The four nominative functions of nouns

Jose A. Carillo

Jose A. Carillo

A member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum who goes by the username Sky made this request recently: “Please explain and give examples of the four nominative functions of nouns.”

Here’s my reply to Sky:
I’m glad you raised this very interesting question about basic English grammar that I found neither the occasion nor need to take up since I started this column 11 years ago.

To put my explanation in perspective, though, let me start by way of review that the nominative is one of the three cases in English. These cases—the nominative or subjective, the objective, and the possessive—are the forms that a noun, pronoun, or modifier takes to indicate its functional role in a sentence.

In the nominative case, the noun or pronoun performs the verb’s action, as in “Evelyn nudged me” and “She nudged me.” The noun “Evelyn” and the pronoun “she” are both nominative because they do the action of the verb “nudge.” In the subjective case, the noun or pronoun is the subject of the sentence, as in “Mario is honest” and “He is honest.”

In the objective case, the noun or pronoun receives the verb’s action either as its direct or indirect object, as in these sentences: (a) “Clara pulled the plug.” “Clara pulled it.”

Here, the noun “plug” and the pronoun “it” are direct objects of the verb “pulled”; and (b) “We gave Norma the check.” Here, the noun “check” is the direct object of the verb “gave” and the noun “Norma” is the indirect object.

In the possessive case, the noun or pronoun indicates who or what possesses or owns something, as in this sentence: “That smartphone is Anita’s, this one is mine, and that one over there is yours.” Here, “Anita’s” is a possessive noun form while “mine” and “yours” are possessive pronouns.

Now that the definitions of the three cases are out of the way, let’s go back to the nominative case for a closer look at how nouns in this case work.

Nouns in the nominative case can function in four ways: as the subject, as an appositive, as a subject complement, and as a direct address.

A noun is functionally nominative when it names the subject of the verb or identifies the doer of the action of the verb in the active voice. Thus, in “George is a risk-taker” (“George” is the subject) and in “George takes risks” (“George” is the doer of the action), both uses of “George” are functionally nominative. In contrast, in the passive-voice sentence “Risks are taken by George,” the noun “risks” is functionally objective.

A noun or noun phrase functions as an appositive when it’s placed next to some other nominative noun to identify or rename it, as in “George, a first cousin of mine, is a risk-taker” (“a first cousin of mine” as an appositive to the subject) and “George, a first cousin mine, took the risk of flying in bad weather” (“a first cousin of mine” as an appositive to the doer of the action).

A noun or noun phrase functions as a subject complement when it’s used in the predicate following a linking verb, and serves to identify or describe the subject of the sentence. For example, in the sentence “Nadine is the winner of the beauty contest,” the noun phrase “the winner of the beauty contest” is the subject complement.

Lastly, a noun functions as a direct address when used to refer to or talk directly to someone, as in “Grace, you are definitely my choice” and “Emilio, see me at my office after lunch.” A direct address is always a proper noun set off by a comma from the main structure of the sentence and doesn’t have a grammatical link to it.

This rounds up my discussion of the four nominative functions of nouns.

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at Follow me at @J8Carillo.


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