Bare singular noun pattern

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The bare singular noun pattern is a semantic-grammatical pattern with a simple noun phrase that is not marked with a delimiter (a/an/the). In traditional grammatical parlance, it is referred to as a zero-article (Ø) noun (lacking a so-called definite article the or indefinite article a/an). Bare singulars contrast with the bare plural noun pattern, and they contrast with marked nouns, especially the marked singular noun pattern.

Examples of bare singulars include:

  • They love yogurt.
  • I depend on water, juice, and coffee to survive my long study sessions.
  • The structure consists of wood, concrete, steel, and PVC plastic.

This analysis below is sketched out in Lee (2017)[1]

1 Basic pattern

The basic, default meaning of bare singulars is material -- material nouns, mass nouns, or substance nouns. These contrast with marked singular nouns, which denote object nouns.

  • Bare Pattern. Bare singular nouns indicate materials or substances; this constitutes their basic, default meaning for physical nouns.

We speak of drinking water, coffee or juice, and buying and eating chicken, salad or cake. This contrasts with the singular marked pattern:

  • Marked Pattern. Marked singular nouns (with the, a/an) indicate objects, things, entities that we conceptualize as distinct things.

We thus speak of drinking a (bottle of) water, a coffee, a juice, and we speak of buying or eating a chicken, a salad, or a cake.

These basic patterns apply to physical nouns, which are marked by the following perceptual properties, unlike abstract nouns: (1) They are more tangible and perceivable. (2) They are more imageable, that is, when asked, one can imagine and mentally picture the noun.

Material nouns are somewhat less imageable than object nouns, and less distinct, physically. While objects have strict physical boundaries that distinguish them from other objects or from their background, material nouns are less distinct. Thus, they have a lesser degree of the semantic properties of entitivity (or entatitivity). They also lack in the property of physical boundedness, in that they are not perceived as being as spatially bounded. "Water" is spatially unbounded compared to "a (bottle of) water," "coffee" is more unbounded than "a coffee," and "chicken" (referring to the meat as substance) is unbounded compared to "a chicken" (a whole bird).

Bare nouns are traditionally treated as mass or non-count nouns in materials for students and teachers. This, however, is problematic. A number of nouns can refer to objects or conceptually concrete items in one context (e.g., “a chicken” or “a nanofiber”), but can easily refer to materials or substances in another context (“chicken” as meat, or “nanofiber” as a material). This distinction is not only relevant to everyday contexts (e.g., shopping or eating, where the difference between “chicken” and “a chicken” can be important), but also to academic contexts, where the difference between “nanofiber” material and “a nanofiber” crucially refer to different noun types and referents. It also can change the essential meaning of some nouns, e.g., “tape” (an adhesive material) versus “a tape” (a cassette tape), or “iron” (metal) and “an iron” (a fabric-pressing device, or a golf club).

The basic meaning patterns are summarized below.

  Form Meaning Examples
1. Singular bare noun
Material / substance noun coffee, chicken
2. Singular marked noun:
a/an/the + singular noun
Object / item / thing, i.e., physical objects a cup, a coffee, a chicken, the chicken

2 Advanced patterns: Specialized extensions of basic pattern

The basic bare singular pattern is applied to other non-physical nouns to derive more abstract meanings.

2.1 Supercategory nouns (hypernyms)

This is a special type of collective noun that refers to a large category, and the category itself is not one that people can mentally picture (low imageability) unless they imagine specific types. For example, one cannot easily imagine furniture unless one pictures particular pieces of furniture (like a table), or unless one uses a partitive expression or compound expression to denote a particular member (e.g., furniture --> a piece of furniture; faculty --> a faculty member, a professor). There are not many nouns like this in English, but enough psycholinguistic research exists to treat them as a special type of noun.

  1. furniture, equipment, faculty (i.e., professors or teachers), staff, personnel, flora, fauna

2.2 General activities

General activities are indicated by bare nouns, while marked singular nouns indicate specific instances of an activity. General activities are not bounded in time or space, e.g., one speaks of jogging as a general activity that could occur anytime or anywhere. In contrast, a specific event ('a jog') occurs in a particular time and/or place.

  1. I like jogging. (cf. That was a great a jog.)
  2. I enjoy swimming.
  3. Beware of theft. (cf. A theft occurred last night. The theft was rather daring.)

2.3 Generalized nouns

Nouns that are otherwise object nouns or distinct entities can be used as bare nouns, i.e., with no delimiter, for an altered meaning or nuance. The noun has a slightly more abstract or more general nuance. This is most common in prepositional phrases; it is common in academic parlance, and in the nomenclature of various fields.

  1. She plays piano.
  2. The satellite is in orbit.
  3. The children were speaking in dialect.
  4. He is in jail.
  5. I go to school / to campus by bus / by subway.
  6. I am in hospital. (British English)

2.4 States, conditions, properties

These are quasi-abstract nouns, which can sometimes be physical, visible, or perceptible, or might be general states but not bound in space or time. They can be quantified or delimited, however, with a marked noun phrase.

