Nouns are a part of speech typically denoting a person, place, thing, animal or idea. In linguistics, a noun is a member of a large, open lexical category whose members can occur as the main word in the subject of a clause, the object of a verb, or the object of a preposition.
Lexical categories are defined in terms of the ways in which their members combine with other kinds of expressions. The syntactic rules for nouns differ from language to language. In English, nouns are those words which can occur with articles and attributive adjectives and can function as the head of a noun phrase.
- 1 History
- 2 Definitions of nouns
- 3 Forms of nouns
- 4 Gender
- 5 Classification of nouns
- 6 Noun phrases
- 7 Pronouns
- 8 Substantive as a word for noun
- 9 See also
- 10 References
- 11 Further reading
- 12 External links
Word classes like nouns were first described by Pāṇini in the Sanskrit language and by Ancient Greek grammarians, and were defined by the grammatical forms that they take. In Greek and Sanskrit, for example, nouns are categorized by gender and inflected for case and number.
Because nouns and adjectives share these three grammatical categories, grammarians sometimes do not distinguish between the two. For example, Dionysius Thrax uses the term ónoma for both, with words of adjectival type largely contained in the subclass that he describes as paragōgón (plural paragōgá), meaning "derived". See also the section on substantive below.
Definitions of nouns
Nouns have sometimes been defined in terms of the grammatical categories to which they are subject (classed by gender, inflected for case and number). Such definitions tend to be language-specific, since nouns do not have the same categories in all languages.
Nouns are frequently defined, particularly in informal contexts, in terms of their semantic properties (their meanings). Nouns are described as words that refer to a person, place, thing, event, substance, quality, quantity, etc. However this type of definition has been criticized by contemporary linguists as being uninformative.
Linguists often prefer to define nouns (and other lexical categories) in terms of their formal properties. These include morphological information, such as what prefixes or suffixes they take, and also their syntax – how they combine with other words and expressions of particular types. Such definitions may nonetheless still be language-specific, since syntax as well as morphology varies between languages. For example, in English it might be noted that nouns are words that can co-occur with definite articles (as stated at the start of this article), but this would not apply in Russian, which has no definite articles.
There have been several attempts, sometimes controversial, to produce a stricter definition of nouns on a semantic basis. Some of these are referenced in the Further reading section below.
Forms of nouns
A noun in its basic form will often consist of a single stem, as in the case of the English nouns cat, man, table and so on. In many languages nouns can also be formed from other nouns and from words of other types through morphological processes, often involving the addition of prefixes and suffixes. Examples in English are the verbal nouns formed from verbs by the addition of -ing, nouns formed from verbs using other suffixes such as organization and discovery, agent nouns formed from verbs usually with the suffix -er or -or, as in actor and worker, feminine forms of nouns such as actress, lioness, nouns formed from adjectives such as happiness, and many other types.
Nouns may be identical in form to words that belong to other parts of speech, often as a result of conversion (or just through coincidence). For example the English word hit can be both a noun and a verb, and the German Arm/arm can be a noun or an adjective. In such cases the word is said to represent two or more lexemes.
In many languages nouns inflect (change their form) for number, and sometimes for case. Inflection for number usually involves forming plural forms, such as cats and children (see English plural), and sometimes other forms such as duals, which are used in some languages to refer to exactly two of something. Inflection for case involves changing the form of a noun depending on its syntactic function – languages such as Latin, Russian and Finnish have extensive case systems, with different forms for nominatives (used principally for verb subjects), accusatives (used especially for direct objects), genitives (used to express possession and similar relationships) and so on. The only real vestige of the case system on nouns in Modern English is the "Saxon genitive", where 's is added to a noun to form a possessive.
In some languages, nouns are assigned to genders, such as masculine, feminine and neuter (or other combinations). The gender of a noun (as well as its number and case, where applicable) will often entail agreement in words that modify or are related to it. For example, in French, the singular form of the definite article is le with masculine nouns and la with feminines; adjectives and certain verb forms also change (with the addition of -e with feminines). Grammatical gender often correlates with the form of the noun and the inflection pattern it follows; for example, in both Italian and Russian most nouns ending -a are feminine. Gender also often correlates with the sex of the noun's referent, particularly in the case of nouns denoting people (and sometimes animals). Nouns do not have gender in Modern English, although many of them denote people or animals of a specific sex.
Classification of nouns
Proper nouns and common nouns
A proper noun or proper name is a noun representing unique entities (such as Earth, India, Jupiter, Harry, or BMW), as distinguished from common nouns which describe a class of entities (such as city, animal, planet, person or car).
Countable and uncountable nouns
Count nouns or countable nouns are common nouns that can take a plural, can combine with numerals or counting quantifiers (e.g., one, two, several, every, most), and can take an indefinite article such as a or an (in languages which have such articles). Examples of count nouns are chair, nose, and occasion.
Mass nouns or uncountable (or non-count) nouns differ from count nouns in precisely that respect: they cannot take plurals or combine with number words or the above type of quantifiers. For example, it is not possible to refer to a furniture or three furnitures. This is true even though the pieces of furniture comprising furniture could be counted. Thus the distinction between mass and count nouns should not be made in terms of what sorts of things the nouns refer to, but rather in terms of how the nouns present these entities.
Many nouns have both countable and uncountable uses; for example, beer is countable in "give me three beers", but uncountable in "he likes beer".
