Monday Morning Grammar: Nouns Part IV—When Nouns Aren’t Nouns

The noun is perhaps the first part of speech one learns in elementary school grammar. In Mots Justes’ previous post on the basics, we were reminded that nouns name people, places, and things. Sometimes, though, a noun doesn’t function like one.

Appositives

A noun that immediately follows another noun is called an appositive. It functions similarly to an adjective, but instead of modifying the nearby noun, an appositive renames it, defining it or further identifying it:

Jim, the leader of the group, made plans for dinner Saturday night.
His friend Derrick complained about the restaurant he chose.

In these two examples, leader renames Jim, and Derrick renames friend.

You may have noticed that in the first example, commas are used to set off the appositive from the rest of the sentence, and in the second they aren’t. This is a rule that I have to stop and think about almost every time I run across it.

Use commas to set off an appositive if it nonrestrictive—that is, if the information is not essential for us to understand to which noun the appositive is referring:

Jim also invited my best friend, Mary.
Derrick’s cousin Bob invited himself along.

In the first example above, I have only one best friend. Therefore, Mary is additional information that is not essential for us to understand who was invited, so commas are used. In the second example, however, Derrick may have many cousins, so the inclusion of Bob helps us understand who invited himself along, so commas aren’t used.

Nouns as Adjectives

Sometimes a word that is usually used as a noun can be used as another part of speech. When a noun is used as an adjective, it modifies another noun:

Jim complained about the slow service to the restaurant manager.

Be careful, though—sometimes using a noun as an adjective creates a phrase that might be confusing to the reader:

The server shared customer comments with her manager.

Are these comments by the customers or about the customers? Often a reader can glean the writer’s intended meaning, but sometimes using a proposition can clear up any ambiguities:

The server shared the comments from the customers with her manager.
The server shared her comments about the customers with her manager.

Nouns as Verbs

A word that is usually used as a noun also sometimes takes on the meaning of a verb:

The restaurant manager chaired a meeting on good service.

Often the use of nouns as verbs appears in casual language or jargon:

Derrick friended the cute waitress on Facebook.

Such informal use should be avoided in formal writing.

Other Parts of Speech as Nouns

Just as nouns can be used as other parts of speech, so can other parts of speech be used as nouns.

Adjective as noun: Jim can’t be swayed from his convictions by the beautiful.
Adverb as noun: Derrick thought their drink order came out fast, but Jim said, “I’m not talking about then. I’m talking about now.”
Participle as noun: Derrick’s tipping the waitress generously undermined the statement Jim was trying to make.
Infinitive as noun: Jim’s goal is to avoid making dinner plans with Derrick in the future.

Next week in Monday Morning Grammar, MJ will post a bonus column on the formation of new nouns.

Resources

Chicago Manual of Style, The. 15th ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Fogarty, Mignon, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2008.

Hacker, Diana, The Bedford Handbook for Writers, 3rd ed. Boston: St. Martin’s Press: 1991.

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