Nouns are a diverse group of words, and they are very common in English. Nouns are a category of words defining things—the name of people (Dr. Sanders, lawyers), places (Kansas, factory, home), things (scissors, sheet music, book), or ideas (love, truth, beauty, intelligence).
English has both regular and irregular plural nouns. Regular plurals follow this rule (and other similar rules), 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 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. Because of this, 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 situation. Additionally, in informal speech, cactuses and funguses are acceptable.
There are a lot of ways to categorize nouns: concrete vs. abstract nouns, common vs. proper nouns, count vs. non-count nouns, and compound vs. non-compound nouns. Let’s take a look at each of these kinds of categorization and see exactly what they each mean.
Concrete vs. Abstract Nouns
Concrete nouns are things you can hold, see, or otherwise sense, like book, light, or warmth.
Abstract nouns, on the other hand, are (as you might expect) abstract concepts, like time and love.
- concrete noun: rock
- abstract noun: justice
Common vs. Proper Nouns
Common nouns are generic words, like tissue or watch. They are lower-cased (unless they begin a sentence). A proper noun, on the other hand, is the name of a specific thing, like the brand name Kleenex or Rolex. Proper nouns are always capitalized.
- common noun: name
- proper noun: Ester
Note: This rule also applies to adjectives that are based on proper nouns:
- It’s often difficult to understand Shakespearian language.
- After her encounter with Lukas, Elisa vowed to hate all Swiss men.
However, when you’re talking about swiss cheese, pasteurized milk, and french fries, these adjectives lower-cased. They have a non-literal meaning: the cheese isn’t really from Switzerland, Louie Pasteur didn’t treat the milk himself, and the fries aren’t really from France.
Count vs. Non-Count Nouns
A count noun (also countable noun) is a noun that can be modified by a numeral (three chairs) and that occurs in both singular and plural forms (chair, chairs). The can also be preceded by words such as a, an, or the (a chair). Quite literally, count nouns are nouns which can be counted.
A non-count noun (also mass noun), on the other hand, has none of these properties. It can’t be modified by a numeral (three furniture is incorrect), occur in singular/plural (furnitures is not a word), or co-occur with a, an, or the (a furniture is incorrect). Again, quite literally, non-count nouns are nouns which cannot be counted.
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 will 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 if a poem is complete or not.
- There’s too much goodness in her heart for her own good.
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 if a poem is complete or not.
- There’s a lot of goodness in her heart for her own good
A compound noun is a noun phrase made up of two nouns, e.g. bus driver, in which the first noun acts as a sort of adjective for the second one, but without really describing it. (For example, think about the difference between a black bird and a blackbird.)
Compound nouns can be made up of two or more other words, but each compound has a single meaning. There are three typical structures of compound nouns.
Types of Compound Nouns
Compounds may be written in three different ways:
- The solid or closed forms in which two usually moderately short words appear together as one: housewife, lawsuit, wallpaper, basketball, etc.
- The hyphenated form in which two or more words are connected by a hyphen: house-builder, single-mindedness, rent-a-cop, and mother-of-pearl.
- The open or spaced form consisting of newer combinations of usually longer words, such as distance learning, player piano, lawn tennis, etc.
Hyphens are often considered a squishy part on language (we’ll discuss this further in Text: Hyphens and Dashes). Because of this, you can encounter open, hyphenated, and closed forms 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.
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
- black bird → black birds
- passerby→ passersby
The word hand-me-down doesn’t have a distinct primary noun, so its plural is hand-me-downs.