In Linguistics, we observe how parts of language behave. When we find a set of words that all behave similarly, we can group them into a category, specifically, into a syntactic category. You might have learned about some of these categories as “parts of speech”. This unit gives an overview of the behaviour of the biggest categories.
You’ve probably learned that nouns are words that describe a person, place or thing. But when we’re studying morphology and syntax, we categorize words according to their behaviour, not according to their meaning.There are two elements to a word’s behaviour:
- What inflectional morphemes does the word take?
- What is the word’s syntactic distribution? In other words, what position does it occupy in a sentence?
What behaviour can we observe that allows us to categorize words as nouns? Looking at the inflectional morphology, we observe that most nouns in English have a singular and a plural form:
English uses a plural morpheme on a noun to indicate that there is more than one of something. But there is a subcategory of nouns that don’t have plural forms. Mass nouns like rice, water, money, oxygen refer to things that aren’t really countable, so the nouns don’t get pluralized. Nouns that refer to abstract things (such as justice, beauty, happiness) behave like mass nouns too. If they don’t have plural forms, why do we group them into the larger category of nouns? It’s because their syntactic distribution behaves like that of count nouns. Most English nouns, singular, plural, or mass, can appear in a phrase following the word the:
|the tree, the trees|
|the book, the books|
|the song, the songs|
|the idea, the ideas|
|the goal, the goals|
|the beauty (e.g., the beauty of the scenery)|
|the happiness (e.g., the happiness of the children)|