Summary Pragmatics



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When humans communicate, much of what goes on is not simply about conveying information to others. One problem regarding the way in which semantics describes meaning is that anything that goes beyond the content of the linguistic sign itself is outside the scope of description. Social and affective meaning are not covered by semantics (which focuses on conventional/conceptual meaning only), but virtually any real-life communicative situation contains countless signs which are used to express something about the speakers and their social relationships.

Pragmatics is concerned with how people use language within a context, in real-life situations. While semantics (and virtually all units we have covered before) was concerned with words, phrases and sentences, the unit of analysis in pragmatics (and in the units we will cover later) is the utterance. In pragmatics we study how factors such as time, place and the social relationship between speaker and hearer affect the ways in which language is used to perform different functions. Language is action, in the words of J.L. Austin, and much of the interaction between human beings is based on verbal action, for example when we request, promise, swear, apologize etc.

The difference viewpoints of semantics and pragmatics can best be illustrated by looking at a single utterance. Imagine you are shopping downtown with a friend. As you pass a well-known pizza place, your friend longingly stares to the people outside eating pepperoni pizza and remarks “Boy, I am really hungry!”. What would be your reaction?

Taken out of context, your friend has simply provided a piece of information – that he is feeling hungry. In terms of the meaning he wants to communicate, however, it is likely he intends to get something else across. You might interpret him remark as a request to make a food stop and respond by saying “Me too – let’s get some pizza”. Note that in this case your interpretation of what your friend means goes beyond what he has literally said.

Inference and presupposition

How do we get from message to meaning? We infer the ‘total meaning’ of an utterance based on all information we have available in the moment we hear it. This includes past experiences, our knowledge about the person we are communicating with, about the situation, about what was previously said, what is deemed culturally appropriate and countless other factors.

To illustrate this, consider the following two examples:

Your are having a chat with a friend. With a big grin on her face she says: “Okay, listen to this one. A man and a panda bear walk into a bar…”
With the contextual information available – casual conversation, her facial expression, the introduction she provided (“listen to this”) – and the specific devices used, you can tell she is about to tell a joke.
Imagine the exact same words are uttered by a policeman who stops you for running a red light, by a priest at a wedding or a politician holding an official speech. Would that change the effect of the message on you as a listener?

You ask a friend how English literature class was. She rolls her eyes, shrugs emphatically and responds “Literature? Oh, you know, it was fan-tastic!”
It is obvious that your friend is being ironic – saying the opposite of what she actually means. But how do we figure this out? Apparently there are clues in the prosody of utterances and in the facial expressions of speakers which allow us to notice irony. These clues are not contained in the words themselves – they are in the context.

In every-day communication, speakers have a number of presuppositions about the world-knowledge of hearers. When I address you and say “Did you know that John and Mary split up?” I have the presupposition that you know John and Mary and were aware of the fact that they were previously a couple. Our presuppositions lead us to formulate utterances whose meaning we assume can be inferred by listeners – in other words, that can be deducted by those we communicate with. After all, we all want to be understood.

Pragmatic implicature and entailment

If inference is what listeners do to interpret the meaning of utterances, implicature is the process through which speakers include meaning beyond the literal message in an utterance.

Bob: Are you coming to the party?
Jane: You know, I’m really busy.

Jane’s response pragmatically implicates her intention (that she won’t come to the party), which Bob can infer via his past experience from countless other conversations. Pragmatic implicatures are characterized by the fact that usually several alternative interpretations are possible. For example, the dialogue above could also go like this:

Bob: Are you coming to the party?
Jane: You know, I’m really busy, but I’ll come.

With the remark but I’ll come Jane effectively cancels the implicature that she won’t come to the party.

Entailment is a related but distinct phenomenon and it belongs into the realm of semantics, because it is not affected by the context. If one proposition entails another, this works in the same way as a logical condition of the form IF X THEN Y. For example:

The president was assassinated
The president is dead

If the first utterance is true, the second one is automatically also true – one proposition logically entails the other one.

Illocution and perlocution

We use the terms illocution and perlocution to describe the meaning a speaker wants to convey with an utterance and the interpretation that a hearer forms when hearing it.

  • locution = the content of the utterance itself
  • illocution = the meaning intended by the speaker (S)
  • perlocution = the interpretation of the message by the hearer (H)

Mismatches between illocution and perlocution are what we generally describe as misunderstandings.

Speech Acts

When language is used by human beings in real-life situations, there are generally communicative goals associated with every utterance. Speakers express their emotions, ask questions, make requests, commit themselves to actions – they do things with words.
In linguistic pragmatics, we use the term speech act to describe such language actions. A wide range of utterances can qualify as speech acts.

Common Speech Acts

Speech act Function
Assertion conveys information
Question elicits information
Request (politely) elicits action
Order demands action
Promise commits the speaker to an action
Threat intimidates the hearer

There exist several special syntactic structures (sentence forms) which are typically used to mark some speech acts.

Sentence form Example
Declarative He is cooking the chicken
Interrogative Is he cooking the chicken?
Imperative Cook the chicken!

Consequently there are typical association between Sentence Form and Speech Act.

Sentence Form Speech Act
Interrogative Question
Imperative Order or Request

Note that the above association are typical, but do not always hold.

Performative speech acts and performative verbs

Performative speech acts are in many ways the most prototypical speech acts, because they make it evident that we are ‘doing something’ verbally when we perform them. They make explicit that language can be used to perform actions – something underlined by the following examples.

I declare the session closed
I pronounce you husband and wife
We hereby sentence you to 10 years in prison
We herewith declare war on the French

Many rituals (in the widest sense of the words) include performatives of some shape and many performative speech acts require the speaker to fulfill certain criteria (be a sworn judge, member of parliament, university professor…) in order to work.

Performative verbs are used in performative speech acts to make explicit what kind of action is performed. Verbs like declare and pronounce, which semantically describe the act of speaking, are often performative verbs.

I order you to shut up

A convenient way of testing the status of a speech act verb is by inserting hereby before the verb.

I hereby order you to shut up

Note that this does not work in the examples below. Apparently certain conditions need to be met in order for a speech act to function.

#I am hereby very happy
#He hereby declares you husband and wife

(I’ve used the pound sign here to indicate pragmatic anomaly, in the same way that a star indicates syntactic malformedness.)

The first example is strange because making an observation about a state usually does not qualify as a performative speech act. The second example is strange because a performative must be performed by the speaker himself – reporting someone else’s action does not work.

Direct and indirect speech acts

In everyday situations, we often do not directly express what we intend, but instead formulate our utterances in ways which appear more polite to hearers. Compare the examples below

Pass me the salt!
Could you pass me the salt?

Both examples are in effect requests, but the first one, phrased as an imperative, has a different connotation than the second, which uses the form of a question. It’s obvious to us from experience that Could you pass me the salt is not actually a question about the ability of the addressee to pass the salt, but a prompt to action, and responding to this prompt simply by saying Yes, I could and not acting would not be a polite reaction.

Therefore Could you pass me the salt? has two pragmatic levels. One the surface level it is a question, but underlying this is a request. It therefore qualifies as an indirect speech act, whereas Pass me the salt! is a direct speech act.

Felicity Conditions

Speech acts (whether direct or indirect) can be classified according to their felicity. Speech acts are infelicitous (meaning they are don’t work as intended) when certain essential requirements are not met. When is a speech act infelicitous?

…when the utterance is illogical: I promise to call you last year
…when certain requirements aren’t met: I will buy you a Porsche, honey
…when the speaker is lying: I really like your new jacket

Note that there is a subtle difference between the three examples. The first one can never ‘work’ (i.e. be felicitous), because it is inherently illogical. The second one may work or not, depending on whether the speaker can afford to buy her partner a Porsche – something she might not know for sure herself at the time of making the utterance. The third one is a flat-out lie in (in this example) – the speaker does not like the listener’s new jacket. Felicity conditions are determined by context and especially performative speech acts often require a number of contextual conditions in order to be felicitous.

Context and co-text

Pragmatics enables us not only to describe verbal actions (speech acts) plausibly, but it also allows us to account for language phenomena which exemplify the close connection between linguistic signs and the settings they are used in. The term context can be broken down into two categories for that purpose

  • the world around us, the situation in which a piece of discourse happens (context)
  • the surrounding discourse – in other worlds, what was previously said (co-text)

Deixis and anaphora

The following two examples illustrate the distinction between context and co-text using two closely related linguistic phenomena, deixis and anaphora.

I played tennis. Then I went to the beach.
Mary and Lisa played tennis. Then they went to the beach

Each of the utterances above consists of two sentences. Think about the first utterance for a moment and ask yourself who the subject of both sentences is. You’ll probably come to the conclusion that it is the same person (‘I’) in both sentences, but it is not possible to determine who exactly I refers to outside of an actual speech situation. When someone uses I in a real-life chat, you can see and hear that person, and therefore you are able to resolve who the word refers to. But outside of a real discourse situation, this is no longer possible. Words like I, which carry a meaning that can only be retrieved with access to the situation they are used in, are called deictic expressions and the phenomenon of expressions pointing to things in the context is known as deixis.
Now consider the second example. The pronoun they in the second sentence does not seem to point to the context. Instead, it effectively replaces the full noun phrase Mary and Lisa, saving us the time and breath that would be needed to repeat it (think about how much shorter they is). This phenomenon is called anaphora and the term that the anaphoric expression (they) replaces is known as the antecendent.

Types of deixis

Central types of deixis include

  • person e.g. I, you
  • place e.g. here, there, near, far, left, right, come, go
  • time e.g. now, soon, then, today, yesterday, tomorrow, next, last

Non-central types of deixis are

  • social e.g. Sir, Madam, Mr. President, Your Honor
  • manner and degree e.g. this (big), so (fat), like this, etc. (accompanied by gestures)
  • discourse e.g. this story, as mentioned above, this chapter, therefore

Key terms

  • social and affective meaning vs. conventional/conceptual meaning
  • language in context (pragmatics) vs. language independent from context (semantics)
  • inference
  • presupposition
  • locution, illocution, perlocution
  • pragmatic implicatures
  • entailment
  • speech acts
    • examples:
      • assertion
      • question
      • request
      • order
      • promise
      • threat 
    • direct vs. indirect
    • felicity conditions
  • context vs co-text
  • deixis
    • central
      • person
      • place
      • time
    • non-central
      • social
      • manner/degree
      • discourse
  • anaphora
    • antecedents
Written by Cornelius in: Pragmatics,Summaries |

Session 11: Lexical Semantics

While analysis of the semantic content of an utterance is possible using differently sized chunks of language (phrases, sentences, entire texts), it is common to start on the word level and to examine words that intuitively seem to “go together”. Drawing up a map of sense relations is possible only after developing terms to describe these relations. The technical vocabulary explained below is used in lexical semantics to describe the relationship between terms. Are two terms neighbors? Opposites? Do they have a part-whole relationship? Lexical semantics has the goal of answering such questions.

