We’ve not yet dealt with important features of nouns and associated functions and structures, including some you may already know. Here we discuss several of them.
THE COMMON AND THE PROPER
You may already know about common and proper nouns. Common nouns are words like man, woman, child, city, state. They name general, nonspecific persons or things. Proper nouns name particular persons or things, and they’re capitalized: Henry, Annie, Herbert, St. Louis, Missouri. (There are no improper nouns, and if there are, being very proper ourselves, we refuse to discuss them.)
Usually, it’s easy to know when to capitalize a noun, but there can be uncertainly about words that may—or may not—be official titles:
I spoke with Doctor Smith yesterday.
I spoke with the doctor of obstetrics yesterday.
The president of the club lives in that white house. The President lives in the White House.
Context often has a great deal to do with this. (When Dr. Smith has his business cards printed, the words Doctor of Obstetrics are capitalized.) To make these decisions, notice what is being done in contexts similar to yours.
Dictionaries can help us make these distinctions, but it’s also helpful to notice what other writers do in similar situations.
As you know, we make most nouns plural by simply adding –s
to the end.
If a word ends with s, x, z, sh, or ch, we add –es: basses, boxes, dishes, churches, and many others.
But there are quite a few exceptions—called irregular plurals—and for these, all of us may need to refer to a dictionary at times. The easiest irregular plurals are those that don’t change from singular to plural: Sheep, deer, and moose don’t change.
Still other familiar irregulars change a vowel within the word (mice, men, teeth, and more) or add –en: oxen, children.
With a noun that ends with a consonant and o, we usually use
–es for the plural: heroes, zeroes, potatoes.
But there are other nouns that end with a consonant and o that take only -s. Some of these are musical terms from Italian: pianos, cellos, solos.
A noun that ends with a vowel followed by o also takes only –s
for the plural: patios, radios, rodeos, zoos.
With some nouns that end with f or fe, follow the familiar rule: Change the f to v and add –es: calves, halves, knives, wives. But other plurals that end with f or fe take only –s: roofs, proofs, handkerchiefs, beliefs.
You probably recall that in nouns that end with a consonant and y, we change y to i and add –es: armies, ladies, rallies. But when a vowel precedes y, we add only –s: bays, boys, alleys, valleys.
And then there are a number of words from Latin or Greek that retain their original plural forms or something similar. To us, these plurals seem quite irregular:
We’ll remind you again that a dictionary always helps with words like these. Most writers will use few of these Latin and Greek plurals, but we all need to remember some, including (probably) these:
- medium (the singular) and media, as in the medium of television
- criterion and criteria
- phenomenon and phenomena
- crisis and crises
Almost every profession and academic subject has its special terms that include certain irregular plurals, and it’s a good idea to learn them as soon as possible for your professional writing.
It’s also helpful to know that almost no one uses memorandum and memoranda anymore; we simply write memo or memos. And for most purposes today, data is accepted as both singular and plural.
GREAT INDECISIONS: POSSESSION AND APOSTROPHES
It’s usually easy to indicate possession in English nouns; with singular nouns, we add an apostrophe and –s: man’s, woman’s, child’s, Oliver’s, Stanley’s.
With plurals, we add a lone apostrophe after the final –s:
friends’, students’, teachers’.
But the English language sometimes makes things a bit trickier. When a plural does not end in –s, we make the possessive form with the apostrophe first, then –s, like the regular singular possessive: men’s, women’s, children’s.
Now comes the frustrating part: Suppose a singular noun ends in –s, like boss or Ross, Charles or Bess? For the possessive, do we add only an apostrophe? (Ross’, Charles’, or Bess’ ?) Or do we add an apostrophe and –s? (Ross’s, Charles’s, or Bess’s?)
The sad truth is that American English has no universally accepted way of marking possession in these cases. Some authorities insist on one way, some on another.
In your professional writing, you must find out which way your organization prefers and stick to it. If your organization has no standard way, persuade your leaders to adopt one of the standard style guides (like the Associated Press Stylebook) to answer such questions.
In this book, we create possessives with –’s after singulars ending in s, like this:
The boss’s desk Ross’s desk Bess’s desk
An appositive is a noun or pronoun that usually appears im- mediately after another noun to rename the first noun and provide additional information about it. The appositive is usually enclosed in a pair of commas, although we may sometimes use dashes or pa- rentheses depending on our desired style, tone, or emphasis.
More than one appositive is possible, and sometimes the ap- positive has modifiers of its own:
My boss, Mr. Smith, was talking to my parents.
Mr. Smith, my wonderful boss, was talking to my parents.
My boss—that bore, that ogre, that man whom I hate more than any other person living, with the possible exception of my English teacher—was telling my parents that I have a bad attitude.
In the sentences above, the appositives all rename the subject (My boss or Mr. Smith), and for that reason they are considered part of the subject.
In the third example, the dashes are helpful to mark the beginning and end of the long, complicated appositive phrase because the phrase itself contains three commas.
Nominal clauses can be appositives:
The physicist’s idea, that multiple universes exist, baffles me.
My question—who killed Colonel Mustard in the library?— remains unanswered.
