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CAS LX 522 Syntax I. Week 2a. Categories. Describing the grammatical system. Our goal is to describe the systematic grammatical knowledge that people have.

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CAS LX 522 Syntax I

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CAS LX 522Syntax I

Week 2a. Categories

Describing the grammatical system

  • Our goal is to describe the systematic grammatical knowledge that people have.

  • To describe how words can be combined (and how they cannot be combined) into sentences requires classification of words into different groups that each share syntactic properties, the syntactic categories.

Grammatical categories

  • A grammatical category is a class of expressions which share a common set of grammatical properties.

  • Some that we know when we see:

    • frog, utensil, liberty: noun

    • jump, know, donate: verb

    • smooth, intense, magenta, likely: adjective

    • rapidly, halfheartedly, effectively, well: adverb

    • on, under, aboard: preposition


  • Nouns generally are used to refer to something, a person, an object, an abstract idea.

  • Nouns can often have a plural.

    • But: sheep, deer

    • But: furniture

    • But: policy decisions

  • The distinction between singular and plural is a grammatical distinction. The difference between dog and cat is a difference of content, whereas the difference between dog and dogs is predictable if you know what dog means. Predictable things are part of the grammar.

Inflectional morphology

  • Morphology like the plural -s in English that marks a grammatical property is inflectional morphology.

  • In a sense, these markings reflect meaning.


  • Verbs carry inflectional morphology that reflect tense and aspectual properties.

Derivational morphology

  • Inflectional morphology is distinguished from derivational morphology, which can be seen as changing or adding to meaning.

    • un: tie, untie.

    • iN: possible, impossible, regular, irregular, tolerable, intolerable

    • re: retie, rewrite.

    • This is still at a fairly intuitive level, of course…

Derivational morphology and category

  • Derivational morphology often seems to be sensitive to category and can change words from one category to another.

    • noun  adjective: ish, like, esque

    • verb  noun: er,

    • adjective/adverb  adjective/adverb: iN, un

    • adjective  noun: ness

  • The point is: we need to recognize categories of words to adequately describe/explain language.

Sharing properties

  • There are a number of morphological hints (but they are not completely reliable, due to irregularity):

    • nouns can have a plural (+s, usually)

    • verbs inflect for 3sg agreement (usually)

    • verbs inflect for tense/aspect: ing, en/ed.

    • adjectives can often be emphasized with very, as can adverbs.

    • adverbs often end in ly.


  • One of the best definitional characteristics of a syntactic category is its distribution.

  • In general, you can substitute something with another thing of the same syntactic category.

    • Obvious is an adjective.

    • It is obvious that Pat likes Tracy.

    • It is likely that Pat likes Tracy.

    • So, likely is also an adjective.


  • They have no noun.

  • They can verb.

  • They are adjective.

  • Very adverb, very adjective.

    • so long as it makes sense (e.g., with gradable adjectives; #they are very absent)

  • Right preposition

    • right over the house

Lexical and functional

  • Nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs: These are lexical categories. They carry significant and arbitrary meaning, and they are open-class (new ones can be invented).

  • But not all words are of this kind (except maybe on telegrams).

    • Telegram: Ancient form of instant messaging.

  • Sentences are held together by little “function words” as well. These are the functional categories.

Lexical and functional

  • Functional categories are more like the syntactic “glue” of a sentence, concerned more with grammatical properties.

    • Determiners: the, a(n)

    • Quantifiers (determiners): some, every

    • Demonstratives: that, this, those

    • Possessive pronouns: my, your

    • Any old pronouns: you, him, they

    • Infinitival to

    • Auxiliaries/Modals: have, be, do, can, should

    • Complementizers: that, for, if


  • Determiners generally come before a noun, and come in a few different types.

    • Articles: the, an.

    • Quantificational determiners: some, most

    • Interrogative determiner: which

    • Demonstratives: that, this

    • Possessive pronouns: my, your, their

  • These types are similar to… and different from… one another. For now, we’ll lump them together.

Determiners v. adjectives

  • Can we lump determiners together with adjectives? Maybe we could have a simpler theory of categories if we just put determiners and adjectives together.

  • They both come before nouns (in English)

  • They both seem to “modify” the noun.

    • Tall building.

    • That building.

    • A building.