Word fields

As has already been discussed, semantics is concerned with meaning. One way of defining meaning is by looking at the relationship of a group of terms in unison. Do they “go together” or not? Have a look at the following examples:

eyes, hands, nose, feet

green, red, purple, yellow

dog, log, hog, fog

While the terms in the first two sets are all related to one another (they form a word field), the words in the third set make up an arbitrary mix. This is likely to be the impression of most native speakers – dog and log simply have nothing in common in terms of meaning -, but it underscores a point we made very early in this course: the arbitrariness of the sign. The words in the third set share an identical sound pattern (save for the initial phoneme), but their meaning does not reflect this in any way.

Word fields as they are described above aren’t a purely theoretical exercise. Sets, an experimental tool developed by Google can automatically predict a word field based on very limited human input. Try it yourself here.


Synonomy is the degree of sameness (in regards to meaning) that two terms share. Natural languages afford fairly little space for complete synonyms (that would not be economical) and accordingly, small meaning differences exist. Buy and purchase are an example for two near-complete synonyms. In purely semantic terms, both words mean the same thing, but their use depends on the context they are used in. Purchase is likely to be used in slightly more high-brow language, whereas buy is the more common (in both senses of the word) variant. English has a fairly high number of (near) synonyms because of the influx of French words into the lexicon.


Antonyms are binary opposition pairs such as happy – unhappy, tall – short, young – old, war – peace. Their decisive quality is that the meaning of one term automatically excludes the other – someone who is tall is not short and someone who is unhappy is not happy. Antonyms can be gradable or non-gradable, depending on whether or not we can attach inflectional morphemes to them to indicate a comparison (happy – happier – happiest vs beautiful – *beautifuller – *beautifullest)


Hyponomy describes hierarchical relations between terms. If we can say that X is a kind of Y, a hyponymous relationship exists between X and Y. The two examples below illustrate this kind of connection.

blue red green yellow purple white black

toast boil fry grill roast bake microwave

In the examples, the terms color and cook are superordinates, while the words listed below them are their hyponyms.

Related to this is the concept of meronomy, which describes part-whole relationships. A meronymical relation is slightly different from a hyponymous one: eyes, lips and nose are part of the face – they are not a kind of face.


Homophones are terms that have a similar sound pattern, but are otherwise unrelated. Examples for this are see – sea, buy – bye, might – mite, night – knight. When two terms are spelled similarly but the sound patterns differ, we speak of homographs. An example for a pair of homographs is wind, as in we wind up in the same club every weekend vs. the wind is very cold in December. When both pronunciation and writing are identical, linguists conventionally speak of homonyms (see below).


Homonyms are terms that are superficially identical (in speech and writing) but etymologically unrelated:

match = thing that you light a cigarette with
match = thing that a soccer team loses

date = a sweet kind of fruit (ger: Dattel)
date = an appointment

Note that homonyms are characterized by the fact that they look the same superficially, but are actually unrelated. Usually the etymology of a word is key in determining whether it is a homonym.


In contrast to homonymity, which describes separate words with different meanings that only happen to look similar, polysemy describes individual word with multiple and distinct senses (polysemes). The term bank, for example, can denote either the institution or the building in which the institution resides. Both meanings are associated with the same word, making bank polysemous. By contrast, a river bank is not a different meaning of the same term, but a different word entirely.

Conceptual metaphors

While the abovementioned descriptions are use to describe sense relations, conceptual metaphor is a model that aims to explain how human cognition deals with certain aspects of meaning. Based largely on ideas put forth by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their book Metaphors We Live By, a conceptual metaphor is an expression from ordinary language in which the meaning associated with a target domain is drawn from a source domain that is (subconsciously) perceived as sharing certain traits of the target (TARGET is SOURCE).

These examples serve to demonstrate the idea:


You make my blood boil

Let her stew

She got all steamed up

He’s just blowing off steam


She spends her time unwisely

The diversion should buy him some time

Time is money


Sally gave the idea to Sam

Sally took the idea from Sam

Sally traded ideas with Sam

Sally has an idea

Many more examples are available on George Lakoff’s website.

Key terms

  • sense relation
  • word field
  • synonymy
  • antonomy
  • hyponomy
    • meronomy
  • homophone
  • homonyms
  • polysemy
  • conceptual metaphor
    • source domain
    • target domain
Written by Cornelius in: Semantics,Summaries |

Session 10: Essentials of Semantics

One reoccurring theme in virtually all of the units that we have covered so far has been the focus on internal structure (for example of words and sentences) in contrast to meaning (i.e. what a piece of language tells us about the world). You may be relieved to learn that with semantics, we are finally venturing into the domain of meaning.

What’s the meaning of to mean?

Meaning as a concept is initially more difficult to define than you might think. The verb mean itself serves as an example for the different meanings a single word can take on:

Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you

Great — this means we’ll have to spend another hour in the car

Dog means ‘chien’ in French

In the first example, the meaning of mean is roughly equivalent to ‘intend’, in the second it means ‘it is the consequence of something’ and in the third it is equivalent of ‘dog translates into chien‘. The examples show that an extremely common word like mean can easily be used to describe very different things.

Conventional meaning vs. social and affective meaning

Not only can words be used with different meanings in different contexts, but the entire description of what something means depends greatly on the type of expression we are talking about. Compare the following examples:

Beagles are a breed of dogs

Hey Stan, how are you?

Linguistics is really cool!

The first sentence differs from the second and third in that it makes a statement about the world that can be verified or falsified. By contrast, if someone states that he/she likes or dislikes something (the third example) this is a subjective and unverifiable statement. Such an expression still contains important information, but it has what we call affective meaning. Similarly, a question such as the one provided in the second example has social meaning, as do words we use to address people (Mister, Misses, Sir, Your Honor, Dude – also think about Sie vs. Du in German), ways of greeting and saying goodbye (Hi, Cheers, Regards, Wassup) and many other parts of language which are essential in our everyday interactions with others. Note that what could be called a third type – grammatical meaning – has already been discussed.

Semantics, however, is concerned purely with the conventional meaning of words and sentences. Conventional (or sometimes conceptual) meaning can be described in almost mathematical terms and it can be applied to sentences that we can often evaluate in terms of their truth value. Beagles are a breed of dogs is such as example: it can be described as being either true or false. Conventional meaning also captures the kind of information that content words carry (man, New York, run, happy) but not expressions whose meaning is purely social or affective (Yeah, cool, Hi, Regards) or grammatical (and, the).


Reference (or referential meaning) is one of the most basic ways of thinking about meaning. The referent of an expression is essentially ‘the thing in the world that it points to’. Thus

Barak Obama

Berlin, Alexanderplatz

Sally’s cat

These old CDs

are linguistic expressions that have definite referents, although they might not be entirely clear without knowing the context (more than one person can be called Sally, she could have more than one cat and what CDs are meant exactly in the last example depends on the situation). What counts in terms of referential meaning is the assumption that a specific cat owned by a specific Sally is meant with Sally’s cat and that with access to the context it would be clear what CDs are signified by these old CDs.

Multiple expressions can point to the same thing in the world, as the list below demonstrates.

  1. Hillary Clinton
  2. the former first lady
  3. the wife of Bill Clinton
  4. the United States Senator from New York
  5. the winner of the Ohio primary election

All of these expressions have to the same referent, yet 3 and 4 could (at least hypothetically) change at some point in time. Referring expressions and referents have a dynamic relationship – it can change as circumstances change.

By contrast, the underlined expressions below never point to anything in the world, regardless of the context they are used in (they are not referential):

A bunch of people called

He is buying a new car

Nobody showed up

Elephants are native to Africa

All of these examples have in common that no definite referent exists for them, yet they certainly mean something.


As the examples above show, it is necessary to capture meaning beyond reference. Some expressions do not have a definite referent, while others cannot be described as referential because they point to something fictional. For example

Santa Claus

Bilbo Baggins


my shiny new spaceship

all have meaning, but none of them has a referent in the real world. The term sense is generally used to describe the conventional semantic meaning of an expression that is separate (or ‘goes beyond’) its reference. Sense is also used to describe the semantic content of expressions that describe activities, states, qualities, attributes, relations etc – as you may have noticed, reference essentially only applies to nouns. Still an adjective like heavy or a preposition like under has a conventional meaning and can be defined in terms of their relation to other terms (for example, we could describe heavy as the opposite of light and under as relatively similar to below). We’ll see in the section on lexical semantics that an expression is not limited to just once sense, but can easily take on multiple senses (remember mean?).

Denotation & Connotation

The terms denotation and connotation are useful to separate the literal, value-neutral and restricted sense of an expression from its figural, cultural or associative meanings. For example, the word pig simply denotes a specific animal, but the connotation of the term is often negative and it can be used in a figurative way, for example, to describe a person. The connotation of a term depends on the usage community’s values and beliefs, whereas denotation does not.


An expression’s extension is the sum of all senses and referents to which it applies. For example, the extension of the term man is roughly 50% of the world’s population; the extension of Mike’s friend would include whomever Mike is friends with.

Semantic anomaly

You might wonder why we even have to make a distinction between conventional, social and affective meaning. Since they are all important to language users, why be so specific about it? The reason is that, like expressions that are ungrammatical, expressions that are semantically malformed are not just subjectively problematic, or wrong in certain contexts (or go against the taste of some speakers), but simply do not work and are not used by speakers. The example below illustrates the issue:

John likes basketball

”The table likes basketball

If you find the second sentence strange (and you should) it is because it is semantically anomalous – it doesn’t ‘make sense’ (I’ve used two single quotes to mark this, a bit like the asterisk used to denote sentences which are ungrammatical). Noam Chomsky’s famous example sentence Colorless green ideas sleep furiously is another instance of an expression that violates the constraints of conventional meaning. There’s nothing wrong with the sentence in social or affective terms, nor is it ungrammatical, but any reasonably competent speaker of English could tell you that it is inherently illogical. What we know about the world simply tells us that ideas can’t sleep or be green and that the table, Madagascar or world peace are generally not acceptable subjects of the verb like while Mary, those boys and nobody are. As will be shown below, this interface between ‘what we know about the world’ and language can be described quite systematically.

