean that they belong to different word classes. We recognise seven MAJOR word classes:


be, drive, grow, sing, think


brother, car, David, house, London


a, an, my, some, the


big, foolish, happy, talented, tidy


happily, recently, soon, then, there


at, in, of, over, with


and, because, but, if, or

You may find that other grammars recognise different word classes from the ones listed here. They may also define the boundaries between the classes in different ways. In some grammars, for instance, pronouns are treated as a separate word class, whereas we treat them as a subclass of nouns. A difference like this should not cause confusion. Instead, it highlights an important principle in grammar, known as GRADIENCE. This refers to the fact that the boundaries between the word classes are not absolutely fixed. Many word classes share characteristics with others, and there is considerable overlap between some of the classes. In other words, the boundaries are "fuzzy", so different grammars draw them in different places.

We will discuss each of the major word classes in turn. Then we will look briefly at some MINOR word classes. But first, let us consider how we distinguish between word classes in general.

Criteria for Word Classes

We began by grouping words more or less on the basis of our instincts about English. We somehow "feel" that brother and carbelong to the same class, and that brother and drives belong to different classes. However, in order to conduct an informed study of grammar, we need a much more reliable and more systematic method than this for distinguishing between word classes.

We use a combination of three criteria for determining the word class of a word:

1. The meaning of the word
2. The form or `shape' of the word
3. The position or `environment' of the word in a sentence

1. Meaning

Using this criterion, we generalize about the kind of meanings that words convey. For example, we could group together the wordsbrother and car, as well as David, house, and London, on the basis that they all refer to people, places, or things. In fact, this has traditionally been a popular approach to determining members of the class of nouns. It has also been applied to verbs, by saying that they denote some kind of "action", like cook, drive, eat, run, shout,walk.

This approach has certain merits, since it allows us to determine word classes by replacing words in a sentence with words of "similar" meaning. For instance, in the sentence My son cooks dinner every Sunday, we can replace the verb cooks with other "action" words:

My son cooks dinner every Sunday
My son prepares dinner every Sunday
My son eats dinner every Sunday
My son misses dinner every Sunday

On the basis of this replacement test, we can conclude that all of these words belong to the same class, that of "action" words, or verbs.

However, this approach also has some serious limitations. The definition of a noun as a word denoting a person, place, or thing, is wholly inadequate, since it excludes abstract nouns such as time,imagination, repetition, wisdom, and chance. Similarly, to say that verbs are "action" words excludes a verb like be, as in I want to be happy. What "action" does be refer to here? So although this criterion has a certain validity when applied to some words, we need other, more stringent criteria as well.

2. The form or `shape' of a word

Some words can be assigned to a word class on the basis of their form or `shape'. For example, many nouns have a characteristic -tion ending:

action, condition, contemplation, demonstration, organization,repetition

Similarly, many adjectives end in -able or -ible:

acceptable, credible, miserable, responsible, suitable, terrible

Many words also take what are called INFLECTIONS, that is, regular changes in their form under certain conditions. For example, nouns can take a plural inflection, usually by adding an -s at the end:

car -- cars
dinner -- dinners
book -- books

Verbs also take inflections:

walk -- walks -- walked -- walking

3. The position or `environment' of a word in a sentence

This criterion refers to where words typically occur in a sentence, and the kinds of words which typically occur near to them. We can illustrate the use of this criterion using a simple example. Compare the following:

[1] I cook dinner every Sunday
[2] The cook is on holiday

In [1], cook is a verb, but in [2], it is a noun. We can see that it is a verb in [1] because it takes the inflections which are typical of verbs:

I cook dinner every Sunday
I cooked dinner last Sunday
I am cooking dinner today
My son cooks dinner every Sunday

And we can see that cook is a noun in [2] because it takes the plural -s inflection

The cooks are on holiday

If we really need to, we can also apply a replacement test, based on our first criterion, replacing cook in each sentence with "similar" words:

Top of Form

Click here to see how words in sentences can be replaced by similar words

Bottom of Form

Notice that we can replace verbs with verbs, and nouns with nouns, but we cannot replace verbs with nouns or nouns with verbs:

*I chef dinner every Sunday
*The eat is on holiday

It should be clear from this discussion that there is no one-to-one relation between words and their classes. Cook can be a verb or a noun -- it all depends on how the word is used. In fact, many words can belong to more than one word class. Here are some more examples:

She looks very pale (verb)
She's very proud of her looks (noun)

He drives a fast car (adjective)
He drives very fast on the motorway (adverb)

Turn on the light (noun)
I'm trying to light the fire (verb)
I usually have a light lunch (adjective)

You will see here that each italicised word can belong to more than one word class. However, they only belong to one word class at a time, depending on how they are used. So it is quite wrong to say, for example, "cook is a verb". Instead, we have to say something like "cook is a verb in the sentence I cook dinner every Sunday, but it is a noun in The cook is on holiday".