    • My building.

Determiners v. adjectives

  • The big fluffy pink rabbit

  • The my rabbit

  • The that rabbit

  • Every my rabbit

  • To properly describe the distribution of these elements, we really need to separate them into two classes. Lumping them together will not give us a simpler descriptive system.

    • Determiners cannot co-occur with other determiners, and must precede any adjectives.

    • Adjectives can occur with other adjectives.

  • Regarding chairs and furniture

    • Nouns can be broken up into two classes, the mass nouns that refer to “stuff” and the count nouns that refer to things we can count. Furniture is a mass noun, chair is a count noun.

    • The use of determiners is sensitive to this difference. What are you looking for? *Chair, *fancy chair, a chair, that chair, furniture, fancy furniture.

    • It seems that in a fragment response, you need to have a determiner if you’re going to use a count noun. An adjective won’t do, hence adjectives can’t be the same as determiners.


    • Pronouns differ from nouns in a couple of ways, and should be considered a functional category.

    • The pronouns of English express person, number, and gender (3rd person).

      • 1st person: I, me, we, us

      • 2nd person: you

      • 3rd person: he, she, him, her, they, them, it


    • Pronouns differ from regular nouns in that they give an indication of their function in the sentence. They are marked for case.

    • Subject: he, she, I, they

    • Non-subject: him, her, me, them

    • You and it do not vary regardless of function, but they could hardly be of a different category that I/me, they/them.

    Auxiliaries and modals

    • Different from verbs: have, be, do, will, can, might.

      • In questions, auxiliaries “invert” with the subject, verbs don’t.

      • Will you leave? Can you leave? Do you leave often? *Leave you often?

      • Auxiliaries occur before not, verbs don’t.

      • You will not leave. You did not leave. *You left not.

      • Notice the extra do: “do-support”.

    • Auxiliaries are responsible for things like tense, mood, modality, aspect, voice. Grammatical things.

    Infinitival to

    • I like to go to the movies.

    • Kind of looks like a preposition, but it’s not. Prepositions take nouns, to as a P has a kind of contentful meaning (endpoint of a path). Infinitival to takes (bare) verbs only, means nothing (apart from “untensed”).

    Infinitival to like a modal?

    • To and modals (can,might, should) seem to appear in the same place (between the subject and a bare verb form).

      • I like that John can pick up his dry-cleaning.

      • I’d like for John to pick up his dry-cleaning.

    I (a.k.a. INFL)

    • This whole class of functional elements (modals, to, auxiliaries) seem to be responsible for tense (and subject agreement, as we’ll discuss).

    • These are the things reflected by the verbal inflectional morphology.

    • These elements seem to behave basically alike, so we’ll suppose they are of a single category, I (for Inflection).

    • In many languages, infinitives are marked with a special inflectional ending, not unlike finite verbs. So, we might take to to be marking a special kind of tense: untensed (non-finite).


    • Pat will leave.

    • I heard that Pat will leave.

    • I wonder if Pat will leave.

    • I am anxious for Pat to leave.

    • It is perfectly possible to embed a sentence inside another one. When we do this, it is indicated with a complementizer (introducing a complement clause).

    The P for v. the C for

    • For is of course a preposition (I looked for you for three hours), but not when it is introducing clauses.

      • He headed right for the back row.

      • *He’d like right for the class to be over.

      • *He expressed interest in the class to be over.

      • Who would you vote for in the primary?

      • *Who are you anxious for to win the primary?

    The D that v. the C that

    • Same kind of thing holds for that.

      • I like that movie.

      • I heard that the movie involved guinea pigs.

    • Sometimes you can replace for clauses with that clauses.

      • It is important that Pat votes.

      • It is important for Pat to vote.


    • Lexical categories:

      • N: nounA: adjectiveAdv: adverb

      • V: verbP: preposition

    • Functional categories:

      • I: inflection/aux/modalD: determiner

      • C: complementizerPRN: Pronoun

    [A labeled ] [N brackets ]

    • A common way of indicating the syntactic categories of words is by using labeled brackets, putting [brackets] around the word and marking the first one with a syntactic category label.

    • [NPat] [I is] [Aanxious] [C for] [N Tracy][I to] [V win] [D the] [N election] [P in][N November] [Advdecisively].

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