English noun

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The noun in English is a linguistic item which English grammar identifies as one member of a special class or lexical category, distinct from other classes such as verb. English words may be used as nouns if they accept certain grammatical properties such as countability (e.g. count nouns like 'cats' versus mass nouns like 'rice'), case, gender and number. They also have a specific distribution, i.e. can only occur with certain other categories, such as prepositions, and a distinct syntactic function (e.g. acting as a subject or direct object in a clause).

Popular usage and traditional grammar books often refer to nouns as a 'part of speech', and define a noun as a 'person, place or thing'. This is an inadequate definition, however, as it leaves vague what a 'thing' might be (e.g. is justice a thing?), and ignores the fact that the identification of a word as a noun typically depends on where in the sentence or clause it occurs, and what with - either more words, or with inflections and affixes that modify words. In English, for instance, it is not obvious whether 'bank' is a noun or a verb until it is used in a larger phrase or sentence of the language.

English noun phrase

Nouns work together or with other categories of words to form a larger noun unit, which syntacticians call the noun phrase (NP). This comprises a noun and other items which modify it: 'red car', for instance, is a noun phrase in which 'red' is subordinate to 'car' in the phrase. The NP functions in a sentence in much the same way as a single noun: 'the big book fell off the table' is a sentence in which 'the big book' is an NP acting as the subject,[1] just as 'Fred' does in 'Fred fell off the table'.[2]

Types of nouns

Nouns can be divided into two main categories: proper and common nouns, the former being able to stand alone as the names of specific people, places or things (e.g. 'London'). They usually do not take determiners (e.g 'the') or plurals. Common nouns are further divided into count and non-count (or mass) nouns, and both of these can be either 'abstract' (broadly, non-observable, such as 'justice') and 'concrete' nouns (which can arguably be measured or observed, such as 'table'). These categories are broad generalisations, however, since for example a 'table' could be a real one that the speaker is referring to, or the abstract idea of one.

Just like verbs and adjectives, nouns are content words. This means among others that they belong to an open class to which new words can be added, and have some kind of intrinsic meaning. By contrast, words grouped into functional categories, such as determiners, are a closed class without any real meaning in their own right.

Proper nouns

Proper nouns are specific.

  • Chevrolet
  • Mr Cohen
  • Miami Beach
  • McDonalds cheeseburger

Proper nouns provide you information about their existence. You can have a car or you can have a Chevrolet, a Mercedes, a Saturn, or a Ford Thunderbird. You have many teachers but there is only one Mr Cohen, Ms Raimo, and so on. There are many beaches but only one Miami Beach, one Revere Beach, and one Malibu Beach. A cheeseburger is a cheeseburger but there is only one McDonalds cheeseburger, one Sonic cheeseburger, etc.

Note: Proper nouns are capitalised.

Common nouns

Common nouns are general, non-specific nouns:

  • car
  • teacher
  • beach
  • cheeseburger

What car? which teacher? what beach? which cheeseburger?

We can add adjectives, words that modify nouns. For example, we can have a 'red car', a 'history teacher', a 'beautiful beach', a 'tasty cheeseburger'.

Compound nouns

Compound nouns are nouns whose name consists of more than one word. Some examples are:

  • basketball
  • bike trail
  • email

English is full of compound nouns. They may appear as two or more separate words, a hyphenated word, or as one word. New compound nouns usually begin as two words, then become hyphenated, and eventually become one word. For example, initially, we had 'electronic mail'. After a while, it became known as 'e-mail'. We now often call it 'email'.

Collective nouns

Collective nouns, as the name suggests, represent collections or groups of things. Some examples include 'family', 'team', and 'company'.

Collective nouns semantically refer to a group, but can be grammatically singular. American English prefers collective nouns to be singular unless there is more than one group, whereas British English allows singular collective nouns to take plural agreement:

(1) My family is going to London for a holiday. [American or British English]

(2) My family are going to London for a holiday. [Preferred in British English]

Abstract nouns

Abstract nouns represent feelings, qualities, and other things that aren't physical. Some abstract nouns include: love, honour, honesty, fear, virtue, bravery, etc.


  1. Newer theories of syntax argue that this is a determiner phrase, headed by 'the' in this case and with the NP reduced to 'big book'.
  2. Likewise, 'Fred' would be analysed in newer syntactic theories as a DP with a 'zero' determiner and incorporating a noun.