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Rankscale and Rankshift

Before we look at the meaning of Rankscale and Rankshift, let us first look at the meaning of rank.

The term ‘rank’ in grammar, therefore, refers to a distinct grammatical unit. It could be a clause, a phrase, a word or a morpheme.

The Ranks in English

English has basically four grammatical ranks;
i. Morpheme
ii. Word
iii. Phrase/group
iv. Clause

Note; Some grammarians think the sentence is one of the units or ranks of English grammar.

A rank is dedicated to realising a particular grammatical function or meaning. (systems and meanings)

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

b) Functions such as Premodifier, Head, and Postmodifier are realised
at group/phrase rank.

c) Systems such as transitivity and mood are realised at clause rank.

d) Functions such as Subject, Predicator, Object, Adjunct, etc. are also realised at clause rank.

e) 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

Now let’s look at Rankscale;

Rankscale refers to the hierarchical arrangement or ordering of grammatical units/structures such that a unit of a given rank normally consists of units of the next lower rank, as in the ordering of a clause, a phrase, a word and a morpheme.

As we explained earlier, the ranks are; clause, phrase/group, word and morpheme.

The Clause

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

Usage Examples

a. The man might have killed a lion.

The clausal elements in the above example are;
The subject (the man), the predicator/verb phrase (might have killed) and Object (a lion).
The above clausal elements are all groups; Noun phrase, verb phrase and noun phrase respectively.

The Group / Phrase

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

Difference between a Group and a Phrase

A group is an expanded word; the nucleus is a lexical word (e.g. student) expanded by the addition of modifiers (e.g. A strong brilliant student).

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 four major classes of group, including the noun group, verbal group, adjectival group and adverbial group.

Usage Examples

a. Noun phrase/group
The mad man

The group above is made up of a premodifier which is a determiner (the), a premodifier again which an adjective (mad) and a head which is a noun (man)

b. Verbal group/phrase
Might have done
We have; Pre modifier + Pre modifier + Head
Aux. + aux. + Head
Might + have + done

The Word

i. The word is the grammatical rank below the group/phrase.
ii. 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.
We have looked at that in the examples above.

The Morpheme

i. Morpheme is the smallest grammatical unit or rank.
ii. Morphemes realise grammatical functions or meanings within the word.
iii. Morphemes cannot be analysed further into constituents.

Relationship between Units in the Rankscale

Units in the rankscale exhibit two types of relationship;

a. Top-down relationship, also known as consist of relationship

b. Bottom-up relationship, also known as constituent relationship

Consist of Relationship (Top-Down Relationship)

This is a relationship which exists among units in the rankscale such that units of a higher ranks consist of units of the next lower rank.

What this relationship implies is that, the clause, which is the highest unit in the rankscale consists of at least one or more phrase or group, likewise, the phrase is also made up of at least one or more words, same way, a word is made up of at least one or more morphemes.

Diagrammatic Illustration of Top-Down (Consist of) Relationship

Top-down or consist of Relationship

Examples of Top-Down Relationship

a. The man is insulting his children.

The example above is a clause, which consists of three phrases or groups, namely; noun group (the man), verbal group (is insulting) and noun group (his children)

Each group is made up of words; the (determiner), man (head), is (auxiliary), insulting (head), his (determiner) and children (head).

Each word is made up of at least one morpheme;
The (bound morpheme), man (free morpheme), is (bound morpheme), insulting (free + bound morpheme) his (bound morpheme) children (free + bound).

Bottom-up (constituent) Relationship

The bottom up, also known as the constituent relationship shows that lower grammatical units serve as constituents of the next grammatical unit.

This implies, the morpheme, which is the lowest grammatical unit serves as a constituent of the word. The word also serves as a constituent of the next grammatical unit, which is the group, and the group equally serving as a constituent of the next grammatical unit, which is the clause.

Diagrammatic Illustration of Constituent (Bottom-up) Relationship

Bottom-up or Constituent Relationship


Rankshift refers to the hierarchical shift in the function of a grammatical unit or rank.

In rankshifting, a grammatical unit (clause, group, word, morpheme) shifts its function upwards or downwards to perform a function that is not normally assigned to it.

Usage Examples

i. That the man is a thief is not true.

ii. That statement is not true.

iii. That is not true.

In the examples above, we notice that the subject of i. is a nominal clause, THAT THE MAN IS A THIEF.

In example, ii. we notice that the subject is a noun group, THAT STATEMENT. In English, we can say that the phrase THAT STATEMENT has rankshifted to do the work of a clause as we have seen in example i.

In example iii. we can equally see that the subject is a word, i.e pronoun, THAT. We can equally say that the word THAT has rankshifted to do the work of a phrase and that of a clause.

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