Collective nouns are nouns that refer to groups consisting of more than one individual or entity, even when they are inflected for the singular. Examples include committee, herd, and school (of fish). These nouns have slightly different grammatical properties than other nouns. For example, the noun phrases that they head can serve as the subject of a collective predicate, even when they are inflected for.
Concrete nouns and abstract nouns
Concrete nouns refer to physical entities that can, in principle at least, be observed by at least one of the senses (for instance, chair, apple, Janet or atom). Abstract nouns, on the other hand, refer to abstract objects; that is, ideas or concepts (such as justice or hatred). While this distinction is sometimes exclusive, some nouns have multiple senses, including both concrete and abstract ones; consider, for example, the noun art, which usually refers to a concept (e.g., Art is an important element of human culture) but which can refer to a specific artwork in certain contexts (e.g., I put my daughter's art up on the fridge).
Some abstract nouns developed etymologically by figurative extension from literal roots. These include drawback, fraction, holdout, and uptake. Similarly, some nouns have both abstract and concrete senses, with the latter having developed by figurative extension from the former. These include view, filter, structure, and key.
In English, many abstract nouns are formed by adding noun-forming suffixes (-ness, -ity, -ion) to adjectives or verbs. Examples are happiness (from the adjective happy), circulation (from the verb circulate) and serenity (from the adjective serene).
A noun phrase is a phrase based on a noun, pronoun, or other noun-like word (nominal) optionally accompanied by modifiers such as determiners and adjectives. A noun phrase functions within a clause or sentence in a role such as that of subject, object, or complement of a verb or preposition. For example, in the sentence "The black cat sat on a dear friend of mine", the noun phrase the black cat serves as the subject, and the noun phrase a dear friend of mine serves as the complement of the preposition on.
Nouns and noun phrases can typically be replaced by pronouns, such as he, it, which, and those, in order to avoid repetition or explicit identification, or for other reasons. For example, in the sentence Janeth thought that he was weird, the word he is a pronoun standing in place of the name of the person in question. The English word one can replace parts of noun phrases, and it sometimes stands in for a noun. An example is given below:
- John's car is newer than the one that Bill has.
But one can also stand in for bigger sub parts of a noun phrase. For example, in the following example, one can stand in for new car.
- This new car is cheaper than that one.
Substantive as a word for noun
Starting with old Latin grammars, many European languages use some form of the word substantive as the basic term for noun (for example, Spanish sustantivo, "noun"). Nouns in the dictionaries of such languages are demarked by the abbreviation s. or sb. instead of n, which may be used for proper nouns instead. This corresponds to those grammars in which nouns and adjectives phase into each other in more areas than, for example, the English term predicate adjective entails. In French and Spanish, for example, adjectives frequently act as nouns referring to people who have the characteristics of the adjective. The most common metalanguage to name this concept is nominalization. An example in English is:
- This legislation will have the most impact on the poor.
Similarly, an adjective can also be used for a whole group or organization of people:
- The Socialist International.
Hence, these words are substantives that are usually adjectives in English.
The word nominal also overlaps in meaning and usage with noun and adjective.
- Loos, Eugene E., et al. 2003. Glossary of linguistic terms: What is a noun?
- nōmen. Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short. A Latin Dictionary on Perseus Project.
- ὄνομα. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project
- Dionysius Thrax. τέχνη γραμματική (Art of Grammar), section ιβ´ (10b): περὶ ὀνόματος (On the noun). Bibliotheca Augustana. εἴδη δὲ παραγώνων ἐστὶν ἑπτά· πατρωνυμικόν, κτητικόν, συγκριτικόν, ὑπερθετικόν, ὑποκοριστικόν, παρώνυμον, ῥηματικόν. "There are seven types of derived [nouns]: patronymic, possessive, comparative, superlative, diminutive, derived from a noun, [and] verbal."
- παραγωγός in Liddell and Scott
- Jackendoff, Ray. 2002. Foundations of language: brain, meaning, grammar, evolution. Oxford University Press. Page 124.
- Lester, Mark; Larry Beason (2005). The McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage. McGraw-Hill. p. 4. ISBN 0-07-144133-6.
- Krifka, Manfred. 1989. "Nominal Reference, Temporal Constitution and Quantification in Event Semantics". In R. Bartsch, J. van Benthem, P. von Emde Boas (eds.), Semantics and Contextual Expression, Dordrecht: Foris Publication.
- Borer, Hagit. 2005. In Name Only. Structuring Sense, Volume I. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Laycock, Henry (2005). "Mass nouns, Count nouns and Non-count nouns", Draft version of entry in Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics Oxford: Elsevier.
For definitions of nouns based on the concept of "identity criteria":
- Geach, Peter. 1962. Reference and Generality. Cornell University Press.
For more on identity criteria:
- Gupta, Anil. 1980, The logic of common nouns. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
For the concept that nouns are "prototypically referential":
- Croft, William. 1993. "A noun is a noun is a noun - or is it? Some reflections on the universality of semantics". Proceedings of the Nineteenth Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society, ed. Joshua S. Guenter, Barbara A. Kaiser and Cheryl C. Zoll, 369-80. Berkeley: Berkeley Linguistics Society.
For an attempt to relate the concepts of identity criteria and prototypical referentiality:
- Baker, Mark. 2003, Lexical Categories: verbs, nouns, and adjectives. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
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