What Are Nouns? (with Examples)
The Quick AnswerWhat are nouns?
A noun is a word for a person, place, or thing. Everything we can see or talk about is represented by a word that names it. That "naming" word is called a noun.
NounsA noun is a word for a person, place, or thing. Everything we can see or talk about is represented by a word that names it. That "naming" word is called a noun.
Often a noun will be the name for something we can touch (e.g., lion, cake, computer), but sometimes a noun will be the name for something we cannot touch (e.g., bravery, mile, joy).
Everything is represented by a word that lets us talk about it. This includes people (e.g., man, scientist), animals (e.g., dog, lizard), places (e.g., town, street), objects (e.g., vase, pencil), substances (e.g., copper, glass), qualities (e.g., heroism, sorrow), actions (e.g., swimming, dancing), and measures (e.g., inch, ounce).
Easy Examples of Nouns
- People: soldier, Alan, cousin, lawyer
- Animals: aardvark, rat, shark, Mickey
- Places: house, London, factory, shelter
- Things: table, London Bridge, chisel, nitrogen, month, inch, cooking
- Ideas: confusion, kindness, faith, Theory of Relativity, joy
Common Nouns and Proper NounsA noun can be categorized as either a common noun or a proper noun.
- Common Noun. A common noun is the word used for a class of person, place, or thing (e.g., person, city, dog).
- Proper Noun. A proper noun is the given name of a person, place, or thing, i.e., its own name (e.g., Michael, New York, Rover). (Note: A proper noun always starts with a capital letter.)
|Common Noun||Proper Noun|
|bridge||The Golden Gate Bridge|
Read more about using capital letters for proper nouns but not common nouns.
The Different Types of NounsA noun can usually be further categorized depending on its meaning (e.g., Is it something tangible?) or its structure (e.g., Is it made up of more than one word?). It is not unusual for a noun to fit into several noun categories. For example, the common noun mother-in-law is a gender-specific noun (it's always a female), a concrete noun (it's something you can perceive), a countable noun (it's something you can count), and a compound noun (it's made up of more than one word).
Below is a list of the different types of nouns with examples:
Abstract NounsAbstract nouns are things you cannot see or touch. For example:
Concrete NounsConcrete nouns are things you can see or touch. For example:
Collective NounsCollective nouns are words that denote groups. For example:
Compound NounsCompound nouns are nouns made up of more than one word. For example:
- water bottle
Countable and Non-countable NounsA countable noun is a noun with both a singular and a plural form (e.g., dog/dogs, pie/pies). A non-countable noun is a noun without a plural form (e.g., oxygen, patience). For example:
These are countable:
- mountain (singular) / mountains (plural)
- fight / fights
- kiss / kisses
- food (always singular)
- music (always singular)
- water (always singular)
Gender-specific NounsGender-specific nouns are nouns that are definitely male or female. For example:
GerundsGerunds are nouns that end -ing and that represent actions. Gerunds have verb-like properties. For example (gerunds shown in bold):
- happily building a tower
- quickly drawing the scene
- suddenly attacking the enemy
- Gradually boiling the haggis is best. (Here, the gerund boiling is modified by the adverb gradually and its direct object is the haggis. Just like normal nouns, verbal nouns are modified with adjectives, and they can't take direct objects.
Verbal NounsVerbal nouns are nouns derived from verbs. (Verbal nouns have no verb-like properties.) For example (verbal nouns shown in bold):
- a good building
- a fine drawing
- an effective attack
- The ceremonial cutting of the cake has started. (Like gerunds, verbal nouns are derived from verbs, but, unlike gerunds, they have no verb-like properties. In this example, the verbal noun cutting is not showing any verb-like qualities. It is not modified by a determiner and an adjective (the and ceremonial) and it requires a preposition (of) to link it to the cake. In contrast, in the sentence "Cutting the cake carefully is key," the word cutting (which, despite being spelled the same, is now a gerund) is showing verb-like qualities. More specifically, it is modified with an adverb (carefully) and has a direct object (the chord).)
More about Nouns (Noun Phrases)It's quite rare to find a noun functioning by itself (i.e., without any modifiers) in a sentence.
- Man proposes, but God disposes. (German canon Thomas à Kempis) (This example features two nouns without any modifiers. That's rare.)
- People: the soldier, my cousin, dopey Alan, the greedy lawyer
- Animals: that aardvark, one rat, a shark, funny Mickey
- Places: the house in the corner, inner London, dirty factory, no shelter
- Things: this table, our London Bridge, the sharp chisel, that nitrogen, last month, an inch, her cooking
- Ideas: utter confusion, some kindness, your faith, the Theory of Relativity, a joy
- Singing in the bath relaxes me. (Here, the noun phrase is the subject of the verb relaxes.)
- I know the back streets. (Here, the noun phrase is the direct object of the verb know.)
- She was the devil in disguise. (Here, the noun phrase is a subject complement following the linking verb was.)
- It relaxes me.
- I know them.
- She was him.
