Morpho-Syntactic Marking of Inflectional Categories in English

Morpho-Syntactic Marking of Inflectional Categories in English

Gulsat Aygen (Northern Illinois University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-8467-4.ch006


The goal of this chapter is to introduce the connection between morphology and syntax, using inflectional morphemes and functional words that mark specific inflectional categories on the verb. The chapter identifies and discusses four major inflectional categories marked on the verbs, namely, tense, aspect, mood, and voice from a descriptive linguistics approach. This approach provides a much more systematic and simple presentation of how English marks these less-commonly understood and potentially confusing concepts. The chapter first reviews the basic terminology and concepts relevant to the topic and presents a concise survey of both the traditional and the more recent theoretical analyses of English tense, aspect, mood, and voice. Further, it explains and exemplifies the recent analysis of tense, aspect, mood, and voice markers as a demonstration of how they can be taught accurately and in a pedagogically simpler way.
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What Is Morpho-Syntax?

Morphemes are not a topic of study for only morphology; they are also a topic of syntax. The subfield of linguistics that studies morphemes as the units of both morphology and syntax is called morpho-syntax which is also defined as the study of grammatical categories or linguistic units whose properties are definable by both morphological as well as syntactic criteria (Li, 2009, p. 169). Thus, the term morpho-syntax is often used to emphasize the sentence-level along with the word-level functions of morphemes.

As we have seen in previous chapters, morphemes may be derivational or inflectional. Derivational morphemes make new words when they are attached to other words. They change the meaning and sometimes the part of speech of the word. Inflectional morphemes, on the other hand, add grammatical meaning, such as number, tense, aspect, etc. They cannot change the part of speech of the word they are attached to. They are very important in syntax, the study of the structure of phrases and sentences.

We call the part of speech of a given word its syntactic category. The syntactic category of a word may be a noun, a pronoun, a verb, an adjective, an adverb, a preposition, or a conjunction. These categories may be easily identified using two linguistic criteria: inflectional properties and/or syntactic properties (Aygen, 2016, pp.13-14). Inflectional properties refer to the inflectional morphemes that can attach to the word, and syntactic properties refer to the location of the word in the sentence, including what can surround it. Here is an example of how we identify the part of speech, that is, the syntactic category of a word, using linguistic criteria:

What is the part of speech/syntactic category of the word goat?

  • Inflectional properties: goat can be pluralized with the inflectional morpheme {-s} or the possessive morpheme {’s}, both of which can attach only to nouns: goats, goat’s.

  • Syntactic properties: goat can appear after an article which flags a noun: a goat, the goat.

Based on the above information, the syntactic category of the word goat is a noun. We could have thought about the meaning of the word goat, yet relying on meaning may not always give us the correct answer. Meaning is useful but not sufficient and not always reliable to identify the syntactic category of a word. Especially for ELLs with diverse linguistic backgrounds, a given word may not be a familiar one. The part of speech is given before the meaning of a word in the dictionary, and one would end up having to memorize the meaning and the part of speech instead of understanding how a part of speech can be identified in linguistic context. Unlike meaning, the syntactic properties or the inflectional properties, however, are always detectable.


Inflectional And Syntactic Properties Of Verbs

As noted, we can identify the part of speech of any word using inflectional and syntactic properties instead of relying on its meaning. With inflectional and syntactic properties, one can identify the verb and its inflectional markers even if one does not know the meaning of the verb. Meaning can be derived within semantic context whereas inflectional morphemes such as tense, aspect, voice, or mood can be identified within linguistic context. Because verbs mark inflectional categories, we will focus on identifying verbs in this chapter. Verbs have been traditionally defined as expressions of events, states, processes, or actions, but this definition refers only to the meaning of verbs. Linguistically, verbs can be identified by the inflectional morphemes of tense, aspect, and mood. For instance, in the sentence She has been dancing for hours, has is a verb because it marks present tense and perfect aspect1, been is a verb because it marks both progressive and perfect aspect, and dancing is a verb because it marks progressive aspect. All three verbs inflected with present perfect progressive mark indicative mood, as we will see in this chapter. In terms of syntactic properties, verbs appear after the subject of the sentence and within the predicate.

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