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What Is a Noun?

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A noun is a word used to name a person, place or thing, an animal or abstract idea. The highlighted words in the following sentences are all nouns:

  • Late last year our neighbours bought a gazebo.
  • Maureen Forrester was an opera singer.
  • The bus inspector looked at all the passengers’ passes.
  • According to Plutarch, the library at Alexandria was destroyed by fire.
  • Philosophy is of little comfort to the starving.

A noun can function in a sentence as a subject, a direct object, an indirect object, a subject complement, an object complement, an appositive, an adjective or an adverb.

Noun Gender

Many common nouns, like engineer or teacher, refer to both men and women. In the past, many English nouns would change form depending on their gender—for example, a man was called an author, a woman an authoress. This use of gender-specific nouns is very rare today. As far as possible, job titles should not imply that the job can be filled only by members of one sex.

Use feminine nouns when women are referred to, or gender-inclusive nouns when a man or woman is not specifically referred to:

  • spokeswoman/spokesperson/representative not spokesman
  • chairwoman/chairperson/chair not chairman
  • councillor not councilman or alderman
  • technician not repairman
  • trade worker not journeyman
  • cleaner not cleaning woman

Noun Plurals

Most nouns change their form to indicate number by adding s or es, as illustrated in the following pairs of sentences:

  • Matthew rarely told the truth if he thought he was going to be reprimanded.
  • Many people do not believe that truths are self-evident.
  • As they walked through the empty house, they were startled by an unexpected echo.
  • Bridget liked to shout into the quarry and listen to the echoes.
  • Joe tripped over a box carelessly left in the hallway.
  • Since we are moving, we will need many boxes.

Other nouns form the plural by changing the last letter before adding s. Some nouns ending in f form the plural by deleting the f and adding ves. Some nouns ending in y form the plural by deleting the y and adding ies, as in the examples below:

Some nouns ending in f.

  • The harbour at Marble Mountain has one wharf.
  • There are several wharves in Halifax Harbour.

Some nouns ending in y.

  • Warsaw is their favourite city because it reminds them of their courtship.
  • The vacation my grandparents won includes trips to twelve European cities.

Other nouns form the plural irregularly.

  • The women shouted, "Are you a mouse or a man?"
  • All five men admitted that they were afraid of mice.

If English is your first language, you probably know most of them already: when in doubt, consult a good dictionary.

Possessive Nouns

In the possessive case, a noun or pronoun changes its form to show that it owns or is closely related to something else. Usually, nouns become possessive by adding an apostrophe and the letter s.

You can form the possessive case of a singular noun that does not end in s by adding an apostrophe and s, as in the following examples:

  • The red suitcase is Cassandra’s.
  • The only luggage that was lost was the minister’s.
  • The exhausted recruits were woken before dawn by the drill sergeant’s screams.
  • The miner’s face was covered in coal dust.

You can form the possessive case of a singular noun that ends in s by adding an apostrophe alone or by adding an apostrophe and s, as in the following examples:

  • The bus’s seats are very uncomfortable.
  • The bus’ seats are very uncomfortable.
  • The zoologist accidentally crushed the platypus’s eggs.
  • The zoologist accidentally crushed the platypus’ eggs.
  • Felicia Hemans’s poetry was once more popular than Lord Byron’s.
  • Felicia Hemans’ poetry was once more popular than Lord Byron’s.

You can form the possessive case of a plural noun that does not end in s by adding an apostrophe and s, as in the following examples:

  • The children’s mittens were scattered on the floor of the porch.
  • The sheep’s pen was mucked out every day.
  • The men’s hockey team will play as soon as the women’s team is finished.
  • The hunter followed the moose’s trail all morning and all afternoon.

You can form the possessive case of a plural noun that ends in s by adding an apostrophe, as in the following examples:

  • The speech was interrupted by the dogs’ barking, the ducks’ quacking and the babies’ squalling.
  • The janitors’ room is downstairs and to the left.
  • My uncle spent many hours trying to find the squirrels’ nest.
  • The archivist quickly finished repairing the diaries’ bindings.
  • Politics is often the subject of my roommates’ many late night debates.

Using Possessive Nouns

Note that a noun in the possessive case frequently functions as an adjective modifying another noun. In the following example,

  • The miner’s face was covered in coal dust.

the possessive noun miner’s modifies the noun face and together with the article the, they make up the noun phrase that is the sentence’s subject.

In the sentence below,

  • The speech was interrupted by the dogs’ barking, the ducks’ quacking and the babies’ squalling.

each possessive noun modifies a gerund. The possessive noun dogs’ modifies barking, ducks’ modifies quacking, and babies’ modifies squalling.

In the example below,

  • The zoologist accidentally crushed the platypus’s eggs.

the possessive noun platypus’s modifies the noun eggs and the noun phrase the platypus’s eggs is the direct object of the verb crushed.

In the following sentence,

  • My uncle spent many hours trying to find the squirrels’ nest.

the possessive noun squirrels’ modifies the noun nest and the noun phrase the squirrels’ nest is the object of the infinitive phrase to find.

