Grammatical categories, or grammar and semantics

Author: Jim Miller


The set of grammatical categories includes, among others, tense, aspect, mood, case. These are neglected in current Linguistics courses in the UK but are central in the grammars of natural languages. They connect grammar and semantics and play an essential role in the syntactic analysis of clauses and the semantic analysis of clauses and propositions. Their study leads to general issues such as the source of grammatical categories, the evolution of language, language and cognition, metaphor and first language acquisition.

Table of contents

Grammatical categories

Few introductions to syntax or linguistics in general even mention the grammatical categories of tense, aspect, mood, case, number, gender and voice, or transitivity, to use the current term. (An exception is Lyons (1968).) Formal models of syntax are unenlightening on such topics and most undergraduate courses in linguistics in the UK do not offer courses on grammatical categories. Nonetheless the categories are studied by language typologists; tense, aspect and mood have long attracted serious attention among cognitive scientists, discourse analysts and philosophers; and two recent semantics textbooks make room for tense, aspect, mood and case. (See Kearns (2000) and Cruse (2000).

Grammatical categories connect grammar and semantics

Why include grammatical categories in an undergraduate linguistics programme? Grammatical categories connect grammar and semantics. They are central to the syntactic structure of clauses; in logic they are important for the analysis of propositions. Briefly, case has to do with the relations between the verb in a given clause and the nouns; aspect has to do with the type of situation and whether the speaker presents a situation as on-going or completed; tense has to do with events being located in past, present or future time by the speaker; mood has to do with whether the speaker presents an event as a fact, a possibility or a necessity, with whether the speaker witnessed a given event directly or has merely heard about it - in short, with the attitudes and expectations of speakers regarding states of affairs and propositions.

Grammatical categories in reference grammars

Reference grammars of particular languages devote much space to grammatical categories but little or none to constituent structure. Constituent structure does not cause major problems for the non-native learners of a given language but its systems of case-marking, mood, tense and aspect do. All reference grammars for non-native learners covertly use theories of tense, aspect, etc. and a useful exercise for students of languages and linguistics is to compare a given reference grammar with theoretical work on a given category. (The author's favourite is tense and aspect in grammars of Russian such as Wade (1992).)

Grammatical categories bear on various major issues. Logicians are concerned with truth and falsity. The analysis of, e.g., tense, aspect and case must be anchored in truth-conditions but detailed analysis of natural languages raises fundamental questions about language, the extra-linguistic world, mental representations and metaphor.


A currently salient topic of research is grammaticalisation. The central idea is that constructions with abstract meanings develop historically from constructions with concrete meanings. Grammaticalisation is relevant not just to semantics and historical change but to language and cognition, first language acquisition and the origin and evolution of language.

Grammatical categories and textual analysis

Finally, grammatical categories are central to the analysis of texts by humans and computers. Aspect, for instance, enables speakers to present events as happening one after the other or to focus on one event. Speakers and writers use differences in voice/transitivity to exclude agents or patients or both from the representation of events.


Cruse, A. (2000) Meaning in Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kearns, K. (2000) Semantics. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Lyons, J. (1968) Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wade, T. (1992) A Comprehensive Russian Grammar. Oxford: Blackwell.

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