Nouns

Learning Objectives

  • 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

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.

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 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.

Concrete vs. Abstract Nouns

Concrete nouns are things you can touch, see, hear, or otherwise sense, like booklight, 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

Collective Nouns

Nouns can get a little tricky when it comes to a discussion of collective nouns. Collective nouns are nouns such as familyteam, 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.
Here, because each member went his or her separate way, you would see the collective noun family as a group of individuals; therefore, you would use a plural verb 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 to agree with the collective noun.

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.

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 cryptid 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. 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.

Try It

Review the types of nouns in the following exercise.

Plurals

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.

Try It

Remember that compounds may be written in three different ways: the solid or closed form, the hyphenated form, and the open or spaced form.

Pluralization

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.

Try It

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