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Nominality in english sentence-structure

Nounal-verbal contrast, viewed in terms of functional interaction of these two major classes of words, is an interesting object of linguistic investigation in any language.

Noun and verbs are organically related and constantly aiding to and supporting each other in communication. Nominality must naturally be distinguished differently in different languages. English shares this feature with a number of tongues, but its development has led to such significant idiosyncratic traits as merit special attention.

In present-day English the tendency to compactness through nominality is brought into particular prominence.

The variety of grammatical forms in nominalisation may be well illustrated by the following:

  1. the extensive use of one-member sentences;

  2. the use of infinitival sentences as independent units of communicative value;

  3. the frequency value of noun-adjunct groups (premodification of nouns by nouns);

  4. compression of different types of subclauses by nominalisation (gerundive, infinitival, participial nominals and absolute nominal phrases). This makes it possible to do without a subclause which would be otherwise necessary.

  5. different types of sentence patterning in syntactic structures introducing the direct speech.

Nominality of this latter type presents a special linguistic interest as relevant to some obvious "peripheral" changes in present-day English syntax and its stylistic aspects.

Syntactic compression is obviously relevant to such problems of modern linguistics as semantic aspects of syntax, the problem of implicit predication and flexibility in syntactic hierarchy. The trend to activising compression leads to laconism and lends variety to speech.


Semantic interpretation of syntactic structures, problems of implicit predication, surface and deep sense structure are still in a rudimentary stage of investigation. The two aspects of syntactic description — "semantic syntax" and "syntax of surface structures" — are organically related to each other but none should be brought to the front at the expense of the other.

In terms of content there are homonymous structural patterns of sentences, i. e. patterns identical in their grammatical organisation and different in terms of content. And on the other hand, one semantic sentence pattern may be expressed by different formal sentence patterns.

Involving vocabulary in studying syntax helps to distinguish the semantic markers which signal the necessary meaning in each case.

Ambiguity is commonly narrowed down by the context, linguistic or situational. There are also cases when it is resolved on a span larger than a sentence.

Implicit predication in composite sentences is often suggested by the violation of direct logical relationships between the explicit parts of the sentence. This is the case, for instance, in syntactic structures with annexation, sentences with overlapping adverbial relations, syntactic structures introducing direct speech.

In compression by nominalisation a sentence dispenses with a sub-clause which results in closer cohesion of its elements and greater con-density of the whole sentence structure.

This relative compactness of the English sentence and the use of various condensers as its synonymic alternatives is one of many syntactic features that shows the analytical character of Modern English.

Synonymic correlation of sub-clauses and their nominal condensers merits attention in terms of grammatical aspects of style.

Nominals functioning as synonymic alternatives of verbal sub-clauses are in most cases well adapted to their purpose in different spheres of application.

It will be helpful to distinguish between one-member and two-member structures of the secondary predication:

Participle I

She came in and sat down at her place, feeling exceedingly watched. (Dreiser)

He stood in the road, with the sun shining on him.


Participle II

Wholly depressed he

started for Thirteenth Street. (Dreiser)

His rifle fell by him and lay there with one of the man's fingers twisted through the trigger guard



Brian laughed to think of it. (Sillitoe)

Drouet was waiting for Carrie to come back. (Dreiser)


He wound up by saying he would think it over, and came away. (Dreiser)


Absolute Back in the hut, he

Phrase switched the tuning dial

from its allotted wavelength to find some music, hoping no plane would choose to send and SOS while he wasn't listening. (Sillitoe)

The nominal tendency merits consideration in the use of prepositional phrases.

The multiplicity of ways in which such phrases may be combined in actual usage permits a very large numbers of patterns to be built in present-day English. On different linguistic occasions a prepositional nominal phrase can perform different functions, secondary predication, in particular.

A remarkable range of uses will be observed in nominal phrases with the preposition with.

With (AS. with, against, towards, opposite).

In general, with renotes a relation of proximity, contiguity, or association. In various applications with-phrases may indicate: 1) opposition, being equivalent to against, as to fight with the enemy; 2) association of a reciprocal kind or by way of participation in an action or transaction, as to talk with friends; 3) association in the way of comparison, equality or sameness, as in on equal terms with another; 4) association as object of attention or concern, as in patient with children; 5) association by way of alliance, assistance or harmony, as on friendly terms with all nations; 6) association in respect of sphere; hence in the estimation, sight or opinion of, e. g.: their arguments had weight with him; 7) causal connection, as in to perish with hunger; eyes dim with tears; 8) attendance by way of manner, purpose, result, condition, etc.; 9) association by way of possession, care, or attribute, e. g.: to arrive with good news; 10) association by way of addition, as in he came with his students; 11) association in the way of simultaneity, as in change with years; 12) separation.

Examine the following sentences when the nominal phrase is used with the implication of various adverbial meanings in secondary predication:

The country was still living on its capital. With the collapse of the carrying trade and European markets, they were importing food they couldn't afford to pay for...

