Learning Objectives

  • Identify and use various types of nouns

Nouns refer to things—the names of people (Dr. Sanders, lawyers), places (Kansas, factory, home), things (scissors, sheet music, book), or ideas (love, truth, beauty, intelligence). Let’s take a look at each of these types of nouns and how they need to be treated grammatically.


proper noun refers to a specific person, place, organization, etc. Proper nouns are capitalized because they are specific nouns.  Some examples of proper nouns are Steven, Apple (the company), New York (the state), and the Pittsburgh Steelers (the Pennsylvanian football team).

Note: This rule also applies to adjectives that are based on proper nouns:

  • It can be difficult to understand Shakespearian language.
  • After her encounter with Lukas, Elisa vowed to never date Swiss men.

If you’re talking about swiss cheesepasteurized milk, and french fries, these adjectives are lowercase. They have a nonliteral meaning: the cheese isn’t really from Switzerland, Louie Pasteur didn’t treat the milk himself, and the fries aren’t really from France.

  • I love to eat french fries with swiss cheese. Is that strange?

common noun refers to a general group or class of people, places, objects, etc. Common nouns are generic words, like tissue or watch. They are always lowercase (unless they begin a sentence).

  • common noun: girl
  • proper noun: Esther

Nouns can be concrete (people, places, things that you can touch, see, hear) but they can also be abstract concepts like love, justice, and time.

Verbal Nouns

A verbal noun is a type of noun that is derived from a verb. It looks like a verb but actually functions in a sentence like a noun. Here are some examples:

Running from zombies is hard work.

Jogging is a good exercise that will help you prepare, but you have to do it every day.

We had a meeting to compare our zombie action plans.

Verbal nouns and something called gerunds (a form of a verb or verb phrase that functions as a noun phrase and subject in a sentence) are very similar. In fact, the first two examples above are examples of verbal nouns that are also gerunds. But, a verbal noun can be more than a gerund. In the last example, the word meeting is functioning like a noun but isn’t a noun phrase that’s the subject of a sentence.

It can certainly get a little confusing, and even the grammar experts disagree sometimes about the differences between verbal nouns and gerunds.

The key thing for you to remember is that, when we are talking about nouns, verbs can sometimes function in your sentences like nouns.

Compound Nouns

A compound noun is a noun that is the result of joining together two other words (such as tooth and paste making toothpaste).

Two images: on the left, a drawing of Bigfoot. On the right, a photo of a girl holding a big shoe.

Figure 1. Let’s look at the legend of Bigfoot as an example. The famous Bigfoot on the left is a humanoid figure that apparently lives in Pacific Northwest forests and is an example of a compound noun. On the right, you would have to have a big foot to wear that shoe.

A compound noun acts like one word, despite being a combination of two. Sometimes compound nouns are combined with no space (such as daydream); sometimes they retain the space (such as vacuum cleaner); and sometimes they use a hyphen (such as dry-cleaning).

If you’re ever in doubt whether a compound should be closed (no space), hyphenated (with a hyphen), or open (with a space), dictionaries are your best reference.

The process of making compound nouns plural has its own set of rules to follow. We pluralize (make plural) the primary noun of the compound.

  • fisherman → fishermen (the main noun is man)
  • blackbird → blackbirds (the main noun is bird)
  • brother-in-law → brothers-in-law (the main noun is brothers)

If the word doesn’t have a primary noun (such as hand-me-down), we simply add s (hand-me-downs).

Some compound nouns differ in writing style depending on who you ask, while others are recently developed, such as e-mail being shortened further to email.

We’ve covered different kinds of nouns. Now let’s turn to two situations that make using nouns tricky: subject/verb agreement with collective nouns and pluralizing nouns.

Collective Nouns

Subject/verb agreement can get tricky when it comes to collective nouns. Collective nouns are nouns such as family, team, and majority. We have to make a decision about whether these nouns are singular or plural so can choose verbs that will agree with these nouns.

There are no hard and fast rules. The verb you choose to agree with the collective noun actually depends upon how you want your readers to perceive the noun. Is it a single unit or a group of individuals? Even then, it depends upon context. Take the collective noun family, for example.

  • The family have all gone their separate ways since Grandma died.

Here, because each member went his or her separate way, the collective noun family functions as a group of individuals; therefore, you would use a plural verb (have) instead of a singular verb. But let’s look at another example.

  • The whole family is coming to my house for Thanksgiving this year. I had better learn to cook a turkey.

Here, the family is seen as a single unit, so you would need a singular verb (is).

The key is to think about how you might perceive the collective noun and consider how it’s used in the sentence.


Two figures.

