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I wonder which noun in the phrase "a year's worth of learning" in the following sentence is the main noun of the phrase. If "a year's worth" is the main noun, then "of learning" should be a phrase that modifies "a year's worth". Otherwise, "learning" should be the main noun and "a year's worth of" be a phrase that modifies "learning".

Why not buy yourself a year's worth of learning at our discount price?

The sentence is from an advertising email sent by a site that sells learning courses. Thank you.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ColleenV Dec 19 '17 at 21:41
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+125

I agree with Andrew that @BillJ really deserves the bounty for having fully answered the question. Since his and Hector's post both seem to miss Mr J's point, however, I'll mention that this is incredibly simple.

... a year's worth of learning ...

has five words. A is being used in its sense of one to modify year's, which is a genitive modifying worth. Learning is the object of the preposition of, whose phrase modifies worth.

Worth

stands alone and is the main noun of the phrase, which is grammatically unimportant because it's the object of buy and its number is irrelevant to the rest of the sentence.

To address OP's fundamental confusion, though, they were correct that semantically "learning" is the most important noun in the phrase. The education is what is being purchased and the focus of thought concerning the topic of the sentence. That's irrelevant to the main noun of the grammatical structure. The dual sense of "main" is what was messing with their head... but any noun controlled by of is part of a phrase that modifies something else in the sentence.

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    @BillJ provided an answer for the question, but he did it in the form of a comment, which is not what Stack Exchange is set up to handle. A comment can't be marked as the right answer, and a question without a selected answer continues to be listed as unanswered. Members of other Stack Exchange forums are more likely to provide answers in the intended way, but ELL members quite often supply answers in the comments section. This leaves questions in a limbo state, since people are reluctant to provide an answer that is similar to one already provided in a comment. – Alan Apr 16 '17 at 14:52
  • Thank you for the great help with the clearing-up answer. Your answer does not only help me a lot but also other English learners. :) – Smart Humanism Jan 2 '18 at 20:11
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Distilling the comments (which are worth reading): The "main noun" in this sentence is "worth" which BillJ illustrates with the following example:

Compare "A dollar's worth of chocolate is a nice gift" [to] "A dollar's worth of chocolates is a nice gift." Notice how the verb remains unchanged when singular "chocolate" is replaced with plural "chocolates". This proves that "chocolate(s)" is not the head.

  • @SmartHumanism that's fine. But on a different subject is there a purpose to knowing which is the main noun? Or just curiosity? It seems a purely academic distinction to me. – Andrew Jan 6 '17 at 15:55
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    @Andrew That's what makes the question interesting. If there are no implications to the head noun being one or the other, then the answer is uninteresting and meaningless. But if there are practical implications (and there are), then it's an interesting question. And if we can figure out what those implications are, we can figure out the answer to the question. – snailcar Apr 15 '17 at 20:18
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    Me? If I remove "worth" I still have a proper sentence: ... a year of learning... But if I remove year the sentence is nonsensical ... a worth of learning... If i remove ...year of... the sentence still stands: Why not buy learning (for yourself)?. I say "learning" is the head noun. Maybe it's not scientific, but it makes sense to me :) – Mari-Lou A Apr 15 '17 at 21:29
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According to Oxford learners Dictionary the main noun here is "worth" - a week’s, month’s, etc. worth of something an amount of something that lasts a week, etc.

A year's, a week's, a month's all modify "worth". There is a synonym that we can use instead of "a year's worth" - "yearful". And synonyms for "lasts a year": "yearlong", "year-long".

  • @lly Learning cannot be a noun in your example. It must be a gerund-participle form of the verb. Notice it takes a direct object. – Araucaria Apr 18 '17 at 6:41
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    A gerund is a noun. – Epanoui Apr 19 '17 at 7:16
  • @Epanoui A gerund is a gerund, a noun is a noun. Don't confuse the two. – SovereignSun Apr 19 '17 at 7:18
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    A gerund is a noun which is derived from a verb. I enjoy fishing. Fishing is fun. I enjoy nocturnal fishing. How much fishing do you do? Don't let the fact that it comes from a verb fool you, because grammatically it is a noun. – Epanoui Apr 19 '17 at 18:22
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    A gerund is a nominalization of a verb, the creation of a noun from another part of speech. The noun-ness is not due to origin, but due to grammar, and the gerund is used as a noun with some special usages such as the ability to involve an object, adverb, etc. Many nouns are verb-derived, with different forms -- "change", "vacation", and "thought". Gerunds are a subset of nouns. Didn't Chomsky address this in the early 70s? If he reached a different conclusion, please set me straight. – Epanoui Apr 19 '17 at 19:13
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I think @Mari-LouA and @AraucariaMan hit the nail on the head with her comment under @Andrew's answer and his comment under the OP's, respectively.

In almost any situation where we are trying to parse for meaning, we have to reduce to the lowest common denominator to understand what the speaker wants to say:

  1. Why not buy yourself learning at our discount price?
  2. Why not buy yourself worth at our discount price?
  3. Why not buy yourself a year at our discount price?

To me, it then becomes obvious that "learning" would be the main noun in this case because it's the only one that would not require me to ask a follow-up question.

For example:

  1. Why not "buy yourself worth" at our discount price?

What is "buy myself worth" exactly? Buy worth for myself? What is buying "worth" for myself exactly? Buying respect for myself?

  1. Why not buy yourself a year at our discount price?

Buy myself a year of what?

  1. Why not buy yourself learning at our discount price?

Oh, I see, they sell "learning" of some kind and it's being discounted right now.

Meanwhile, just as @lly says, I don't disagree that grammatically, "worth" may be the main noun.

So I guess the real question is, what had the OP wanted to know? According to the flyer or academically?

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Strictly speaking, the analysis provided by @BillJ seems correct, but grammar is mostly descriptive, so I'll describe my perspective.

The main noun in "A year's worth of learning" could be "year's", or more precisely the the omitted referent thereof, while "worth of" is an atypical adjective + preposition, "worth of learning" becoming an adjectival phrase. At least that's how I parse the sentence.

Compare that to "a ship('s storage) full of rice" - content would be the referent of "sack's". Likewise, a sack of rice and a year of learning are understood to mean the same, so I'd say sack or year are the head noun. I supposes that's what you mean by main noun. After all, the basic clause expressed here is "a ship is filled with rice". BillJ is still correct, because by omission of the referent, the adjective moves into the position of a noun. This is more apparent in other examples, because the adjective and noun form of worth don't differ. E.g. we could say a sack('s) filling of rice. That could be corrected to "a sack rice filling", sack becoming a quantifier, the common noun moving into the position of the noun, the verb moving into the participle position. In other languages, the preposition can be omitted even, so it's simply "a sack rice" (e.g. in German).

All that is motivated by the observation of a disagreement about countability (a type mismatch) from pairing an uncountable noun (the worth) with a countable noun (lessons, chocolates, houses). Clearly, "a dollar's worth of chocolate/chocolates" can't be both correct - with "learnings" it wouldn't even make sense, with "lessons" it would again be a type mismatch, whereas "a year of lesson" sounds wrong to begin with. But the length of my explanation hints at the simpler explanation being more likable (not to say likely). On the other hand, countability is a difficult topic, apparently, as the lexical aspect of worth implies countability to some degree. If a binary decision depends on gradual differences, we use fuzzy logic (how many grains are needed to count as sand?). In Linguistics, this is touched upon by Underspecification, i.e. with regards to the function of "worth" in the sentence.

As I said in a comment, this is marketing speech, so the rules of grammar don't strictly apply, anyway. The language might be imprecise on purpose, or simply because language is inherently subject to interpretation.

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