Grammar grab

Suppose the class hamster has died and you ask pupils to write an obituary. How might they report the event?

Our hamster has died.

We've just heard about the death of our hamster.

Notice the two grammatical possibilities for talking about the event: the verb died or the noun death. This is so useful, even though these words both have more or less the same meaning.

The verb is fine in verby patterns such as

Our hamster almost died yesterdaywhere the adverb almost fits comfortably with the verb died. Try using death instead and you'll find that however hard you try you can't force it together with almost: our hamster's almost death.

But nouny patterns demand a noun. If you use death you can make a noun phrase such as this one little death:

This one little death left us all feeling sad.

No amount of ingenuity will give this meaning with a verb. Die little doesn't work, and die littlely is even worse; and this die or die this isn't even worth considering.

The pair die - death is an example of a very common grammatical pattern that every writer should be aware of. Very many verbs - perhaps most verbs - have a corresponding noun that can also be used to describe the same situation. They can all be used in this kind of sentence where the verb statesthe event and the noun is used in a comment on it:

She died, but not many people thought

about her death.

Here are some more examples:

arrive - arrival

depart - departure

lose - loss

Try them:

She arrived, but not many people thought

about her arrival.

She lost her purse, but not many people

thought about her loss.

Notice how unpredictable these particular forms are - not one noun is formed in the same way as any of the others. Some noun - verb pairs are completely different; for example, what is the noun from beat, (as in I'll beat you at chess)? (Or, putting it the other way round, what is the verb for victory?) The point is that you know that they're related because you know their meanings, in spite of their different forms.

It is important that pupils explore this feature of language. Some text-types are dominated by nouns. For example, many of the non-fiction texts we find most difficult to understand employ heavy nominalisation - legal documents, for example ("the policy remains within the ownership of the purchaser" rather than "the person buying the policy owns it").

So the more our pupils become familiar with the choices within their language toolbox, the more secure they will become in reading and writing a range of texts.

Richard Hudson is professor of linguistics at University College, London Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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