The Grammarphobia Blog

Black bear: phrase or noun?

Q: My daughter Maggie’s seventh-grade class has been studying the parts of a sentence. In identifying a noun, the teacher says, it should be only one word, without any adjective. So “bear” would be a noun, not “black bear.” But Maggie thinks “black bear” and other two-word animal species are nouns too. I believe she’s right, but I can’t find any rules about this. Can you help?

A: Both your daughter and her teacher are right. But they’re looking at “black bear” through different lenses.

If the intent here is to teach the kids the difference between a noun and an adjective, then the teacher is right.

The phrase “black bear” (which might be called a noun phrase) consists of the noun “bear” and the adjective “black.” It could refer to any bear that happens to be black.

But as the name of a species, “black bear” is a noun. Dictionaries, including the Oxford English Dictionary, categorize it as a noun when it means a species.

(It can mean either the North American black bear, Ursus americanus,  or the Asian black bear, Ursus thibetanus—neither of which, by the way, is always black.)

The same is true of many other terms for particular species of animal, like “yellow warbler,” “indigo bunting,” “painted turtle,” “leopard frog,” “American toad,” and so on. They’re classified as nouns.

These terms may consist of two-word phrases, but taken as a whole they amount to a noun and are so categorized by lexicographers.

In short, there are two legitimate ways of looking at the phrase “black bear.”

The teacher is viewing it syntactically, identifying it according to its grammatical elements: adjective + noun.

Your daughter is viewing it semantically, identifying it by a specific meaning: a species of bear, not merely a bear that’s black in color.

Maybe your daughter has a future as a linguist!

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