His topic, why climate change is happening, was timely. When pronouns are used as appositives, their case (nomina-
tive, objective, or possessive) should match the function of the
nouns they rename. In the example below, the appositives rename the object (judges) of a preposition, so the pronoun is in the ob- jective case:
The photos were given to the judges, Eric and me.
In the next example, the appositives rename the subject (judges), so the pronoun is in the nominative case:
The judges, Eric and I, will study the photos.
Sometimes structures look like appositives but are not. For instance, a compound noun phrase, joined with or, can be used to indicate a synonym:
The common dog, or Canis lupus familiaris, belongs to the
Mergenthaler’s typesetting machine (or Linotype) was completed in 1884.
The noun after or is not an appositive, despite the punctuation. But remove the conjunction or and the same sentences now contain appositives that are, again, synonyms of the preceding noun phrase:
The common dog, Canis lupus familiaris, belongs to the
Mergenthaler’s typesetting machine, the Linotype, was completed in 1884.
Don’t confuse the appositive with adjectives that appear after the noun they modify:
The children, noisy and enthusiastic, dashed through the living room.
THE EXPLETIVE THERE
An expletive, as the term is used in grammar, is a word inserted into a sentence that adds nothing to the meaning but alters word order in ways that are sometimes useful. As we use
the term here, expletives are not swear words, although the term sometimes has that meaning, too: “Where are my [expletive deleted] glasses?”
The most commonly used expletive is there, which can be added to a sentence to temporarily take the place of the subject.
This expletive postpones the appearance of the subject, which may be a noun or a pronoun, until after the first word of the verb (that is, after the first auxiliary or after the main verb when there is no auxiliary). The expletive is never the actual subject.
Compare these pairs of sentences, in which the complete subject is underlined:
A painting by Degas is hanging in the museum.
There is a painting by Degas hanging in the museum.
Two men were looking for you.
There were two men looking for you.
The expletive there has no grammatical function in the second sentence. It has only a stylistic function, to stand in for the true subject, postponing the subject until later in the sentence, as shown above.
In English, expletive constructions are the usual way to say certain things:
There will now be a short intermission.
We don’t say, A short intermission will now be (though we can say We’ll now have a short intermission.)
Somewhere there is a place for us.
We can’t say, Somewhere a place for us is or A place for us is somewhere.
In both of the cases above, the expletive there postpones the subject to the end of the sentence, where the subject (a short intermission; a place for us) receives special emphasis.
Don’t confuse the expletive there with the adverb of place there. Here’s a useful test: Can you replace there with here and retain the original general sense of the sentence? If yes, then there is an adverb.
ADVERB: Your keys are over there. (Compare: Your keys are over here.)
ADVERB: There are your keys. (Compare: Here are your keys.)
EXPLETIVE: There are keys all over the place.
(We wouldn’t usually say, Here are keys all over the place.)
Here are a few more examples of subjects postponed by the expletive there:
A dog is growling in the yard
There is a dog growling in the yard.
A boy is building something on our porch.
There is a boy building something on the porch.
In Chapter 20, we’ll learn about the use of it as an expletive.
NOUNS OF DIRECT ADDRESS
In written dialogue and letters, as in daily conversation, we sometimes use the names of the people we’re addressing. These names are called nouns of direct address:
Mr. Smith, I’d like to speak with you, please.
I don’t like to be disappointed, and you, Renfru, disappoint me.
Sometimes nouns of direct address are common nouns that apply to one person or an entire audience:
My friend, I hope you will take my advice. This news, my friends, should comfort us all.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to our forty-first annual vase juggling competition.
The noun of direct address is always enclosed by a pair of commas, and it has no grammatical function in the sentence. That is, it’s not considered part of the subject or the predicate. It has a social function: to get the attention of the person addressed, or to clarify who is being addressed.
Sometimes, if the context doesn’t resolve ambiguities, readers may confuse nouns of address and appositives:
Your supervisor, Mr. Watley, told you to finish that project.
If Mr. Watley is the supervisor, then the words Mr. Watley are an appositive. If Mr. Watley is the person being addressed, then Mr. Watley is a noun of direct address. We can usually depend on the larger context to clarify this.
POINTS FOR WRITERS
Restrictive and non-restrictive appositives.
Here comes a distinction that is seldom understood and often ignored.
Sometimes the pair of commas is not used with the appositive, depending on the larger context. In the first example below, the writer has more than one daughter; in the second, he has only one:
My daughter Mary plays the tuba. My daughter, Mary, plays the tuba.
In the first example, Mary is a restrictive appositive: it re- stricts (or limits) the meaning of daughter. In the second example, the non-restrictive appositive Mary simply provides supplemen- tary information. (And in this case the commas contribute nothing to understanding the sentence.)
Here are more examples of restrictive appositives, followed by
RESTRICTIVE: My cousin Bob plays the harmonica.
NON-RESTRICTIVE: My cousin, Bob, plays the harmonica.
RESTRICTIVE: Our custodian Mr. Halley does good work. NON-RESTRICTIVE: Our custodian, Mr. Halley, does good work.
In both cases the restrictive appositive, without the commas, is used to identify a specific cousin or custodian out of many.
When in doubt, add the commas. Few (if any) readers will object, or even notice, if you’re wrong, and the commas seldom if ever alter the meaning of the sentence significantly. But if you add the first comma, don’t forget the second.