With shipping idle, concerns making a loss all over the place, and the unemployed in swarms, it was a pretty pair of shoes! Even insurance must suffer before long... (Galsworthy)

Unconsciously she had assumed a modern attitude, with one leg twisted in and out of the other, with her chin on one bent wrist, her other arm across her chest, and its hand hugging her elbow. (Galsworthy)

His rifle fell by him and lay therewith one of the man's fingers twisted through the trigger guard, his wrist bent forward. (Hemingway)


Some grammarians emphasise that nominality: a) helps impersonality and offers advantage to scientific English; b) that it is easier to write and c) that it is thus natural for those who are more concerned with what they say than with how they say it 1. The latter statement is however open to doubt and questioning.

It would be wrong to say that nominality is a simple substitution. It is also not a variable which can itself vary without causing variation in the other significant factors of style.

Numerous examples can show that nominal structures are often most affective, colourful and well adapted to their purpose in pictorial or otherwise emphatic style. They are less vivid and dynamic than verbal sentences, yet still graceful and strong.

Compare the following:

Birds were singing. Birds were in varied song.

Apple-trees were blooming. Apple-trees were in fullest bloom.

He thought deeply. He was in deep thought.

She was all trembling. She was all in a tremble,

She was all fluttering. She was all in a flutter.

The pool, formed by the damming of a rock, had a sandy bottom; and the big apple tree, lowest in the orchard, grew so close that its boughs almost overhung the water; it was in leaf, and all but in flower its crimson buds just bursting. (Galsworthy)

His cousin June and coming straight to his recess! She sat down beside him, deep in thought, took out a tablet and made a pencil note. (Galsworthy)

She was all in a tremble of excitement and opposition as she spoke. (Dreiser)

...Roses on the veranda were still in bloom, and the hedges evergreen... (Galsworthy)

He crossed the floor and looked through the farther window at the water slow-flowing past the lilies. Birds were in varied song... (Galsworthy)

A word will be said, in passing, about transpositions of English nouns into adjectives where they are ready to do another duty. We mean rendering the idea of quality through the relationship of one object to the other:

a) the so-called "genitivus qualitatis", synonymous with adjectives proper and often used to obtain expressive nuances for special stylistic purposes in pictorial languages, e. g.:

Fleur sat down; she felt weak in the legs. The ice seemed suddenly of an appalling thinness the water appallingly cold. (Galsworthy)

b) nominal phrases N + Iself — a stylistic alternative of the absolute superlative degree (so-called "elative"), e. g.:

Mr. Pickwick is kindness itself.

You are patience itself = You are most patient. She was prudence itself = She was most prudent.

Phrases of this sort are more forceful and expressive than the respecitive adjective in the superlative degree. Such structures of predication

1 See: T h. Sebeok. Style in Language, 1960. pp. 210—211. 19


are good evidence of the fact that quality in some cases can be expressed more effectively by a noun than an adjective. c) noun-phrases all + N:

She is all patience, you're all activity. She is all goodness (Cf. She is very good). He is all nerves. (Cf. He is very nervous).

Direct speech is often introduced by nominal phrases of different types. The preference for such compactness is now commonplace.

A few typical examples of such compactness where predication with verbs of saying is implicit are:

"Come on, my lad, let's have you down". And again: "Are you goin' to get down or aren't you?"

"I'll fall" his arms bare and the neck slippy with sweat.

"No you won't". (Sillitoe)

(...he said, his arms bare and the neck slippy with sweat)

..."What's your name, love?" A straight answer, as if she didn't mind telling him: "Edna". (Sillitoe)

"Hey up, kid," only a glance. (Sillitoe)

(he took a glance and said)

..."Shall we go along here" pointing to where the footpath forked, through a meadow and up the hill. (Sillitoe)

(...she said pointing to...)

And here are a few examples of nominal sentences with the absolute use of verbal nouns (nornina actionis or nomina acti) transformed into independent sentences of communicative value, in patterns like the following:

One smile, and she stopped arguing.

A cry, or had she dreamed it? (Galsworthy)

One push, and he was standing inside, breathless, wiping his feet. (Sillitoe)

The tendency to word predication nominally rather than verbally is decidedly on the increase in present-day English. This outstanding feature characterises the modern English sentence as a whole.

A sentence dispenses with a sub-clause which undoubtedly results in closer cohesion of its elements; such cohesion is equivalent to a greater condensity of the whole sentence structure grouped around one single nexus of subject and predicate. The relations of at least some sentence elements to this central nexus are often of rather complex character.

The student of English as a foreign language finds many difficulties in mastering the peculiarities of various types of compression in sentence structure different from practice in other languages.

The difference between the synthetic and analytical grammatical structure is well known to be reflected in syntax. The position of the words in the sentence is grammaticalised to a much higher degree in analytical than in synthetic languages. But the highly fixed word-order is not the only syntactic feature that shows the analytical character of Modern English. This is also reflected in the relative compactness of the Modern


English sentence and the use of various condensers as its synonymic alternatives.

The idiomatic character of compactness in the grammatical organisation of the English sentence is different from practice in other languages.

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