Understanding Nouns in English

In English grammar, a noun is traditionally defined as the part of speech (or word class) that names or identifies a person, place, thing, quality, or activity. Adjective: nominal. Also called a substantive.

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.

From the Greek, "name, noun"


  • "Every morning after breakfast, Wilbur walked out to the road with Fern and waited with her till the bus came."
    (E.B. White, Charlotte's Web. Harper, 1952)
  • "Bailey and I sat alone on the front bench, the wooden slats pressing hard on our behinds and the backs of our thighs."
    (Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Random House, 1969)
  • "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. University of California Press, 2012)
  • "Houston, we have a problem."
    (Apollo 13, 1995)
  • "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good."
    (Wall Street, 1987)
  • "Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream."
    (John Steinbeck, Cannery Row, 1945)
  • "I type 101 words a minute. But it's in my own language."
    (Mitch Hedberg)
  • "I recently went to a new doctor and noticed he was located in something called the Professional Building. I felt better right away."
    (George Carlin)
  • "You must hear the bird's song without attempting to render it into nouns and verbs."
    (Ralph Waldo Emerson) 

  • "The thing about bozos is that bozos don't know that they're bozos. Bozos think they're the shit, which makes them really annoying but also incredibly entertaining, depending on your point of view. Shrinks call this the Dunning-Kruger effect, named after two researchers from Cornell University whose studies found that incompetent people fail to recognize their own lack of skill, grossly overestimate their abilities, and are unable to recognize talent in other people who actually are competent."
    (Dan Lyons, Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble. Hachette, 2016)

  • "One of the glories of English simplicity is the possibility of using the same word as noun and verb. We speak, for instance, of 'having cut the meat' and of 'a cut of meat.' We not only 'kick a person,' but 'give him a kick.'"
    (Edward Sapir, "The Function of an International Auxiliary Language," 1931. Rpt. in Selected Writings of Edward Sapir in Language, Culture and Personality, ed. by David G. Mandelbaum. University of California Press, 1985)


  • "[D]efining the term noun is such a problem that many grammar books do not even try to do it. Accepting the idea that the concept of noun is fairly abstract, however, can point us in the right direction, toward a reasonably acceptable definition. From this perspective, nouns are the labels we use to classify the world and our experiences in it."
    (James D. Williams, The Teacher's Grammar Book. Lawrence Erlbaum, 1999)
  • Categories of Nouns
    "In parsing nouns, traditional grammar insisted on noting gender as well as number and case. Modern grammars disregard this criterion, recognizing that gender has no grammatical role in English. They do however find good grammatical reasons for respecting the importance of several other traditional contrasts, especially proper vs common, and abstract vs concrete, and have developed the contrast between mass and count nouns into a major dimension of subclassification."
    (David Crystal, Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 2003)
  • Nouns in Multiple Categories
    are not restricted to a particular category; that is, a single noun can occupy several of these categories. For example,
    three dogs can be [common, concrete & countable]
    American government can be [proper, concrete & collective]
    Christian faith can be [proper, abstract & countable]
    (Bernard O'Dwyer, Modern English Structures: Form, Function, and Position. Broadview, 2000)
  • Formal Characteristics of Nouns in English
    As for meaning, nouns are traditionally known to be names of persons, places, things, and ideas. But this meaning aspect of nouns remains rather vague--verbs, for example, may also be considered names of ideas--and the formal characteristics are often more reliable. Among the formal characteristics of English nouns are that they typically:
    a. may be definite in meaning by use of preceding the (the definite article), as in the book, the guy, the answer;
    b. may be made possessive by suffixing -'s, as in people's, Jane's, a politicians's;
    c. may be made negative by prefixing non-, as in nonbeliever, nonsense, nonunion.
    (Grover Hudson, Essential Introductory Linguistics. Blackwell, 2000)
  • Stylistic Advice
    "Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn't been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place."
    (William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style)
  • The Lighter Side of Nouns
    Dr. Gregory House: Dr. House. I don't think we've met.
    Dr. Jaime Conway: Dr. Jamie Conway. I've heard your name.
    Dr. Gregory House: Most people have. It's also a noun.
    (Hugh Laurie and Rob Benedict, "Living the Dream." House M.D., 2008)

Pronunciation: nown

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Understanding Nouns in English." ThoughtCo, Feb. 28, 2018, thoughtco.com/noun-in-grammar-1691442. Nordquist, Richard. (2018, February 28). Understanding Nouns in English. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/noun-in-grammar-1691442 Nordquist, Richard. "Understanding Nouns in English." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/noun-in-grammar-1691442 (accessed June 19, 2018).