Words & Word Classes & Word Meaning

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Words, Word Classes, Word Formation

Words are a major interest for our students.  They all want to learn more "vocabulary words" because they see expanded vocabulary as the key to improved communication.  And, of course, they are right.  But our interest here isn't in vocabulary in the way that students typically use that term.  In grammar, word study is focused on how words can be analyzed into groups based on grammatical characteristics--rather than the word lists that students often have in mind when they talk about their need for more vocabulary.

In our study this semester, we will consider words in four ways:

1. word classes (such as noun, adjective, etc.)...often talked about in terms of parts of speech

2. word formation (such as how to form noun plurals)...often talked about in terms of morphology

3. words in use (words that tend to be used in particular types of communication)....often talked about in terms of discourse and register

4. words in relationships (words that are used together and the grammar that particular words tend to involve)...often talked about in terms of collocations and lexicogrammatical patterns


Word Classes Based on Grammar

"Word classes" are subdivisions of words built around the grammatical characteristics of the words and their use in sentences--adjectives, adverbs, articles, conjunctions, nouns, prepositions, verbs, and such.  Some word classes are meaning-based as we'll see when we talk about stative and dynamic meaning.

The term parts of speech refers to an approach to classification of words.  Words are analyzed on the basis of their formation and their use in sentences.  For example, noun refers to words that (usually) have singular/plural forms and are used in sentences as subject, object, complement, etc.  Of course, the descriptions of the features are more complex than my example--but the basic approach is the same in that two questions are asked: what are the forms like?  how are they used in sentences?

The categories that are generally recognized as parts of speech include:







Moreover, you'll find other additional categories along the way--for example, articles are generally taken to be a subset of a larger category called determiners.  Some grammarians add a special category for numerials. Additionally, these larger classes have subclasses; verbs can be regular verbs or irregular verbs.  The category conjunction includes coordinating conjunctions and subordinating conjunctions.

Word Classes Based on Meaning

In addition to creating word groups based on grammatical features, grammarians also create word groups based on meaning and the interactions between grammatical forms and these meanings.  For example, generic vs. specific or stative vs. dynamic or assertive vs. nonassertive.

We'll keep running into these terms and need to start understanding their meanings and their importance for us as grammar teachers.  Here's a fast overview.

Generic & Specific

Generic vs. Specific is a way of explaining the meanings of nouns.  A noun has "generic" meaning when it refers to things, people, ideas, etc., generally as types rather than as specific individuals.  For example, the nouns in the sentences in the left column have generic reference:

Generic Examples Specific Examples
A computer is a machine. I got a new computer for Christmas.
The computer has changed modern life. I installed the new computer early in the morning of December 24.
Computers are found just about everywhere. I now own 3 computers.
Computation of grades is a process that computers handle efficiently. Without Microsoft Excel on my computer, I would find the process of doing my grades really frustrating.
Music can be played on computers. I play the music of Beethoven on my computers.

For us as ESL/EFL teachers, the distinction between generic and specific meaning is a terrifically important concept because it lies behind one of the most difficult parts of English for us to explain and for our students to learn--selection of the articles a/an and the and the decision not to use an article at all. 

Look closely at the examples about computers: a/an, the, and nouns-without-articles are used for both generic meanings and for specific meaning.  The generic set is about computers in general--not about any particular computer owned by any particular person.  The specific set is about me and my computers in my home.  Which articles are used for which meanings?  Yep.  All of the articles are used in both types of meanings.  Not fair, but true.

If we wanted to approach teaching the articles based on how they are used with different types of nouns, we would say something like:

a/an with singular nouns
the with singular or plural or noncount nouns

zero-article with plural or noncount nouns
Those rules work for both types of meaning.  They help students know which one to select for particular types of nouns--singular, plural, or noncount--but these observations about noun phrase structure don't help with meaning-based decisions.

We need an approach to nouns and articles that is built on the meaning differences we can see in the chart.  That's a topic for the reminder of this semester.  But, please, do start thinking about it now. What is it about those generic sentences that might give us a handle on explaining to students how to select the correct article for the correct meaning?

Stative vs. Dynamic & Assertive vs. Nonassertive

These meaning-based categories have grammatical implications for our students, too.  Perhaps not as challenging for most students as the generic/specific use of nouns and articles, but important nevertheless.

