English Words, Word-classes and

by Nguyen Thi Van Lam, TIL (Tun Institute of Learning, Yangon, Myanmar), May 2004

The importance of English vocabulary in communication and language teaching and learning has stimulated the author in the study on English words. In this article, the author discusses different definitions of words first and then the two classes of words: closed- and open-classes. The syntactic functions of English words belonging to the open-classes are also dealt with. In addition, the study is concerned with morphemes, types of morphemes and the formation of words.


  Morpheme and types of morpheme
  Word-formation Processes

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1 Introduction

The vocabulary of English consists of several hundred thousand words, and without an extensive vocabulary, communication in English just cannot occur in a meaningful way. In addition, a good understanding of English is essential for the teaching and learning of English as a foreign language. In fact, the status of vocabulary in a curriculum has been considerably enhanced, partly as a result of the development of the communicative approaches to language teaching and partly through the stimulus of comprehension-based methods. Fully aware of the importance of words, the author is to study English words, word-classes and word-formation with a view to improving the understanding of words in term of grammar.


2. Words

The term ‘word’ is used a lot in linguistics, but the question “What is a word?” is not at all easy to answer accurately. In fact, many definitions of the word in different approaches have been proposed by famous linguists and they all are not satisfactory, posing one problem or two.

One way of defining the word is in the orthographic approach. A word is defined as any sequence of letters which is bound on either side by a space. This definition raises problems for written English. For example, words such as bring, brings and bringing are different words derived from the same word ‘bring’. We obviously find it difficult to understand what ‘words’ and ‘word’ in the example are.

Bloomfield (1933: 178, quoted in Palmer 1981: 33) thought of the word as the ‘minimum free form’, the smallest form that may occur in isolation. This definition does handle the majority of English words, but it cannot cope with several English items which are treated as words in writing, but which never stand on their own in natural speech such as the, a, of, etc. Several English words consist of two or more smaller units that can stay alone, e.g. ‘teapot’ with two smaller units: tea and pot.

In the grammatical approach, words are defined as having the criteria of “positional mobility” and “internal stability” (Singleton 2000: 9). By “positional mobility” is meant that words are not fixed in sentences. For instance, words in the sentence:

The cat drowsily stretched her elegant forelegs,

can be reordered in various ways without removing or disrupting anything essential:

The cat stretched her elegant forelegs drowsily.

Drowsily the cat stretched her elegant forelegs.

Her elegant forelegs the cat drowsily stretched.

Words are “internally stable” in the sense that within words, the order of smaller elements remain consistent and no element can be added. Take unhappily as an example, it consists of three morphemes un-, happy, and -ly with a rigidly fixed sequential order, so we cannot find unlyhappy or happyunly or lyunhappy. The definition of the word with these two criteria still needs some qualification. For example, the English definite article the and indefinite articles a and an would normally be considered as words, but their positional mobility is distinctly limited. They have to be parts of noun phrases occurring before the nouns or any other elements included to qualify the noun, e.g. a / the man, a / the happy man, an / the unhappy man.

Semantically, words are assumed to be basic units of meaning. There are admittedly individual units of meaning which are expressed in single, simple words. The English words ‘ant’, ‘bottle’ and ‘shoe’ are individual and indivisible forms which convey specific individual meanings. Palmer (1981: 32) states that “not all words have the same kind of meaning as others; some seem to have little or none”. In the example:

Boys like to play,

‘boys’, ‘like’ andplay’ have their meanings, but ‘to’ has no meaning at all. English words may contain smaller elements – morphemes, with their own meanings. For several English words, their meanings are a function of the meanings of their morphemes, e. g. ‘unhappy’, ‘teapot’, etc.. It should also be noted here that some whole groups of words must be taken together to establish meaning. Their meanings can not be predicted from the meanings of the word-components themselves, e. g. ‘on cloud nine’, ‘walk on air’, etc.. In these cases, the whole groups of words are single units of meaning, but the words are not.

So far we have presented some definitions of the word with one or two of their problems. It is taken as axiomatic that deciding on an accurate definition of the word is very difficult. Lyons (1977, 1995) and many other linguists (Leech 1974; Palmer 1981, Crystal 1995, Carter 1998, etc.) have used the terms ‘word-form’, ‘lexeme’, or ‘lexical item’ when dealing with words.

