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.