(Child in White)
Nouns and Verbs
The "and/or" in my title is significant. Although
there is much debate about how nouns and verbs should be defined, when
they point to words in context, rarely do grammarians disagree that this
or that word is, or is not, a noun or a verb. The rare disagreement is
usually about whether a word such as "city" in "city hall" is a noun or
an adjective, but this is an unresolvable debate since it depends on one's
perspective. (See the essay on definitions.)
But perhaps the real problem with the grammarians' debates about the definitions
of nouns and verbs is that the grammarians forget about the purpose
of the definitions and the audiences for which these definitions
As I tried to explain in the essay on definitions,
many grammarians want to define terms in some ultimate sense, either because
of philosophical assumptions or within the context of a specific grammatical
perspective (structural grammar, transformational grammar) for adults.
But if we shift our perspective to definitions which enable students
to identify nouns and verbs, some of the scorned pedagogical definitions
appear in a new light. We also need to remember that students already have
and effectively use these concepts unconsciously, i.e., they almost always
use nouns and verbs correctly.
If we now reconsider that often
derided notional definition
of a noun (the name of a person, place, or thing) and look at it as a pedagogical
tool for students in grades three through six, it is, I suggest, a very
effective tool. What these students are reading and writing (and the texts
on which their grammatical instruction should be based) concerns,
not the abstractions which this definition misses, but rather people, places,
and things. # 1
The definition gives these students a very broad umbrella for identifying
many many words as nouns. It gives these students a base on which to build.
The same is true for the notional definition
of a verb, with some exceptions. Telling third to sixth graders that a
verb is an "action" word makes some sense, but what, in heaven's name,
is a "state of being"? Many of these "state of being" verbs (such as "is,"
"are," "was," "were," "becomes") should simply be defined ostensively,
by pointing to them. And again, the point of instruction should not be
the definitions, but rather the students' ability to identify nouns and
verbs in what they read and write. Probably the best way to reach this
objective is to explain that nouns can be used as subjects, and then to
give students a few short passages with the simple subjects underlined
once and the verbs twice. Then have the students regularly do short homework
assignments in which they identify the subjects and verbs in short paragraphs.
# 2 "Correcting" these assignments aloud in class will
further reinforce the connection in the students' heads between the abstract
terms "noun" and "verb" and the concepts that they subconsciously already
control. Likewise, testing should be based on the students' ability to
identify nouns and verbs, not on the definitions.
Once students have a basic command of nouns
and verbs, the formal definition
kicks in, but it need not even be presented as a definition. What student
isn't already taught about singular and plural nouns and verbs? What student
isn't introduced to the tenses of verbs? Bright students automatically
use this information about the characteristics of nouns and verbs to expand
the concept. Is "virtue" a noun? Is it really a "thing"? Well, that depends
on how one wants to define "thing." But I would not say "He virtued," and
I would say "He has virtues." It has, in other words, the characteristics
of a noun, and thus probably is one. Slower students may need to be taught
to use these characteristics to expand their concepts of noun and verb,
but again, the objective should not be the definition, but rather the students'
increasing ability to identify nouns and verbs.Note # 3
In context, the ultimate determiner of the
part of speech of a word is how it is used, or, in other words, the syntactic
definition. In English, many words can function as nouns or verbs,
depending on context. ("Please xerox that paper, and put the xerox on my
desk.") This multiple function of words in English has been one of the
major objections to the simple notional definition of verbs as "action
words." It is also why, in discussing the notional definition of verbs,
I suggested that the notional be immediately combined with the syntactic,
i.e., have students learn to recognize subject/verb patterns.
Recognizing that students have already
unconsciously mastered almost all of the constructions in English, the
KISS Approach moves to the syntactic as soon as possible. The KISS
curriculum suggests beginning with prepositional phrases in third grade.
Prepositions are taught ostensively -- by pointing to them. But prepositional
phrases consist of the preposition plus whatever answers the question "What?"
after it. And whatever answers that question has to be a noun (or
pronoun). In grades four through six, where KISS suggests the teaching
of subject / verb / complement patterns, whatever functions as a subject
to be a noun, and whatever functions as a complement has to be
a noun or adjective.
Note that the KISS approach subordinates the
parts of speech to the teaching of syntax. At the first ATEG conference,
in 1990, a major complaint of teachers at all levels (K - college) was
that students don't learn the parts of speech. And many a presenter attempted
to show how to teach the parts at different grade levels. But these attempts,
in general, missed the point of the problem. The parts of speech -- and
the definitions of them -- are artificial categories which are meaningless
to students unless the students see what they can be used for. Spending
a week on the definition of nouns (or verbs) and some exercises is useless
unless that instruction is reinforced by regular references in class to
nouns and verbs in what students read and write.
Suggestions for doing that are spread throughout
this site, but one obvious way is to have students note "strong" verbs
in what they read, and to have them attempt to use stronger verbs in what
they write. Actually, this advice is used frequently, but the problem is
that it is so far separated, in time, from the students' instruction in
identifying verbs that, by the time they get the advice, students can not
identify verbs in the first place. A similar technique for nouns would
be to ask students to move down (or up) the abstract/concrete continuum.
(Not "We planted flowers." but "We planted mums and violets.") The major
problem with current instruction in nouns and verbs is that it is
a dead-end -- students are taught the chapter in a grammar book, and then
the chapter is forgotten, by students and by their teachers.
1. Unfortunately, I can already hear the unthoughtful
objection that the definition is faulty because it doesn't cover all nouns.
The people who make this objection haven't thought about the simple fact
that, if human beings had to understand everything before they understood
anything, none of us would have ever learned to talk.
2. I have ignored the question of pronouns, but compared
to nouns and verbs, pronouns are a very limited number of words. Here again,
I would suggest that no one really learns to identify pronouns through
the definition "a word which can take the place of a noun." Rather, we
learn to recognize pronouns ostensively.