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What Nouns Do

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What do nouns do in our language? It’s crucial that you know, for you cannot begin to engage in any kind of grammatical analysis without knowing the roles of all eight parts of speech.

The main roles of nouns break down into three types:

1. subject 2. object 3. complement

To discuss these three broad functions, I will necessarily have to mention verbs, so if you’re not too sure about verbs, you might want to jump ahead and skim the discussions on verbs and then return to this discussion on nouns. Problem is, when you read about verbs, you’ll need some knowledge of nouns. Sorry about this organizational disjointedness, but the language is very interrelated, and it’s just not possible to talk intelligently about nouns without mentioning verbs. And vice versa.

So you’ve got to start somewhere.

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Grammatical Subject

Every complete sentence (or dependent clause) has a word (sometimes a group of words) that serves as the grammatical subject of the sentence. The grammatical subject is always a noun or a group of words acting as a noun. The subject might also be a pronoun—a word taking the place of a noun.

The subject stands as the main beacon in the sentence. Your reader’s attention should focus on that subject. That grammatical subject should reveal the main thing you’re talking about in your sentence. That subject will then naturally gravitate to its verb.

In the above paragraph, let’s identify the grammatical subjects in those four sentences. I’ll put them in a bold italic font. Then I’ll put the verbs in a bold font.

The subject stands as the main beacon in the sentence. Your reader’s attention should focus on that subject. That grammatical subject should reveal the main thing you’re talking about in your sentence. That subject will then naturally gravitate to its verb.

Note: In the next-to-last sentence, you’ll find another subject-verb pair: you’re talking. This is a dependent clause. The subject is the pronoun you. The verb is are talking, contracted to you’re talking.

Another rule on writing style emerges from this bit of grammar:

The subject and the verb should form the main message of your sentence.

Pronouns, Subjective Case for Subjects

Tuck Away This Thought

Before we leave this overview of the grammatical subject, you might want to tuck away a thought for future reference. When we study pronouns, we’ll have to hang out the dirty laundry of too many smart people in this world, for we’ll have to discuss the case of pronouns. Messing up who-whom, I-me, she-her, he-him, and we-us ranks as one of the most frequent grammatical mistakes people make.

So here’s the thought: We’ve seen that nouns act as subjects. We’ll learn that personal pronouns can take the place of a noun. When a personal pronoun elbows aside a noun that is acting as a subject, then guess what? That pronoun must appear in the subjective case. Get it? Subjects? Subjective case? Pretty clever, don’t you think?

I’ll return to the problem, drill it into you, and ultimately make you cringe when you hear people say, “Me and Naoki are going to the movie.” Of course, they should say, “Naoki and I are going to the movie.”

Click page 3 below.

Hard Copy

You may download our entire discussion of the Parts of Speech. Simply download the Grammar eBook Understanding the Parts of Speech.

Objects

As its second major function, the noun serves as objects. It can act as the object of a verb or as the object of a preposition. At this stage, we’ll take a quick look at the two main types of objects: (1) objects of verbs and (2) objects of prepositions.

Objects of Verbs

As their next major function, nouns serve as objects. Just as we saw that a noun subject joins the verb to state the main message of the sentence, we now see that a noun object joins a special kind of verb to form what’s called a direct object. Again, we have to borrow from the upcoming discussion on verbs.

Transitive Verb, What Is It?

Most verbs in the English language are action verbs; that is, they describe some sort of activity taking place. And most action verbs fall into a class we call transitive verbs.

I know, I know, here come more grammatical terms, but we can blame it on that cave dweller who first grunted transitive verb. Perhaps it was my eighth-grade English teacher, dear Miss Hamrick. Besides, just be glad you’re not reading this epistle carved on a stone tablet. You wouldn’t find many explanations there.

In Latin, trans means across. A transitive verb takes the action expressed by the verb from the grammatical subject and carries it across to the recipient of that action, which is called the direct object. Let’s go back to John hit the ball.

The word John is a noun. John is the subject of the sentence. The verb hit is a transitive verb. It carries the idea of hitting from the word John, who causes the hitting, to the word ball, which receives the hitting. Now, the word ball is a noun, too. Ball is the direct object of hit. We can expand on these ideas a bit by pointing out that the subject John is the agent of the action and the direct object ball is the recipient of the action.

In my profession—OK, I admit it, I’m a lawyer—we have lots of ‘ors and ‘ees. We have employers and employees, we have offerors and offerees, we have trustors and trustees, mortgagors and mortgagees, and the list goes on and on. Basically, the ‘or person does or gives something, and the ‘ee person receives something. So I’ll borrow from my own profession and coin a couple of terms:

do-ors and do-ees

In my John-hit-the-ball sentence, John is the do‑or, and ball is the do‑ee. John is the hit‑or; the ball is the hit‑ee.

Transitive Verb, What Is It, Use This Trick

Quite simply, a transitive verb is an action verb that is capable of having both a do‑or and a do‑ee. You can make yourself the do‑or and just say:

I . . . .

Then say the verb. Thus:

I hit . . . .

