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Concourse 2

Cracking and Using shell nouns


Shell nouns are widely used in Academic English of all kinds as well as in Business English and many other forms of formal writing and speaking.  Accordingly, this guide is linked from both the EAP index and the Business English index.
They are, however, also a feature of many general texts, written and spoken, and of quite casual conversation.  What follows focuses a good deal on more formal texts because it is in those that the use of shell nouns is important.  Such texts need not be confined to academic or business contexts and almost any kind of report or fact-based text will contain shell nouns whose understanding is crucial to a comprehension of the writer / speaker's view of things.

Here are some examples of shell nouns in action, highlighted, and then we'll try a definition of what is a rather slippery concept.

  1. In major cities, the most pervasive form of pollution is caused by heavy traffic, particularly diesel goods vehicles and buses.  This problem is exacerbated in hot weather and when the air is still.
  2. The outcome of our investigation was the finding that the majority of students in halls of residence were generally satisfied with the level of service they were receiving although intermittent internet access at peak demand times is an issue for many which causes intense frustration and discontent.
  3. The aim of this experiment was to see how far and how widely the findings of other researchers in the area are parallelled in this environment.
  4. The plan was to take the bus to the station and then get the 4:30 train up to London in time for the wedding.  Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way.
think What is happening here and why are these nouns highlighted in particular?
Click here when you have some ideas.


Defining a slippery concept

Now we get to the hard part: defining what exactly a shell noun is and is not.

Firstly, shell nouns do not form a class of nouns which can be definitively and exhaustively listed (although we'll make an attempt at listing and categorising them later for teaching purposes).  All shell nouns are able to be used, as it were , in non-shell functions when they simply represent an entity, abstract or concrete, to use rather old-fashioned terms, and are nouns like any other.
What identifies a shell noun is the function it performs in a discourse.  Some nouns, usually like the ones exemplified above which represent rather loose abstract concepts, lend themselves to being the shell in which other stretches of discourse are understood and should be viewed.
So, for example, in:

John has a problem with his car so he's taking it to the workshop tomorrow

we do not have a shell-noun use of the noun problem.  It merely represents a dispreferred circumstance.
However, in:

Climate change and human exploitation of the animals' habitat are combining to create a serious challenge for conservation efforts.  This problem is beginning to be tackled by a range of non-governmental agencies, not least our own.

we do have the use of the term problem as a shell noun because it functions to subsume the whole preceding text (which could have been very much longer and more complex).  It defines, in other words, the way in which the preceding or following propositions need to be understood.  It is their context, rather than their co-text.
We also have another shell noun, challenge, to which reference can later be made leading the reader through the text logically.

Schmid, 2018:112, identifies the characteristics of shell nouns like this:

  1. the specific concepts [shell nouns] encapsulate are local, to a large part context-specific and therefore transient.  What is characterized as a problem, challenge or aim changes from one use of these nouns to the next, depending on the proposition encoded in the surrounding linguistic context, i.e. the shell content.
    So, for example, while we can quite easily define the word problem in the example of John's car, above, we can only define the word in the second example by reference to the surrounding text and the intentions of the author.
  2. Shell nouns characterise the propositions they enclose and they do this on a cline from very general ideas such as aim, thing, problem, issue and so on to more narrow definitions encoded in shell nouns such as disadvantage, peculiarity, uniqueness and so on.
  3. Discoursally, shell nouns allow internal referencing to be much more precise than would otherwise be the case.  For example, having defined a stretch of discourse (which may be long or short) as an aim, a problem, an issue, an advantage or whatever, thereafter, the writer can safely used deictic markers such as this and it with the shell noun as the referent rather than being obliged to refer to the whole section of discourse.  As we shall see, the use of this as the pronoun for the shell noun is very common and allows it to be used as if the whole of a text were nominalised.  The text is not nominalised but the text is enclosed within the shell and that is, of course, just a noun.

The key principle at work here is the way that nouns can reify propositions, i.e., convert an abstract idea into a thing.  The other term, used extensively for this behaviour of nouns, is that they provide the ability to hypostatize, i.e., treat or represent something abstract as a concrete reality.
Only nouns can do this, of course, because nouns are, along with verbs, the chief way in which any language represents reality.

