Verbish Nouns and Nounish Verbs

In my last post I discussed English words that can be used either as nouns or verbs. There are lots—farm, hammer, nail, spoon, dog, silence, light, cost, and so on and so on and so on. (I will call these bivalent words, just to have a term for them.) And that got me to thinking about nouns and verbs in general, and that got me to thinking about all of the parts of speech. But I’ll start with nouns and verbs. For now I will (mostly) stick with bivalent pairs, because they show the close relationship between nouns and verbs, but it’s not hard to extend the discussion to nouns that are just nouns and verbs that are just verbs.

The difference between a noun and verb seems pretty clear, so long as you don’t think about it too much. Maybe I should start with some definitions. I found these in a standard grammar textbook, The Harbrace College Handbook, written by John Hodges and Mary Whitten. (I have the seventh edition, which was published in 1972. I also checked the massive Cambridge Guide to English Grammar, by Huddleston and Pullum, but it doesn’t really have much to add.) You may have been taught something like these definitions in junior high school. According to Hodges and Whitten, a verb is “often defined as a word expressing action or a state of being”, while nouns are “used to name persons, places, things, animals, qualities, or actions”.

I’m actually not a great fan of definitions. (I am a great fan of dictionaries, however. That may seem like a contradiction, but I think it’s not.) The place for a definition, if you really need one, is usually at the end of a discussion rather than at the beginning. And definitions should always be checked before they are accepted. Do the definitions actually make sense? And do they deal with actual examples?

These definitions of noun and verb are immediately questionable. First, a verb, according to Hodges and Whitten, can express an action, and a noun can be used to name an action. I suppose there’s a difference between expressing and naming, but Hodges and Whitten don’t say what that is. Second, I’m not sure what a state of being is, and I’m not sure how a state of being is different from a quality. And third, the whole definition of “noun” seems like a big bag with stuff thrown into it; why should animals and qualities be in the same bag?

What about examples? At this point in my first draft I was looking for the nouniest noun I could think of and the verbiest verb, and I came up with the noun “brick” and the verb “throw”. A brick is a solid object that has weight and lasts potentially a long time, and it’s something you can throw. It’s a noun. Throwing is not an object, it’s not solid, it has no weight, and it’s over in a second. It’s a verb. But after some consideration, I realized that brick can be a verb and throw can be a noun. Brick is usually a phrasal verb—to brick up or to brick over—but it can be used by itself: “I was going to stucco that wall, but I think I’ll brick it instead”. And throw is easy as a noun: “That was a beautiful throw from third base to home”. But for the moment let’s just think about “brick” as a noun and “throw” as a verb, and later we will get back to “brick” as a verb and “throw” as a noun.

The distinction between nouns and verbs—between “brick” as a noun and “throw” as a verb—seems to match up with a distinction between two aspects of reality. On the one hand, there are objects, and on the other hand, we do things with objects or to objects. The difference between nouns and verbs corresponds to the difference between objects and actions. This distinction seems fundamental to our common-sense view of the world. If there really is a fundamental distinction between objects and actions, then it makes sense that language would reflect that difference by having two parts of speech—nouns for objects and verbs for actions.

But this fundamental distinction is immediately called into question by our two sample words. The nouniest noun can turn into a verb and the verbiest verb can turn into a noun. English has hundreds of bivalent words, words that can function as both nouns and verbs. But maybe we can preserve the distinction by saying that when one of these bivalent words is being used as a noun it represents the object side of reality and when it’s being used as a verb it represents the action side of reality.

The bivalent words (or some of them, at least) reflect a further aspect of reality, which is that objects and actions are very often closely linked to each other. Very often we do an action with an object—so the word “hammer” can mean the action and the implement we use to do the action. We have lots of bivalent words for implements and the things we do with implements: screw, staple, spoon, fork, spear, brush, hose, sponge.

There are other kinds of relationships between an object and an action. I can paint the wall with paint. I don’t think of paint as an implement, but it’s what you use when you paint. You use water to water the lawn. You use shampoo to shampoo your hair. I daresay it would be an endless task to specify all the possible relationships. Language typically uses just a few forms to express many different kinds of meanings.

Sometimes the object noun of a bivalent pair is the result of the action verb: if I list the monarchs of England, I have made a list. If I stack some books, I have produced a stack of books. Sometimes what is produced by the action lasts for a while, such as a list or a stack, but if you dance a dance and then stop dancing, the dance stops, too.

