Let a noun be a noun!

This post was written during the COVID emergency, while schools in the UK were closed.

In common with many parents, I have had the pleasure of playing a larger role than usual in the education of my child in past months. And like many parents, I’ve had to quickly work out not only how to teach, but also the methods, vocabulary of modern teaching, and all of this usually in a matter of minutes that are available between the work for the day being set (often on a completely new topic) and the child being ready to learn!

My child is 7 years old and at what is known as Key Stage 2 in the English education system. One of the important topics at this stage is English grammar. This is a problem for many parents who are now in the role of teacher, since few of them will have been taught much English grammar at school (or indeed at university, if they went there), and none will have been taught it according to the current philosophy and methods.

I didn’t learn any English grammar at school or as an undergraduate. However, in postgraduate studies and research in linguistics, I have worked fairly intensively at times on English grammar, and in particular on the categorization of words according to wordclass or part of speech, in English writing and speech. I had the mixed blessing of spending several years working on the manual, semi-automatic and fully automated tagging of English sentences, and contributed to works such as the immortal ‘A Post-Editor’s Guide to CLAWS7 Tagging’ (http://www.natcorp.ox.ac.uk/docs/claws7.html). So, when it comes to helping children with identifying whether a word is a noun, adjective, adverb, verb or preposition, etc., I’m something of an expert.

When I’ve taught grammar, the usual answer to “Is X a noun?” would always start with a reply that included, “In what grammatical context?”, “According to which grammatical theory?”, “In which variety of English?” (maybe even “in what register?”, “in what type of speech situation?”, and “now, or in which historical period?”) and also the caveat that “the boundaries between the categories are fuzzy”, and “you could always construct a context in which it is”. This usually leads to a discussion about how but maybe the more pertinent questions are “is it usually a noun?”, and “in what circumstances is it a noun and when is it not, and which are more frequent?”, not to mention, “how do look for evidence” and “how do we interpret the evidence”. These caveats are important, although I can understand why they are not foregrounded when teaching 7-year-olds.

What I do have a problem with, however, is the definitions used in Key Stage 3 for the categories. The kids are repeatedly told that ‘nouns are words that represent things’, while ‘verbs represent actions’. If so, it is a case of teaching something blatantly untrue, even if it is intended as a white lie on the way to a greater truth.

So anyway, how do I think you should define a noun? Well, noun is a syntactic category, so the definition has to have something to do with syntax. In other words, it should be about grammar, not meaning or the things in the real world that the words refer to. At a technical level, it’s a word that can be the head of a noun phrase (according to most mainstream theories at least!). So, we know that ‘table’ can be a noun because “The cup is on the table” is an acceptable sentence in English, and words in the grammatical context “The X is on the X” would normally be nouns. Nouns can also (usually) be inflected for number in English (“Please give me two Xs”), so another test would be whether you can make it into a plural (although then leading to the problem of the difficulty of real-world examples for non-countable nouns, not to mention confusion with -s suffixes on verbs. Further important grammatical characteristics of nouns are that they can be replaced by pronouns, and that they can be modified by adjectives, articles and determiners. That’s all quite hard, but it wouldn’t be impossible to construct exercises, rules of thumb and substitution tests.

A noun is a thing in the sense that “thing” is a noun in the context of “is a thing”, but it’s a noun for syntactic reasons, not semantic or pragmatic reasons. “People, places, things” might work some of the time but that’s because the words ‘people’, places, and ‘things’ are nouns, not because the nouns are ‘people, places and things’. And it obscures the fact that word classes are grammatical categories, making it more difficult to understand what grammar is, and to understand it doesn’t help difficult cases and more advanced topics.

In a similar vein, “verbs are actions” might be a useful rule of thumb in some cases, but all of those actions can be nouns as well. “Action” is a noun, for a start. “Run” might be a common verb, but you can “go for a run”, and there’s the noun “running” as well, as in “Running is good exercise”. In fact, I would argue that the following three sentences all refer to the same action, but the syntax is different in each case (and, arguably, only one of the forms of run is a verb):

I like to run

I like running

I like to go for a run

So the “verbs are actions” doesn’t actually help to identify word class categories.