In Lyons (1977: 18), words defined orthographically are word-forms and italics is used for the citation of word-forms; thus, talk, talks, talking and talked are different word-forms of the word ‘talk’. The term ‘lexeme’ refers to all the units of the vocabulary of a language, listed and defined in a dictionary. The citation-forms of lexemes are enclosed in single quotation-marks, e.g. ‘happy’, ‘bring’, etc.. A lexeme is the abstract unit which is realized by different word-forms. A lexeme can be either a word expression (word-lexeme) with its form and meaning such as ‘talk’, which is realized by different word-forms: talk, talks, talking, talked, etc., or a phrasal expression (phrasal lexeme) as an idiom such as ‘on cloud nine’, ‘walk on air’, etc.. By virtue of these terms, the linguistic analysis can avoid the ambiguity resulting from different definitions of the term ‘word’.

In summary, in this section, some definitions of the word together with their problems have been discussed in terms of form and meaning. Although the definitions of words presented above are problematic, they are, to some extent, of great value in providing characteristics of the words themselves. These characteristics are the foundations of the study of English words and idioms denoting happiness. The terms ‘word-form’, ‘lexeme’, ‘lexical item’, word (as word-lexeme), idioms (as phrasal-lexeme) are used in the study. In the next section, we shall discuss one of the characteristics of word-lexemes.


3. Word-classes

The classification of words has undergone some change so far. Traditional grammars of English standardly distinguish eight parts of speech: noun (woman, cat), pronoun (I, he, everyone), verb (be, become, come), adjective (big, happy, careful), adverb (quickly, very, here), preposition (at, in, on), conjunction (and, but, because), and interjection (Ouch, Alas, Oh) (Huddleston 1984: 90).

This classification has come in for a lot of criticism, and many modern grammars, while using the categories such as nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc., refer to them as ‘word-classes’ or ‘form-classes’ rather than ‘parts of speech’. Huddleston (1984: 120) classifies words into two groups called open- and closed-classes. The traditional parts of speech such as nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs belong to open-classes while pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions and interjections belong to closed-classes.

The open-classes consist of very large numbers of members and readily accommodate the addition of new members by virtue of the use of word-formation processes, e.g. the formation of the noun happiness by adding the suffix -ness to the adjective happy, the borrowing from other languages, e.g. piano (Italian), boss (Dutch), or the creation of a new simple stem from the phonological resources of the language, e.g. nylon. The closed-classes, by contrast, are highly restricted in membership and highly resistant to the addition of new members.

In Quirk et. al. (1972: 45), words are also classified into two groups: ‘open-class items’ consisting of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs and ‘closed-system items’ with articles, demonstratives, pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections for similar reasons to Huddleston’s. The classification of words into open- and closed-classes in many modern grammars correlates with Lyons’s classification of English word-forms into two classes of full word-forms and empty word-forms (Lyons 1995). Full word-forms are forms of the major parts of speech such as nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs white empty word-forms belong to a wide variety of classes such as articles, conjunctions, interjections, prepositions and certain pronouns and adverbs. More or less equivalent terms found in the literature to ‘full word-form’ are ‘content word’ and ‘lexical word’, and to ‘empty word-form’ are ‘form-word’, ‘function-word’, ‘grammatical word’ and ‘structural-word’. 

According to Quirk et. al. (1972), the major parts of speech belonging to the open-classes have different syntactic functions in sentences. Adjectives can be the head in adjectival phrases, pre-modified by the intensifiers such as ‘very’, ‘so’, ‘extremely’, ‘absolutely’, etc., as in ‘very happy’. Adjectives or adjectival phrases can have such functions as attributive, i.e. pre-modifier of a noun, e.g. ‘happy’ in ‘the happy children’; as predicative, i.e. complement, either subject complement, e.g. ‘cheerful’ in ‘She looks cheerful’, or object complement, e.g. ‘happy’ in ‘The children made me happy’. Adjectives can sometimes be post-modifiers of a noun or a pronoun. Adjectives are often postpositive when occurring with complex indefinite pronouns ending in -body, -one, -thing, and -where, e.g. ‘someone’, ‘anything’, etc.. Several adjectives can take complementation, as exemplified in:

I am happy about my job,

I am happy to hear that you have found a good job,

My parents are happy that I have a good job,

while some others cannot, e.g.:

John is very bright.

Adverbs derived from adjectives (e.g. ‘quickly’) can be the head of adverbial phrases playing the syntactic function of adverbial and modifier of adjectives (e.g. ‘terribly happy’). Gradable adjectives and adverbs derived from the adjectives cannot only accept intensification, but comparison as well. The comparison can be the inflected forms in -er and -est, their periphrastic equivalents in more and most, and the similar, lesser and least degrees of comparison for which the pre-modifiers as, less and least are used. (Quirk et. al. 1972: 286).