Stative vs. Dynamic is a way of classifying different types of verbs--or at least different meanings that verbs can have.  Stative refers to "state of being" rather than "action."  For example, sentences with be are descriptions of states of being rather than of activities:  She is a teacher.  He is a sociologist.  Dynamic refers to "actions" and "activity" in verb meanings: He walks to class.  They eat lunch in the cafeteria. The contrast is often used in ESL/EFL to help students understand why they can or cannot use a progressive verb form.  That is, progressive verbs refer to actions rather than states of being.  That's why this sentence is wrong: *They are knowing English very well.  The verb know generally is used for a "state of being" rather than an action, and so it can't be used in the progressive form (most of the time). 

This meaning has been overgeneralized a bit in ESL/EFL materials where we have lists of verbs divided into groups of Stative Verbs and Dynamic Verbs.  Here's the actual situation: some verbs are just about always used for stative meanings; some verbs are just about always used for dynamic meanings; but...verbs can be switched from one class to the other for special purposes.  For example, verbs like taste or smell can be either actions or states of being:  He was tasting the soup for salt when he dropped the box of salt in the pan.  The soup tastes pretty salty now. 

Assertive vs. Nonassertive is a way of talking about the difference between positive sentences and related negative sentences and questions. The idea is that positive sentences "assert" something while negative sentences and questions do not.    

Assertive Examples Nonassertive Examples
They have been to France already. Negative
They haven't been to Egypt yet.
They had some French bread for dinner. Negative
They haven't had any Egyptian bread yet.

Did they have any French wine?

They saw somebody running out of the restaurant. Question
Did they see anybody they recognized?

They didn't see anyone that they knew.


Pro-forms & Ellipsis

Here we just need to notice three things for now: 

1. Pro-forms is a category that includes pronouns and pro-verbs.  (I know, but it's true that in a question like What did he do? the word do is called a pro-verb that stands in the place of a verb with real meaning.) 

2. Ellipsis is the leaving out of words.   In the following sentence, the phrase "go to Egypt" is not repeated but is understood: They will go to Egypt, and I will, too. 

3. Pro-forms and ellipsis are often talked about together because they have similar functions in context.  They are both ways of repeating things without repeating them exactly. And they are both ways of tying sentences together in larger units.


The term operator is a way of subdividing the verb phrase to point out the different functions of auxiliaries in questions and negatives.  The operator is the first auxiliary verb in complex verb phrases such as the ones in these sentences:

Sentences with complex verb phrases Questions and negatives related to the positive examples
He will study sociology next semester.

The first auxiliary is used to form the negative and the question.  That first auxiliary is called the operator.

He won't study sociology next semester.

Will he study sociology next semester?

They have been studying English for many years.

The reason for talking about the first auxiliary is clearer in this example where there are two auxiliaries.  The first of the two auxiliaries is the one that is used to form the negative and to make the question.

They haven't been studying English long.

Have they been studing English for long?

She prefers psychology to sociology. She avoided anthropology.

Notice the change here.  The grammar requires an operator to make a negative or to ask a question.  The verb phrase doesn't have an operator (because it doesn't have an auxiliary at all).  So, do is added to provide an operator.

She doesn't prefer psychology to sociology. She didn't avoid sociology.

Does she prefer psychology to sociology? Did she avoid anthropology?




What's the point for ESL/EFL teachers?  Maybe there are several points for us here.

1. The formation of negatives and questions is a lot alike.  That is, students can learn one process that is applied in two settings.

2. The formation of negatives and questions with simple present tense and past tense verbs follows the same pattern as for complex verbs.  That is, the same process can be applied here--it isn't a new rule but a variation on the basic rule.  Negation and questions require the use of an operator; if there isn't an operator, one has to be provided.

3. We need to teach the grammar of question formation in the following order:

a. First teach yes-no questions with complex verb forms to show how the first auxiliary is moved to the front of the sentence.

b. Second teach yes-no questions with simple present tense and simple past tense, showing how the adding of do/does/did follows the same rule.

c. Third, apply these rules to the formation of information questions.

4. We need to teach the grammar of negatives in the following order:
a. First teach negatives with sentences that have complex verb phrases to show the addition of the negative after the auxiliary.

b. Second teach negatives with sentences that have simple present tense and simple past tense verbs.


Please email your questions, especially those about grammar based on your reading of the Longman Grammar.