So far, most of my examples of nouns have been objects, sort of, and most of my examples of verbs have been actions, sort of. But there are lots of nouns that are not really objects and lots of verbs that are not really actions. A dance is not much of an object. A good throw from third base is not much of an object. I suppose that the definition of noun offered by Hodges and Whitten (“persons, places, things, animals, qualities, or actions”) is intended to include some these not quite objects. Throw and dance count as actions, so that’s okay, but what about the noun faint (as in “he fell down in a faint”); it’s not a person, or a place, or a thing, or an animal, or a quality, and I wouldn’t call it an action. What about nap: “I just had a good nap”? Or hope? (“I hope the Raptors will have a winning season, but I don’t want to get my hopes up.”) Or cost? (“I’d like to know how much that costs, but I’m afraid the cost is too high.”) The noun sides of these words aren’t very good objects, and the verb sides aren’t very good actions.

So far I’ve been using the term “object” for a nounish noun, but not always with complete comfort. A brick is an object, but I wouldn’t say that water is an object. I guess it’s a substance. Hodges and Whitten use the word thing, which is pretty general, but it doesn’t solve the problem. There are lots of things that don’t seem much like things to me. Is a cloud a thing? It’s certainly not a person, place, animal, quality, or action. Is a nap a thing? Is light a thing? Is hope a thing?

So what is a noun? What is a verb? And what’s the difference between them? I’m not sure we’re any closer to an answer, but raising questions and problems can be a step forward. In my next post I will continue this discussion, but I will need to make a detour through a discussion of definitions and categories.

4 thoughts on “Verbish Nouns and Nounish Verbs

  1. Great post! You got me thinking about the other way we use the word “thing” in addition to its status as object: as a word for something we cannot name or identify. Does this make it the catch-all or “et cetera” in the definition of a noun? And does its grounding in the first definition (as a term for object, item, and so on) give it a more stable feeling than a more ambiguous catch-all term would (something that won’t do in a definition of a grammatical category)? Thanks for the interesting topic and discussion.

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    1. It’s great to hear from you. Thanks for the fascinating comment. I’m glad you liked the post. I have at least five words for a thing that I’ve forgotten the name of, or never knew the name of, or that I think doesn’t have a name: whatchamacallit, thingamjig, thingamabob, thingy, and whatsit. I think I tend to use them just for physical things. If I’ve forgotten the term for getting around the fillibuster in the Senate, I don’t think I would say, “The Democrats should just do that thingamajig. Oh, I remember, it’s called reconciliation.” How do you feel? But a possible counter example, when G. H. W. Bush talked about not having “that vision thing”???? There he could name it, vision, so what was the point of saying “that vision thing” rather than just “vision”? I would use “et cetera” for things that I can name but choose not to. But there’s no implication that I can’t name them. I will have more to say about things and nouns sometime soon, but my next post seems to be veering off in another direction. Back when I was teaching, I would have a few sessions every year on basic grammar, and I found that students either hadn’t been taught or didn’t pay attention when they were taught. I’m not generally a picky-picky grammarian. I’m more interested in how grammar organizes thought.


      1. On the subject of how grammar organizes thought, I sometimes teach short excerpts from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons to get students thinking about how ingrained grammar is in our thinking even if we don’t consciously know how the different components work. They are often surprised that once they get beyond the idea that the passages make no sense, they start to feel the sway of particular grammatical structures in how they interpret what is written.

        “Etc.” for me sometimes includes unknowns, or a situation where not everything can be accounted for. If I think about all the intersectional aspects of a person’s identity, for example, I might list some and then end with an etc. because it is too hard to delineate them all. In my dictionary, I see the following sub-definition: “indicating that a list is too tedious or clichéd to give in full.” But I don’t think tedium is always the problem; perhaps it also a feeling of being overwhelmed by the possible factors involved?


  2. I’ve also used Tender Buttons for that purpose. The students are often very puzzled. So am I. I agree with you about etc. used an indefinite continuation, sort of like the three dots in an infinite decimal. Sometimes you know the continuation (one third is .33333……) sometimes you don’t (pi is 3.14159…..). That’s been calculated to a zillion places, but the zillion plus one isn’t known. Back a long time ago there was a group of people who were interested in what they called General Semantics, and their journal was titled Etc. Great comments. Keep ’em coming.


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