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What is a syntactic category?



A syntactic category is a set of words and/or phrases in a language which share a significant number of common characteristics. The classification is based on similar structure and sameness of distribution (the structural relationships between these elements and other items in a larger grammatical structure), and not on meaning. In generative grammar, a syntactic category is symbolized by a node label in a constituent structure tree.

Also known as:

Syntactic class



There are major and minor syntactic categories:

  Major categories
  • All phrasal syntactic categories


    NP (noun phrase), VP (verb phrase), PP (prepositional phrase)

  • Word-level syntactic categories that serve as heads of phrasal syntactic categories


    noun, verb


    lexical category

  Minor categories
  • Categories that do not project to a phrasal level


    Yes-No question markers


Contrast syntactic category with the following:

  • Grammatical category (person, number, tense, aspect, mood, gender, case, voice...)
  • Grammatical class (transitive and intransitive verbs; count and mass nouns…)
  • Grammatical relations (subject, direct object, indirect object…)
  • Functional categories (agent, patient, instrument…; topic, comment…; definite NP)

Note: The terms grammatical category and grammatical class have also been used as synonyms for ‘part of speech’.


Bickford and Daly 1996 F4, page 2

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