Parts of speech

« previous post | next post »

This recent Family Circus cartoon shows Billy consulting a dictionary and being surprised at what it says about the word verb:

Why does Billy find this weird?

Because, already at the age of 7, he's absorbed the Semantic Essence theory of parts of speech, the idea that BY DEFINITION verbs are action words, nouns name persons, places, or things, and so on. If you accept this, and are none too clear about the difference between words and their meanings, then you'll expect verb to be a verb; the dictionary part-of-speech classification will seem paradoxical to you.

The Semantic Essence theory plays a central role in the "X is a verb" snowclone (conveying that the word X —  usually a noun, but sometimes an adjective — denotes an action) — first discussed here (on faith) and here (on baptism) as a trope, labeled a snowclone here (on science), and (I think) most recently discussed on Language Log here (on gay). This snowclone tends to annoy linguists. Yes, we understand it's not to be understood literally, but we sigh in dismay at the fact that the metaphor in the snowclone hinges on Semantic Essence. And despite the fact that almost every discussion of grammar outside of the field of linguistics (in particular, treatments in textbooks and advice manuals) explicitly adheres to Semantic Essence, the idea is flat wrong. As Geoff Pullum said in his posting on science:

It absolutely is not the case that you can coherently define lexical categories this way — nouns as words that name things, verbs as words for actions, adjectives as words for qualities, prepositions as words for relations between things, and so on. It simply does not work. It part of an ancient theory of grammar that is not just sick but dead on arrival, like the phlogiston theory of combustion. Only grammar never had its chemical revolution as far as the general public is concerned.



  1. Q said,

    June 28, 2008 @ 2:56 pm

    So, this is the non-funny version of "verbing weirds language"?

  2. John Cowan said,

    June 28, 2008 @ 3:01 pm

    The cartoon appears huge and shrinks when you click on it.

  3. Emily said,

    June 28, 2008 @ 3:04 pm

    Fascinating post. To quote another comic strip(the inimitable Calvin and Hobbes) on this matter "I like to verb words… Verbing weirds language". Can any other languages besides English turn use nouns and adjectives as verbs without changing them by adding suffixes, etc?

  4. Dan Milton said,

    June 28, 2008 @ 3:18 pm

    I don't see that this has anything to do with the Semantic Essence theory of parts of speech. The humor (and possibly a seven-year-old's confusion) is simply the confusion of a word and what it signifies, making ambiguous what would appear to be the obvious tautology "A verb is a verb".

  5. John Lawler said,

    June 28, 2008 @ 3:34 pm

    I've always been impressed by a fact about these definitions of nouns and verbs pointed out by William Frawley in his 1992 textbook Linguistic Semantics (cited in the amicus brief that Roger discusses in the preceding post). Frawley notes that, while the standard schoolbook definitions of noun and verb are quite incorrect — it's just not true that every noun denotes "the name of a person, place, or thing", nor that every verb denotes "action, being, or state of being" — nevertheless the converse definitions are true: the name of a person, place, or thing is sure to be a noun, and actions are prototypically denoted by verbs.

    So the schoolbooks aren't completely wrong; they just have it backwards.

  6. James Wimberley said,

    June 28, 2008 @ 4:47 pm

    Stop this massacre of the innocents! Language Log's linguistic relativism out-Herods Herod.
    (Hamlet, III.2)

  7. Wrongshore said,

    June 28, 2008 @ 6:13 pm

    Is there a "new grammar" that is useful to teach to young English students? Or is it just a matter of accepting that the whole sentence-diagramming business was a waste of time and we should have spent it on math?

  8. rone said,

    June 28, 2008 @ 6:34 pm

    That's like my observation that 'trochee' is, but 'iamb' isn't.

  9. Sridhar said,

    June 28, 2008 @ 6:40 pm


    It depends on what you mean by saying that actions are prototypically denoted by verbs. E.g., "action" itself is clearly a noun.

    To me, the really egregious part of defining nouns as words which denote "a person, place, or thing" is the catch-all "thing" which is either far too restrictive (in the sense of a physical, tangible object) or so vague and broad as to be almost completely useless (in the sense of meaning, well, any thing). Granted, the word "thing" is a noun, and so anything described as a "thing" will likely have been marshalled into the appropriate grammatical role already (one might say "Combustion a thing", but one wouldn't say "Combust is a thing") but it's just fraught with such opportunities for confusion and misinterpretation.

