May 19, 2004

Terror: not even a noun (says Jon Stewart)

The College of William and Mary booked alumnus Jon Stewart as the alumni commencement speaker this year. To me, the transcript of his address looks insulting, sloppy, and chaotic: it begins with an insult to the institution and the ceremony and then starts going downhill. I can imagine many listening parents being fairly disgusted. But who knows? These days Stewart is being spoken of reverently as having completely redefined political satire with his show on Comedy Central. Maybe they were proud just to have been there in his presence. But I digress. The linguistic point, and I do have one, is that at one stage in his rambling and oddly unfunny remarks, apropos of almost nothing but near some confused stuff about war, Stewart said this:

We declared war on terror. We declared war on terror -- it's not even a noun, so, good luck. After we defeat it, I'm sure we'll take on that bastard ennui

The Curmudgeonly Clerk, a legal blog, was puzzled about this, and rightly so. What could Stewart mean by saying that terror is not a noun? I think I know. Let me explain.

The traditional definition of the term "noun" has a fantastically strong hold on the public imagination. In old-fashioned grammar books it is usually the first line of the first section of the first chapter: "A noun," it will say, "is the name of a person, place, or thing." What Jon Stewart has dimly perceived is that terror is not a person, so we can't assassinate it; it is not a place, so we can't bomb it; and it is not a thing, so we can't find where it is and blow it up -- it has no spatial location.

The trouble is, of course, that the old definition is a complete crock. It is almost useless. Not completely useless, mark you: as Rodney Huddleston and I point out in Chapter 1 of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, it is useful in identifying which of the word classes in a language is the one that corresponds to the class we call noun in English (or any other language we've analyzed). The words we should call nouns in Japanese are the ones in that class of words (and there will be one) which includes the most basic words for kinds of thing, sorts of place, and types of people. There will be Japanese words for rice, bowl, tree, dog, hill, ocean, man, woman, etc. When you've found the grammatical class of words that includes those, you've found the nouns in Japanese.

But you can't use the old-fashioned definition to classify words within a language. The words that name kinds of thing and sorts of place and types of people will be in the class we're after, but so will other words, some of them having meanings that are pretty far from the central core of words that denote natural kinds in the animal, vegetable, and mineral realms.

Of course terror is a noun in English. There is no doubt about that. But don't expect its meaning to settle the issue. The word denotes a kind of feeling. There could easily be a word in which the only way to talk about that kind of feeling was to use adjectives (I'm terrified) or verbs (I tremble). Notice how the French for I'm hungry is J'ai faim (literally, "I have hunger"): for us, an adjective and an expression of predication, and for them, a noun and an expression of possession. Same concept, different grammar.

The way to tell whether a word is a noun in English is to ask questions like: Does it have a plural form (the terrors of childhood)? Does it have a genitive form (terror's effects)? Does it occur with the articles the and a (the terror)? Can you use it as the main or only word in the subject of a clause (Terror rooted me to the spot), or the object of a preposition (war on terror)? And so on. These are grammatical questions. Syntactic and morphological questions. Not semantic ones.

My conjecture (and of course it is only a conjecture: I don't know what was in his mind) is that Jon Stewart was sufficiently in the grip of the traditional definition that he felt terror couldn't be a noun: nouns denote things substantive enough to be attacked, destroyed, touched, owned. Now, I agree entirely that the Bushian phrase "war on terror" is stupid: terror is no more suitable as a target for a war effort than pity, sorrow, caution, shyness, indecision, or ennui. But all those words are nouns.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 19, 2004 06:46 PM