Of the three criteria for word classes that we have discussed here, the Internet Grammar will emphasise the second and third - the form of words, and how they are positioned or how they function in sentences.

Open and Closed Word Classes

Some word classes are OPEN, that is, new words can be added to the class as the need arises. The class of nouns, for instance, is potentially infinite, since it is continually being expanded as new scientific discoveries are made, new products are developed, and new ideas are explored. In the late twentieth century, for example, developments in computer technology have given rise to many new nouns:

Internet, website, URL, CD-ROM, email, newsgroup, bitmap, modem,multimedia

New verbs have also been introduced:

download, upload, reboot, right-click, double-click

The adjective and adverb classes can also be expanded by the addition of new words, though less prolifically.

On the other hand, we never invent new prepositions, determiners, or conjunctions. These classes include words like of, the, and but. They are called CLOSED word classes because they are made up of finite sets of words which are never expanded (though their members may change their spelling, for example, over long periods of time). The subclass of pronouns, within the open noun class, is also closed.

Words in an open class are known as open-class items. Words in a closed class are known as closed-class items.

In the pages which follow, we will look in detail at each of the seven major word classes.



Verbs have traditionally been defined as "action" words or "doing" words. The verb in the following sentence is rides:

Paul rides a bicycle

Here, the verb rides certainly denotes an action which Paul performs - the action of riding a bicycle. However, there are many verbs which do not denote an action at all. For example, in Paul seems unhappy, we cannot say that the verb seems denotes an action. We would hardly say that Paul is performing any action when he seems unhappy. So the notion of verbs as "action" words is somewhat limited.

We can achieve a more robust definition of verbs by looking first at their formal features.

The Base Form

Here are some examples of verbs in sentences:

[1] She travels to work by train
[2] David sings in the choir
[3] We walked five miles to a garage
[4] I cooked a meal for the family

Notice that in [1] and [2], the verbs have an -s ending, while in [3] and [4], they have an -ed ending. These endings are known as INFLECTIONS, and they are added to the BASE FORM of the verb. In [1], for instance, the -s inflection is added to the base form travel.

Certain endings are characteristic of the base forms of verbs:


Base Form


concentrate, demonstrate, illustrate


clarify, dignify, magnify


baptize, conceptualize, realise

Past and Present Forms

When we refer to a verb in general terms, we usually cite its base form, as in "the verb travel", "the verb sing". We then add inflections to the base form as required.

Base Form



[1] She




to work by train

[2] David




in the choir

[3] We




five miles to a garage

[4] I




a meal for the whole family

These inflections indicate TENSE. The -s inflection indicates the PRESENT TENSE, and the -ed inflection indicates the PAST TENSE.

Verb endings also indicate PERSON. Recall that when we looked at nouns and pronouns, we saw that there are three persons, each with a singular and a plural form. These are shown in the table below.




1st Person



2nd person



3rd Person

he/she/John/the dog

they/the dogs

In sentence [1], She travels to work by train, we have a third person singular pronoun she, and the present tense ending -s. However, if we replace she with a plural pronoun, then the verb will change:

[1] She travels to work by train
[1a] They travel to work by train

The verb travel in [1a] is still in the present tense, but it has changed because the pronoun in front of it has changed. This correspondence between the pronoun (or noun) and the verb is called AGREEMENT or CONCORD. Agreement applies only to verbs in the present tense. In the past tense, there is no distinction between verb forms: she travelled/they travelled.

The Infinitive Form

The INFINITIVE form of a verb is the form which follows to:

to ask
to believe
to cry
to go

to protect
to sing
to talk
to wish

This form is indistinguishable from the base form. Indeed, many people cite this form when they identify a verb, as in "This is the verbto be", although to is not part of the verb.

Infinitives with to are referred to specifically as TO-INFINITIVES, in order to distinguish them from BARE INFINITIVES, in which to is absent:


Bare infinitive

Help me to open the gate

Help me open the gate

More Verb Forms: -ing and -ed

So far we have looked at three verb forms: the present form, the past form, and the infinitive/base form. Verbs have two further forms which we will look at now.

[1] The old lady is writing a play
[2] The film was produced in Hollywood

The verb form writing in [1] is known as the -ing form, or the -INGPARTICIPLE form. In [2], the verb form produced is called the -edform, or -ED PARTICIPLE form.

