Nouns: What's in a Name?
With a name that means, literally, 'to name', it's pretty impossible to imagine the English language—or any language—without the noun. But while we use them constantly to provide clarity and identify the things that we're talking or writing about, this hugely essential word type still has some surprises up its sleeve.
This guide should give you a deeper understanding of this seemingly simple element of language, and allow you to use them correctly in your work. You can also check out this useful reference to consolidate your learning.
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What is a Noun?
At first glance, the noun definition is fairly straightforward—they're naming words used to refer to a person, place, thing or idea. They're arguably the most important element of any sentence, as they'll usually be its subject. They can also be the direct object of a sentence. Or the indirect object. Or the object of the preposition. And they can do much more besides that. So you get the idea that we'd find it very difficult to communicate without these superstars of the grammar world!
Controversy and Crossover
As they're so important, the question 'what is a noun?' has been debated and discussed at length by linguists and grammar experts, often sparking some disagreement about the definition. Some feel that to define them as “naming words” is far too simplistic, as they're also used to reference abstract and intangible concepts, feelings and activities such as birth, sport, joy, cookery and technology. There's also huge crossover with other elements of language.
- Verb -- to rain
- Name of weather type -- rain
- Adjective -- red
- Name of color -- red
- As an adverb -- angrily
- As an adjective -- angry
- Name of a feeling -- anger
Because this single word type encompasses so many different things, some linguists feel that the definition should be narrowed. However, for now, we're happy to stick with the generalization that it's a naming word.
For more on the various definitions of different parts of the English language, check out this useful link.
Where the Magic Happens
Although it can lead to confusion, the fact the noun is multi-functional is part of its charm. Let's take a look at some of the jobs that these hard-working words can perform in a sentence.
Subject: the subject of the sentence, i.e. someone or something performing the action of the verb.
- Example: Harry is angry.
Direct object: the direct object of the sentence, i.e. someone or something who receives the action of the verb.
- Example: Ashley baked Noah a cake.
Object of the preposition: the object of the prepositional phrase.
- Example: Ashley baked a cake on Sunday.
Subject complement: follows a linking verb.
- Example: Ashley is a teacher.
Object complement: follows a direct object to rename or modify it.
- Example: She named her dog Benji.
Appositive: immediately follows another to add more information.
- Example: Her dog, Benji, is black.
Modifier: acts as an adjective to modify another noun.
- Example: A black dog.
Phrase or Clause?
In addition to your run of the mill single naming words, you can also use a noun clause or phrase to name or identify a person, object, thing, place or idea.
A phrase has a naming word as its head word but may also include other kinds of words. For example:
- Head word -- car/cars
- Determiner -- My car
- Determiner and adjective -- My red car
- Quantifier -- Some cars
- Quantifier and adjective -- Some red cars
- In a sentence -- My red car is very old. (My red car is the phrase that identifies which car we are talking about.)
Caution! Don’t confuse a phrase with a compound, i.e. two or more words together to create a stand-alone common or proper noun with a meaning of its own (more on compounds later!).
A clause is a dependent clause (doesn't make sense alone) that performs the naming function in a sentence. It usually contains a subject and a verb, but may not necessarily contain a naming word.
This weekend we can do whatever you want.
Types of Nouns List
There are multiple types of naming words to get a grip on, and plenty of crossovers between categories too—just to keep things interesting!
- You can have a mass, abstract, common name.
- Or a singular, concrete, proper, compound, or possessive name (phew!).
Don't worry! This should become clearer as we work through the different categories in turn. If you'd like to do some more in-depth reading on the subject, you can find more info online.
Singular or Plural
You can have singular or plural nouns, with regulars keeping things nice and simple with the addition of s or es.
- Car -- cars
- Book – books
- Zoo -- zoos
- Box -- boxes
- Dish -- dishes
- Hero -- heroes
However, there are lots of rule-breaking irregulars thrown into the mix to complicate matters.
