On How can I prove a word is a noun?

@Aurucaria thus spake:

@DanBron Bad advice;-) Dictionaries are RUBBISH on parts of speech.

If the reference materials that we hold dear–genuflection included–are indeed rubbish, how the heck are we English experts allowed to be thus experts? More to the point, why do we even bother with referencing them for these trivial questions?


But this isn't a trivial question!

Yes, sure, but the question's nuances are not evident in the question. One must dig into ephemeral comments to determine the subtle distinctions that bring out the true meaning of the question. Even then, throwing out our blessed resources for not being able to answer the question means what?

"Not appropriate to answer the question."

Then why bother? What do we trust? And how can we believe the heretics?

  • I want to point out that I mean this in a mostly tongue-in-cheek way. I respect the opinions and personalities and beliefs of all parties herein. This isn't to argue against what's being said, and especially not who said it!, but to actually discuss the implications of what was said.
    – SrJoven
    Feb 18, 2015 at 15:40
  • Further to get one's knickers in a twist is going to be the question "What references are you talking about?" And then I'll spend the time looking for that deeply hidden reference list that is answered as a question but would otherwise be off topic and isn't easily visible unless a question is actually closed in the manner of "Why didn't you look here before asking?"
    – SrJoven
    Feb 18, 2015 at 17:23
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    But dictionaries are rubbish on parts of speech! Verbification, nounification, etc., are standard features of English, but dictionaries only tend to list the most common usages. Obviously at the level of ELU (or the level we'd like ELU to be at), they're not much help. Feb 18, 2015 at 17:52
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    @FumbleFingers I can't necessarily agree with you on this. If the part-of-speech meaning of a word retains its meaning, it should retain its part of speech (per definition.) If you want to argue whether the function changes, the dictionary is useless to determine the current function of a word in any given context.
    – SrJoven
    Feb 18, 2015 at 19:25
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    Er, dictionaries are meant to be used for what dictionaries are supposedly supposed to be used for. Dictionaries are not too good to use for issues involving grammar, since that ain't what dictionaries are supposed to be used for. Er, yup!
    – F.E.
    Feb 18, 2015 at 21:01
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    You shouldn't believe the heretics. You should agree with the linguists and the experts, some of whom have weighed in on this in the comments on that question already. I confess to not seeing the point of this question. Feb 19, 2015 at 0:35
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    @medica I do hope that was tongue in cheek, too!
    – anemone
    Feb 19, 2015 at 11:23
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    Rubbish is relative. For the most part dictionaries are great. They're not perfect because they are over-simplifications.
    – Mitch
    Feb 21, 2015 at 14:49
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    @Mitch Dictionaries are good at what they're meant to be good at: meaning and etymology. They were never designed to be grammar references and therefore they aren't. You may notice that Cambridge and Oxford both publish dictionaries and they both publish grammars. None of their grammars would agree with the dictionaries on parts of speech. Dictionaries are great - at what they're there for. Mar 3, 2015 at 0:30
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    Suggested reading: ling.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/ZAA_final_proof.pdf
    – user28567
    Dec 1, 2015 at 0:46

2 Answers 2


Well, one way to go would be to reference a modern vetted grammar source. For example, a proper academic grammar of English. Some examples might be:

  • The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Rodney Huddleston & Geoffrey Pullum, 2002
  • A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Randolph Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, Jan Svartvik, 1985

  • Oxford Modern English Grammar, Bas Aarts, 2014

Lexicographers are called lexicographers for a reason. Dictionaries are very good at meanings and also at etymology. However, compiling dictionaries is a very long-term and arduous task. Dictionaries are not meant to be sources of grammar knowledge. To give you an idea of how up-to-date our very best dictionaries might be, the Oxford English Dictionary still has very, very many pages that they have not been able to update properly since 1888. It is not very surprising then that they aren't completely up-to-date with modern grammar. It is also a very expensive and disruptive enterprise to rejig a dictionary's parts of speech and not many users are serious grammar students, so it is both risky and of little benefit to do so.

