I'm reading an article on Syntactic Categories and came across the following heading:

Syntactic categories are distributional not semantic

I believe the "syntactic categories" the author is referring to are parts of speech:


I want to understand what the author means when she says the categories are "distributional".

At first, I was hung up on the distinction between the two words:


I came across another answer that helped me out:

In summary, syntax is the concept that concerns itself only whether or not the sentence is valid for the grammar of the language. Semantics is about whether or not the sentence has a valid meaning.

So in Plain English it seems the title is trying to say:

"Parts of speech are _______ but actually don't convey meaning."

The author uses the word "distributional" again later in the second paragraph as an adjective to describe the noun "properties" as in "distributional properties".

The questions

  • What does it mean for a part of speech to be distributional?
  • What are distributional properties?
  • 1
    Distributional is a but vague, you're right. If you read the paper, they go through each category and give a semantic description and what they call a distributional one. The latter points tend to talk about what position the word can fit in ('modifies a noun', 'can have a plural ending', 'finite set', etc). So I'm guessing that 'distributional' means 'superficial properties/where the thing goes/what changes can be made'.
    – Mitch
    Jun 2, 2017 at 20:47
  • Thank you for the response! 'modifies a noun', 'can have a plural ending', 'finite set' Can you elaborate on how those phrases you used describe "what position the word can fit in"? I'm not seeing how modifying a noun or changing the suffix describes the position of a word. I also don't know understand what you mean by "finite set". That phrase doesn't appear in the article. Is the term "finite set" related to Chomsky Hierarchy (I also don't know what that is, I was just googling around to try to figure out what you're talking about)
    – mbigras
    Jun 2, 2017 at 21:00
  • I'm not saying it's all position, just that's one of the criteria. As to finite, I mean something like there's only a fixed set of them (e.g. prepositions, conjunctions) which you don't really add to them, but there are always new nouns and verbs coming out.
    – Mitch
    Jun 2, 2017 at 22:08

1 Answer 1


Distributional refers to the distribution of words in utterances. Where they go, where they don't.

Different types of word is what syntactic categories means. You may have learned the concept as "parts of speech". The list you give is different from the list in the article, so let's ignore that.

The point is that whether a word is called a noun or a complementizer or a preposition depends not on what it means (that's semantic, i.e, meaning), but on how it's used (that's syntactic, i.e, grammar). For instance, rock is a noun in the first sentence below, but a verb in the second:

  • An earthquake could shift the rock down the hill.
  • An earthquake could rock the stone down the hill.

Very few words in English are intrinsically only one part of speech, and those that are are mostly function words like the and not, which are part of the machinery of grammar, and don't really have lexical meanings like rock or shift.

Definitions of noun like 'person, place, or thing' are not distributional, but semantic, because they refer to what a noun can mean. And semantic definitions of grammatical terms are unsatisfactory; they don't work -- truth and liberty are clearly nouns, but are they people, places, or things?

Distributionally, if a word in English can be modified by an article, for instance, it's a noun;
if it can be put in the past tense, it's a verb. And so on. There are tests you can make.
That's all, really.

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