8) Nouns

Nouns

A general definition of a noun is a word, or phrase, which names a person, animal, place, thing, quality, state or action. For example:

Person: Christopher

Animal: Dog

Place: Germany

Thing: Turnip

Quality: Condescension

State: Anger

Action: Laughter (note: ‘laughed’ will often be a verb, but actually naming the process is ‘laughter’ and this is often a noun)

Noun phrase

A noun phrase is two or more words which work together as a noun, and which do not have a subject-verb relationship. This means a noun phrase is two or more words which don’t have a subject-verb relationship and which work together to name a person, animal, place, thing, quality, state or action. For example:

Person: John Smith

Animal: The lion

Place: The United States Of America

Thing: The turnip

Quality: The condescension

State: The anger

Action: The Laughter (note: ‘laughed’ will often be a verb, but actually naming the process is ‘laughter’ and this is often a noun)

As we can see, there are many different constructions possible to make a noun phrase. I won’t try to explain them all now, because they involve knowing a large portion of the things we are about to learn in the course. A full analysis of these can be found in the section on phrases at the end, here.

Nouns are often separated into many different categories. I will now take you through them to try to give a more nuanced view of the different types of nouns that exist.

1) Common and proper nouns

All nouns can broadly be put into the two categories of common or proper nouns.

Common noun: The common noun is so called because it names a person, animal, place, thing, quality, state or action which is general, and therefore common. One example is the common noun ‘dog’; we use ‘dog’ as a general name for an animal which is common to all dogs. In contrast, ‘Lassie’, from the old TV series, is a specific dog, of which there is only one, and therefore is a proper noun. Common nouns only have a capital letter if they are at the beginning of a sentence.

Proper noun: The proper noun is the opposite to a common noun in that it only names something which has a specific name, and of which there is only one, therefore it is not common. For example, ‘London’ is a proper noun, while ‘city’, is a common one.

You might have noticed that there can be a crossover between these two, which might cause confusion when knowing whether to use a capital letter or not. For example:

Glastonbury Festival

is a proper noun, and therefore has capital letters in it. However, the word ‘festival’, when used in a sentence like:

A festival is a good place to dance until you can’t stand up any longer.

is actually a common noun. This is because ‘Glastonbury Festival’ is a specific festival, therefore a proper noun, whereas ‘A festival’ is general, and therefore a common noun. Here is a table of common nouns and corresponding proper nouns:

Common noun Proper noun
city London
writer Shakespeare
planet Earth
religion Christianity
man John
scientist Einstein

The common and proper nouns cover all of the nouns out there, but there are also sub-classes within them. Consequently, all of the following classes of nouns will also be part of the common, or proper nouns.

2) Concrete and abstract nouns

While all nouns are put into either common, or proper, there are also subsets of these nouns. One subset are the concrete and abstract nouns.

2.1 Concrete nouns

A concrete noun names something that is tangible in the physical world. Concrete nouns are all physical objects – living or not – of some description. Concrete nouns can be perceived by all of the five senses: taste, touch, sight, hearing and smell. For example:

The dog pinned me down and mercilessly licked my face.

‘The dog’ is a concrete noun which we can imagine relating to all of the senses. You can feel its slimy tongue on your face, intermittently see its smiling face as you wrestle to get free, hear its excited panting, smell its terrible odour, and, if you are really unlucky, taste that nasty dog food dinner you made it eat when it really wanted your steak.

Concrete nouns are the words we use to label things in our physical world. With this new knowledge, if you look around you, you will see concrete nouns everywhere. It’s these words that are, therefore, the most familiar to us. Consequently, do you think, perhaps, that these were the first types of words to ever be created? I wonder: who came up with the first words, and what did they base their choices on?

2.2 Abstract nouns

An abstract noun is the opposite to a concrete noun: instead of physical objects they are ideas, states, actions, or qualities. For example, ‘Capitalism’ is an abstract noun denoting that influential idea, while ‘a capitalist’ is a concrete noun because it denotes a living person who exists and holds these beliefs. An example in a sentence would be:

The capitalist loves the idea of Capitalism.

Note how ‘the capitalist’ is a physical thing in the world, whereas ‘Capitalism’ is an idea.

The abstract nouns are the words we use to describe the internal world of ideas. Love. Hate. Pride. Intelligence. Life. Death. Whereas the concrete nouns are familiar, and even mundane, the abstract nouns are charged with emotion, power, contention, and – at least in my hands – pretension. What I find fascinating about this group of nouns is how they are so overpowering and deeply important to us, and yet so hazy and subjective in their meaning. We often find it hard to define them, and yet you could say these are the words that denote the things that define us as humans (well, I did mention pretension, didn’t I?).

