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 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
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||Buddhism is a proper abstract noun.||Robert||Robert is a proper concrete noun.|
|cathedral||cathedral is a common concrete noun.||talent||talent is a common abstract noun|
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.
- 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.
- There were a lot of types of food at the event, including different soups, salads, and desserts.
- Miguel loved studying outer space—especially the different galaxy.
- No. All three nouns (clothings, shirts, and pants) have been treated as count nouns. However, only shirts is a count noun. The correct sentence would be “Satya has a lot of clothing. Her mother has told her that before she can buy any more, she must get rid of five shirts and two pairs of pants.”
- Please not that even though the word pants ends in an s, it is not actually plural (or singular; it’s non-count!). The correct way to create a plural is pairs of pants.
- Yes. Food is a non-count noun (and has been treated as such). Soups, salads, and desserts are all plural count nouns.
- No. Outer space is non-count, and has been treated as such, but galaxy is a count noun, and has been treated as a non-count. The correct sentence would be “Miguel loved studying outer space—especially the different galaxies.”
Choose the correct word to fill in the gaps in the following sentences:
- Evelyn wished there was (less / fewer) rain in the weather forecast.
- You can only be in this line if you have fifteen items or (less / fewer).
- I made a list of my (many / much) ideas for the project.
- Arturo drank too (many / much) water before his workout.
- Evelyn wished there was less rain in the weather forecast.
- Rain is a non-count noun, so the adjective less should be used.
- You can only be in this line if you have fifteen items or fewer.
- Items is a count noun, so the adjective fewer should be used.
- I made a list of my many ideas for the project.
- Ideas is a count noun, so the adjective many should be used.
- Arturo drank too much water before his workout.
- Water is a non-count noun, so the adjective much should be used.
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. 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.
|do-it-yourself||The plural of do-it-yourself is do-it-yourselves. Yourself is made plural because it is the primary noun.||rabbit’s foot||The plural of rabbit’s foot is rabbits’ feet. Both words are made plural because when there’s more than one foot, it’s unlikely to know how many rabbits the feet came from.|
|have-not||The plural of have-not is have-nots. The end of the word is made plural because have-not doesn’t have a distinct primary noun||passerby||The plural of passerby is passersby. Passer is made plural because it is the primary noun.|
|time-out||The plural of time-out is time-outs. The end of the word is made plural because time-out doesn’t have a distinct primary noun||lieutenant general||The plural of lieutenant general is lieutenant generals. The end of the word is made plural because lieutenant general doesn’t have a distinct primary noun|