Topic 1: The English Grammatical Rank Scale

By the end of this lesson, the student will be able to: define the terms rank and rank scale. explain the relationship that exists between the grammatical units on the rank scale. analyse clauses according to their constituent units.

The English Grammatical Rank Scale

Outline of Lesson

  1. What is rank?
  2. What is rank scale?
  3. Relationship between grammatical units  on the rank scale:

-consist-of relationship

-constituent relationship


By the end of this lesson, the student will be able to:

a)define the terms rank and rank scale.

b)explain the relationship that exists between the  grammatical units on the rank scale.

c)analyse clauses according to their constituent units.

Required Reading

Thompson, G. (2014). Introducing functional grammar (3rd edn.). New York &  London: Routledge. Chapter 2

Key Terms

  • Rank
  • Rank scale Consist of Constitute Constituent
  • Grammatical unit

What is Rank?

The grammar of every language is made up of a finite set of  units that realise the grammatical meanings in the language.  These units are not of equal sizes; some realise larger units of  meaning than others. We refer to each of these units as a rank.  Larger units of meaning are normally realised by bigger ranks  while smaller units of meaning are realised by smaller ranks.  Across languages, we identify one rank that tend to realise the  largest grammatical meanings in the language. This unit is the  clause. It serves as the interface between grammar and  discourse. Languages, however, differ in the number and nature  of units lower than the clause. Other strata (or levels) of  language such as phonology have their own ranks different from  those of grammar.


  • The term ‘rank’ in grammar, therefore, refers to a distinct grammatical unit. We can use the terms ‘unit’ and ‘rank’ interchangeably.
  • English has four grammatical units or rank as follows:
  1. morpheme
  2. word
  3. phrase/group
  4. clause

Each  rank  is  dedicated  to  realizing  particular  grammatical  meanings  (e.g. systems and functions). E.g.

i.grammatical systems such as tense, number, and person are  normally realised at the rank of word.

ii.Functions such as Premodifier, Head, and Postmodifier are realised  at group/phrase rank. such as transitivity and mood are realised at clause rank.  Functions such as Subject, Predicator, Object, Adjunct, etc. are also  realised at clause rank.

iv.morphemes are the basic resources that feed the meanings of the  higher ranks. They have no systems of their own rank neither can  they be analysed into structural elements. A morpheme is  indivisible.\

What is Rank Scale?

  • A rank scale is the hierarchical arrangement of the  grammatical units according to their size.
  • The concept of rank scale is based on the assumption  that grammatical constructions are not linear but  rather hierarchical. Higher units consist of lower units.

An analysis of a clause to show the hierarchical encouragements of units  in the rank scale

Rank The girls are playing football
clause Subject Finite Predicator Object
group/phrase noun group verbal group noun group
word determiner noun auxiliary main verb noun
morpheme the girl-plural present  tense; plural play-ing foot + ball


The Clause

The clause can be defined in terms of its grammatical size on the rank scale. It is the biggest/highest grammatical unit within which the lower units are found.

  • The clause is made up of at least one group/phrase.
  • The clause can be analysed into one or more clausal
    elements. Clausal elements are Subject, Predicator,
    Object, Complement, Adjunct.
  • Each clausal element is equivalent to a group/phrase.

An analysis of a clause to show that clausal elements are equivalent to  group/phrase

rank The dog swallowed the bone.
clause Subject Predicator Object
group/  phrase noun group verbal group noun group


The Group/Phrase

The phrase/group is the next grammatical rank or unit  below clause.

The group/phrase functions within the clause. e.g.

Functions such as Subject, Object, Complement, Adjunct  are functions within the clause and they correspond to  groups/phrases.


Some grammarians of English make a distinction between group and phrase.

Group and phrase are different grammatical units of the same rank, i.e. they  are equal in grammatical size. They both perform the same level of functions  within the clause.

A group is an expanded word; the nucleus is a lexical word (e.g. man)  exapnded by the addition of modifers (e.g. A young handsome Ghanaian man).

A phrase is a reduced (or contracted) clause; the nucleus is a preposition (‘a  minor verb’; e.g. in) with a participant realised by a noun group (in the box).

The phrase is therefore more complex than the group; the phrase normally  embeds a group in its structure.

According to this analysis, English has only one class of phrase called the  prepositional phrase and three or four major classes of group, including the  noun group, verbal group, and adverbial group. The fourth group, the  adjectival group is considered by others to be a reduced form of the noun  group.

Examples of groups as expanded words

Noun group

rank a beautiful girl
group Premodifier Premodifier Head
word determiner adjective noun


Verbal group

rank have been going
group Premodifier Premodifier Head
word auxiliary auxiliary main verb


Adverbial group

rank Very gracefully
group Premodifier Head
word intensifier adverb


Example of the prepositional phrase as a reduced clause

rank The boy stood on the burning deck.
clause Subject Predicator Adjunct
group/  phrase noun group verbal  group prepositional phrase
minor Predicator Complement
word determiner noun verb preposition noun group


The Word

The word is the grammatical rank below the  group/phrase.

The word performs functions within the  group/phrase. e.g. Functions such as Premodifier,  Head and Postmodifier are functions of the word  within the group/phrase.



Morpheme is the smallest grammatical unit or  rank.

Morphemes realise grammatical functions or  meanings within the word.

Morphemes cannot be analysed further into  constituents.


Relationship between Units in the  Rank Scale

We can view the relationship between units in  the rank scale from two points of view:

  • Top-down – i.e. a consist-of relationship
  • Bot town-up – i.e. a constituent relationship

Top-down relationship (‘consist-of’)

  • A preceding rank normally consist of unit of the next lower rank.
  • The clause which is the highest unit is made up of  units below it on the rank scale.
  • The rank scale is read from top to down.
  • The clause consists of at least one phrase or group and the phrase at least one word. The word also consists of at least one morpheme.
  • Each unit must be a whole unit and a multiple of one or more units.

Diagrammatic illustration of Consist-of  Relationship


Examples of Consist-of Relationship

Clause: The police had arrested the thief

Groups: Made up of three groups; the police(noun group)  Had arrested( verbal group)

The thief (noun group)

Words: the, police, had, arrested, the thief  Are made up of 8 morphemes

Morphemes: the (bound morpheme) Police (free morpheme)  Had (has + ed) free/bound morpheme

Arrested (arrest + en) bound morpheme  The (bound morpheme)

Thief  (free morpheme)


Bottom-up Relationship (Constituent)

The constituent relationship shows that lower  grammatical units serve as constituents of a unit  immediately above it.

The morpheme is the constituent of a word, the word is  a constituent of the phrase, and the phrase is the  constituent of the clause.

Here, the rank scale is read bottom-up.


Diagrammatic Illustration of Constituent Relationship

Self Study Questions

1.(a) Define rank in one sentence.

(b)How many ranks do we have in the grammar  of English? Mention them.

2.(a) What is rank scale?

(b)Analyze the following clauses to show that it  consists of lower grammatical ranks. Use the box  diagram shown in slide 12:

  • The man has registered his name.
  • Freda had won the beauty contest.

3. In two paragraphs, explain the two kinds of  relationship between units on the English  grammatical rank scale. Provide illustration in  your explanation

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