Read this description of Jim and his sandwich. Which nouns don’t we need?
'... Jim took a sandwich out of his pocket. Jim sniffed the sandwich, and then Jim put the sandwich on the table. Jim gazed at the sandwich and after a moment or two Jim picked up the sandwich again and stuffed the sandwich into his mouth as fast as Jim could.'
Once we have met ‘Jim’ and ‘the sandwich’, these two words can be replaced with ‘he’ and ‘it’. They are pronouns.
Long before the word ‘pro’ was short for ‘professional’ it was a Latin word meaning ‘in place of’. A pronoun is a word we use in place of a noun.
If we write something in the first person, we use the pronoun ‘I’.
‘I’ is the first person pronoun. The person(s) we address is the second person, namely ‘you’. And the one other pronoun we use is the ‘third person’, the person referred to but not actually present, i.e. ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘they’ if more than one.
Verbs in other languages are often listed in six rows, i.e. 1st, 2nd and 3rd persons singular, then the same in the plural:
he, she, it
Subjects and objects
The subject noun or pronoun is the one that ‘does’ the action of the verb. The object is the one is on the receiving end and is ‘done to’. In English this distinction is made clear by the order of words:
The dog chased the cat
The dog is the subject, the cat the object.
John does not know Amanda
John is ‘doing it’ – or ‘not’ doing it , but is still the subject – and Amanda is the object.
If we use pronouns instead of their names, note how these pronouns change according to whether they are subject or object:
He does not know her
She knows him
English pronouns change their letters or ending according to this subject/object use:
Subject / object
I / me
you / you
he / him
we / us
they / them
Adjectives add an extra touch of detail:
a delicious dinner
the slow train
a frightening story
detail that can be decisive and have a telling effect:
the dying wish of the condemned man
Adjectives are descriptive tags for nouns. They often appear before the noun they describe:
a cheerful student
or after a verb like ‘to be’ or ‘to become’
The student is cheerful
and occasionally after the noun, as in
We like to keep the students cheerful
Adjectives as nouns
In the film title ‘The Good, the Bad, the Ugly’, all three adjectives are used as nouns. This is a commonplace, not only in English:
The wise shall prosper
The poor have less to lose
The wounded looked after themselves
Nouns as adjectives
Conversely, nouns can play the part of adjectives:
a football team
a college lecturer
a kitchen designer
Newspaper headlines are full of nouns posing as adjectives
CALIFORNIA VEGETABLE CRISIS
BISHOP NIGHTCLUB SCANDAL
The underlined words are nouns acting as adjectives. It’s a perfectly natural way to use a noun, succinct and to the point. But the tendency to pile one on top of the other is seldom pretty, especially in the bland polysyllabic language of ‘professional’ English of business and government:
‘A quality commitment review process’
Two or more adjectives together
Sometimes we want to describe something in more detail than a single adjective will allow us:
an angry French farmer
Now we have two adjectives, ‘angry’ and ‘French’. Which comes first and which second we know by instinct. The meaning is a French farmer who is angry. But change the sequence to
a French angry farmer
and this – apart from sounding odd – suggests a lot of angry farmers from different countries with this one happening to be French. Some sequences are not so easy to explain. We may speak of
a tall pink building
a pink tall building
There can be more than two adjectives
red leather Spanish riding boots
where boots is the one noun and all the rest are adjectives (including leather which is a noun acting as an adjective). The sequence is not flexible. ‘Spanish leather riding red boots’, for example, is all wrong !
Two adjectives as one (hyphenation)
A double-barrelled name is one name made from two, joined together with a hyphen:
Pairs of adjectives can be similarly joined together to create a single one, with its own individual meaning:
a bad-tempered man
Bad-tempered means having a weak temper and prone to fits of anger. But replace the hyphen with a comma (‘a bad, tempered man’), and you create the slightly odd impression of an evil man who is tempered and in control of himself.
Articles are the little words which come before nouns:
‘the’ is called the definite article
‘a’ is the indefinite article (‘an’ before a vowel)
In many foreign languages these articles change according to the gender of the noun (i.e. masculine, feminine or neuter) and according to number (singular or plural). English articles do not have a difference of gender.
English has a number of different forms for masculine and feminine, and in the case of words which describe family ties, the words themselves are quite different:
Similarly with animals:
These words have been, and no doubt will be, around for a long time. Other words express different gender by a switch of ending:
There used to be many others, like manageress, instructress and authoress, which are now quaintly archaic if not obsolete. In these occupations men and women are theoretically treated the same, and distinction of gender is considered less relevant.
Some feminine forms (diva, temptress) are more active than their masculine partners. Other pairs have moved wider apart than a simple distinction of male/female: a governess was once employed to look after the children of a wealthy family, while a governor (male or female) is a ruling politician or in the UK sits on a school council.
Gender in other languages
In general gender-sensitive words in English are fading away. In some other languages all nouns have a gender, not only those with an obvious tilt towards male or female. For no obvious reason a ‘table’ in French is feminine and a ‘book’ masculine. German adds a third gender, ‘neuter’ (Latin for ‘neither’ – neither masculine nor feminine), to which category, somewhat oddly perhaps, belongs the word Mädchen (‘girl’).
Adjectives in these foreign languages have slightly different forms depending on the gender of the nouns they describe. They also vary according to number (singular or plural). The French for ‘good’ is ‘bon’. But if the noun (the thing described) is feminine, a ‘good table’ for instance, it’s ‘bonne’. And if a plural noun, ‘bons’ (masculine) or ‘bonnes’ (feminine). Thus an adjective’s form is attracted to the noun it describes. This helps you match the adjective with its noun and clarify who or what is being described. In English there is no such variation in the form of an adjective.
In pre-1066 English the endings of words were much flexible to change than today. We still have alterable endings to show a plural (house and houses) or a past tense (jump and jumped) and one or two others. These alterable word-endings we call inflexions.
Prepositions are used with nouns. They often describe a location or moment in time:
at the shop
near the cinema
They describe other things too:
half of the cake
a holiday with my friends
In the early days of English, new words were readily created by putting together two smaller ones. Prepositions and adverbs figure in many of these compounds:
This word-building continued in later centuries when new words were created with a different kind of prepositions. They were from Latin and Greek:
post- Latin: ‘after’
trans- Latin: ‘across’
sub- Latin: ‘under’
anti- Greek: ‘against’ (but watch out for ante- Latin: ‘before’)
The joining of words to make new ones has its roots in old (or ‘High’) German, an ancestor English shares with other northern-European languages including modern German, in which the compounding of words is of rabbit-breeding proportions. American English has kept this word-building characteristic very much alive (graveyard, overcoat, knee-jerk, know-how, offline).