What Are Inanimate Nouns in English?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

English Grammar

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A semantic category of noun that refers to a place, thing, or idea— not a person, animal, or other creature. Contrast with animate noun.

Examples and Observations

  • "Bill Clinton loves to shop. On a March day in an elegant crafts store in Lima, the Peruvian capital, he hunted for presents for his wife and the women on his staff back home. He had given a speech at a university earlier and just came from a ceremony kicking off a program to help impoverished Peruvians. Now he was eyeing a necklace with a green stone amulet." (Peter Baker, "It's Not About Bill," The New York Times Magazine, May 31, 2009)
  • "Your complaints about late delay are not only completely unjustified, but also ungrammatical. The fault lies in your inability to fill in an order form correctly. You are, in effect, a pompous, illiterate baboon." (Leonard Rossiter in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, 1976)
  • "Amir has just counted our luggage and in all we have twenty-one pieces, counting cameras, guns, bags, boxes, trunks, umbrellas, etc. Our boat to Singapore is just a few hundred feet away from this hotel and it looks very big and nice." (Rosamond's letter to Bub, Jan. 3, 1907. Letters Written While on a Collecting Trip in the East Indies, by Thomas Barbour and Rosamond Barbour, 1913)
  • "[W]hen using language figuratively or in children's stories (e.g., The tugboat smiled as she safely guided the ocean liner through the channel), human characteristics may be assigned to an inanimate noun as denoted by the use of smiled and she." (Virginia A. Heidinger, Analyzing Syntax and Semantics. Gallaudent Univ. Press, 1984)
  • "The most cited gendered reference to an inanimate object today may be the use of she to refer to ships. This usage was first noted by Ben Jonson in his English Grammar of 1640; he names ships as an exception to the rule that it refers to inanimate objects... In 2002, it was announced that Lloyd's List, the world's best-known source of maritime business news and information, would stop using she in reference to ships, switching over instead to it." (Anne Curzan, Gender Shifts in the History of English. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003)

Possessive Forms of Inanimate Nouns

"Many English teachers advise against applying the possessive case to inanimate objects. Possession is a privilege limited to living things. It does not make sense for a car or a house or a bicycle to own anything in the way that the possessive case expresses ownership. The type of possession allowed inanimate objects is typically expressed by the phrase beginning with of:

the roof of the house not the house's roof
the hood of the car not the car's hood
the tire of the bike not the bike's tire

Like many grammar issues, however, this one requires a judgment call. Through popular usage, some nouns that name inanimate objects have acquired the rights to their possessive case forms:

my mind's eye
a moment's delay
a week's vacation
two weeks' notice
the sun's rays
the Season's Greetings

At times creative license may grant you the right to make use of an inanimate object in a possessive form." (Michael Strumpf and Auriel Douglas, The Grammar Bible. Owl Books, 2004)

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Are Inanimate Nouns in English?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/inanimate-noun-term-1691155. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 28). What Are Inanimate Nouns in English? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/inanimate-noun-term-1691155 Nordquist, Richard. "What Are Inanimate Nouns in English?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/inanimate-noun-term-1691155 (accessed March 30, 2023).