Clearly there are morphological "tendencies" (case inflection, no TAM marking) -- but what about the semantic or syntactic characteristics (even if they are just tendencies and not universal)?

I suppose pronouns are typically nouns. Same for numbers (again, maybe only typically) -- but are there any other categories that are typically (or even always?) nouns?

  • Gerunds (AKA present participles/verbal nouns), which are essentially verbs, are considered as nouns even though they have the verbal feature of being able to take an object. This can be proven by the fact that gerunds can be preceded by determiners, which is an exclusively nominal feature. E.g.: "his singing is terrible", "a beating was what he needed", etc. Commented Jun 30, 2014 at 15:34
  • Sure, so in this sense, a gerund is a noun (or at least nominal)
    – żaba
    Commented Jun 30, 2014 at 17:49
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    What language are you asking about? Commented Jul 1, 2014 at 13:00
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    You may want to take a look at linguistics.stackexchange.com/a/1035/445
    – Alex B.
    Commented Aug 3, 2014 at 0:12

2 Answers 2


The answer to the question will likely vary from grammarian to grammarian. My short answer is that distribution is a necessary condition for identifying nominals and morphological criteria, e.g. plural -s, are sufficient.

To be classified as a nominal, a given token of a lexical item must be able to appear in a position that is associated with nominals. In other words, the distribution of the lexical item is a necessary condition. So, for instance, if an expression can appear as a subject, it is a candidate for nominal status, e.g.

 Tom stopped.

 It stopped.

 The laughing stopped.

 The first stopped.

Since Tom, it, the laughing, and the first can appear as subjects, one might classify each as (containing) a nominal. In other words, since these expressions can appear in a position that is associated with stereotypical nominals, they are all candidates for nominal status.

Note, however, that satisfying a necessary condition does not mean that the candidate is definitely a nominal. It just means that it is potentially viewed as a nominal. Thus one could argue that first in the fourth example is actually not a nominal, but rather it is an adjective that immediately introduces an elided noun (the first whatever).

A sufficient condition for identifying nominals is the ability to take plural -s. Any item that forms its plural with -s is, I believe, going to be accepted by most as a nominal, e.g.

 boy  vs. boy-s

 time vs. time-s

 discussion vs. discussion-s

Since these lexical items form their plural with -s, they are easily classified as nominals. The -s condition is sufficient.

Another criterion that one might employ and view as sufficient is the ability to be introduced by the definite article the or the indefinite article a. If one takes this criterion as sufficient then laughing, and first above are definitely nominals.

But there are of course numerous expressions that have the distribution of typical nouns (necessary condition), but that one has difficulty classifying as a nominal based upon morphological criteria (sufficient condition). As Adam points out, gerunds are a good example. Gerunds have the distribution of nominals and they can be introduced by an article, but they do not take plural -s, e.g. **the laughings*, **the discussings*, etc. Thus whether or not one classifies gerunds as nominals is going to depend on which criteria one takes to be more important. My stance takes gerunds to be a separate category that straddles two other categories. Gerunds are nominals with respect to their head but verbs with respect to their dependents.

In the big picture, each grammarian will decide for him- or herself which criteria are most pertinent for classifying lexical items. I think there is therefore variability in how exactly the term nominal is employed.

  • Results of Google "school shootings" disagree with your claim that gerunds cannot pluralize. Could you clarify what you meant? Commented Apr 4, 2015 at 18:57
  • I do not think "shooting" is a gerund; it is, rather, a former gerund that has become an action noun. Observe: *knowing-s, *walking-s, *fixing-s, *boiling-s, *discussing-s, *explaining-s, -- most verb-ing forms do not pluralize with -s. The one's that do should not be categorized as gerunds, but rather as action nouns. Commented Apr 5, 2015 at 8:42

No one has addressed the semantic aspect. Since language is primarily about communication, an over-emphasis on syntax is not sensible. Yes, it is important to examine how words are strung together in accepted constructions, but if we divorce language totally from attempts to describe reality, we're into merely playing games.

The old primary-school introduction to the noun was that a noun 'is the name of a person, place, or thing'. While this is ridiculously simplistic, it wasn't intended as anything more than an introductory working definition. Obviously, 'thing' means a pencil, ruler, radiator, car, dog ... to a young child, and pictures and actual examples would be provided to reinforce the referent - token coding used in language. A thinking person will soon seek a more precise definition of 'thing'. Should we include these: essay hole colour fire warmth silence height independence idea absence blame ...?

There has to be a joint consideration with distribution, the company a putative noun keeps. When a child first starts to speak, nouns (mama drink teddy ...) are the words almost always uttered first: they command attention and get results. Next, verbs tend to be added (want drink; mummy cuddle; cuddle Jimmy ...) to better express desires, eg what to do with the referent. And this S / V (or V / O) pairing forms the usual basic sentence structure. So we can expect nouns and verbs to appear next to each other.

However, other juxtapositions need to be considered when trying to decide on part of speech, or, more sensibly, what function a string has in a sentence.


I took the dog a bone.

I took the dog a walk.

Although these structures seem identical in form, the underlying meanings are obviously different.

In the first, 'a bone' is the direct object, obviously having a nominal role.

But in the second, 'a walk' really modifies or even completes the verb, so is adverbial or part of a complex verb group.

As John Lawler wisely points out, it's far more sensible to focus on how a word or group of words is functioning in a particular sentence than to try to convince yourself that it's more of a verb than a noun.

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    I took the dog a walk is ungrammatical for me (US west coast) -- in what varieties of English is this grammatical?
    – TKR
    Commented Aug 3, 2014 at 1:20
  • @TKR: it’s quite ungrammatical for me as well, in all the dialects I know well (brought up in England and Aus, lived in NE US and E Canada for some years).
    – PLL
    Commented Aug 3, 2014 at 8:14
  • Semantic aspect? Noun is a syntactic notion. There are tendencies sure, but we don't need to go further afield than English to see incredibly productive nominalisation strategies. The questioner asks for necessary/sufficient characteristics, and i don't believe that there are any necessary, let alone sufficient semantic criteria that would fit the bill.
    – P Elliott
    Commented Aug 3, 2014 at 23:19

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