Literary Stylistics:
Workshop Notes no. 2

Looking at Nouns, Verbs and Other Simple Constituents

Some Key Terms in These Notes

Students of linguistics should be familiar with most of these terms. You should do an auto-quiz on what these terms mean before you read the notes.

abstract noun accusative case agreement articles aspect auxiliary verb case
closed category common noun concord concrete noun content verb countability countable noun
dative case definite article determiners direct object ditransitive verb -ed participle finiteness
finite verb function verbs gender genitive case indefinite article indirect object inflection
intransitive verb lexical item lexical verb modal auxiliary verb morpheme nominative case non-finite verb
non-transitive verb number number concord numerals past tense perfect aspect perfective
person phrasal verb plural possessive case present tense primary auxiliary verb progressive aspect
pronoun progressive aspect proper noun singular subject-verb agreement tense transitive verb
transitivity uncountable noun          


In these notes, we will be dealing with the various ways we can look at nouns and verbs, and how these lexical categories can be used for stylistic analysis. There should be nothing new here for you, as we will be dealing with some of the basic facts of the English language. In relation to nouns, we will be using chapter four of Randolph Quirk and Sidney Greenbaum's A University Grammar of English as our basic reference. At a more elementary level, you may also find the following electronic document from Anthony Hughes' An Online English Grammar useful: section on nouns (see its table of contents). Hypertext links to Hughes' book will be made in the rest of this document.

Morpheme & Lexical Item

Before we proceed further, the two following concepts need to be recalled:

The morpheme is the lowest unit of meaning. Some words in English are distinguished as belonging to one or another meaningful category by adding or taking out the appropriate morphemes to or from them (a frequently cited instance is adding the morpheme '-ed' at the end of certain verbs to indicate the past tense in English). For a fuller definition of morpheme, see:

A word should be distinguished from a lexical item. A lexical item, which is also known as a lexical unit, may be larger than a morpheme, and may consist of more than one word. 'Motion pictures' for example, consists of two words, but is a single lexical item. Lexical items with two or more words need not be confined to nouns. Phrasal verbs, which will be dealt with below, are also lexical items that consist of two words. Words are easier to count than lexical items:  they can be conveniently counted using a word processing software, but it is more difficult to reliably count lexical items, even with more recent software.

Recalling Some Aspects of Nouns & Other Simple Constituents

Countability and Number

Among the basic facts of English which you should already know are:

That nouns can be
countable or uncountable.
And that a countable noun can either be
singular or plural.

The plural is usually indicated by adding the appropriate plural morpheme at the end (such as '-s' '-en' etc.).

In relation to the countable / uncountable distinction, it may be of stylistic relevance, in your analysis of a passage, to ask the question whether it is possible for the writer, character, or speaker to use an uncountable noun instead of a countable one, or vice versa. We may also note here that there are some uncountable nouns which are treated as countable in recent English. Words such as 'knowledges' and 'imageries' have appeared in the plural form (and are therefore regarded as countable, although they are traditionally treated as uncountable in English): you may ask yourselves if any stylistic significance is achieved by doing this.

Proper and Common Nouns

Another distinction found in traditional grammar, is that between
proper and common nouns.
As you know, proper nouns are names, such as 'John', 'Singapore' and 'Christmas', and are often capitalised, whereas common nouns form the bulk of the nouns in an English dictionary. In a text, the use of a proper noun as against a common noun may be of stylistic significance. (You may encounter other considerations in the analysis of pronouns in relation to the analysis of cohesion). Repeating a person's name, for example, instead of using the appropriate common noun or pronoun, may make the text sound formal, or even reverential, although sarcasm may be intended.

Abstract and Concrete Nouns

Traditionally, nouns are also regarded as either
abstract or concrete.
A concrete noun refers to an object which can be directly perceived by our senses, like 'tree' or 'building', whereas an abstract noun refers to an idea or concept, such as 'society' or 'thought'. Stylistically, the frequent use of abstract nouns in a text may lead us to describe the text as thoughtful, scholarly, pedantic etc. especially when it is possible to use concrete nouns instead of their abstract counterparts.


Gender refers to the male or female variants of certain nouns, such as 'actor'/'actress', 'waiter'/'waitress' or pronouns such as 'he'/'she', 'him'/'her'. Gender is a prominent issue in the study of stylistics today. It becomes especially significant in the study of the style (and ideology) of recent writing when the writer (or narrator, character, speaker etc.) can resort to a gender-neutral lexical item, but resorts instead to a gender-marked noun or pronoun.


Also connected to nouns are the numerals. Stylistically, a person who is fond of giving numerical figures such as '501' or '56' instead of less precise quantifiers such as 'many' or 'some' may be interested in precision, but may otherwise be regarded (depending on the context) as pedantic, overscrupulous, overly detailed etc.