  10. Sridhar said,

    June 28, 2008 @ 6:43 pm

    Not to imply that were one to take "thing" in the restrictive sense of tangible objects, the explanation would suffer only from being too restrictive. The idea of defining lexical categories semantically is, of course, misguided bunk. But even modulo that, the definition "person, place, or thing" is aggravatingly poor.

  11. Sridhar said,

    June 28, 2008 @ 6:46 pm

    Er, above, I meant to say "one might say 'Combustion is a thing', but one…". Sorry about that.

    [Hm... I guess I've absorbed the habit of typing "er" despite my typically rhotic American accent.]

  12. panne said,

    June 28, 2008 @ 7:07 pm

    Is the semantic essence theory really totally dead? What about Langacker's Cognitive Grammar? Langacker writes (2008*: 93) that "[i]n elementary school, I was taught that a noun is the name of a person, place or thing. In college, I was taught the basic linguistic doctrine that a noun can only be defined in terms of grammatical behaviour (…). [S]everal decades later, I demonstrate the inexorable progress of grammatical theory by claiming that a noun is the name of a thing".

    Langacker's definition of "thing" is very abstract, and is not to be taken as a physical object. The claim is that there is some sort of prototypical semantic essence to grammatical classes, especially (or perhaps only, the way I understand Langacker) for nouns and verbs. What do linguists like Zwicky and Pullum make of such a claim?

    (* Langacker 2008: Cognitive Grammar, a basic introduction)

  13. Dan T. said,

    June 28, 2008 @ 7:40 pm

    A noun's a special kind of word,
    It's any name you ever heard,
    I find it quite interesting.
    A noun's a person, place, or thing.
    Schoolhouse Rock

  14. Adrian Morgan said,

    June 28, 2008 @ 8:39 pm

    I think this is much simpler. When I was about seven years old and introduced to 'nouns' and 'verbs' for the first time, it seemed natural to ask 'is noun a noun?', 'is verb a verb?', because I had no idea that word classes were actually useful for anything; they seemed to be made up on a whim, and if you make up word classes on a whim then it makes sense (from a child's way of thinking) to put the name of the class within the class, even if you have to make a special exemption to the general definition of the class.

    Here's an incident that, I think, supports your point better. When I was slightly older, I remember a day when a teacher told us that 'was' is a verb (the teacher did not explain why). The class reacted with disbelief, and the sarcastic comment, "Hey! I'm doing a was!". At that age, I had grasped the idea that that would be a noun, but most of my classmates hadn't, it would seem.

  15. Bob Ladd said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 2:55 am

    I agree with Dan Milton, Rone, and Adrian Morgan. This is weird/funny for the same reason that my geeky historical linguistics professor when I was an undergraduate used to delight in pointing out that "calque is a loanword and loanword is a calque". Invoking the Semantic Essence theory of parts of speech to explain this comic seems an analysis too far.

  16. dr pepper said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 3:33 am

    > Sridhar said,

    > Er, above, I meant to say "one might say 'Combustion is a thing',
    > but one…". Sorry about that.

    > [Hm… I guess I've absorbed the habit of typing "er" despite my
    > typically rhotic American accent.]

    That's ok, i read it rhotically.

  17. Sridhar said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 4:44 am

    Yeah, I actually would too. I guess what's weird about it is that it's entirely natural for me to read and write things as though people go around filling hesitant pauses with rhotic "er"s, yet I doubt that I've ever actually spontaneously/naturally spoken a rhotic "er" for that purpose, or heard anyone do the same. Certainly not "erm", at any rate, which comes out of my fingers from time to time as well.

  18. Kate said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 5:14 am

    Gonna have to go with, "Because Family Circus is out of jokes, and has been for a long time."

