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What Is a Grammatical Category?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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The grammatical category organizes grammatical functions into different categories. The functions might affect words in different ways due to their varied morphology, but they perform the same basic grammatical function. There are a total of 20 grammatical functions in linguistics; not all languages have all these functions, and they are often manifested in different ways. Such functions include tense, plurality, time and gender.

Grammar is a term given to the structural rules governing a language. Such rules are explained in textbooks and grammar books, and they are taught to new language learners, however, they are understood instinctively by native speakers. The use and importance of grammar came relatively late to the English language. From 1066 until the 15th century, it was the language of the lower classes, and grammatical theory was not applied to it until the 17th century. English grammar has since been inspired chiefly by Latin grammar, leading to problems such as the split infinitive.

The first grammatical category is animacy. Animacy is used to indicate whether a noun is animate or inanimate. It often affects the verb used with the noun. The aspect grammatical category adds a specific or general sense of time and is related to, but distinct from, tense.

Case indicates whether a noun is the subject, object or possessor in a sentence. Clusivity indicates whether a first-person pronoun such as ‘we’ is inclusive or exclusive. For example, languages with clusivity can differentiate between we meaning ‘all of us’ and we meaning ‘us, but not you.’ The definiteness grammatical category tells the reader/listener how definite or not an action is. For example, it differentiates between ‘I listened to a song’ and ‘I listened to the song.’

The degree of comparison regulates the three main types of adjectives and adverbs. These are divided into positive, comparative and superlative like ‘big,’ ‘bigger’ and ‘biggest.’ Evidentiality indicates if the sentence is based on evidence or not, and if so, to what degree. Focus relates information in one sentence to information given previously.

Gender is used in various languages to indicate the gender of the speaker, subject or object by modifying nouns, adjectives and verbs. It used to be present in Old English, but has disappeared from modern English. The grammatical category mirativity is used in some languages to indicate surprise within a sentence by using suffices or other indicators rather than exclamation marks and intonation.

Modality allows a speaker or reader to analyze a sentence by the use of auxiliary verbs and adverbs. Verbs signal moods created by modality using changes from the grammatical category called mood. A noun class organizes nouns by either their meaning or by their morphological aspects. Person defines the usage of pronouns and, therefore, affects verb and noun forms.

Polarity is a grammatical category that distinguishes between positive and negative aspects. In English, the negative is shown as ‘not,’ such as, ‘Dave does not play tennis.’ Topic defines what the sentence is about and is usually linked to the subject of the sentence or clause. Transivity demonstrates the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs. The final grammatical category is voice, which structures the relationship between the verb and the subject and object of a sentence.

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