Figure 2. When reviewing your writing, double check your grammar by identifying if a plural word is considered “regular” or “irregular”.

English has both regular and irregular plural nouns. Regular plurals follow a rule (and other similar rules) so you generally know how to pluralize them, but irregular plurals are, well, not regular and don’t follow a “standard” rule.

Regular Plurals

Let’s start with regular plurals: regular plural nouns use established patterns to indicate that there is more than one of a thing. As was mentioned earlier, we add the plural suffix –s or –es to most words (cats, zebras, classes, foxes, heroes). Remember that when words have a foreign origin (e.g., Latin, Greek, Spanish), we just add the plural suffix –s (tacos, avocados, maestros).

When a word ends in y and there is a consonant before y, we change the y to i and add –es. Thus sky becomes skies. However, if the y follows another vowel, you simply add an –s. (donkeysalloys). When a word ends in –f or –fe, we change the f to v and add –es (calvesleaves). However, if there are two terminal fs, or if you still pronounce the f in the plural, you simply add an –s (cliffschiefs).

Irregular Plurals

Irregular plurals, unlike regular plurals, don’t necessarily follow any particular pattern—instead, they follow a lot of different patterns. For this reason, irregular plurals require a lot of memorization. If you’re ever in doubt, the dictionary is there for you.

The first kind of irregular plural we’ll talk about is the no-change or base plural. In these words, the singular noun has the exact same form as the plural (sheepfishdeer, moose). Most no-change plurals are types of animals.

The next type of irregular is the mid-word vowel change. This includes words like toothman, and mouse, which become teethmen, and mice.

Note: The plural for a computer mouse (as opposed to the fuzzy animal) can either be mice or mouses. Some people prefer mouses as it creates some differentiation between the two words.

We also have the plural –en. In these words, –en is used as the plural ending instead of –s or -es.

  • child → children
  • ox → oxen
  • brother → brethren
  • sister → sistren
Note: Brethren and sistren are antiquated terms that you’re unlikely to encounter or use; however, since these are the only four words in English that use this plural, all four have been included above.

The last category of irregular plurals is borrowed words. These words are native to other languages (e.g., Latin, Greek) and have retained the pluralization rules from their original tongue.

Singular –us; Plural –i cactus → cacti fungus → fungi syllabus → syllabi
Singular –a; Plural –ae formula → formulae vertebra → vertebrae larva → larvae
Singular –ix, –ex; Plural –ices, –es appendix → appendices matrix → matrices index → indices
Singular –on, –um; Plural –a bacterium → bacteria criterion → criteria medium → media
Singular –is; Plural –es thesis → theses analysis → analyses crisis → crises

The rules presented in the table above are almost always followed, but as a borrowed word becomes more popular in its usage, it can be adopted into regular pluralization. For example, formulas and appendixes are accepted words in formal situations. Also, in informal speech, cactuses and funguses are acceptable.

Note: Because of the word’s history, octopuses is preferred to octopi, but octopi is an accepted word.

Try It


Count vs. Non-count Nouns

Count nouns are nouns that can be counted. Count nouns can be associated with a numerical value (i.e., three whales) in both its singular and plural forms (one fox, two foxes). In some cases, the number can be replaced by the words a, an, or the (a fox, an owl, the squirrel).

If a noun cannot have a numerical value nor a plural form, it is called a non-count or mass noun. A person can give another person advice, but they cannot give three advices, because advice has no quantity. Other examples of non-count nouns include nouns like weather, happiness, homework, furniture, thunder, etc. You will know that something is a non-count noun if it sounds weird when you try to pluralize it by adding an -s to the end. For example, you can’t have “furnitures” or “thunders,” but you can have “pieces of furniture” or “claps of thunder.”

Less or Fewer? Many or Much?

The adjectives less and fewer are both used to indicate a smaller amount of the noun they modify. Many and much are used to indicate a large amount of something. People often use these pairs words interchangeably; however, the words fewer and many are used with count nouns, while less and much are used with non-count nouns:

  • The pet day care has fewer dogs than cats this week.
  • Next time you make these cookies, you should use less sugar.
  • Many poets struggle when they try to determine whether a poem is complete or not.
  • There’s too much goodness in her heart.

You may have noticed that much has followed the adverb too in this example (too much). This is because you rarely find much by itself. You don’t really hear people say things like “Now please leave me alone; I have much research to do.” The phrase “a lot of” has taken its place in current English: “I have a lot of research to do.” A lot of can be used in the place of either many or much:

  • A lot of poets struggle when they try to determine whether a poem is finished or not.
  • There’s a lot of goodness in her heart.