- Man -- men
- Person -- people
- Sheep -- sheep
- Elf -- elves
- Fish -- fish
- City -- cities
Concrete vs Abstract
As noted earlier, these debate-sparking naming words can be difficult things to define. So it can help to think of them as either concrete or abstract.
Concrete nouns are the simpler of the two. They're tangible things that can be detected by the senses.
- You can touch, see and smell a flower.
- You can hold a pencil.
- You can see your friend Emily.
Abstract nouns are far trickier to pin down—both literally and metaphorically speaking!
- You can't hold anger or space or childhood.
However, some people might argue that you can identify some abstracts with your senses.
- You can see an expression of anger.
- You can sense fresh air.
So it might be more helpful to think of them as something that you can't physically hold, i.e. concepts, ideas, experiences, qualities and feelings.
Can You Count it?
Naming words can either be count or noncount. Count type doesn't tend to give you much trouble—they're, as the name suggests, something that can be counted. Noncount type (also known as mass nouns), however, are a whole different ball game! These rebellious words are definitely the evil twin of the two, as they defy several of the usual rules of grammar and, if you're not careful, can cause chaos and confusion.
Count: something that can be counted, e.g. books, people, cars.
Noncount (Mass): something that can't be counted (often because it's an abstract concept), e.g. air, red, peace. Or an aggregation of people or things that are lumped together as a whole, like luggage, information, or salt.
Not quite so simple! Caution! Be careful not to confuse noncounts with collectives, words which are used to name a collection of people or things (e.g. group, herd, bundle). An easy way to test whether a word is noncount or collective is:
- Noncounts don't follow indefinite articles (a and an).
- Noncounts don’t usually have a plural form.
For example, you don't have a luggage or luggages.
An Awkward Bunch
Despite the fact that they often represent an aggregation of people or things, noncounts can be a rather anti-social and awkward word type! They like to stand alone, without an indefinite article:
Music can help you relax.
Not 'a music can help you relax.'
I sprinkled salt on my food.
Not 'I sprinkled a salt on my food.'
However, they can sit nicely with a determiner or quantifier instead.
- Determiner -- The music was loud.
- Quantifier -- I sprinkled some salt on my food.
In fact, some quantifiers only work with noncounts.
- A little salt
- Not much information
- A bit of music
However, we would never say:
- A little books
- Not much cars
- A bit of flowers
The Singular or Plural Conundrum
Another quirk of the noncount is that, even when it represents an aggregation or group of things, it can still count as singular for grammatical purposes.
The luggage is heavy. It filled the trunk of the car.
This information is useful. It has helped me with my paper.
Even if a noncount appears to take a plural form with an s on the end, don't be fooled! It may still be classed as grammatically singular.
Politics is a difficult subject to study. I find it hard to grasp.
The news is on at 10 pm. It's on for an hour.
On the flip side, some noncounts are grammatically plural.
My clothes are wet.
The scissors are sharp.
His manners were fantastic.
However, these go against the grain of plurals by not mixing well with numbers—we never say five clothes or six scissors!
Enumerating a Noncount
These awkward noncounts on the whole don't mix well with numbers, although there are sneaky tactics that you can sometimes employ to enumerate them. These include:
- Grammatically plural -- if concrete, add a pair of, e.g. a pair of scissors.
- Grammatically singular -- if concrete, add a piece of, e.g. a piece of cutlery.
- Singular and plural -- both concrete and abstract noncounts can be enumerated by adding an indefinite adjective (quantifier), e.g. any, some, less, much.
- Pass me some cutlery.
- I don't have any scissors.
- It contains more information.
Fewer vs Less
A quick note on fewer versus less as these are indefinite adjectives (quantifiers) that often trip people up!
- Fewer -- used for count type, e.g. I have fewer books than Sarah.
- Less -- used for non-count type, e.g. I have less money than Sarah.