Nouns, either count nouns or non-count nouns, can be the head of noun phrases functioning as a clause constituent: subject, object or complement. Nouns can be either pre-modified or post-modified or both at the same time. Another function of nouns is to combine with a preposition preceded to form a prepositional phrase which can function as subject complement and adverbial in a sentence as well as post-modifier in a noun phrase and complementation of an adjective and a verb. In the sentence:

His little sister told him an interesting story about her study.

‘sister’, ‘story’ and ‘study’ are the head nouns of the respective noun phrases ‘his little sister’, ‘an interesting story’ and ‘her study’, of which the first function as subject, the second as object and the third as prepositional complement. Also, in this example, ‘sister’ is pre-modified by ‘his’ and ‘little’ while ‘story’ is both pre-modified by ‘interesting’ and post-modified by a prepositional phrase ‘about her study’.

Verbs can be the head of verb phrases playing the central function in a sentence. Some verb types can take complementation, but others cannot. The four verb types taking complementation are intensitive (e.g. ‘be’ in ‘John is very happy’), monotransitive (e.g. ‘catch’ in ‘He caught a big fish yesterday’), ditransitive (e.g. ‘give’ in ‘He gave Mary a doll’), and complex transitive (e.g. ‘call’ in ‘She called him a hero’). Three other verb types where no complementation occurs are intransitive verbs never taking an object (e.g. ‘arrive’ in ‘Our friends have arrived’); verbs which can be transitive or intransitive with little or no difference in meaning or in subject-verb relationship (e.g. ‘smoke’ in ‘He smokes (cigarettes) every day’); and verbs which can be transitive or intransitive with considerable difference in meaning or in subject-verb relationship (e.g. ‘grow’ in  ‘He grew rapidly during that period’ beside ‘He grew flowers as a hobby’).  (Quirk et. al. 1972: 820).

In short, we have been concerned with the two classes of words: the open-classes or full word-forms and the closed-classes or empty word-forms. The syntactic functions of each major part of speech in the open-classes have been discussed. In the next section, we shall deal with another grammatical feature of words: word-formation, by means of which the class of full word-forms can be extendable.


4. Word-formation

4.1. Morpheme and types of morpheme

As Bloomfield (1933, quoted in Palmer 1981: 33) suggested, the morpheme is an element smaller than words, a unit of meaning. Most linguists consider morphemes as the smallest meaningful units and the basic grammatical units of a language. A morpheme can occur as a word, e.g. cheer, happy, or as parts of a word e.g. -ful in ‘cheerful’, un- in ‘unhappy’. In other words, a word can consist of either one morpheme (‘cheer’, ‘happy’) or more than one morpheme (‘cheerful’, ‘unhappily’).

Linguists (Yule 1985, Jeffries 1998, Jackson and Amvela 2000 and others) classify morphemes into two types: free and bound morphemes. Free morphemes can occur independently as a word, e.g. ‘cheer’, ‘joy’, etc.. They can sometimes be called roots or stems, especially when combining with other morphemes. Bound morphemes, by contrast, cannot normally stand alone, but are typically attached to free morphemes, e.g. un-, -ly, -s. They are affixes, which can be added before roots (prefixes) or after roots (suffixes).

Bound morphemes fall into two types: inflectional and derivational morphemes. Inflectional morphemes help to produce from the root of a given lexeme all the word-forms of that lexeme, which are syntactically determined. The addition of an inflectional morpheme to the root cannot result in a new lexeme or a change in grammatical categories (noun, verb, adjective, or adverb). For instance, the addition of different inflectional morphemes such as -s (third person present singular), -ing (present participle) and -ed­ (past tense) to the root of the lexeme ‘talk’ can create different word-forms of that lexeme: talks, talking, and talked, respectively. These word-forms are still verbs with different aspects of the grammatical function. Inflectional morphemes are all suffixes, which can be attached to nouns (-s: plural and -’s: possessive), verbs (-s: third person present singular, -ing: present participle, -ed: past tense and -ed / -en: past participle), adjectives and some adverbs (-er: comparative, and -est: superlative).

Derivational morphemes help to produce different lexemes, often with a change in grammatical categories. They can be either prefixes or suffixes. For example, by adding the derivational morphemes -ful and -less to the noun cheer, different lexemes ‘cheerful’ and ‘cheerless’, respectively, are created, and they are adjectives, but not nouns. However, the addition of derivational morphemes sometimes does not result in a grammatical change, e.g. ‘happy’ and ‘unhappy’, which are both adjectives in spite of the addition of the derivational morpheme un- to the root happy forming ‘unhappy’.


