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7.5: Closed Class Categories (Function Words)

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    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-lexicalcategories 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.

    This page titled 7.5: Closed Class Categories (Function Words) is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Catherine Anderson (eCampusOntario) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.