Semantic roles

Among other things, semantic roles allow us to explain why an example such as the one above (”The table likes basketball) is semantically anomalous. Loosely speaking, semantic roles describe ‘who does what’ in a sentence and they are often discussed in concert with syntax because they exist in parallel to syntactic roles. A classical example for how semantic roles function is passive voice:

John hugged Sue (active)

Sue was hugged by John (passive)

The blue word in each sentence is the subject of main verb hugged, the red word is the object. You’ll notice that the passive sentence does not have an object (hugged has become intransitive) and that John has been ‘stored away’ in an optional adverbial (by John). In other words, the subject of the sentence has changed as the voice has switched from active to passive.

But what about the meaning?

Clearly it is still Sue who is hugged by John, not the other way around. Semantic roles allow us to describe this dimension of ‘who did what to whom’. Here’s the example again, but this time highlighting the semantic roles:

John hugged Sue (active)

Sue was hugged by John (passive)

The two roles marked in green and yellow are called agent and patient and they stay the same when switching from active to passive because the meaning of the sentence does not change. John is still the one doing the hugging and Sue is still being hugged – while syntactically there is a switch, semantically there is no change.

Below is an overview of some essential semantic roles. Note that different theorists have proposed different roles and labeled them differently, therefore there is no absolute agreement.

Agent: The ‘doer’ of the action
Sue pushed Steve

Patient (or Theme): The ‘undergoer’ of the action
Sue pushed Steve (but also Sue fell down)

Experiencer: The entity that experiences the action
Sue felt happy

Instrument: A medium or tool used to complete the action
Sue opened the door with the key

Goal: The location or entity towards which something moves
Sue drove to Chicago

Benefactive (or Recipient): The entity that benefits from the action
Sue gave Kim the tickets

Semantic features

While semantic roles describe ‘who does what’ in a relatively basic way (someone affects someone else, someone benefits from an action) semantic features represent the specific properties something needs to have to be semantically acceptable in a certain construction. Here’s the example from above once more:

John likes basketball

”The table likes basketball

The dog ran across the field

”The refrigerator ran across the field

What’s wrong with the second and the fourth sentence? The answer is that the experience and the action described (like, run) can’t be made and performed by non-living things such as tables and refrigerators.

  John the table the dog the refrigerator
animate + - + -

The term animacy is used to describe whether or not something is what we conventionally call ‘alive’. It is apparently a requirement for the subject X to have the feature +animate in order for a sentence like X ran across the field to be semantically well-formed.

Different or additional features may be required in other contexts and the list below serves only as an example:

  John the table the dog the refrigerator lemonade
animate + - + - -
human + - - - -
canine - - + - -
liquid - - - - +

While ‘animate’ and ‘human’ are broader (and more useful) features than ‘canine’ and ‘liquid’, all of them are distinctive in certain contexts. Humans are generally the subject of verbs such as like, adore, hate and consider, some kind of dog is generally the subject of the verb bark and some form of liquid generally the direct object of the verb drink.

”Dana’s mother has no children

”The empty bucket is full

”The meeting will take place three years ago

We can generally explain semantic anomaly via some kind of feature mismatch. In the examples above, the mismatch occurs in different places: +mother and +no children do not match, +empty and +full are not compatible and +future event +past event do not work together. Note that these are not commonly used features, but reading the examples like this makes it simple to spot the semantic problem right away.

Key terms

  • conventional vs. social and affective meaning
  • reference
  • sense
  • denotation & connotation
  • extension
  • semantic anomaly
  • semantic roles
    • agent
    • patient/theme
    • instrument
    • goal
    • benefactive/recipient
  • semantic features
Written by Cornelius in: Semantics,Summaries |

Session 9: Phrases, clauses, sentences

In previous summaries we have slowly worked our way upwards from smaller to ever larger building blocks of human language. Initially, we discovered that there are meaning-distinguishing units of sound (phonemes), followed by meaning-bearing parts of words (morphemes). What, then, is the next larger unit of measurement in linguistic analysis? The following list gives an indication:

1. sentences contain one or several
2. clauses contain one or several
3. phrases contain one or several
4. words contain one or several
5. morphemes

While some languages blur the boundaries between words and longer expressions to some extent due to their morphology, English allows a fairly clear segmentation into phrases, clauses and sentences. The structural relations of these units with one another fall into the domain of syntax. Just like morphology, syntax is not concerned with what a sentence means, in the sense of what it tells us about the world, but with the internal structure of units and their relations to one another. In other words, syntax asks which sentences are in accord with the grammatical rules imposed by a particular language and which aren’t.

When talking about sentences as units in grammar, it is important to recognize that we idealize their status to some extent. Spoken language often consists of incomplete utterances and seemingly disjointed pieces, but this does not make it ‘less grammatical’.

Two simple sentences demonstrate aptly what sort of relations are covered by syntax:

John likes pie

*John pie likes

The words used in both sentences are identical and common expressions in English. But clearly there is a problem with John pie likes. While in Persian such a sentence structure would be acceptable, it cannot be considered grammatically well-formed in English, because it does not conform with the canonical word order of English (Subject – Verb – Object, or SVO). Clearly the words themselves would also be different in Persian, but what counts in the context of syntax is that what is grammatical in one language may well be ungrammatical in another and that this dimension is detached from meaning as we frequently understand it.

A famous example sentence helps to exemplify this last aspect of language:

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously

The sentence may not ‘make sense’ in that ideas cannot be colorless, do not have the ability to sleep and are not able to do so furiously. But grammatically the sentence is perfectly acceptable, because every word is in a place where it can potentially be, something that is not the case with *John pie likes or *Furiously sleep ideas green colorless.

Two central questions from the vantage point of syntax are therefore ‘What are the building blocks of a sentence?’ and How do they interact with one another in a particular language?’


Those elements in a sentence that form structural units are called constituents. From a functional perspective (in other words, when asking what the constituents in a sentence do), it is possible to distinguish between two basic building blocks that exist in any complete sentence: a referring expression and a predication.

referring expression predication
Mary ate an apple
I don’t like Mondays
The car crashed into the wall with a bang
It rained steadily all day long

The referring expression is essentially something (a person, thing, emotion, state or abstract concept) that we make a statement about (for example, that it went somewhere, did something, has a certain quality and so forth).


If we turn from function to grammar we can make another observation: the referring expression is always a noun phrase (NP), while the predication is a verb phrase (VP). A complete English sentence will always contain these components.

Mike likes pizza
Many people decided not to vote

These two examples demonstrate why we use the terms noun phrase and verb phrase, instead of just speaking of nouns and verbs: Mike and Many people fill the same syntactic slot, while likes pizza and decided not to vote fill another (they are constituents). Phrases can vary a great deal in terms of length and complexity and they can themselves contain other phrases. For example, the verb phrase likes pizza contains the noun phrase pizza.

Constituency tests

It is possible to test whether part of a sentence is a constituent via several relatively simple tests. Three of the most common tests are substitution, movement and question-forming.

When the fire broke out, the girl on the roof cried for help

In the example above, replacing the noun phrase the girl on the roof with the pronoun she yields a grammatical sentence.

When the fire broke out, she cried for help

If we replaced only the girl with she, the result would not be a grammatical sentence: *When the fire broke out, she on the roof cried for help. The fact that we can substitute a pronoun for the girl on the roof proves its status as a constituent of the sentence.

Another possibility is to move the assumed constituent to the front of the sentence:

When the fire broke out, the girl on the roof cried for help

The girl on the roof cried for help when the fire broke out

Moving only parts of the noun phrase would not result in a well-formed sentence because it would destroy its structural integrity (*The girl when the fire broke out on the roof cried for help).

Forming questions that ask specifically for the constituent is another approach:

Q: Who cried for help when the fire broke out?

A: The girl on the roof


The element that gives a phrase its name (a noun phrase, verb phrase, prepositional phrase) is commonly called the head. To give an example, in a noun phrase the head noun may be preceded by a determiner, adjective or another noun (e.g. the crowded football field) and followed by a prepositional phrase or relative clause (the book on the table; the girl who called the police). If we replace a noun phrase with with something else, it must be another noun or a pronoun – all other words in the noun phrase are optional.

All sorts of people love pizza

Sue loves pizza

I love pizza

*The loves pizza

*Green loves pizza

*But loves pizza

While this kind of endocentric headedness generally applies to noun phrases and verb phrases, prepositional phrases frequently behave in a different way. For example, the prepositional phrase in The keys are on the table cannot be replaced with only on or the table*The keys are on and *The keys are the table are both ungrammatical.

If we examine the constituency of sentences (in other words, their phrase structure) we find that frequently units are grammatically ‘packaged’ inside other units, producing a hierarchical structure. One way of expressing said structure is by using brackets (note that in the example S stands for sentence, not subject):

The old man’s cat slept

= (S (NP (NP The old man ’s) cat) (VP slept) )

Another, very popular method of expressing a phrase structure is the use of tree diagrams, as in the example below

One good approach when looking at the phrase structure of a sentence is to identify the main clause’s noun phrase and verb phrase and then break down the sentence into smaller units, one constituent at a time.

Verb arguments

Two terms related to grammar that you have probably already encountered in school are subject and object. While the constituents of a sentence are its components, subject and object are specific syntactic roles that define the relationship of constituents to the verb (in other words, they are the verb’s arguments). In the example above, John lost his pants, John is a noun phrase that fills the role of subject in relation to lost which is the main verb of the sentence, while his pants is the direct object. We use the term transitivity to describe what arguments a particular verb assigns.


Verbs assign specific argument slots to constituents according to the predication they express.

Sue yawned
Sue likes cookies
S V O(d)
Sue gave John a beer
S V O(i) O(d)

In the first example, the verb yawn is intransitive – it does not permit an object (*Sue yawned John is not grammatical). By contrast, a direct object is required in the second sentence (*Sue likes does not work), making the verb like monotransitive. Finally, the third sentence has a so-called double object construction. The subject is followed by two objects, the indirect one inserted before the direct one. Because of this, we refer to give as a ditransitive verb. Note that many verbs permit multiple argument configurations: John bought a beer (montransitive) and John bought Sue a beer (ditransitive) both work.

Two additional syntactic roles, which are in turn associated with subjects and objects, are those of complement and adverbial.


