The categorial meaning of the noun is “substance” or “thingness”. Nouns directly name various phenomena of reality and have the strongest nominative force among notional parts of speech: practically every phenomenon can be presented by a noun as an independent referent, or, can be substantivized. Nouns denote things and objects proper (tree), abstract notions (love), various qualities (bitterness), and even actions (movement).
Formally, the noun is characterized by a specific set of word-building affixes and word-building models, which unmistakably mark a noun, among them: suffixes of the doer (worker, naturalist, etc.), suffixes of abstract notions (laziness, rotation, security, elegance, etc.), special conversion patterns (to find – a find), etc. As for word-changing categories, the noun is changed according to the categories of number (boy-boys), case (boy-boy’s), and article determination (boy, a boy, the boy). Formally the noun is also characterized by specific combinability with verbs, adjectives and other nouns, introduced either by preposition or by sheer contact. The noun is the only part of speech which can be prepositionally combined with other words, e.g.: the book of the teacher, to go out of the room, away from home, typical of the noun, etc.
The most characteristic functions of the noun in a sentence are the function of a subject and an object, e.g.: The teacher took the book. Besides, the noun can function as a predicative (part of a compound predicate), e.g.: He is a teacher; and as an adverbial modifier, e.g.: It happened last summer. The noun in English can also function as an attribute in the following cases: when it is used in the genitive case (the teacher’s book), when it is used with a preposition (the book of the teacher), or in contact groups of two nouns the first of which qualifies the second (cannon ball, space exploration, sea breeze, the Bush administration, etc.).
The last case presents a special linguistic problem, which is sometimes referred to as “the cannon ball problem”. One aspect of the problem can be formulated in the following way: is it a contact group of two nouns or is the first word in this phrase an adjective homonymous with a noun? The arguments which support the former point of view are as follows: the first word in such contexts does not display any other qualities of the adjective, except for the function (it cannot form the degrees of comparison, it cannot be modified by an adverb, etc.); besides, sometimes the first noun in such groups is used in the plural, e.g.: translations editor. An additional argument is purely semantic, cf.: a dangerous corner – a danger signal; the adjective dangerous describes the thing referred to by the following noun, so it is possible to ask a question “What kind of …?”, while the noun danger tells us what the purpose of the signal is, so the possible question is “What … for?”
Another aspect of “the cannon ball problem” is as follows: can the components of such contact groups be considered two separate words, or, as some linguists maintain, is it a kind of a compound word? The arguments which support the former point of view are as follows: a compound word is a stable, ready-made lingual unit, fixed in dictionaries, while most “noun + noun” groups are formed freely in speech; besides, they can be easily transformed into other types of word-combinations (this type of transformation test is known as “the isolability test”), e.g., prepositional word-combinations: a cannon ball or a ball for cannon, space exploration or exploration of space, etc.; compound words as a rule need additional transformations which explain their “inner form”, or etymological motivation, e.g.: a waterfall – water of a stream, river, etc., falling straight down over rocks. So, combinations like space exploration are combinations of two nouns, the first of which is used as an attribute of the other. They may include several noun attributes, especially in scientific style texts, e.g.: population density factor, space exploration programmes, etc.
It must be admitted, though, that with some “noun + noun” word-combinations, especially if they become widely used and are fixed in dictionaries, their status becomes mixed, intermediary between a word and a phrase, and this is reflected by their one-word spelling and changes in accentuation; incidentally, the lexeme cannonball today is considered a compound word spelled jointly according to the latest dictionaries.
As with any other part of speech, the noun is further subdivided into subclasses, or groups, in accord with various particular semantico-functional and formal features of the constituent words. The main grammatically relevant subclasses of nouns are distinguished in the following correlations.
On the basis of “type of nomination” proper nouns are opposed to common nouns. Common nouns present a general name of any thing belonging to a certain class of things, e.g.: river – any river, boy – any boy, while the proper nouns have no generalized meaning; they serve as a label, a nickname of a separate individual being or thing, e.g.: Mississippi, John, New York, etc. This semantic subdivision of nouns is grammatically manifested through the differences in their formal features of the category of article determination and of the category of number. The use of proper nouns in the plural or with the articles is restricted to a limited number of contexts: normally, one cannot use the plural form of the word New York, though it is possible to say There are two Lenas in our group, or The Joneses are to visit us. If proper nouns are used with articles or other determiners and/or in the plural, in most contexts it signifies their transposition from the group of proper nouns into the group of common nouns, e.g.: You are my Romeo!; I can’t approve of young Casanovas like you.
On the basis of “form of existence” of the referents animate nouns are opposed to inanimate nouns, the former denoting living beings (man, woman, dog), the latter denoting things and phenomena (tree, table). This semantic difference is formally exposed through the category of case forms, as animate nouns are predominantly used in the genitive case, cf.: John’s leg, but the leg of the table. This subdivision of nouns is semantically closely connected with the following one.
