Notes on Nouns

A Few Facts and Figures About the Most Prolific Part of Speech

In this edition of Language Notes, we turn our attention to the "naming" part of speech: nouns.

  • Common Nouns
    Here, according to researchers at Oxford University Press, are the ten most frequently used nouns in English:
    1. time
    2. person
    3. year
    4. way
    5. day
    6. thing
    7. man
    8. world
    9. life
    10. hand
    "Woman" comes in at number 14, "work" at 15, and "war" at 49. Neither "play" nor "peace," unfortunately, is ranked in the top 100. The 2006 study was based on analysis of the more than one billion words in the Oxford English Corpus.
  • Nominalization
    It's not hard to manufacture nouns in English. For instance, adding -ing to a verb creates a noun (or, more precisely, a gerund): "Winning isn't everything," "Waiting can be painful," "Good eating deserves good drinking." Likewise, adding a suffix such as -ness or -ity to an adjective can turn it into a noun: "Hold faithfulness and sincerity as first principles." And simply putting the definite article "the" before an adjective also does the trick: "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly."
  • Noun Stacking
    Another way to multiply nouns is to string two or three together, as in "precipitation event" or "interrogation enhancement techniques." Such nounism, says William Zinsser, is "a new American disease" (though it appears to have spread overseas as well): "Today as many as four or five concept nouns will attach themselves to each other, like a molecule chain. Here's a brilliant specimen I recently found: 'Communication facilitation skills development intervention.' Not a person in sight, or a working verb. I think it's a program to help students write better" (On Writing Well, Collins, 2006).
  • Supersized Nouns
    In his delightful book When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It (Broadway Books, 2007), Ben Yagoda calls attention to another unfortunate nominal trend: the needless expansion of nouns and the growing reliance on polysyllabic synonyms, "apparently in the belief that the longer the word, the better." Thus, "utilization" is preferred to "use," "signage" to "signs," and--my pet peeve--"transparency" to "openness."
  • Not a Single Smithereen
    The Latin phrase plurale tantum ("plural only") refers to any noun that appears only in the plural and has no singular form: "jeans," for example, and "tweezers" and "underpants." In Crazy English: The Ultimate Joy Ride Through Our Language (Pocket Books, 1989), Richard Lederer asks, "Doesn't it seem just a little loopy that we can make amends but never just one amend; that no matter how carefully we comb through the annals of history, we can never discover just one annal; that we can never pull a shenanigan, be in a doldrum, eat an egg Benedict, or get just one jitter, a willy, a delirium tremen, or a heebie-jeebie? Why, sifting through the wreckage of a disaster, can we never find just one smithereen?"
  • And in case you were wondering . . .
    Yes, there's also a term for a noun that appears only in the singular form: singulare tantum. In this category we find mass nouns (also known as noncount nouns), such as "mud," "knowledge," "spaghetti," and (coming in at number 15 on the list of the most common nouns in English) "work."

To continue this investigation of the most prolific part of speech, visit our glossary entry for noun. Also see our List of 100 Irregular Plural Nouns in English and our Exercise in Identifying Nouns.