Text: Categories of Nouns

There are a lot of ways to categorize nouns: common vs. proper nouns, concrete vs. abstract 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.

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.
    • Shakespearian comes from Shakespeare, a man’s last name, so it should be capitalized.
  • After her encounter with Lukas, she vowed to hate all Swiss men.
    • Swiss comes from the country Switzerland, so it should be capitalized.

However, you can also encounter things like these:

  • I really love swiss cheese.
  • Do you want me to pick up any french fries for you while I’m out?

Why aren’t swiss and french capitalized in these instances? When you’re talking about swiss cheese and french fries, these adjectives have a non-literal meaning: the cheese isn’t really from Switzerland, nor are the fries really from France. So the adjective doesn’t need to be capitalized.

This also applies to things like arabic numerals and pasteurized milk (pasteurized comes from the name Louis Pasteur, who discovered pasteurization).

Concrete vs. Abstract Nouns

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


Look at each of the following nouns and determine if they are common or proper and if they are concrete or abstract. For example:

  • justice is a common abstract noun.
Buddhism Robert
cathedral talent

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.

In general, a count noun is going to be something you can easily count—like rock or dollar bill. Non-count nouns, on the other hand, would be more difficult to count—like sand or money. If you ever want to identify a singular non-count noun, you need a phrase beforehand—like a grain of sand or a sum of money.

Less vs. Fewer?

The adjectives less and fewer are both used to indicate a smaller amount of the noun they modify. People often will use these words interchangeably; however, the word fewer is used with count nouns, while less is 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.

The adjectives many and much also follow this pattern. Many is used with count nouns, and much is used with non-count nouns. Much usually follows the adverb too (i.e., too much):

  • 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.


Read the following sentences. Decide if the bolded words have been treated correctly as count or non-count nouns.

  1. Satya has a lot of clothings. Her mother has told her that before she can buy any more, she must get rid of five shirts and two pants.
  2. There were a lot of types of food at the event, including different soupssalads, and desserts.
  3. Miguel loved studying outer space—especially the different galaxy.

Choose the correct word to fill in the gaps in the following sentences:

  1. Evelyn wished there was (less / fewer) rain in the weather forecast.
  2. You can only be in this line if you have fifteen items or (less / fewer).
  3. I made a list of my (many / much) ideas for the project.
  4. Arturo drank too (many / much) water before his workout.

Compound Nouns

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.)

two photographs; one of a crow the other of a blackbird.

Figure 1. A crow is a black bird, while a blackbird is a specific species of bird.

Compound nouns can be made up of two or more other words, but each compound has a single meaning. They may or may not be hyphenated, and they may be written with a space between words—especially if one of the words has more than one syllable, as in living room. In that regard, it’s necessary to avoid the over-simplification of saying that two single-syllable words are written together as one word. Thus, tablecloth but table mat, wine glass but wineglassful or key ring but keyholder. Moreover, there are cases which some people/dictionaries will write one way while others write them another way. Until very recently we wrote (the) week’s end, which later became week-end and then our beloved weekend.

There are three typical structures of compound nouns.

Types of Compound Nouns

Short compounds may be written in three different ways:

  • The solid or closed forms in which two usually moderately short words appear together as one. Solid compounds most likely consist of short units that often have been established in the language for a long time. Examples are housewife, lawsuit, wallpaper, basketball, etc.
  • The hyphenated form in which two or more words are connected by a hyphen. This category includes compounds that contain suffixes, such as house-build(er) and single-mind(ed)(ness). Compounds that contain articles, prepositions or conjunctions, such as rent-a-cop and mother-of-pearl, are also often hyphenated.
  • 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, 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.


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
  • 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.


Look at each compound word in the table below. Write the plural version of the word and explain why you wrote the plural in that form. For example:

  • The plural of spoonful is spoonfuls. The end of the word is made plural because –ful isn’t a complete word.
  • The plural of runner-up is runners-up. Runner is made plural because it is the primary noun.
Singular Plural Singular Plural
do-it-yourself rabbit’s foot
have-not passerby
time-out lieutenant general