Shell Noun

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

shell noun
Shell nouns, says Hans-Jörg Schmid, "are not defined by inherent properties but constitute a functional linguistic class” (English Abstract Nouns as Conceptual Shells, 2000). Andrew Unangst/Getty Images

In English grammar and cognitive linguistics, a shell noun is an abstract noun that, in a particular context, conveys or refers to a complex idea. A shell noun can be identified on the basis of its behavior in an individual clause, not on the basis of its inherent lexical meaning. Also called container noun and carrier noun.

The term shell noun was coined in 1997 by linguist Hans-Jörg Schmid, who went on to explore the concept at length in English Abstract Nouns as Conceptual Shells (2000). Schmid defines shell nouns as "an open-ended, functionally defined class of abstract nouns that have, to varying degrees, the potential for being used as conceptual shells for complex, proposition-like pieces of information."

"Utterance Context" Is Key

"In essence," says Vyvyan Evans, "the content associated with shell nouns comes from the idea, that is the utterance context, they relate to" (How Words Mean, 2009).

In his study, Schmid considers 670 nouns that can function as shell nouns (including aim, case, fact, idea, news, problem, position, reason, situation, and thing) but notes that "it is impossible to give an exhaustive list of shell nouns because in suitable contexts, many more than [these 670 nouns] can be found in shell noun uses." 

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples of Shell Nouns

Examples can help illustrate how these parts of speech work, as the following linguist explains.

Hans-Jörg Schmid

  • "Given that shell-nounhood is determined by the way speakers put nouns to use, it seems reasonable to introduce two examples of shell nouns in typical contexts as reference points for the further discussion:
    (1) The problem is that the water companies are as loath since privatisation as they were before it to transfer the reservoirs of surplus water to where they are needed. (PAPERS)
    (2) The problem was to safeguard the many civil radar sites round Britain from encroachment by property development. (NEWSCI) ". . . The two examples demonstrate that the relation between shell nouns and the concepts they activate in given uses is variable. What the noun problem conveys in the two examples (or, in cognitive terminology, what kind of conceptualisations it activates in the speech participants) is not the same. The variability is not a case of polysemy. . . . Rather it is due to the fact that the actual conceptual significance of the noun emerges only from its interaction with the context. Shell nouns are, as Ivanic (1991) aptly puts it in the title of her paper, 'nouns in search of a context.'
    " . . . I hold the view that the noun problem only provides conceptual shells, and that these are filled in by two different contents in the two examples. This gives rise to the activation of two different conceptualisations, which are temporary and ephemeral in nature because they are only relevant for one particular speech situation."
    ("Cognitive Effects of Shell Nouns." Discourse Studies in Cognitive Linguistics: Selected Papers From the 5th International Cognitive Linguistics Conference, Amsterday, July 1997, ed. by Karen Van Hoek et al. John Benjamins, 1999)

Purpose of Shell Nouns

Other linguists explain that the purpose of shell nouns—both their function and value—serve to illustrate how they work in a sentence.

Christine S. Sing

  • Primary Functions of Nouns Used as Shell Nouns
    - "What . . . are the functions that define uses of nouns as shell nouns? What do the nouns allow speakers to do? . . . Three functions . . . stand out from the rest because they can be seen to play a role in all uses of shell-content complexes. As a consequence, these three can be used to define the functional class of shell nouns:
    (1) Shell nouns serve the semantic function of characterizing and perspectivizing complex chunks of information which are expressed in clauses or even longer stretches of text.
    (2) Shell nouns serve the cognitive function of temporary concept-formation. This means that they allow speakers to encapsulate these complex chunks of information in temporary nominal concepts with apparently rigid and clear-cut conceptual boundaries.
    (3) Shell nouns serve the textual function of linking these nominal concepts with clauses or other pieces of text which contain the actual details of information, thereby instructing the hearer to interpret different sections of a text together.
    "In view of the fact that many linguistic items have the potential to characterize, form concepts and/or link pieces of text, it must be emphasized that shell nouns fulfill these functions in a very special way. In order to demonstrate this, it will be helpful to compare shell nouns to full content nouns on the one hand, which can be seen as best examples of characterizing and concept-forming linguistic items, and to anaphoric elements such as the personal and demonstrative pronouns on the other, which are arguably the best examples of nominal linking items. . . . Examples of the three types of words are given [below]:
    (a) Full-content nouns: teacher, cat, journey
    (b) Shell nouns: fact, problem, idea, aim
    (c) Pronouns with anaphoric function: she, it, this, that (Hans-Jörg Schmid, English Abstract Nouns as Conceptual Shells: From Corpus to Cognition. Mouton de Gruyter, 2000)
    - "The discourse or rhetorical functions of shell nouns are perhaps the most straightforward category. Similar to pronouns used cataphorically or anaphorically, shell nouns serve as important cohesive devices in discourse."
    ("Shell Noun Patterns in Student Writing in English for Specific Academic Purposes." Twenty Years of Learner Corpus Research. Looking Back, Moving Ahead, ed. by Sylviane Granger et al., Presses universitaires de Louvain, 2013)

Vyvyan Evans

  • Aim as a Shell Noun
    "[T]he semantic value of the shell noun is normally determined by the utterance context. Moreover, the shell noun itself serves to characterize and encapsulate the idea whose meaning it simultaneously takes on. Thus, the meaning associated with the shell noun is, paradoxically, both a function of and a contributor to the utterance context in which it is embedded. To illustrate, consider the following example drawn from Schmid (2000):
    The government's aim is to make GPs more financially accountable,  in charge of their own budgets , as well as to extend the choice of the patient. In [this] example, the shell noun is in bold. The idea the shell noun relates to is [italicized]. The shell noun, the noun phrase in which it occurs, and the idea it relates to, which here is mediated by the copula is, are collectively termed the 'shell-content-complex.'
    " . . . [T]he shell-like function of the shell noun is not an inalienable property of the noun itself, but rather derives from the way it is used. In this example, the speaker presents a particular idea ('to make GPs more financially accountable, in charge of their own budgets, as well as to extend the choice of the patient') as an 'aim.' This provides a particular characterization for the idea. Moreover, by providing this characterization, the shell noun also serves to encapsulate the various components and complex ideas contained in the idea as a single, relatively stable, albeit temporary, concept.
    (How Words Mean: Lexical Concepts, Cognitive Models, and Meaning Construction. Oxford University Press, 2009)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Shell Noun." ThoughtCo, Oct. 10, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, October 10). Shell Noun. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Shell Noun." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).