Here is a table showing concrete and abstract nouns which have similarities in their theme:

Concrete noun (physical objects) Abstract noun (ideas, states, actions, or qualities)
dog Zoology
book literature
tree Environmentalism
egg hunger
paint art
bombs power

3) Collective nouns

A word is called a collective noun when it describes a group of items, concepts, ideas, people or animals. These words will usually have a common, concrete noun which describes the group in singular terms. For example, a ‘bird’ is a common, concrete noun, denoting a singular flying animal (or a colloquial term for a woman, if you are from the UK), while a ‘flock’ is a collective noun denoting a group of birds (incidentally, I’ve never heard the slang extended to groups of women).

Here is a table showing singular nouns alongside a linked collective noun:

Singular Collective noun
bird flock
person family
striker team
pupil class
politician government
cat litter

One interesting characteristic of collective nouns is they can be either singular or plural, yet they are describing something that is plural. What I mean by this is a ‘flock’ is describing more than one bird, which would suggest it is plural. However, it is describing that group of birds as though they were one, making it singular. Of course, we can say ‘flocks’ which will make it plural, and there are even other ways to make it plural while retaining the term ‘flock’. Let’s look at some examples of each of these, starting with an example where ‘flock’ is used as a singular:

The flock is dancing beautifully.

Here, ‘flock’, is describing a group of birds, and that group of birds are all moving together in unison. This means we used the singular verb ‘is’, which we will explore in detail, later.

Next is an example of it being used as plural:

The flock are dispersing in different directions.

Here, ‘flock’ is describing a group of birds which are acting individually. This means we use the plural verb ‘are’ rather than ‘is’.

The final example uses the plural ‘flocks’:

The flocks are dispersing in different directions.

Here ‘flocks’ is describing a group of a group of birds which are acting individually, meaning we use the plural verb ‘are’. This is always the case with ‘flocks’, because the ‘s’ is making ‘flock’ plural. If we tried to use ‘flocks’ in the singular sentence, it wouldn’t sound right, as in:

The flocks is dancing beautifully. (incorrect)

However, if we change the ‘is’ to an ‘are’ it does work:

The flocks are dancing beautifully.

Furthermore, the pronouns – words which replace nouns which we will cover soon – also change depending on singular or plural. For example, with a singular noun:

The flock is showing off its moves.

Here we have the singular pronoun ‘its’ and the singular noun ‘the flock’.

An example with a plural noun is:

The flocks are showing off their moves.

Here we have the plural pronoun ‘their’ and the plural noun ‘the flocks’.

Don’t worry if these verbs and pronouns don’t make sense right now, we will cover them in detail soon.

4) Compound nouns

A compound noun combines multiple words to create a single meaning, such as:

teapot

Usually, this will be two words, but it is possible to have more, such as:

mother-in-law

They can be written either as one word (as in ‘bookshelf’) separately (as in ‘living room’) or with a hyphen (as in ‘six-pack’).

There doesn’t appear to be any clear rule as to which of the above you use; therefore, it is best to refer to a dictionary to be sure. However, the hyphen does have one feature which instructs when to use it: it adds clarity when the compound noun could have two meanings. An example of this is:

Look at that fire fly.

There could be some confusion here in thinking that the fly is literally made out of fire. To clear this up, we add a hyphen as in:

Look at that fire-fly. 

Now it is clearer that it is this type of fly. Another example would be:

Pass me that water bottle. 

In a world which is really thinking of the environment, the bottle could be made out of water! It would be better to write:

Pass me that water-bottle.

Now it is clearer that it is this type of bottle.

5) Countable and non-countable nouns

5.1 Countable nouns

Countable nouns are (shockingly) nouns which can be counted. For example, you could have just one ‘flower’ or two, three, four, or 5 million ‘flowers’. As can be seen from this example, you can have the singular, ‘flower’, for one, or the plural, ‘flowers’, for more than one. Singular countable nouns can have many modifying words before them – known as determiners – such as ‘the book’ where the adjective ‘the’ is the determiner.

The most confusion in this area is often around whether to use ‘a’ or ‘an’ before the noun. For example, some countable nouns have ‘a’ before them, such as:

a flower

a bridge

a tree

while other’s have ‘an’ before them, such as:

an orange

an egg

an infant

What is the rule for this?

To answer this we have to think back to the vowel sounds we learnt about earlier. The general rule is that words beginning with a vowel sound use ‘an’ before them, and those which do not should use ‘a’.

