Can anyone please recommend a better treatment of English parts of speech / word classes than that offered by most traditional grammars?

Many of the latter stick with the sacrosanct 8 of antiquity, or perhaps allow for one or two more, while POS Tagsets may contain many hundreds of tags (catering for subsets such as plural nouns, verb forms etc). Demanding that we stick with eight for sentimental reasons seems like saying 'Let's just have four (chemical) elements, like they used to do, because that's easier.' Some parts of speech — 'function words' — are distinguished according to function — or called adverbs if they show a vague resemblance in some respect and we don't like having more than 8 (or 12 or 24) classes. However, having 750 classes as a working model does seem to be erring the other way.

Does anyone please know of a sensible (Goldilocks!) treatment?

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    It depends on the context. It seems reasonable to introduce children to the notion that the words of a language have different functions, and to use the traditional parts of speech to designate those functions. Older children can be taught that the boundaries between the word classes are not always clear-cut. And linguists will need a much more sophisticated set of terms to describe the language under analysis.
    – Shoe
    Commented May 28, 2012 at 11:08
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    +1 for the comparison with the 4 classical elements, love it! Commented May 28, 2012 at 15:11
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    I'm surprised you don't mention phlogiston. As Shoe says, it depends on the context. However, I don't agree that dumbing it down is the right way to explain it to kids -- why not just tell them the truth? They can handle it. The basics of language are simple - there are words and they break into consonants and vowels, and there are sentences and they break into constituents make out of words. Kids love breaking things apart and putting them back to gether, especially when accompanied by funny noises (I'm working on an answer, but I won't be able to put it up for a while.) Commented May 28, 2012 at 16:14
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    It is useful for teachers and students to share a metalanguage to discuss what the students are given to read and write; and for students to understand differences between languages. If we don't use the traditional terms, then we are reduced to saying things like: "Your describing words lack pep"; "Every sentence needs a doing word"; "In German, words denoting how things are done do not have a different form from their corresponding describing words, as they do in English." I would settle for all students leaving school at the least being able to name each of the traditional POS.
    – Shoe
    Commented May 29, 2012 at 5:39
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    If you are still interested in an answer, I have a few questions. (1) Would you prefer a classification that is motivated mostly by semantics, syntax, or a compromise? (2) Any idea how many classes you want (30, 100, 300)? (3) Would you prefer an English-centric scheme or one valid across languages? (4) Would you accept or reject classes that have no overt members and are only posited to make a theory work?
    – Rachel
    Commented Aug 23, 2012 at 11:11

2 Answers 2


I would suggest looking at one of the better modern descriptions of English grammar. The best of course is the "Cambridge Grammar of the English Language" by Pullum and Huddlestone. This has an excellent analysis of English POS but is very expensive so an alternative is "A Student's Introduction to English Grammar", written by the same authors and based on the larger work, but briefer and cheaper.

  • After quite a lot of thought, we at Wordwizard have had to relegate the CGEL to 'useful but dated', as P & H's work did to Quirk et al, Gaston. Sadly, we recognise that although P & H did a fine job of presenting a better if imperfect alternative, we haven't. Commented Jun 3, 2012 at 7:28
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    @EdwinAshworth Sorry, I'm not sure I follow. Are you saying there's a better description of English parts of speech than that in CGEL? Also, I don't understand your second sentence. Commented Jun 3, 2012 at 7:41
  • I was responding to your overall claim about CGEL's pre-eminence, Gaston. With regard to treatments of parts of speech, I've found monographs, treatments of individual areas (eg 1 'adjectives'[?]-not-modifying-closest-nouns-or-indeed-any-obvious-noun: mere is an example; eg 2 pragmatic markers). My second sentence is in recognition of the fine work in CGEL - better than I could come up with. But imperfect. Commented Jun 3, 2012 at 13:44
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    @EdwinAshworth Ok, but I'm still curious that you would call CGEL 'dated', and wonder what has superceded it? As for POS being better analyed in more recent monographs, yes fair enough, books never keep up with articles. Commented Jun 3, 2012 at 21:59
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    @EdwinAshworth Ok, I thought that in saying CGEL is 'useful but date' you were suggesting that something has superceded it. It was published in 2002 so it's very recent and hardly to be described as 'dated' unless something better has come along. Commented Jun 3, 2012 at 23:13

Which set of categories is "just right" depends on your purpose and the type of analysis that you want to perform. (Though yes, it's clear that the traditional set of 8-10 categories is inadequate for pretty much any purpose...)

I would suggest that you start with the tagset for one of the major corpora and group together categories that you don't need to differentiate for your purposes.

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