From a production/generation perspective, one can say that a realization X is the result of a collection of features (attribute-value pairs) applied to the base form of a word. For example:

1) [base=eat, number=singular, person=3, tense=present, aspect=simple, voice=active, polarity=positive] → “eats”

2) [base=eat, number=singular, person=3, tense=past, aspect=progressive, voice=active, polarity=negative] → “was not eating”

Question: Are there any theories that classify the above features (person, number, tense, etc.), when applied to English verb groups, as syntactic or morphological? And if there aren’t any, would it be because any such feature may cause both morphological and syntactical changes, so all such features are morphosyntactic by nature?

OLD QUESTION (not SE-compatible, but I left here for folks to see what I'm trying to get at.)

I know that the boundary between syntax and morphology is, in general, fuzzy. Yet I wonder if, for production/generation purposes, one can create 2 unambiguous lists of features for each, and 1 that combines both (morphosyntax).

For now I'm thinking exclusively about English verb groups (VGs), and a simplistic definition of syntax and morphology:

  • Morphology: rules at and below word level.
  • Syntax: rules above word level.

For example, think of the realization "eats" defined by the following set of features (i.e. attribute-value pairs): base=eat, tense=present, person=3, number=singular, aspect=simple. If number=plural, "eats" becomes "eat" (if all other features remain unchanged). All that happened was that a word changed, specifically its ending. With the above definition of morphology and syntax, one would classify number as purely morphological. Conversely, if aspect=perfect, "eats" becomes "has eaten". Now, not only the word "eats" has changed, but also another word (has) has been added, so one would classify aspect as morphosyntactic.

With the above rationale, we would arrive at the following non-exhaustive list of features for English VGs:

  • Morphological: number, person.
  • Morphosyntactic: tense (because future adds "will" to the VG and past may change the head verb), aspect, voice (because when voice=passive "be" is added and the head verb changes to past participle).
  • Syntactic: polarity (with values positive and negative, where negative adds "not" and positive does nothing).

My question, in sum: Do you agree with the above classification, and, if not, why?

  • 1
    As interesting as this is, it will be hard to answer SE style because you're asking for a judgement of a proposal, not a definitive answer.
    – Mitch
    Oct 13, 2016 at 14:01
  • True. Can you help me formulate it in a way that yields a definite answer? What about: is feature X strictly morphological, and feature Y strictly syntactic, and feature Z...?
    – Rodrigo
    Oct 13, 2016 at 15:07
  • 1
    Cite existing literature and its classification. Explain your new classification and how it is different. Also, each point needs examples. To make this SE-able (answerable), you might ask are there any existing theories like your new one, and what might be some other categorizations. You want to avoid 'answers' that are simply speculation or opinion.
    – Mitch
    Oct 13, 2016 at 16:30
  • Thanks Mitch. I've decided to change the question. After sleeping over it, what I'm really after is references to theories/people who have tried to do the same classification that I'm trying to do. So I guess all I need to ask folks is what theories/authors have proposed a clear separation between morphology and syntax for the above list of features. That should yield a definite answer, right?
    – Rodrigo
    Oct 14, 2016 at 10:53
  • Yes I think that is answerable.
    – Mitch
    Oct 14, 2016 at 11:35

1 Answer 1


I agree with your classification, but I also think it is trivial. Two binary features always give 4 classes, and considering only things to which at least one of the features is applicable, you'll always get a three-way classification.

  • You're right, Greg, but I haven't explained what I'm after properly (see my comment to Mitch above). I'd like to know what theories/authors have proposed a classification similar to mine. I have looked on the web and scientific papers/books, but all I seem to find is a general notion of syntax vs morphology, which we all know by heart. I haven't seen a theory that says "feature X (e.g. number) is strictly morphological in English", or one that advocates this is unfeasible and why. I'll change the question and hopefully get some pointers to such literature.
    – Rodrigo
    Oct 14, 2016 at 10:58
  • I think you'd like Stephen Anderson's work on morphology. Here is an article I found on line, cowgill.ling.yale.edu/sra/cls13.pdf , and here is his publication list: cowgill.ling.yale.edu/sra/publications.html .
    – Greg Lee
    Oct 14, 2016 at 13:43
  • Greg, I'm not sure I understand Anderson's point. Is he saying that morphology and syntax (and phonology) can easily overlap? This is my interpretation from "[a] single property may be relevant to a number of rules, and on the outer hand a single rule may make reference to a number of distinct properties, perhaps overlapping with those referred to by other rules" (p 18).
    – Rodrigo
    Oct 14, 2016 at 18:23
  • I'm sorry that I don't know enough about morphology or Anderson's work to answer your questions. You're on your own.
    – Greg Lee
    Oct 14, 2016 at 18:47

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