Nominal sentence

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Nominal sentence is a linguistic term that refers to a nonverbal sentence (i.e. a sentence without a finite verb).[1] As a nominal sentence does not have a verbal predicate, it may contain a nominal predicate, an adjectival predicate, an adverbial predicate or even a prepositional predicate.[1]

The relation of nominal sentences to verbal sentences is a question of tense marking. In most languages with nominal sentences such as Russian, Arabic and Hebrew, the copular verb does not surface in present tense sentences. Conversely, these languages allow the copular verb in non-present sentences.


Historically, nominal sentences have posited much controversy regarding their identity as an existent linguistic phenomenon. Ancient grammatical tradition did not uncover such sentences, or if they did, they were only found as an exception to the language structure. This was the view taken by the Western grammatical tradition, which began with an analysis of Ancient Greek followed by an analysis of Latin.

However, this Western/ European approach to nominal sentences was not how the Arab grammarians of the early Middle Ages approached it. Arab grammarians did not feel as bound by the classical grammatical categories as did the European counterparts of that historical period. Rather, they viewed a sentence to have two basic categories: (1) a verbal sentence that begins with a noun, and (2) a nominal sentence that begins with a noun and may or may not have a verb within it.

Moving forward in the historical time period, Orientalists later borrowed the 'nominal sentence' terminology from the early Arab grammarians, however modified it slightly to be defined solely with respect to the absence of the verbal predicate, rather than with respect to the first word of the sentence (the noun) that may or may not have a verb in it, as the Arab grammarians defined it. This slight shift in the definition of nominal sentences corresponds partly to both the Western and the Arabic Grammar tradition. The Orientalists’ definition agrees with the Western grammar’s focus of the predicate orientation, and it supports how the Arab grammarians included a sentence category of nominal sentences (nonverbal sentences). Since this new definition of nominal sentences corresponded more accurately to the notion of ‘non-verbal sentences’, compared to the Arab definition of it ‘may or may not contain a verb’, the Orientalists’ definition included predicate types other than verbs (nouns, adjectives, etc.).[2]

Syntactic structure and analyses

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Figure 1. Different phrase structure trees of Arabic "I happy" according to zero copula analysis

To successfully account for the syntactic structure of a nominal sentence, there must either be a change in the phrase structure rules or a zero copula must be assumed. This is because nominal sentences cannot be accounted for using traditional phrase structure rules, which state: TP → {NP/ CP} (T) (VP).[3] In other words, a tense phrase must consist of a noun phrase or complementizer phrase, an optional tense head, and a verb phrase. Less technically, this means each sentence must have a noun and verb component. Because there is no overt verb in a nominal sentence, this creates a challenge for the theory.

Taking an Arabic sentence like "ana saaeed" (أنا سعيد), literally, "I happy," which is fully grammatical in the language, we see that there is a noun, "ana" and an adjective "saaeed." Ana satisfies the sentence requirement of having a noun, but saaeed is an adjective, not a verb, so our verb requirement remains unfulfilled. In order to allow this construction, we would have to revise our theory to state *TP → NP {VP/AP} (the * indicates that this is actually an ungrammatical construction), meaning you could have a sentence which breaks down to either a verb phrase or an adjective phrase (see Figure 1). However, phrase structure rules are supposed to be universal, therefore this new rule would also allow us to generate "I happy" in English. Since "I happy" is not a grammatical sentence in English, this is an issue that requires attention.

Another problem is that each phrase must consist of a head which bears its name. Therefore, in a verb phrase, the head is always a verb.[3] Again, nominal sentences like "ana saaeed" do not have a verb, so the verb head position in the verb phrase cannot be filled.

Having a zero copula is one way to solve the problems listed above without compromising the existing syntactic theory. The verb is present, just covertly as "null."

Figure 2. English and Arabic trees of "I am happy"

Using X-bar theory, it is possible to both account for the grammaticality of constructions such as "I happy" as well as explain how the subject DP is derived. In X-bar theory, there are no obligatory lexical categories that make up a sentence; instead, there are only general X-bar rules: the specifier rule, adjunct rule, and complement rule.[4] Therefore, the theory accurately permits the AP "happy" as grammatical even without a verb since AP can be a complement to the T head (see Figure 2).
Additionally, under the VP-internal subject hypothesis,[5] the subject "I" will be generated in the specifier of VP and, using the DP movement,[6] it will move to the specifier position of TP. Consequently, the resulting surface structure of the nominal sentence "I happy" is properly generated under this analysis.

Nominal sentences in English

Nominal sentences in English are relatively uncommon, but may be found in non-finite embedded clauses such as the one in, "I consider John intelligent," where to be is omitted from John to be intelligent.

They can also be found in newspaper headlines, such as "Jones Winner" where the intended meaning is with the copular verb, "Jones is the Winner".[7]

Other examples are proverbs ("More haste, less speed"); requests ("Scalpel!"); and statements of existence ("Fire in the hole!"), which are often warnings.

A sentence such as "What a great day today!" is for example considered nominal because it doesn't have a verb.

Nominal sentences in Arabic

Present tense in Nominal Sentences

Verbless sentences in Arabic do not consist of a subject but rather a topic followed by a predicate.[8] They are only possible in present tense sentences. Below are examples of verbless sentences with NP, AdjP or PP predicates.

[8] NP predicate

 (1) الرجل مدرس
     al-rajul-u muddaris-un
     the man teacher
     "the man is a teacher"

Example 2[8] AdjP predicate

Arabic الرجل مريض
Transliteration al-rajul-u mareedh-un
Literal translation the man sick
English translation "the man is sick"

Example 3[8] PP predicate

Arabic الرجل في المدرسة
Transliteration al-rajulu fi al-madrassah
Literal translation the man in the school
English translation "the man is in the school"

All the examples above are perfectly grammatical in Arabic since they all refer to the present tense and therefore do not require verbs.

