Understanding Nouns in English

The part of speech can be a person, place, thing, or idea

In English grammar, a noun is a part of speech (or word class) that names or identifies a person, place, thing, quality, idea, or activity. Most nouns have both a singular and plural form, can be preceded by an article and/or one or more adjectives, and can serve as the head of a noun phrase.

A noun or noun phrase can function as a subject, direct object, indirect object, complement, appositive, or object of a preposition.

In addition, nouns sometimes modify other nouns to form compound nouns. To understand how to recognize and use nouns, it's helpful to learn about the different types of nouns in English.

Common Noun

A common noun names any person, place, thing, activity, or idea. It's a noun that is not the name of any particular person, place, thing, or idea. A common noun is one or all of the members of a class, which can be preceded by a definite article, such as the or this, or an indefinite article, such as a or an. Examples of common nouns are sprinkled throughout these two sentences:

"Plants rely on the wind, birds, bees, and butterflies—and other pollinating insects—to transfer pollen from flower to flower. Some of our 'other' pollinating insects are flies, wasps, and beetles."
- Nancy Bauer, "The California Wildlife Habitat Garden"

Note how all of the italicized words are common nouns, which make up the vast majority of nouns in English.

Proper Noun

A proper noun names specific or unique individuals, events, or places, and may include real or fictional characters and settings. Unlike common nouns, most proper nouns, like Fred, New York, Mars, and Coca-Cola, begin with a capital letter. They may also be referred to as proper names for their function of naming specific things.

An example would be this famous movie line:

"Houston, we have a problem."
- "Apollo 13"

In the sentence, the word Houston is a proper noun because it names a specific place, while the word problem is a common noun, which expresses a thing or idea.

Proper nouns are not typically preceded by articles or other determiners, but there are numerous exceptions such as the Bronx or the Fourth of July. Most proper nouns are singular, but again, there are exceptions as in the United States and the Joneses.

Concrete and Abstract Nouns

A concrete noun names a material or tangible object or phenomenon—something recognizable through the senses, such as chicken or egg.

An abstract noun, by contrast, is a noun or noun phrase that names an idea, event, quality or concept—courage, freedom, progress, love, patience, excellence, and friendship. An abstract noun names something that can't be physically touched. According to "A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language", abstract nouns are "typically nonobservable and nonmeasurable.”

In comparing these two types of nouns, Tom McArthur notes in "The Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language":

"... an abstract noun refers to an action, concept, event, quality, or state (love, conversation), whereas a concrete noun refers to a touchable, observable person or thing (child, tree)." 

Collective Noun

collective noun (such as team, committee, jury, squad, orchestra, crowd, audience, and family) refers to a group of individuals. It is also known as a group noun. In American English, collective nouns usually take singular verb forms and can be replaced by both singular and plural pronouns, depending on their meaning.

Count and Mass Nouns

A count noun refers to an object or idea that can form a plural or occur in a noun phrase with an indefinite article or with numerals. Most common nouns in English are countable—they have both singular and plural forms. Many nouns have both countable and noncountable uses, such as the countable dozen eggs and the noncountable egg on his face.

A mass noun—advice, bread, knowledge, luck, and work—names things that, when used in English, cannot usually be counted.

A mass noun (also known as a noncount noun) is generally used only in the singular. Many abstract nouns are uncountable, but not all uncountable nouns are abstract.

Other Types of Nouns

There are two other types of nouns. Some style guides might separate them into their own categories, but they are really special types of nouns that fall within the categories described previously.

Denominal nounsA denominal noun is formed from another noun, usually by adding a suffix, such as villager (from village), New Yorker (from New York), booklet (from book), limeade (from lime), guitarist (from guitar), spoonful (from spoon), and librarian (from library). 

Denominal nouns are context-sensitive; they depend on the context for their meaning. For example, while a librarian usually works in a library, a seminarian usually studies in a seminary.

Verbal nounsA verbal noun (sometimes called a gerund) is derived from a verb (usually by adding the suffix -ing) and exhibits the ordinary properties of a noun. For example:

  • His firing of William was a mistake.
  • My mother didn't like the idea of my writing a book about her.

In the first sentence, the word firing derives from the word fire but functions as a verbal noun. In the second sentence, the word writing derives from the verb write, but it functions here as a verbal noun.