A Semantic Study of Closed-Class Items/Open-Class Items: Introduction

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In English grammar, parts of speech are also referred to as a class of words. A class of words is of two types: closed-class items and open-class items. The class is ‘open’ because it is indefinitely extendable, and appears to more than one sense.

Form Classes and Structure Classes

World-class items may be classified as open or closed: open-class items such as nouns, lexical verbs, adjectives, and adverbs acquire new members constantly, while closed-class items such as pronouns, auxiliary verbs, prepositions, and conjunctions acquire no or infrequent new members.

The distinction between lexical and grammatical meaning determines the first division in our classification: form-class words and structure-class words. In general, the form classes provide the primary lexical content; the structure classes explain the grammatical or structural relationship. The form classes also known as content words or open-class items include nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. The structure classes, also known as function words or closed-class items include pronouns, auxiliaries, conjunctions, and prepositions.

(1) Closed-Class Items

Functions of Closed-Class Words or Items

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

(2) Open-Class Items

Meaning of Open-Class Items

Adejuwon (2008) explains open-class items as the words belonging to those parts of speech in which new items are constantly being created. These parts of speech in which new items are constantly being created are nouns, adjectives, lexical verbs, and adverbs. For instance, no one could make an inventory of all the nouns in English and be confident that it was complete. Items are said to belong to a class in that they have the same grammatical property and structural possibility as other members of the same class (i.e. as other nouns, verbs, adjectives, or adverbs respectively) but, as said earlier, the class is ‘open’ in the sense that it is indefinitely extendable. We are saying that a word class can generate new members. For example, a word can behave as a noun in a context and also behave as a lexical verb, an adjective, or an adverb in another context.
It is inappropriate to say that certain words are complete nouns, verbs, adjectives, or, adverbs. The contexts in which they are used will determine their functions and the classes they belong to. As we have said earlier, the following parts of speech are only open-class items while others are closed-class items.

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Describing Open-Class Items

There are two ways by which the open-class items can be described.

1. The extension of one item to other word classes having the same meanings.
2. A word having more than one meaning
.
1. The Extension of One Item to another Word-Class Item Having the Same Meanings

In the same case, a word, as we have said earlier, can behave as a noun in a context but it can also be extended to another word class like a verb, an adjective, or an adverb in another context. Look at the following illustrations:

(i) I saved N50, 000.00 with First Bank.
(ii) I had banked with UPLC
.
In sentence (i), the bank is used as a noun because it functions as the headword in the context of the prepositional phrase ‘with First Bank’. In sentence (ii), the bank is used as a verb because it acts as the sentence. It is also noted that (bank) in a sentence (i) means where money or valuable things are kept and the (banked) in a sentence (ii) means (have an account with or kept money with UPLC Bank). This is another illustration that includes an adjective:

(i) The man is a suspect.
(ii) I suspect you.
(iii) It is a suspect package.
.
In sentence (i), the suspect is used as a noun because it functions as a complement of the sentence: ‘The man is a suspect and it is also an agentive noun which means a person who is suspected. In sentence (ii), the suspect is used as a verb because it acts as the sentence: ‘I suspect you. In sentence (iii), the suspect is used as an adjective because it qualifies the noun ‘package’ in the sentence: ‘It is a suspect package’.

We shall illustrate one more example that still includes an adverb.

(i) You came late to school yesterday.
(ii) He always comes home at a late hour.

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In sentence (i), late is used as an adverb. It modifies the verb ‘came’. In sentence (ii), late is used as an adjective qualifying the noun ‘hour’. We shall discuss another aspect of open-class items:

(2) A Word Having More than One Meaning

In this sense, it should be understood that a word may be lexically ambiguous, having more than one meaning and interpretation or appearing to many senses. In this case, it will be difficult to recognize the communicative intention of the speaker/writer if the ambiguous word is not contextually appropriate. Consider the following illustrations:

(i) I save my money with Skye Bank.
(ii) When I got to the river, I sat at its bank to rest.

In sentence (i), bank means ‘financial institution’ or ‘where money and valuable things are kept. In sentence (ii), the bank on the other hand connotes ‘the side of the river or ‘the edge of the river. From the examples, it is established that a word in English may be ambiguous (ambiguity) or vague (vagueness), meaning that a word, a phrase, or a sentence can appear with different meanings or interpretations. At times, the word may not be specific or clear if it is not appropriately used in a sentence. The only solution to the problem is to disambiguate the ambiguity and make vagueness contextually appropriate, or else it will be difficult for the hearer/listener/reader to understand the speaker/writer. These are more sentences:

(1) The man is rich.
(2) The sentence is long.

In a sentence, the adjective rich is contextually inappropriate because it appears to different senses or interpretations. It allows for confusion as the listener/reader can infer different meanings from the expressions. The following interpretations are possible:

(a) The man is wealthy.
(b) The man is intellectually/academically rich.
(c) The man is sexually rich.

It is now understood that ‘the man is rich’ is a confusing statement in the reader/listener will find difficult to understand the speaker/writer. Now, let us compare the following sentences with the ones above:

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(a) The man spent about 2bn naira on his project, he is rich. (wealthy)
(b) Professor Abu has written almost 200 books, he is academically rich.
(c) The boy slept with, at least, five girls a day, he is sexually rich.

It is possible for the reader/listener to easily recognize the communicative intention of the writer/speaker of the sentences above because they are contextually appropriate and clear.

In sentence 2, the word sentence is not contextually appropriate because it has more than one sense and interpretation. It allows for confusion as the listener/reader can infer different meanings from the expressions. The interpretations below may be possible:

(a) The grammatical unit of language
(b) The punishment is given by a court

It is now understood that the use of the word ‘sentence’ in the sentence above is so confusing that the reader/listener cannot easily understand the speaker/writer. Now, let us compare the following sentences with the ones above:

(a) Your letter is boring to read because your sentences are too long. (The grammatical unit of language)
(b) The Judge passed a long sentence on the criminal yesterday. (The punishment given by a court)

It is possible for the reader/listener to easily recognize the communicative intention of the writer/speaker of the sentences above because they are contextually appropriate and clear.

Evaluation

1. Explain closed-class items and open-class items’.
2. List the class of words that can be categorized as closed-class items and open-class
items.
3. Discuss the functions of closed-class items.
4. Describe the nature of the open-class items with illustrations.

Author: Deola Adelakun 

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