Parts of speech and classification papers

In English 109, we write three kinds of papers:

  • Classification
  • Definition
  • Simple argument

I’m especially fond of classification papers because there are so many ways to classify practically any subject you can think of. Classification is a puzzle.

Consider the “parts of speech.” How are English words classified into groups?

And: how should English words be classified into groups? Which classifications work best? (And how do we know?)

These are the questions we ask when writing classification papers.

Below are three ways of classifying English words.

First, the traditional parts of speech used by dictionaries:

NOUN the name of a person, place, thing, or concept Jesly, Devin; Dobbs Ferry; Mercy College; book, person; love, grammar, macroeconomics
PRONOUN a word used in the place of a noun I, you, he, she, you, we, they; me, him, her, us, them; my, mine, your, yours, his, hers, ours, theirs; who, that, which, that, whom, where, when, what, why, whose, whose, of which…
VERB usually expresses action or being (what the subject does or is/is not) The book is long.
The book is not long.
The sand feels hot.
He sat down.
She stirred the soup.
ADJECTIVE a word used to modify, or describe, a noun or pronoun black cat; brown dog
ADVERB a word used to modify, or qualify, a verb, an adjective, or another adverb The bird sings sweetly. (“sweetly” modifies the verb “sing”)
The bird has a very beautiful voice. (“very” is an adverb modifying “beautiful,” an adjective)
The birds sing very beautifully. (“very” is an adverb modifying “beautifully,” another adverb)
Sometimes adverbs modify nouns: the room upstairs (“upstairs” is an adverb modifying “room,” a noun)
PREPOSITION a word placed before a noun or pronoun to form a phrase modifying another word in the sentence of the people, for the people, by the people, etc. See: Common prepositions | Sierra College
CONJUNCTION a word that joins words, phrases, or clauses and that indicates the relationship between the elements they join FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so
SUBORDINATING CONJUNCTIONS: whenever, after, although, etc.
SEE: Subordinators & Relative pronouns | Sierra College
INTERJECTION a word used to express surprise or emotion oh! wow! wait! omg! etc.

(from Hacker & Sommers; adapted from Rider University Student Success Center)

A second approach: Randolph Quirk and Sidney Greenbaum divided the parts of speech into “open classes” and “closed classes.”

Greebaum and Nelson explain: “Open classes are readily open to new words; closed classes are limited classes that rarely admit new words. For example, it is easy to create new nouns, but not new pronouns.” (Greenbaum & Nelson, 86)

Open classes “Open” because new words frequently enter the group.
NOUN Paul, paper, speech, play
ADJECTIVE young, cheerful, dark, round
MAIN VERB talk, become, like, play
ADVERB carefully, firmly, confidentially
   
Closed classes “Closed” because new words rarely enter the group.
PRONOUN she, somebody, one, who, that
DETERMINER a, the, that, each, some
AUXILIARY (VERB) can, may, will, have, be, do
CONJUNCTION and, that, in order that, if, though
PREPOSITION of, at, to, in spite of

And finally, here is Huddleston and Pullum‘s list from 2002:

i NOUN The dog barked. That is Sue. We saw you.
ii VERB The dog barked. It is impossible. I have a headache.
iii ADJECTIVE He’s very old. It looks empty. I’ve got a new car.
iv DETERMINATIVE The dog barked. I need some nails. All things change.
v ADVERB She spoke clearly. He’s very old. I almost died.
vi PREPOSITION It’s in the car. I gave it to Sam. Here’s a list of them.
vii COORDINATOR I got up and left. Ed or Jo took it.  It’s cheap but strong.
viii SUBORDINATOR It’s odd that they were late. I wonder whether it’s still available. They don’t know if you’re serious.

(Download as pdf file)

After teaching English 109 for three years, I’m partial to Huddleston and Pullum’s scheme. I like the fact that they designate “subordinators” and “coordinators” as fundamental categories and find this approach terrifically useful.

I think you’ll see why in class.

UPDATE 12/29/2013:

This fall I found the distinction between open and closed word classes useful; I also find that teaching pronouns as a specific class is essential. So I’ve ended up using an amalgam of Greenbaum/Nelson and Huddleston/Pullum:

Open classes “Open” because new words frequently enter the group.
NOUN Paul, paper, speech, play
ADJECTIVE young, cheerful, dark, round
MAIN VERB talk, become, like, play
ADVERB carefully, firmly, confidentially
   
Closed classes “Closed” because new words rarely enter the group.
PRONOUN she, somebody, one, who, that
DETERMINATIVE a, the, that, each, some
AUXILIARY (VERB) can, may, will, have, be, do
COORDINATOR FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet 
SUBORDINATOR in order that, if, although, whenever
PREPOSITION of, at, to, in spite of

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