Things and Actions

Just by chance I was looking through a popular science book about quantum physics (don’t ask me anything, I don’t understand it), and I came across this passage: “Here’s one way to describe what physics is all about. It’s about what is (things) and what happens (actions).” [Kenneth W. Ford. The Quantum World: Quantum Physics for Everyone. Harvard University Press: 2004; p. 73.] Two thoughts came to mind. First, that’s a pretty good way of describing what the study of history is all about: things and events. The things of history include features of the natural environment, such as mountains and oceans, but also people and the things that people make and use, such as animals and crops and houses and roads and cathedrals. The events include natural events, such as earthquakes and hurricanes, and also the things that people do, such as making communities and fighting wars.

Second, Ford’s distinction between what is and what happens is pretty close to the common sense first approximation of the distinction between nouns and verbs: nouns say what is and verbs say what happens. So physics and history and grammar are all fundamentally the same.

Except that grammar isn’t quite so simple. Nouns can do a lot more than name things and verbs can do more than designate events. Moreover, nouns and verbs have the habit of trading places. English has several ways of turning a noun into a verb or turning a verb into a noun. (I’m returning to a topic I started a few posts ago.)

1. You can use a derivational suffix. Some suffixes turn a noun into a verb:

idol/idolize, winter/winterize, terror/terrorize

Some suffixes turn a verb into a noun:

admire/admiration, starve/starvation, hesitate/ hesitation, explore/exploration,

arrive/arrival, refuse/refusal, appraise/appraisal;

govern/governance, annoy/annoyance, repent/repentance

2. You can use an infinitive or a gerund. These are verb forms that function as nouns. The infinitive usually uses the word “to” with the verb form; the gerund adds “ing”. The infinitive of the verb “err” is the subject of the adage “To err is human”. We can say “I like swimming”, where we use the gerund of the verb “swim”, or “I like to swim”, where we use the infinitive; these are more likely than “I like natation”, which uses an uncommon noun in the noun slot.

3. You can use a bivalent word. As I showed in a earlier post, there are hundreds of English words which can be used either as a verb or a noun. Sometime the two words of a bivalent pair are pronounced identically (“Would you list the required books?” and “Here’s a list of the required books”), but sometimes there’s a difference in accent (“We have to combát this problem” and “Cómbat is likely to produce trauma”).

4. You can use a weak verb with a noun. By “weak verb” I mean a verb that doesn’t have a lot of semantic content on its own; the content is added by the attached noun. Typical weak verbs include “do” and “make” and “have”. You can say “dance” but you can also say “do a dance”; you can say “perform” but you can also say “do a performance”; you can say “plan” but you can also say “make a plan”; you can say “list” but you can also say “make a list”. You can have a tantrum, make a scene, have a memory, have a good time, do a renovation, make a change, do your exercises, do your banking, make a deposit, have a thought, have an argument, make a mistake, make an effort, have regrets….

5. You can just use a noun as if it’s a verb or a verb as if it’s a noun. For me, “listen” and “look” are verbs and not nouns, but I can say “Give this a listen” or “give this a look”. Many people (I am not among them) say “he sent me an invite”. I have also come across the noun “garage” used as a verb: “Please garage the car”. If you look at the list of bivalent verbs, it’s easy to suppose that some of them started out as verbs, some of them started out as nouns; then people started to use the nouns as verbs and the verbs as nouns. If the new noun or the new verb was handy, if it filled a hole in the vocabulary, then it became part of the language.

Many situations can be seen from a noun perspective or from a verb perspective, from the perspective of things or from the perspective of events. Sometimes the language accommodates both perspectives, either by having a different word for the different perspectives, or by using a single word to cover both. Thus a loan consists of a thing and an action. My father used two words for this situation. He used the word “lend” for the verbal side of the transaction—“Can you lend me ten dollars?”—and loan for the noun side—“Thanks for the loan”. My dialect, just slightly different from his, uses “loan” for both sides. Very often, nouns and verbs, things and events, are two ways of looking at a single situation.

Sentences have slots for nouns and slots for verbs. The part of a sentence that says what you’re talking about is called the topic, and what you say about the topic is the comment. (In some situations, however, either the topic or the comment is understood from the context). The topic of a sentence (if it’s there) has to be a noun or something like a noun. The comment (if it’s there) has to include a verb, but it can also include nouns—the direct object, for example, if there is one. If I say “The sappers destroyed the bridge”, I’m talking about the sappers, they are the topic, and the comment is “destroyed the bridge”. If I say “The bridge was destroyed by the sappers”, I’m talking about the bridge, and the comment is “was destroyed by the sappers”. We can make these sentences more emphatic by using a cleft construction: “It was the sappers who destroyed the bridge”, “It was the bridge that the sappers destroyed”.

But what if I want to talk about the verbal side of the situation? Then I have to turn the verb “destroy” into a noun so it can become the topic: “The destruction of the bridge delayed the advance of the enemy troops”, or “It was the destruction of the bridge that delayed the advance of the enemy troops”. The difference between the verb “destroy” and the noun “destruction” is no really a semantic difference, a difference in meaning or reference. The meaning of “destroy” is fundamentally the same as the meaning of “destruction”. What’s different is the grammatical potential of the two words. A noun is discussable because it can be topic of a sentence. A verb can’t be the topic, it can’t be discussable, unless you turn it into a noun or a noun substitute, such as an infinitive or a gerund.

There are also other noun slots in a sentence: the direct object, the indirect object, the object of a preposition, and various genitive constructions, such as the genitive of the possessor or the genitive of the source. If you want to put an event into any of these slots, you have to turn the event into a noun or a noun substitute—for example, “The army’s advance was delayed by the destruction of the bridge”. In this sentence two events have been turned into nouns: “advance” is the subject of the sentence, and “destruction” is the object of the preposition “by”.

Semantic definitions of the terms “noun” and “verb” miss the point. It’s not the job of a noun to express a person, place, or thing, and it’s not the job of a verb to express an action or a state of being. In simple terms, which will have to be qualified and extended, the job of a noun is to make a concept into something you can discuss and the job of a verb is to make a concept discuss a topic. These parts of speech should be defined by function rather than by meaning. Things and events are two ways of looking at the world.

2 thoughts on “Things and Actions

  1. This is great. I love how you went from a distinction between things and events in physics, history, and, through grammar, to things and events as two ways of looking at the world.
    I’d like to know more about what you mean by the job of a verb as making a concept discuss a concept. I’d like to know more about a lot of what you say here, but I’m having trouble formulating my questions. You Second Thoughts might help…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks so much for this. I’m gradually working towards a discussion of verbs and case frames, which may explain something about what I mean. The job a a noun and the job of a verb are complementary. If the noun (or more broadly the nominal in the topic position) is what you’re talking about, the verb (and more broadly the predicate in the comment position) is what you’re saying about the topic. Different verbs have different powers of commenting, and different powers of relating one noun to another. There are, for instance, zero-argument verbs (It’s cold), one-argument verbs (I’m cold), two-argument verbs (George broke the window), and three-argument verbs (George gave his mother flowers), along with various circumstantial or situational additions. But that’s just the briefest beginning of the discussion. More to come.


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