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The Teachers Grammar Book - James Williams

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As noted earlier, subjects and predicates are related to nouns and verbs. Traditional grammar defines a noun as a person, place, or thing. However, this definition is not the best because it isn’t sufficiently inclusive. The word Monday, for example, is a noun, but it is not a thing, nor is freedom or any number of other words. For this reason, it is tempting to define a noun in terms of function:

A noun is any word that can function as a subject.

Although this definition is better than the traditional one, it is not completely accurate. A word like running can function as a subject, and when it does it has the characteristics of a noun, but some people argue that the underlying nature of the word—its form as a verb—doesn’t change. To better describe the complexity and nuances of this situation, linguists call words like “running” nominals. This term can be applied to any word that has a classification other than noun that can be made to function as a noun.

If the situation seems complicated, it is. In fact, defining the term noun is such a problem that many grammar books do not even try to do it. Accepting the idea that the concept of noun is fairly abstract, however, can point us in the right direction, toward a reasonably acceptable definition. Also, we want a definition that students can easily grasp. From this perspective, nouns are the labels we use to name the world and our experiences in it.

As suggested earlier, nouns function as the head words for noun phrases. Thus, even complex noun phrases are dominated by the single noun that serves as head word.

Teaching Tip

Nouns can function as modifiers; that is, they can supply information to other words, typically other nouns. A good example is the word “evening,” which is classified as a noun. But we can use it as a modifier in sentences like “Rita wore an evening gown.” Words that modify nouns are called “adjectives,” discussed in detail on pages 77 to 79. But when a noun like “evening” functions as a modifier, it retains its underlying form as a noun. For this reason, we call it an “adjectival.” Students often are confused when they see nouns functioning as adjectives. Using the term “adjectival” can help them better understand the difference between form and function.

Common Nouns, Proper Nouns, and Mass Nouns

There are three major types of nouns. Common nouns, as the name suggests, are the largest variety. Common nouns signify a general class of words used in naming and include such words as those in the following list:





Typical Common Nouns




















Proper nouns, on the other hand, are specific names, such as Mr. Spock, the Empire State Building, Ford Escort, and the Chicago Bulls.

Mass nouns are a special category of common nouns. What makes them distinct is that, unlike simple common nouns, they cannot be counted. Below is a short list of mass nouns:










Teaching Tip

Nonnative English speakers, particularly those from Asia, have a very difficult time with mass nouns. Japanese and Chinese, for example, do not differentiate between count nouns and mass nouns, treating both as a single category. As a result, we often find these students treating a mass noun as a count noun. It is important to understand in such instances that the problem stems from a conflict between English and the students’ home language. One way to help them better distinguish between count nouns and common nouns is to prepare a list of frequently used mass nouns for study.


English, like other languages, resists the duplication of nouns in sentences, so it replaces duplicated nouns with what are called pronouns. (No one is sure why languages resist such duplication.) The nouns that get replaced are called antecedents. Consider sentence 5:

5. *Fred liked Macarena, so Fred took Macarena to a movie.2

2The asterisk at the beginning of the sentence signifies that it is ungrammatical. This convention will be used throughout the text from this point on.



The duplication of the proper nouns Fred and Macarena just does not sound right to most people because English generally does not allow it. The duplicated nouns are replaced, as in sentence 5a:

5a. Fred liked Macarena, so he took her to a movie.

Notice that sentence 5b also is acceptable:

5b. He liked her, so Fred took Macarena to a movie.

In this instance, however, sentence 5b is not quite as appropriate as 5a because the sentence lacks a context. Real sentences, as opposed to those that appear in books like this one, are part of a context that includes the complexities of human relationships; prior knowledge related to past, present, and future events; and, of course, prior conversations. The pronouns in sentence 5b suggest that Fred and Macarena already have been identified or are known. This suggestion is contrary to fact. In sentence 5a, on the other hand, Fred and Macarena appear in the first part of the sentence, so the pronouns are linked to these antecedents without any doubt or confusion about which nouns the pronouns have replaced. At work is an important principle for pronouns: They should appear as close to their antecedents as possible to avoid potential confusion.

