A few weeks ago, I saw a tweet from a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) who attempted to exclude trans women from the definition of woman by arguing that nouns are “words for concepts that have a series of definitions to narrow categories and exclude other concepts.” My initial reaction was: “Do not try to use grammar to justify bigotry.” Followed by: “Especially when you do not understand grammar.”
First, Linguistics Girl supports the trans and entire LGTBQ+ community. Trans women are women. Trans men are men. Sex is not a binary. Gender is not a binary. Grammatical gender does not support a binary. (Not all languages have grammatical gender. Not all grammatical genders are binary.) Language changes. Nouns do not support transphobia.
Nouns are not “words for concepts that have a series of definitions to narrow categories and exclude other concepts.” The same notional definition could be used for other word classes like verbs and adjectives. Move is a broader concept. Run, jog, and sprint are narrower concepts. Small is a broader concept. Petite, tiny, and minuscule are narrower concepts. I think. I am not actually sure what “narrow categories” means as this definition is not a helpful or linguistic definition in any way, shape, or form.
Speaking of form, nouns differ from other word categories based on form and function. (As do all word classes.) But nouns share formal and functional potential with other word categories. (Can you already see the problem with the definition of noun proposed by the TERF?)
In English, prototypical nouns have singular and plural forms. (Prototypical verbs also have singular and plural forms.) For example, I know that the word table can be a noun because I can count tables: one table, two tables, zero tables, five hundred and forty-three tables. But, again, in English, other forms also have singular and plural forms. For instance, prototypical verbs also have singular and plural forms. I know that the word table can also be a verb because of the expression of grammatical number in the simple present:
- I table the discussion. (first person singular)
- We table the discussion. (first person singular/plural)
- You table the discussion. (second person singular/plural)
- They table the discussion. (third person singular/plural)
- He/She/It tables the discussion. (third person singular)
Some pronouns and determiners also have singular and plural forms:
- I am a linguist. (singular)
- We study language. (plural)
- This apple is tasty. (singular)
- These apples are tasty. (plural)
In addition to expressing grammatical number, prototypical nouns also have possessive forms. For example:
- the cat’s meow
- the bee’s knees
- for goodness’ sakes
- Mother’s Day
- New Year’s Day
- Valentine’s Day
- Presidents’ Day
- April Fools‘ Day
But some pronouns, i.e., some indefinite pronouns, also have possessive forms. For example:
- anyone’s coat
- nobody’s business
- something’s zipper
In English, the possessive clitic can additionally make an entire phrase possessive. For example:
- the Queen of England’s carriage
- a woman wearing the purple hat’s dogs
- our neighbors to the east’s lawn
In terms of grammatical form, nouns differ from other word classes by expressing grammatical number and possession. Nouns have singular and plural forms. Nouns have possessive and non-possessive forms. But nouns also share the potential to express number and possession with other word classes such as pronouns, determiners, and pronouns.
Other tests for determining noun include the potential to take the determiner the (and other determiners) and the potential to take an adjective as a modifier. However, gerunds, which are a nominal-verbal form) have the potential to take a determiner, and many pronouns can take adjectives as modifiers.
Determining word class requires considering both form and function. Functionally, prototypical nouns perform nominal functions such as subject, subject complement, direct object, object complement, indirect object, and prepositional complement. But so do many other forms such as verbs, pronouns, noun clauses, and prepositional phrases. Nouns can also perform non-nominal functions such as noun phrase modifier, determinative, appositive, and adjunct adverbial. For example, nouns (and noun phrases prototypically function as subjects in English:
- Cats are mammals.
- That boy ate the hot dog.
- The man in the yellow hat has a monkey.
- Reading is important. (verb, present participle/gerund)
- Jogging a mile wore the child out. (verb phrase, present participle/gerund)
- To err is human. (verb, infinitive phrase)Under the board is where I will be. (prepositional phrase)
Nouns, like all grammatical forms, perform one or more grammatical functions. But grammatical functions can be performed by one or more grammatical forms. Nouns primarily perform nominal functions like subject and prepositional complement, but other forms can perform nominal functions and nouns can perform non-nominal functions.
A keyword in the description of word classes is prototypical.
The lines between word classes are blurry. A noun is not just a word that names a person, place, thing, or idea. (Gerunds, which are nominal verbs, also name things.) Nouns certainly are not “words for concepts that have a series of definitions to narrow categories and exclude other concepts.” Classifying a word as a noun requires looking at both formal and functional potential simultaneously.
Furthermore, some nouns are non-prototypical nouns, e.g., noncount nouns. For example, the word furniture has a possessive form as in The woman redid the furniture’s finish. The word furniture can function as the subject of a sentence as in Furniture costs a lot of money. The word furniture can take a determiner as in The furniture has arrived. The word furniture can also take an adjective as a modifier as in She decorated her home with some beautiful furniture. But, as a noncount noun, furniture lacks a plural form. English speakers can count pieces of furniture but not furnitures. Thus, while prototypical nouns have singular and plural forms, some non-prototypical nouns do not.
And some words (gerunds) share properties of two word classes (verbs and nouns). Conventional grammars use the term gerund for present participles that perform nominal functions. Gerunds are nominal-verbal forms that share characteristics and functions of both verbs and nouns. A gerund is a participial form of a verb in which the -ing suffix affixes to a verb base. Gerunds can take objects and complements like other verbs. Gerunds can also take determiners like nouns. Finally, gerunds perform nominal functions rather than verbal functions. Gerunds are both nominal and verbal in form and function.
Finally, noun is an open class. Open classes frequently and readily accept new words. English develops new nouns all the time. English also loves to form new words through conversion. Conversion (zero derivation or null derivation) is a form of word formation in which a new word develops from an existing word of a different word class without a change in form. Verbing may weird language, but English loves conversion. The word verb began as a noun. The earliest uses of verb as a verb are attested to the 1980s. The famous Calvin and Hobbes use (“Verbing weirds language.”) dates to January 25, 1993, which illustrates the use of the verb verb as the gerund verbing. English can also noun other word classes. For example, the word ask in That is quite an ask illustrates the conversion of the verb ask into a noun.
Nouns are not “words for concepts that have a series of definitions to narrow categories and exclude other concepts.” The notional definition of the noun is “a word that names a person, place, thing, or idea.” (But not all words that name things or ideas are nouns, e.g., gerunds.) Prototypical nouns express grammatical number and possession. (But not all nouns have plural forms, i.e., noncount nouns, and other words can express number and possession.) Nouns can take determiners and adjectives. (But so can pronouns and gerunds.) Nouns perform nominal functions. (But nouns can also perform non-nominal functions, and other forms can also perform nominal functions.)
Incorrectly defining nouns as “words for concepts that have a series of definitions to narrow categories and exclude other concepts” is a ridiculous argument for excluding trans women from the definition of women. Furthermore, looking at actual linguistic ways of the defining the noun (and any word class) illustrates that grammar is not binary. Looking at all the word classes in a language reveals a multi-circled Venn diagram of overlapping forms and functions. Looking at word formation processes reveals the fluidity of words in a language such as English.
Nouns do not support transphobia.