Posts From the Editors
(Not So) Tidy, (Not So) Little Boxes: Finding Parts of Speech
We often hear from people who want to pursue a career in lexicography. One student I spoke with summed up his qualifications thusly: “I love words, I love etymology, and I’m really good at grammar.”
“What’s a noun?” I asked.
“A person, place, or thing.”
I sighed. “Ah, yes, I remember those days.”
Lexicography isn’t just about recording the meanings of words; one of the primary jobs of the lexicographer is also to figure out a word’s part of speech. This sounds much easier than it actually is.
We tend to think of parts of speech as tidy little boxes, and all a lexicographer has to do is pick a word up off his or her desk and flick that word, like a paper airplane, into the right box. That’s not a bad analogy, provided you make the boxes very tiny, place them randomly about a football field away, and give your lexicographer a lilting headwind that will take those paper-airplane words and send them zooming about the field in exactly the wrong direction. It’s not until you have to assign a part of speech to a word that you realize how flexible most English words are.
Take, for instance, the word apple as used in the sentence, “My favorite dessert is apple pie.” Is it an adjective? It seems to be acting like one. But look up apple in your dictionary, and it’s a noun.
When lexicographers have to assign a word a part of speech, they can’t be strict descriptivists who look only at the citations. If that were the case, then apple would be entered both as an adjective and a noun. Instead, they rely on the citations, the work of grammarians before them, and their own sprachgefühl (or feeling for the language).
In the case of apple pie, we use the work of grammarians of the past to lay out the differences between a “true” adjective and a noun that is used like an adjective. A true adjective, for instance, typically meets four criteria. It’s, one, gradable and can do each of the following: take comparative and superlative forms; be used attributively; and function as a subject or object complement. For apple in apple pie, the citations and our sprachgefühl tell us that it’s apple pie (check for the attributive use), but: the pie can be tastier, but not appler (strike one, not gradable); it can be more delicious or the most delicious, but not more apple or most apple (strike two, no comparable or superlative forms); and it may seem delectable but cannot seem apple (strike three, this time on the complement front). So the lexicographer enters it as a noun which can be used attributively, and feels a little smug about having a good grasp of adjectives. Until encountering the adjectives utter and galore.
When you first begin work at Merriam-Webster, you are trained to stop looking at the grammar of words on a macro level (nouns are persons, places, things; verbs describe action or a state of being; adjectives modify nouns; adverbs modify verbs) and begin delving into the microscopic world of English grammar. At that level of magnification, a part of speech which looks like a homogenous, glassy smooth dome of words is actually full of movement, variation, and life. Boundaries are blurry, and categorization is difficult. Adverbs can function as conjunctions; nouns can act like adjectives; some adjectives can take the definite article, like a noun; some verbs don’t describe an action or a state of being.
The traditional eight parts of speech were initially listed in a Greek grammar from the 2nd century BCE, and we’ve kept with this 2,200-year-old system. There are plenty of linguists who find this system to be artificial and impractical, but old habits are hard to break: English dictionaries have been following this system since there were English dictionaries. So when you are tempted to consider a career in lexicography, be prepared to tangle with our tricky parts of speech. And if that doesn’t give you pause, a gander at the 181-word first definition for adverb in the New Unabridged just might.
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