On the basis of “personal quality” human animate nouns (person nouns), denoting human beings, or persons, are opposed to non-human (animate and inanimate) nouns (non-person nouns), denoting all the other referents. This lexico-semantic subdivision of nouns is traditionally overlooked in practical and theoretical courses on grammar, but it is grammatically relevant because only human nouns in English can distinguish masculine or feminine genders, e.g.: man – he, woman – she, while the non-human nouns, both animate and inanimate, are substituted by the neuter gender pronoun ‘it’. The exceptions take place only in cases of transposition of the noun from one group into another, e.g., in cases of personification, e.g.: the sun - he, the moon - she, etc.
On the basis of “quantitative structure” of the referent countable (variable) nouns are opposed to uncountable (invariable) nouns, the former denoting discrete, separate things which can be counted and form discrete multitudes, e.g.: table – tables, the latter denoting either substances (sugar), or multitudes as a whole (police), or abstract notions (anger), and some others entities. This subdivision is formally manifested in the category of number.
Besides the formal features enumerated above, the semantic differences between different groups of nouns are manifested through their selectional syntagmatic combinability; e.g., it is possible to say The dog is sleeping, but impossible to say *The table is sleeping.
The category of gender in English is a highly controversial subject in grammar. The overwhelming majority of linguists stick to the opinion that the category of gender existed only in Old English. They claim that, since formal gender marks disappeared by the end of the Middle English period and nouns no longer agree in gender with adjacent adjectives or verbs, there is no grammatical category of gender in modern English. They maintain that in modern English, the biological division of masculine and feminine genders is rendered only by lexical means: special words and lexical affixes, e.g.: man – woman, tiger – tigress, he-goat – she-goat, male nurse, etc.
The fact is the category of gender in English differs from the category of gender in many other languages. The category of gender linguistically may be either meaningful or natural, rendering the actual sex-based features of the referents, or formal (arbitrary). In Russian and some other languages the category of gender is meaningful only for human (person) nouns, but for the non-human (non-person) nouns it is formal; i.e., it does not correspond with the actual biological sense, cf.: ðóêà is feminine, ïàëåö is masculine, òåëî is neuter, though all of them denote parts of the human body. In English gender is a meaningful category for the whole class of the nouns, because it reflects the real gender attributes (or their absence) of the referent denoted. It is realized through obligatory correspondence of every noun with the 3rd person singular pronouns - he, she, or it: man – he, woman – she, tree, dog – it. For example: A woman was standing on the platform. She was wearing a hat. It was decorated with ribbons and flowers… Personal pronouns are grammatical gender classifiers in English.
The category of gender is formed by two oppositions organized hierarchically. The first opposition is general and opposes human, or person nouns, distinguishing masculine and feminine gender (man – he, woman – she) and all the other, non-human, non-person nouns, belonging to the neuter gender (tree, dog – it). The second opposition is formed by the human nouns only: on the lower level of the opposition the nouns of masculine gender and of feminine gender are opposed.
Gender is a constant feature category: it is expressed not through variable forms of words, but through nounal classification; each noun belongs to only one of the three genders. In addition, there is a group of nouns in English which can denote either a female or a male in different contexts; these nouns can be substituted by either ‘he’ or ‘she’, e.g.: president, professor, friend, etc. They constitute a separate group of nouns – the common gender nouns. For them the category of gender is a variable feature category.
There are no formal marks to distinguish the strong and the weak members in either of the gender oppositions. They can be distinguished semantically: nouns of the neuter gender in the upper level of the opposition is more abstract compared to masculine and feminine gender nouns; they are the weak member of the opposition and are naturally used in the position of neutralization. For example: The girl was a sweet little thing; “What is it over there: a man or just a tree?” On the lower level of the opposition, masculine gender nouns are the weak member of the opposition and can be used to denote all human beings irrespective of sex, e.g.: Man must change in the changing world. When there is no contextual need to specify the sex of the referent, common gender nouns are also neutrally substituted by the masculine pronoun, e.g.: Every student must do his best.
Besides the cases of neutralization, the most obvious examples of oppositional reduction in the category of gender are the cases when the weak member of the opposition, nouns of neuter gender, are used as if they denote female or male beings, when substituted by the pronouns ‘he’ or ‘she’. In most cases such use is stylistically colored and is encountered in emotionally loaded speech. It is known as the stylistic device of personification and takes place either in some traditionally fixed contexts, e.g.: a vessel – she; or in high-flown speech, e.g., Britain – she, the sea – she. In fairy-tales and poetic texts weak creatures are referred to as she, and strong or evil creature as he, e.g.: Death is the only freedom I will know. I hear His black wings beating about me! (Isles)
The category of number presents a classic example of a binary privative grammatical opposition. The category of number is expressed by the paradigmatic opposition of two forms: the singular and the plural. The strong member in this opposition, the plural, is marked by special formal marks, the main of which is the productive suffix –(e)s which exists in three allomorphs - [s], [z], [iz], e.g.: cats, boys, roses. The term “productive” means that new nouns appearing in English form the plural with the help of this suffix. Non-productive means of expressing the plural are either historical relics of ancient number paradigms, or borrowed, e.g.: the suppletive forms with interchange of vowels (man – men, tooth – teeth), the archaic suffix –en (ox – oxen), a number of individual singular and plural suffixes of borrowed nouns (antenna – antennae, stratum – strata, nucleus – nuclei, etc.); in addition, a number of nouns have a plural form homonymous with the singular (sheep, fish, deer, etc.). The singular is regularly unmarked (possesses a “zero suffix”).
