Substantive (Grammar)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

substantive
"The updated term for substantive is nominal, and it applies to any noun or pronoun or any word, phrase, or clause that performs the same function as a noun" (Strumpf and Douglas, The Grammar Bible, 2004). (Martin Barraud/Getty Images)

In traditional grammar, a substantive is a word or a group of words that functions as a noun or noun phrase.

In contemporary language studies, the more common term for a substantive is nominal.

In some forms of construction grammar, substantive is used in a broad sense that's unrelated to the traditional meaning of substantive (or noun). As Peter Koch observes in "Between Word Formation and Meaning Change," "It simply has the sense of 'constituted by one or more particular lexical or grammatical items'" (Morphology and Meaning, 2014).

(See Hoffman's remarks in Examples and Observations below.)

Etymology
From the Latin, "substance"

Examples and Observations

  • "Doctors have asserted many times over the centuries that walking is good for you, but medical advice has never been one of the chief attractions of literature."
    (Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Penguin, 2001)
  • "The motion was eager, shy, exquisite, diffident, trusting: he saw all its meanings and knew that she would never stop gesturing within him, never; though a decree come between them, even death, her gestures would endure, cut into glass."
    (John Updike, "Gesturing." The Early Stories: 1953-1975. Random House, 2007)
  • "A [substantive is a] grammatical term that in the Middle Ages included both noun and adjective, but later meant noun exclusively. It is not usually found in later 20c English grammars. . . . However, the term has been used to refer to nouns and any other parts of speech serving as nouns ('the substantive' in English). The adjective local is used substantively in the sentence He had a drink at the local before going home (that is, the local public house)."
    (Sylvia Chalker and Tom McArthur, "Substantive." The Oxford Companion to the English Language, Oxford University Press, 1992)
  • "A substantive noun or a substantive is . . . a name which can stand by itself, in distinction from an adjective noun or an adjective. It is the name of an object of thought, whether perceived by the senses or the understanding. . . . Substantive and noun are, in common use, convertible terms."
    (William Chauncey Fowler, English Grammar. Harper & Brothers, 1855)
  • Substantive Nouns and Adjectival Nouns
    - "In Aristotelian, and scholastic, terminology, 'substance' is more or less synonymous with 'entity.' It is this by now almost obsolete sense of 'substance' which gave rise to the term 'substantive' for what, in modern terminology, are normally called nouns."
    (John Lyons, Natural Language and Universal Grammar: Essays in Linguistic Theory. Cambridge University Press, 1991) 
    - "The objects of our thoughts are either things, like the earth, the sun, water, wood, what is ordinarily called substance, or else are the manner or modification of things, like being round, being red, being hard, being learned, what is called accident. . . .
    "It is this which has engendered the principal difference among the words which signify the objects of thought. For those words which signify substances have been called substantive nouns, and those which signify accidents, . . . have been called adjectival nouns."
    (Antoine Arnauld and Claude Lancelot, 1660, quoted by Roy Harris and Talbot J. Taylor, Landmarks In Linguistic Thought. Routledge, 1997)
  • Substantives in Construction Grammar
    "[C]hildren acquire language based on a specific lexical input. For example, they first acquire fully substantive constructions (i.e. structures in which all positions are filled such as I wanna ball). Only gradually do they then schematize these constructions by replacing a substantive lexical item by a variable slot (I wanna ball thus becomes I wanna X and X can then be filled by doll, apple, etc.)."
    (Thomas Hoffman, "English Relative Clauses and Construction Grammar." Constructional Approaches to English Grammar, ed. by Graeme Trousdale and Nikolas Gisborne. Mouton de Gruyter, 2008)

    Pronunciation: SUB-sten-tiv