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Pragmatic functions and lexical categories

Mark Smith1

1The Open University in the West Midlands

Correspondence address: Faculty of Social Sciences, the Open University in the West Midlands, 66 High Street, Harborne, Birmingham B17 9NB, United Kingdom. E-mail:

Citation Information: Linguistics. Volume 48, Issue 3, Pages 717–777, ISSN (Online) 1613-396X, ISSN (Print) 0024-3949, DOI: 10.1515/ling.2010.022, June 2010

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Much recent work has argued that the major lexical categories can be distinguished in terms of pragmatic functions (e.g., Baker, Lexical categories: Verbs, nouns and adjectives, CambridgeUniversity Press, 2003; Bhat, The adjectival category, John Benjamins, 1994; Croft, Radical construction grammar: Syntactic theory in typological perspective, Oxford University Press, 2001; Hengeveld, Non-verbal predication: Theory, typology, diachrony, Mouton de Gruyter, 1992). Typically, such pragmatic accounts argue that nouns distinguish themselves by referring, verbs distinguish themselves by predicating and adjectives distinguish themselves by modifying. The current article argues that such accounts are prone to two distinct sets of problems. The first set of problems arise from the definitions of the pragmatic functions that are employed in these accounts. Thus, the definitions of predication and modification that feature in such accounts are typically so similar they render attempts to distinguish verbs and adjectives in terms of them vacuous. Moreover, the definitions of all three pragmatic functions are often so vague and general that they apply with equal ease to words of all three major lexical categories. When more specific definitions are given, however, they typically exclude words from their intended category while continuing to include words from other categories. The second set of problems arise from the lack of direct evidence for the pragmatic functions. Such an absence of evidence gives rise to disputes over issues as basic as whether a given lexical category performs a given pragmatic function or not, whether there are two, three or more pragmatic functions and whether pragmatic functions are performed by words, phrases or different units altogether. It is argued that in the absence of direct evidence such basic disputes cannot be satisfactorily resolved. It is concluded that these problems are as serious as those which afflict semantic and morphosyntactic approaches to lexical categories and thus that the prospects for a coherent explanation of lexical categories remain as remote as ever.

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