So, looking at the examples using ‘a’ again, and see if they have a vowel sound at the beginning:

a flower (‘flower’ begins with ‘f’ consonant sound)

a bridge (‘bridge’ begins with ‘b’ consonant sound)

a tree (‘tree’ begins with a ‘t’ consonant sound)

All three of these begin with a consonant sound, rather than a vowel sound, meaning they have ‘a’ in front of them.

Here are some vowel sound examples and the corresponding use of ‘an’:

apple: I would like an apple.

egg: I would like an egg.

infant: I am an infant.

orange: I would like an orange.

undertaker: I am an undertaker.

hour: I will be there in an hour.

honour: It will be an honour to work with you.

It is important to go back over what vowel sounds are because thinking of them as words which begin with the vowels a, e, i, o, u will only get you so far. This is demonstrated in the last example above, where ‘hour’ begins with the consonant ‘h’ but actually begins with the diphthong produced by two vowel sounds together (‘a’ and ‘ʊ’ to give us ‘aʊ’ in the IPA and denoted as ‘ou’ in the other key). This means it starts with a vowel combination vowel sound, and, therefore, has ‘an’ before it. The reason this happens is because the ‘h’ is silent in it. This is similar in ‘honour’ which starts with the consonant ‘h’ in spelling, but which actually begins with the short vowel sound ‘ŏ’ (or ‘ɒ’ in IPA) because the ‘h’ is silent. The ‘h’ isn’t always silent though. Some examples where a word begins with a ‘h’ consonant sound are:

house: I want to buy a house.

haircut: I need a haircut.

historic: It was a historic day.

In all three examples the ‘h’ is not silent, and they begin with the ‘h’ consonant sound, so they use ‘a’ before them.

The reverse situation also occurs, where words begin with a consonant sound, but the first letter is a vowel. An example of a word beginning with the vowel ‘o’ but which has a consonant sound is:

one-track-mind: He has a one-track-mind.

‘One-track-mind’ begins with a consonant ‘w’ sound, even though the first letter is the vowel ‘o’.

There are also many examples beginning with the vowel ‘u’, where the consonant ‘y’ sound is actually made. For example:

unicorn: I would like to ride a unicorn.

university: I visited a university.

universe: While I was sleeping I created a universe.

An example which begins with a vowel ‘e’ letter, but a consonant ‘y’ sound is:

eulogy: I have to write a eulogy.

With plural countable nouns we can’t use ‘a’ or ‘an’ in front of them. For example:

I like a flowers. (incorrect)

is incorrect; in fact, you can remove the ‘a’ and just say:

I like flowers.

This is because ‘a/an’ are denoting the singular. This will be covered in detail when we get onto articles in the adjective section.

5.2 Uncountable nouns

Uncountable nouns are nouns which, at least in some circumstances, cannot be counted. If we think back to the abstract nouns we looked at earlier, many of these cannot be counted, in certain circumstances:

art

power

hunger

literature

Examples where each of these can’t take a plural are:

Art is hard to define.

Power often leads to corruption.

Hunger will change anybody.

I will be studying literature.

Note how, in these circumstances, the nouns in bold can’t take plurals. However, there are some circumstances where a couple of them can:

The arts are broad and varied.

The powers passed over to him are dangerous.

6) Functions of a noun in sentence

Nouns can have many functions in a sentence. Most them these probably won’t make a huge amount of sense right now, but here is a list of the functions a noun can take on in a sentence, with examples where the noun is in bold in brackets next to the function:

Subject (e.g., ‘John is happy’)

Direct object (e.g., ‘I kicked the wall‘)

Indirect object (e.g., ‘John sent Mary the letter’)

Predicate nominative (e.g., ‘I am John‘)

Object of a preposition (e.g., ‘I am going out with my friends‘)

Object complement (e.g.,They considered the charlatan their spiritual saviour.)

Appositive (e.g., ‘The postman, John, was always on time’)

The hard thing about grammar is that to understand all of these, and therefore fully understand what a noun is, we need to know a large portion of other bits of grammar we haven’t studied yet. For this reason, we will continue on with the course now, and each of these components should eventually become clearer – then we will be able to define nouns in regards to not only the different types, but also the different functions they play in a sentence.

7) Questions

1) Discuss some of the different categories nouns are placed into.

2) Discuss the functions a noun can play in a sentence, with examples. (come back to this one later, once we have covered all of the functions in the list)

Let’s move on to pronouns, next.

NEXT: 9) Pronouns

Posted in English Grammar