Possessive Case

In English , what is known as the genitive or possessive case, is indicated at the end of the noun with an 's' (in writing, a singular noun ends with an apostrophe followed by an 's', and a plural noun ends with an 's' followed by an apostrophe). The noun with this construction usually indicates that the person/being/thing which it refers to owns the referent of the noun which immediately follows it, but other meanings are possible in the genitive case in English (eg. that the referent of the second noun is located within the first one, etc.).


The word pronoun has been used earlier in this handout, and you all know what personal pronouns such as 'I', 'you', 'they' etc. are. Some or all pronouns are inflected according to

The genitive case inflections for pronouns are quite different from that of other nouns: only 'it' has the 's' suffix following the noun referring to the possessor; as you know, the other pronouns which refer to the possessor are my-our/your/his-her-their. Another difference is that pronouns in English are inflected in relation to the nominative (or subjective) and accusative/dative (or objective) cases as well. These cases occur in relation to the position of the noun in the clause: eg. a) 'I criticised him', b) 'We gave the money to him'. We may note here that the 'I' in example a) and the 'We' in example b) are in the nominative case (i.e. the form of the pronoun is inflected by its position as the subject of the clause), and that the 'him' in example a) is in the accusative case (i.e. the form is inflected by its direct object position), whereas that in example b) is in the dative case (i.e. the form is inflected by its indirect object position). We may also note here that the accusative and dative cases for the pronouns in English have the same form.


There is a range of determiners in English, some of which will be mentioned again in the workshop notes on cohesion (where they are classified under demonstratives). Determiners add a further dimension to the analysis and interpretation of texts. Among the more frequently encountered determiners are the articles, which can be definite ('the') or indefinite ('a'). The stylistic significance of the articles is self-explanatory; in addition to the conventional interpretation, you may find that the definite article, especially if its accompanying noun appears for the first time, may reveal what the writer (or narrator, character, speaker etc.) regards as knowledge which is shared by the reader. (However, the use of 'the' in relation to an accompanying noun for the first time in an extract from a longer work may tell us what we should have known from our reading of an earlier part of the work).

Function Words

Determiners, like pronouns (above) and auxiliary verbs (below) are sometimes described as function words (or grammatical words). Conversely, nouns, verbs (more specifically lexical verbs: see below), adjectives and adverbs are classified as lexical words (or content words).

Recalling Some Aspects of Verbs

We will next go to some aspects of verbs, many of which you should already know. The recommended chapter in Randolph Quirk and Sidney Greenbaum's A University Grammar of English is chapter three. At a more elementary level, you may also find the relevant pages from Anthony Hughes An On-Line English Grammar useful.

Auxiliary or Lexical

The verbs in English can be generally categorised in terms of

The auxiliary verbs perform their function only in relation to the lexical verbs (and are hence sometimes also known as function verbs). Auxiliary verbs, unlike lexical verbs, are sometimes described as a closed category, as their total number is limited, and has not changed very much in the recent history of the language. Due to their limited number, all the auxiliary verbs in English, unlike the lexical verbs, can be conveniently listed in a typical grammar of English.

Some of the auxiliary verbs are categorised as modal, whereas the others can be categorised as primary.

The primary auxiliary verbs in English are
do, have, and be.
The modal auxiliary verbs are
can, could, may, might, shall, should, will, would, must, used to, need, dare.
One must be careful with these examples, because some of them can function as lexical verbs. All the primary auxiliary verbs for example, depending on their meaning, can function as lexical verbs, and this is also true for some of the modal auxiliaries, such as need and dare (and arguably, will and would, although their meanings are different from those of their auxiliary equivalents).

In order to see whether a verb functions as an auxiliary, we have to see whether its essential function is to modify another verb; if the verb stands on its own, then it should be regarded as a lexical verb.

For example, the verbs in the following clauses are all lexical:
    'he needs some money',
    'he has two houses',
    'she is a teacher'.

However, the same verbs are auxiliary in the following examples, because they modify other verbs:
    'he needn't do it',
    'he has done it',
    'she is doing it'.


Verbs in English can be

Non-finite verbs in English are usually indicated by the word 'to' preceding the verb, or by the morpheme '-ing' at the end of the verb. A finite verb has tense, i.e. past or present tense (see the next paragraph and the next section of this document).

A finite verb in the present tense also has a relationship of concord with the subject of the clause. This means that the verb has to agree in number with the subject (i.e. whether it is singular or plural). As you know, if the subject is singular, the (present tense) verb ends with an 's', '-ies' etc., but if it is plural, this morpheme is not present.

We may note here that number concord is not present (at least in form) in the modal auxiliaries (and this may be one way by which we can judge whether these verbs function as modal auxiliary or lexical verbs: i.e. if number concord is evident, then the verb is a lexical verb).

