To fully understand the mechanics of any language, it is vital for us to understand its building blocks, and identifying distinct classes is an excellent way of doing this. In the study of linguistics, lexical categories are a way of classifying words into separate groups, determined by their function and placement within sentences. This essay will discuss the different lexical categories that each of the following words belong to: ‘examine’, ‘industrialisation’, ‘after’ and ‘cross’, and how we can tell this.
There are 5 major lexical categories, also known as word classes: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and prepositions. As well as these, we have 4 minor word classes: auxiliary verbs, pronouns, conjunctions and determiners; whose function is much more grammatical and less to do with their meanings, as it is with the major classes. In a few cases however, words fall into multiple categories; this can be due to their different ambiguous semantic meanings which disrupt their placements and functions in the sentences.
The word ‘examine’ falls into the lexical category of verbs, under the subcategory of transitive verbs, meaning it requires an object to be grammatically correct. To determine whether it is a verb or not in the first place can be easily done by observing the grammatical word order in Standard English, S-V-O (subject-verb-object).
a) I examined the patient.
b) * I examined.
In terms of word order, we can learn through example a) that the pronoun ‘I’ must be the subject, ‘examined’ the verb, and the noun phrase ‘the patient’ as the object. The absence of an object in b) is what makes it ungrammatical as the verb requires something to act upon, therefore proving it is a transitive verb. A further way to distinguish verbs without knowing the target language’s word order is to identify inflections. Tense inflections are solely attached to verbs so their presence in a word can prove it is a verb. In the example given above, the past tense -ed inflection is present and ‘examined’ is classed as an actual word, thus proving it is a verb. This however can go for any tense inflection, such as present participle -ing or putting the particle ‘to’ preceding the verb to make a full infinitive. The words ‘examining’ and ‘to examine’ are both real words, however if we take this word’s noun counterpart, ‘examination’, it’s clear to see that ‘examinationing’ and ‘to examination’ are not.
There are some limitations to relying on inflections however, as the existence of gerunds proves. Verbs ending in the present participle ‘-ing’ form, as previously explained, can show tense. In certain circumstances these words can act as nouns meaning it is necessary to also be able to identify nouns otherwise the sentence may seem grammatically incorrect at first glance.
We can use the next word ‘industrialisation’, a common noun, as a way of illustrating how to recognise nouns. Again, referring to standard English word order, S-V-O, ‘industrialisation’ is grammatically correct when the noun is in the subject or object position.
c) The industrialisation of the city was immense.
d) * The city industrialisation immense.
e) The city underwent immense industrialisation.
We can therefore rule out that it is a verb. Applying this to the gerund issue earlier is also relevant as shown below.
f) Your writing is nice.
g) * Your writing nice.
To determine what lexical category a word is, after understanding that it could be a subject or object is also fairly simple. Subjects consist of a noun or noun phrase in the majority of cases, objects however could be nouns, noun phrases or adjectives. As ‘industrialisation’ is uncountable, we cannot identify it by plural inflections. All nouns however have the same distribution, so must be preceded by a determiner and not followed, thus meaning the following can and can’t occur, respectively.
h) The industrialisation was most prominent in the 19th century.
i) *Industrialisation the was most prominent in the 19th century.
It is also possible that, in the case that ‘industrialisation’ was in the object place, one could assume it to potentially be an adjective. To refute this, we can analyse the actual construction and morphology of the word. The adjective ‘industrial’ was formed first and later gained the suffix ‘ise’ (In Standard British English; Standard American English speakers prefer ‘ize’) which turned it into the verb ‘industrialise’. Combined with the suffix -ation, which only attaches to verbs to form nouns (personalis(e)-ation, not(e)-ation, etc.), we can confirm that ‘industrialisation’ (industrialis(e)-ation) is a noun.
The previous two words however have been examples of verbs and nouns, two of the most well-known lexical categories, whose word order (in most cases) makes it easy to spot which category they fall into. In the case of the word ‘after’, its ambiguous nature means it falls into various groups and so we must explore other lexical categories and how to identify them. ‘After’ falls into 3 of the major word classes, noun, adverb and preposition.
j) He ran after her.
k) Day after day, he went to work.
By using the replacement test, we can syntactically prove that ‘after’ in j) is a preposition because ‘he ran with her’ and ‘he ran to her’ both make equal sense and modify the subject ‘he’ in the same way. An alternative way of identifying ‘after’ as a preposition is through the fact that it can’t stand alone but must (in most cases) be followed by a noun. Example k) shows that as a preposition, ‘after’ is modifying the noun ‘day’.
Adverbs however can often be identified by their morphological identity as many of them contain the suffix -ly. Because ‘after’ obviously doesn’t contain this, we can instead learn that it is an adverb through the ungrammaticality when it is placed between a determiner and a noun, as shown below.
l) After the man ran, he had a rest.
m) *The after man ran, he had a rest.
This also ties in to the fact that adverbs can modify other adverbs, verbs and adjectives, but can’t modify nouns or pronouns (this is the function of adjectives). Example m) shows this also as the clause ‘the after man ran’ doesn’t make sense grammatically (or semantically). The idiomatic phrase ‘happily ever after’ however does show ‘after’ modifying its fellow adverb ‘happily’. It is also relevant to mention that the plural form ‘afters’ can be found throughout many dialects in England acting as a noun as shown in ‘I might have cake for afters.’
In terms of other popular tests, the use of interrogative pronouns is also efficient. For adverbs, it is necessary to ask ‘when’ or ‘how’. If we asked the man in l) when did he have a rest, we can tell that it was after the man had run. This test is also useful when looking at adjectives. Our next piece of data, ‘cross’ can be identified as an adjective by asking the questions ‘what kind or ‘which one’.
n) The cross mother hurried along.
Here if we ask what kind of mother she was, we know she was a ‘cross’ one, thus showing it is an adjective. This example is very simple however as adjectives tend to be preceded by a determiner (the) and followed by the noun it modifies (mother). Limitations to this do arise however when adjectives are present in complements, in which case other methods are needed to determine its status as a noun.
The constituency test for nouns, which simply includes replacing the supposed noun with a pronoun, usually ‘it’, is used to show that ‘cross’ can also be a noun.
o) Jesus died on a cross.
p) Jesus died on it.
‘Cross’ doesn’t stop here however, and we can analyse its subject agreement to learn that it is also a verb. This is often done by using suffixes.
q) I cross the road.
r) She crosses the road.
The suffix -es, present in r), is used to indicate that the verb now agrees with the 3rd person singular present tense, in this case, ‘she’. As earlier, the verb ‘cross’ can have different meanings resulting in it being a transitive and intransitive verb in different situations, but both have the same syntactic function.
We can conclude from the fact that these lexical categories are used within standard and non-standard language forms that lexical categories are a universal way of classifying words with different functions. The existence, and developed understanding, of open classes and closed classes allows for research and predictions regarding the future of languages and potentially even unravelling some of the unknowns of the past. However, the fundamental reason why linguists need to determine lexical categories through word order analysis, morphological constructions, constituency tests etc, is the necessity of it regarding understanding syntax rules and formations in any language.