The Importance of Nouns
&
Nouns in Context


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The Importance of Nouns & Noun Phrases

In our ESL/EFL grammar materials, lessons, and curricula, we often make the mistake of over-emphasizing verbs and forgetting about the central importance of nouns and noun phrases.  Verbs are certainly important, but you can't say much without nouns! 

In any sample of English--spoken or written--one of the 10 most common words is the.  What does that suggest?  Yes!  Lots of nouns--because the just about always occurs with a noun.

Additionally, noun phrase structure is complex and often a puzzle for our students. We know that learning to use a/an and the with the right noun types for the right meanings is difficult for many students.  And, the is one of the most common words, so the challenge meets students at every turn.

Take a look at these 3 samples from the sociology textbook that I'm using for many of my examples in this course. 

Sample #1 has only 99 words with 9 verbs--but there are at least 22 noun phrases (and more if we count the nouns inside of the longer noun phrases). 
 

#1
Nouns in Generalizations
A Sample from 
an undergraduate sociology textbook

By the age of 4, children show guilt and shame.  This indicates that a sense of self is developing, for guilt and shame require an awareness of being judged by others.  By the age of 5 children also display pride, humility, envy, and jealousy - emotions that indicate growing "self-awareness." By age 6 or 7, having developed the ability to take the role of the other, children express emotions that indicate a judgment of the self in comparison with qualities that others possess.  That is, they exhibit feelings about their own relative abilities, attractiveness, honesty, bravery, dominance, and popularity. 


Sample #2 has 122 words with 14 verbs and at least 16 noun phrases. 

 

#2
Nouns in Narratives
A Sample from 
an undergraduate sociology textbook

The old man was horrified when he found out.  Life never had been good since his daughter had lost her hearing when she was just 2 years old.  She couldn't even talk - just fluttered her hands around trying to tell him things.  Over the years, he had gotten used to that.  But now he shuddered at the thought of her being pregnant.  No one would be willing to marry her; he knew that.  And the neighbors, their tongues would never stop wagging. Everywhere he went, he could hear people talking behind his back

If only his wife were still alive, maybe she could come up with something.  What should he do?  He couldn't just kick his daughter out into the street


Sample #3 has 213 words with 24 verbs and around 50 noun phrases.

 

#3
Nouns in Narratives
A Sample from 
an undergraduate sociology textbook

Jack Yufe and Oskar Stohr are identical twins born in 1932 to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother.  They were separated as babies after their parents divorced.  Oskar was reared in Czechoslovakia by his mother's mother, who was a strict Catholic.  When Oskar was a toddler, Hitler annexed this area of Czechoslovakia, and Oskar learned to love Hitler and to hate Jews.  He became involved with the Hitler Youth (a sort of Boy Scout organization designed to instill the "virtues" of patriotism, loyalty, obedience, - and hatred)

Jack's upbringing provides an almost total contrast.  Reared in Trinidad by his father, he learned loyalty to Jews and hatred of Hitler and the Nazis.  After the war, Jack emigrated to Israel, where, at the age of 17, he joined a kibbutz.  Later, Jack served in the Israeli army.  In 1954, the two brothers met.  It was a short meeting, and Jack had been warned not to tell Oskar that they were Jews. Twenty-five years later, in 1979, when they were 47 years old, social scientists at the University of Minnesota brought them together, again. These researchers figured that since Jack and Oskar had the same genes, whatever differences they showed would have to be due to the environment - to their different social experiences


Noun Phrase Complexity

Later this semester, we'll look in more detail at the forms that can be combined to make noun phrases, especially the use of prepositional phrases and relative clauses.  Here let's just notice that the noun phrases in these passages come in lots of different shapes:
 

Samples #1, #2, & #3
Noun phrase type Example
single noun children

life

babies

determiner + noun his wife

his mother's mother

determiner + adjective + noun the old man
determiner + noun + prepositional phrase a sense of self 
noun + relative clause emotions that indicate growing self-awareness
determiner + noun + infinitive the ability to take the role of the other
determiner + (adverb + adjective) + noun an almost total contrast
proper noun  Oskar Stohr

Czechoslovakia


We can also see that both the generic and specific meanings are mixed together in both of these samples.  Sample #1 has numerous generic noun phrases with its generalizations about children and pride and other emotions, but it also has specific reference with their own relative abilities.  The noun phrases in Sample #2 are primarily specific in reference, but life is a generic noncount noun.   You can see some of that same mixture in Sample #3 although proper nouns and other specific nouns predominate.


Noun Phrases in Context

Research has shown that different types of noun phrases tend to be characteristic of different discourse types.

In conversational spoken English, we tend to use everyday words and to repeat the same vocabulary over and over--especially in the same conversation on a single or a small set of topics.  And, many of these nouns tend to be names with personal pronouns used to stand in for the name.

In academic writing, we tend to use much longer noun phrases as we try to be extremely accurate about complex information.  Moreover, academic generalizations tend to be noun-centric: they use lots of long noun phrases and a very simple range of verbs. A noun or noun phrase can be repeated without using a pronoun--repeating a particular term that is the only way to talk about a concept in that field of study.

In fiction and other story telling, we tend to use a wider range of verbs to be accurate and interesting about the actions of the characters in the story and, as in conversation, to use a lot of names and personal pronouns.

