This is a rather broad question, so I'd like to limit this to verbs, at least in this explication of the question.

Verbs take many forms and roles in sentences. Present participles can take the role of subject, object, adjective, and non-finite verbs in reduced clauses. Past participles can function as adjectives, passive verbs, and are used in the perfect tenses. The role of subject and object can be played by several types of words and word phrases (and even clauses); is it really necessary to reclassify them based on the roles they take?

Isn't classification independent of the role a word plays in a sentence; aren't all of the uses still properly classified as VERB in terms of their PoS?

I get so many questions from students about PoS, and I just want to tell them that these are all verbs, that role/usage/ and function do not necessarily correlate to parts of speech.

But in some cases they could. For example the words swim and look can be a noun or a verb.

I had a nice swim this morning.

She gave me a dirty look.

As a teacher, I would classify swim and look as nouns in these sentences.

But in other uses where the words take a distinctly verbal form in a subject or object I would still classify them as verbs.

Swimming is good exercise.

I like swimming.

I like to swim.

To swim to Kathmandu is a fool's errand.

I need to look for my dog.

I enjoy looking at old pictures.

Swimming, to swim, to look and looking are verb forms (PoS) that take the role of subject in or object in these sentences. At least for instructional purposes, they should not be classified as nouns just because they take the role of a thing in a sentence - they are still participle or infinitive forms of a VERB.

I understand that in linguistics this reclassification is called conversion or zero-derivation, but for students, requiring them to understand this concept seems onerous (as with many concepts in linguistics that are used in instructional or prescriptive grammars - too often in my opinion). I also get that even the noun swim is derivative (but one would need to understand etymology to know that, and this is well beyond the requirements of language learners.)

The human brain is a very capable language processor - we learn our first language without any comprehension of grammar concepts, and we can rely on this capability to learn second languages too, albeit with a bit of grammatical help but in a significantly reduced way than that employed for the purposes of linguistics. For learners, the primary thing they need to grasp is the nature of relations, which are primarily descriptive and adverbial, and the many ways they are produced and the different forms these relations take.

So, would I be committing some kind of linguistic or grammatical sin if I instruct my students to see these forms as their root PoS, and that these PoS can take multiple roles in sentences?

  • "I understand that in linguistics this reclassification is called conversion or zero-derivation, but for students, requiring them to understand this concept seems onerous" I really doubt it's very onerous. Conversion would happen in many, probably most, languages, and they'll surely have to learn it eventually if they're to become even remotely close to fluent.
    – curiousdannii
    Jan 5, 2020 at 13:05
  • 1
    In English POS is entirely a matter of use in a construction. Every lexical item has a range of POS that it normally displays, with maybe a few extras that pop up in idioms or special constructions. If you want to determine POS automatically, you need a parser and a tagger, which you can build yourself, or you can use one of many existing ones, each of which comes with its own particular set of POS, which will not resemble many of the ones in theoretical linguistics. If you want a theoretical answer, you need your own set of POS with syntactic tests for each.
    – jlawler
    Jan 5, 2020 at 18:12
  • I have to say that I am quite surprised by the answers and comments recieved so far. Not what I expected at all, and it seems I have a bit more latitude than I had thought. But I stil want to stay in bounds, so to speak, using terms and concepts that are consistent with general practice in linguistics, which is why I've decided to go back to school for a masters degree - in what exactly I'm still not sure but hopefully I can find a program that will allow me to focus my studies around my work developing a simplified grammar system for second langauge learners. Jan 6, 2020 at 3:55
  • @curiousdannii - You are probably correct about that. The idea is that by reducing the conceptual complexity of grammar instruction, producing a framework for how English works based more on functional roles and grammatical relations simplfies the need for advanced concepts and allow the natural subconscious language processing ability of the human brain to to its thing - recognizing patterns and sorting out meaning without concsious effort. Jan 6, 2020 at 5:59

2 Answers 2


Short, snappy answer: parts of speech are a lie perpetuated by Big Syntax.

Longer, actually useful answer: parts of speech are an abstraction created by linguists to explain how syntax works. There's no universal definition of what it means to be a "noun": some ancient Roman grammarians didn't distinguish between nouns and adjectives, for example, but did distinguish between nouns and pronouns.