The grammatical meaning of the singular is traditionally defined in a simplified way as “one”, and the meaning of the plural – as “many (more than one)”. This is true for the bulk of the nouns, namely those denoting simple countable objects (table – tables). But the noun in the singular can denote not only “one discrete separate object”, but also substances (water), abstract notions (love), units of measure (hour) and other referents. The same applies to the meaning of the plural: plural forms do not always denote “more than one object”, but express some other meanings, such as feelings (horrors of war), sorts of substances (wines), picturesqueness (sands, waters), etc. Thus, the broader understanding of the grammatical meaning of the singular can be defined as the non-dismembering reflection of the referent and the grammatical meaning of the plural as potentially dismembering reflection of the referent; or, in other words, the singular forms of nouns present their referents as indivisible, and the plural forms – as divisible.
Different semantic types of the singular and the plural, some of which were shown above, are dependent on the lexico-semantic differences between individual nouns, namely, the characteristics of their “quantitative structure”. For countable nouns the category of number is a variable feature category, or relative, since countable English nouns have both singular and plural correlative forms (table – tables). Uncountable nouns can be used either only in the singular or only in the plural; for them the category of number is absolute, or a constant feature category. The two groups of uncountable nouns are respectively defined as singularia tantum, or, absolute singular nouns and pluralia tantum, absolute plural nouns.
The absolute singular nouns usually denote the following referents: abstract notions – love, hate, despair, etc.; names of substances and materials – snow, wine, sugar, etc.; branches of professional activity – politics, linguistics, mathematics; some collective objects – fruit, machinery, foliage, etc. There are some other singularia tantum nouns, that are difficult to classify, e.g., advice, news and others. As the examples above show, the nouns themselves do not possess any formal marks of their singularia tantum status: their form may either coincide with the regular singular – advice, or with the regular plural – news. Their singularia tantum status is formally established in their combinability, being reflected by the adjacent words: all singularia tantum nouns are used with the verbs in the singular; they exclude the use of the numeral “one” or of the indefinite article. Their quantity is expressed with the help of special lexical quantifiers little, much, some, any, a piece, a bit, an item, e.g.: an item of news, a piece of advice, a bit of joy, etc. As mentioned earlier, this kind of rendering the grammatical meaning of number with uncountable nouns is so regular that it can be regarded as a marginal case of suppletivity.
The absolute plural nouns usually denote the following: objects consisting of two halves – scissors, trousers, spectacles, etc.; some diseases and abnormal states – mumps, measles, creeps, hysterics, etc.; indefinite plurality, collective referents – earnings, police, cattle, etc. The nouns belonging to the pluralia tantum group are used with verbs in the plural; they cannot be combined with numerals, and their quantity is rendered by special lexical quantifiers a pair of, a case of, etc., e.g.: a pair of trousers, several cases of measles, etc.
In terms of the oppositional theory one can say that in the formation of the two subclasses of uncountable nouns, the number opposition is “constantly” (lexically) reduced either to the weak member (singularia tantum) or to the strong member (pluralia tantum). Absolute singular nouns or absolute plural nouns are “lexicalized” as separate words or as lexico-semantic variants of regular countable nouns. For example: a hair as a countable noun denotes “a threadlike growth from the skin” as in I found a woman’s hair on my husband’s jacket; hair as an uncountable noun denotes a mass of hairs, as in Her hair was long and curly. Similar cases of oppositional neutralization take place when countable nouns are used in the absolute singular form to express the corresponding abstract ideas, e.g.: to burst into song; or the material correlated with the countable referent, e.g.: chicken soup; or to express generic meaning, e.g.: The rose is my favourite flower (=Roses are my favourite flowers). The opposite process of the restoration of the number category to its full oppositional force takes place when uncountable nouns develop lexico-semantic variants denoting either various sorts of materials (silks, wines), or manifestations of feelings (What a joy!), or the reasons of various feelings (pleasures of life – all the good things that make life pleasant), etc.
Lexicalization of the absolute plural form of the noun can be illustrated with the following examples: colours as an absolute plural noun denotes “a flag”; attentions denotes “wooing, act of love and respect”, etc. Oppositional neutralization also takes place when regular countable collective nouns are used in the absolute plural to denote a certain multitude as potentially divisible, e.g.: The jury were unanimous in their verdict. Cases of expressive transposition are stylistically marked, when singularia tantum nouns are used in the plural to emphasize the infinite quantity of substances, e.g.: the waters of the ocean, the sands of the desert, etc. This variety of the absolute plural may be called “descriptive uncountable plural”. A similar stylistically marked meaning of large quantities intensely presented is rendered by countable nouns in repetition groups, e.g.: cigarette after cigarette, thousand upon thousand, tons and tons, etc. This variety of the absolute plural, “repetition plural” can be considered a specific marginal analytical number form.