A brief glossary of some category labels

Henry S. Thompson
5 Nov 2015

1. Background

Grammar writers tend to just make up nonterminal symbols and part-of-speech tags (or preterminal symbols) as they go along, relying on native speaker intuition, context of use and tradition to provide their meaning.

I've attempted to pull together the symbols and tags I've used in this course and given brief definitions and examples below.

Note that I have not attempted to cover the whole Penn Treebank or Brown Corpus tagsets. Jurafsky & Martin have a brief listing of version 1 of the Penn tags inside the front cover. For complete lists, see

2. Grammar symbol glossary

2.1. Lexical categories

Sometimes called pre-terminals. The ones in bold below are closed-class, that is, there is a (small) fixed list of these in the language at any given time, and that changes rarely if at all. Everything else is open-class.

Adjective: big, serious, yellow
Adverb: quickly, early
Article: the, a, an
Auxiliary verb: did, have, will
Modal verb: must, should, might
Noun: pet, democracy
P, Prep
Preposition: in, among, to
Pronoun: they, her, him
Proper Noun: Paris, Robin, Appleton Tower
Verb: eat, embrace, give
Wh, WhAdv
Question word: who, why, how

2.2. Nonterminals

Some of these (marked with a *) are (sometimes) used as terminals or nonterminals or a mixture of the two.

Adjective phrase: very big, nearly new
Adverbial phrase: very quickly, more easily
D, Det
Determiner*: the>, this, those, the child's
Nominal: big house, snow storm
Noun phrase*: Edinburgh, the sleepy children on the bus, sheep
Prepositional phrase: to the river, in a ship
Sentence: the farmer killed the duckling
Verb phrase: easily closed the window

3. Subscripts

In the absence of a grammar formalism which supports features, some attempt to address issues of agreement and sub-categorisation can be made by expanding the category space. In this course I've used subscripted categories for this purpose, as well as to distinguish sub-types within a category.

person-number agreement
Occurring on e.g. D, N, NP, V, VP: sg (singular), pl (plural), possibly in combination with 1, 2, 3 (1st, 2nd, 3rd person), e.g. NPpl → Dpl Npl
verb sub-categorisation
Occurring on e.g. VP, V: i (intransitive), t (transitive), dt (ditransitive), e.g. VPdt → Vdt NP NP
Sentence subtypes
Occurring on S: decl (declarative), imp (imperative), q (question), qyn (yes-no question), whadv (why/how question)
Noun subtypes
Occurring on e.g. NP, N: sc (singular count), mp (mass or plural), e.g. Nsc → 'child', Nmp → 'rice', Nmp → 'children'
Case marking
Occurring on e.g. NP, Pro: nom (nominative), acc (accusative), e.g. VPt → Vt NPacc, Proacc → 'them'