Words & Stuff

oo: Coming Down with Noun Syndrome

(12 April 1998)

Sometime around seventh grade, my English teacher taught us a set of mnemonics for remembering the parts of speech. First she told us to visualize a gigantic capital N, made of solid gold: a noun. Next came a pair of Ps for pronouns (I've forgotten the mnemonic here, alas). The verb was represented by a gigantic green V filled with the three kinds of Vegetables you hate most. And so on through adjective, adverb, conjunction, interjection, and preposition. I no longer remember the specifics of the mnemonics, but I still have vague images. If nothing else, this exercise introduced me to ideas about what makes a good mnemonic; my teacher told us that the more vividly we imagined these items, even with negative images, the easier they'd be to remember. Strong sensory detail was the key.

I suspect that most of my classmates remembered the parts of speech another way. Most Americans now in their twenties through mid-thirties probably watched Schoolhouse Rock as kids. This series of three-minute animated educational musical segments, produced by ABC from 1973 to 1985, has recently undergone a revival, allowing me to see it for the first time -- I only saw one or two of the episodes when originally aired. Schoolhouse Rock demonstrated another important principle of mnemonics: repetition, repetition, repetition. If each watcher saw each episode a dozen times... Well, it's no wonder the series has such nostalgia value. It helps, too, that the episodes are short, entertaining, and set to very catchy music.

The second set of episodes were collectively called "Grammar Rock," and consisted of these pieces (how many of these do you still remember perfectly?): "Unpack Your Adjectives," "Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here," "Conjunction Junction," "Interjections!" (aside: did you know that "oops" entered English in 1933?), "Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla" (my favorite), "Verb: That's What's Happening," "A Noun Is A Person, Place Or Thing," "Busy Prepositions" (not part of the original set; broadcast twenty years later), and "The Tale Of Mr. Morton" (about subjects and predicates).

So millions of impressionable youngsters learned what the parts of speech are and how to use them, and they all lived happily ever after, right?

Yes -- except that as usual, the truth is a little more complicated than we were taught. Oops. Yes, a noun generally describes a person, place, or thing -- but not always. A more accurate statement is that a noun is a word that can be used and transformed like other nouns are used and transformed. Elliott Moreton (no relation to Mr. Morton) refers to this idea as "noun syndrome" -- there are a set of "symptoms" which, if they occur together, indicate that a term is a noun. For instance, one symptom of nounhood (noun nature?) in English is that a noun is generally inflected for case and number (yurt, yurt's, yurts), while a symptom of English verbness is inflection for person, tense, and number (chase, chases, chased). Here are some other symptoms provided by Elliott:

Noun Syndrome SymptomsVerb Syndrome Symptoms
Names a thingNames an action or state
Occurs with articles:
the yurt, a yurt, this yurt
Occurs with auxilary verbs, to, and -ing:
might have chased, to chase, chasing
Can be subject or object of a verb:
Yurts rule!
Oh, give me a yurt where the buffalo flirt.
Can have a subject or object:
We chased that yak all over the damn steppe.
Can be modified with adjectives:
What a lovely Colonial yurt!
Can be modified with adverbs:
We didn't chase that yak quickly enough.
Can be the object of a preposition:
Would you eat it in a yurt?

And so on. (Note that these are just for English; other languages use other part-of-speech symptoms. Some languages use more symptoms and some less.) You can't tell for sure if something is a noun or a verb by looking at any one of these symptoms, but in general the symptoms occur together. As Elliott says, "if a word has one or two noun symptoms, it will probably have most of the others, and will lack the verb symptoms. Therefore, it's convenient to call some words 'nouns' and others 'verbs'...."

Some words are not so easy to diagnose. If a word seems to have several symptoms of two different parts of speech, it's generally a word with two meanings, one as a noun and one as a verb.

There's one problem with the syndrome approach to parts of speech: participles (like "given") and gerunds (like "giving") are made from verbs and used as verbs, but sometimes behave like adjectives or nouns respectively. Elliott explains, "Linguists don't seem to like to talk about [participles] very much, at least not in public, and I'm afraid I can't enlighten you about them."

But aside from such difficulties, the general idea is sound: if you're not sure of a word's part of speech, don't just look at whether it describes an action or a thing; examine its symptoms. Hmm, maybe that should be the next Schoolhouse Rock song...


Note: The "Grammar Rock" pieces were written by George Newall, Bob Dorough, Lynn Ahrens, and Kathy Mandry. Lynn Ahrens, by the way, later wrote the book and lyrics for the musical Once on This Island, and the lyrics for the recent animated film Anastasia.


Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>