  19. Peter said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 6:24 am

    Since we are discussing the nature of a "thing", readers may be interested to know that the question, "What is a thing?" has already been answered definitively by a theoretical physicist, whose answer is: A thing is an object in the appropriate category. (Where "category" is a specific mathematical structure.) I kid you not — see:

    author = "Gerhard Mack",
    title = "Gauge theory of things alive and universal dynamics",
    institution = "Deutsches Elektronen-Synchroton (DESY)",
    year = "1994",
    type = "Preprint",
    number = "94–184",
    address = "Hamburg, Germany",
    month = "October"}

  20. JJM said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 8:59 am

    I had a teacher who used to boldly state: "Every word in the English language is capable of being a noun."

    When students questioned this, he'd simply write the following on the blackboard:


  21. MMcM said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 1:46 pm

    On the question, “What is a Thing?”, which was old when Heidegger wrote of Kant in a book by that name (in English), Gerhard Mack's gauge theory paper ( in fact says, “I did not answer it; I merely expained [sic] how to describe a thing.”

  22. Neal Goldfarb said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 3:12 pm

    Panne: Langacker's definition of "thing" is very abstract, and is not to be taken as a physical object. The claim is that there is some sort of prototypical semantic essence to grammatical classes, especially (or perhaps only, the way I understand Langacker) for nouns and verbs. What do linguists like Zwicky and Pullum make of such a claim?

    I can't speak for Geoff or Arnold, but here's what Ray Jackendoff has to say:

    …it is frequently asserted that nouns name “things,” such as houses, horses, doctors, and tables; hence the category Noun can be derived directly from (or is directly correlated with) semantics. But what about earthquakes and concerts and wars, values and weights and costs, famines and droughts, redness and fairness, days and millennia, functions and purposes, craftsmanship, perfection, enjoyment, and finesse? The kinds of entities that these nouns denote bear no resemblance to concrete objects. To assert that they must have something in common semantically with concrete nouns merely begs the question. [Foundations of Language, page 124 (2002)]

    In a footnote to this passage, Jackendoff says that the examples above "go far beyond Langacker's" and that (at least as of 1998) Langacker admitted that he had no definite proof for his characterization of nouns.

  23. Sridhar said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 3:45 pm


    I suppose the obvious retort to your teacher would have been to point that he had missed the use-mention distinction. He could stand, at any rate, to use some quotation marks.

  24. Sridhar said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 3:51 pm

    Well, actually, the more I reflect upon it, I don't know if the situation is against or in favor of your teacher.

    I might want to say "In this sentence, 'hrpf' is a noun", but it's not really "hrpf" which is a noun; "hrpf" is gibberish. It's the quoted "'hrpf'" which acts as a noun. So the sentence as written is incorrect… but to make it correct, the number of layers of quotation marks around "hrpf" would have to be equal to itself plus one. Is that right or is it pointless pedantry?

  25. Jason Orendorff said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 4:04 pm

    Y'all frequently complain about the way kids are taught parts of speech (lexical categories–whatever). But it's an idle complaint–you never explicitly propose a better way of teaching this stuff.

    As late as seventh grade (12- and 13-year-olds) I was being taught that a noun was "a word for a person, place, thing, event or idea". Somehow I learned the right thing despite the horribly wrong definition. (You'll have to take my word that I know what a noun is.)

    I find Wikipedia's definition of "noun" spectacularly useless:

    "In linguistics, a noun or noun substantive is a lexical category which is defined in terms of how its members combine with other kinds of expressions. Since different languages have different inventories of kinds of expressions, the definition of noun will differ from language to language. In English, nouns may be defined as those words which can co-occur with definite articles and attributive adjectives, and function as the head of a noun phrase. The noun can be replaced by a pronoun of first person, second person, or even third person. Also the noun is known for being one of the eight parts of speech."

    You could argue that this is classic "bad Wikipedia", nothing more—but if linguists had a clear, simple concept of what a noun was that they were willing to share with the world, it wouldn't have to be this way.

  26. panne said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 5:17 pm

    Neal Goldfarb: That's certainly interesting. I think Langacker's claims are interesting and have some merit, especially considering his use of the term conteptualization – saying that we are capable of construing events as abstract objects. Whether one finds this valid or not depends so heavily on theoretical outlook that it's perhaps pointless to discuss.

