What Are Nouns?
NounsA 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 SummaryHere 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 NounsHere 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
Read more about forming plural nouns.
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 for a person, place, or thing. It's the word that appears in the dictionary. For example:
- 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:
- New York
- Rover (Note: A proper noun always starts with a capital letter.)
|Common Noun||Proper Noun|
|bridge||The Golden Gate Bridge|
More about NounsAs 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:
(cannot be seen or touched)
(can be seen or touched)
(represents a group)
(consists of two or more words)
(is masculine or feminine)
(formed from a verb and ends "-ing")
(cannot be pluralized)
(can be pluralized)
(formed from a verb but has no verb-like traits)
Read more about the different types of noun.
The Function of Nouns
Nouns as Subjects, Objects, and ComplementsA noun can function as a subject, an object, or a complement within a sentence. For example:
Attributive NounsA noun can also be used like an adjective to modify another noun. For example:
- oxygen tank
- diamond ring
- car door
More about the Different Types of NounHere 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 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").)
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.)
- 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
- 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) (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.)
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".
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 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.)
- 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