My question hails from a series of comments here in this answer.

Take a piss is a light verb construction in which the actual verb is take, but the noun piss carries the actual meaning. It corresponds to the heavy verb piss.

I did not get anything!


take a piss; take is not a verb with piss as its object, but "take a piss" functions together as a single verb. Thankfully, "I need to take a piss" is not grammatically the same as "I need to take an aspirin.

So, when we use

need to take a/an [x]

I surely consider that 'x' as a noun because it is following an article.

The comments by native speakers say that in such cases, 'x' does not serve as a noun because it is different. You don't take a piss but you take an aspirin.

Now, how to differentiate in such phrases whether that 'x' is not a noun?

take a look
take a piss
take a break

How to identify whether those 'nouns' don't function as 'nouns' though they are 'nouns!'

  • 1
    In the case of the last three examples, can you make a case why look/piss/break are not nouns? Also, take in "take an aspirin" is a different definition of take. See take: 7) (to make or complete by action), as opposed to def. 2b.
    – user3169
    Dec 18, 2015 at 5:28
  • 3
    I think whoever told you "piss" in "take a piss" is not a noun was wrong, actually. A look, a break, a piss - all of those are nouns. It just so happens that we use them in these common verb phrases where, like @user3169 points out, "take" can have different meanings.
    – stangdon
    Dec 18, 2015 at 5:49
  • 2
    "Take a piss is a light verb construction in which the actual verb is take, but the noun piss carries the actual meaning. It corresponds to the heavy verb piss. (Learners probably don't need to worry about these distinctions.)" captures the essence of and is a very good introduction to the concept of light verb, IMHO. Dec 18, 2015 at 7:37
  • @DamkerngT. - RE: snailboat's parenthetical statement (Learners probably don't need to worry about these distinctions). I don't think that anyone needs to worry about these distinctions in day-to-day conversation (most of us don't), but I also think that everyone stands to learn something interesting if we pause and try to analyze what's going on. These are the mysteries that make ELL fun for everyone!
    – J.R.
    Dec 18, 2015 at 15:58

3 Answers 3


Let me turn this around and ask you to quantify "a piss" in your examples.

Without getting into messy detail (either literally or figuratively), "piss" can be both a noun and a verb. As a verb, it is the act of urination. As a noun, it is the result. Further, it is one of those nouns that you must measure, rather than count (like rice, or sand, or water).

Now, let's return to the original phrase:

take a piss

With "a" in there, we're counting something, but we've already established that the noun "piss" is not something you can count, so this must be something different: a verb.

The same can be applied to "take a look". "Look" as a noun is something you can measure (in time) but not count. Therefore, this must be a verb.

"Take a break" is different. You can count breaks: in bones or in sticks or in your day (you "break up" your day by taking "breaks"). Therefore, this must be a noun.

  • I've upvoted this, because I think it's on the right track. That said, I'm not sure we can't count "looks" (after all, we can take a look at something, and then take another look at it later). All I know is the word take seems to be used in quite a few idiomatic verbs (take a chance is another example). In any case, your post reminds me of the joke explaining why people take a can of peas with them when they go ice fishing.
    – J.R.
    Dec 18, 2015 at 21:17
  • @J.R. Of course we can count "looks" He gave me one look too many. He gave me a bad look. It is the second look, not the first, that comprises an act of lust. I had to take three looks at that last sentence to understand it.
    – GoDucks
    Jan 18, 2016 at 0:08
  • @GoDucks - Those are all good examples where looks can be counted, but I still think it's a little tricky to fully explain. For example, I might ask you to take a look at my report, and I might even ask you to take a second look, but I wouldn't ask you to "take two looks". That said, you've given lots of examples where looks can be counted.
    – J.R.
    Jan 18, 2016 at 0:41
  • @GoDucks, you can count looks in the same way you can count pisses - that is, you can count the number of times you perform the action. Jan 18, 2016 at 7:17
  • I would be averse to saying that look and piss are not nouns, since you can use quantifiers, determiners and adjectives with them; in addition you can refer to them by a pronoun. The second long hard look I took at the photo was the one that did the trick. It was, huh? Here, it stands for the second long hard look. I prefer the analysis of light verb, one that takes much of its meaning "from the noun". @J.R.
    – GoDucks
    Jan 18, 2016 at 15:56

As you've rightly discerned, take a piss is a phrasal verb. Thus, to take a piss is simply a case of an infinitive being used as the object of the verb need. The grammar is exactly the same for all of these:

  • I need to take a piss
  • I need to go [Aside: go is a common, polite slang term for urinating or defecating in American English]
  • I want to sleep

Piss itself is indeed a noun, meaning either urine or the act of urination. Let's consider a parallel sentence, I need to take five. Take five is a common idiom meaning short break or rest; it's understood that the meaning is five minutes. The non-ellipted version would be I need to take a break for five minutes.

Again, five is clearly a noun in this construction (it's short for five minutes, remember). But the meaning isn't that you're literally acquiring a period of time. Rather, as is so often the case with phrasal verbs, there's an understanding that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I'm going to take five means I'm going to have a short break, and I'm going to take a piss means I'm going to go urinate. In both cases, there's also an implication that the speaker will soon return.


From http://www.learnersdictionary.com/definition/piss

2 piss /ˈpɪs/ noun: [singular] : an act of urinating

He says he has to take a piss. = (Brit) He says he has to have a piss.

So in that usage, piss is a countable noun, referring a a single act of urinating. You can most certainly count how many pisses you've taken in a day.

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