In the book 'the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL)', the authors propose the theoretical framework used to describe the English sentences as shown below:

Text version:


  • Subject: NP
    • Det: D → a
    • Head: N → bird
  • Predicate: VP
    • Predicator: V → hit
    • Object: NP
      • Det: D → the
      • Head: N → car

CGEL, page 26

To get the tree diagram above, the first step is to identify the constituents of the sentence with the constituency tests. The second step is to describe these constituents what grammatical categories (e.g.,N, D, NP) they belong to. And the last step is to further describe these constituents what grammatical functions (e.g. object, head, subject) they belong to.

The authors suggest I have to know what grammatical categories these constituents belong to before knowing what grammatical functions they belong to. However, when I try to follow this order, there seem to be some problems.

For example, I want to know what grammatical category the word 'dog' in the sentence 'the dog is smiling' belongs to. I suspect it might be a noun, so I turn to page 326 of the book where the properties of nouns are described. One of the properties of nouns is that it functions as 'head' of the noun phrase. My problem is: How am I supposed to know the grammatical function of the word 'dog' when the authors suggest that I first have to know its grammatical categories before knowing its grammatical functions?

Summary of defining properties of nouns

[Type] [Description]
i INFLECTION Nouns prototypically inflect for number (singular vs plural) and for case (plain vs genitive).
ii FUNCTION Nouns characteristically function as head in NP structure.
iii DEPENDENTS Various dependents occur exclusively or almost exclusively with nouns as head: certain determinatives (a book, every day), pre-head AdjPs (good news), relative clauses (people who work). Conversely, nouns differ from verbs and prepositions in that they do not take objects: I dislike it but not *my dislike it.

CGEL, page 326

(image of the quote above)

  • Out of the many, many different properties of nouns listed, you are focussing only on one, which is that nouns may head phrases functioning as Subject. Fulfilling just one potential property of nouns is not sufficient to tell you anything! the fact that dog happens to be functioning as Head of a phrase functioning as Subject just tells you that it might be a noun. You need to look at all the other properties that nouns typically possess. There is no single property of nouns that it sufficient on its own to guarantee membership of the category Noun. (cont) Commented Oct 16, 2021 at 1:17
  • You might find this post helpful or interesting: How can I Prove a Word is a Noun?. You could also look at the case study there: weekdays. Commented Oct 16, 2021 at 1:24
  • Oh, and you can't not follow the grammar proposed in CaGEL. Not until there is another grammar of similar scope depth and consistency. It is widely regarded as the most comprehensive, consistent and up-to-date grammar of English there is - even by its opponents! Commented Oct 16, 2021 at 1:29
  • 1
    @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. Haven't you written an answer here?
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Oct 16, 2021 at 22:27
  • 1
    @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. Got it! I have to thank you again for taking your time to give me valuable information.
    – Mz2501
    Commented Oct 22, 2021 at 20:03


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.