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Scales and squishes in grammar

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Recently I’ve had some interesting email correspondence over the grammatical labeling of certain English words that seem to be hybrids — these are the ones that (for various reasons) don’t fall nicely into any of the major categories of speech. Two examples were

      A newly learned language

      A recently escaped prisoner

Old definitions die hard

Even those who haven’t had much grammar in their lives probably recall definitions such as:

  • a noun is the name of a person, place or thing
  • a verb is a doing word
  • an adjective is a describing word

Somehow these descriptions never leave us — even though it doesn’t take long to realize that huge numbers of nouns don’t in fact “refer to persons, places or things”, a good many verbs aren’t “doing words” either, and all sorts of different words describe things. So semantics isn’t a lot of help here.


Words are assigned to classes not on the basis of their meaning but rather aspects of their grammatical behaviour. First, words of the same class typically show the same morphological possibilities. Most English nouns take a plural ending (book versus books for example). Second, they normally fill the same basic slots and form recurrent patterns in a language. This has to do with the sorts of things they combine with — well-behaved nouns like book take a range of adjectives (lousy books), determiners (those books), and even other nouns (crime books). It also involves their function — good nouns like book can be subjects (Books are important) and objects (I like books).

But notice the hedges in this paragraph — typically, most, normally, well-behaved nouns, good nouns. The problem is linguistic labels like ‘noun’ or ‘verb’ aren’t nearly as regular and clear-cut as dictionaries and grammar books make out. Their accounts present a linguistic regularity and uniformity that is a fiction. The reality of language is mess and fuzziness.

Badly behaved adjectives

Adjectives can be a notoriously badly behaved bunch of words. Take a couple of simple examples — asleep and sleeping. While you can certainly say the man seems asleep, something like *?the asleep man is horrible. Now, a basic property of adjectives is that they can modify nouns in this way, but asleep can’t. The reason is historical. Asleep has its origins in a prepositional phrase Middle English on slæpe “on/in sleep”. So it’s signed up but is not yet a fully-fledged team member. (Compare awake, alone, afraid and aloof, which show differing degrees of “adjectiviness”.)

Conversely, the sleeping man is possible, but not *?the man seems sleeping. Sure, you can say The man is sleeping, but that’s the progressive form of the verb sleep. And it’s this verb that gives us the modifier sleeping  (in the sleeping man). However, unlike central adjectives such as interesting or fascinating, sleeping is still very much tied to the verbal apron strings — it remains more verb than adjective.

For comparison, consider the near synonym sleepy. It’s a well-behaved adjective with all of the basic properties of adjectivehood. You can put it in front of nouns or after nouns as in the sleepy man and the man seems happy. You can also add adjective endings (sleepier and sleepiest), and modify it with very or too (very/too sleepy).

On the scale between verbiness and adjectiviness

In something like a very learned woman, learned (pronounced [lɜnəd]) passes all the adjective tests (in earlier times it could even take endings: “the gravest and learnedest courts”). But learned “acquired”, in the example of a newly learned language, is a more marginal adjective, falling closer to the verbal end of things. It doesn’t happily sit after the verb (*?the language seemed learned), and it doesn’t happily take very or too (a very/too learned language) — in fact the modifiers it takes are time and manner adverbs (like newly, badly), ones that typically occur with verbs. Escaped is even more verb-like — *?The prisoner seems escaped is positively awful.

Fuzzy categories

Membership is never all or nothing. Categories are non-discrete entities — or as one linguist John Ross once famously put it, they are “squishy”*. There will always be gradience, or blurring, within word classes like adjective, noun and verb, with central members showing all the characteristics, and peripheral members fewer.English has nouny verbs, verby nouns and lots of verby and nouny adjectives.

I’ve encountered many people that become quite hostile at this idea. Perhaps it’s because they’ve had parts of speech drummed into them as small children and don’t like it when these cherished categories are challenged. But I’m not sure why. After all traditional grammar readily acknowledges the squishy nature of parts of speech with their descriptions like “verbal noun”, “verbal adjective”, “noun used as an adjective”, “adjective used as a noun” — even the much revered label “gerund” nicely side-steps the whole murky business as to whether you classify reading (in something like Reading books is relaxing) as a noun or a verb.

Grammatical playtpuses

And why should grammar be any different from the real world. Categories like nouns, verbs and adjectives are much like the mental categories we have for things like vegetables or furniture. There are prototypical vegetables like carrots and not so vegetably vegetables like peanuts. There is furniture par excellence like chair, but what about your television or piano? Human categorisation is never in terms of sharp boundaries. And so it is with the categories we set up in the linguistic world. To quote linguist James Matisoff: “There are duck-billed platypuses in the animal world, and there are borderline entities in grammar as well”. There will always be irregularity and fluidity. English has many such duck-billed platypuses — and often they point to something interesting that is happening in the language.

*Ross’ 1972 paper “The Category Squish: Endstation Hauptwort” is readily available online:  (Originally published in Paul M. Peranteau, Judith N. Levi, Gloria C. Phares (Eds.), Proceedings of the Eighth Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society, Chicago Linguistic Society, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, pp. 316–328.)

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Introducing Kate Burridge

Kate Burridge, our resident linguist, is Professor of Linguistics in the School of Languages, Literature, Cultures and Linguistics (Monash University) and a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. Her main areas of research are: grammatical change in Germanic languages, the Pennsylvania German spoken by Amish / Mennonite communities in North America, the notion of linguistic taboo and the structure and history of English. She is a regular presenter of language segments on radio and has been a panelist on ABC TV’s Can We Help.

Her books include: Euphemism and Dysphemism: Language used as shield and weapon (with Keith Allan, 1991), Syntactic Change in Germanic (1993), English in Australia and New Zealand (with Jean Mulder, 1998), Blooming English: Observations on the roots, cultivation and hybrids of the English Language (2004), Weeds in the Garden of Words: Further observations on the tangled history of the English language (2005), Forbidden Words: Taboo and the censoring of language (with Keith Allan, 2006), Introducing English Grammar (with Kersti Börjars, 2010), Gift of the Gob: Morsels of English language history (2010) and (with Debbie de Laps) Love the Lingo (2010) and Living Lingo (2011).