Language Mag

Nouns are Harder Than Verbs

If you think nouns are harder than verbs in your language learning efforts, then you could well be right. Wordnet lists 117798 nouns versus 11529 verbs. So, not only do the number of possible nouns dwarf the number of possible verbs but research also suggests that even English speaks pause longer over nouns than verbs.

The University of Zurich conducted research into the amount of time we pause when constructing sentences and using nouns and verbs. It turns out that we purposely use interjections such as “um”or “uh” or subconsciously slow down in order to give us time to make the choices needed in a sentence. That concept, in itself, is fascinating because it implies that even as a native speaker of a language, we don’t form full sentences all at once and still put work into building the sentences up; we’re simply unaware that that is what we’re doing.

By measuring these delays in sentence building, we can deduce which parts of a sentence are more complicated to build. Or at least, which parts have more sub-tasks that we need to complete in order to build them. With their research they found that there are more of these pauses and slow downs before nouns than there are before verbs.

The researcher’s explanation for this is that nouns are more difficult to plan as they are only used when they introduce a new concept, otherwise they’re replaced with pronouns. e.g. “I had a car, it was blue”. Thus, seemingly the explanation is that nouns are often a multipart process:

  1. What is the noun I should use
  2. Have I mentioned it before
  3. If yes, use pronoun, if not, use noun

Unfortunately the researchers don’t mention if this delay also shows on the pronoun “it”. The researchers go on to argue that this also shows how some elements of grammar form and explain how more complex grammar forms with verbs rather than nouns.

There are, of course, other possible explanations. We’ve already seen one – there are far more nouns than verbs. It could, simply be, that just like with any database, it takes us longer to “lookup” words from a bigger list. It would be interesting to see how the relationship between complexity of the task and complexity of recall balances out in these pauses during speech patterns. There are also other pauses during speech. The obvious one that comes to mind is after each sentence. Which could also be viewed as a pause at the beginning of each sentence. It could, just as well, be that during this pause before speaking we are more likely to pre-choose some of the components of the sentence and that there is a tendency to pre-choose verbs over nouns.

Finally, what we seem to lack through this theory is an idea of why pronouns have formed then. If it is quicker for me to mentally process and say “I had a car, the car was blue” then is there some benefit to the listener that I use pronouns or do they serve some other purpose?

But at least for now you have an excuse why you’re struggling with nouns in your language learning efforts!


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