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A noun is a naming word. It names a person, place, thing, quality, emotion or idea. Here are some examples of each type of noun.

  • Person: Wayne Gretzky, Céline Dion, firefighter, mystic, child
  • Place: Charlottetown, Canada, CN Tower, mall, beach, attic
  • Thing: cellphone, computer, cup, SUV, tree, dog, BlackBerry
  • Quality: kindness, honesty, intelligence, patience, humour
  • Emotion: sadness, happiness, anger, embarrassment, disgust
  • Idea: freedom, culture, community, dialogue, reaction, danger

Proper nouns vs. common nouns

Some of the nouns above start with capital letters. These are proper nouns because they name someone or something very specific, like Wayne Gretzky or the CN Tower.

Non-specific nouns like man or building are called common nouns; they do not take a capital.

Concrete nouns vs. abstract nouns

A concrete noun names something that has physical existence and can be experienced through one or more of the five senses. Nouns like baby, Cape Breton or cheeseburger, which name a person, place or thing, are concrete nouns because persons, places and things can be seen, touched, heard, smelt or tasted.

An abstract noun is one that does not have physical existence and therefore cannot be experienced through any of the five senses. Nouns that name qualities, emotions or ideas—like kindness, happiness or freedom—are abstract nouns.

Collective nouns

Nouns such as staff, herd or fleet are names for groups of people, animals or things. These nouns are called collective nouns.

Compound nouns

Some nouns are formed from a combination of two or more words. These compound nouns may be written as separate words (tree house, chef’s salad), hyphenated (brother-in-law, jack-in-the-box) or written as one word (firefly, cheerleader).

Functions of nouns

Nouns can perform any of the following functions in sentences.

  1. Subject:
    • Erica built the children a tree house.

The noun Erica is the subject of this sentence. Erica did the action expressed in the verb, and the sentence is about her and what she did.

  1. Direct object of an action verb:
    • Erica built the children a tree house.

A direct object receives the action expressed in the verb; here, the subject Erica performed the action of building, and the tree house was on the receiving end of that action. Therefore, the compound noun tree house is the direct object of the verb built.

  1. Indirect object of an action verb:
    • Erica built the children a tree house.

An indirect object receives the direct object. In this case, the children got the tree house. The noun children is therefore the indirect object of the verb built.

  1. Subject complement after a linking verb:
    • Erica is an engineer.

A subject complement is a noun or an adjective that follows a linking verb and renames or describes the subject. Here, the noun engineer is the subject complement: it follows the linking verb is and provides another way of naming the subject Erica.

  1. Object complement:
    • The children called the tree house Lothlórien.

An object complement is a word or word group that follows the direct object and renames or describes it. Here, the noun Lothlórien is the object complement: it renames the direct object tree house.

  1. Object of a preposition:
    • Erica put her tools into the trunk.

Here, the preposition is into, and trunk is its object.

  1. Appositive:
    • Erica’s brother-in-law, Ilya, comes from Russia.

Ilya is an appositive—a noun placed next to the noun brother-in-law to explain who he is.

  1. Modifier

Nouns in English can function as adjectives when they are placed in front of another noun or when they are made possessive:

  • Ilya likes to make beet soup.  [The noun beet modifies the noun soup.]
  • Ilya’s soup boiled over.  [The possessive noun Ilya’s modifies the noun soup.]

Note: For help understanding any unfamiliar grammar terms in this article, see GRAMMAR TERMS.