We have noted earlier that a finite verb has a relationship of concord with the subject of the clause, but this does not mean that for a noun to be regarded as a subject, the succeeding verb has to have a relationship of grammatical concord with it, nor need the verb be finite. For example, in the clause 'Jack asks Richard to do him a favour', 'Jack' is the subject of the finite verb 'asks', while Richard is the subject of the non-finite verb 'to do'.

For an electronic document which gives you some advice on subject-verb agreement in English (which I notice is a weak point of many students, including those doing English language), you may want to take a look at Making Subjects and Verbs Agree, which is produced by the On-line Writing Lab of Purdue University.


It was mentioned in the previous paragraph that finite verbs have tense as a feature. As you know, there are two tenses in English:

Past tense in English is usually indicated by a morpheme spelt with a '-d' or '-ed' at the end of the verb, but as you know, there are a number of irregular verbs where past tense is indicated by other means, eg. 'to see' -- 'saw', 'to go' -- 'went', 'to sing' -- 'sang' etc. (The so-called future tense is indicated by the auxiliary verb 'will' before the lexical verb).

Note: There are some interesting observations on tense in the Frequently Asked Questions of alt.usage.english, especially with regard to what people (including I dare say, some English Language students) regard as 'tense'. From a compositional perspective, you may also be interested in the documents Sequence of Tenses and Tense Consistency, produced by the On-Line Writing Lab of Purdue University. You will notice that some scholars do not make a firm distinction between tense and aspect, which I make here (although even in my case, I do describe aspect as secondary tense)


Related to tense is aspect, where one specifies whether the action denoted by a verb

As you know, one uses the perfect aspect, which is indicated by the auxiliary verb 'to have', followed by a lexical verb in the form of what is sometimes called the '-ed participle' in the grammar of English, to specify that an action has already been done at a particular point of time. The perfective in English can either be in the present or past tense (indicating that the action has been done at the present moment of the discourse, or at a point of time to the past of the discourse).

The progressive aspect is indicated by the auxiliary verb 'to be', followed by the lexical verb, which is in the form of what is called the '-ing participle' in the grammar of English, to specify that an action is (or was) still going on at a particular point of time. Again, the progressive in English can either be in the present or past tense (indicating that the action is going on at the present moment of the discourse, or at a point of time to the past of the discourse).


Finally, let us look at the meaning of the word transitive. One way by which this concept can be understood, is to look at the verb in relation to the

For example, in the clause
    'We gave the money to him',
    'We' is the subject, 'the money' is the direct object and 'him' is the indirect object, as illustrated in the table below.

We gave the money to him
Subject Verb Direct Object
Indirect Object

Our interest here however, is more on the verb, and when we put our focus on this, we notice that not all verbs behave in the same way as the verb 'to give'. Many verbs, for example, do not carry the indirect object (eg. 'to shave', 'to see', 'to dream'), and some can function without the direct object ('to laugh', 'to run', 'to chatter').

You should know that

Phrasal Verbs

Not every verb consists of a single word. Some verbs consist of two or even three words, such as 'round off' and 'face up to'. In each of the given examples, the preposition or prepositions following the first word are not prepositions in their own right, but part of the phrasal verb. Some phrasal verbs allow a word or phrase to be inserted between their earlier and later components, thus splitting the phrasal verb into two:

One way to check whether we are dealing with a phrasal verb or a verb followed by a preposition, is to see whether the preposition or particle that follows the verb initiates a prepositional phrase by placing the phrase which the preposition is supposed to initiate elsewhere. Let us look at the phrase 'stood by' which may depend on its context to determine whether it is a phrasal verb or a verb followed by a preposition:

In 2, 'by the river' can easily be placed at the beginning, without significantly changing the meaning of the clause:

However, the acceptability of moving 'by him' in 3 to the beginning appears to be questionable:

The clause in 5 above may still be acceptable, but the meaning has been changed to become closer to the meaning of 1 and 3 instead of 2 (to stand physically instead of supporting or defending the person indicated by the pronoun). Also, 'stood' in 5, if the change in meaning is allowed, is no longer part of a phrasal verb, but a one-word lexical item that stands on its own.

Advice on the Analysis of Verbs in Literary Stylistics

It needs to be emphasised here that in literary stylistics, our primary interest is not on the various categories we can put these verbs into, but how the verbs function in the given work or abstract. There are no easy formulas here, but we can make some very brief preliminary general observations which, it is hoped, will not be regarded as inviolable or exhaustive.

Texts to Analyse

Shakespeare's Sonnet 116
Extract from D. H. Lawrence's The Fox
Extract from Dickens' Our Mutual Friend (short example from the text)
Extract from Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway (short example from the text)
Extract from Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona

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Ismail S. Talib 1995-2017.
Last revised: 9 May 2017