Types Of Nouns

There are many different types of nouns. Some nouns, such as Canada or Bridget, are capitalized and others, such as badger or tree, are not (unless they start a sentence or appear in a title). In fact, grammarians have developed a whole series of noun types: proper, common, concrete, abstract, countable (also called the count noun), non-countable (also called the mass noun) and collective. You should note that nouns may belong to more than one type. For example, a noun may be proper or common, abstract or concrete, and countable or non-countable or collective.

Proper Nouns

Always capitalize a proper noun as it represents the name of a specific person, place or thing. The names of days of the week, months, historical documents, institutions, organizations, religions and their holy texts and adherents are all proper nouns. Note that a proper noun is the opposite of a common noun.

In each of the following sentences, the proper nouns are highlighted:

  • The Maroons were transported from Jamaica and forced to build the fortifications in Halifax.
  • Many people dread Monday mornings.
  • Labour Day is celebrated on the first Monday in September.
  • Abraham appears in the Talmud and in the Koran.
  • Last year, I had a Baptist, a Buddhist, and a Sikh as roommates.

Common Nouns

A common noun refers to a person, place or thing in a general sense and is the opposite of a proper noun. It should be written with a capital letter only when it begins a sentence.

In each of the following sentences, the common nouns are highlighted:

  • According to the sign, the nearest town is 60 kilometres away.
  • All the gardens in the neighbourhood were invaded by beetles this summer.
  • Some people insist on having six different kinds of mustard in their cupboards.
  • The road crew was startled by the sight of three moose crossing the road.
  • Workers in Third-World countries are often underpaid.

You may sometimes make proper nouns out of common nouns, as in the following examples:

  • The tenants in the Garnet Apartments are appealing the high increase in their rent.
  • The meals in the Bouncing Bean Restaurant are less expensive than meals in the cafeteria.
  • Many witches refer to the Renaissance as the Burning Times.
  • The Diary of Anne Frank is often a child’s first introduction to the history of the Holocaust.

Concrete Nouns

A concrete noun names anything (or anyone) that can be perceived through the physical senses (touch, sight, taste, hearing and smell). A concrete noun is the opposite of an abstract noun.

The highlighted words in the following sentences are all concrete nouns:

  • The judge handed the files to the clerk.
  • Whenever they take the dog to the beach, it spends hours chasing waves.
  • The real estate agent urged the couple to buy the second house because it had a new roof.
  • As the car drove past the park, the thump of a disco tune overwhelmed the string quartet’s rendition of a minuet.
  • The bookbinder replaced the flimsy paper cover with a sturdy, cloth-covered board.

Abstract Nouns

An abstract noun names anything that cannot be perceived through the five physical senses (touch, sight, taste, hearing and smell), and is the opposite of a concrete noun.

The highlighted words in the following sentences are all abstract nouns:

  • Buying the fire extinguisher was an afterthought.
  • Tillie is amused by people who are nostalgic about childhood.
  • Justice often seems to slip out of our grasp.
  • Some scientists believe that schizophrenia is transmitted genetically.

Countable Nouns

A countable (or count) noun has both a singular and plural form, and names anything (or any being) that can be counted. A countable noun can be made plural and take a plural verb in a sentence. It is the opposite of a non-countable noun and a collective noun.

In each of the following sentences, the highlighted words are countable nouns:

  • We painted the table red and the chairs blue.
  • Since he inherited his aunt’s library, Jerome spends every weekend indexing his books.
  • Miriam found six silver dollars in the toe of a sock.
  • The oak tree lost three branches in the hurricane.
  • Over the course of twenty-seven years, the doctor delivered just over eight hundred babies.

Non-Countable Nouns

A non-countable (or mass) noun does not have a plural form and refers to something that is usually not counted. A non-countable noun always takes a singular verb in a sentence. It is similar to a collective noun, and is the opposite of a countable noun.

The highlighted words in the following examples are non-countable nouns:

  • Joseph Priestly discovered oxygen.
  • Oxygen is essential to human life.

The word oxygen cannot normally be made plural. Since oxygen is a non-countable noun, it takes the singular verb is rather than the plural verb are.

  • We decided to sell the furniture rather than take it with us when we moved.
  • The furniture is heaped in the middle of the room.

As a non-countable noun, furniture has no plural and takes the singular verb is heaped.

  • The crew spread the gravel over the roadbed.
  • Gravel is more expensive than I thought.

The noun gravel has no plural. Since gravel is a non-countable noun, it takes the singular verb form is.

Collective Nouns

A collective noun names a group of things, animals or persons. You could count the individual members of the group, but you usually think of the group as a whole. It is important to recognize collective nouns in order to maintain subject-verb agreement. A collective noun is similar to a non-countable noun, and is roughly the opposite of a countable noun.

In each of the following examples, the highlighted word is a collective noun:

  • The flock of geese spends most of its time in the pasture.

The collective noun flock takes the singular verb spends.


  • The jury is dining on take-out chicken tonight.

The collective noun jury is the subject of the singular compound verb is dining.


  • The steering committee meets every Wednesday afternoon.

Here the collective noun committee takes the singular verb meets.


  • The class was startled by the bursting light bulb.

Class is a collective noun and takes the singular compound verb was startled.


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