  27. Patrick Dennis said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 9:39 pm

    I agree with John Orendorff. I was taught (what was then called) grammar in the 1950's by a very traditional teacher in a very traditional school. We memorized rules ("transitive verbs have voice") and, yes, diagrammed sentences. A few years later my college professor of rhetoric lauded the now-despised Strunk and White. (Ever the libertarian, I've since learned to love the singular "they" and to enthusiastically embrace the split infinitive.) But never once in all those years would it have occurred to me that "faith," "baptism," "science" or "gay" were verbs.

  28. Jeff Binder said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 11:01 pm

    The "person, place or thing" definition is definitely wrong, but it could still have a didactic use. The concept of a part of speech is fairly clear, but it can be devilishly difficult to explain to someone which part of speech you're talking about – that Wikipedia article just goes to show how easy it is to get into seemingly circular definitions in doing this. I learned what a noun is the same way as Jason Orendorff, hearing again and again that it means a word that refers to a person, place or thing, but somehow plucking out the real meaning. There's nothing inherently wrong with learning it this way, and if teachers just didn't insist that "person, place or thing" is a _definition_, then maybe more people would succeed in figuring it out. If a student grasps the concept of a part of speech, and the teacher tells them that noun is the part of speech that is _typically_ used to refer to persons, places and things, then they should be able to see where the boundaries really belong.

  29. Jadagul said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 2:11 am

    I'm going to jump in with Jason and Jeff. I've recently started working at a tutoring company, and on occasion I've had to teach students about parts of speech. And as a good LL reader I know that a noun isn't really "a person, place, or thing." But I have no idea how to go about explaining what a noun really is to a seventh-grader in remedial English. If you have any good suggestions I'd be happy to try them out.

  30. Steve said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 5:48 am

    Perhaps I'm being too generous, but I've always assumed that the whole point of the 'X is a verb' snowclone was that it was so obviously false and nonsensical as a statement about language, that it pulled you up short and made you think about the underlying meaning of the metaphor. Surely, if anyone really thinks that 'faith' or 'science' or whatever is syntactically a verb, then any metaphorical meaning such statements might have entirely evaporates. (I'm not suggesting, by the way, that such sentences are particularly apt, precise or original metaphors, let alone that they are based on accurate definitions of parts of speech.)

  31. Jorge said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 11:36 am

    So, in this sentence, 'is' is a noun?

  32. Steve Harris said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 2:05 pm

    The matter of correctly identifying the category of a lexical entity is crucial in teaching calculus to college students. The issue here is one of differentiating between

    1) a mathematical function


    2) an indeterminate symbol standing for a number

    Example of (1): The sine function, typically abbreviated as "sin". This is a function in that it identifies a rule for assigning numbers: The sine of 0 is 0, the sine of pi/2 is 1, the sine of pi is 0, the sine of (3/2)pi is -1, and so on. We write these as

    sin(0) = 0
    sin(pi/2) = 1
    sin(pi) = 0
    sin((3/2)pi) = -1

    The important fact is that "sin" is not a number, but a rule for assigning numbers. (For purposes of this discussion, just what the rule is, is not important; I'll just mention that the rule is explicable in geometric terms involving a circle.)

    Other examples: Further functions from trigonometry, for instance, such as cosine and tangent, usually abbreviated similarly:


    Very common is to name a function, defined by some means or other (or left unspecified), with a letter that suggests the word "function", such as


    Typical way to do this: "Let f be the function defined by f(x) = 2x-1 for any number x."

    Examples of (2):


    That all seems pretty clear (assuming you have some understanding of what the sin function is, anyway): Elements of category 2 have a typical variable-designating letter (such as x), while elements of category 1 do not.

    The confusion sets in when we speak, not of "the function f" (as ought logically to be done), but of "the function f(x)" (a very common locution). For instance, we might say, instead of the prolix defining statement used above, "Consider the function f(x) = 2x-1."

    With such locutions so common, it's small wonder students fail to note the distinction between categories (1) and (2); in actual practice, it's just too handy to let the distinction fuzz, and mathematicians do this all the time. But being able to recover the distinction is important. How to make it clear to the students that they must be alive to this distinction is a pedagogical challenge.

