What Are Nouns?

by Craig Shrives

Nouns

A noun is a word that represents a person, place, or thing. Everything we can see or talk about is represented by a word. That word is called a "noun." You might find it useful to think of a noun as a "naming word."

Often a noun is the name for something we can touch (e.g., "lion," "cake," "computer"), but sometimes a noun names something we cannot touch (e.g., "bravery," "mile," "joy").

A Video Summary

Here is a short video summarizing this lesson on nouns.



Here is a similar video that focuses on the different types of noun.

Easy Examples of Nouns

Here are some examples of nouns. (Notice that some have capital letters. The reason for this is explained in the next section on "Common Nouns and Proper Nouns.")
  • Person: soldier, Alan, cousin, lawyer
  • Place: house, London, factory, shelter
  • Thing. This includes:
    • Objects: table, London Bridge, chisel, nitrogen, month, inch, cooking
    • Animals: aardvark, rat, shark, Mickey
    • Ideas: confusion, kindness, faith, Theory of Relativity, joy
Most nouns can be pluralized, which usually involves adding "s" to the end (e.g., aardvark > aardvarks).

Read more about forming plural nouns.

Common Nouns and Proper Nouns

A noun can be categorized as either a common noun or a proper noun.
  • Common Noun. A common noun is the word for a person, place, or thing. It's the word that appears in the dictionary. For example:
    • person
    • city
    • dog
  • Proper Noun. A proper noun is the given name of a person, place, or thing. It's likely to be a personal name or a title. For example:
    • Michael
    • New York
    • Rover
    • (Note: A proper noun always starts with a capital letter.)
The difference between common nouns and proper nouns becomes clearer when they're listed side by side.
Common NounProper Noun
boyDavid
sailorAdam
lawyerSarah
mother-in-lawJanice
cityBoston
bridgeThe Golden Gate Bridge
towerEifel Tower
streetHoneysuckle Crescent
catFido
monkeyBonzo
How To Spot a Common Noun and a Proper Noun

A common noun answers the question "What is it?"
A proper noun answers the question "What's its name?"

Q: What is it? A: It is a bridge.
(The word "bridge" is a common noun.)

Q: What's its name? A: It is London Bridge.
(The name "London Bridge" is a proper noun.)

More about Nouns

As well as being categorized as a common noun or a proper noun, a noun can be further categorized according to its meaning or its structure (e.g., Is it something tangible, or is it made up of more than one word?). For example:
Noun TypeExample
son-in-lawdeterminationcommittee
Abstract Noun
(cannot be seen or touched)
Concrete Noun
(can be seen or touched)
Collective Noun
(represents a group)
Compound Noun
(consists of two or more words)
Gender-specific Noun
(is masculine or feminine)
Gerund
(formed from a verb and ends "-ing")
Non-countable Noun
(cannot be pluralized)
Countable Noun
(can be pluralized)
Verbal Noun
(formed from a verb but has no verb-like traits)
As shown by the above table, it is common for a noun to fit into several noun categories.

Read more about the different types of noun.

The Function of Nouns

Nouns as Subjects, Objects, and Complements

A noun can function as a subject, an object, or a complement within a sentence. For example:
RoleExample
subject
  • Oranges contain Vitamin C.
  • object
  • He likes oranges.
  • complement
  • They are oranges.
  • There is more on the function of nouns in the "noun phrase" section below.

    Attributive Nouns

    A noun can also be used like an adjective to modify another noun. For example:
    • oxygen tank
    • diamond ring
    • car door
    In these examples, the examples "oxygen," "diamond," and "car" are functioning like adjectives. When nouns are used like this, they're called "attributive nouns."

    More about the Different Types of Noun

    Here is a list of the different types of noun with examples. Each entry includes at least one key point for writers related to the type of noun.

    Abstract Nouns

    Abstract nouns are things you cannot see or touch. For example:
    • bravery
    • joy
    • determination
    An Interesting Point about Abstract Nouns


    Many creative writers (particularly poets), consider abstract nouns "the enemy." Even though abstract nouns cover many of the topics that poets like to address (e.g., love, loss, sadness, loneliness), poets know that using abstract nouns (e.g., I was in love; she felt loneliness) tells their readers little. For creative writers, the challenge is often to capture these abstract feelings using concrete nouns.
    Read more about abstract nouns.

