Being a Noun

Throughout the history of English grammars, a single hopelessly inadequate story about how to define “noun” has been maintained, in increasingly elaborated versions.

My grandmother’s high-school grammar textbook, Alfred West’s The Elements of English Grammar (1893), says: “A noun is the name of anything.” Lindley Murray had said essentially the same more than a hundred years before in his million-selling English Grammar (1795), and he was pretty much plagiarizing Robert Lowth’s A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762). Grammarians have just repeated one another down the centuries on points like this.

They never stopped. Grammar never gets a rethink. Thomas Harvey’s 19th-century A Practical Grammar of the English Language (1878), still marketed by Mott Media in an only slightly edited version for the U.S. Christian fundamentalist home-schooler market, tells the children: “A noun is a name.” Bryan Garner’s grammar chapter in 21st-century editions of The Chicago Manual of Style says exactly the same thing.

But aren’t all words names? Don’t verbs name actions? Doesn’t a preposition like under name a spatial relation?

Some grammars try to clarify: “If a word gives a name to some individual person or thing or to some kind of person or thing, the word is a Noun” says J. C. Nesfield (Outline of English Grammar, 1900). And Goold Brown’s remarkable work The Grammar of English Grammars (1859) adopts three categories, a very familiar trio: “A noun is the name of any person, place, or thing.”

The Hodges Harbrace Handbook (by Cheryl Glenn and Loretta Gray; Wadsworth, 2012), the 18th edition of a much older (early 20th-century) work, elaborates this trio into a quartet (with a cautious adverbial hedge): “Nouns usually name people, places, things, or ideas.”

In Cambridge Grammar of English by Ronald Carter and Michael McCarthy (n.b.: no connection with The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language), the definition is elaborated yet more:

Nouns … denote classes and categories of things in the world, including people, animals, inanimate things, places, events, qualities, and states.

More and more terms are added in an attempt to tie down what nouns are the names of. One might consider adding that nouns can name birds, fish, plants, times, dates, ideas, stuff, material, equipment, processes, conditions, images, perceptions, illusions, illnesses, misfortunes, poems, myths…

But where is this leading? The original idea of defining “noun” in terms of essences—“trying to squeeze syntactic blood out of the turnip of naive metaphysics,” as I put it in an earlier post—is degenerating into nothing more than a list of nouns with very general meanings.

And to make such a list, of course, one has to be already clear on which are nouns.

This metaphysical approach is doomed. We cannot first catalog the world to determine what things and stuff are in it and then look in our language to find out which words name those things and that stuff. “The world,” as Wittgenstein told us at the beginning of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “is the totality of facts, not of things.” It just is; it doesn’t come pre-classified, with the things labeled as such.

There is nothing that gaps and fires and errors have in common with assumptions, failures, functions, derivatives, pirouettes, modifications, accomplishments, holes, speeds, accelerations, tours, refusals, interventions, strawberries, and children.

What we can say is that prototypical count nouns, like the ones just listed, have singular and plural forms (gap, gaps; child, children … ) and genitive case forms (gap’s, gaps’; child’s, children’s … ). And like all nonproper nouns they combine with words like the to form phrases used as subjects and objects.

These are grammatical properties. Grammatical word classification cannot be based on metaphysics. It is useless to look for a common ontological nature in airspeeds, apples, and absences, or organizations, orchids, and orgasms. To give a definition that permits decisions as to whether a given English word is a noun or not, you have to consider morphological and syntactic facts.

In fact what we regard as a thing, or a kind of stuff, is determined by what our language provides us with nouns for. It is the grammar of our native language that spawns our everyday naïve metaphysics.

One of the many failings of traditional English grammar is that it insists on pretending that things are the other way round—that the grammatical horse is pushed along by the metaphysical cart.

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