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The Principles of Classification as Used by Structural Descriptive


The traditional classification of words into parts of speech was rejected by

structural grammarians who bitterly criticized it from two points. First, in their

opinion, traditional grammar relies heavily on the most subjective element in

language, meaning. The other is that it uses different criteria of classification: it

distinguishes the noun, the verb and the interjection on the basis of meaning; the

adjective, the adverb, the pronoun, and the conjunction, on the basis of function,

and the preposition, partly on function and partly on form.

One of the noted representatives of American structuralism, Charles Fries

(1956), rejected the traditional principle of classification of words into parts of

speech replacing it with the methods of distributional analysis and substitution.

Words that exhibit the same distribution (which is the set of contexts, i.e.

immediate linguistic environments, in which a word can appear) belong to the

same class. Roughly speaking, the distribution of a word is the position of a word

in the sentence. To classify the words of English, Charles Fries used three

sentences called substitution frames. He thought that the positions, or the slots, in

the sentences were sufficient for the purpose of the classification of all the words

of the English language.

Frame A

The concert was good.

Frame B

The clerk remembered the tax.

Frame C

The team went there.

The position discussed first is that of the word concert. Words that can

substitute for concert (e.g. food, coffee, taste, etc.) are Class 1 words. The same

holds good for words that can substitute for clerk, tax and team – these are typical

positions of Class 1 words. The next important position is that of was, remembered

and went; words that can substitute for them are called Class 2 words. The next

position is that of good. Words that can substitute for good are Class 3 words. The

last position is that of there; words that can fill this position are called Class 4

words. According to the scholar, these four parts of speech contain about 67 per

cent of the total instances of the vocabulary. He also distinguishes 15 groups of

function words set up by the same process of substitution but on different patterns.

These function words (numbering 154 in all) make up a third of the recorded

material. Charles Fries does not use the traditional terminology. To understand his

function words better, we shall use, where possible, their traditional names: Group

A words (determiners); Group B (modal verbs); Group C (the negative particle

“not”); Group D (adverbs of degree); Group E (coordinating

conjunctions); Group F (prepositions); Group G (the auxiliary verb “to”); Group H

(the introductory “there”); Group I (interrogative pronouns and adverbs); Group J

(subordinating conjunctions); Group K (interjections); Group L (the words “yes”

and “no”); Group M (the so-called attention-giving signals: look, say, listen);

Group N (the word “please”); Group O (the forms “let us”, “lets” in request


It is obvious that in classifying words into word-classes Charles Fries in fact

used the principle of function, or combinability (the position of a word in the

sentence is the syntactic function of word). Being a structuralist, he would not

speak of function: function is meaning while position is not. His classification is

not beyond criticism. First, not all relevant positions were tested. Class 3 words are

said to be used in the position of good (Frame A). But the most typical position of

these words is before Class l words. If this position had been used by the scholar,

such words as woolen, wooden, golden, etc. (i.e. relative adjectives) would have

found their place in the classification. But if he had done it, the classification

would have collapsed, for their position can be filled by other word-classes: nouns,

numerals, pronouns. Second, his functional classes are very much ‘splintered’, i.e.

broken into small groups. This is good for practice but bad for theory, for

theoretical grammar is more interested in uniting linguistic facts than in separating

them. Third, being deprived of meaning, his word-classes are “faceless”, i.e. they

have no character. No wonder, other structuralists deemed it necessary to return to

traditional terminology and to use the criterion of form and, additionally, position.

Date: 2015-12-17; view: 2357

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