    Concrete Nouns

    Concrete nouns are things you can see or touch. For example:
    • tree
    • hammer
    • cloud
    An Interesting Point about Concrete Nouns

    Creative writers like to capture abstract ideas using concrete nouns. Here is an example of loss (an abstract noun) being conveyed with concrete nouns:
    • It's not needed anymore, the lead that hangs inside the door, and your bowl still scrapes the slated floor, when tapped by foot instead paw.

    Collective Nouns

    Collective nouns are words that denote groups. For example:
    • team
    • choir
    • pack
    A Key Point about Collective Nouns

    Collective nouns can be treated as singular or plural. It depends on the sense of your sentence. For example:
    • The team is scheduled to arrive at 4 o'clock.
    • The team are wearing different novelty hats.
    Read more about treating collective nouns as singular and plural.

    Compound Nouns

    Compound nouns are nouns made up of more than one word. For example:
    • court-martial
    • pickpocket
    • water bottle
    Two Key Points about Compound Nouns.


    (1) Some compound nouns are two words (e.g., "peace pipe"), some are hyphenated (e.g., "play-off"), and some have become single words (e.g., "eyeopener"). And, many of them are currently transitioning through those stages. Therefore, spelling compound nouns can be a nightmare.
    (2) Some compound nouns form their plural by adding an "s" to the principal word, not necessarily to the end (e.g., "brothers-in-law").

    Read more about compound nouns.

    Countable and Non-countable Nouns

    A 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
    With no plural forms, these are non-countable:
    • food (always singular)
    • music (always singular)
    • water (always singular)
    Key Points about Countable and Non-countable Nouns

    (1) Use "fewer" with plural nouns. Use "less" with singular nouns, but use "less" with numbers when they quantify dates or measurements.

    (2) Use "number of" with plural nouns. Use "amount of" with singular nouns. Use "quantity of" with either, especially if your concept is measurable and you want to allude to accuracy in counting.

    It can get quite technical, especially with point 2.

    Read more about countable and non-countable nouns.

    Gender-specific Nouns

    Gender-specific nouns are nouns that are definitely male or female. For example:
    • king
    • vixen
    • actress
    Three Points about Gender-specific Nouns


    Here are three points related to gender:

    (1) If you're unsure whether to use "chairman" or "chairwomen," use "chair." (Many consider that "chairperson" and even "chairwoman" sound a bit contrived.)

    (2) "A blonde" is a woman. "A blond" is a man.

    (3) Some people do not identify as male or female. Therefore, word choice can be important.

    Read more about gender-specific nouns.
    Read more about word choice for the non-binary genders.

    Gerunds

    Gerunds 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
    In the examples above, the gerunds are modified with adverbs and have direct objects. These are verb-like traits. This is what differentiates gerunds from verbal nouns. Let's dissect one more example:
    • 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.
    A Key Point about Gerunds

    Gerunds are great for creating shorter, smoother sentences. For example:
    • The quick development of the device is necessary for an improvement in safety.
    • (There are no gerunds in this 13-word sentence, which is stuffy and stilted.)
    • Developing the device quickly is necessary for improving safety.
    • (There are two gerunds in this 9-word version, which flows better and sounds more natural.)
    Read more about gerunds.

    Verbal Nouns

    Verbal 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
    In the examples above, the verbal nouns are shown with adjectives to differentiate them from gerunds (which are often confused with verbal nouns). Gerunds are modified with adverbs not adjectives. Let's dissect one more example:
    • 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").)
    Key Points about Verbal Nouns


    Verbal nouns are usually preceded by "a or an" or "the" and followed by a preposition (e.g., "of," "in," "for"). This makes them pretty inefficient from a wordcount perspective. Also, a sentence with verbal nouns can often sound stuffy. However, verbal nouns can give an air of formality or provide emphasis. So, we should all care about verbal nouns for two reasons:

    (1) Replacing verbal nouns with verbs and gerunds will reduce your wordcount and improve sentence flow.