    I have sometimes fallen prey to the "grammarian's fallacy" and said "sin is not a noun–it's a verb." All I can say is that it seemed insightful at the time–but I cringed inwardly. I've since taken to saying something like "sin is an incomplete symbol–it doesn't have a value until you put something after it, like sin(pi) or sin(x)". The logical problem here is that sin(x) doesn't have a value (well, a numeric value), either–rather, it's something that would have a numeric value if x were given a numeric value. But I think that's not really a pedagogical problem, as calculus students are used to seeing an expression such as "2x-1" as functioning as if it were a number. Another possibility is to say, "sin is an operator", but it's not clear that carries much pedagogical weight.

    There's a deal of linguistic subtlety in the conventions that have developed for mathematical expression, with various levels of formality (i.e., adherence to the logical rules) being used for different levels of communication and presuming different levels of sophistication on the part of the reader.

  33. Daniel Barkalow said,

    July 1, 2008 @ 1:25 am

    JJM: "there" (in fact, there are two, but "there" is neither of them…)

  34. Daniel Barkalow said,

    July 1, 2008 @ 1:40 am

    I think that Semantic Essence theory is singularly unhelpful here; if he thought that verbs denote actions, it would be unsurprising that "verb", which doesn't (normally) denote any action isn't a verb. That's why the snowclone slogan "Verb is a verb!" would not only be misuse of terminology but entirely incoherent.

    I think the relevant concern is sets which are (or are not) members of themselves. I think it's relatively rare to partition some sets into subsets, where there is a single subset that all of the subsets are a members of, so he's surprised that "verb" is a member of a sibling to the class it denotes.

  35. Nick Lamb said,

    July 1, 2008 @ 6:38 am

    Lack of feedback from our regular contributors suggests that in fact linguistics and grammar have nothing to offer us from the point of view of primary school education. That is, although noun is not "a person, place or thing" they don't have a better definition to offer to children aged eight.

    It's quite normal for us to use "lies to children" in education. Primary school science classes don't offer anything resembling a correct explanation for what a solid and a liquid really are, or why they behave differently. No-one will offer an explanation that actually makes any sense until you're on a degree course. No-one worries about the problematic definition of "species" when teaching a class of twelve year olds about dinosaurs, and fortunately dinosaurs are cool so the class might not notice this oversight.

    These "lies to children" are legitimate so long as the lie isn't allowed to become the dominant understanding in adult society as can easily happen. Watching a group of otherwise intelligent adults argue about the Monty Hall problem, or worse, how an aeroplane's wings work can be a little scary. One statistician or physicist doesn't stand much chance against an army of people who half-remember a simplified (well, actually just bogus) explanation from when they were at school.

  36. Norvin said,

    July 2, 2008 @ 9:25 pm

    I think the main problem with the Wikipedia definition above (and I agree, there are several) is that it's very general. If you want something more specific that you could use in a classroom, here's a definition of 'noun', for example:

    "A word is a noun if it can be used (by itself, without other words or quotation marks) to finish one of the following sentences:

    I am thinking about __

    I am thinking about a __
    I am thinking about an __ "

    The point is that linguists define these categories distributionally; nouns are the words that go in particular places in the sentence. So what you want, if you're trying to teach people to identify nouns, is to come up with sentences with gaps in them that can be filled by any noun (and only by a noun). This particular one will get you in trouble with pronouns ('him' is a noun, but 'he' isn't?), which gives you a chance to follow this up with a discussion about Case.

  37. Karen said,

    July 12, 2008 @ 2:38 pm

    Noun is the category of speech which includes but is not limited to the names of persons, places, or things.

  38. Jason Orendorff said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 10:39 pm

    After reading this I read a couple chapters of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (which Geoffrey K. Pullum co-authored; chapters available online), and there's a non-English-specific definition of "noun" in the very first chapter:

    NOUN: a grammatically distinct category of lexemes of which the morphologically most elementary members characteristically denote types of physical objects (such as human beings, other biological organisms, and natural or artificial inanimate objects)

    No English-specific definition is given, as far as I can tell; but there's a characterization of what a definition should look like, similar to what Pullum says in the next-to-last paragraph here.

RSS feed for comments on this post

Leave a Comment