Complements are associated with either subjects (subject complements) or objects (object complements). They provide more information about the thing they are associated with (they predicate the subject or object) and are often required in order for the clause they appear in to be grammatically well-formed. Several examples help to illustrate this behavior:

Subject complements:

The cookies taste delicious
S V C(s)
John is a teacher
S V C(s)
Ruth seemed tired
S V C(s)

The role of complement is closely tied to specific verbs, sometimes called copula or linking verbs, because they link the subject or object and its complement. The notable difference between a subject-complement construction and a subject-object construction is that the complement ‘completes’ the subject. A teacher specifies something about John, just as delicious is how the cookies taste and tired is the state that Ruth is in. By contrast, in Jane pushed her sister, her sister does not complement Jane but is the direct object of pushed.

Object complements function very much like subject complements:

They found the movie disappointing
S V O C(o)
I consider Susie a genius
S V O C(o)
The party made him prime minister
S V O C(o)

Just as subject complements predicate subjects, object complements predicate objects. Complements are generally not optional but required – *They found the movie, *I consider Susie and *The party made him are each incomplete without the object complement (the same thing holds true for the subject examples above). Typically complements are noun phrases, predicative adjectives, or participles that behave similar to predicative adjectives (They found the movie disappointing).


In contrast to complements, adverbials can generally be described as predicating either the verb or the entire clause. They are usually adverb phrases, temporal noun phrases or prepositional phrases.

He ate the cake slowly
She drops the eggs every time
The keys are on the table  
S V A  

While in the first two examples the adverbial is optional (He ate the cake and She dropped the eggs are grammatical), the last example looks a little like a subject complement at first sight. However, looking more closely reveals that on the table answers the question of where the keys are. It modifies the entire clause and not just the keys.

It is important to point out is this context that terms in syntax in general and the terms complement and adverbial in particular are used with a variety of meanings by different linguists with different theoretical backgrounds. The relatively traditional terminology (which we use) poses certain problems, especially in cases that are fuzzy.


Looking beyond phrases, the next larger structural unit we encounter are clauses. A clause is generally defined as consisting of a referring expression and a predicate (or NP + VP), which makes it possible to use the terms clause and sentence synonymously when dealing with simple sentences.

John likes pizza

John likes pizza and Mary likes pasta

John likes pizza because it tastes awesome

The first is an example for a simple sentence, the second for a compound sentence and the third for a complex sentence.

A simple sentence contains a single independent clause. Note that the clause may be quite long and contain a number of phrases, i.e. The old miner’s fantastically rich cousin frequently traveled to South Africa many years ago is still a simple sentence.

Compound sentences contain multiple clauses that are strung together via coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or) or parataxis (connection without a conjunction).

John likes pizza and Mary likes pasta

John likes pizza, Mary likes pasta

Finally, complex sentences combine an independent clause with one or more dependent (or subordinate) clauses. Dependent clauses are generally signaled by subordinating conjunctions such as because, since, after, while, although or when, or by relative pronouns such as who, which or that. While they always contain a referring expression and a predication, they often don’t make much sense on their own. Many textbook definitions therefore state that independent clauses represent ‘complete thoughts’, while dependent clauses do not.

After he had called Mary, John picked up the pizza that he had ordered earlier

The example sentence begins with the dependent clause After he had called Mary, followed by the independent clause John picked up the pizza which is in turn followed by the relative clause that he had ordered earlier. Only the independent clause sounds right on its own, while the dependent clauses seem incomplete by themselves.

Relative clauses may be either restrictive or non-restrictive and provide more information about the subject or object of the main clause.

Restrictive relative clause:
The man who had lost his wallet decided to call the police

Non-restrictive relative clause:
The man, who had lost his wallet, decided to call the police

The difference between the two examples in one of meaning. The first sentence implies that a specific man (the one who lost his wallet) decided to call the police. By contrast, the second sentence is about a man who called the police – the information that he has also lost his wallet is given on the side.

Clauses may be part of phrases. For example, restrictive relative clauses like the one above (who had lost hist wallet) are always part of a noun phrase. This embedding of clauses is also the reason why we can always assume the basic structure NP -> VP: the verb phrase will often contain other phrases and clauses.

Finite vs. non-finite clauses

Dependent clauses exist in two basic varieties: finite and non-finite. In a non-finite clause the verb shows no inflectional agreement with the subject, while in the finite variant it does.

When he saw the mess in the kitchen, John took a deep breath (finite dependent clause)

When seeing the mess in the kitchen, John took a deep breath (non-finite dependent clause)

Verb inflection

English has three basic varieties of non-inflected verbals: participles, gerunds and infinitives. While participles act similar to adjectives, gerunds behave like nouns:

Staring at the empty box, John took a deep breath (participle)

Arguing will not help (gerund)

To-infinitives can fill subject and object roles (i.e. behave like nouns), or modify existing subjects or objects:

To study is the smart thing to do before an exam (to-infinitive as subject)

John was asked to leave (to-infinitive as object)

He started to talk (to-infinitive as adverb)

Key terms

  • grammatical – ungrammatical
  • referring expression – predication
  • constituents
  • constituency tests
    • substitution
    • movement
    • question-forming
  • phrases
    • noun phrase
    • verb phrase
    • prepositional phrase
    • headedness
    • phrase structure
  • clause
    • dependent – independent
    • finite – non-finite
    • relative clause
      • restrictive – non-restrictive
    • coordination – subordination
  • sentences
    • simple – compound – complex
  • transitivity
  • verb arguments
  • syntactic roles
    • subject
    • direct object
    • indirect object
    • complement
    • adverbial
Written by Cornelius in: Summaries,Syntax |

Session 8: Grammatical Categories and Relations

People have many associations with the term grammar and not all of them are necessarily positive. Grammar is often understood as something that one has to painfully acquire in school, while carefully avoiding all sorts of ‘mistakes’. A piece of conventional wisdom states that ‘language exists without the permission of grammarians’ and many people believe that certain uses of language are instances of ‘bad grammar’, that everyday spoken language and youth slang ‘lack grammar’ and that the grammar of their native language is deteriorating.

From a strictly linguistic perspective, all of this is rubbish.

Languages change over time, as do the needs of their speakers, and while a conversation with your friends may be linguistically different from a political speech, a piece of poetry or a newspaper article, it is neither ‘less grammatical’ nor ‘less meaningful’ in the linguistic sense of these terms.

Just like any other aspect of language, linguists approach grammar descriptively – in other word, in the same way that a biologist approaches an organism or a physicist looks at molecules. Grammar is not a checklist of arbitrary dos and don’ts that educators, writers or the editors of the Duden have agreed on, but a set of mental rules that every unimpaired native speaker of a language has perfect command of. Whenever you open your mouth, you combine morphemes and words into highly systematic sequences, and this is what makes what you say comprehensible to others. To the linguist, ‘grammar’ is the invisible system that is at work every time a speaker formulates an utterance – a system without which communication would be impossible.

Word classes

One of the oldest fundamentals of grammatical description (well over 2,000 years old, in fact) is the division of words into groups according to their meaning and function. These groups are called word classes, lexical categories, lexical classes, or, in traditional grammar, parts of speech. The traditional repertoire used to describe Indoeuropean languages like German an English includes eight, sometimes nine word classes:

  • verbs
  • nouns
  • pronouns
  • adjectives
  • adverbs
  • prepositions
  • conjunctions
  • determiners
  • interjections

A basic division frequently made when looking at these categories is between content words and function words (also sometimes described as lexical vs. grammatical word classes). The distinction can be explained by examining the meaning of words such as girl (a noun), run (a verb) and happy (an adjective) vs. but (a conjunction) and the (an article). While girl, run and happy point to something in the world (a kind of person, a kind of activity, a state) but and the do not point to anything – their meaning is purely language-internal (= grammatical). This difference is also noticeable when looking at what new words enter a language. Speakers come up with new nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs quite frequently, but when was the last time you heard that a new article or conjunction had been coined? Although new function words are also introduced into languages, this does not happen as often and usually takes much more time than the introduction of new content words. For this reason, linguists sometimes call content words an open set, whereas function words are considered a closed set.


Verbs, along with nouns, form the most basic building blocks of the world’s languages and are generally considered to exist universally, though their form varies from one language to another. Verbs come in two basic varieties, transitive and intransitive, depending on the arguments they require (for more on verb arguments, see the summary for Session 9).

John saw Mary (see needs an object – transitive)

John slept (sleep does not accept an object – intransitive)

Depending on the kind of semantic information they convey, verbs can be classified as stative (which describe states, perceptions or cognitions) or dynamic (which describe processes, actions or activities).

Sue plays tennis (dynamic)

The wildfires destroyed the forest (dynamic)

Mike likes apple pie (stative)

It seems like yesterday that I took this class (stative)

Stative verbs can generally not be marked for progressive aspect (*Mike is liking apple pie, *It is seeming like yesterday).

In English, the main verb is inflected for past tense (typically via the -ed suffix), progressive aspect (via the present participle, formed with the -ing suffix) and perfect aspect (via the past participle). On the third person, verb inflection also marks the combination of singular number and present tense (John likes Mary).

Auxiliary verbs play an important role in English grammar. Be + full verb is used to indicate passive voice (The authorities were notified by Sue) and progressive aspect (Sue is notifying the authorities), while have + full verb is used to indicate perfect aspect (We have lived in this house for over ten years). Another type of auxiliary are the modal verbs can, could, may, might, shall, should, will, would and must which express the speaker’s intent and different degrees of certainty about the future. They are classified as auxiliaries because they can never act as the main verb of a sentence.


Often defined as a word that describes ‘a person, place or thing’, nouns are the quintessential content word class. English nouns as a lexical category can be subdivided into proper nouns and common nouns, the former pointing to specific and distinct people, places or institutions (George W. Bush, Copenhagen, Greenpeace, The Queen of England) while the latter describes generic entities (car, boy, word, boredom). Those common nouns that can be grammatically marked for plural via an allomorph of the plural morpheme (such as -s, -en, -Ø) are called count nouns, whereas nouns which cannot be marked in this fashion are known as mass nouns. Mass nouns lack the ability to take a numeral article (compare five cars with *five informations) and are usually quantified with much and less instead of many and fewer. They should not be confused with count nouns that are plural-marked with a zero (Ø) such as five sheep, where sheep is clearly a countable entity.