Many so-called -ed participle forms do not end in -ed at all:

The film was written by John Brown
The film was bought by a British company
The film was made in Hollywood

All of these forms are called -ed participle forms, despite their various endings. The term "-ed participle form" is simply a cover term for all of these forms.

The -ed participle form should not be confused with the -ed inflection which is used to indicate the past tense of many verbs.

We have now looked at all five verb forms. By way of summary, let us bring them together and see how they look for different verbs. For convenience, we will illustrate only the third person singular forms (the forms which agree with he/she/it) of each verb. Notice that some verbs have irregular past forms and -ed forms.

Base/Infinitive Form

Present Tense Form

Past Tense Form




he cooks

he cooked

he iscooking

he hascooked


he walks

he walked

he iswalking

he haswalked


he takes

he took

he istaking

he hastaken


he brings

he brought

he isbringing

he hasbrought


he is

he was

he isbeing

he hasbeen

Finite and Nonfinite Verbs


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Verbs which have the past or the present form are called FINITE verbs. Verbs in any other form (infinitive, -ing, or -ed) are called NONFINITE verbs. This means that verbs with tense are finite, and verbs without tense are nonfinite. The distinction between finite and nonfinite verbs is a very important one in grammar, since it affects how verbs behave in sentences. Here are some examples of each type:


Finite orNonfinite?

David plays the piano



My sister spoke French on holiday



It took courage to continueafter the accident

NONE -- the verb has the infinitive form


Leaving home can be very traumatic

NONE -- the verb has the -ing form


Leave immediately when you are asked to do so

NONE -- the verb has the -ed form


Auxiliary Verbs

In the examples of -ing and -ed forms which we looked at, you may have noticed that in each case two verbs appeared:

[1] The old lady is writing a play
[2] The film was produced in Hollywood

Writing and produced each has another verb before it. These other verbs (is and was) are known as AUXILIARY VERBS, while writing andproduced are known as MAIN VERBS or LEXICAL VERBS. In fact, all the verbs we have looked at on the previous pages have been main verbs.

Auxiliary verbs are sometimes called HELPING VERBS. This is because they may be said to "help" the main verb which comes after them. For example, in The old lady is writing a play, the auxiliary ishelps the main verb writing by specifying that the action it denotes is still in progress.

Auxiliary Verb Types

In this section we will give a brief account of of each type of auxiliary verb in English. There are five types in total:

Passive be

This is used to form passive constructions, eg.

The film was produced in Hollywood

It has a corresponding present form:

The film is produced in Hollywood

We will return to passives later, when we look at voice.


As the name suggests, the progressive expresses action in progress:

The old lady is writing a play

It also has a past form:

The old lady was writing a play


The perfective auxiliary expresses an action accomplished in the past but retaining current relevance:

She has broken her leg

(Compare: She broke her leg)

Together with the progressive auxiliary, the perfective auxiliary encodes aspect, which we will look at later.


Modals express permission, ability, obligation, or prediction:

You can have a sweet if you like
He may arrive early
Paul will be a footballer some day
I really should leave now

Dummy Do

This subclass contains only the verbdo. It is used to form questions:

Do you like cheese?

to form negative statements:

I do not like cheese

and in giving orders:

Do not eat the cheese

Finally, dummy do can be used for emphasis:

I do like cheese

An important difference between auxiliary verbs and main verbs is that auxiliaries never occur alone in a sentence. For instance, we cannot remove the main verb from a sentence, leaving only the auxiliary:

I would like a new job

~*I would a new job

You should buy a new car

~*You should a new car

She must be crazy

~*She must crazy

Auxiliaries always occur with a main verb. On the other hand, main verbs can occur without an auxiliary.

I like my new job
I bought a new car
She sings like a bird

In some sentences, it may appear that an auxiliary does occur alone. This is especially true in responses to questions:

Q. Can you sing?
A. Yes, I can

Here the auxiliary can does not really occur without a main verb, since the main verb -- sing -- is in the question. The response is understood to mean:

Yes, I can sing

This is known as ellipsis -- the main verb has been ellipted from the response.

Auxiliaries often appear in a shortened or contracted form, especially in informal contexts. For instance, auxiliary have is often shortened to've:

I have won the lottery ~I've won the lottery

These shortened forms are called enclitic forms. Sometimes different auxiliaries have the same enclitic forms, so you should distinguish carefully between them:

I'd like a new job ( = modal auxiliary would)
We'd already spent the money by then ( = perfective auxiliary had)

He's been in there for ages ( = perfective auxiliary has)
She's eating her lunch ( = progressive auxiliary is)

The following exercise concentrates on three of the most important auxiliaries -- be, have, and do.

