Properties of things can be named in a variety of ways
PROPERTY-NAMING IN PROFESSIONAL WRITING
Physical properties are permanent distinguishing characteristics of things. They may be permanently observable, like the colour of gold, or a potential that is always reached under suitable circumstances, such as the boiling point of water or the top speed of a racing car. To name a property, it is very common to indicate both the general type of property in question (e.g. colour) and its detail in the thing possessing it (e.g. green).
When property language first became a common topic in English courses, it tended to be associated with science and technology, for the obvious reason that those areas have a particular interest in identifying and analysing properties. However, most types of professional writing are likely to need it sometimes, whether to describe demand curves or exchange rates in economics, sentences in linguistics, or poetry in literary analysis.
The language for naming properties is quite varied in English. Many coursebooks simply present it as a list. Here I wish to examine the possibilities in more depth, illustrating their surprising range and variety and suggesting some reasons for choosing one rather than another. Readers seeking more Guinlist posts about simple description are referred to 115. Surveying Numerical Data, 119. BE before a “to” Verb (on functions), 149. Saying how Things are Similar and 151. Ways of Using Compass Words.
PROPERTY-NAMING WITH have
It would be surprising if HAVE was not usable for naming a property, given that properties are usually thought of as “belonging to” things, an idea that is centrally associated with HAVE (see 116. Rarer Uses of HAVE). The most common way in which HAVE seems to be used is as follows:
(a) The Earth has a diameter of 12,742 km.
Here, the property type diameter is written (with a) directly after has, and the detail 12,742 km is added next with of. Very many property types can be fitted into this structure, including acceleration, acidity (pH), angle, area, breadth, capacity, circumference, density, depth, fluctuation, force, frequency, gradient, height, length, mass, radius, rhythm, span, specific gravity, speed, thickness, value, velocity, volume, weight and width.
However, there are some properties that do not fit into this kind of sentence, but need to be expressed slightly differently with HAVE:
(b) Nitrogen dioxide has an acrid smell.
Here the property type smell is again the object of has, but the detail acrid is an adjective rather than a preposition phrase. There is a clear reason why: acrid is non-mathematical, expressing a quality rather than a quantity. Smells cannot be described in any other way. Other property kinds with the same limitation include appearance, colour, shape, taste and texture.
There is a slight problem, however, in naming shapes. The reason is that some shape adjectives are made by adding the suffix -shaped onto a noun, e.g. crescent-shaped, disc-shaped, egg-shaped, kidney-shaped, pear-shaped, star-shaped and wedge-shaped. Obviously, it would be unduly repetitive to say has a …-shaped shape with any of these. Instead one can use BE instead of HAVE (see below). However HAVE is perfectly acceptable with shape adjectives of other kinds, such as the so-called “geometrical” ones like circular, conical, cylindrical, spherical, square and triangular.
Properties that can be named in a mathematical way can often also be named in the way shown by (b) – though with less precision. For example, we can say that something has a steep gradient, a high frequency, sharp acceleration or a rapid rhythm. This kind of expression is particularly useful in interpretations of numerical data, where we might need to clarify for the reader whether a particular quantity is large or small (see 115. Surveying Numerical Data). Note the variability of the adjectives – they are often specific to the nouns (i.e. they form “collocations” – see 16. Ways of Distinguishing Similar Words, #2).
Sometimes, when an adjective is needed, it can be hard to think of one. In such cases, a preposition phrase is normally possible instead:
(c) The Spanish “j” has a sound like the English /h/.
(d) Sirius almost has the brightness of a planet.
The typical prepositions seem to be of and like. Note that the noun before of needs the rather than a.
PROPERTY-NAMING WITH be
Most properties seem able to be named with BE. The easiest way is by starting the sentence with the property type, like this:
(e) The diameter of the Earth is 12,742 km.
(f) The colour of chlorophyll is mostly green.
It will be observed that the idea of possession, previously expressed by HAVE, is now in the preposition of. It can also be expressed by means of an apostrophe ending – The Earth’s diameter in (e) (see 58. Optional Apostrophe Endings).
Using BE in this way is an alternative to using HAVE, but not a complete equivalent. This is because the changed word order – illustrated by the difference between (e) and (a) – gives different importance to the different parts. For more on this link between word order and information importance in a sentence, see 27. How to Avoid Passive Verbs and 156. Mentioning What the Reader Knows Already.
BE is also possible sometimes if you begin with the owner of a property, as is done with HAVE. In most cases, the property will be non-mathematical:
(g) Chlorophyll is generally green in colour.
Here, the property detail (green) is again an adjective after the verb, but the property type needs to follow in at the end. This pattern is usable for all non-mathematical properties except those involving a -shaped adjective, which for obvious reasons drop the final in phrase. The other adjectives may also drop it if it seems to be stating the obvious.
Adjectives that can have a following in phrase like green above can also replace it with a suffix that looks similar to -shaped but is in fact slightly different. Thus, green in colour can become green-coloured. The difference is that -shaped is added to nouns, while suffixes like -coloured are added to adjectives. Other examples are flat-topped, many-sided, regular-patterned, rough-textured, sharp-edged, smooth-surfaced and soft-centred.
This use of -ed meaning “having” on nouns after adjectives is not confined to property-naming; it is also common in everyday English to describe both temporary and permanent characteristics of living things, as in long-haired, quick-witted and thick-skinned.
There are also some combinations of an adjective with an -ing word rather than an -ed one, such as rough-feeling, sour-tasting, yellow-looking and difficult-seeming. I would suggest that the need for -ing rather than -ed arises when a verb is involved (feel, taste etc.) rather than a noun. For more about participle suffixes, see 106. Word-Like Suffixes.
Even mathematical properties can be named with BE and a hyphenated word, though only in a non-precise, interpretational way, and mostly with the adjectives low/high. The -ed suffix also tends to be absent. Examples are low-strength, high-resistance, high-density and fast-travelling.
Some mathematical properties can also be named in a sentence like (g), where there is an in phrase at the end:
(h) Mount Kilimanjaro is roughly 5890 metres in height.
This kind of naming is possible with all of the dimension properties (breadth, depth, diameter, height, length, span, thickness and width), and also with circumference, mass, volume and weight.
In addition, dimensions can be named with an adjective instead of the in phrase – high instead of in height in (h). The adjectives corresponding to the dimensions listed above are broad, deep, across, high, long, across (again), thick and wide.
PROPERTY-NAMING WITH OTHER VERBS
When HAVE and BE are used, the property type has to be an accompanying noun or adjective. However, many property types can also be expressed with a verb, like this:
(h) A litre of water weighs 1 kg.
The verb here identifies the property type as “weight”, and the object of the verb (1 kg.) expresses the property’s detail. Other verbs like WEIGH include ACCELERATE, BOIL, COVER, EXTEND, FEEL, FREEZE, HOLD, LAST, LOOK, MEASURE, MELT, OCCUPY, STRETCH, TASTE and TRAVEL.
The grammar of these verbs is quite variable. Those that have the detail of the property as their object like WEIGH include only COVER (area), HOLD (capacity), MEASURE (dimensions) and OCCUPY (volume). Although these verbs are “transitive”, their property-naming use is not normally possible in the passive voice (see 113. Verbs that cannot be Passive).
By contrast, FEEL, LOOK and TASTE need a complement rather than an object, normally in adjective form (e.g. feels smooth, tastes bitter).The other verbs normally take an adverb or adverb phrase. EXTEND and STRETCH are likely to be followed by a distance expression like 10 m, with or without for. ACCELERATE, BOIL, FREEZE and TRAVEL typically need at.