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Writing Well: People, Places, Ideas

This post in my series on writing well covers how to use nouns and pronouns.

As we all should remember from grammar school, a noun stands for a person, place, idea, or other thing. A pronoun stands for a noun.

A noun, or pronoun, can fill any of eight functions in a sentence:

Subject: performs the action or exists in the state of being of the sentence. Government is the problem.

Predicate noun: following the verb to be, identifies the subject or something about the subject. Barack Obama is a socialist.

Direct object: receives or shows the result of the action. Barack Obama won the election.

Indirect object: tells to/for whom/what the action of the verb is done and receives the direct object. Liberal Republicans gave Barack Obama his election victory.

Appositive: identifies a preceding noun or pronoun or something about it. John McCain, a philosophical vacuum, was a terrible candidate.

Object of a preposition: completes a prepositional phrase. The election was lost by John McCain.

Noun of possession: identifies who/what has something. Bail-outs threaten America’s moral well-being.

Noun of direct address: identifies who is being addressed: I hope that you, dear reader, are finding this series helpful.

Nouns are not necessarily single words. Phrases and clauses can also act as nouns:

Rewarding irresponsible businesses with taxpayers’ money is morally hazardous. The complete subject of this simple sentence is the phrase Rewarding irresponsible businesses with taxpayers’ money. (Rewarding is a gerund, a verb form ending in -ing used as a noun.)

That governments are instituted to secure inalienable rights is a proposition on which the United States was founded. The complete subject of this complex sentence is the clause That governments are instituted to secure inalienable rights.

In most sentences, verbs are the most important words, because they convey the action. But nouns are second in importance, because they tell who or what is involved in the action, and so they give the action its meaning.

One of the best ways to add zest to your writing is to use nouns that bring a sense of life, especially people and places. The more abstract your subject matter, the more you need the concreteness of something real, which can help your ideas resonate. Passages without people in them are a little spooky, so try to add a few sentences showing how whatever you’re writing about affects real people. Physical settings help the reader picture what you’re writing about, so try to define and describe a place where something is happenning. The nouns you use help determine how long and how strongly your writing stays with your reader, so choose them well.

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