Past tense in Nominal Sentences

As stated above, verbless sentences occur only in the present tense thus, a formal nominal sentence in Arabic can never express something in the Past tense. That is, the past feature has to always be indicated morphologically to convey accurate information of (+past), unlike the present which can be referred to as tenseless.[8] The following is an example of a past tense sentence in formal or written Arabic:

Example 4[8]

Arabic ًكان الرجل مريضا
Transliteration kaan-a al-rajul-u mariD-an
Literal translation was the man sick
English translation "the man was sick"

Demonstrated by the sentence above is the idea that tense is a guiding factor to the use of nominal sentences in Arabic. A sentence in the past always requires the "was" or [kaana] (+past) verb.

Negation in Nominal Sentences

Nominal sentences can be negated in different ways depending on tense and whether or not they are embedded.[9] The following is an example of a negative nominal sentence in the present tense, using the formal Arabic negative particle "laysa".

Example 5[10]

Arabic الولد ليس طويلاً
Transliteration al-walad-u laysa tawil-an
Literal translation the boy not tall
English translation "the boy is not tall"

The negative particle (laysa) by itself has the meaning of a present tense and it is used to negate a general existence; so it means something along the lines of "there does not exist" or "there is not".[11] Thus, it can only negate a tenseless sentence where an overt copula is not necessary.

In order to negate a nominal sentence in the past, however, the copular verb must be included. The following is an example of a negative past sentence using the negative particle "lam".

Example 6[10]

Arabic الولد لم يكن طويلاً
Transliteration al-walad-u lam yakun tawil-an
Literal translation the boy was not be tall
English translation "the boy was not tall"

It is important to note that the negative particle (lam) is a tense marker of (+past). Therefore, it negates a lexically present tense, yet the negation is meant to refer to the past. Past negative sentences are, therefore, similar to the affirmative past tense sentences in that a past feature must be marked.

Nominal sentences in other languages


For some languages, nominal sentences are restricted to third person only. Hungarian is an excellent example of such a language. In Hungarian, the copular verb simply expresses something that exists, such as something, someone, a place, or even time, weather, a material, an origin, a cause or purpose.[12] In third person proposition sentences (both singular and plural), there are no copular verbs required[13] and instead, the copular is null.[12]

Example 7

Transliteration a ház magas
Literal translation the house high
English translation "the house is high"


In Russian, there are no restrictions on verbless propositional sentences as they can occur with all persons and all numbers (i.e., singular or plural).[14] Despite such restrictions and variability however, seen in both Russian and Hungarian above, there are no structural differences between the languages.[13] Instead, these differences are derived by whether or not there must be a relation with the verbal constructions and the copular verb.

Example 8

Transliteration vy uchitel'
Literal translation you teacher
English translation "you are a teacher"

Example 9

Transliteration dom malen’kij
Literal translation house small
English translation "the house is small"

Example 10

Transliteration otec rabotaet
Literal translation father works
English translation "father is working"


In Hebrew, sentences may or may not include verbs since verbs are optional and not at all obligatory. Also, the order of words is quite flexible such that for the sentences that do include verbs, the verb can appear either before or after the nominal predicate, adjectival predicate or prepositional predicate; the nominal predicate can appear either before or after the adjectival predicate, prepositional predicate; and so on, all of which are possible combinations that still mean the same thing. Although for the sentences that lack verbs, only two combinations are possible: either the nominal predicate appears before or after the adjectival/ prepositional predicate. And like Arabic, the copular verb is simply implied, in fact, there are no present tense forms of the verb "to be" in any stage of Hebrew, ancient or modern.

Example 11

Hebrew אני פה
Transliteration ani po
Literal translation I here
English translation "I am here"

Example 12

Hebrew הסוס יפה
Literal translation (the) horse beautiful
English translation "the horse is beautiful"[15]

Ancient Indo-European languages

In ancient Indo-European languages, verb inflections and context both play a significant role in determining the structure of the sentence as well as their translations to other languages.
Verb inflections are used to indicate person (first, second or third), number (singular, dual or plural), tense, voice, and mood.[16] Also, personal endings, which are suffixes that attach to verbs, are specifically used to express person and number and consist of nine different forms: alternating combinations between the three persons and three numbers.[17]

Context determines whether the simple present and present progressive (for example, "I eat" vs. "I am eating") indicates the present or future tense. This is a common phenomenon found in English as well, since the sentence "I am eating in the cafeteria" can either mean "I am eating in the cafeteria [right now]" or "I am eating in the cafeteria [next Tuesday]".[18] Additionally, the present tense can be used to talk about either the present or the past and which one it implies is determined by context. For instance, "We went to the mall [yesterday]. James buys a new bike", where without the context ([yesterday]) the action of buying would take place in the present but in this very sentence, it occurs in the past.[18]
Thus for the examples below, the omitted copular verb only acts and implies a connection between the subject and predicate. Due to the missing verbal inflections, only the suffixes that are attached to the nominal predicates can be used to determine such things as number and possession. As to what time the sentences are describing, it depends entirely on the context of when the sentences are being used and/ or the preceding and following sentences.

Example 13: Ancient Greek

Ancient Greek ἐμοὶ δ'ἄχος
Transliteration emoì d'áchos
English translation "and to me [there is] pain"

Example 14: Latin

Transliteration ūna salūs victīs
English translation "one salvation [is/remains] for the conquered"

Example 15: Old Persian

Transliteration manā pitā Vištāspa
English translation "my father [is] Vištāspa"

Example 16: Tocharian A

Transliteration tsraṣiñ waste wrasaśśi
English translation "the strong [are] the protection of the creatures"

See also


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Further reading

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