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The word 'nothing', like a lot of words, has many meanings, and can be a number of things. It can be a noun, a pronoun, an adjective or an adverb. This Entry will begin by looking at how the word is used in everyday life.

'Nothing' as a Pronoun

Nothing tastes better than chocolate.

What does the above sentence mean? Well, firstly, take 'nothing' as a pronoun. A pronoun is a word used as a substitute for a noun. The dictionary meaning1 for 'nothing' as a pronoun is:

1: not any thing : no thing
2: no part
3: one of no interest, value, or consequence

A more common pronoun is 'it', so if you replace 'nothing' with 'it' you get 'It tastes better than chocolate', where 'it' replaces some noun, something that tastes better than chocolate. This does not work with 'nothing', as 'nothing' is a negative pronoun. What the sentence is really saying is 'It (whatever it is) does not taste better than chocolate', or 'No thing tastes better than chocolate'.

'Nothing' as a Noun

Now look at the same sentence, with 'nothing' being a noun. A noun is:

Any member of a class of words that typically can be combined with determiners to serve as the subject of a verb, can be interpreted as singular or plural, can be replaced with a pronoun, and refer to an entity, quality, state, action, or concept

The dictionary meaning for 'nothing' as a noun is:

1 a: something that does not exist b: the absence of all magnitude or quantity; also: zero, nothingness
2: someone or something of no or slight value or size

So, going by this meaning, the sentence could be interpreted as 'Something that does not exist tastes better than chocolate', or perhaps 'Zero tastes better than chocolate'. This interpretation says that there is something, with a value of zero, which tastes better than chocolate.

Although 'nothing' could be taken as a pronoun or as a noun in this sentence and similar sentences, it is important to remember the context in which the sentence is said or written. On most occasions it is the pronoun version of 'nothing' that the person is using in the sentence.

'Nothing' as an Adjective

As stated earlier, the word 'nothing' can also be an adjective and an adverb. The dictionary meaning for 'nothing' as an adjective is:

: of no account : worthless

Below is a sentence with the word 'nothing' used as an adjective:

It was nothing.

An adjective is a word that describes a noun or pronoun, and in this sentence, 'nothing' is an adjective, as it is being used to describe the pronoun 'it'. 'Nothing' could be replaced, for example, with the adjective 'easy'. In this particular sentence, 'nothing' could also be a noun, as it could be replaced with the noun 'a trifle'.

Another use of 'nothing' as an adjective, in a sentence like 'I gave him a nothing job, to keep him out of the way', is not very common.

'Nothing' as an Adverb

The dictionary meaning for 'nothing' as an adverb is:

: not at all : in no degree

An example of 'nothing' as an adverb is:

This tastes nothing like tea.

An adverb is a word that modifies a sentence, a verb, another adverb or an adjective. In this sentence the word 'nothing' is used to modify the meaning of the phrase 'like tea', which is an adjective phrase.

The word 'nothing' has many meanings, and it is important when using the word 'nothing' in everyday life that you understand some of the multiple meanings the things you say and hear can have.

The Substance Nothing

This Entry will now look at the theoretical substance nothing. To avoid confusion, when the word 'nothing' appears in this Entry referring to the substance nothing, the word 'nothing' will be placed in italics.

Nothing is a very difficult substance to understand, and can sometimes seem very confusing. Remember that when reading the information below.

The Existence of Nothing

Before even looking at the substance nothing itself, you have to look at whether it could actually exist in the first place. The substance would be indicated by the noun form of the word. Remember, a noun is a word that refers to 'an entity, quality, state, action, or concept'. Since the word 'nothing' is a noun, then for there to be a substance nothing, it must be one of those five things.

Which of of these five things is nothing?

Well, the first logical place to look would be the meaning of the noun 'nothing' itself.

1 a: something that does not exist b: the absence of all magnitude or quantity; also: zero, nothingness
2 : someone or something of no or slight value or size

Immediately it is possible to realise from the meaning of the noun 'nothing' that nothing is not an action. However, from the dictionary meaning, nothing could still be any one of the other four things - an entity, quality, state or concept.

Where can more information about nothing be found?