In English, for example, is it more useful to call jump and kick both "verbs" (putting them in the same category), or is it more useful to call jump an "intransitive verb" and kick a "transitive verb" (making two different categories)? Both approaches have their merits!

So, parts of speech are labelled in whatever way makes the theory more complete, concise, and elegant. You could argue convincingly that swim is underlyingly a verb which can be zero-derived to a noun in I had a swim this morning, because the meanings are connected in a clear way and this same type of zero-derivation can be used on other words. Or you could argue convincingly that the verb and the noun are separate, because you can't say *I had an eat this morning. Both are valid positions to take! So it comes down to what you think works best for your students.

But personally, I'd emphasize that parts of speech come down to how words are used in sentences. Swim can act as a noun, an intransitive verb, or a transitive verb, for example, and it's useful to be able to say which one is being used in a particular sentence: I had a swim versus I want to swim versus I swam fifty laps.

  • I've actually considered developing a POS schema that works with my method & is more useful to ESL students. I hesitated because I thought it would be too divergent, but now I'm actually a bit encouraged. It's not radical but would preference root POS over derivation, for the most part, I think. So, as a subject or object (always things), swimming, to swim or swim would be identified as verb phrases in the role of S(vp) where vp indicates the head POS=Verb. At the word level S(vp:pt-n), pt-n ot just pt represents the word form or type. Something like that. Jan 6, 2020 at 5:35
  • I just think it is easier for students to grasp the concept of sentence level roles being played by different types of word phrases, than trying to get their heads around the idea that words change their POS according to their roles at the sentence level. Subject are things but they're not always nouns. Adjectives describe things but they're not always adjectives - nouns and participles can function as adjectives too. So I'm separating sematntic roles from POS. The swimming competition parse = np:dt+pt-adj+n, something like that. Jan 6, 2020 at 5:48
  • Another example: Is "coffee" in "coffee cup" a noun or an adjective? Why?
    – user253751
    Jan 6, 2020 at 11:10
  • 1
    It’s a noun in the genitive case, That’s not uncommon. Jan 6, 2020 at 17:19
  • @Draconis - I have shied away from teaching transitivity to esl students. I just teach that verbs take three types of complement phrases (object, adverbial, subject) and then point out that a few verbs on either side of the spectrum always take one or the other, like belong and own, adding that most verbs can take either complement form. Transitivity is not an easy concept, it's variously understood and presented, and students seem to struggle with it. Some verbs don't require complements, and a handful have a subject linking property. It seems enough to get their heads around the idea. Jan 8, 2020 at 9:22

First, linguists generally prefer that language teachers tell the most linguistically credible lies that deal with the demands of their students, but also tell the student to sign up for a linguistics class if they want more details. Mis-stating "what linguists believe" is probably a bigger sin than saying "swim is a verb" (if we presuppose that there are sins).

There are two general trends in linguistics regarding PoS, the universal trend and the language-specific trend. In the language-specific trend, it is assumed that categorization is based on behavioral patterning. If butcher, swim and cow act one way and car, sandwich and lake act another, in terms of syntactic distribution, then they have some categorization difference. Then you just need a theory of how classes of words are categorized. In the universal trend, there is a fixed set of categories and some kind of metarules about why "lake" isn't a verb (I can't actually explain it because I don't practice that approach). This trend may rely on a set of semantic properties.

The lg-specific trend allows for a richer set of intersecting properties, so that a morpheme may be a "verb" at one level of analysis but an "adjective" at another and a "noun" on top of that. That could be an analysis of "living" as in "This will benefit the living". I think it is useful to get students to understand this "flexibility", but it's not obvious what is a good way to do that in a language class rather than a linguistics class. I think it depends very much on accepting the notion of "hierarchical structure": if you don't have that and you just have a string of words, the syntactic distribution of "living" is really baffling.

  • Yes - I see the importance of this. I teach that meaning develops in levels where the meaning & POS of words is first established in word phrases; the function of word phrases is established through their relations within in sentence phrases; the meaning of sentences through S, V and C relations. Mental and analytic parsing happen at all levels and I'm developing a nomenclature that shows how word phrases play different semantic & syntactic roles that produce different types of relations, through all levels: word, WP, SP, sentences & utlimately the discourse level. Jan 6, 2020 at 4:31

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