Good and Proper
A proper noun is used to name very specific people, places, things and ideas. As their 'proper' title suggests, they're formal names and, as such, deserve capitalization. Examples include:
- People -- Sarah, Jack, Mrs. Smith, Prince George, Father Brown, Beethoven
- Specific places -- America, Europe, Paris, George Street, Roman Empire, Times Square
- Natural and man-made landmarks -- River Nile, Central Park, Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building, Mount Etna
- Religions and related words -- Christianity, The Bible, God, Allah, Buddhism
- Races and nationalities -- African American, Russian, White, Eskimo, Japanese
- Languages -- French, Spanish, Chinese, English
- Periods in history -- Stone Age, Middle Ages
- Events -- Olympic Games, Coachella, Wimbledon, Rio Carnaval, Oktoberfest
- Days, months and holidays -- Sunday, Friday, June, October, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day (note that the seasons are, somewhat contentiously, classed as common)
- Organizations, charities and businesses -- New York Police Department (NYPD), Harvard University, Microsoft, Red Cross, Walmart, Forbes
- Product brand names -- Tresemme, Adidas, Apple, Coca-Cola
- Well-known documents and acts -- Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, Magna Carta, Slavery Abolition Act 1833
- Names of specific things and works -- Hope Diamond, Mona Lisa, Symphony No. 5, Star Wars, War and Peace
- Titles of publications and courses -- The Washington Post, Introduction to Computer Science
- They can be singular -- Sally, Australia, Picasso, iPad
- Or plural -- the Smiths, the Rockies, the Americas, two iPads
From Proper to Common
Sometimes, they bend the rules to put themselves into a 'common' context.
I made a mistake of Titanic proportions.
This is taken to mean a big mistake and isn't literally referencing the Titanic ship.
I'm an Einstein when it comes to science.
Here Einstein is taken to mean a person who is smart, rather than referencing the man himself specifically.
Similarly, over time, some have developed common 'spin-off' words.
- Famous porcelain from China -- a china cup (note, not a China cup)
- Coca-Cola -- coke (to describe a generic cola drink, not necessarily the Coca-Cola brand)
The Humble Common Noun
Common nouns give a name to a general type of person, thing, object, place, concept or feeling. They're not 'formal' names and, as such, they don't demand capitalization.
- People -- man, woman, girl, boy, vicar, teacher, children
- Places -- city, beach, library, street, garden
- Things -- tiger, leg, sleep, beard
- Objects -- watch, cake, shoe, ball
- Concepts -- peace, justice, talent, religion
- Feelings -- anger, joy, love, envy
In many cases, both a common and proper noun can be applied to the same thing.
- A Baby Ruth (proper) is a chocolate bar (common).
- Rihanna (proper) is a popular singer (common) in the US.
- Mrs. Smith (proper) is a teacher (common).
- Benji (proper) is a dog (common).
- The Nile (proper) is a river (common).
Of course, you can define proper noun words as having a far narrower application as they can only apply to one very specific thing. Common noun examples have a much wider application—hence their label as 'common'!
There are thousands of singers (common) in the world, but there's only one Taylor Swift (proper).
When a Commoner Becomes Proper
Occasionally, a commoner can move up the ranks to become proper—gaining that all-important capitalization along the way. This usually happens when a word becomes synonymous over time with a very specific type of thing.
For example, a parka jacket depicts a type of long, all-weather coat. But you could argue that the term Parka is so synonymous with a very specific type of jacket that it should be classed as proper.
This is definitely one for the grammar experts to slog out between themselves!
Possessive nouns are usually followed by another naming word, indicating that the second thing 'belongs' to the first. There are different ways to indicate this possession, depending on the word in question. These can become confusing, so let's look at them in turn.
Singular possessives are usually indicated with 's. For example:
- the girl's coat
- Emma's car
- the city's main landmark
As are plural possessives that don't end in s. For example:
- the men's bathroom
- children's toys
In the case of a plural possessive that ends in s, you simply need to add an apostrophe('). For example:
- the girls' coats
- the Smiths' house
- the tigers' pen
- the computers' manufacturer
When we come to singular possessives that end in s, the waters get a little bit muddier. The most popular method used to form a singular possessive is to add 's, as detailed above.
- James's book
- the bus's engine
However, just adding the apostrophe is also commonly accepted.