  1. Redness can be a symptom of an allergic reaction. (cf. The redness of your face...)
  2. Tardiness will be marked and one demerit will be give.
  3. Flatulence is not going to win you a lot of friends, so please alter your diet or see a doctor if you have a problem.

2.5 Abstract nouns

The bare noun pattern is naturally applied to non-physical nouns to express abstract ideas. A concept noun 'hope' is not bounded in time or space, but generally refers to 'hope' that could exist anytime and anywhere.

  • love, hate, war, peace, hope, existence, language, communication, existentialism, socialism, antidisestablishmentarianism

For example:

  1. Modern physics has attempted to explain how gravity, electricity, magnetism, and the nuclear forces are related.
  2. Modern feminism began as part of the abolitionist movement against slavery in the early to mid-1800s.
  3. We really need more support here.

These abstract nouns contrast with specific instantiations of the ideas, often with the and a postmodifier phrase after the noun, for example, "the love of money," "the feminism of the 1800s" or "the gravity of earth."

2.6 Summary

These are summarized below.

Usage (Ø) Examples Contrasts with
Materials (mass, substance) water, wood, plastic, juice Object nouns, e.g., a juice
Supercategory nouns furniture, equipment, faculty Partitives / specific noun phrases:
A piece of furniture, a faculty member
States, conditions, properties redness, dryness, despair, joy Instantiations thereof (e.g, with postmodifier):
the dryness of your skin, the joy of learning
Abstract concepts feminism, peace, existence Instantiations of abstract nouns (with postmodifier):
The gravity of earth; the love of money; the peace of the Roman Empire
Generalized nouns:
Generic use of object noun
It is in orbit. It is in place. They spoke in dialect. She plays piano. I go by bus. Normal use of object noun:
an orbit, a place, a dialect, the piano; I took a bust.
General activities Beware of theft.
I love mountain hiking.
Specific event / instance:
There was a theft.
We had a good hike.

3 Teaching the Bare Noun Pattern

For the basic physical distinction between bare and marked singular nouns, simple texts can be presented that illustrate both uses of the same nouns. Students can engage in group discussion to figure out the patterns, followed by teacher-guided presentation of the patterns.

Bare nouns (materials) Marked nouns (objects)
Stone or rock have been used for human-made structures from the beginnings of human history. ‘Rock’ is more often a geological term, or a term for everyday pieces of rock, while ‘stone’ is more often a term for the material, especially for building materials that have been processed. Rock, as in large pieces of rock, were first used for fashioning human dwellings. Later, humans found how to quarry and cut stone, such as granite and marble, for buildings. At first it would have been hard to drag a large rock to build a primitive house, and the pieces might not fit together well to make a good house. Humans later learned to cut and transport stone from quarries to build buildings. In building the Egyptian pyramids, for example, a large stone could be carried on rollers or loose sand by a group of people.

A normal piece of rock is simply a rock, or a stone in more formal or literary style. A large rock formation might also be referred to as a stone.

Short texts can illustrate the more advanced uses as well, though students will have a harder time guessing the meanings.

General activity Specific event
Aerobic exercise like swimming, bicycling, brisk walking, jogging, and rock climbing can be helpful for managing one’s weight and for maintaining energy levels. Occasional extreme sports like bungee jumping may not contribute to weight management, but can offer other health benefits. Every two days I go for a jog, or if I am tired, then at least a walk. Occasionally I go for a swim or a good climb on a mountain near the city. An exercise that I also particularly enjoy is bicycling.

Object noun Generalized noun
The hospital is located between the old church and the school. She goes to church several times a week, sometimes before going to school.
I usually take a bus home, and occasionally, a taxi. In warm weather I may ride my bike to and from work. I often go by bus, sometimes by bike, or occasionally by taxi.
The male lion has a head covered with a large mane. The tail of both males and females ends in a tuft of hair. Male lions are characterized by a main running from head to tail.

3.1 Activities

  • Describing materials or substances, or the composition of an item; e.g.: materials used for building a house; the composition of the earth's atmosphere.

3.2 Contrasting bare singulars with other patterns

This can be done with group tasks in class like these. For example, a shopping list involves bare nouns (yogurt, tofu, chicken), object nouns (a chicken, a watermelon), and plural nouns for items sold as sets (potatoes, carrots). Some items could vary, depending on how it is packaged, e.g.: a pineapple (whole), pineapple (chopped, in a container), or pineapples (several, say, for a party).

  • Creating a shopping list (grocery shopping)
  • Shopping list (e.g., office supplies)
  • Writing a proposal, e.g., money and items needed for a new lab or office

3.3 More complex or interactive tasks

Group activities with topics like these could lead to a written or oral product (e.g., a paragraph or short presentation).

  • Describe an important concept, theory, or discovery in your field. Explain how it was discovered, its importance, and examples of its application.
  • Describe a particular artistic genre or subgenre (of film, music, novels, etc.); then discuss a specific example, and explain how it fulfills and differs from the standards of the genre.
  • Describe one of your favorite activities. Explain how you discovered it and became good at it.

4 See also

4.1 References

  1. Lee, Kent. (2017). A “the” or the “a”? L2 learner problems and patterns. Korea TESOL Journal 13(2), 25-48.