Closed Class Words

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Sorry... We're Closed

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In English grammarclosed class refers to the category of function words—that is, parts of speech (or word classes)—that don't readily accept new members. The closed classes in English include pronouns, determiners, conjunctions, and prepositions. In contrast open class words include nounslexical verbsadjectives, and adverbs.

Examples and Observations

"[C]losed-class words are those belonging to the grammatical, or function, classes...Function words in English include conjunctions (and, or), articles (the, a), demonstratives (this, that), and prepositions (to, from, at, with). To take one specific case, consider the word and. The essential feature of the word and is that it functions grammatically to conjoin words and phrases, as seen in the combination of noun phrases the woman and the man. Any change in membership in such a class happens only very slowly (over centuries) and in small increments. Thus, a speaker of English may well encounter dozens of new nouns and verbs during the coming year; but it is extremely unlikely that the English language will acquire a new article (or lose a current one) in the coming year (or even in the speaker's lifetime)."
—Adrian Akmajian, et al., Linguistics: An Introduction to Language and Communication. MIT, 2001
"Prepositions have gradually expanded their membership somewhat by admitting participles such as including, concerning, but the remaining classes are very resistant to the introduction of new items. This has been noticeable in recent years when attempts have been made to find gender-neutral pronouns."
—Angela Downing and Philip Locke, English Grammar: A University Course, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2002

Functions of Closed-Class Words

"Closed-class words or 'function words' are limited in number and act as markers or guides to the structure of a sentence. The role of articles is to signal nouns. Prepositions mark special relationships between persons, objects, and locations. Conjunctions are connectors that link actors or objects, and specify relationships between clauses in the sentence. Open- and closed-class words occupy certain slots in sentences and set up a frame for interpreting the interrelationships between actors, actions, and objects."
—Diane McGuinness, Language Development and Learning to Read. MIT, 2005

Open Class Words Evolve to Closed Class Words

"The closed classes include pronouns (you, them), modal verbs (could, must), determiners (a, the), prepositions (of, in), and conjunctions (and, but). New members of these classes are not added to the language very often. Instead, they tend to gradually evolve from lexical words in a process called grammaticalization. For example, the lexical verb go means 'to move (toward a goal).' But its progressive form be going (to) has evolved into a grammaticalized prospective (future) marker, as in She's going to love her gift. The 'movement' meaning of go has been bleached out of the grammaticalized version, and so the going in be going to can be considered to be a function word, rather than a content word. The closed classes represent a more restricted range of meanings, and the meanings of closed-class words tend to be less detailed and less referential than open-class words."
—M. Lynne Murphy, Lexical Meaning. Cambridge University Press, 2010
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Closed Class Words." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 28). Closed Class Words. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Closed Class Words." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).