The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Page 335) says:

A count noun denotes a class of individuated entities of the same kind. Boy, for example, denotes the class of boys.

For example, in (1) the count noun boy denotes the class of boys but is combined with A to denote an individuated entity. And the same is true with the count noun human.

(1) A boy is a young male human.

But when used alone (without any determiner such as a), as in (2), the count nouns boy and human cannot seem to denote the class:

(2) *Boy is young male human.

Why is that?

(Although this is a why question, I hope this is detailed enough to be answerable.)

  • 3
    Because English.
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 12, 2019 at 3:13
  • Count nouns in the singular form would require an article. And yes, as pointed out above, it is just that way.
    – QuIcKmAtHs
    Nov 12, 2019 at 7:26
  • Just to confuse matters more (why not?), add a comma and "Boy is young, male human" is a grammatically correct sentence.
    – Spencer
    Nov 19, 2019 at 11:16
  • @Spencer I couldn't care less about more confusion, if necessary. Are you sure the sentence with a comma is correct? Please explain how adding a comma makes the difference.
    – JK2
    Nov 19, 2019 at 15:15
  • @JK2 Because the meanings change. It is NOT the meaning the sentence in the question is trying to convey. "Boy" becomes a proper noun and "male human" becomes a direct address. The sentence is unlikely to ever be heard except in the movie Tarzan versus the Aliens.
    – Spencer
    Nov 19, 2019 at 15:30

1 Answer 1


There is a constraint on the well-formedness of English noun phrases that an NP with a singular count noun as Head (of the nominal), must have an overt Determiner. Consider:

  • What's this?
  • *Pen (ungrammatical)

And then compare this with:

  • What's this?
  • A/my/Bob's/some/the pen. (grammatical!)

So, in short, it is not that in the string Boy is young male human, the word boy cannot represent the class of boys. Rather, it's the case that the string is not well formed and is therefore uninterpretable.

Of course, nouns occur mainly in noun phrases. Noun phrases are complex, and like other types of phrases can often be thought of as constructions. It is only once a noun enters into a construction in some way that we can give it a salient interpretation.

Notice that when CamGEL refer to Boy in that quote they are referring to the lexeme boy not the singular uninflected form of the noun in particular.

  • If it's really about a constraint on the well-formedness of English noun phrases that an NP with a singular count noun as Head (of the nominal), must have an overt Determiner, why is it that you can say Man is a political animal. and not A man is a political animal. or The man is a political animal.? Do you think man is an exception or boy is an exception?
    – JK2
    Nov 24, 2019 at 1:55
  • @JK2 Man is a proper noun there. Nov 24, 2019 at 9:43
  • Man is capitalized not because it's a proper noun but because it's the first word in the sentence. For example, you can say I think man is a political animal, where man is not capitalized. Not all capitalized nouns are proper nouns, but all proper nouns are capitalized. And I know of no dictionary or grammar that claims that man in this sense is a proper noun. Do you?
    – JK2
    Nov 25, 2019 at 3:28
  • @JK2 The capitalisation is irrelevant. Incidentally, it's just a peverse fact that we use capitals for kingdoms, phyla etc, etc, but not species. Still proper nouns as far as I can tell (compare with the Latin counterparts homo sapiens etc). However, if I'm wrong (don't think I am), it makes no odds really. That would just be a freaky exception. Note that man has a completely different meaning here (for example, has nothing to do with maleness). This constraint is well-known and well-discussed. Nov 25, 2019 at 19:40
  • @JK2 So, basically, not the same lexeme. Nov 25, 2019 at 22:11

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