The Word Families
All the words in the English language belong to one or another of nine families, each of which family has a special duty. If you will always remember to which family a word belongs and just what that family does, you will be saved from many very common errors. These nine families are: 1, nouns; 2, adjectives; 3, articles; 4, verbs; 5, pronouns; 6, adverbs; 7, prepositions; 8, conjunctions; 9, interjections. This order of enumeration is not exactly the same as will be found in the grammars. It is used here because it indicates roughly the order of the appearance of the nine families in the logical development of language. Some forms of interjections, however, may very probably have preceded any language properly so called.
A noun is a word used as the name of anything that can be thought of, John, boy, paper, cold, fear, crowd. There are three things about a noun which indicate its relation to other words, its number, its gender, and its case. There are two numbers, singular meaning one, and plural meaning more than one.
The plural is generally formed by adding s to the singular. There are a small number of nouns which form their plurals differently, mouse, mice; child, children; foot, feet. These must be learned individually from a dictionary or spelling book. There are some nouns which undergo changes in the final syllable when the s is added, torch, torches; staff, staves; fly, flies. These also must be learned individually. There are some nouns which have no singular, such as cattle, clothes, some which have no plural, such as physics, honesty, news, and some which are the same in both singular and plural, such as deer, trout, series. Care must be taken in the use of these nouns, as in some cases their appearance is misleading, e. g., mathematics, physics, and the like are singular nouns having no plural, but owing to their form they are often mistaken for plurals.
Compound nouns, that is to say, nouns formed by the combination of two or three words which jointly express a single idea, generally change the principal word in the forming of the plural, hangers-on, ink rollers, but in a few cases both words change, for example, men-servants. These forms must be learned by observation and practice. It is very important, however, that they be thoroughly learned and correctly used. Do not make such mistakes as brother-in-laws, man-servants.
Perhaps the most important use of number is in the relation between the noun and the verb. The verb as well as the noun has number forms and the number of the noun used as subject should always agree with that of the verb with which it is connected. Such expressions as "pigs is pigs," "how be you?" and the like, are among the most marked evidences of ignorance to be found in common speech. When this paragraph was originally written a group of high school boys were playing football under the writer's window. Scraps of their talk forced themselves upon his attention. Almost invariably such expressions as "you was," "they was," "he don't," "it aint," and the like took the place of the corresponding correct forms of speech.
Collective nouns, that is the nouns which indicate a considerable number of units considered as a whole, such as herd, crowd, congress, present some difficulties because the idea of the individuals in the collection interferes with the idea of the collection itself. The collective nouns call for the singular form of the verb except where the thought applies to the individual parts of the collection rather than to the collection as a whole, for instance, we say,
The crowd looks large.
but we say,
The crowd look happy.
because in one case we are thinking of the crowd and in the other of the persons who compose the crowd. So in speaking of a committee, we may say
The Committee thinks that a certain thing should be done.
The Committee think that a certain thing should be done.
The first phrase would indicate that the committee had considered and acted on the subject and the statement represented a formal decision. The second phrase would indicate the individual opinions of the members of the committee which might be in agreement but had not been expressed in formal action. In doubtful cases it is safer to use the plural.
Entire accuracy in these cases is not altogether easy. As in the case with all the nice points of usage it requires practice and continual self-observation. By these means a sort of language sense is developed which makes the use of the right word instinctive. It is somewhat analogous to that sense which will enable an experienced bank teller to throw out a counterfeit bill instinctively when running over a large pile of currency even though he may be at some pains to prove its badness when challenged to show the reason for its rejection.
The young student should not permit himself to be discouraged by the apparent difficulty of the task of forming the habit of correct speech. It is habit and rapidly becomes easier after the first efforts.
The relation of a noun to a verb, to another noun, or to a preposition is called its case. There are three cases called the nominative, objective, and possessive. When the noun does something it is in the nominative case and is called the subject of the verb.
The man cuts.
When the noun has something done to it it is in the objective case and is called the object of the verb.
The man cuts paper.
When a noun depends on a preposition, it is also in the objective case and is called the object of the preposition.
The paper is cut by machinery.
The preposition on which a noun depends is often omitted when not needed for clearness.
The foreman gave (to) the men a holiday.
He came (on) Sunday.
Near (to) the press.
He was ten minutes late (late by ten minutes).
He is 18 years old (old by or to the extent of 18 years).
The nominative and objective cases of nouns do not differ in form. They are distinguished by their positions in the sentence and their relations to other words.
When one noun owns another the one owning is in the possessive case.
The man's paper is cut.
The possessive case is shown by the form of the noun. It is formed by adding s preceded by an apostrophe to the nominative case, thus,
There is a considerable difference of usage regarding the formation of the possessives of nouns ending in s in the singular. The general rule is to proceed as in other nouns by adding the apostrophe and the other s as James's hat. DeVinne advises following the pronunciation. Where the second s is not pronounced, as often happens to avoid the prolonged hissing sound of another s, he recommends omitting it in print.
Moses' hat, for Moses's hat.