A noun is the name of a person, place, thing, or idea. Whatever exists, we assume, can be named, and that name is a noun. A proper noun, which names a specific person, place, or thing (Carlos, Queen Marguerite, Middle East, Jerusalem, Malaysia, Presbyterianism, God, Spanish, Buddhism, the Republican Party), is almost always capitalized. A proper noun used as an addressed person's name is called a noun of address. Common nouns name everything else, things that usually are not capitalized.
A group of related words can act as a single noun-like entity within a sentence. A Noun Clause contains a subject and verb and can do anything that a noun can do:
What he does for this town is a blessing.
A Noun Phrase, frequently a noun accompanied by modifiers, is a group of related words acting as a noun: the oil depletion allowance; the abnormal, hideously enlarged nose.
There is a separate section on word combinations that become Compound Nouns — such as daughter-in-law, half-moon, and stick-in-the-mud.
Categories of Nouns
Click on "Noun School" to read and hear Lynn Ahren's "A Noun is a Person Place or Thing" (from Scholastic Rock, 1973).
Schoolhouse Rock® and its characters and other elements are trademarks and service marks of American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. Used with permission.
Nouns can be classified further as count nouns, which name anything that can be counted (four books, two continents, a few dishes, a dozen buildings); mass nouns (or non-count nouns), which name something that can't be counted (water, air, energy, blood); and collective nouns, which can take a singular form but are composed of more than one individual person or items (jury, team, class, committee, herd). We should note that some words can be either a count noun or a non-count noun depending on how they're being used in a sentence:
- He got into trouble. (non-count)
- He had many troubles. (countable)
- Experience (non-count) is the best teacher.
- We had many exciting experiences (countable) in college.
Whether these words are count or non-count will determine whether they can be used with articles and determiners or not. (We would not write "He got into
the troubles," but we could write about "The troubles of Ireland."
Some texts will include the category of abstract nouns, by which we mean the kind of word that is not tangible, such as warmth, justice, grief, and peace. Abstract nouns are sometimes troublesome for non-native writers because they can appear with determiners or without: "Peace settled over the countryside." "The skirmish disrupted the peace that had settled over the countryside." See the section on Plurals for additional help with collective nouns, words that can be singular or plural, depending on context.
Forms of Nouns
Nouns can be in the subjective, possessive, and objective case. The word case defines the role of the noun in the sentence. Is it a subject, an object, or does it show possession?
- The English professor [subject] is tall.
- He chose the English professor [object].
- The English professor's [possessive] car is green.
Nouns in the subject and object role are identical in form; nouns that show the possessive, however, take a different form. Usually an apostrophe is added followed by the letter s (except for plurals, which take the plural "-s" ending first, and then add the apostrophe). See the section on Possessives for help with possessive forms. There is also a table outlining the cases of nouns and pronouns.
Almost all nouns change form when they become plural, usually with the simple addition of an -s or -es. Unfortunately, it's not always that easy, and a separate section on Plurals offers advice on the formation of plural noun forms.
Assaying for Nouns*
Back in the gold rush days, every little town in the American Old West had an assayer's office, a place where wild-eyed prospectors could take their bags of ore for official testing, to make sure the shiny stuff they'd found was the real thing, not "fool's gold." We offer here some assay tests for nouns. There are two kinds of tests: formal and functional — what a word looks like (the endings it takes) and how a word behaves in a sentence.
- Formal Tests
- Does the word contain a noun-making morpheme? organization, misconception, weirdness, statehood, government, democracy, philistinism, realtor, tenacity, violinist
- Can the word take a plural-making morpheme? pencils, boxes
- Can the word take a possessive-making morpheme? today's, boys'
- Function Tests
- Without modifiers, can the word directly follow an article and create a grammatical unit (subject, object, etc.)? the state, an apple, a crate
- Can it fill the slot in the following sentence: "(The) _________ seem(s) all right." (or substitute other predicates such as unacceptable, short, dark, depending on the word's meaning)?
Testing the Tests:
With most nouns, the test is clear. "State," for example, can be a plural ("states"), become a possessive ("state's"), follow an article ("a/the state"), and fit in the slot ("the state seems all right"). It doesn't have a noun-making morpheme, but it passes all the other tests; it can pass as a noun. (The fact that "state" can also be a verb — "We state our case" — is not relevant.) "Greyness" cannot take plural ending nor can it be possessive, but it does contain a noun-making morphene and it can follow an article and fit in the slot sentence. Can the word "grey," which is obviously also an adjective, be a noun? It's hard to imagine it passing any of the formal tests, but it can follow an article and fill the slot: "The grey seems acceptable." And what about "running," which is often part of a verb (He is running for office)? Again, it won't pass the formal tests, but it will fit the slot sentence: "Running is all right." (It can also follow an article, but in rather an odd way: "The running is about to begin.") "Grey" and "running" are nouns, but just barely: one is an adjective acting like a noun, and the other is a verb acting like a noun (a gerund).
Additional Help With Nouns
A simple exercise in Naming Nouns will help answer any questions you might have about count and non-count nouns and help you distinguish between plural and singular forms.
The categories of count and non-count nouns can be confusing, however, and we suggest further review, especially for writers for whom English is a second language. The second section we offer is called Count and Non-Count, a basic review of those concepts and their uses in sentences, with many examples. Third, we offer WORKING WITH NOUNS, a more extensive (and somewhat more advanced) review of the count and non-count distinction, along with exercises. Finally, just when you thought you couldn't stand such riches, we suggest you review the uses of Articles, Determiners, and Quantifiers with count and non-count nouns.
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