7.3 Closed Class Categories (Function Words)

In Unit 7.1 we saw that linguists group words into syntactic categories according to how they behave. Content words convey a lot of the meaning of a sentence. But not many sentences would be complete if they contained only nouns, verbs, or adjectives. There are also several smaller categories of words called closed-class categories because the language does not usually add new words to these categories. These categories don’t have many members, maybe only a few dozen, in contrast with the many thousands of words in the open-class categories. They’re the function words or non-lexical categories that do a lot of grammatical work in a sentence but don’t necessarily have obvious semantic content.

The category of determiners doesn’t have many members but its members occur very frequently in English.  The two little words the and a are the most recognizable members. Determiners most often appear before a noun, as in:

a student

an orange

the snake

the ideas

Any word that can appear in the same position as the counts as a determiner, like demonstratives:

those students

these oranges

that snake

this idea

Quantifiers and numerals also behave like determiners:

many students

twelve oranges

most snakes

several ideas

And the words that you might have encountered as “possessive adjectives” or “possessive pronouns” behave like determiners as well:

my sister

your idea

their car

The category of prepositions seems to have slightly more obvious semantic content than most other closed classes. Prepositions often represent relationships in space and time. They also have consistent syntactic distribution, usually appearing with a noun phrase immediately following them:

on the table

in the basket

around the block

through the centuries

near campus

after class

A very small category of words that does an important job are the conjunctions. There are only three conjunctions, and, or, but. The job that conjunctions do is to conjoin two words or phrases that belong to the same category:

oranges and lemons

brushed her teeth and went to bed

strong and fast

soup or salad

singing or dancing

hated her roommate but loved her roommate’s sister

small but mighty

You might have learned that words like because and although are a type of conjunction, but they don’t behave like and, or, but. Their behaviour is more similar to a category of words we label as complementizers. Complementizers are function words that introduce a clause, which is a sentence embedded inside a larger sentence:

Sam told us that she loved baseball.

She hoped that the Blue Jays would win the World Series.

Leilani wondered whether it would rain that afternoon.

She asked her roommate if she had heard the forecast.

The roommate checked the forecast because she wanted to go for a run.

She decided to go running although a storm was forecast.

Mel washed the dishes while the cupcakes were in the oven.


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