The proposed definition also doesn’t help with auxiliaries and stative verbs, which don’t really refer to actions, and, frankly any of the many verbs whose meaning or referent is not what would normally be called an ‘action’. Where is the ‘action’ in “Jamie lived in Oxford”? Also, English has lots of phrasal verbs, where it is difficult to identify the meaning of the verb on its own. A syntactic definition of a verb might be that it can be inflected for tense, aspect, (in the third person) for person and number. Unless it’s an auxiliary verb, in which case it can only be inflected for tense. It can be the head of a verb phrase, so it can be in the position Y in contexts such as these:

“The X Ys the X”

Adverbs are taught as being words in -ly, with the exception of some high frequency words that are adverbs but don’t have -ly (‘well’, ‘fast’), and some troublesome words in -ly what are not adverbs, and presumably just have to be learned (“ugly”, “likely”, “assembly”, not to mention some that are only sometimes adverbs such as “poorly”). Adverbs can be problematic to define, since it is something of a dustbin category, into which all sorts of words which don’t fit into the other categories are dumped. Further complicating things is the fact that their appears to be a fuzzy boundary between adjectives and adverbs (e.g. ). But in short, the definitions of adverb are morphological (“ending in -ly”) and semantic (“adverbs describe actions”) and a mixture of morphosyntactic and semantic (“adverbs describe adjectives – ‘really fat’ – and whole sentences – ‘Interestingly, …'”), and presumably with further ad hoc rules for the other problematic words that usually get lumped into the adverb category (e.g. “not”, “only”, “then”, and interjections such as “right”).

Adjectives are presented as describing words, and while they often are, it is again a semantic definition of a syntactic category, and that leads to problems. Is ‘previous’ a describing word, and if so, how does it describe something? (And how come it can be used ironically or humorously as a describing work, as in “You’re a bit previous”.) And how are adjectives differentiated from other types of modifiers in English? Nominal premodification is very common in English, and in my limited experience, teachers and students often struggle with this. Let’s take an example. What word class is ‘iron’? Clearly, it’s a thing. You can get much more thingy than an element on the periodic table, can you? It can refer a thing that you use to smooth out clothes as well, and again that is a noun. It can be a verb too – “I like to iron shirts” – but let’s not worry about that at the moment. How do we parse ‘The Iron Man’, a book taught in Key Stage 2. I’d say that we have a determiner (“the”) followed by a noun-noun compound, in which the first noun (“iron”) is a premodifier which describes the head noun (“man”). If you try to argue that “iron” is an adjective, then pretty much any noun can be an adjective. You end up with the absurdity of explaining “he’s a people person” by saying that ‘people’ is an adjective, because it describes ‘person’, but what about ‘People, places, things’? Is ‘dinosaur’ an adjective in ‘Dinosaur Cove’? In order to sort out this mess, you need to have the notion of the syntactic role of ‘modifier’ with the rule of thumb for English that ‘pre-modifiers are usually adjectives or nouns’.

Perhaps the current teaching can be justified on the basis of prototype effects. The most prototypical nouns are ‘People, places, things’; the most prototypical verbs are actions, and the most prototypical adjectives are describing words. Once the kids have got their heads round these easy cases, the more difficult cases can then be addressed. It’s a theory.

The best teaching example might be with made-up words, as in the nonsense poem Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves 
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: 
All mimsy were the borogoves, 
      And the mome raths outgrabe. 

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son! 
      The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! 
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun 
      The frumious Bandersnatch!” 
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves 
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: 
All mimsy were the borogoves, 
      And the mome raths outgrabe. 

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son! 
      The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! 
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun 
      The frumious Bandersnatch!” 

We can work out the word classes here not because we know what the words refer to and what they mean, but because of their position in sentences and their inflections (and in some cases also their morphology, and capitalization). The suggested tactics taught in Key Stage 3 don’t actually help when it comes to unknown words.

So, in summary, I think we need to not be afraid of teaching kids about grammar, explain syntactic categories in terms of syntax, not in terms of other potentially misleading “rules” which are essentially semantics. Let a noun be a noun!

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search