Personal Pronouns

Pronouns that replace a duplicated noun are referred to as personal or common pronouns. The common pronouns are:

Singular: I, me, you, he, him, she, her, it

Plural: we, us, you, they, them

In addition, there are several other types of pronouns: demonstrative, reciprocal, possessive, indefinite, reflexive, and relative. Possessive and relative pronouns are examined in detail later in the book, with special attention paid to relatives because they are part of an interesting construction called a relative clause. Therefore, discussion of these types here is brief.

Case. Before going forward with the discussion of pronouns, we need to pause and explore case. The functional relations in sentences are important in all languages, but not all languages signify those relations in the same way. English relies primarily on word order. On a basic level, we know that subjects normally come before the verb and that objects normally come after. Other languages,



however, do not rely so much on word order but instead alter the forms of the words to signify their relations. Japanese, for example, uses word order and form, attaching particles to words to signify their function: Wa is used for subjects, and o is used for objects. Thus, “I read this book” is expressed as follows:

Watashi-wa kono hon-o yonda.

We know that watashi is the subject because of the particle wa attached to it, and we know that hon is the object because of the particle o. Translated literally, this sentence reads, “I this book read.” Notice, however, that we also could state:

Kono hon-o watashi-wa yonda.

This shift in word order (“This book I read”) would be appropriate if the speaker wanted to emphasize that it was a particular book that he or she had read. Even though the word order has changed, there is no confusion regarding subject and object because the particle markers always signal the proper function.

We use a special term to describe changes in the forms of nouns based on function—inflections. Some languages are more inflected than others, with modern English being largely uninflected. At one time, however, English was highly inflected, and it retains a vestige of this past in the various forms of its pronouns, some of which change on the basis of whether they are functioning as a subject or an object.

As indicated earlier, the relation of subjects and objects to a sentence is determined with respect to their relation to the action conveyed in the verb. More formally, these relations are expressed in terms of case. When a noun or pronoun is functioning as a subject, it is in the subject, or nominative, case; when functioning as an object, it is in the objective case. However, case does not affect nouns in English, only pronouns—they change their form depending on how they function.

Consider sentence 6:

6. Fred and I kissed Macarena.

Both Fred and the pronoun I are part of the subject, so they are in the nominative case. When these words function as objects, Fred does not change its form, but the pronoun I does, as in sentence 7:

7. Macarena kissed Fred and me.

Me is the objective case form of the personal pronoun I.



Analysis of case can become complicated. In fact, linguists have a hard time agreeing on just how many cases exist in English. Everyone recognizes nominative and objective case, but some linguists argue that others exist, such as dative (indirect objects) and genitive (possessive) cases. For our purposes, it is sufficient to recognize just three cases—nominative, objective, and posses- sive—illustrated in the following examples:

She stopped the car. (nominative)

Fred kissed her. (objective)

The book is his. (possessive)

Teaching Tip

A few English nouns retain inflection for gender. Consider, for example, the two spellings available for people with yellow hair: “blond” and “blonde.” Although pronounced the same, the former is used for males, the latter for females. “Actor” and “actress” are two other words that retain inflection. Over the last several years, there have been concerted efforts to eliminate all gender inflections, such that female performers increasingly are referred to as actors rather than actresses. An engaging activity for students is to have them form teams and observe how inflected forms are used for gender and by whom. They can report their findings and explore whether inflected forms are still useful and whether these forms should be retained.

Usage Note

Nonstandard usage commonly reverses nominative case and objective case pronouns, resulting in sentences like 8 and 9 below:

8.?Fritz and me gave the flowers to Macarena.3

9.?Buggsy asked Fred, Raul, and I to drive to Las Vegas.

Formal standard usage is illustrated in sentences 8a and 9a:

8a. Fritz and I gave the flowers to Macarena.

9a. Buggsy asked Fred, Raul, and me to drive to Las Vegas.

Note that sentences 8 and 9 are not ungrammatical, but they do violate standard usage conventions. Even though we may hear people violate these conventions on a regular basis, teachers are rightly concerned when the problem appears in students’ speech and writing.

3The question mark at the beginning of the sentence signals that the sentence is nonstandard. This convention will be used throughout from this point on.



