Nouns

Old version (Fall 2006) - current version here


In the traditional school definition, a noun "refers to a person, place, or thing." But as has often been pointed out, this definition incorrectly excludes nouns like those in (1) (unless the concept of thing is reduced to near-vacuity).

(1)     explosion, glint, mind, moment, thunder, value

As a result, modern linguists (not just generative ones) define nouns not in semantic (meaning-based) terms, but in distributional terms---with reference to their occurrence relative to other syntactic categories in the language. In English, for instance, a useful criterion for whether a word is a noun is whether it can be accompanied by the determiner the. According to this criterion, the words in curly brackets in (2a) are nouns, but those in (2b) are not.

(2) a.   the { explosion, glint, mind, moment, thunder, value }
b. * the { explodes, glinted, minded, momentous, thundered, valuable }

Count nouns and mass nouns

Nouns are traditionally divided into two major subclasses: count nouns and mass nouns. Count nouns can be accompanied by the indefinite article, and they have a plural form, whereas mass nouns have neither of these properties.

(3) a. Count noun a(n) { book, child, couch, explosion, invitation, job, problem, vegetable }
b. books, children, couches, explosions, invitations, jobs, problems, vegetables
(4) a. Mass noun * a(n) { advice, furniture, rice }
b. * advices, furnitures, rices

Conversely, count nouns in the singular cannot follow expressions of quantity like a lot of, much, and so on, whereas mass nouns can.

(5) a. Count noun * a lot of { book, child, couch, explosion, invitation, job, problem, vegetable }
b. * much { book, child, couch, explosion, invitation, job, problem, vegetable }
(6) a. Mass noun a lot of { advice, furniture, rice }
b. much { advice, furniture, rice }

Although the distinction between count and mass nouns is generally clear-cut, under special circumstances, what are ordinarily mass nouns in English can be used as count nouns---for instance, when it is possible to impose an interpretation of a kind of X or a salient quantity of X on the mass noun. Notice, incidentally, that (7b) has two interpretations, depending on whether we is taken to refer to a group of cafe customers (salient quantity reading) or a merchant (kind reading).

(7) a. Different rices have different cooking times.
b. We ordered four coffees and two teas.

The semantic availability of such interpretations is only a necessary condition, though, not a sufficient condition, as the contrast between (8) and (9) shows.

(8) a. Some { kinds, pieces } of advice are more useful than others.
b. Some { kinds, pieces } of furniture are more comfortable than others.
(9) a. * Some advices are more useful than others.
b. * Some furnitures are more comfortable than others.

Conversely, it is possible for what are ordinarily count nouns to be pressed into service as mass nouns. It is this possibility that gives rise to an unintentionally comical interpretation of the newspaper headline in (10e).

(10) a. ? This recipe for carrot cake calls for { a lot of carrot, more carrot than I have on hand } .
b. ? There's just not enough couch for all ten of you.
c. 2nd Servant: Pray heauen it be not full of Knight againe.
1st Servant: I hope not, I had liefe as beare so much lead.
(William Shakespeare. Merry Wives of Windsor, Act 4, Scene 2.)
d. "The article says that [Mr. Mangetout] once consumed fifteen pounds of bicycle in twelve days ... Just as an example, I have never eaten so much as a pound of bicycle. ... I can see myself acting with considerable restraint at a dinner party at which the main course, is, say, queen-size waterbed.
(Calvin Trillin. 1983. Third helpings. 3.)
e. Chester Morrill, 92, Was Fed Secretary

Finally, some nouns regularly behave as both count and mass nouns.

(11) a. Count noun use a wine from Alsace, wines from Burgundy, more wines than I had ever heard of
b. Mass noun use a lot of wine, wine from Burgundy, more wine than we can drink tonight

Although the match between count and mass nouns across languages is reasonably good, mismatches occur. Some examples of nouns that are mass nouns in English, but count nouns in other languages are given in (12)-(14).

(12) a. French   un meuble, des meubles
a furniture-sg, of.the furniture-pl
'a piece of furniture, furniture'
b. un renseignement, des renseignements
an information-sg/advice-sg, of.the information-pl/advice-pl
'a piece of information/advice, information/advice'
(13) a. German   ein Möbel, Möbel
a furniture-sg, furniture-pl
'a piece of furniture, furniture'
b. ein Ratschlag, Ratschläge
an advice-sg, advice-pl
'a piece of advice, advice'
c. eine Nachricht, Nachrichten
a news-sg, news-pl
'a piece of news, news'
(14) a. Italian   un consigilio, consigli
an advice-sg, advice-pl
'a piece of advice, advice'
b. una notizia, notizie
a news-sg, news-pl
'a piece of news, news'

Not surprisingly, when learning English as a foreign language, speakers from these languages often produce ungrammatical examples like (9).

In conclusion, here's a question for you. Is mail a count noun or a mass noun? And how about email? Does everyone agree with you, especially about email?

Proper nouns and common nouns

This section presupposes Chapter 5, Noun phrases as DPs.

A further distinction that is traditionally drawn is between proper nouns (also known as proper names) and common nouns. In contrast to common nouns, proper nouns are conventionally capitalized in English.