    (2) Sentences featuring pure verbal nouns could portray you as stuffy (bad) or authoritative (good). Employ them skilfully to tune to your needs.

    Read more about verbal nouns.

    Even More about Nouns (Noun Phrases)

    It is 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.)
    In real life, it is far more common for a noun to be accompanied by modifiers. Here's the first list of nouns again. This time, each noun (highlighted) has at least one modifier.
    • Person: the soldier, my cousin, dopey Alan, the greedy lawyer
    • Place: the house in the corner, inner London, dirty factory, no shelter
    • Thing: This includes:
      • Objects: this table, our London Bridge, the sharp chisel, that nitrogen, last month, an inch, her cooking
      • Animals: that aardvark, one rat, a shark, funny Mickey
      • Ideas: utter confusion, some kindness, your faith, the Theory of Relativity, a joy
    A noun with any sort of modifier (even it's just "a" or "the") is called a noun phrase. Like any noun, a noun phrase can function as a subject, an object, or a complement within a sentence. In each example below, the noun phrase is underlined and the head noun is shaded.
    • 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.")
    As most nouns feature in noun phrases, let's look quickly at the definition for "phrase."
    Definition of "Phrase"

    A phrase has at least two words and functions as one part of speech.
    It follows therefore that a noun phrase functions as a noun in a sentence. We can test this because we know that a noun can be replaced by a pronoun (e.g., "he," "she," "it," "them"). Looking at the examples above, we can replace each noun phrase with a pronoun.
    • It relaxes me.
    • I know them.
    • She was him.
    Here are some real-life examples of noun phrases as subjects, objects, and complements:
    • This man has a nice smile, but he's got iron teeth. (Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko on Mikhail Gorbachev)
    • (The noun phrase "This man" is the subject of the verb "has." The noun 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)
    • (The noun phrase "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.)
    It can get quite complicated. It's not unusual for nouns and noun phrases to be embedded within noun phrases. Looking at the last example, "courage" and "word" are both nouns, but they are not the head nouns of the phrases. They are both objects of the preposition "of," sitting in prepositional phrases that modify the head nouns.

    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.)

    Even More about Nouns (Noun Clauses)

    Let's look quickly at the definition for "clause".
    Definition of "Clause"

    A clause has a subject and a verb and functions as one part of speech.
    It follows therefore that a noun clause functions as a noun in a sentence, and that means we can apply the "pronoun test."

    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.)
    Like all nouns, a noun clause can function as a subject, an object, or a complement within a sentence. In the four examples above, the noun clauses are all objects (direct objects). Here are some more easy examples of noun clauses as subjects, objects, and complements.
    • 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.)
    Here are some real-life examples:
    • 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:
    A Great Test for Nouns
    (regardless of whether they're single words, phrases, or clauses)

    A noun is any word or group of words that could be replaced with a pronoun.


    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)
    The underlined text in the example above is functioning as a noun (a subject complement). As it includes subjects ("who" and "he") and verbs ("looks" and "smells"), you might think it meets the criteria to qualify as a noun clause. It's not though. It's a noun phrase. Those subjects and the verbs feature in the adjective clause "who looks around for a coffin when he smells flowers." ("When he smells flowers" is an adverbial clause embedded in the adjective clause.) Hey, if you can follow what's going on in this example, you're well down the path between sentence butcher and sentence surgeon.

    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 three 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.)
    To avoid making a decision on whether to go singular or plural, add a term like "members of" and force the plural.
    • 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.")
    Do not be tricked into agreeing the verb with the nearest noun (here, "bullets"). When a noun phrase is the subject of a verb, the head noun governs the verb.

    Read more about subject-verb agreement
    Interactive Exercise
    Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

    See Also

    The different types of nouns Abstract nouns Collective nouns Compound nouns Concrete nouns Non-countable nouns (mass nouns) Gender-specific nouns Gerunds Verbal nouns Noun clauses Noun phrases What are adjectives? What are adverbs? What are conjunctions? What are interjections? What are prepositions? What are verbs? What are pronouns? The different types of pronouns