Grammarbites ch 5 – Nouns

Part 1 – introduction

[when I put the whole thing in order, Nouns will come here]

Part 2 – auxiliary and modal verbs

Part 3 – regular and irregular main verbs

Part 4 – consonant clusters

I am currently wading through many explanations in grammar books and online of countable and uncountable nouns. Many sources have too many examples, many have too few. My challenge is to provide you with a good amount of representative examples, with some rhyme or reason.

1 – Definitions of nouns

Traditional definitions of nouns included “a noun is a person, place or thing” or “a noun is the name of a person, place or thing”, but those definitions quickly fail. Is “love” a thing? It’s certainly not a person or a place (even though we talk about being “in love”). We talk about it as if it’s a thing: What is this thing called love?, Love is a many-splendoured thing. But love is a feeling, a mental/emotional state, not a “thing”.
It is impossible to define nouns based on their meanings and to make a complete list of categories of meanings, but some of the most common are:

people (alive, dead or imaginary), animals and plants;

natural and artificial objects and substances;

abstract ideas and categories of people, things, stuff, places and times;

physical, mental and emotional states, attributes, actions and processes;

places; and

times (all real or imaginary).

Modern definitions of nouns focus on their distinct grammatical characteristics, including:

form (most nouns have singular, plural and possessive forms – thing, things, thing’s, things’, stuff, stuff’s);

what other word groups they can combine with to make noun phrasesa, the, this, that, these, those, my, your … (determinatives), good, bad (adjectives); and

function (most nouns can function as the subject of a sentence, the object or complement of a verb or the object of a preposition).

Pizza is a noun: This is a good pizza. This pizza is too expensive. These are bad pizzas. I don’t want to buy these pizzas. This is special pizza. What’s special about this pizza?


2 – Using form and function to identify nouns

Using the criteria of form and function, we can distinguish between /laɪvz/ (the plural of the noun life) and /lɪvz/ (the Vs form of the verb live). We can compare my life, your life > our lives (nouns can be preceded by a possessive pronoun, but not by a subject pronoun – x I life, x you life, x we lives) and I live, you live > it lives (verbs can be preceded by a subject pronoun, but not by a possessive pronoun – x my live, x your live, x its lives).

Verbs also have a V-ps form, which nouns don’t: x my lifed, x your lifed, x our livesed, I lived, you lived, it lived. Compare my work v I work > its work v it works (the same word for I, you, we, they) and my death v I die > its death v it dies (a different, but related, word). A lot of childish humour relies on this – What has four wheels and flies? A garbage truck.

We can also (partly) understand unfamiliar and even made-up words. In his poem, Jabberwocky, Lewis Carroll refers to “the slithy toves”, “the frumious Bandersnatch” and “uffish thought”, which we can understand as (det) + adj + noun, whatever the words actually mean. Also, we can make any of these nouns singular, plural or possessive: we can have one slithy tove or slithy toves, and we can say that a tove’s beak is shaped like a corkscrew (or toves’ beaks are shaped like corkscrews).

3 Countable and uncountable nouns

The most important thing about English nouns is the distinction between countable (singular and plural) and uncountable nouns. This affects which determinatives can be used before it and which verb forms follow it. Some similarities and differences can be seen by comparing thing, things and stuff:

Grammarbites 21 (1)The other typical nouns – person, people, place, places, time, times – all have extra complications.

Strictly speaking, the plural of person is persons, but that is generally used only in legal (“missing persons” and “persons of interest”) and academic contexts. A people is an identifiable group with a common history and culture: the Eora people of the Sydney area was one of the many different indigenous peoples of Australia. This usage is rare.

In general, place and time are uncountable: take place/time, in/out of place/time, How much (x place) space do we have in the classroom? How much time do we have to do this lesson? Specific places, times and occurrences are countable: take your place/time, there’s a place/time for everything, How many places (x spaces) do we have in this class? How many times do we have to do this lesson?

4 Singular countable nouns and determinatives

Generally speaking, every singular countable noun is preceded by a determinative, but there are three main patterns in which a, the or my, your … is usually or sometimes omitted. The most common is when two things are named together, especially with some “connection” between them. We could say “I eat with a knife and a fork”, but we are more likely to say “I eat with a knife and fork” (also “Where is the/my/your knife and fork?”).

The second is in phrases like “go to (-) school” or “in/at (-) school” (as a student) v “go to a/the school” or “at a/the school” (as a parent or visitor) and “have dinner” (at home) v “have a dinner” (in honour of a special guest). Other words which usually or sometimes work in the same way as school are bed, church, college, heaven, (on) holiday, hospital, jail/prison, sea, town, university, war and work. Some of these require one of in or at and some allow both. Some also allow (optionally) a or the: in hospital, in a hospital, in the hospital. Note also home: go (-) home v “I will be (-) home by nine o’clock” v “I will be (- / at) home all evening”.

The third is in expressions like at midday/sunset/midnight/sunrise, in summer/autumn/winter/spring and by car/taxi/bus/train, and in sentences like “Who wants to be (-) secretary? We need a secretary” and “They got married on holiday and returned as (-) husband and (-) wife. She wanted a husband and he wanted a wife”.

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4 thoughts on “Grammarbites ch 5 – Nouns

  1. Pingback: Grammarbites part 6 – sentence types | Never Pure and Rarely Simple

  2. Pingback: Grammarbites part 7 – Pronunciation | Never Pure and Rarely Simple

  3. Pingback: Grammarbites part 8 – Building words, prefixes and suffixes | Never Pure and Rarely Simple

  4. Pingback: Grammarbites part 11 – passive voice | Never Pure and Rarely Simple

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