The name ‘pronoun’ suggests any word that can take the place of noun in a sentence, but the differences between pronoun subtypes are so pronounced that they are sometimes classified as separate word classes. Types of pronouns include:

  • personal pronouns
  • demonstrative pronouns
  • interrogative pronouns
  • relative pronouns
  • indefinite pronouns

Personal pronouns such as I, you, he, she, it and they are marked for the grammatical category of person (see below), in other words they identify who is speaking (first person), who is being addressed (second person) and who is being spoken about (third person). They are also marked for gender (he – she, him – her), number (I – we, he/she – they) and case (I – me, he/she – him/her, John’s).

Demonstrative pronouns refer to things which are close by (this, these) or far away (that, those), in relative proximal distance to the speaker. This distance must not necessarily be literal, but can also mark the speaker’s perception or attitude.

Interrogative pronouns are used to ask questions such as who, what, why, when and where (and how, which is also considered a ‘wh-word’ in this context).

Relative pronouns such as who, that and which signal relative clauses (see summary for Session 9). Who and which lead dual existences as both interrogative pronouns and relative pronouns:

Who saw him? (interrogative pronoun)

Those who saw him waved (relative pronoun)

Indefinite pronouns stand for unclear or semantically ‘empty’ referents. Examples for indefinite pronouns are anyone, everyone, no one, anybody, nobody, somebody, something and nothing.

Note that pronouns stand by themselves and do not modify nouns. In the utterance Whose is this? whose and this are both pronouns, but in Whose t-shirt is this black one? they are determiners.


Adjectives describe nouns and can occur either attributively or predicatively, depending on whether they come before or after the noun they modify (the tall girl vs. the girl was tall). They may be gradable (bigbiggerbiggest) or non-gradable (beautiful – *beautifuller – *beautifullest) and can usually themselves be modified with very or too. Finally, only adjectives can be used in constructions such as It seems ___ or He/she seems ___ .


Adverbs are a very heterogeneous word class and while many of its members can be identified via the suffix -ly (as is loudly, quickly etc) this isn’t always a reliable indicator of adverb-hood. Adverbs can modify verbs, adjectives and other adverbs and frequently indicate when, where, or to what degree something happens.

He quickly opened the door (adverb modifying verb)

John read the unbelievably exciting novel (adverb modifying adjective)

Very soon, we will be out of marshmallows (adverb modifying adverb)


Prepositions typically provide semantic information about the spatial or temporal relation of something to something else. In English, they normally precede the noun they modify, while in other words they follow it (postpositions), which is why the more general name for this word class is adposition. Prepositions are invariant in form (compare with adjectives) and constitute a relatively small category.


Conjunctions are used to tie together clauses, either by coordination (John went to the movies and Mary came along) or subordination (Mary came along because she wanted to see the movie). Coordinating conjunctions tie together elements that are categorically similar (bread and butter, left or right, tired but happy) while subordinating conjunctions express conditions (If you do well on the test, let me know how you prepared for it), cause and effect (We didn’t see the show since we didn’t go to Boston) or temporal contrast (He took off his shoes before he entered the apartment).


Determiners precede nouns and in English they provide restrictive information about possession and definiteness. Like pronouns, they can be divided into subclasses:

  • definite and indefinite articles (the, a, an)
  • demonstratives (this, that, these, those)
  • possessives (my, our, your, her, his, its their)
  • interrogatives (which, what, whose)


Interjections are expressions such as hey, wow, ouch, umm, yeah and hmm which are a vital part of every-day spoken language, but have no strictly semantic content. They are often excluded from grammatical classification because they primarily serve an emotive function and are in no immediate relation to the surrounding elements. One reason why they are often overlooked is their fairly low frequency in traditional written language, though they are popular in instant messaging and SMS.

Grammatical categories

The term grammatical category broadly refers to a set of syntactic features that is conceptually similar and applies systematically to a linguistic expression. More concretely, grammatical categories that are salient in English are

  • tense
  • aspect
  • person
  • number
  • gender
  • case
  • voice
  • mood/modality


Tense allows speakers to express information about temporal relations, typically by marking the verb. In strictly morphosyntactic terms, English has only two tenses: present and past tense. Futurity is expressed in English analytically via will or going to auxiliaries. Note that what is generally considered the English tense system in school books is more precisely the combination of present, past and future tense with simple, progressive, perfect and perfect-progressive aspect.

Tense Simple Aspect Progressive Aspect Perfect Aspect Perfect Progressive Aspect
Present take/s am/is/are taking have/has taken have/has been taking
Past took was/were taking had taken had been taking
Future will/shall take will be taking will have taken will have been taking


In English, the category of aspect allows speakers to mark actions expressed by verbs as completed, ongoing, recurrent or habitual. Note that aspect concerns the action expressed by the verb as a process and not its temporal location in the past, present or future. While many school grammars treat the present perfect as a sort of past tense, an utterance such as I have eaten strictly only implies that this action has occurred and that it was completed, not when it took place. Temporal relations are expressed by tense, leaving aspect to add information about the status of something as ongoing or completed.


The participant role of an individual in discourse is signaled via grammatical person, in English specifically via the personal pronouns of the first, second and third person (see also pronouns – personal pronouns). English lacks certain marked distinctions in the pronominal system made by many other languages, for example the distinction between a formal and a more familiar second person (vous – tu, Sie – Du) and between singular and plural on the second person.

Singular Plural
Subjective Objective Possessive Reflexive Subjective Objective Possessive Reflexive
First I me mine myself we us ours ourselves
Second you you yours yourself you you yours yourselves
Third Masculine he him his himself they them theirs themselves
Feminine she her hers herself
Neuter it it its itself

Note that the paradigm reproduced above represents standard Modern English – the pronominal system shows considerable dialectal variation.


The grammatical category of number describes count information (one, more than one, in some languages additional cases) that is encoded via inflection. In English, nouns, pronouns and verbs can indicate number. Due to its mixed vocabulary, English nouns of Latin and Greek origin form irregular plurals (alumnus – alumni), while some nouns are marked with a zero (deer – deer, sheep – sheep) or via umlaut (foot – feet, woman – women).


Grammatical gender is a form of noun classification that is common in many Indoeuropean languages. Some languages encode two genders (French), others three (German, Latin), but in other language families even wider systems of classification exist (for example, see the four-way distinction made in Dyirbal, spoken in Australia). Gender marking, which was relatively similar to German during the Old English period, has been lost to a large extent in Modern English. Exceptions are: personal pronouns (he – she – it), possessive determiners (her car, his shirt), relative pronouns (who/whom – which) and gendered nouns (prince – princess, heir – heiress, actor – actress). In those relatively few cases where English retains gender marking, grammatical and biological gender coincide relatively closely, whereas in languages with full grammatical gender the choice is often more idiosyncratic (e.g. German: der Jungedas Mädchen).


Voice is a category that describes the relationship of verb arguments to one another. English distinguishes between active and passive voice and uses a periphrastic construction (be + past participle) to realize the passive. In a passive construction, the direct object becomes the subject of the verb while the former subject is either omitted or moved into an adverbial:

John likes pie (active voice)

Pie is liked by John (passive voice)


Grammatical mood describes certainty, world-knowledge and the intent of speakers regarding what they express. In English, mood and modality, which is the expression of inference (epistemic modality) or conviction that something should be done (deontic modality), are largely identical, but other languages encode other semantic information through this category.

Sally is a teacher (indicative)

Sally must be a teacher (potential)

Semantically, the example illustrates the inference encoded in the second sentence: the speaker is assuming that Sally is a teacher. As with other categories, the stricter definition of mood assumes morphosyntactic encoding, as it exists in the German subjunctive:

Er ist müde (indicative)

Es sagt, dass er müde sei (subjunctive)

However, there is a strong tendency in German to avoid this kind of usage and it is rare in spoken language:

Er sagt, dass er müde ist (‘implied’ subjunctive)

Key terms

  • descriptive vs. prescriptive grammar
  • content words – function words, open set – closed set
  • word classes
    • verbs
      • transitive – intrasitive
      • dynamic – stative
      • full – auxiliary
    • nouns
      • proper – common
      • count – mass
    • pronouns
      • personal
      • demonstrative
      • interrogative
      • relative
      • indefinite
    • adjectives
      • attributive – predicative
      • gradable – non-gradable
    • adverbs
    • prepositions
    • conjunctions
      • coordinating – subordinating
    • determiners
      • definite and indefinite articles
      • demonstratives
      • possessives
      • interrogatives
    • interjections
  • grammatical categories
    • tense
    • aspect
    • person
    • number
    • gender
    • case
    • voice
    • mood/modality
Written by Cornelius in: Summaries,Syntax |

Session 7: Word Formation

The previous summary presented derivation as one process that allows us to introduce new words into a language. While derivation is generally assumed to be the most productive word formation process, there are several others.


Compounds are possibly those multimorphemic words that we most readily identify as consisting of several parts. In a compound several free morphemes are combined, resulting in a word that often derives its meaning from the combination of its components.

classroom = class + room

skyscraper = sky + scraper

wallpaper = wall + paper

In English, compounds are often not written as single words but separated or combined by a hyphen (e.g. dry cleaner, on-line). In contrast to this, German compounds are usually spelled as a single word and compounding is an extremely productive word formation process in German (e.g. Hochschulrektorenkonferenz, Karnevalswochenende, …).

Note that while noun + noun compounds are frequent, other combinations also abound and the result must not be a noun.

verb + noun = noun

adjective + noun = noun

preposition + noun = verb

Many compounds exhibit a so-called modifier-head structure, with one part specifying the other in terms of meaning. Thus a blackboard is a kind of board and a talkshow is a kind of show (not a kind of black or a kind of talk). The modifier may function in different ways, e.g. a raincoat is not a coat for but against rain.

While the abovementioned examples are endocentric (i.e. the meaning of the compound is derived from the meaning of the parts) there are some compounds where this is not the case. A redhead is not a type of head but a person with red hair. Such compounds are called exocentric, because their meaning is not strictly contained in the components.


Another highly productive word formation process is conversion, which is the term used to describe a word class change without any morphological marking.

party (noun) -> party (verb)
We will be at the party
They like to party

must (verb) -> must (noun)
You must eat your soup
It is a must that you call him

Note that we only speak of conversion when it is clear that a word has been “copied” from one word class to another. Frequently words appear similar without having been converted (at least not recently) – for example, English like exists as a verb, a noun, an adjective or a filler/discourse marker.


