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 (or put more simply, a noun is a word used to name a person, animal, place, thing or abstract idea).
Lexical categories are defined in terms of how their members combine with other kinds of expressions. The syntactic rules for nouns differ from language to language. In English, nouns may be defined as those words which can occur with articles and attributive adjectives and can function as the head of a noun phrase.
Noun comes from the Latin nōmen "name", a translation of Ancient Greek ónoma. 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 categories, Dionysius Thrax does not clearly distinguish between the two, and uses the term ónoma "name" for both, although some of the words that he describes as paragōgón (pl. paragōgá) "derived" are adjectives.
Different definitions of nouns
Expressions of natural language have properties at different levels. They have formal properties, like what kinds of morphological prefixes or suffixes they take and what kinds of other expressions they combine with; but they also have semantic properties, i.e. properties pertaining to their meaning. The definition of a noun at the outset of this article is thus a formal, traditional grammatical definition. That definition, for the most part, is considered uncontroversial and furnishes the means for users of certain languages to effectively distinguish most nouns from non-nouns. However, it has the disadvantage that it does not apply to nouns in all languages. For example in Russian, there are no definite articles, so one cannot define nouns as words that are modified by definite articles. There have also been several attempts to define nouns in terms of their semantic properties. Many of these are controversial, but some are discussed below.
Names for things
In traditional school grammars, one often encounters the definition of nouns that they are all and only those expressions that refer to a person, place, thing, event, substance, quality, quantity, or idea, etc. This is a semantic definition. It has been criticized by contemporary linguists as being uninformative. Contemporary linguists generally agree that one cannot successfully define nouns (or other grammatical categories) in terms of what sort of object in the world they refer to or signify. Part of the conundrum is that the definition makes use of relatively general nouns (thing, phenomenon, event) to define what nouns are.
The existence of such general nouns demonstrates that nouns refer to entities that are organized in taxonomic hierarchies. But other kinds of expressions are also organized into such structured taxonomic relationships. For example the verbs stroll, saunter, stride, and tread are more specific words than the more general walk – see Troponymy. Moreover, walk is more specific than the verb move, which, in turn, is less general than change. But it is unlikely that such taxonomic relationships can be used to define nouns and verbs. We cannot define verbs as those words that refer to changes or states, for example, because the nouns change and state probably refer to such things, but, of course, are not verbs. Similarly, nouns like invasion, meeting, or collapse refer to things that are done or happen. In fact, an influential theory has it that verbs like kill or die refer to events, one of the categories of things that nouns are supposed to refer to.
The point being made here is not that this view of verbs is wrong, but rather that this property of verbs is a poor basis for a definition of this category, just like the property of having wheels is a poor basis for a definition of cars (some things that have wheels, such as most suitcases or a jumbo jet, aren't cars). Similarly, adjectives like yellow or difficult might be thought to refer to qualities, and adverbs like outside or upstairs seem to refer to places, which are also among the sorts of things nouns can refer to. But verbs, adjectives, and adverbs are not nouns, and nouns are not verbs, adjectives, or adverbs. One might argue that definitions of this sort really rely on speakers' prior intuitive knowledge of what nouns, verbs, and adjectives are, and so do not really add anything. Speakers' intuitive knowledge of such things might plausibly be based on formal criteria, such as the traditional grammatical definition of English nouns aforementioned.
Predicates with identity criteria
This section may be confusing or unclear to readers. (April 2009)
The British logician Peter Thomas Geach proposed a more subtle semantic definition of nouns. He noticed that adjectives like "same" can modify nouns, but no other kinds of parts of speech, like verbs or adjectives. Not only that, but there also do not seem to be any other expressions with similar meaning that can modify verbs and adjectives. Consider the following examples.
- grammatical: John and Bill participated in the same fight.
- ungrammatical: *John and Bill samely fought.
There is no English adverb samely. In some other languages, like Czech, however there are adverbs corresponding to samely. Hence, in Czech, the translation of the last sentence would be fine; however, it would mean that John and Bill fought in the same way: not that they participated in the same fight. Geach proposed that we could explain this, if nouns denote logical predicates with identity criteria. An identity criterion would allow us to conclude, for example, that person x at time 1 is the same person as person y at time 2. Different nouns can have different identity criteria. A well known example of this is due to Gupta:
- National Airlines transported 2 million passengers in 1979.
- National Airlines transported (at least) 2 million persons in 1979.
Given that, in general, all passengers are persons, the last sentence above ought to follow logically from the first one. But it doesn't. It is easy to imagine, for example, that on average, every person who travelled with National Airlines in 1979, travelled with them twice. In that case, one would say that the airline transported 2 million passengers but only 1 million persons. Thus, the way that we count passengers isn't necessarily the same as the way that we count persons. Put somewhat differently: At two different times, you may correspond to two distinct passengers, even though you are one and the same person. For a precise definition of identity criteria, see Gupta.
Prototypically referential expressions
This section may be confusing or unclear to readers. (April 2010)
Another semantic definition of nouns is that they are prototypically referential.
Recently, Mark Baker has proposed that Geach's definition of nouns in terms of identity criteria allows us to explain the characteristic properties of nouns. He argues that nouns can co-occur with (in-)definite articles and numerals, and are prototypically referential because they are all and only those parts of speech that provide identity criteria. Baker's proposals are quite new, and linguists are still evaluating them.
Classification of nouns in English
Proper nouns and common nouns
A proper noun or proper name is a noun representing unique entities (such as London, Jupiter, Larry, or Toyota), as distinguished from common nouns which describe a class of entities (such as city, planet, person or car).
Countable and uncountable nouns
Count nouns are common nouns that can take a plural, can combine with numerals or quantifiers (e.g., one, two, several, every, most), and can take an indefinite article (a or an). Examples of count nouns are chair, nose, and occasion.
Mass nouns (or non-count nouns) differ from count nouns in precisely that respect: they can't take plural or combine with number words or quantifiers. Examples from English include laughter, cutlery, helium, and furniture. 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.
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 the singular.
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, -tion) to adjectives or verbs. Examples are happiness (from the adjective happy), circulation (from the verb circulate) and serenity (from the adjective serene).
Nouns and pronouns
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 Janet 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 subparts 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. Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon at Perseus Project
- παραγωγός in Liddell and Scott
- 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.
- Davidson, Donald. 1967. The logical form of action sentences. In Nicholas Rescher, ed., The Logic of Decision and Action, Pittsburgh, Pa: University of Pittsburgh Press.
- Parsons, Terence. 1990. Events in the semantics of English: a study in subatomic semantics. Cambridge, Mass.:MIT Press
- Geach, Peter. 1962. Reference and Generality. Cornell University Press.
- Gupta, Anil. 1980, The logic of common nouns. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
- 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.
- Baker, Mark. 2003, Lexical Categories: verbs, nouns, and adjectives. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- Lester, Mark; Larry Beason (2005). The McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage. McGraw-Hill. p. 4. ISBN 0-07-144133-6.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
- 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 (pdf)
|Look up noun in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
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