Grammar Basics: Words (2)

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Sentences are made up of different kinds of words, and it makes it easier to refer to them if we give them names depending on what they do. Many of us may have been taught at school that words are divided into groups known as parts of speech. That is an incomplete description and is no longer much used. Linguists speak instead of word classes. These can be listed as nouns, lexical verbs, adjectives and adverbs, on the one hand, and determiners, pronouns, auxiliary verbs, adverbial particles, prepositions and coordinating and subordinating conjunctions on the other. Those in the first group are called lexical words. They carry the meaning of a sentence. Those in the second group are called function words and, among other things, they help relate one lexical word to another. Function words are members of a closed class of words, that is, they only rarely admit strangers into their ranks. In this they contrast with lexical words which belong to an open class. Lexical words can, and frequently do, allow others to join them. As our needs change, so does the language, and we create new lexical words as required.

The difference is perhaps clearer in an example. Let’s take that last sentence. If we leave out the three function words, the, in and an, we’re left with difference is perhaps clearer example. While that is not what we would normally say, there is enough for us to get a good idea of the meaning. When we put back the, in and an, little is added to the meaning, but we can understand the sentence more readily. The three function words have little meaning in themselves, but they give the sentence a structure which our minds are better able to process.

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8 responses to “Grammar Basics: Words (2)

  1. Pingback: Grammar Basics: Words (1) | Caxton

  2. Reblogged this on InvisibleSource and commented:
    Everything happens for a reason see past gram mar

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  3. Prepositions, at least in English, can radically change the meaning by specifying the relationship between the content words. “Book desk” – on, in, under, atop? Perhaps not surprisingly, prepositions are perhaps the least tightly closed class of function words.

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  4. They are. Stan Carey has recently reported on the emergence of ‘because’ as a preposition: http://stancarey.wordpress.com/2013/11/13/because-has-become-a-preposition-because-grammar/

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    • Thanks, Barrie. I’ve since updated it to sound a note of uncertainty that was regrettably missing from the title of the post – since there is some disagreement about whether because was already a preposition, becomes one in the popular “because X” construction, or isn’t a preposition at all.
      More to the point, I’m greatly enjoying this new series you’re doing on grammar basics: an excellent idea well executed.

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      • Kind of you to say so. I see that we both have the latest McIntyre seal of approval.

        I’ve just looked again at the OED entry for ‘because’ and see that a 1961 citation includes ‘Because why?’ That doesn’t make it a preposition, but it at least shows a certain flexibility of use.

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  5. Pingback: Grammar Basics: Nouns | Caxton

  6. Pingback: Grammar Basics: Determiners | Caxton

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