What Is an English Grammatical Category?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

grammatical category - profile
"An expression's grammatical category," says Ronald W. Langacker, "is determined by the nature of its profile . . .. A noun profiles a thing (abstractly defined), as does a nominal. A verb profiles a process, as does a finite clause" ( Investigations in Cognitive Grammar, 2009). (Jasper James/Getty Images)

A grammatical category is a class of units (such as noun and verb) or features (such as number and case) that share a common set of grammatical properties. Also called grammatical feature.

R.L. Trask notes that usage of the term​ category in linguistics "is so varied that no general definition is possible; in practice, a category is simply any class of related grammatical objects which someone wants to consider" (A Dictionary of Grammatical Terms in Linguistics, 1996)

Examples and Observations

  • "The term category in some approaches [to language] refers to the classes themselves, e.g., noun, verb, subject, predicate, noun phrase, verb phrase . . .. More specifically, it refers to the defining properties of these general units: the categories of the noun, for example, include the number, gender, case, and countability; of the verb, tense, aspect, voice, etc. A distinction is often made between grammatical categories, in this second sense, and grammatical functions (or functional categories), such as subject, object, complement."
  • Grammatical Categories and Lexical Categories
    "Grammatical categories are . . . the building blocks of linguistic structure. They are sometimes called 'lexical categories' since many forms can be specified for their grammatical category in the lexicon. However, we will not use the term lexical category here because (1) the term grammatical category is more widely understood, and (2) the category of a word depends as much on how the word is used in discourse as on its conventionalized (lexical) meaning."
  • The Grammatical Category of Number
    "[Grammatical category is a] linguistic category which has the effect of modifying the forms of some class of words in a language. The words of an everyday language are divided up into several word classes, or parts of speech, such as nouns, verbs, and adjectives. It often happens that the words in a given class exhibit two or more forms used in somewhat different grammatical circumstances. In each such case, this variation in form is required by the presence in the language of one or more grammatical categories applying to that class of words."
  • The Nature of Linguistic Categories
    "It is important to keep in mind that a grammatical category is a linguistic, not a real-world, category and that there is not always a one-to-one correspondence between the two, though they are usually closely related. For example, 'tense' is a linguistic category, while 'time' is a category of the world. While past tense usually expresses past time (as in I saw a movie last night), the past-tense auxiliary in the following expresses future time: I wish you would go. And the present-tense verb of I leaves tomorrow expresses future time."
  • Grammatical Categories in Traditional Grammar
    "[W]ords are assigned to grammatical categories in traditional grammar on the basis of their shared semantic, morphological and syntactic properties. The kind of semantic criteria (sometimes called 'notional' criteria) used to categorize words in traditional grammar are illustrated in the much-simplified form below:
    • Verbs denote actions (go, destroy, buy, eat etc.)
    • Nouns denote entities (car, cat, hill, John etc.)
    • Adjectives denote states (ill, happy, rich etc.)
    • Adverbs denote manner (badly, slowly, painfully, cynically etc.)
    • Prepositions denote location (under, over, outside, in, on etc.)
    However, semantically based criteria for identifying categories must be used with care: for example, assassination denotes an action but is a noun, not a verb; illness denotes a state but is a noun, not an adjective; . . . and Cambridge denotes a location but is a noun, not a preposition."


    David Crystal, A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, 4th ed. Blackwell, 1997

    Thomas E. Payne, Describing Morphosyntax: A Guide for Field Linguists. Cambridge University Press, 1997

    R.L. Trask, Language and Linguistics: The Key Concepts, 2nd ed., ed. by Peter Stockwell. Routledge, 2007

    Laurel J. Brinton, The Structure of Modern English: A Linguistic Introduction. John Benjamins, 2000

    Andrew Radford, Minimalist Syntax: Exploring the Structure of English. Cambridge University Press, 2004

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    Nordquist, Richard. "What Is an English Grammatical Category?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 18, 2017, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-grammatical-category-1690910. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, April 18). What Is an English Grammatical Category? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-grammatical-category-1690910 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is an English Grammatical Category?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-grammatical-category-1690910 (accessed January 23, 2018).