Well, the next best place to look is the dictionary meaning for 'nothingness', since 'nothingness' is mentioned in the dictionary meaning for 'nothing'. The dictionary meaning for 'nothingness' is:

1: the quality or state of being nothing: as a: nonexistence b: utter insignificance c: death
2: something insignificant or valueless
3 a: void, emptiness b : a metaphysical entity opposed to and devoid of being and regarded by some existentialists as the ground of anxiety

The dictionary meaning clearly states that nothingness is 'the quality or state of being nothing'. Therefore, nothing cannot be the actual quality or state itself. That leaves only two things that nothing could be - either an entity, or a concept.

An entity is:

1 a: being, existence; especially : independent, separate, or self-contained existence b: the existence of a thing as contrasted with its attributes
2: something that has separate and distinct existence and objective or conceptual reality

A concept is:

1: something conceived in the mind : Thought, Notion
2: an abstract or generic idea generalized from particular instances

From these definitions, it is clear that for the substance nothing to exist, it must be an entity.

So, is nothing an entity?

From one perspective, it could be proved that nothing cannot be a substance from the dictionary meaning of nothing, which states that nothing is 'something that does not exist'. If nothing does not actually exist then it cannot be an entity, and therefore cannot be a substance.

However, the dictionary meaning for nothingness contradicts this, as it says that nothingness is 'the quality or state of being nothing'. According to this meaning, nothing must exist as an entity so it can be in a state of nothingness.

This leads on to the nothing paradox. 'Nothing' as a word is negative, so that 'nothing' can be separated into two words, 'no thing'. One of the dictionary meanings for a substance is 'physical material from which something is made or which has discrete existence'. If nothing was a substance, then it would most likely have negative properties to a normal substance, and would have a non-existence. The dictionary meaning for non-existence is the 'absence of existence: the negation of being', which confirms the view that nothing would logically have a non-existence. But an entity is 'the existence of a thing', so if nothing has a non-existence, it can't be an entity, right? This is the nothing paradox.

It is impossible to know whether nothing really is a substance or not. But if it is a substance, then what properties would it have?

Properties of Nothing

This Entry will begin by looking at the mathematical properties of nothing. A good place to find the mathematical properties of nothing is the dictionary meaning, which clearly states that nothing is 'Zero'. But zero what?

The value zero could represent any number of things. Firstly, it could represent its mass. This is likely since the dictionary says that nothing is 'the absence of all magnitude or quantity'.

Following on from this, if nothing has a zero amount of mass it is also possible it has a zero gravitational force, and perhaps is not even effected by gravity. This is likely, as if nothing is in a state of non-existence then it should not be affected or able to affect things in a state of existence.

There are probably many more things that the value of zero for nothing could represent.

So, what other properties would nothing have?

The best place to look now would be to the five human senses - touch, taste, sight, smell and hearing. All these senses rely on the existence of a substance - as already stated by this Entry, if nothing is in a state of non-existence then it should not be able to affect things in a state of existence. Therefore, we should not be able to sense it, or any of its properties.

In order to touch something, it has to have some form. In order to see it, it has to be able to reflect light. To smell or taste it, its particles would have to exist and enter our noses or mouths. In order to hear something, it would have to affect molecules of air. Since nothing does not have existence, it shouldn't be able to do any of these things, so we should never be able to sense nothing.

Just because we cannot sense any properties of nothing, does not mean it does not have any properties in its state of non-existence; we just don't know about them.

Where Can Nothing Be Found?

No two things can be in the same place at the same time. So, if there is a substance that exists in a place, then nothing cannot be there. This immediately means that nothing can only be in places where there is a lack of existence.

So, where would there be a place where there is no existence?
  1. A Vacuum - According to the dictionary, a vacuum is 'a space absolutely devoid of matter'. All matter contains exists so if there is a place devoid of matter, it is possibly devoid of existence, and therefore could be is full of nothing.

    However, even in a vacuum, it is impossible to know where there is nothing, as although there is an absence of matter, there are electromagnetic waves flying about, most of which we cannot see.

    The largest known vacuum is in space. Although there is a large amount of existence in space, there is even more emptiness, filled with no matter. However, it is impossible to know if nothing is actually in any of space - if there is a point in space where electromagnetic waves and matter do not reach. In fact, it is impossible to know if space in itself exists, leaving nothing, nowhere to dwell.

  2. Nowhere - If there is existence everywhere in our universe, then it should be impossible to find nothing. Nothing could then only be found in a place outside our reality where there is no existence, and it is impossible to know whether there even is a place. However, it is possible that nothing could be found somewhere like in a black hole, as we have no knowledge of what is inside a black hole.

