Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Class consciousness

So what's the alternative to the old "parts of speech" model? Schoolhouse Rock provides a clue: "conjunction junction, what's your function?" -- what if we were were to ask of other words, not what it is they are, but what it is they do? The answer would give us word classes, which have the tremendous advantage of describing what English words actually do do in actual sentences and utterances. Some of these classes, such as the class of prepositions or that of conjunctions, are relatively stable -- these are sometimes called "closed" classes -- but in other cases -- what the parts people call nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs -- a word's class status might be completely different depending on the particular sentence it's in. In addition to words such as fish, photograph, taste, and service -- all of which can potentially be members of several classes without changing their form at all (these are called zero morphs) we also have a wide array of suffixes, and sometimes prefixes, that "recruit" a word from one class to another: -able turns verbs into adjectives (love ==> lovable); -ment turns verbs into nouns (govern ==> government); and of course -ly turns adjectives into adverbs (quick ==> quickly).

But in addition to this ability of English words to change classes, there are also sub-classes within each class; these are based on what a word can and can't do, functionally. For instances, some nouns are non-count nouns (applesauce, gasoline); they don't take any plural form, and require the use of less rather than fewer when using comparatives. Proper nouns, although the category may seem external to speech itself, can be functionally thought of as a sub-class of non-count nouns (since they too don't take plurals) but further restricted in other ways (they don't take definite articles; they are traditionally capitalized in print). Classes are like stacking boxes, which is why nouns and verbs themselves, functionally speaking, are viewed as sub-classes of noun phrases (NP) and verb phrases (VP). The functional diagram of the sentence above shows how "The boss ate soup at home" might be looked at in functional terms. A common method for determining function is that any valid NP or sub-class of NP can replace another NP in any sentence without any syntactical issues.

Word classes are also a better reflection of how utterances have been and continue to be generated; not by structures imposed on the top after the fact, but by generative principles intuitively understood by any native or fluent speaker of English. Which is not to say that we can wave the "grammar Nazis" goodbye for ever -- some anxiety will still linger, particularly when it comes to the principles of formal written English. Fortunately, when we are writing formally -- unlike when we speak spontaneously -- there is always time to go back and revise. Above all, it should be borne in mind that to demand that all the formal rules of English be applied to any utterance, even the most casual, shows a completely misguided outlook, one ignorant of how language functions, as well as to the value of different levels of formality in different situations. Tell that to the next "prospcriptivist" you meet!

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