(15) a. Common nouns   man, collie, planet, country, state, city
b. Proper nouns John, Lassie, Jupiter, France, Illinois, Northampton

Proper nouns refer to particular individual entities. The relation between proper nouns and individuals is not necessarily one-to-one, however. For instance, the proper noun John may refer to many different individuals of that name. Individuals with the same proper name needn't share any distinguishing properties (other than having the same name). So Athens, Greece and Athens, Georgia needn't have any substantive property in common that sets them apart from other cities, and there is nothing to stop us from giving the name Lassie to a pet without any of the prototypical qualities of Lassie from the television show (intelligence, loyalty, and so on). Our Lassie, in fact, needn't even be a dog. In short, proper nouns function like pointers. In the same way that one and the same pointer can be used to point to different and unrelated items in a presentation, the same proper noun can be used to refer to different and unrelated individuals. In contrast, common nouns refer to sets of entities that are related by sharing certain properties. That is, common nouns have intrinsic semantic content and cannot be used in the relatively arbitrary way that proper nouns can be.

From the point of view of reference, then, proper nouns resemble pronouns, which also function like pointers to individuals without themselves containing much in the way of semantic content. At first glance, it might therefore seem that the term 'proper noun' is a misnomer, and that proper nouns should be classified as Ds rather than as Ns. However, there are two arguments against this misnomer view of proper nouns.

Proper nouns with and without determiners. First, although proper nouns in English typically appear without a determiner, certain proper nouns must be accompanied by the definite article. Some examples are given in (16).

(16)     the Bronx, the Thames, the Titanic, the Soviet Union, the United States, the White House

Pronouns, on the other hand, can't be accompanied by an article, as shown in (17).

(17)   * the { you, he, she, it, we, they }

Given the contrast between (16) and (17), the proper nouns in (16) can't be Ds, but must be Ns. Even the misnomer view must therefore admit the existence of nouns that refer to particular individual entities. But if the proper nouns in (16) are Ns, then there is no conceptual advantage in assuming that those in (15b) are Ds. Instead, we could simply take the view that all proper nouns are nouns, but that some proper nouns are complements of the definite article, whereas others are complements of a silent counterpart of it. That is, the proper nouns in (15b) would be structurally parallel to those in (16), as indicated in (18).

(18) a. Silent determiner   [def] John, [def] Lassie, [def] Northampton, ...
b. Overt determiner the Bronx, the Thames, the Titanic, ...

Several additional pieces of evidence, all of the same type, point in the same direction. Before the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Soviet republic whose capital is Kiev was called the Ukraine, but after the breakup, the newly independent country began to be called Ukraine, without the article. Similarly, the United States is generally referred to in Spanish as los Estados Unidos 'the United States', but in recent years, Latin American newspapers have begun to omit the article los. According to the misnomer view, Ukraine and Estados Unidos would be Ns in the old usage and become Ds in the new usage. It seems more straightforward to treat the proper nouns as nouns both before and after the change and instead to consider the change as affecting the determiner, which goes from being pronounced to being silent.

In French, names of countries and regions must be accompanied by the definite article, whereas in English, they generally aren't (the change from the Ukraine to Ukraine thus eliminates its exceptional status in English). Some examples are shown in (19); la and le are the feminine and masculine forms of the French definite article, respectively.

(19) a. French la Bolivie, la Bourgogne, le Brésil, le Canada, le Danemark, la France, le Pérou
b. English Bolivia, Burgundy, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, Peru

According to the misnomer view, the names of countries and regions would be Ns in French but Ds in English. Again, it seems more reasonable to pin the difference between the two languages not on the nouns themselves, but on whether the determiner accompanying them is overt or silent.

In standard German, proper names stand alone in the standard language. But in the vernacular, proper names can be accompanied by the definite article, as shown in (20); der and die are masculine and feminine forms of the German definite article, respectively.

(20) a. Standard German Hans, Peter, Annemarie, Eva
b. Vernacular German der Hans, der Peter, die Annemarie, die Eva

According to the misnomer view, proper names would change syntactic category depending on the speaker's register, whereas the alternative view again more straightforwardly pins the variation on the determiner.

Finally, in modern Greek, proper names are normally accompanied by the definite article. This is shown for the nominative (the form in which subjects of sentences appear) in (21); o and i are masculine and feminine forms of the Greek definite article, respectively.

(21)   Greek, nominative   o Yannis, o Spiros, i Eleni, i Valia

However, modern Greek retains from its ancestor language Indo-European a special vocative case form that is used when addressing someone. Masculine nouns lose their final -s in the vocative, and other nouns remained unchanged, but for all nouns, the article is obligatorily absent in the vocative, as shown in (22).

(22)   Greek, vocative   (*o) Yanni, (*o) Spiro, (*i) Eleni, (*i) Valia

Once again, under the misnomer view, proper names in Greek would change their syntactic category depending on their case form---a decidedly unattractive consequence.

Borrowing. A second type of argument against the misnomer view of proper nouns is based on linguistic borrowing. Speakers of one language often borrow words from another language, either because no native words exist for certain concepts or because the borrowed word is perceived as having a cachet that the native counterparts lack. Proper nouns are easily borrowed in this way; we need only to think of the many geographical names in English that derive from various indigenous languages. The prolific borrowing of proper nouns is not surprising if proper nouns are a subcategory of nouns, since nouns are precisely the category that is most readily borrowed. But it is unexpected under the misnomer view, since pronouns are ordinarily not borrowed at all.

On the basis of the considerations just discussed, we conclude, then, that proper nouns are a semantically (and often syntactically) special subtype of N.