- This man has a nice smile, but he's got iron teeth. (Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko on Mikhail Gorbachev) (This man is the subject of the verb has. The phrase a nice smile is the direct object of has. The noun phrase iron teeth is the direct object of the verb got. Here's the "pronoun test": He has one, but he's got them.)
- I never learned from a man who agreed with me. (Science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein) (The noun phrase a man who agreed with me is the object of the preposition from. Here's the "pronoun test": I never learned from him.)
- Every man of courage is a man of his word. (French dramatist Pierre Corneille) (Every man of courage is the subject of the verb is. The noun phrase a man of his word is a subject complement following the linking verb is. Here's the "pronoun test": He is one.)
The last thing to say about noun phrases is that they can be headed by pronouns as well as nouns, and they can be quite long.
- Anybody who wants the presidency so much that he'll spend two years organizing and campaigning for it is not to be trusted with the office. (Journalist David Broder) (Here, anybody is a pronoun. The rest of the noun phrase is an adjective clause modifying the head "noun". Here's the "pronoun test": He is not to be trusted with the office.)
More about Nouns (Noun Clauses)Let's look quickly at the definition for "clause".
Lots of noun clauses start with that, how, or a "wh"-word (e.g., what, who, which, when, where, why). Here are some easy examples. In each example, the noun clause is underlined, the subject is shaded, and the verb of the noun clause is bold.
- I know that the story is true.
- I saw how the accident happened.
- I understand why it was necessary.
- I know who said that. (Often, the opening word (i.e., how, that or the "wh"-word) is the subject of the noun clause.)
- Whoever smelt it dealt it. (Here, the noun clause is a subject.)
- My command is whatever you wish (Here, the noun clause is a subject complement.)
- I will give what you said some thought. (Here, the noun clause is an indirect object. That's pretty rare.)
- That he believes his own story is remarkable. (Jerome Blattner) (Here, the noun clause is the subject of the sentence. Starting a sentence with a noun clause starting That is acceptable, but it grates on lots of people's ears. Many writers prefer "The fact that…".)
- Light knows when you are looking at it. ("Light and space" artist James Turrell) (Here, the noun clause is the direct object of the verb knows.)
- It is a light thing for whoever keeps his foot outside trouble to advise and counsel him that suffers. (Greek tragedian Aeschylus) (Here, the noun clause is the object of a preposition (for).)
- My relationships are between me and whomever I am with, not between me and the world. (Actress Lili Reinhart) (Here, the noun clause is the object of a preposition (between).)
- Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it. (Playwright George Bernard Shaw) (Here, the noun clause is a subject complement.)
A More Sophisticated Definition for "Noun"Right, we started with defining a noun as a "naming word," and now we're talking about nouns being clauses functioning as subjects, objects, or complements. As grammarians like to talk about the functions of phrases and clauses, let's summarize this page with a good test for spotting nouns:
Let's dissect one more example.
- A cynic is a man who looks around for a coffin when he smells flowers. (Journalist H L Mencken)
Why Should I Care about Nouns?Most native English speakers can form noun phrases and noun clauses without giving the grammar a second thought. So, if the truth be told, understanding how they function isn't particularly useful unless you're required to teach them or to compare them with similar structures in a foreign language you're learning.
That said, here are four common issues associated with nouns.
(Issue 1) Only use capital letter with a proper noun.Don't give a common noun (e.g., dog, brochure, mountain) a capital letter just because it's an important word in your sentence. Only proper nouns (e.g., Dexter, The Summer Brochure, Ben Nevis) get capital letters.
- Read the Instructions carefully. (Instructions is a common noun. It doesn't get a capital letter.)
(Issue 2) Treat a collective noun as singular, but go plural if the context dictates.It is normal to treat a collective noun as singular. However, if the context highlights the individuals in the group, you can treat a collective noun as plural.
- The group arrives before the audience. (Here, the verb is arrives not arrive because group is treated as singular.)
- The group were out of time. (Here, the verb is were not was because group is treated as plural. This might be preferable if the context puts the focus on the group's individuals.)
- The members of the group were out of time. (The word members becomes the head noun of the new noun phrase.)
(Issue 3) When a noun phrase is the subject of a verb, ensure subject-verb agreement with the head noun.
- The Spitfire's 9-yard belt of bullets give us the term "the full nine yards." (The head noun in this noun phrase is belt. All the other words in the noun phrase are modifiers. As belt is singular, the verb give is wrong. It should be gives.)
Read more about subject-verb agreement
(Issue 4) Choose the right version of who and whom at the start of a noun clause.Who is the subject of a verb. Whom isn't. It's the same deal with whoever and whomever. Let's play around with one of the examples from above.
- My relationships are between me and whomever I'm with. (Here, whomever is the object of the preposition with.)
- My relationships are between me and whoever is interested. (Here, whoever is the subject of the verb is. Note that the clause whoever is interested is the object of the preposition between, but that doesn't mean that whoever becomes whomever. If your whoever is the subject of a verb, then whoever, not whomever, is correct.)