Understanding Labels for Word Classes and Larger Grammatical Units 

As English language teachers, one fundamental aspect of the job is to be able to describe certain features of English and explain how they work (its grammar). To do this clearly and effectively, we need to agree on a common terminology.

 There are many grammars of English, and each has its own traditions, emphases and jargon. For example traditional grammar, structural grammar, systemic-functional grammar, communicative grammar, and transformational-generative grammar. Some of these grammars are descriptive, some are prescriptive; some focus on formal structural elements, others on language in use; some are used in native-speaker education, others for teaching English as a second or foreign language; still others are presented as models for theories of language acquisition.

Across grammars, sometimes different terms are used for the same thing, and sometimes the same term is used to mean something different. Also, sometimes there are technical terms that are specific to a particular grammar. To add to the confusion, depending on the context, certain words may have both a specific technical meaning and an everyday non-technical meaning, and these may become confused or conflated.

Grammar for TEFL

The type of grammar you use will depend on your background and the purpose for which you are using it. The good news is that in the TEFL world, there is a mainstream grammar that is used by most teachers. Although it is prescriptive, the rules are generally derived from descriptions of language as it is used by native speakers in an English-speaking country. Although there are some variations in how rules are described and applied, these tend to be on the periphery. This is the kind of grammar that you will find in most EFL textbooks and EFL grammar reference books, is what is taught in most language schools and what you will learn if you take an accredited EFL qualification such as a Trinity Certificate or a Cambridge CELTA. This grammar is usually presented in terms of a grammatical form (structure) and its range of potential functions.

Given that we have a model of grammar that is largely consistent, why is it such a challenge to learn the terminology, and why do areas of confusion and debate arise?

Different Traditions

Sometimes things get confusing because people from different backgrounds work in the EFL industry. For example, although I teach EFL, my background is in applied linguistics. This means, for example, that rather than think about the sentence as a unit, I think more in terms of phrase complexes (for example nouns phrases with heads, nouns and modifiers), of information structure (new and given) or of functions (ideational, interpersonal and textual). I might mention ‘counterfactual conditionals’ or the ‘progressive aspect’. Similarly, people who learnt a traditional English grammar derived from studies of Latin and Greek might be more used to using function labels such as ‘subject’ and ‘predicate’ and may have drilled into them rules like ‘you should never split an infinitive or end a sentence with a preposition’.

Different Kinds of Labels

There are a variety of ways to label words and phrases. This means that sometimes a word or a phrase can have more than one label or name. The notion of multiple labels or names is an important one to grasp and can be helpful.

In fact, multiple labels are common in life generally, and most things can have more than one correct label. For example:

  • Mr Jones (a male member of the Jones family)
  • Frank (a name used to refer to him by his friends)
  • The plumber (a label that describes his work)
  • Dad (a label describing his family relationship to the speaker)

It is the same thing with words and phrases – it doesn’t mean that all possible labels are correct, but more than one may be.

We have already mentioned different traditions, which might legitimately apply a different label to the same piece of language. But it might also be that we want to use one label to describe a word’s class and another to describe its function. Similarly, we might use one term that is more generic (fruit), one that is more specific (apple) and even one that is more specific still (Granny Smith’s). None of these are wrong. Finally, bear in mind also that some terms might be context-specific, so the same word may, for example, take a subject label in one sentence and an object label in another.

Having established this, let’s start by looking at word class labels.

How we assign a word to its class

Word classes are probably the easiest kind of label. There are various tests we can apply to help assign a word to a particular class. Part of the confusion here arises from how we define word classes since, informally, class labels often invoke functions. For example, verbs are ‘doing words’ and adjectives are ‘describing words’. In fact, although words of a particular class often fulfil a similar function, this is not the single basis on which a word is assigned to a particular class. We use a range of criteria, including:

  • Its distribution. We ask ourselves what the rules are governing where a particular class of words usually appears in a sentence, and how it combines with other classes of words. For example, an adjective usually comes before a noun.
  • Its formal characteristics. Can it take a suffix? Does it need to agree with another part of speech? Can it act as the head of a particular type of phrase?
  • Its function and purpose. For example, the function of a pronoun is to replace another word; its purpose is to reference another term, avoiding repetition and creating text that is stylistically cohesive.

