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How and Why We Learn What We Learn About Nouns

Every noun has the following attributes:

case: choices are nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, ablative and vocative. More on this on a separate explanation sheet.

number: choices are singular or plural.

gender: not to be confused with "sex", gender choices are masculine (not "male"), feminine (not "female"), and neuter. In only very few cases can you guess the gender of a noun based on the sexuality of the occupation or role it describes: rex, regis (m) = king; femina, feminae (f) = woman.

Every noun also belongs to one of five family groups, called "declensions".

how nouns are listed in the dictionary: 
patria, -ae, f., homeland

Why is it so important to know the genitive singular form?

 Each declension has its own set of endings for each of the six cases (cases are another way of referring to the function a word serves in its sentence). In fact, some declensions have more than one set of endings (e.g., there are two sets of endings for the 2nd declension, m and n). Even if the words in a declension are of different genders, and therefore have endings that may slightly differ from each other (neuters are the worst culprit), all the words in the same declension have one thing in common...the ending on the genitive singular (which is why you learn the genitive singular ending when you learn a new vocabulary word!):

declension genitive singular
1st - ae
2nd - ī
3rd - is
4th - ūs

- ēī

click here to access index cards featuring the full set of endings for each declension.

Dictionary entries always provide us with the nominative singular of the word, but often give only the ending for the genitive singular form. Why? Because this tells us that the root (or stem) of the noun is the same throughout the entire declension of the noun. When we see 

patria, -ae, f., homeland
-i, m. friend
-ei, m. day

we are meant to understand this:

patria, patriae, f., homeland
amici, m. friend
diei, m. day

But it is important to note the occasions upon which we are given an entire genitive singular form written out, since this signals a change in root from the nominative:

ager, agri, m. field
hominis, m. man
corporis, n., body

So the genitive singular form is also important because it provides us with the root of each noun, which is used throughout the declension (even if the nominative singular is different).

Why is it so important to know which declension a noun belongs to?

We need to know which declension a noun belongs to so we know which index card to look at to interpret the ending on it, since we recall that each declension has its own set of endings:

Nominative: Patria viri est in periculo. The homeland of the man is in danger.
Genitive: Viri patriae periculum non intellegere possunt.
The men of the country cannot understand the danger. 
Dative: Vir amorem patriae dat.
The man gives his love to his country.
Accusative: Vir  patriam amat.
The man loves his country.
Ablative: Viri ab patria pericula prohibuerunt.
The men kept dangers away from their country.

Why is it so important to know the gender of a noun?

Every noun has a gender that never changes (most declensions include nouns of different genders, so you just have to memorize the gender of every noun you learn). This is why the gender is listed in the dictionary entry for each noun:

patria, -ae, f., homeland

You need to know the gender of a noun so that you can tell if an adjective is modifying it - adjectives and nouns agree in case, number and gender. You must learn this rule of grammar so you don't EVER guess which noun an adjective is modifying. Sometimes, you may think you can just "figure it out by sense", but you would most often be wrong and this is a bad practice all around. 

Viri patriae magnae periculum non intellegere possunt. 

In the above sentence, you know for sure that magnae is modifying patriae because both words are genitive, singular, and feminine. magnae could not be modifying any other noun in that sentence, not periculum (even though "great danger" would make sense) or Viri (even though "great men" would also make sense). Learn this simple rule and you will never have to guess.

copyright 2001 Janice Siegel, All Rights Reserved
send comments to: Janice Siegel (jfsiege@ilstu.edu)

date this page was edited last: 06/29/2005
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