Which tests correctly identify English nouns?
This is the second of five lessons about Nouns. To complete this course, read each lesson carefully and then unlock and complete our materials to check your understanding.
– Explore the importance of successful noun identification
– Provide five tests for determining nouns as a word class
– Use tables, examples and diagrams to help guide the reader
This second lesson about nouns now focusses specifically on the accurate identification of this particular word class. In addition to recognising and using the five functions of nouns as previously described in Lesson 1, any speaker of English that wishes to improve their language to the level required for academia must also be able to quickly and confidently determine a word’s class (whether verb, noun or adjective, for example) for the purposes of editing and proofreading, essay writing and seminar discussions.
To assist with confident noun identification, it’s important to first realise that any word in the English language may have multiple word classes depending on its form, function, and syntax. The word ‘laugh’, for example, might function as a noun in the expression ‘he’s got a good laugh’ but as a verb in the phrase ‘I never laugh like that’. Because it’s not always clear to the speaker which word belongs to which word class and when, we’ve outlined five tests for you below that should help to more easily and consistently identify nouns.
Test 1: Collocation
One of the most efficient tests of whether a word is a noun is to look at the words surrounding that suspected noun – the words it collocates with. To best achieve this, it’s important to first understand that whether functioning as subjects and objects, nouns are always contained within a larger noun phrase. That is to say that the head noun is the main word of a noun phrase that may or may not contain other pre-modifying or post-modifying word classes. As the following table shows, the most common pre-modifying elements of a noun phrase are often determiners and adjectives, with prepositional phrases and adjective clauses being the most common post-modifying elements:
Test 2: Function
As was explained in Lesson 1, there are five common functions that nouns can perform in the English language, such as by making categorisations or by specifying number and gender. Students that wish to increase their chances of accurate noun identification should therefore keep an eye out for the following functions:
Test 3: Morphology
The third test is one of morphology, which is the study of how words are formed through processes of affixation. While nouns in English don’t change their form through prefixation and suffixation to indicate case, gender or number anywhere near as often as some languages, there are still some commonly used words worth memorising that indicate these features and aid in identification:
Regarding derivational affixation, which is the process of changing words from one class to another, the two following tables demonstrate how adjectives and verbs may become nouns through simple processes of suffixation. By recognising suffixes such as ‘-ness’, ‘-ty’ and ‘-ant’, nouns become much easier to identify:
Test 4: Syntax
Syntax, which is the study of how words are ordered, is also very useful when identifying nouns. Having already discussed how certain word classes more commonly collocate with nouns to create noun phrases, let’s focus next on how noun phrases may be positioned within sentences. Seven common sentence structures, each containing a head noun within a noun phrase, are outlined below:
Test 5: Exceptions
Of course, there are always exceptions in grammar that simply need to be memorised if you wish to identify nouns correctly every time. As has already been explored (and will be explained further in Lessons 3 and 4), there is some variation and irregularity with regards to the capitalisation, plurality and possession of nouns – as well as other noun-like words that students should watch out for, such as pronouns and gerunds. Because in some instances it may not be enough to use collocation, function, morphology and syntax to confidently determine whether or not a word is a noun, students should also consider learning about the many types (Lesson 3) and rules (Lesson 4) that govern the grammar of this word class.
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