Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Parts of Speech: Nouns and Verbs

Image courtesy of samuiblue at Modified by me.
This is the first in a series on parts of speech. Most of you already know this kind of stuff, but a little refresher now and then can be useful. Today, we are going to cover the two most basic parts of speech: nouns and verbs.

Nouns are the bones on which the rest of speech is dependent; they are the basic frame. They are so important that in some languages, such as German, they are all capitalized. Verbs, on the other hand, are like muscles, those things which are responsible for moving the skeleton.

Nouns (objects)

The word 'noun' ultimately comes from nomen, the Latin word for 'name.' Accordingly, nouns are words which name something. You may have heard the phrase, “person, place, or thing.” That phrase is the simplest definition for a noun that you will ever find. However, a noun can also be an idea or concept; these are called 'abstract' nouns, as opposed to 'concrete' (solid, touchable) nouns. Love or socialism are abstract nouns, whereas acorn and elephant are concrete.

Proper nouns are nouns which name a specific person or place, such as Guatemala, Queen Elizabeth, New York City, Bob, etc. An ideology named after a specific person or place is also a proper noun: Marxism, Americanism, Darwinism, etc. Proper nouns are always capitalized, whereas common nouns such as dog, blanket, glabella, sky, room, etc., are not. Ideologies not named after a specific person or place are common nouns, such as fascism and antidisestablimentarianism.

There are also two more types of nouns: quantitative or non-quantitative. A quantitative noun is one you can count, such as dollar, book, or mouse. You can pluralize quantitative nouns. Non-quantitative nouns cannot be pluralized. Corn, rice, and milk are non-quantitative. These are measured in quantitative units, such as: kernels, grains, and gallons. You don't say, “I have two milks,” you say, “I have two gallons of milk.” Not surprisingly, most proper nouns are non-quantitative.

Side note: If you've ever had somebody tell you to use 'fewer' instead of 'less,' here's the rule on that. If it's a quantitative noun, use 'fewer.' If it's a non-quantitative noun, say use 'less.' You would say, “I have less rice,” but you would say “I have fewer grains of rice.”

Verbs (actions)

By themselves, however, nouns can't really do anything. Just like bones, they need something to move them. Verbs are the muscles which do this. Interestingly, 'verb' is derived from the Latin word verbum, which can mean either 'word' or 'verb.' Basically, we get our word for 'verb' from the Latin word for 'verb.' Simply put, verbs are 'action' words.

It's especially interesting to think of verbs as muscles when you consider that there are different types of muscle: smooth, cardiac, and skeletal. These three types can generally be lumped into two types: voluntary (skeletal) and involuntary (smooth and cardiac). While you probably know that there are two types of verbs, you might not know their official names: transitive and intransitive.

Transitive verbs are very much like skeletal muscle tissue. Think of the 'trans' in transitive like the one in 'transport' or 'translate.' These words actively affect nouns. Verbs like push, grab, excite, kick, fling, drive, etc. are transitive because they move or change the object in question somehow. Basically, these verbs are verbs that one noun does to another noun.

In some dictionaries, you'll see v.t. in front of a definition; this means that the verb is transitive, whereas v.i. means intransitive.

Intransitive verbs are similar to smooth or cardiac muscle tissue. Just as you don't consciously control cardiac or smooth muscles, intransitive verbs do not actively affect or control nouns. Basically, this means that these verbs cannot have direct objects. Instead of causing one noun to do something to another noun, intransitive verbs simply do. Words like exist, sleep, speak, squeal, arrive, etc., are intransitive verbs. Think about it. You can exist, but can you exist something else? Can you sleep something?

There is also a subcategory of intransitive verbs called auxiliary verbs or linking verbs. The two big ones here are to have and to be.

Wait a minute, you say, have is transitive. You can have something. You can have a house. You can also be something. You can be a doctor.

Can you? By having something, are you actually effecting change on it? Are you moving it? By being a doctor, are you actually doing something to a doctor? These verbs merely link objects, hence, linking verbs. They are also called auxiliary verbs because they 'help' other verbs. You frequently see things like “I had punched him” or “I was screaming.” In both cases, these have to do with the tense of the verbs. In some languages, such as Latin (I always seem to come back to that), you don't need auxiliary verbs because every single possible tense of the verb is its own word.

Ah, Latin. Where you have as many as 10 forms of every noun and up to 36 forms of every verb. Fortunately, some of the forms overlap in the same word and they follow a fixed rule. Unfortunately, sometimes they don't.


It is interesting to note, however, that some verbs have both a transitive and an intransitive sense. For example, consider the word eat. I can say, “She eats when she is hungry,” and that is an intransitive sense. If I say, “She eats pizza,” then it is in a transitive sense. Dictionaries will note which sense is which.

As you can see, verbs are a little more interesting than nouns.

Nouns and verbs really are the most basic, crucial parts of speech. They are the only two parts of speech you need to form grammatically correct sentences—even if they are a little short.

I ate bananas; Josh dislikes bananas.

Bobby coughed.

Cats attack mice.

However, for speech to become really interesting, we need the other parts to tie it all together and really make it beautiful.

Next week: Adjectives and Adverbs
After that: Conjunctions and Prepositions; Articles and Demonstratives; and Interjections, Etc.

Did you find this interesting, or were you bored to tears? Do you have any questions about nouns and verbs that I didn't answer? Share your thoughts in the comments. 

Image credits: Image courtesy of samuiblue at, modified by me.

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1 comment:

  1. In middle school we had to memorize all the linking verbs. There was a test on them every week, along with our spelling test. It was a bit annoying at the time, but it sure helped.