For example, compare these two mini-texts:

  1. People in the organisation are spending too much time duplicating work that is being done in other departments leading to unfocused activity and often to internal contradictions.  This must be addressed by setting out clearer definitions of people's roles.  It can be tackled in one of three ways ...
  2. People in the organisation are spending too much time duplicating work that is being done in other departments leading to unfocused activity and often to internal contradictions.  This wasteful duplication must be addressed by setting out clearer definitions of people's roles.  It can be tackled in one of three ways ...

It should be clear that in the second version, the issue is discussed within a noun shell, the expression wasteful duplication, which is quite specific and more carefully defined than it would be with the use of a more generalised shell noun such as problem.
In the first version, the use of it in the final sentence is potentially confusing because the reader is left to surmise what the referent might be.  In the second version, because we have a shell noun, it is quite clear what it refers to: wasteful duplication.
That means that the writer can thereafter refer to the whole set of propositions with a simple pronouns, this or it, used to refer to the duplication rather than vaguely pointing at something in the text.
It also means that the text hangs together much more successfully because the reader is aware of exactly what is being discussed.  In other words, cohesion is achieved.

It should now also be clear why shell nouns should be the target of some teaching in, especially, programmes focused on academic and business English in which the cohesiveness of both spoken and written production has a high priority.
They should not, however, be neglected on general English courses because the ability to understand and use them has positive communicative benefits.
In the last sentence, there is the deliberate inclusion of the shell noun, ability, which encapsulates both understanding and using.


Theme and rheme

If the concepts of theme and rheme are obscure to you, try the guide the theme-rheme structures, linked below.

An obvious use of shell nouns is in the maintenance of coherence and cohesion in a text.  These twin ideas can be achieved in a variety of ways, of course, but shell nouns are convenient and easy to manipulate in this regard.
For example, in a text such as:

Photocopying costs are getting out of hand because people are making unnecessary copies, failing to use copies that already exist on the shelves and using the machines for personal purposes and this is becoming a real issue.  Because of it, we are instituting a new system of card operation so a check can be kept on who is copying what.

The theme of the first sentence is simply photocopying costs but it has a long and extended rheme of over 30 words which should form the theme of the next sentence but is simply too long to be easily put into the theme position.  However, in this case, the writer has neatly encapsulated the initial rheme propositions inside the shell noun issue.  What follows, therefore, is a simplified theme using it as a pronoun reference to issue which makes the text coherent and cohesive without the need to introduce a very long theme expression.

Shell nouns are also used in reverse, of course, and can begin as the theme of a statements such as:
    The problem of ...
    The findings were that ...
    Our intention was to ...

and in these cases, once set up as topical themes, reference can be made to them with simple pro-forms such as they, it, this etc. which themselves may form themes of subsequent sentences followed by rhemes explaining their nature or importance.


Types of shell noun

Here we draw heavily on Schmid's (2018) summary but will add in a few more examples in an effort to extend the list of possible shell nouns that would be appropriate targets for a teaching programme in general, academic or business English environments.
Later, we'll look briefly at the kinds of texts within which each variety can be usefully employed and suggest some simple teaching techniques.

The crudest classification can be made into two groups:

A more refined classification is:

  1. Factual
    1. Neutral:
          circumstance, fact, phenomenon, reality, thing
    2. Causal
          cause, conclusion, consequence, effect, outcome, product, reason, result, upshot
    3. Evidential
          confirmation, evidence, indication, proof, sign, signal, substantiation, verification
    4. Comparative
          contradiction, contrast, correspondence, difference, disparity, dissimilarity, distinction, divergence, gap, likeness, match, parallel, pattern, resemblance, similarity
    5. Partitive
          aspect, attribute, case, example, facet, feature, instance, part, portion, property, quality, sample
    6. Attitudinal
          advantage, aid, benefit, con, difficulty, dilemma, disadvantage, drawback, hindrance, improvement, irony, obstacle, paradox, predicament, pro, problem
  2. Linguistic
    1. Propositional
          argument, assertion, claim, contention, intelligence, news, report, rumour
    2. Illocutionary (i.e., containing within the meaning a communicative function)
          avowal, complaint, demand, directive, doubt, edict, instruction, objection, offer, order, proposal, question, recommendation, statement, submission, suggestion
  3. Mental
    1. Conceptual
          concept, conjecture, guess, hypothesis, idea, notion, opinion, perception, perspective, question, theory, mystery
    2. Creditive
          assumption, belief, conviction, faith, illusion, knowledge, presumption, realisation, view
    3. Dubitative
          disbelief, distrust, doubt, question, reservation, scepticism, suspicion, wariness
    4. Volitional
          aim, ambition, goal, intention, object, plan, purpose, resolution, solution, target
    5. Emotive
          anxiety, apprehension, concern, delight, disappointment, fear, joy, pleasure, regret, revelation, satisfaction, shock, surprise, worry
  4. Modal
    1. Epistemic
          certainty, chance, danger, likelihood, possibility, probability, prospect, reality, threat, truth, vulnerability
    2. Deontic
          authorisation, burden, charge, clearance, demand(s), duty, consent, mission, need, obligation, onus, permission, task
    3. Dynamic
          ability, capacity, chance, competence, opening, opportunity, power
  5. Eventive
    1. General
          act, action, deed, event, incident, situation
    2. Specific
          attempt, challenge, effort, endeavour, fight, primacy, priority, struggle
    3. Attitudinal
          blunder, difficulty, error, miscalculation, mistake, problem, success, trouble, victory
  6. Circumstantial
    1. General
          background, context, environment, framework, position, setting, situation, surroundings
    2. Specific
          costs, location, means, method, moment, place, procedure, provision, time, way

In the list above, there are over 200 potential shell nouns.  Do not try to teach them all at once.
If you would like that list as a PDF document, use the link at the end.
If you would like to take a short matching test on these categories, click here.


Text type and shell noun use

In academic and business settings, a limited number of genres need to be deployed.  It is unlikely, for example, that in these environments there will be much need for the skills of writing or orally presenting a narrative or an exposition, setting out a story or one side of an argument only.
However, in general English use, such texts are quite common and need to be produced and understood by many learners.
As far as academic and business English are concerned, we are left, therefore, with a set of four generic categories into which it will be useful to include shell nouns to maintain cohesion and to nominalise ideas and concepts.
Here are the these four with the shell nouns highlighted like this and the deictic pointers (determiners, pronouns and lexical alternatives) which make the text cohesive, like this:

A recount is intended to set out clearly what has happened.  It is the format for reporting back on experiments conducted, surveys carried out and work done.
Into these kinds of texts, there are obvious opportunities to encapsulate propositions and concepts in noun shells.  For example:
    The aim of the survey was to identify the aspects of the business which ... and this aim was ... see which of them ...
context of the experiment was ... and it gave us the opportunity to ... and ... .  These affordances were ...
Recounts are also common in less specialised settings, too, and are often the way in which excuses are given.  They occur in anecdotes, news reports, explanations and excuses and so on.
Here's an example of part of a recount, with the shell noun and the references highlighted in the same way.
    Well, my assumption was that the trains would be running as normal so I'd be able to get to the party with plenty of time to spare.  It turned out to be wrong, however, because I had forgotten about the Bank Holiday timetable changes.
A procedure text (spoken or written) is intended to explain how something is done.
Suitable shell nouns might be:
    To measure the products of the reactions it was necessary to take a sample of the material.  These products were ... and the samples showed ...
    The purpose of the procedure is to ensure that customer complaints are dealt with in a timely matter.  This will be achieved by classifying each one on the basis of ...
Information report / Explanation
An information report is intended to present data logically and has a simple structure although the ordering of information needs careful attention.  This form of writing is common when a student is asked to summarise the results of reading and research to demonstrate understanding or a concise report of activities undertaken is needed in a business context.
Suitable shell nouns might be:
    The attributes of the programme allow it to address the problems of ... by reducing the possibility that ... .  These mean that the issues are ... and the chance of is ...
    Napoleon's first priority in 1813 was to ... and this he achieved by ...
A discussion is intended to present both sides of a controversy and is more common in the humanities than the sciences.
This kind of text is, naturally, what is required when departments issue essay titles containing the word Discuss.  Often, within a discussion, it is necessary to embed other text forms as digressions or explanation phases.
Discussions may also occur in a business context, often as part of a report which sets out alternatives with pros and cons balanced.
Such texts almost require the use of suitable shell nouns such as:
    There is a view that ... and this needs to be taken into account because of the possibility that ... which may lead to ...
    While initial costs may be ... advantages are that ... and the latter may serve to reduce the impact of the former by ...