When a word is imported from another language we describe this process as borrowing. While German also has a large and increasing number of borrowings, especially from English, English itself is well-known for its mixed vocabulary and overall affinity for foreign words. Some words from Latin and Greek (e.g. strata – street, episkopos – bishop) were imported into a large number Indo-European languages before English even existed, emphasizing that borrowing is in no way a novel process. A few examples that illustrate the mixed vocabulary of English:

avalanche – from Romansch via French

bizarre – from Basque via French

candy – from Arabic and possibly Sanskrit via French

coffee – from Arabic via Turkish and Italian

ketchup – from Malay via Amoy Chinese

schadenfreude – from German

French has contributed a very large portion of English loan words and often borrowed words take on different meanings due to competition with indigenous terms (cf. Old English great with Norse big and French large).


Shortening longer words is a popular strategy for conserving breath when speaking and space when writing or typing. Clipping or trimming words in the front or back (and sometimes both) is thus another word formation process in English.

air plane -> plane
front clipping

advertisement -> ad
back clipping

influenza -> flu
front and back clipping


Blends are combinations of two or more words in which the sound patterns overlap. Often parts of either or both words are reduced or lost in the blend, though usually the initial components are still recognizable.

brunch = breakfast + lunch

motel = motor + hotel

smog = smoke + fog

Initialisms and Acronyms

Other forms of shortenings are initialisms (also called alphabetisms) and acronyms, which reduce each component word to its initial letter. The difference between to two types lies in how the resulting word is pronounced in spoken language, namely letter by letter or without intermission.

Initialisms: TV, CD, MP3, SUV, YMCA, STFU



Sometimes speakers of a language will analyze a word as containing affixes where none are present. By removing these assumed affixes a lexeme can be back-formed.

to edit

to babysit

“Morphological oddities”

When critically looking at what you’ve learned about morphology and word formation to this point, you are bound to notice that the harmonious abstractions of the terminology aren’t entirely perfect. Some phenomena such as cranberry morphemes (see below) demonstrate that morphemes are idealized and do not always correspond neatly with atomic units of information. The following “oddities” stand out in English:

Zero morphs

A zero morph is a morph that should analytically be there, but that is not represented. A zero (Ø) is often used to indicate the “invisible” morph.

two cats = (ROOT) + -s (PLURAL)
two sheep = (ROOT) + Ø (PLURAL)

I like = (ROOT) + Ø (Non-3. Pers. sing.)
She likes = (ROOT) + -s (3. Pers. sing.)

Note that regarding noun plurals, one should not confuse zero morphs with mass nouns. Mass nouns such as water or metal simply do not have a plural, whereas sheep merely has no visible marking of the plural.

Portmanteau morphs

Some inflectional morphemes encode more than just a single grammatical property. These are called portmanteau morphs, because they contain several items inside a single shell (a portmanteau is a large suitcase).

he sleeps
+ 3. person
+ singular
+ present tense

my cat
+ 1. person
+ singular

Note that this is not to be confused with distinct morphemes which are realized with similar-looking morphs, such as -s as the realization of the plural morpheme vs. -s indicating third person singular.

Cranberry morphemes

Sometimes we encounter morphemes which are neither affixes nor genuine free morphemes. Such unique morphemes (which are occasionally also called cranberry morphemes) pose problems for analysis.


Black, straw and blue are lexical morphemes – but what’s a cran or a mul? Cranberry morphemes are most often introduced into a language via borrowing or dialectal variation and therefore only occur in a fixed morphological constellation. They are sometimes described as fossilized terms due to the fact that they can no longer be separately analyzed or used productively to form new words.

Key Terms

  • word formation processes
    • derivation
    • compounding
      • endocentric – exocentric
    • conversion
    • borrowing
    • clipping
    • blending
    • initialisms and acronyms
    • back-formation
  • morphological oddities
    • zero morphs
    • portmanteau morphs
    • cranberry morphemes


Read this New York Times column and find out what word formation processes William Safire unknowingly mentions.

Written by Cornelius in: Morphology,Summaries |

Session 6: Types of Morphemes

Words are the nuts and bolts of language. All of us rely on a huge repertoire of words each time we communicate. We assemble long lists of words (dictionaries) and have frequent debates about what exactly a word means (or doesn’t mean) and who has the authority to decide about such issues.

Morphology is interested in the internal structure of words, much in the same way that phonology is interested in meaning-distinguishing speech sounds (phonemes). We can break down words into smaller units by analyzing their structure and identify systematic processes that allow speakers to add new words to the lexicon and indicate grammatical information such as tense and number.

An example illustrates the point. Think about what information is contained in the word girls. Is it possible to break this word down into smaller structural units?

girls = girl + -s

It seems that girls can be broken down into two parts, the first of which refers to something in the world (a young female human being) and the second indicating a grammatical category – in this case number – and specifying plural.

The same approach can easily be applied to other kinds of words.

kicked = kick + -ed

While girls is a noun kicked is a verb, yet the same rules apply. Kicked can be segmented into the first part that describes a kind of action (kick) and the second part that adds the information past tense (-ed). Tense is another grammatical category that can be encoded morphologically in English.

Think about what kinds of words take which endings for a moment. Only verbs (talked, laughed, pushed, loved) allow us to add information about tense, whereas only nouns (girls, boys, zebras, chairs) permit marking number.

Let’s compare this with the another kind of example. The word coolness consists of two parts, giving us the same kind of formula as in the previous two examples.

coolness = cool + ness

However, things look different when we analyze the segments. Cool can have a whole range of meanings, but most commonly it is an adjective that describes a person or thing. But what about -ness? It does not indicate number or tense – in fact it contains no information about any grammatical category whatsoever. -Ness also does not indicate a specific thing, action or state. So what is it good for? Look at these example sentences:

Mike is a cool guy

Coolness is a good trait to have

The -ness in words such as coolness, hipness, sadness or vagueness seems to mean “having the attribute X” and adding it to an adjective apparently changes that adjective into a noun. There are many more endings of this type that affect word class (for example, by transforming an adjective into a noun) and that may change a word’s meaning to different degrees.

teach – teacher

insane – insanity

happy – happily

A teacher (noun) is someone who teaches (verb), insanity (noun) is the state of being insane (adjective) and happily (adverb) is the way in which you do something you are happy (adjective) with or about. We can also extend or even reverse the meaning of a word by appending something like re- or un-.

fill – refill

introduce – reintroduce

happy – unhappy

fair – unfair


In linguistic terminology the minimal parts of words that we have analyzed above are called morphemes. Morphemes come in different varieties, depending on whether they are

  • free or bound and
  • inflectional or derivational

Free morphemes

Free morphemes can stand by themselves (i.e. they are what what we conventionally call words) and either tell us something about the world (free lexical morphemes) or play a role in grammar (free grammatical morphemes). Man, pizza, run and happy are instances of free lexical morphemes, while and, but, the and to are examples for free grammatical morphemes. It is important to note the difference between morphemes and phonemes: morphemes are the minimal meaning-bearing elements that a word consists of and are principally independent from sound. For example, the word zebra (ˈziːbrə) consists of six phones and two syllables, but it contains only a single morpheme. Ze- and -bra are not independent meaning-bearing components of the word zebra, making it monomorphemic. (Bra as a free morpheme does in fact mean something in English, but this meaning is entirely unrelated to the -bra in zebra.)

Bound morphemes

Not all morphemes can be used independently, however. Some need to be bound to a free morpheme. In English the information “plural number” is attached to a word that refers to some person, creature, concept or other nameable entity (in other words, to a noun) when encoded in a morpheme and cannot stand alone. Similarly the morpheme -er, used to describe “someone who performs a certain activity” (e.g. a dancer, a teacher or a baker) cannot stand on its own, but needs to be attached to a free morpheme (a verb in this case). Bound morphemes come in two varieties, derivational and inflectional, the core difference between the two being that the addition of derivational morphemes creates new words while the addition of inflectional words merely changes word form.

Derivational morphemes

The signature quality of derivational morphemes is that they derive new words. In the following examples, derivational morphemes are added to produce new words which are derived from the parent word.

happy – happinessunhappiness

frost – defrost – defroster

examine – examinationreexamination

In all cases the derived word means something different than the parent and the word class may change with each derivation. As demonstrated in the examples above, sometimes derivation will not cause the world class to change, but in such a case the meaning will usually be significantly different from that of the parent word, often expressing opposition or reversal.

probable – improbable

visible – invisible

tie – untie

create – recreate

Independently of whether or not word class changes and how significantly meaning is affected, derivation always creates (derives) new words from existing ones, while inflection is limited to changing word form.

Inflectional morphemes

Inflection (the process by which inflectional morphemes are attached to words) allows speakers to morphologically encode grammatical information. That may sound much more complicated than it really is – recall the example we started out with.

The word girls consists of two morphemes

  • the free lexical morpheme girl that describes a young female human being and
  • the bound inflectional morpheme -s that denotes plural number

Examples for the morphological encoding of other grammatical categories are tense (past tense -ed as in walked), aspect (progressive aspect as in walking), case (genitive case as in Mike‘s car) and person (third person -s as in Mike drives a Toyota).

You are likely to notice that

  • overall, English grammar has fairly few inflections and
  • some inflectional endings can signify different things and more than one piece of grammatical information at once

The first point can easily be demonstrated by comparing English with German, which makes more use of inflection. Compare the following two pairs of sentences.

Der Mann sah den Hund

Den Hund sah der Mann


The man saw the dog

The dog saw the man

If you focus on the meaning of the two German sentences you’ll see that it does not change, even though we’ve changed the word order. The man is still the one who sees the dog, not the other way around. By contrast, the English expression changes its meaning from the first to the second sentence.

Why is this the case? In the German example the definite article is inflected for accusative case (den Hund), telling us who exactly did what to whom. This allows us to play around with the word order without changing the meaning of the sentence. English gives us no way of doing the same. We are forced to stick to a fixed word order due to a lack of case inflection (except for personal pronouns). Languages such as Latin that indicate a high degree of grammatical information via inflection (so-called synthetic languages) generally have a freer word order than analytic languages like English which have only reasonably very few inflections and rely on word order to signal syntactic relations (another popular example for a strongly analytic language is Chinese).


Linguists use the term affix to describe where exactly a bound morpheme is attached to a word. Prefixes are attached at the onset of a free morpheme, while suffixes are attached to the end. Infixes – affixes that occur in the middle of a word – are very rare in English, a well-known exception being expletive infixation. While in English suffixes can be either derivational or inflectional (teacher, slowly vs. apples, kicked), prefixes are always derivational (untie, recover, defrost).