4.2. Word-formation Processes

As far as word-formation processes are concerned, derivation is by far the most common word-formation process to be found in the production of new English words. New words are formed by means of the derivational morphemes, which are either prefixes or suffixes, or both, added to the root. The new words formed via this process are called derived words or derivatives. Thus, the derived word ‘mislead’ has a prefix mis-, ‘disrespectful’ has both a prefix des- and suffixes -ful, and ‘cheerfulness’ has two suffixes -ful and -ness.

A slightly different but very important process of derivation on English is known as zero derivation because it does not involve adding affixes to the root. This process is dealt with in Yule (1985: 67), and Jackson and Amvela (2000: 86) as conversion. With zero derivation, the word simply changes to another word-class, without changing its form, for example, hand as a noun and hand as a verb; and lecture as a noun and lecture as a verb.

Yule (1985: 67) also deals with the word-formation process in the opposite direction of derivation, called back-formation. A word of one type is reduced to form another word, e.g. ‘luck’ formed by reducing -y in ‘lucky’. This process is very productive in the English language.

Compounding is another very productive word-formation process in English. It is the formation of compound words which consist of at least two roots, with or without derivational morphemes. For example, the compound tablecloth is formed by joining the two roots table and cloth; and the compound house-keeper is formed by joining the two roots house and keep and a derivational morpheme -er

Derivation, back-formation and compounding are the productive word-formation processes of the English vocabulary. Apart from them, there are some others such as borrowing, blending and acronyms. Borrowing is the process of utilizing words from other languages. In fact, English has adopted quite a few loan-words, as exemplified by ‘alcohol’ from Arabic, ‘piano’ from Italian, ‘tycoon’ from Japanese, ‘yogurt’ from Turkish, etc. Blending is the formation of new lexemes by combining two separate words: only the beginning of one word joined with the end of the other. For example, ‘brunch’ is formed by the beginning ‘br’ of ‘breakfast’ and the end ‘unch’ of ‘lunch’; ‘smog’ is formed by the beginning ‘sm’ of ‘smoke’ and the end ‘og’ of ‘fog’; and ‘medicopter’ formed by the beginning ‘medi’ of ‘medical’ and the end ‘copter’ of ‘helicoper’. Acronyms are produced by utilizing the initial letters of a set of words, e.g. ‘PIN’ (personal identification number), ‘ATM’ (automatic teller machine), etc.

To put in a nutshell, we have discussed morphemes, types of morpheme and word-formation processes.


5. Conclusion

English words are interesting, but difficult, to study. We have dealt with different definitions of words; the two classes of words including closed- and open-classes; and morphemes, types of morpheme and word-formation processes. Only by mastering the grammatical features of English words, can teachers and learners of, and translators into and out of English do good jobs of teaching, learning and translation. It is my suggestion for teachers of English that they should be aware of the complication of words in terms of grammar and base their teaching on their learners’ English levels so that they could avoid overwhelming their learners.



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• Crystal, D. (1995). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Second Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

• Huddleston, R. (1984). Introduction to the Grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

• Jackson, H. & Amvela. E. Z. (2000). Words, Meaning and Vocabulary. New York: Cassell.

• Jeffries, L. (1998).  Meaning in English. Hampshire: Macmillan Press Ltd.

• Leech, G. N. (1974). Semantics. Harmondsworth, Middlessex: Penguin.

• Lyons, J. (1977). Semantics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

• Lyons, J. (1981). Language and Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

• Lyons, J. (1995). Linguistics Semantics: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

• Palmer. F.R. (1981). Semantics. Second Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

• Quirk, R., Greenbaum, S., Leech, G. & Svartvik, J. (1972). A Grammar of Contemporary English. London: Longman

• Singleton, D. (2000). Language and the Lexicon. London: Arnold.

• Yule. G. (1985). The study of language. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.


Nguyen Thi Van Lam is an English teacher (Giao vien Anh van), at Foreign Languages Department (Khoa Ngoai Ngu), Vinh University (Truong Dai Hoc Vinh), 182 Le Duan Road (Duong Le Duan), Vinh City (Thanh pho Vinh ),Nghe An Province (Tinh Nghe An), Vietnam

TIL (Tun Institute of Learning, Yangon, Myanmar),  is grateful to Madam Nguyen Thi Van Lam to have the opportunity to publish her article on its web-site.

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