Now we can look at how shell nouns might be used in other genres, narratives and expositions, which are more usually used in less specialised settings.

Narratives exhibit a similar structure to recounts with the addition, usually, of some kind of complication or problem occurring in them which is resolved somehow.  This issue is often embedded  within a shell noun so that it can be referred to easily.  Here's an example of part of a narrative where this happens:
    Of course the upshot of all the problems with the car, the cancelled train service, the weather and so on was that we couldn't leave when we intended.  That led to all sorts of difficulties later on because the hotel was shut by the time we arrived.  It had a silver lining in that we  got to stay somewhere much nicer in the end.
Expositions are found frequently on blog sites, in newspaper leader articles, in essays and in letters and proposals.  They differ from discussions in that they are intended to persuade, not inform, and conventionally focus only on one side of an argument.  Like discussions, however, they can use shell nouns to present issues concisely and in a way that allows the author of the text, written or spoken, to refer to quite complicated issues without being too vague.  Like this, for example:
    The need is for a rapid and sensible response to these issues and it is a pressing one.  Unless they are tackled soon, the situation will only get worse and the problems will multiply.

While there is nothing very mysterious to most readers faced with texts like this, learners need considerable practice following some awareness raising to deploy shell nouns effectively because they have to:

This is by no means easy but the dividends, in terms, of cohesive, mature texts are considerable.



There are few hard-and-fast rules, well, none, to be fair, but there are some rules of thumb:

  1. Most of the shell nouns are complemented by a copular verb and a that-clause.  So for example, we get:
        The reality is that ...
        The problem appears that ...
        The advantage has been that ...
        Our hypothesis was that ...
        The theory emerged that ...
        The likelihood grows that ...
        The danger remained that ...

    and so on.
    It is worth noting here that not all so-called abstract nouns in English can follow this pattern.  We do not, for example, allow:
        *The science was that ...
        *The hatred was that ...
        *The comprehension was that ...

    and so on.
    This pattern is not unique to shell nouns but is an important defining characteristic and one that makes them particularly useful and flexible.
  2. Because of its usual prospective meaning (think about: hope to, intend to, want to, am going to etc.) the to-infinitive is the natural complement for shell nouns with prospective meanings, too, with and without a copula, so we get, e.g.:
        An opportunity exists to ...
        The aim has been to ...
        We got permission to ...
        The government does not have the ability to ...
        Our efforts were made to ...
        It was a silly mistake to ...

    Again, not all abstract nouns in English allow this pattern so we cannot have, e.g.:
        *The love was to ...
        *The mercy was to ...
        *The understanding was to ...

    And, again, this pattern is not unique to shell nouns but is another which makes them useful and flexible.
  3. Illocutionary shell nouns depend for their grammar on the type of communicative function which the nouns suggest as in, e.g.:
        The complaints about ...
        The demand that ...
        The question whether ...
        The proposal for ...
        The point was made that ...
    and so on.
  4. Some shell nouns, especially the circumstantial ones, take less predictable complements so we may encounter:
        The context of ...
        The environment in which ...
        The surroundings of ...
        The background to ...


The form of the language is, therefore, unpredictable in detail but reasonably straightforward, nevertheless.
Patterns 1. and 2. above are particularly important, according to Schmid, 2000:3.


Teaching: eating the elephant

This has to come in sections, piecemeal, and it is foolish to believe that the ability to comprehend and use shell nouns is something that can be taught quickly or easily.
To get the trick of using these nouns appropriately demands a good deal of time and effort but the rewards are substantial.
Many of the examples which follow are set in an academic or business English teaching context but it is simple to see how they can be adapted or designed to focus on more generalised texts.


