Last Updated 6/13/00
Dr. Ed Vavra's KISS Approach to Sentence Structure
Return to Essay # 9 Definitions of Grammatical Terms
Lucie Berard
(Child in White)
(French, 1841-1919)
Defining and/or Recognizing
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 are intended.
     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 has 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.