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Noun and Pronoun Characteristics

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Nouns and pronouns have three major characteristics: case, number and gender.

Noun and pronoun case

The case of a noun or pronoun determines how it can be used in a phrase or clause. There are three cases in modern English:

Subject case
The subject case is used for a noun or pronoun that stands alone. It can also be the subject of a clause, or the subject complement, or stand in apposition to any of these.
Object case
The object case is used for the object of a preposition, verb or verbal, or for any noun or pronoun that stands in apposition to one of these.
Possessive case
The possessive case is used for any noun or pronoun that acts an an adjective, implicitly or explicitly modifying another element in the sentence.

Nouns always take the same form in the subject case and the object case, while pronouns often change their form (he, him). Both nouns and pronouns usually change their form (man’s, his) for the possessive case:

Subject case
The man travelled to Newfoundland.
He travelled to Newfoundland.
Object case
The taxi drove the man to the airport.
The taxi drove him to the airport.
Possessive case
The baggage handlers lost the man’s suitcase.
The baggage handlers lost his suitcase.

For further information, see the sections on possessive nouns, possessive pronouns and possessive adjectives.

Noun and pronoun number

The number of a noun or pronoun is singular if it refers to one thing or plural if it refers to more than one thing. When the noun or pronoun is the subject, then its number also affects the verb. Note the difference in number in the following examples:

Singular
That woman is concerned about this issue.
She is concerned about this issue.
Plural
Those women are concerned about this issue.
They are concerned about this issue.

Note that the plural pronoun they is in the process of becoming singular in spoken English. For example, one might say

  • A person called and they did not leave their name.

This construction allows the speaker to avoid identifying the gender of the person and has been common in speech for many years. You should be aware, however, that some people still consider it unacceptable in formal writing.

For more information, see the section on noun plurals.

Noun and pronoun gender

Unlike the Romance languages (e.g. French, Spanish and Italian), English has three genders for nouns and pronouns: masculine, feminine and neuter.

Generally, the English language uses natural gender rather than grammatical gender—that is, the gender of a word is normally based on its biology so there is little need to remember whether a word is masculine or feminine. A noun that refers to something with male genitalia is masculine, a noun that refers to something with female genitalia is feminine and most other nouns are neuter by default.

There was a time when the masculine gender was used by default when the gender of a person referred to was unknown, but very few people accept this usage any longer.

However, there are a few tricky points of usage. First, one may refer to animals using the neuter gender or their natural gender:

Neuter
What a beautiful dog! Does it bite?
Natural gender
What a beautiful dog! Does she bite?

Note that natural gender is often reserved for pets or animals with names (Jumbo, Flipper, Fido).

Second, mythical beings (such as gods) are usually assigned to a natural gender, even if they are not regarded as having genitalia:

  • God is great. God is good. Let us thank her for our food.

Finally, people sometimes assign natural gender to inanimate objects, especially if they live or work closely with them. In the past, men (who were dominant in the professions and trades) tended to refer to large machines as being feminine:

  • She is a fine ship.

For more information, see the section on gender-specific nouns.

Noun and pronoun person

Personal pronouns always belong to one of three persons:

  • first person if they refer to the speaker or writer (or to a group including the speaker or writer);
  • second person if they refer to the audience of the speaker or writer (or to a group including the audience); and
  • third person if they refer to anyone else.

If the noun or pronoun is the subject, then its person also affects the verb. Nouns and other types of pronouns (e.g. demonstrative pronouns) are always in the third person. Note the differences in person in the following examples:

First person
I will come tomorrow.
Bob showed the budget to us.
Second person
You should not forget to vote.
Where is your coat?
Third person
It arrived yesterday.
How can you stand working with them?

Traditionally, the third person is used in formal writing, but some people now accept the first person. The important thing is being consistent throughout the text.


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