Awareness raising

Simply being able to identify the role of shell nouns in texts is a great help to comprehension and it is a comparatively straightforward matter to alert learners to them in any texts you use.  Concept-checking questions and leading questions are effective such as:
    What is the meaning of aspect in the second sentence?
    What does the word
issue include?
    What does
this refer to in the second paragraph?

and so on.
Providing learners with a list of the shell nouns in longer texts and getting them to scan for them and mark them in some way is also an effective approach.  Once identified, they can be analysed for meaning and their pronoun and other references identified.

Noticing tasks are familiar approaches to raising awareness of the existence of these sorts of nouns and the functions they perform.  Simply highlighting the nouns in texts is often a good beginning and, thereafter, the advantages of using shell nouns can be the focus of the awareness-raising procedures.  Like this, perhaps:

1. What is the difference between texts a) and texts b)?
2. Which is better and easier to understand?
a) b)
There are too many cars, causing too much pollution and damaging our children's health as well as causing medical problems for older citizens in the city and this has to be addressed. The main issue is that there are too many cars, causing too much pollution and damaging our children's health as well as causing medical problems for older citizens in the city and this has to be addressed.
We set out to determine what influenced policy maker's decisions in the area of customer relations and public policy and we found that they depended on ... The aim of the investigation was to determine what factors influenced policy maker's decisions in the area of customer relations and public policy it was accomplished by identifying them in some detail.
We wanted to take a taxi into town, have a bite to eat and then go on to the theatre and meet up with you all there but it didn't prove possible because ... Our plan was to take a taxi into town, have a bite to eat and then go on to the theatre and meet up with you all there but it didn't work out because ...

Three examples are not, of course, enough.  To address this area thoroughly, learners need exposure to many of these exercises focusing on each of the categories of shell nouns which we have set out above.


Focusing on meaning and scope

We noted that a crude distinction can be made between shell nouns which are general in meaning and those which are more specific.  That (i.e., the shell noun distinction) is a good place to begin.
Like this:

Choose the right shell noun for the topics on the left
All the negative points   aims
Negative and positive points views
Only what you wanted to do locations
Only the places you want to discuss issues
All sides of an argument disadvantages

Once the crude distinctions are clear, it is possible to focus more narrowly on the range of shell nouns appropriate to a text.
For example:

Fill the gaps in the texts with an appropriate shell noun from the list on the right.
The __________ of the survey were to discover which ____________ were held by the majority of the staff in relation to their working hours and to find __________ of similarity. findings
The meeting's ____________ were firstly that ... and secondly ...
The __________ which have arisen have both positive and negative __________ .
All the __________ people had for a surprise 50th party for Mary had both __________ and __________ .

A more advanced task, of course, is one without the column containing the choices.


Focusing on form and colligation

Sentence clause matching, such as this example, can help at the outset:

Match the clauses on the left to those on the right.
1 The aim was ... A ... is for more research
2 The issues were ... B ... to determine
3 The possibility ... C ... to surprise her
4 The outcome showed ... D ... that most solutions have poor outcomes
5 The need ... E ... was present that
6 The plot was ... F ... that it will be possible to ...

because it provides an opportunity to discuss and highlight correct forms.
The next step is to get the learners to incorporate sentence frames like these into their own production (oral or written).


Teaching: a modelling approach

There are, in just the list above, over 200 of these potential shell nouns and it is a challenge for most learners to acquire more than around ten new items of lexis a day (and many fail to do that).  (There are at least another 400 or so which have not been mentioned (Schmid, 2000, lists 670 of them).)
If, as seems likely, your learners and you do not have 20 days to spare, there needs to be some focus:

Related guides
shell nouns for a list of some 200 potential shell nouns
theme and rheme for the guide dedicated to explaining the concepts and exemplifying how they are realised in English
genre in EAP for more about the kinds of genres learners may need to operate with
nominalisation: EAP for a guide to a key writing skill and how to teach it
nominal clauses and phrases for a more general guide

Schmid, H-J, 2000, English abstract nouns as conceptual shells: from corpus to cognition, Berlin / New York, Mouton de Gruyter
Schmid, H-J, 2018, Shell Nouns in English: a personal roundup, Caplletra 64 (Primavera, 2018), pp. 109-128. ISSN 0214-8188, ISSN versió electrònica 2386-7159