Nevertheless, it is important to consider that an equally troublesome problem with case gets little attention. When someone knocks on a door and is asked, “Who is it?” the response nearly always is It’s me. In formal standard usage, the response would be It’s I because the verb is establishes equality between the subject, It, and the noun complement that follows the verb. This equality includes case, which means that the noun complement in standard usage would be set in the nominative case, not the objective. Even so, few people ever use It’s I, not even people who use Standard English consistently. The contrast between these forms can offer a meaningful language lesson for students.

In addition, the question of case in this situation is interesting because it illustrates the influence of Latin on notions of correctness. Latin and Latin-based languages are more inflected than is English, so problems of case rarely arise. For example, we just do not observe native Spanish speakers using an objec- tive-case pronoun in a nominative position. If a Spanish speaker is asked, “Who is it?” the response always is Soy yo, never Soy me. All native Spanish speakers will reject Soy me as an appropriate response. This fact offers a useful foundation for a lesson on case in classes with a high percentage of native Spanishspeaking students.

In an uninflected language like English, on the other hand, speakers rely on word order not only to determine what is acceptable but also, on a deeper level, to determine what is grammatical. In a word-order-dependent language like English, case is largely irrelevant. As a result, Fritz and me gave the flowers to Macarena is acceptable to many people because it conforms to the standard word order of English. The pronoun me is in the subject position and is understood to be part of the subject regardless of its case. Likewise, It’s me will be accepted because the pronoun is in what normally is the object-complement position. This analysis explains, in part, why most people think It’s I sounds strange.

Demonstrative Pronouns

There are four demonstrative pronouns:

this, that, these, those

They serve to single out, highlight, or draw attention to a noun, as in sentences 10, 11, and 12:

10.That car is a wreck.

11.Those peaches don’t look very ripe.

12.This book is really interesting.



Teaching Tip

The demonstrative pronoun “this” usually comes before a noun, but not always. In certain situations, it replaces an entire sentence, as in the following:

Fritz cleaned his apartment. This amazed Macarena.

Here, “this” refers to the fact that Fritz cleaned his apartment. In this kind of construction “this” is called an “indefinite demonstrative pronoun” because there is no definite antecedent. In the example given, with the two sentences side by side, the relation is clear; we understand what “this” refers to. However, inexperienced writers do not always use the indefinite demonstrative pronoun in ways that make the connection with the antecedent clear. As a result, they often will have several sentences separating the indefinite demonstrative “this” and the fact or action to it which it refers. Readers do not have an easy time figuring out the connection, as in this example:

The romantic model that views writing as an independent and isolated process has dominated the classroom for years. The model may be poetic, it may feel good for teachers, but it is not practical. It does not take into account the pragmatic social factors that contribute to successful writing. Moreover, measures of student writing have shown a steady decline in proficiency over the last 15 years. This can present a major problem for teachers seeking to implement new models and strategies in the classroom.

The word “this” in the last sentence should refer to the idea in the previous sentence, but it doesn’t; there is no real connection between them. The last sentence seems most closely linked to the first, but the relation is not clear, and it certainly is not strong, because of the intervening sentences. Using the indefinite demonstrative in this instance is not appropriate because it negatively affects clarity and understanding. The sentence would have to be moved upward to be successful.

The misplacement of sentences that begin with the indefinite demonstrative “this” occurs frequently in the work of inexperienced writers. In many instances, the situation is worse: There will not be any preceding sentence for the pronoun; the reference is to a sentence in the writer’s mind that never was put on paper. A large number of experienced writers object to any usage of “this” in such a broad way, arguing that an alternative, more precise structure is better. They recommend replacing the indefinite demonstrative pronoun with an appropriate noun. In the previous example, replacing “this” with “the romantic model” would solve the problem.

Reciprocal Pronouns

English has two reciprocal pronouns—each other and one another—which are used to refer to the individual parts of a plural noun. Consider sentences 13 and 14:

13.The friends gave gifts to each other.

14.The dogs looked at one another.



Each other and one another do not mean the same thing; thus, they are not interchangeable. Each other signifies two people or things, whereas one another signifies more than two. Sentence 13 refers to two friends; sentence 14 refers to more than two dogs.