Morphs, morphemes, allomorphs

When you look at certain inflectional endings that occur in English, you’ll notice that they are often but not always predictable. Here are a few examples for the plural morpheme.

one car – two cars; one rose – two roses…


one mouse – two mice

one man – two men

one ox – two oxen

one sheep – two sheep

A vowel change (also called an umlaut plural) instead of a suffix marks the plural in mice and men, in oxen the suffix we encounter is rather exotic (meaning this word is virtually the only one that takes the -en ending) and in the last example there is no visible plural marking at all.

The fact that plural number in English can be marked with several different inflectional suffixes (-s, -en), by vowel change or by no (visible) change at all points to a distinction you already know from phonology:

a concrete part of a word that cannot be divided into smaller parts

the meaning-distinguishing, abstract dimension of morphs, e.g. something like the plural morpheme

different realizations of the the same morpheme, e.g. -s, -en and nothing for the plural morpheme in dogs, oxen and fish_

When linguists talk about the allomorphs of the plural morpheme they are referring to variants of the same functional element which do not impact meaning in any way. A plural is still a plural, whether encoded by -s or something else.

Base, stem and root

Finally, in order to make the segmentation of words into smaller parts a little clearer, we differentiate between the base, the stem and the root of a word in morphological terms.

base: reactions

stem: reaction (s)

root: (re) act (ion) (s)

The stem is the base with all inflectional suffixes removed, whereas the root is what remains after all affixes have been taken off. When doing computational text analysis stemming (i.e. removing all inflectional endings) is frequently undertaken in order to avoid counting different word forms (e.g. house and houses) as separate words.

Key Terms

  • morphemes
    • free morphemes
      • lexical
      • grammatical
    • bound morphemes
      • derivational
      • inflectional
  • affixes
    • prefix
    • suffix
    • infix
  • morph – morpheme – allomorph
  • base – stem – root
  • synthetic language – analytic language
Written by Cornelius in: Morphology,Summaries |

Session 5: Applications of Phonetics and Phonology


Before moving on to larger units of speech, it makes sense to have a closer look at the second major building block in our phoneme inventory besides consonants: vowels.

Vowels are produced by letting air flow through the articulatory system without any significant obstruction. The vocal cords always vibrate when a vowel is produced and the continuous stream of air makes it possible to lengthen or shorten vowel sounds, a distinction that can differentiate meaning in some languages.

The central qualities that allow us to describe vowels are height, backness and roundedness. They allow us to describe where a vowel sound originates (height and backness) and the shape of the lips during articulation (roundedness).

The above graphic should give you a good idea of height and backness and in what way they affect the quality of vowels.

The vowel chart (originally developed by phonetician Daniel Jones) combines all three features (height, backness, roundedness) into a single model to describe the realization of the so-called cardinal vowels in the oral cavity.

Because the decisive articulator determining the quality of vowel sounds is the tongue, it is possible for vowel quality to change over the duration of articulation if the position of the tongue changes. If the articulatory configuration shifts from one vowel into another the resulting composite sound is a so-called diphthong (or gliding vowel).

Examples for pure vowels:

sit /ɪ/ => high front vowel (unrounded)

foot /ʊ/ => high back vowel (rounded)

man /æ/ => middle central vowel

Examples for diphthongs:

time /aɪ/

face /eɪ/

choice /ɔɪ/

Differences between dialects and sociolects of English are often marked by contrasts in vowel quality.

Suprasegmental phonology / prosodics

Suprasegmental phonology studies intonation and other aspects of speech that extend over more than one segment:

  • stress is associated with syllables
  • rhythm, tempo and intonation are associated with phrases and sentences

Suprasegmental features like stress, rhythm, tempo, and intonation are sometimes referred to collectively as prosody.


Intonation refers to the contrastive use of pitch or melody in speech (ger. Tonhöhenverlauf, Sprechmelodie). Different levels of pitch (tones) are used in particular sequences (contours) to express a wide range of meanings. For example, we often make use of the difference between a falling and a rising pitch pattern in statements and questions.

- They’re waiting. (information)
- They’re waiting? (question)
- They’re waiting??! (surprise)

The part of a sentence over which a particular intonation pattern extends is called an intonation phrase. The intonation phrase is a unit of information rather than a syntactically defined unit, but it often overlaps with syntactic units like phrases, clauses, or sentences.

Most languages exhibit a general downward trend of pitch (declination) over the course of an intonation phrase. The completion of a full grammatical unit such as a declarative sentence is often signaled by a distinctive fall in pitch. Incomplete utterances, such as mid-sentence clause breaks where the speaker intends to show there is more coming, often exhibit a slight rise in pitch.

Connected Speech

Speech is a continuous stream of sounds without a definite borderline between each word. When we communicate with each others, we adapt our pronunciation to our audience and tend to speak at a pace which is convenient for us, rather than speaking clearly. This causes changes to the ‘shape’ of words. As a result, certain words are lost, and some phonemes are linked together while speaking. These changes are described as features of connected speech.

Among the phonological processes that affect connected speech are:

  • assimilation (changing sounds)
  • elision (losing sounds)
  • intrusion and linking (adding or joining sounds between words)

These features preserve rhythm and make the language sound natural.

Features of Connected Speech

Weak Forms: Some English words can occur in a full and a weak form, because English exhibits qualities of a stress-timed language. That means that, while we try to keep an equal interval between stressed syllables and give the phrase rhythm, we tend to leave out non-essential words. Consequently, conjunctions, pronouns and articles (i.e. function words) are often reduced or even lost.

Examples of words which have weak forms are:

- and: fish and chips. (fish´n chips)
- can: She can dance better than I can. (1st “can”= weak, 2nd “can” = full)
- of: A cup of tea.
- have: Have you eaten? (weak)/ Yes, I have. (full)
- should: Well, you should have told me. (“should” and “have” are weak)

Assimilation: This process alters sounds so that they becomes similar (partial assimilation) or identical (total assimilation) to a neighboring or nearby sound.
There are different types of assimilation: regressive/ anticipatory, progressive and reciprocal.

  • regressive/ anticipatory: articulation of the following sound will be anticipated. In most cases assimilation is regressive
  • progressive: articulation of a sound continues in the next sound, which means it will be maintained. Progressive assimilation is rare.
  • reciprocal: two sounds that produces a third one. (Example: don’t you)

Elision: Sounds disappear completely in this process. Usually the vowels from unstressed syllables are elided first.


Common sound deletions
- int(e)rest, sim(i)lar, lib(a)ry, diff(e)rent, t(o)night.

/ t / and / d / = consonants often elided
- chris(t)mas, san(d)wich

/ h /= this sound is often left out
- you shouldn´t (h)ave

Phrasal verbs can show how we link closing consonants and beginning vowels across word boundaries, e.g. Get out ( getout ), Come out ( cumout )

Intrusion and Linking: We often put an extra sound (/j/, /w/, /r/) between two vowel sounds, because it marks the transition sound between the two vowels. This is regarded as intrusion.


/ j /
- I / j / agree, They / j /are here!
/ w /
- I want to/ w/eat, Do/ w/it!
/ r /
- The media / r /are to blame, Law(r)and order.

A lot of times we drag final consonants to initial vowels or vice versa, therefore consonants and vowels can be linked also.


- Get on. (geton ), Not at all. (notatall ), Come on. (comon)

How does connected speech affect our communication?

Native speakers normally do not have a problem with unclear utterances caused by connected speech, as they can assume what the missing part could be within that context. Non-native speakers, on the other hand, sometimes have difficulty predicting which lexical item may or may not appear in a particular context. This already is a significant problem for learners. However, the non-native speaker not only has to recognise the use of reduced forms but also use them himself, unless he wants to risk sounding fairly unnatural. Furthermore, the listener will have trouble to identify the points of focus if the speaker uses too many stressed forms. In conclusion, aspects of connected speech are of significant importance for people who learn a new language.

Key Terms

  • vowels
    • height
    • backness
    • roundedness
  • monothongs, diphthongs
  • suprasegmental phonology /prosodics
  • pitch
  • intonation
  • connected speech
    • weak forms
    • assimilation
    • elision
    • intrusion / linking
Written by Cornelius in: Phonetics/Phonology,Summaries |

Session 4: Sound and Meaning

Distribution of allophones

Before looking at sequences of speech sounds and how they are arranged in words and utterances, it pays off to have another look at how the allophones of a phoneme are distributed, specifically what variants can occur in what kinds of surroundings (have a look at the previous summary if you need a refresher on those two terms).

Analyzing slightly larger units of speech allows us explain some of the variation in how an individual phoneme is realized. If one allophone of a phoneme can always be found in a certain place and never in another, this is described as complementary distribution:

Complementary distribution is the mutually exclusive relationship between two phonetically similar segments. It exists when one segment occurs in an environment where the other segment never occurs.

from the SIL Glossary of Linguistic Terms

An example to illustrate this is the phoneme /p/ with its realization as [pʰ] – the little h indicated that the sound is aspirated – and [p], which is unaspirated. Both sounds are allophones of the phoneme /p/ and they occur in complementary distribution, meaning one always occurs where the other doesn’t and vice versa. The aspirated version occurs when /p/ is the syllable onset and followed by a stressed vowel (as in the word pin), while the unaspirated version occurs in all other situations (e.g. in spin or top). It is important to note that while the two sounds are actually phonetically slightly different, exchanging one for the other (e.g. aspirating the /p/ in top) would not have any effect on the meaning of the word. If that seems strange to you, consider again that other languages are different in that respect and that in them these two variants of /p/ may not be allophones but distinct phonemes. Finally, another source of phonetic difference in how a phoneme is realized is free variation. Free variants are the result of individual or dialectal differences, such as vowel quality in different varieties of British and American English.


If phones are the smallest units of measurement in speech production, syllables are what follows them. Essentially a syllable is a vowel with optional consonants clustered around it. The vowel forms the so-called nucleus of the syllable, while any consonants coming after the vowel are referred to as the coda. Depending on whether the nucleus is followed by a coda or not, we describe the syllable as either closed or open.

The example below shows how syllable structure can be accurately described:

word: map (phonetically [mæp])

syllable structure: CVC

The word map has one syllable. It consists of the consonant [m], followed by the vowel [æ] and ends with the consonant [p] – therefore it has the syllable structure CVC. This is an example for a closed syllable (the vowel nucleus is followed by a consonant coda).

