There's a thing I'd like to ask, it's something you might know.

When we say "bring me that thing over there" or "it's with my things", how do we grammatically classify this use of thing in English? In neurology it is thought of as a symptom of anomic aphasia, but I'm searching for a grammatical category.

I've looked up filler word, but that seems to be for things like um and ah. A placeholder seems to be for Joe Bloggs and widgets. Cambridge Dictionary classifies it as a vague expression, but that seems a bit vague. Circumlocution is too broad a category as well. A substitution, as I understand it, is a term from discourse analysis that explains use of one, so and do to avoid repetition. Ellipsis is substitution with a null expression. So where does that leave us with this use of thing? Of all these, I'd probably opt for substitution, but that seems to be not quite correct. Maybe 'substitute noun' or 'noun substitution'? But this doesn't seem quite elegant. Is there a generally accepted term to describe this occurrence?

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    The concept of the thing is universal and not specific to the English language. The question may elicit more detailed/elaborate/scholarly responses on Linguistics – Kris Nov 2 '18 at 7:52
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    The thing is, there is nothing grammatically or even semantically 'wrong' with the sentence "Bring me that thing over there." Semantically, "thing" is a broad hypernym for a wide class of entities. However, in the situation I think you trying to describe, the speaker might have a problem with pragmatics. This is not specific to English, as @Kris said, and you may get better answers over at Linguistics Stack Exchange. – Mark Beadles Nov 5 '18 at 19:55
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    ...in fact, what I suspect you're referring to is something like "hypernym substitution as a form of lexical selection error". Does that sound like it might be on the right track? – Mark Beadles Nov 5 '18 at 19:59
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is not English-specific and may get better answers at linguistics.stackexchange.com – Mark Beadles Nov 5 '18 at 20:03

Grammatically, thing, noun, is:

1 An object that one need not, cannot, or does not wish to give a specific name to.

(ODOL https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/thing)

It's not a substitution for something, it's not a placeholder, not a pronoun for a noun, not a vague or evasive alternative to a more concrete object. It's an entity in its own right.

The above definition lists the situations where the noun is aptly used; note the first item in the list is need not.

  • I think that depends on its use. I made a mistake in my question when I offered two examples: 1) "bring me that thing over there" and 2) "it's with my things". The second example is as you say, a noun in its own right - that's just what we say when referring to 'a number of objects' - it isn't vague, although arguably is a substitution for tediously listing a luggage manifest. The first example is different: if ordinarily we would know the name of the object then you are being vague to say 'thing' instead. – IanS Nov 2 '18 at 22:10
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    Think again, they're of one class. – Kris Nov 5 '18 at 9:44

In a crude sense 'thing' by itself maybe meaningful, but in your context - aphasia, you'd like a label to describe the process through which 'thing' was used instead of a correct word. In that case I'd say it is a 'Placeholder Name'.

Placeholder names are words that can refer to objects or people whose names are temporarily forgotten, irrelevant, or unknown in the context in which they are being discussed


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    Although that statement someone wrote for Wikipedia sounds attractive, reading down the article, all the examples are of the 'for instance' type; they could all qualify as substitutions for something that would otherwise be tedious or possibly contentious to express fully. A 'mom and pop store' instead of 'a small business, typically family owned, with 5 or less permanent employees' (and if you argue the definition of mom and pop store, maybe that's the point). Or "John Doe" instead of "a real person whose name shall be suppressed for the record". 'Thing' doesn't fit here in my opinion. – IanS Nov 2 '18 at 22:26

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