- Identify and use various types of nouns
Nouns are a diverse group of words, and they are very common in English. 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). There are many to categorize nouns. Let’s take a look at each of these classifications and see exactly what they each mean.
Common vs. Proper Nouns
A 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, and the Seattle Seahawks.
A 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
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 hate all Swiss men.
However, if you’re talking about swiss cheese, pasteurized 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.
Concrete vs. Abstract Nouns
Concrete nouns are things you can touch, see, hear, or otherwise sense, like book, light, or warmth.
Abstract nouns, on the other hand, are (as you might expect) abstract concepts that can’t be perceived through the senses, such as time and love.
- concrete noun: rock
- abstract noun: justice
Nouns can get a little tricky when it comes to a discussion of collective nouns. Collective nouns are nouns such as family, team, and majority. The tricky part comes when we have to make a decision about whether these nouns are singular or plural because we have to choose verbs that will agree with these nouns.
And, now, here’s the really tricky part: 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.
- The whole family is coming to my house for Thanksgiving this year. I had better learn to cook a turkey.
In her book, Rhetorical Grammar, Martha Kolln (1991) says “[collective nouns] can be treated as either singular or plural, depending on context and meaning” (p. 47). So, it really does depend on the situation.
You may be wondering how this information is helpful. The key is to think about how you might perceive the collective noun and then, of course, to consider how it’s used in the sentence. And, after all, there are only about 200 collective nouns in the English language, so you really only have to worry about 200 of these. Okay, that’s a lot. But this is a great example of how, very often, there are no hard and fast rules for grammar.
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.
A compound noun is a noun that is the result of joining together two other words (such as tooth and paste making toothpaste).
A compound noun acts like one word, despite being a combination of two. Compound nouns can be classified as closed, hyphenated, or open. A closed compound takes the form of two words put together with no space, such as daydream. A hyphenated compound includes two or more words joined by a hyphen, such as dry-cleaning. An open compound is two words separated by a space but acting as one unit, such as vacuum cleaner.
One common misconception is that compounds are hyphenated or open when one of the root words is longer than one syllable. However, it is important to remember that there are many open or hyphenated compound nouns that have of two single-syllable root words, such as six-pack.
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.
Types of Compound Nouns
- Solid or Closed form: These compound nouns are defined as being a complete conjoining between the two words that form its makeup. Examples of closed compound nouns include: watermelon, underground, catfish and skydiving.
- Hyphenated form: Compound nouns that often appear in a hyphenated form are nouns that have suffixes (such as fund-rais(er) and wire-fasten(er)) and nouns that contain articles, conjunctions, or prepositions (such as mother-in-law).
- Open or Spaced form: These are compound nouns that are considered to be compound even though they are separated by a space just like any two words. Despite looking like two independent words, they act together as one. Examples of open compound nouns are science fiction, peanut butter, and address book.
Hyphens are often considered a squishy part on language (we’ll discuss this further in Hyphens and Dashes). Because of this, usage differs and often depends on the individual choice of the writer rather than on a hard-and-fast rule. This means open, hyphenated, and closed forms may be encountered for the same compound noun, such as the triplets container ship/container-ship/containership and particle board/particle-board/particleboard. If you’re ever in doubt whether a compound should be closed, hyphenated, or open, dictionaries are your best reference.
Review the types of nouns in the following exercise.
The process of making compound nouns plural has its own set of conventions to follow. In all forms of compound nouns, we pluralize the chief element of a compound word (i.e., we pluralize the primary noun of the compound).
- fisherman → fishermen
- blackbird → blackbirds
- brother-in-law → brothers-in-law
The word hand-me-down doesn’t have a distinct primary noun, so its plural is hand-me-downs.
Remember that compounds may be written in three different ways: the solid or closed form, the hyphenated form, and the open or spaced form.
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.
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. (donkeys, alloys). When a word ends in –f or –fe, we change the f to v and add –es (calves, leaves). However, if there are two terminal fs, or if you still pronounce the f in the plural, you simply add an –s (cliffs, chiefs).
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 (sheep, fish, deer, moose). Most no-change plurals are types of animals.
The next type of irregular is the mid-word vowel change. This includes words like tooth, man, and mouse, which become teeth, men, and mice.
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
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.
|reefs||reefs is the plural of reef. –s is added. It is an exception to the rule.||boys||boys is the plural of boy. –s is added because the y follows a vowel||waltz||waltz is the singular of waltzes, which is a regular plural noun.|
|memorandum||memorandum is the singular of memoranda. The singular ends with –um, so the plural ends with –a.||hypothesis||hypothesis is the singular of hypotheses. The singular ends with –is, so the plural ends with –es.||phenomena||phenomena is the plural of phenomenon. The singular ends with –on, so the plural ends with –a.|
|focus||focus is the singular of foci or focuses. The singular ends with –us, so the plural typically ends with –i, but –es is also acceptable||vertebrae||vertebrae is the plural of vertebra. The singular ends with –a, so the plural ends with –ae.||appendices||appendices is the plural of appendix. The singular ends with –ix, so the plural ends with –ices.|
|children||children is the plural of child. This is an –en noun. To form the plural, –ren was added.||squid||This is a no-change plural. The singular and plural have the same form, so squid could be singular or plural||man||man is the singular of men. This is a mid-word vowel-change plural. The a in man was changed to an e.|
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.
- There was much food at the event. There were fewer soups than salads and even fewer desserts.
- Food is non-count, so it takes much, not many. Soups and desserts are both count, so they take fewer not less.
- Even though much is technically correct, you may want to use a lot instead. It sounds less antiquated.
- Miguel loved studying outer space—especially different galaxies.
- Outer space is non-count, so it does not have a plural. Galaxy is count, so it does have a plural. Since we are talking about different items, there must be more than one, so galaxies is correct.
- Arturo had too much water before his workout.
- Much must be followed by a non-count noun. Of the two options (water and drinks), water is the non-count noun. If many were used instead of much, the correct sentence would be “Arturo had too many drinks before his workout.”
- You can only be in this line if you have fifteen items or fewer.
- Because items is a count noun, fewer is required here. This may surprise you, since many stores have a “fifteen items or less” line, but using less is grammatically incorrect. However, this phrase has become so common that stores sound uppity if they use fewer instead of less. Some stores get around this issue by saying “around fifteen items” instead.
- Evelyn was disappointed in the weather forecast; a lot of rain was predicted. She preferred dry weather.
- While much would also fit in this blank, the phrase a lot of is much more common and more likely to be used.
- I had a lengthy list containing many ideas for the project.
- The adjective is modifying the count-noun ideas, so many is needed in this example.