I'm doing some research in NLP, and thought you guys would be the best to ask this.

When looking at an English sentence, it is sometimes hard for a computer to distinguish between proper nouns, such as Bill, and common (non-proper) nouns, such as bill as in He gave me a bill.

At first I thought, 'Oh, I'll just see if it's capitalized.' I'm wary to do this though, since I'm not sure if that pattern will hold as a rule.

Then, I noticed that every time a common noun begins a sentence (and almost always when it is used in a sentence), it is preceded by one of the articles a, an, or the. Is this a rule I can count on? Can anyone think of counterexamples?

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    Imperatives might throw you. Bill me next week. – Kit Z. Fox Apr 3 '13 at 12:03
  • So might non-count nouns like water (is wet), furniture (is expensive), sex (is overrated), and plural count nouns like _guns (don't kill people), people (are funny), kids (say the darnedest things), etc. – user21497 Apr 3 '13 at 12:58
  • Didn't think about these. sigh – Sean Allred Apr 3 '13 at 13:18
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    Night had fallen. Days had gone by with no sight of land. Water was our foreground, our background, our everything. Daylight always brought hope, nightfall only disappointment. – Robusto Apr 3 '13 at 13:18
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    I feel I've been foxed. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 3 '13 at 17:57

I don't think you can conclude that at all. Sentences often begin with plural common nouns without an article, and they often begin with abstract common nouns without an article.

  • Very good points. – Sean Allred Apr 3 '13 at 13:16

Nouns don't have to be preceded by an article, but often are for discourse reasons. There are many examples of sentence-initial common nouns (the standard term, not 'non-proper noun'). Counterexamples are common, just look at this sentence (or my first sentence) for two such.

  • Thanks for the 'common noun' bit - middle school was a long time ago ;) edited into question – Sean Allred Apr 3 '13 at 13:14
  • I would put forward that Counterexamples is in the plural, where almost no proper noun would be. – Sean Allred Apr 3 '13 at 13:17
  • @vermiculus Um, there are uncountably many proper nouns that are plural in number. – tchrist Apr 3 '13 at 13:45
  • @vermiculus Abstract nouns can also begin sentences, but function as singulars. ("Cleanliness is next to godliness.") – David Richerby Mar 10 '14 at 23:51

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