based on the phonological form of a certain word we cannot predict its meaning. The same word can mean different things in different languages.


a system that enables people who speak it to produce and understand linguistic expressions.

lexical entry

a collection of the idiosyncratic properties of lexical items.


a word that names people, places or things that can have a plural form. Feature composition: [+N, –V, –F]

word category

a set of expressions that share certain linguistic features, a grouping of words that cluster together, e.g. noun, verb. See also functional category, thematic category.

Basic English Syntax with Exercises

1.2.2 Categories

Lexical knowledge concerns more than the meaning and pronunciation of words, however. Consider the examples in (2) and (3) again. The word cat is not the only one that could possibly go in the positions in (2), so could the words dog, mouse and budgerigar:

(4)athe dog slept
bhe fed Pete’s mouse
cI tripped over a budgerigar

This is perhaps not so surprising as all these words have a similar meaning as they refer to pets. However, compare the following sets of sentences:

(5)athe hairbrush slept
bhe fed Pete’s algebra
cI tripped over a storm
(6)athe if slept
bhe fed Pete’s multiply
cI tripped over a stormy

There is something odd about both these set of sentences, but note that they do not have the same status. The sentences in (5), while it is difficult to envisage how they could be used, are not as weird as those in (6). Given that neither sets of sentences make much sense, this does not seem to be a fact about the meanings of the words involved. There is something else involved. It seems that some words have something in common with each other and that they differ from other words in the same way. Hence, the set of words in a language is not one big homogenous set, but consists of groupings of words that cluster together. We call these groups word categories. Some well known categories are listed below:


The obvious question to ask is: on what basis are words categorised? As pointed out above, it is not straightforward to categorise words in terms of their meaning, though traditionally this is a very popular idea. Part of the problem is that when one looks at the range of meanings associated with the words of one category, we need to resort to some very general concept that they might share. For example, a well known definition for the category noun is that these are words that name people, places or things. While this may give us a useful rule of thumb to identifying the category of a lot of words, we often run into trouble as the notion is not particularly precise: in what way do nouns ‘name’ and what counts as a thing, for example? While it may be obvious that the word Bartók names a particular person, because that is what we call the thing that this word refers to, it is not clear why, therefore, the word think is not considered a name, because that is what we call the thing that this refers to. Moreover, the fact that the words:


are all nouns means that the concept thing must extend to them, but how do we therefore stop the concept from extending to:


which are not nouns?

Fortunately, there are other ways of determining the category of words, which we will turn to below. But it is important to note that there are two independent issues here. On the one hand is the issue of how the notion of word category is instantiated in the linguistic system and on the other hand is the issue of how we, as linguists, tell the category of any particular word. As to the first issue, word categories are simply properties of lexical elements, listed in the lexical entry for each word, and, as we have pointed out, lexical information is arbitrary. Therefore, word categories are whatever the linguistic system determines them to be. While there may be some link between meaning and category established by the linguistic system, for now it is not important that we establish what this link is or to speculate on its nature (does meaning influence category or does category influence meaning, for example?). More pressing at the moment is the issue of how we determine the category of any given word. Before looking at specific categories, let us consider some general ways for determining categories.