pronominal advice sought

Randy Alexander strangeguitars at GMAIL.COM
Tue Jun 30 03:59:07 UTC 2009

On Tue, Jun 30, 2009 at 5:11 AM, Charles Doyle <cdoyle at> wrote:

> For the sequencing of entries, we intend to follow the procedure
> standardized in the great mid-20th-century proverb collections by Archer
> Taylor, M. P. Tilley, and B. J. Whiting. The procedure is this: The
> designated "key word" of a proverb (for alphabetizing purposes) is the first
> noun that occurs; if the proverb contains no noun, then its first finite
> verb; if there is neither, then the first important word of whatever kind.
> The problem is so-called indefinite pronouns. My own early learning about
> the category correlates well with what Quirk and Greenbaum state: that a
> "compound indefinite pronoun" comprises "a determiner morpheme every-,
> some-, any-, or no-, and a nominal morpheme -one, -body, or -thing."  Then a
> (predictable) list follows: everybody, everyone, everything; somebody,
> someone, something; anybody, anyone, anything; nobody, no one, nothing.
> However, most (but not all) modern dictionaries designate "nothing" simply
> as a noun--not only in special uses like "He's just a nothing" but
> (seemingly) in all uses.  I'm wondering why?  Is "nothing" no longer being
> generally regarded as a pronoun?

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (which seems to now be
regarded as the most up-to-date standard reference on English grammar) calls
them compound determinatives.  They are composed of a determinative plus a
nominal.  They have in common with pronouns the ability to function as a
complete NP, but they have more differences than commonalities.  They take
the same pre-head modifiers as ordinary determinatives (not everyone), they
freely take post-head modifiers (anything good), they don't have reflexive
forms, and they don't function anaphorically or deictically.

Dictionaries generally don't seem to pay much attention to getting parts of
speech right.  If a noun can function as a modifier of another noun, they'll
call it an adjective (*gold* watch).  In some cases, POS is difficult to
determine, and in many cases words are converted to other parts of speech in
their usage (nouns are verbed, etc).  But in too many cases, it's just
obvious that no thought went into an attempt at correct, or even consistent,

(In "he's just a nothing", "nothing" is converted to a noun.)

So, no, those words are not pronouns.

A good many of our proverbs begin with "Nothing . . . ."  Should "nothing"
> be the key word, or should it be regarded as transparent?

I see nothing wrong with "nothing" being a keyword if there isn't a word in
the quote that would trump it, like a noun or lexical verb.

Randy Alexander
Jilin City, China
My Manchu studies blog:

The American Dialect Society -

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