  3. Nothingness - The dictionary states that nothingness is:

    1: the quality or state of being nothing : as a: nonexistence b: utter insignificance c : death
    2: something insignificant or valueless
    3 a: void, emptiness b : a metaphysical entity opposed to and devoid of being and regarded by some existentialists as the ground of anxiety

    This Entry has stated that nothing can only be found where there is no existence, and since nothingness is devoid of being, devoid of existence, it is very possible that the only place where nothing can be is in a place of nothingness.

    It is impossible to know where there is a place of nothingness.

Scientific Theories on Nothing

There are a number of scientific theories that can be used to help answer the question, 'Can nothing exist?'. There are theories on electromagnetic radiation, matter, energy etc. According to modern understanding, most matter consists of empty spaces, inside of and in between atoms. Light is understood as electromagnetic radiation, detectable in quantized units called photons, which in interstellar space, are pretty few and far between. This seems to leave a lot of room for nothing.

There are also more advanced theories, using things like quantum mechanics, that can address the concept of nothing on the sub-microscopic scale. An example of this is Paul Dirac's2 theory of antimatter, which states that there are unobservable negative energy electrons everywhere. At a point in space where one of these electrons is missing, having been knocked into a positive energy state (thus becoming observable), then the 'hole' it leaves can be observed, and can be called a 'missing electron', or a positron (piece of antimatter). Going by this, nothing could never exist, as there is something everywhere. We just can't see most of it.

This theory does not totally rule nothing out. Dirac's theory of electrons being everywhere may not be the final word on the nature of matter and antimatter, and there are still many unknowns about the universe. What was there before the Big Bang? Is space infinite? Is there anything beyong space? Are there other dimensions?

Although current theories suggest that nothing cannot exist, new discoveries are made every day, and nobody can say what the future holds.

The Concept Nothing

It is important to remember that nothing may not be a substance, and the majority of people would consider it to be a concept. Remember, a concept is:

1: something conceived in the mind : Thought, Notion
2: an abstract or generic idea generalized from particular instances

The idea that nothing is a substance that appears where there is no existence is only a theory, an idea, 'something conceived in the mind', as there is no physical evidence to actually prove its existence. Therefore, until it is proved, nothing as a substance is only one concept that some people have for 'nothing'.

There are many other different concepts for 'nothing'. One of them is that space is simply nothingness, as there is nothing in it. Another is that space is expanding into nothingness, and that it will keep on expanding as nothingness is endless.

In a lecture at the University of Freiburg in 1929 entitled 'What Is Metaphysics?', Martin Heidegger3 talks about 'the nothing'. He asks questions such as 'What is the nothing?' and 'Where will we find the nothing?' The lecture is an interesting read, although it is very hard to understand at times.

Jean-Paul Sartre4 wrote a book about Being and Nothingness. He said that Nothingness is a state of non-being, and that Nothingness does not itself have Being, but is sustained by Being. He confronts Nothingness as part of human reality.

Most people have their own concepts about nothing.


As stated earlier in the Entry, nothing is a very difficult thing to understand. Many people will disagree with each on what nothing really is, whether it really is a substance, or whether it is just a concept, what properties it has if it is a substance, where it could be found, and many other things. However, one thing is certain:

There is no definite answer on nothing, and it is up to you to make your own conclusions about it.

It is important to remember something that Martin Heidegger said about nothing in his lecture entitled 'What Is Metaphysics?':

Whatever we may make of it, we do know the nothing, if only as a word we rattle off every day.

Nothing Jokes

Nothing jokes are a special type of one-liner. They have a very limited use, as they are only sometimes funny when said within a discussion about the substance nothing. The jokes play on the difference between 'nothing' as a pronoun and as a noun, and this should be easily noticeable by how the joke is told. Below are a few examples:

Nothing makes sense.
There's nothing there.
Nothing is better than this.
Nothing to be worried about.
I guess that's better than nothing.
It's nothing really.

Nothing jokes are good for adding humour to serious discussions about nothing (or about this Entry), and can be very useful for calming people down if discussions begin to get heated.

Related h2g2 Link

  • This link may say and mean nothing to you, but you might be surprised at the result.

1All dictionary meanings in this Entry are taken from the Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary.2Paul Dirac was a British scientist. He was born on 8 August 1902, and died on 20 October 1984.3Martin Heidegger was a German philosopher. He was born in 1889 and died in 1976.4Jean-Paul Sartre was a French philosopher. He was born in 1905 and died in 1980.

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