Although no strong connection between grammar and writing quality exists, it is easy to find one for usage. Most writing, for example, is improved when writers make certain that their indefinite demonstrative pronouns have clear antecedents. For this activity, examine some of your writing, especially papers you have submitted for classes, and identify any instances of indefinite demonstrative pronouns that lack clear antecedents. In each instance, revise your writing to provide an antecedent or to eliminate the pronoun. Doing so can help you avoid this problem in the future. You also may find it interesting to check your writing to see whether your use of reciprocal pronouns is congruent with the standard convention. If you can, you should share your revision efforts with classmates to compare results, which can give you better insight into revising.

Possessive Pronouns

Possessive pronouns indicate possession, as in sentences 15 and 16:

15.My son loves baseball.

16.The books are mine.

The possessive pronouns are:

Singular: my, mine, your, yours, her, hers, his, its

Plural: our, ours, your, yours, their, theirs

Teaching Tip

Many students confuse the possessive pronoun “its” with the contraction of “it is”—it’s. Explaining the difference does not seem to have any effect on students’ writing, nor do drills and exercises. An editing activity, however, appears to lead to some improvement. After students have worked on a paper and engaged in peer reviews of their drafts, shift the focus of students’ attention to editing. Have students exchange papers and circle all instances of “its” and “it’s.” Then, with it’s = it is and its = possessive written on the board, have them check each occurrence to ensure that the usage is correct. They should point out any errors to their partners, who should make corrections immediately. Circulate among students to offer assistance, as needed.



Indefinite Pronouns

Indefinite pronouns have general rather than specific antecedents, which means that they refer to general entities or concepts, as in sentence 17:

17. Everyone was late.

The indefinite pronoun everyone does not refer to any specific individual but rather to the entire group, which gives it its indefinite status.

Indefinite Pronouns in English



















no one









Usage Note

English requires agreement in number for nouns, verbs, and pronouns. For example, a plural noun subject must have a verb in the predicate that also designates plurality. Thus, we have Dogs bark but not Dogs barks. Likewise, if Fritz and Fred are getting cleaned up, we have Fritz and Fred washed their faces but not Fritz and Fred washed his face. We cannot understand Fritz and Fred washed his face as meaning that the two men washed their own faces, only that they washed someone other than themselves. To indicate the first meaning, the pronoun their must be plural to include Fritz and Fred, and the noun faces also must be plural.

With respect to the indefinite pronouns everyone and everybody, a problem arises. These pronouns are singular, not plural. Nevertheless, their semantic content is inclusive, indicating a group. Consequently, most people when speaking treat the pronouns as though they are plural, as in the following sentence:

• ?Everybody grabbed their hats and went outside.



Because everybody is singular rather than plural, correct usage requires a singular pronoun as well as a singular noun to provide the necessary agreement:

• Everybody grabbed his hat and went outside.

What we see in this sentence is the masculine pronoun his being used in a generic sense to include all people, regardless of gender. Beginning in the early 1970s, some educators and students expressed concern that the generic use of his was a manifestation of sexist language. Within a few years, NCTE published its guidelines on sexist language, and the major style guides and handbooks asserted that the generic use of his should be avoided at all costs.

Some educators advocated the arbitrary redesignation of everyone and everybody from singular to plural. Others proposed replacing the generic his with the generic hers, and still others suggested using his/her or his or her. Today, the first option is deemed unacceptable in most quarters; the second option is embraced only by those with an ideological agenda. The third option (note that his or her is always preferable to his/her) is most widely accepted and has been complemented with a fourth: Restructuring the sentence so as to eliminate the indefinite pronoun. Consider these examples:

Everybody grabbed his or her hat and went outside.

They grabbed their hats and went outside.

All the people grabbed their hats and went outside.

Reflexive Pronouns

When subjects perform actions on themselves, we need a special way to signify the reflexive nature of the action. We do so through the use of reflexive pronouns. Consider the act of shaving, as in sentence 18, in which Macarena, the subject, performs a reflexive action:

18. *Macarena shaved Macarena.

This duplication is not allowed, but we cannot use a personal pronoun for the object, Macarena. Doing so results in a different meaning, as in sentence 18a:

18a. Macarena shaved her.

In sentence 18a, the pronoun her cannot refer to Macarena but instead must refer to someone else.

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