Learn English – How many parts of speech can a word be at the same time


  • ᴛʟᴅʀ: Is it ever possible for a sentence to have a word in it that is simultaneously more than one single part of speech in that sentence under the same parse and meaning?

    (For example, a few possible pairings from lexical categories commonly ascribed to English include noun+verb, verb+adjective, adjective+preposition, preposition+conjunction, conjunction+noun, and so on and so forth.)

My hunch is that the answer to my question is no, but I have heard the contrary proposition argued. So I would like to know definitively whether it can or that it cannot, preferably backed up with references and citations supporting whichever direction the answerer chooses to take on this one. If authorities differ, please explain the conflict.

BONUS: I’m especially looking into whether an “‑ing word” can ever be more than one of a noun, a verb, an adjective, or an adverb at the same time in the same sentence under the same parse and meaning. I don’t know, but I suspect that in this case

“There can be only one!”     ⸺Highlander


English is notorious for having words that can act as more than one part of speech depending on how you use them. This famous pair relies on flies and like each being a different part of speech in each sentence:

  • Time flies[verb, singular] like[preposition] an arrow.
  • Fruit flies[noun, plural] like[verb, plural] a banana.

That shows how flies can be either a verb or a noun and how like can be either a preposition or a verb.

Similarly, the word still can be noun, a verb, an adjective, or an adverb.

  • You can still[adverb] still[verb] a still[adjective] still[noun].

Or here, using inflections characteristic of each class:

  • Quickly stilling[verb, ‑ing] bubbling stills[noun, plural]
    still[adverb] leaves them stiller[adjective, comparative] than you’d like.

In all those examples, one can assign only a single part of speech to each word as it is used in a given sentence. Outside of a sentence, or at least of a broader syntactic context, it is often impossible to make any such assignment, since the same word has the potential to be two or more different parts of speech.

The ‑ing inflections of verbs are notorious for this property of being able to be several different parts of speech. In my previous example sentence, I used one as a verb (stilling) but another as an adjective (bubbling). These ‑ing words can also easily serve as nouns, as in savings accounts and in swimming competitions.

And I’m perfectly fine with all that.

The problem is that I’ve also been told, quite vociferously in fact, that whenever an ‑ing word in a noun or an adjective, it is also AT THE SAME TIME a verb as well!

I can find no evidence to support this proposition, and I have looked. Hard.

All the putative examples of these I’ve been able to locate seem to err by misparsing syntactic constituents. This is the same class of error as we so often see in sentences like “Give it to whoever is coming” where they mistakenly write whomever thinking that that word is the object of a preposition whereas in fact the object of the preposition is all of whoever is coming, not just whoever alone.

Looking for Evidence

Here is my thinking:

  • If it’s a noun, that means it must do noun things.
  • If it’s a verb, that means it must do verb things.

So the easiest way I can think of to test whether something is one or the other or both is to apply various “does it do this-or-that noun thing?” and “does it this-or-that verb thing” tests, then tally the results to see whether there’s enough evidence for a clear answer either way.

In other words, to gather evidence I have taken a sentence alleged to have these ‑ing words that “are both nouns and verbs at the same time” and applied to them various syntactic tests. These are all simple syntactic tests that should either be true for verbs and false for nouns, or else the other way around. Then I have looked at the results of this evidence. I don’t mean to limit the tests applied, but I myself have used these sorts:

Noun Tests

  • Nouns can be inflected for number.

  • Nouns fit into a particular slot in the larger noun phrase, which includes such things as determiners and adjectives modifying that noun.

  • Nouns phrases can be connected to other noun phrases with prepositions.

  • Noun phrases accept the ’s clitic used to indicate possession. (This can look like another inflection when applied to just a noun alone.)

Verb tests

  • Verbs fit in a larger verb phrase, which includes such things as adverbs.

  • Verbs can accept complements, like direct objects if transitive.

  • Verbs can be inflected in various ways, including for tense, aspect, number, and person.

The sentences we’re going to apply these tests to are these, which are reduced from this answer:

1. Running bulls is easy.

2. Running bulls are dangerous.

The conjecture to prove or disprove is that the word running is two or more parts of speech in either one of those two sentences alone. I already know that it is a different part of speech in sentence 1 as it is in sentence 2: it’s a verb in the first one and an adjective in the second one.