- James' book
- the bus' engine
The Importance of the Apostrophe
You'll notice that subtle differences in your sentence structure can completely alter its meaning, so it's important to get your grammar on point.
- the girl's coat -- belonging to one particular girl
- the girls' coat -- a coat designed to be worn by a girl
- the girl's coats -- more than one coat belonging to one particular girl)
- the girls' coats -- a group of coats belonging to a group of girls
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A Blessing of Unicorns
A collective noun is a name given to a collection or group of things. Although they represent more than one, they are usually classed as grammatically singular (in American English).
- The pride of lions made its way to water.
- The cast of actors collected its award.
- The class of students was dismissed early.
They can often stand-alone, if the context makes it clear what collection or group of things is being referred to.
- We followed the herd on safari.
- I got the cast to sign my autograph book.
- The class went on its field trip.
But be careful with this, as they can be used to represent very different things.
- flock of tourists or flock of birds ** cluster of spiders* or cluster of stars
So saying "I stared open-mouthed at the cluster before me" could have two very different meanings—you might be staring in wonder or staring in horror!
Some collective nouns have developed a more general or colloquial meaning.
For example, you get a bunch of flowers or a bunch of bananas. However, bunch is also used more generally to denote 'several' or 'lots'.
- I saw a bunch of people that I knew.
- Thanks a bunch.
Collectives are one of the quirkiest word types in the English language and include some unusual naming words. For instance, it's difficult to imagine where the examples below came from.
- A shiver of sharks
- A quiver of cobras
- A blush of boys
- A disguising of tailors
- A drunkship of cobblers
- A worship of writers
- A nest of rumors
Compound nouns consist of two or more words that have come together to form a new word with its own meaning. These are words that have decided they don’t want to stand-alone—they can work better together with another word! Both proper and common words can be compounded, and within these compounds are three sub-types.
- Closed -- PlayStation, YouTube
- Hyphenated -- Coca-Cola, Chick-fil-A
- Open Spaced -- New York, Ritz Carlton Hotel
- Closed -- football, textbook
- Hyphenated -- mother-in-law, well-being
- Open Spaced -- bus stop, swimming pool
Wal-Mart Or Walmart?
Fun fact! Some popular brands have dropped their hyphens in recent years. For example, Wal-Mart switched to Walmart in 2009. This could possibly be because hyphenated domain names can cause issues for a brand's online presence. Brands now have a whole host of digital considerations that simply weren't on the table when they first decided on a name.
The Pronoun Takeover
While both concrete and abstract noun words are undeniably super useful and essential parts of the English language, they can be a bit much at times. Especially when you're referring to the same thing several times in a sentence or section.
Sally loves Fanta. Sally drinks Fanta every day.
This is where pronouns come in handy. These often small but ever so mighty words have the power to replace names and make your sentences flow much better.
Sally loves Fanta. She drinks it every day.
This works for both proper and common types.
- The Empire State Building (proper) is very tall. It stands at 443m.
- Sally (proper) loves chocolate (common). She eats some every day.
- My dog (common) has a red ball (common). He likes to chase it.
The antecedent nouns give a reference point for the pronouns.
Is I a Noun or a Pronoun?
Commonly used 'people' pronouns include he, she, me, his and hers. However, there's some debate as to the word I.
While I is commonly accepted as a first person pronoun, it may not follow the usual antecedent rule.
For example, if you were Sally, you wouldn't write:
Sally loves Fanta. I drink it every day.
Instead you'd simply write:
I love Fanta. I drink it every day.
I is also classed as a naming word in the following contexts:
- I -- the name of a letter of the alphabet.
- I -- the subject or object of self-consciousness, i.e. the ego.
This guide should hopefully have answered lots of naming word questions for you, such as 'what is a possessive noun?', but if you're still struggling you can learn more here. The list of nouns can be difficult to remember, for the simple fact that there are so many different categories and variations of these naming words. People, objects, places, ideas and feelings are things that don't seem to have much in common—yet they all have names, which lumps them grammatically into the same (very large!) category.
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