We can see these tendencies in our  samples.  Look at Sample #1 again--what is the grammar of that sample like? 
 
 

#1
Nouns in Generalizations
A Sample from 
an undergraduate sociology textbook

By the age of 4, children show guilt and shame.  This indicates that a sense of self is developing, for guilt and shame require an awareness of being judged by others.  By the age of 5 children also display pride, humility, envy, and jealousy - emotions that indicate growing "self-awareness." By age 6 or 7, having developed the ability to take the role of the other, children express emotions that indicate a judgment of the self in comparison with qualities that others possess.  That is, they exhibit feelings about their own relative abilities, attractiveness, honesty, bravery, dominance, and popularity. 


generic nouns predominate--with the use of personal pronouns limited to they and their because of the focus on children as a group rather than on individual people

present tense verbs are used for generalizations--and verbs that seem to have some technical use that might be characteristic of the way that sociologists analyze behaviors--indicate, show, display, develop

Sample #2 tells a heart-rending story of a horrifying choice made by a father to make his daughter and her baby live in the attic of his home and the terrible results for the child.  This sample is a narrative being used in a textbook to give dramatic background to the general topic of child development and to provide an example of the topic of feral children (and what sociologists try to learn about society by studying these unfortunate children).  What's the grammar like?  Well, it is very like the grammar of just about any story:
 
 
#2
Nouns in Narratives
A Sample from 
an undergraduate sociology textbook

The old man was horrified when he found out.  Life never had been good since his daughter had lost her hearing when she was just 2 years old.  She couldn't even talk - just fluttered her hands around trying to tell him things.  Over the years, he had gotten used to that.  But now he shuddered at the thought of her being pregnant.  No one would be willing to marry her; he knew that.  And the neighbors, their tongues would never stop wagging. Everywhere he went, he could hear people talking behind his back

If only his wife were still alive, maybe she could come up with something.  What should he do?  He couldn't just kick his daughter out into the street


specific nouns predominate  (the characters in the story: the old man, the daughter, the neighbors, the dead wife)--along with personal pronouns used to refer to the characters 
the verbs are different in tone from those in Sample #1--a wider range of words are selected to help us picture the people in the story and their actions

the verbs are in the past tense

Sample #3 presents the history of two men in a narrative format--telling the story here with many of the narrative-grammar features of Sample #2: names, past tense, personal pronouns.  I've selected Sample #3 to show the use of names in a narrative so that we can add the use of proper nouns to our picture of the noun phrase in English.  And these proper nouns can be terrifically difficult for people from different naming traditions, trying to figure out which name is the first or given name and which is the family name--and which to use to refer to people in different settings.
 
 
#3
Nouns in Narratives
A Sample from 
an undergraduate sociology textbook

Jack Yufe and Oskar Stohr are identical twins born in 1932 to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother.  They were separated as babies after their parents divorced.  Oskar was reared in Czechoslovakia by his mother's mother, who was a strict Catholic.  When Oskar was a toddler, Hitler annexed this area of Czechoslovakia, and Oskar learned to love Hitler and to hate Jews.  He became involved with the Hitler Youth (a sort of Boy Scout organization designed to instill the "virtues" of patriotism, loyalty, obedience, - and hatred)

Jack's upbringing provides an almost total contrast.  Reared in Trinidad by his father, he learned loyalty to Jews and hatred of Hitler and the Nazis.  After the war, Jack emigrated to Israel, where, at the age of 17, he joined a kibbutz.  Later, Jack served in the Israeli army.  In 1954, the two brothers met.  It was a short meeting, and Jack had been warned not to tell Oskar that they were Jews. Twenty-five years later, in 1979, when they were 47 years old, social scientists at the University of Minnesota brought them together, again. These researchers figured that since Jack and Oskar had the same genes, whatever differences they showed would have to be due to the environment - to their different social experiences


In sum, all three kinds of writing use nouns but they tend to use slightly different types with generic nouns in statements of theory (and other generalizations--what Biber calls "informational" discourse), specific nouns in the generalizated narrative, and proper nouns in the historical narrative (with the names of people and places). 


Learning Challenges with Nouns

What are the learning and teaching challenges related to nouns and noun phrases?

learning the spelling and pronunciation of regular and irregular nouns

learning a wide variety of words to expand proficiency

understanding the differences in use among words that seem to be synonyms

being able to distinguish count and noncount forms and meanings

being able to understand the naming system used in a culture and a language

knowing how to put together the various types of words that can be used to make noun phrases

recognizing the meanings of the different combinations in different contexts

being able to produce the right combinations for the right meanings in different contexts

Nouns in ESL/EFL Materials

I'd like to close this section back where we began.  Nouns and noun phrases are important and need to be given more time and study in ESL/EFL programs. 

How can we contextualize the materials that we provide for our students to help them be knowledgable and skillful users of a wide variety of nouns and noun phrases?  I'd like to know more about your ideas and look forward to learning from you about this important topic.

Please send me your questions and comments at patbyrd@comcast.net.  Thanks.


References

Biber, D. (1988). Variation across speech and writing.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Master, P. (1990).  Teaching the English articles as a binary system.  TESOL Quarterly 24 (3), 461-498.

Reid, J. and Byrd, P. (1998). Grammar in the composition classroom.  Boston: Heinle & Heinle.