Much of the time, assigning a word to a word class is uncontentious. However, it is worth noting that for some words evidence can be conflicting, or words may sit at the boundary of classes. For example, if we take the case of the gerund: an -ing form of a verb that functions in a very noun-like way. Most of us just acknowledge that, like life, language can be a bit messy at times, and just move on. We kind of know what a gerund is and that it is something of an outlier. However, linguists and grammarians can get very heated in their disputes about certain terminology and use. That’s their job, after all, and they are best left to argue these things out amongst themselves, whilst we quietly get on with our teaching.

Common Word Class Labels

Word class labels are relatively easy to learn because they are limited in number, and they are familiar to most of us. There are four large ‘open’ classes of word. By ‘open’, we simply mean that they are large and accommodating. For example, if you invent something new, give it a name (a noun) and it can quickly become part of the language:

  • Nouns (either concrete or abstract)
  • Verbs (main)
  • Adjectives
  • Adverbs

There are also several ‘closed’ word classes. By ‘closed’ we simply mean that they are limited in number. Depending on which grammar you use, they vary slightly, but commonly include all or some of the following:

  • Pronouns (words that stand in for other words)
  • Prepositions (words that are typically followed by a noun or pronoun, and which usually indicate relationships to time, place or movement)
  • Articles (preceding a noun or noun phrase to indicate +/- definiteness, eg: ‘A’ versus ‘The’).
  • Auxiliary verbs (verbs with grammatical rather than a semantic function, used to express aspects of tense, aspect, modality or voice)
  • Connectives (linking words, such as ‘and’ and ‘but’)
  • Interjections (short utterances or exclamations, usually expressing an emotional response)


It might be useful here to say a word here about the ‘Determiner’ class, which I have kept separate because it is a bit different. This is because determiners, unlike the other classes listed, do not have a discrete set of words that belong only to their class. Instead, they borrow words from existing classes (articles, adverbs, pronouns, etc), depending on the information they need to encode. Determiners define or modify the Head Noun of a Noun Phrase, assigning characteristics such as definiteness (‘the’), quantity (‘some’), deixis (‘this’), or possession (‘my’). A determiner can be distinguished from other modifiers in a Noun Phrase because it always comes first. For example:

determineradjective noun modifier head noun

Labels for Larger Units

When we break a sentence up into its components, we sometimes want to assign labels to parts that are bigger than a single word. Below is our handy mini glossary of some commonly used labels for larger grammatical units. We hope you find them useful.

Word Often defined as the single smallest ‘stand-alone’ unit of meaning, recognisable on the page because it is separated from other words by a space or by certain punctuation marks.
PhraseA group of words which together form a grammatical unit usually consisting of a main class word and modifying elements (A Noun Phrase, Verb Phrase, Adjectival Phrase, etc.)
ClauseA group of words containing a subject (usually a Noun Phrase) and a predicate (usually a Verb Phrase). It may also contain other Phrases.
SentenceA group of words that can stand alone to form a statement, question, instruction, command or exclamation. Statements and questions are the commonest sentence types and may consist of one or more clauses.
Subject A traditional definition of subject is the thing or person that the sentence is about. It is the agent (the ‘doer’, if you like), or the thing being described or referred to. It also has some formal properties. For example, in the active form of a declarative sentence (a statement), the subject (and any modifiers) comes before the verb. If the verb is inflected for person or number, it will agree grammatically with the subject.
Predicate The predicate is the part of the sentence that describes the subject, or the action that relates to the subject. In effect, it is everything in the sentence that is not the subject or its modifiers (the main verb and everything that follows it).
ObjectThe object is the thing or person that is affected by the verb (a ‘direct object’). A sentence may also have an additional element that is received or affected by the direct object. This is an ‘indirect object’.
ComplementA word or group of words that completes the full meaning of a sentence. There are two types of complement: Subject Complements and Object Complements. A Subject Complement comes after a linking verb and defines or describes the subject:

Pete is a teacher
The day was beautiful
My trousers are coming apart at the seams

An Object Complement defines or describes the Direct Object of the sentence and is the noun, pronoun, adjective or phrase that follows it:

• We called her Clementine
• His lies made us angry
• I found my ball lying in the garden
AdjunctAn optional clause that adds some extra information.
Adverbial‘Adverbial’ is a functional category for a word, phrase or clause that modifies a verb or a Verb Phrase in a sentence. Adverbials often provide answers to questions such as ‘how’, ‘where’ or ‘when?’ Because they can be used to provide extra information, they often function as adjuncts.

Written by Mike Turner

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