The NICE Properties of Auxiliaries

The so-called NICE properties of auxiliaries serve to distinguish them from main verbs. NICE is an acronym for:


Auxiliaries take not or n't to form the negative, eg. cannot, don't, wouldn't


Auxiliaries invert with what precedes them when we form questions:

[I will] see you soon ~[Will I] see you soon?


Auxiliaries may occur "stranded" where a main verb has been omitted:

John never sings, but Mary does


Auxiliaries can be used for emphasis:

I do like cheese

Main verbs do not exhibit these properties. For instance, when we form a question using a main verb, we cannot invert:

[John sings] in the choir ~*[Sings John] in the choir?

Instead, we have to use the auxiliary verb do:

[John sings] in the choir ~[Does John sing] in the choir?


Among the auxiliary verbs, we distinguish a large number of multi-word verbs, which are called SEMI-AUXILIARIES. These are two-or three-word combinations, and they include the following:

get to
happen to
have to
mean to

seem to
tend to
turn out to
used to

be about to
be going to
be likely to
be supposed to

Like other auxiliaries, the semi-auxiliaries occur before main verbs:

The film is about to start

I'm going to interview the Lord Mayor

I have to leave early today

You are supposed to sign both forms

I used to live in that house

Some of these combinations may, of course, occur in other contexts in which they are not semi-auxiliaries. For example:

I'm going to London

Here, the combination is not a semi-auxiliary, since it does not occur with a main verb. In this sentence, going is a main verb. Notice that it could be replaced by another main verb such as travel (I'm travelling to London). The word 'm is the contracted form of am, the progressive auxiliary, and to, as we'll see later, is a preposition.

Tense and Aspect

TENSE refers to the absolute location of an event or action in time, either the present or the past. It is marked by an inflection of the verb:

David walks to school (present tense)
David walked to school (past tense)

Reference to other times -- the future, for instance -- can be made in a number of ways, by using the modal auxiliary will, or the semi-auxiliarybe going to:

David will walk to school tomorrow
David is going to walk to school tomorrow.

Since the expression of future time does not involve any inflecton of the verb, we do not refer to a "future tense". Strictly speaking, there are only two tenses in English: present and past.

ASPECT refers to how an event or action is to be viewed with respect to time, rather than to its actual location in time. We can illustrate this using the following examples:

[1] David fell in love on his eighteenth birthday
[2] David has fallen in love
[3] David is falling in love

In [1], the verb fell tells us that David fell in love in the past, and specifically on his eighteenth birthday. This is a simple past tense verb.

In [2] also, the action took place in the past, but it is implied that it took place quite recently. Furthermore, it is implied that is still relevant at the time of speaking -- David has fallen in love, and that's why he's behaving strangely. It is worth noting that we cannot say *David has fallen in love on his eighteenth birthday. The auxiliary has here encodes what is known as PERFECTIVE ASPECT, and the auxiliary itself is known as the PERFECTIVE AUXILIARY.

In [3], the action of falling in love is still in progress -- David is falling in love at the time of speaking. For this reason, we call it PROGRESSIVE ASPECT, and the auxiliary is called the PROGRESSIVE AUXILIARY.

Aspect always includes tense. In [2] and [3] above, the aspectual auxiliaries are in the present tense, but they could also be in the past tense:

David had fallen in love -- Perfective Aspect, Past Tense
David was falling in love -- Progressive Aspect, Past Tense

The perfective auxiliary is always followed by a main verb in the -edform, while the progressive auxiliary is followed by a main verb in the -ing form. We exemplify these points in the table below:

Perfective Aspect

Progressive Aspect

Present Tense

has fallen

is falling

Past Tense

had fallen

was falling

While aspect always includes tense, tense can occur without aspect (David falls in love, David fell in love).


There are two voices in English, the active voice and the passive voice:

Active Voice

Passive Voice

[1] Paul congratulated David

[2] David was congratulated by Paul

Passive constructions are formed using the PASSIVE AUXILIARY be, and the main verb has an -ed inflection. In active constructions, there is no passive auxiliary, though other auxiliaries may occur:

Paul is congratulating David
Paul will congratulate David
Paul has congratulated David

All of these examples are active constructions, since they contain no passive auxiliary. Notice that in the first example (Paul is congratulating David), the auxiliary is the progressive auxiliary, not the passive auxiliary. We know this because the main verb congratulatehas an -ing inflection, not an -ed inflection.

In the passive construction in [2], we refer to Paul as the AGENT. This is the one who performs the action of congratulating David. Sometimes no agent is specified:

David was congratulated

We refer to this as an AGENTLESS PASSIVE

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