It will not surprise readers that both Oxford and Cambridge publish dictionaries and also publish serious grammars of English. Their dictionaries list parts of speech for words, but their serious grammars of English - which deal with parts of speech, grammatical relations and the like - give detailed analyses of these which differ very significantly from the dictionaries'. No-one would dispute that it is the grammars based on serious research in English linguistics which need to be referred to for a serious analysis.

The last point to make here is that it is of course the linguists that dictionaries consult in the first instance to obtain their part of speech definitions and information. It doesn't work the other way round! It's just that it takes a long time, and a lot of money, for developments to filter into dictionaries.

None of this should be taken as an assault on lexicography, an essential and important aspect of our understanding of language. It's just that on parts of speech, we're better off consulting those people whom the lexicographers consult on parts of speech in the first place. That's all.

  • +1. Nice post! -- It seems that you must have plenty of time on your hands to be able to write such a useful detailed post on this topic. :)
    – F.E.
    Mar 3, 2015 at 8:55
  • Have you seen Cambridge Grammar of English ? Is it recognized as a modern grammar among linguists? I have a hunch that you guys would (dis)regard it as old-school.
    – Færd
    Dec 2, 2015 at 12:33
  • @@MJF I'd go for A student's Introduction to English Grammar. It's very good indeed and you can get second-hand copies for less than $10 on Amazon :) Dec 2, 2015 at 14:15
  • I couldn't understand what you meant by "Huddleston(?) sliced it to pieces in great detail", but I get your point. Thank you very much.
    – Færd
    Dec 2, 2015 at 18:17
  • This is good as a suggestion, and maybe even a valid reason to comment and vote, but I am voting against it because I do not want to see us restrict what reference works are considered valid as a rule, just so long as they attempt to address the question. I would also like to add that the O.E.D. is the worst example you could have used regarding how up to date it is: It is at least 20 volumes long and has entries that span over multiple pages, so It's harder to update than other dictionaries. The A.H.D. by means of comparison, didn't exist until 1969 and has been thoroughly revised since then.
    – Tonepoet
    Mar 14, 2017 at 14:45
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    @Tonepoet By all means downvote, but the question was about what to use given that dictionaries don't give accurate information about parts of speech. It is pretty hard to argue that that question hasn't been addressed adequately. Nobody has suggested banning dictionaries as reference aids (- although my post does heavily imply that it would be best not to weigh in on serious linguistic and syntactic discussions about a word's part of speech using info from Oxford Online as serious evidence against other people's detailed answers supported by modern reference works). Far from it Mar 14, 2017 at 15:00
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    @Tonepoet ... Dictionaries are great - at what they're there for. Incidentally, I used the world's most famous and renowned dictionary as my example for a reason! AHD, great as it is, is but a pimple when compared to the the OED - whose breadth, depth and original scholarship is unparalleled. Mar 14, 2017 at 15:01

The best way to assess the 'nouniness' of a word is to see how it is used in the wild.

In other words, you should look in usage corpuses, Google Books etc. and form your own judgment (possibly with the help of some supplementary statistical analysis).

As Fumblefingers correctly notes in his comment:

Verbification, nounification, etc., are standard features of English, but dictionaries only tend to list the most common usages.

He also notes in a comment here,

"...I think you should ditch the notion that a word itself can properly be classed as a "noun". What matters is whether it functions as a noun in any given context."

Or as Edwin Ashworth stated in a comment on the same question,

"POS [part-of-speech] determination hinges on how a word functions in that usage / the syntactic environment; formal considerations; considerations from other languages; and yes – even semantic considerations. Linguists haven't agreed on the correct balance of these factors, nor even on undisputed tests for how a word is functioning in a usage."

So you can't expect even comprehensive dictionaries like the OED to cover the full range of possible usages of a word.

I would add to the comments by Fumblefingers and Edwin Ashworth that the elements of any living language are a constantly-moving target, so a statement about usage that was largely accurate 80 years ago may not be so today, and one that is largely accurate today may not be so 80 years from now.

For all the reasons cited above, a dictionary can never be fully categorical regarding the usage of any given word or expression (except, perhaps, with respect to terms that have fallen entirely out of use in contemporary speech and writing, and for which the usages have therefore become frozen).

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