But I really think that that’s all it is. It isn’t also a noun in either of them. Just because running bulls is the subject of sentence 1 doesn’t mean that running is a noun; it can’t be a noun or it wouldn’t be able to take a direct object like is happening there. Only transitive verbs take direct objects; nouns never do.

Possible Origin of Confusion?

I think this confusion may stem from people being told that a complete sentence “must have a noun and a verb”, which isn’t a “real rule” in English. Rather, a sentence must have a subject and its predicate, and lots of things can be subjects other than just plain nouns alone, including clauses like “Running[verb, ‑ing] bulls is hard” or “What they told[verb, past] you is wrong”, where is hard and is wrong are the respective predicates and everything preceding those is each sentence’s respective subject as a clause. Neither running bulls nor what they told you is somehow a noun, since those are clauses. But they’re still subjects nonetheless, and we don’t need to pretend they’re nouns to make them be a subject. That’s the main argument for saying that running is somehow a noun there, and I can’t see it.

See my reasoning here for the application of noun tests and verb tests to these two sentences. I cannot come up with any way to make the running verb from sentence 1 also be a noun or an adjective in sentence 1, nor to make the running adjective from sentence 2 also be a noun or a verb in sentence 2.

It has been argued that you cannot use syntactic tests to determine the part of speech of a word, and that broader historic traditions of assigning these things allows them to be simultaneously multi-parted even when no syntactic test can find any such evidence. I do not pretend to understand those arguments, and I am not making them. I simply know no other way to do this than to apply syntactic tests.

Motivation for the Question

Many answers on this site allege that ‑ing words used in non-finite verb clauses are not only verbs alone as their clause usage proves already but also “actually” nouns when said clauses are used substantively and also adjectives or adverbs when those clauses are used as adjuncts modifying something else.

I believe they mistake the verb clause as a syntactic constituent replaceable by nouns or adjectives/adverbs for those respective lexical categories. I think only the clauses can function as substantives or modifiers, but each word’s lexical class is still that of a verb alone.

Here are some examples that seems to suggest otherwise:

As well as:

So we end up telling people that things belong to two distinct and oppositional lexical categories at the same time. This is extremely confusing, so I’d like to find evidence that it does or does not ever occur, or even can.

The Question, Again

So I again ask: is it ever possible for a sentence to have a word that’s simultaneously more than one single part of speech in that sentence (under the same parse and meaning)?

I’m particularly looking for whether an ‑ing word can ever be more than one of a noun, a verb, an adjective, or an adverb at the same time in the same sentence under the same parse and meaning.

Best Answer

Is it ever possible for a sentence to have a word in it
that is simultaneously more than one single part of speech
in that sentence, under the same parse and meaning?

So, if a grammatical English sentence contains a word A, can A be more than one POS?

Parts of speech are grammatical terms and have varying meanings for different grammarians.
Let's rule out quantum superposition of POS, so no Schrödinger's Gerund that's noun and verb.

There certainly are sentences where it's impossible to tell which of several possible categories a word falls into, like the first sentence below, where exhausted can be either a predicate adjective, as in the second sentence, or part of a passive construction, like the third one.

  • I was exhausted.
  • I was exhausted and the bed was soft; we suited each other well.
  • I was exhausted by the irritable conversation and left early.

But that's not "in the same sentence". In the first sentence, there's just no way to know what the speaker intends about POS; it could be either one. And there's no way to know if one speaker might feel it was an adjective, but another speaker might think it was a participle. Or the same speaker might do both, to the same sentence, on different occasions.

So, the key word in the question is Simultaneously. And the answer to the question is No.

If anything in a parse changes from one POS to another, that makes it a different parse.
Thus, if A has two different POSs, they will occur in two different parses of the sentence.
And therefore the sentence can't simultaneously have two POSs in the same parse.

It is of course very easy to find sentences that have two interpretations; this is one way to make jokes, and certainly such ambiguity is common. But each interpretation represents a different parse. That's one of the purposes of parsing, in fact -- to distinguish ambiguous sentences and make their differences distinct. But that doesn't mean they're simultaneous, in any sense.