By contrast, the following example is an open syllable and does not have a coda:

you (phonetically [yu])


Remember that the letter y may represent a consonant (as in this example) or a vowel, as in happy. Don’t be fooled by the strange spelling conventions of English!

Consonant Clusters

Several consonants can stack at the beginning or end of a syllable, forming a so-called consonant cluster. The following example demonstrates this:



In English, a maximum of three consonants can stack at the beginning of a syllable, while a maximum of four consonants can succeed the nucleus, leading to this phonotactic description of syllable structure:


Here are a few more examples for better illustration:



monosyllabic (one syllable), closed



disyllabic (two syllables), open



monosyllabic (one syllable), closed



polysyllabic (four syllables), syllables are closed-open-open-closed


Stress is a means of emphasizing syllables (or, in some cases, words) in spoken language. In contrast to French (as one example) where words are generally stressed on the last syllable, English does not have a fixed word stress, as these examples show:




Stress also serves an important grammatical function in English, as it is capable of indicating word class. For example, the word survey can be either a verb or a noun:

(1) We want to surVEY all viewers of Channel 5 in order to learn more about their tastes.

(2) This SURvey indicates that the students are extremely bored.

In the first sentence survey is a verb and stressed on the second syllable, whereas in the second sentence it is a noun and stressed on the first syllable. Generally function words such as and, to and of (which are often monosyllabic) are unstressed in English.

Have a look at the following sentence and think about how shifting word stress affects the meaning.

(3) JOHN doesn’t like pie.
= John doesn’t like pie, Mary does

(4) John DOESN’T like pie.
= Someone assumed that he likes pie, but he actually doesn’t

(5) John doesn’t LIKE pie.
= He doesn’t just like it, he loves it!

(6) John doesn’t like PIE.
= He doesn’t like pie, but he’s crazy about donuts.

Key Terms

  • complementary distribution – free variation
  • aspiration
  • syllables
    • nucleus – coda
    • closed- open
  • consonant clusters
  • syllable stress, word stress
Written by Cornelius in: Phonetics/Phonology,Summaries |

Session 3: The Sounds of English

The two primary fields of linguistics concerned with speech sounds – those sounds that are used by humans to communicate – are phonetics and phonology. Both areas are mutually dependent. Phonetics describes the concrete, physical dimension of sounds, such as whether they are voiced or voiceless and their place and manner of articulation. The aspect of sound production is particularly what articulatory phonetics is concerned with, while acoustic and auditory phonetics deal with the characteristics of sound waves and how they are perceived by the human ear.

While phonetics deals with the form of sounds (how they are produced, heard and how they can be described), phonology is concerned with the function of sounds, that is, with their meaning in a given language. By systematically studying phonological differences between languages, it is for example possible to predict what sounds the learner of a second language will have difficulties with or why certain languages are judged as more difficult to learn in terms of pronunciation than others.


The basic unit of phonetics is called a phone, which is basically any human speech sound. Remember, phonetics is only concerned with “sounds as such”, so any sound that comes out of a person’s mouth can be called a phone. In contrast to this, the basic unit in phonology is the phoneme, which is any sound in a language that differentiates meaning. In linguistic contexts, phones are often expressed by placing brackets around a transcription (e.g. [dæns] for American dance).


The relationship of sound and meaning can be explained by looking into whether a difference in sound structure causes a shift in meaning or not. Try this by saying the following words out loud:

look – book – cook – took

You will notice right away that their sound patterns are similar except for the initial sound (l, b, c, t). The fact that replacing one sound with another (for example, l with b) yields a different meaningful word in English demonstrates that the speech sounds l and b are phonemes in the English language. Linguists normally write phonemes with slashes around the transcriptions, e.g. /l/ and /b/. An case like look – book that demonstrates that /l/ and /b/ are phonemes is called a minimal pair.

Now compare this with another example:

tea – he

At first this might be confusing. While the spelling of look, book etc happens to be similar, except at the beginning of the word where the distinct phoneme occurs, the spelling of tea and he is not similar. But they still form a minimal pair for the phonemes /t/ and /h/, because the rest of the sound pattern is identical.

The key here is to recognize that we are dealing with sounds, not spelling. Two sounds may be distinct phonemes while being represented by the same letters, or be completely identical in terms of sound structure but look different in writing.


see – sea

Identical sound, different spelling – not a minimal pair, because we’re looking at a difference that exists only in writing.

the – me

The final sound looks similar in writing, but is there is an obvious sound difference between short and long e. However, these two words are not suitable candidates for a minimal pair test, as the rest of the sound pattern is not identical.


What, then, about sounds which are different but do not differentiate meaning? Take this example:

lip – pill

While the difference is slight, you might notice that /l/ does not sound exactly the same in lip and pill (try to keep track of where you place the tip of your tongue). Such a difference depends on many factors – in this case whether the sound is at the beginning or end of the word. Other examples for such factors include dialectal differences (think about how British vs. American speakers say dance or France) and there is even a certain degree of difference among individuals. The decisive contrast between this and the examples above is that such variants don’t differentiate meaning. The ls in lip and pill are both allophones of the phoneme /l/.

What is it good for?

Why is it important whether we are dealing with allophones of the same phoneme or with entirely different phonemes? Have a look at this table describing the phoneme inventory of Standard Mandarin, the official language of China. One difference that you are likely to notice is that Standard Mandarin lacks the voiced bilabial, alveolar and velar plosives /b/, /d/ and /g/. However, it has aspirated (ger. behaucht) versions of these consonants, which are distinct phonemes: pʰ, tʰ, kʰ. In other words, a difference that does not distinguish meaning in English (aspiration) is a salient difference in Mandarin Chinese, while another one (voicing of plosives) distinguishes meaning in English but not in Chinese.

Side by side

The following table gives an summarizing overview of the differences between phonetics and phonology.



sounds as such

sounds as parts of a sound system

language use (parole)

language system (langue)







phone [ ]

phoneme / /

The human vocal tract

What is for linguistic purposes identified as the vocal tract fills several functions, among them breathing and ingesting food. The production of speech sounds is essentially realized by directing the flow of air through the articulatory system in specific ways – for example by letting air escape gradually in a sort of hiss, by letting air pressure build and then suddenly releasing it, by letting the vocal cords vibrate etc.

Describing speech sounds

Speech sounds are usually described via their articulatory qualities, i.e. their

  • place of articulation (where in the vocal tract they are generated)
  • manner of articulation (how they are generated)

and whether they are

  • voiced or voiceless (whether they make the vocal cords vibrate or not )

Vowels vs. consonants

One basic phonetic differentiation that can be made when classifying speech sounds is that they fall into two relatively distinct categories:

  • vowels, which are produced by letting air flow through the articulatory system without any constraints and
  • consonants, which feature some sort of obstruction of the air flow in the vocal tract

Vowels are generally voiced, while English consonants can be either voiced or voiceless.

Place of articulation

The following list describes the main places of articulation for English consonants. Note that the use of certain places and manners of articulation is common in some languages but not in others. For example, Arabic has two pharyngeal consonants that English lacks (/ħ/ and /ʕ/). An example that you are familiar with are the Umlaut vowels that occur in German but not in English and the dental fricative (the “th”) that is common in English but not in German.

A sound that is produced by pressing the lips together is called bilabial.
Sounds: /p/, /b/, /m/ (and, to some extent, the labial-velar approximant /w/)

A sound that involves using the lips and teeth together is described as labio-dental.
Sounds: /f/, /v/

A sound that is created by placing the tip of the tongue behind the upper teeth is dental.
Sounds: /θ/, /ð/

Alveolar ridge
A sound that is produced by tapping the tongue against the area a bit behind the teeth (called the alveolar ridge) is referred to as alveolar.
/t/, /d/, /n/, /s/, /z/, /ɹ/, /l/

Alveolar ridge and hard palate
A sound that originates between the alveolar ridge and the hard palate is called palato-alveolar or post-alveolar.
/ʃ/, /ʒ/, /tʃ/, /dʒ/

Hard palate
A sound that comes from the middle section of the roof of the mouth (the hard palate) is called palatal.
Sound: /j/

Soft palate (velum)
A sound the is produced in the upper back area of the mouth (the soft palate or velum) is described as velar.
Sounds: /k/, /g/, /

A sound that originates in the throat (or, more specifically, the glottis) is referred to as glottal.
Sound: /h/

Manner of articulation

The term manner of articulation is generally used to explain how a sound is produced. Place, manner and voicing are usually named together, allowing us to describe /z/ as a voiced alveolar fricative.

These sounds (also referred to as stops) occur when there is an initial blockage of both the oral and nasal cavities of the vocal tract (and therefore no air flow), which is then suddenly released.
Sounds: /p/, /b/, /t/, /d/, /k/, /g/

When articulating a nasal the air flow completely bypasses the oral cavity, instead flowing through the nose. The precise position of the tongue during articulation determines the resulting sound.
Sounds: /m/, /n/

Fricatives are produced by forcing air through a narrow channel made by placing two articulatory organs closely together (for example, upper lip and lower teeth in /f/).
Sounds: /f/, /v/, /θ/, /ð/, /s/, /z/, /ʃ/, /ʒ/, /h/

Africatives combine plosive with fricative qualities, first blocking the air stream and then slowly releasing it (in contrast to normal plosives, which release pressure suddenly).
Sounds: /tʃ/, /dʒ/

The articulation of these speech sounds involves only very slight obstruction of the air flow, which is why some approximants are considered to be relatively close to vowels (so-called half-vowels). The exact realization of the approximant /r/ (as either /ɹ/ or /ɻ/) is one of the characteristic differences between British and American English dialects*.
Sounds: /l/ (lateral-alveolar approximant), /j/ (palatal approximant), /w/ (labial-velar approximant), /ɹ/ (lateral approximant in British RP), /ɻ/ (retroflex approximant in American English)

* Note that there is really no single British or American English in the precise linguistic sense. British could theoretically include Scots (which is widely regarded as a seperate language), Received Pronunciation and Cockney, while American would geographically conflate Canadian English with Southern US-American and countless other regional and social varieties. Always keep in mind that tags like British English and American English are idealized blanket labels which are generally not specific enough for linguistic purposes.

Key Terms

  • phonetics – phonology
  • phone – phoneme – allophone
  • vocal tract
  • vowel – consonant
  • voicing – place of articulation – manner of articulation
Written by Cornelius in: Phonetics/Phonology,Summaries |

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