Now see if there’s a possible do‑ee. Can you hit something or somebody? The answer is yes. You can hit a ball. The verb, therefore, is transitive.

I hit the ball.

Try it out with a couple of more verbs. Use write. I write . . . . Can I write something? Yes. I can write a best-selling, hard-to-put-down grammar book. The verb write is capable of having the noun grammar book stuck directly on it. Therefore, it’s a transitive verb. And the noun that sticks is the direct object.

Try it with delve. I delve . . . . Can I delve something? No, I cannot. I cannot delve the matter. I must delve into the matter. Because I cannot stick a noun directly onto delve, it is not a transitive verb and cannot have a direct object. (We’ll learn in section on verbs that delve is an intransitive verb.)

Noun as a Direct Object

We’ll return to a deeper discussion of verbs in the next chapter. For now, just remember a very important role of the noun. It can serve as a direct object. Remember that a direct object receives the action from a transitive verb. In legal lingo, a direct object is the do‑ee.

Objects of a Preposition

In the previous topic, we saw that a noun can act as the object of a verb. That’s one kind of object, the object of a transitive verb. But the noun serves another important role as an object. This next kind of object is called the object of a preposition. Once again, because of the interrelationship of these ideas, we have to borrow from an upcoming discussion on another part of speech, the preposition.

For now, let’s ponder an important fact about nouns: They have a hard time jumping onto the back of a sentence and sitting there all by themselves. Only a few roles of the noun enable it to hop up on a sentence without some help. For most functions, the noun must rely on a dab of glue to get onto a sentence and stay there. Voila! A glue word. The preposition will help the noun.

Consider this beginning of a sentence:

He put . . . .

Now let’s try to stick two nouns onto the sentence:

cup and table.

We can take either one, and it’ll stick nicely to the verb put. Why does it readily stick? Because put is transitive and therefore capable of having a direct object. So he can put the cup . . . .

Here’s our sentence, beginning to form:

He put the cup . . . .

But now we want to stick the noun table onto the sentence. But we can’t, not as long as cup is sitting there occupying the position of direct object. Watch:

He put the cup the table. He put the table the cup.

It just won’t go anywhere:

The table he put the cup. He the table put the cup.

The noun table needs help getting onto the back of the sentence. A preposition saves the day:

He put the cup on the table. He put the cup under the table. He put the cup above the table.

In these sentences the words on the table, under the table, and above the table are called prepositional phrases. The noun table serves as the object of those prepositions.

Pronouns, Objective Case

Tuck Away Another Thought

We thus see the two main types of objects: objects of verbs (which must be transitive verbs) and objects of prepositions. And just as we tucked away a little thought when we explored the function of nouns as grammatical subjects, we can tuck away an equally important thought about the pronoun problem I mentioned above.

Remember the problem that trips up smart people when they stammer over who-whom, he-him, she-her, I-me, we-us? Well, back there I said that when personal pronouns take the place of nouns acting as grammatical subjects, they must appear in the subjective case.

So now here’s another thought to tuck away: When a personal pronoun takes the place of a noun that is acting as the object of a verb or as the object of a preposition, it must appear in the objective case. Neat, huh? Objects . . . objective case. What a clever language Miss Hamrick dreamed up.

Click page 4 below.

Hard Copy

You may download our entire discussion of the Parts of Speech. Simply download the Grammar eBook Understanding the Parts of Speech.

Complements

We saw that a noun acts as the subject of the sentence. When the verb in the sentence is transitive, then another noun can attach to that verb and act as the direct object of the sentence.

But suppose the verb in the sentence is not an action verb but is . . . well, suppose it’s the verb is. That is, suppose the verb in the sentence is some form of the verb to be. For right now, file away in your brain the eight forms of the verb to be:

am, is, are, was, were, been, being, be

So if we start out a sentence with that good old noun John and follow it with the verb is, then we get:

John is . . . .

In the English language we will usually follow this expression with either a noun or an adjective (an adjective is a word modifying a noun). If we use an adjective, we might get:

John is big. (The adjective big modifies the noun John.)

For future reference, this adjective is called a predicate adjective.

We might also follow the expression with a noun. If we use a noun, we might get:

John is my friend.

In the above sentence, the noun friend, which follows the verb to be, is called the complement; it’s also called the predicate noun or the predicate nominative.

Pronouns, Subjective Case for Complements

Tuck Away Yet Another Thought

Let’s end this overview of the noun with yet another thought to tuck away in that brain of yours, which is probably becoming a bit crowded right now.

We learned that pronouns substituting for subjects must appear in the subjective case; pronouns substituting for objects, in the objective case.

This final broad function of nouns—the complement or predicate noun—also requires the subjective case when personal pronouns take the place of a predicate noun.

You can learn more about pronoun case in Grammar.com's Parts of Speech section on Pronouns. Click here for the beginning of that discussion.

You can also find a discussion of the case of pronouns in the eBook Common Grammatical Mistakes.

Hard Copy

You may download our entire discussion of the Parts of Speech. Simply download the Grammar eBook Understanding the Parts of Speech.

 

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