Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Oak Trees, Dwarf Planets and such

I remember reading in English class - must have been GCSE I reckon - a short story called 'Winter Oak', by Yuri Nagibin, in which a class of school children are asked to give examples of nouns. The main character of the story volunteers the phrase 'winter oak' and is told this is wrong, because 'oak' is a noun and 'winter oak' is therefore just a kind of oak, as 'blue pen' is a kind of pen.

(Aside, but I don't recall anything being made of oak being just a kind of tree)

I don't really remember the story too exactly, and I couldn't find it online (though it must be a common English text, since there are plenty of sites offering essays tips, e.g. here and here) Anyway, the teacher escorted this pupil home through the woods, behald the beauty of a majestic oak tree in its winter majesty, and realised there seemed to be something profoundly different about the winter oak. The lesson our teacher drew was that a two word phrase could function as a noun.

Since then, I've been kind of interested in how a modifier can change the nature of what it modifies. I believe perhaps the best known example is W. D. Ross' 'prima facie duties', which he says aren't duties. I found it interesting to note, while browsing Wikipedia on the reclassification of Pluto, that a dwarf planet appears not to be a type of planet.


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