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Nouns

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Nouns

It's not easy to describe a noun. In simple terms, nouns are "things" (and verbs are "actions"). Like food. Food (n) is something you eat (v). Or happiness. Happiness (n) is something you want (v). Or human being. A human being (n) is something you are (v).

These pages explain more about the grammar of nouns and offer example sentences, quizzes and songs.

 

What is a Noun?

Noun (noun): a word (except a pronoun) that identifies a person, place or thing, or names one of them (proper noun)

The simple definition is: a person, place or thing. Here are some examples:

  • person: man, woman, teacher, John, Mary
  • place: home, office, town, countryside, America
  • thing: table, car, banana, money, music, love, dog, monkey

The problem with the simple definition above is that it does not explain why "love" is a noun but can also be a verb.

Another (more complicated) way of recognizing a noun is by its:

  1. ending
  2. position
  3. function

 

1. Noun ending

There are certain word endings that show that a word is a noun, for example:

  • -ity → nationality
  • -ment → appointment
  • -ness → happiness
  • -ation → relation
  • -hood → childhood

But this is not true for the word endings of all nouns. For example, the noun "spoonful" ends in -ful, but the adjective "careful" also ends in -ful.

 

2. Position in sentence

We can often recognise a noun by its position in the sentence.

Nouns often come after a determiner (a determiner is a word like a, an, the, this, my, such):

  • a relief
  • an afternoon
  • the doctor
  • this word
  • my house
  • such stupidity

Nouns often come after one or more adjectives:

  • a great relief
  • a peaceful afternoon
  • the tall, Indian doctor
  • this difficult word
  • my brown and white house
  • such crass stupidity

 

3. Function in a sentence

Nouns have certain functions (jobs) in a sentence, for example:

  • subject of verb: Doctors work hard.
  • object of verb: He likes coffee.
  • subject and object of verb: Teachers teach students.

But the subject or object of a sentence is not always a noun. It could be a pronoun or a phrase. In the sentence "My doctor works hard", the noun is "doctor" but the subject is "My doctor".

 

Types of Nouns

Nouns are an important part of speech in English, probably second only to verbs. It is difficult to say much without using a noun.

There are several different types of English nouns. It is often useful to recognize what type a noun is because different types sometimes have different rules. This helps you to use them correctly.

 

Common Nouns and Proper Nouns

 

Common Nouns

Most nouns are common nouns. Common nouns refer to people, places and things in general like chair or dog. Any noun that is not a name is a common noun.

Examples: teacher, car, music, danger, receipt

  • Have you seen my dog?
  • The books are on your desk.
  • ...the pursuit of happiness.

 

Proper Nouns

Names of people, places or organizations are proper nouns. Your name is a proper noun. London is a proper noun. United Nations is a proper noun.

Rule: Proper nouns always start with a capital letter.

Examples: Jane, Thailand, Sunday, James Bond, Einstein, Superman, Game of Thrones, Shakespeare

  • Let me introduce you to Mary.
  • The capital of Italy is Rome.
  • He is the chairman of the British Broadcasting Corporation.
  • I was born in November.

Note: Adjectives that we make from proper nouns also usually start with a capital letter, for example Shakespearian, Orwellian.

 

Concrete Nouns and Abstract Nouns

 

Concrete Nouns

Concrete nouns are physical things that you can touch.

Examples: man, rice, head, car, furniture, mobile phone

  • How many stars are there in the universe?
  • Have you met James Bond?
  • Pour the water down the drain.

 

Abstract Nouns

Abstract nouns are the opposite of concrete nouns. They are things that you cannot touch. Abstract nouns are ideas, concepts and feelings.

Examples: happiness, courage, danger, truth

  • He has great strength.
  • Who killed President Kennedy is a real mystery.
  • Sometimes it takes courage to tell the truth.
  • Their lives were full of sadness.

 

Countable Nouns and Uncountable Nouns

 

Countable Nouns

(Also called count nouns)

You can count countable nouns. Countable nouns have singular and plural forms.

Examples:  ball, boy, cat, person

  • I have only five dollars.
  • The Earth was formed 4.6 billion years ago.
  • There are lots of people but we don't have a car.

 

Uncountable Nouns

(Also called mass nouns)

You cannot count uncountable nouns. You need to use "measure words" to quantify them.

Rule: We never use uncountable nouns with the indefinite article (a/an). Uncountable nouns are always singular.

Examples: water, happiness, cheese

  • Have you got some money?
  • Air-conditioners use a lot of electricity.
  • Do you have any work for me to do?
  • Many Asians eat rice.

 

Collective Nouns

 

A collective noun denotes a group of individuals.

Examples: class (group of students), pride (group of lions), crew (group of sailors)

Rule: Collective nouns can be treated as singular or plural. More about this at rules of subject-verb agreement with collective nouns.

  • His family live in different countries.
  • An average family consists of four people.
  • The new company is the result of a merger.
  • The board of directors will meet tomorrow.

 

Compound Nouns

 

A compound noun is a noun that is made with two or more words. Most compound nouns are [noun + noun] or [adjective + noun]. Each compound noun acts as a single unit and can be modified by adjectives and other nouns.

Compound nouns have three different forms:

  1. open or spaced - space between words (bus stop)
  2. hyphenated - hyphen between words (mother-in-law)
  3. closed or solid - no space or hyphen between words (football)

Examples: cat food, blackboard, breakfast, full moon, washing machine, software

  • Can we use the swimming pool?
  • They stop work at sunset.
  • Don't forget that check-out is at 12 noon.

 

Noun Countability

 

The major division of English nouns is into "countable" and "uncountable".

In this lesson we look at nouns that are countable, uncountable or both, and the partitive structure, followed by a quiz to check your understanding:

  • Countable Nouns
  • Uncountable Nouns
  • Nouns that can be Countable and Uncountable
  • Partitive Structure with Uncountable Nouns
  • Noun Countability Quiz

 

Countable Nouns

Countable nouns are easy to recognize. They are things that we can count. For example: "pen". We can count pens. We can have one, two, three or more pens. Here are some more countable nouns:

  • dog, cat, animal, man, person
  • bottle, box, litre
  • coin, note, dollar
  • cup, plate, fork
  • table, chair, suitcase, bag

Countable nouns can be singular or plural:

  • My dog is playing.
  • My dogs are hungry.

We can use the indefinite article a/an with countable nouns:

  • A dog is an animal.

When a countable noun is singular, we must use a word like a/the/my/this with it:

  • I want an orange. (not I want orange.)
  • Where is my bottle? (not Where is bottle?)

When a countable noun is plural, we can use it alone:

  • I like oranges.
  • Bottles can break.

We can use some and any with countable nouns:

  • I've got some dollars.
  • Have you got any pens?

We can use a few and many with countable nouns:

  • I've got a few dollars.
  • I haven't got many pens.

 

Uncountable Nouns

Uncountable nouns are substances, concepts etc that we cannot divide into separate elements. We cannot "count" them. For example, we cannot count "milk". We can count "bottles of milk" or "litres of milk", but we cannot count "milk" itself. Here are some more uncountable nouns:

  • music, art, love, happiness
  • advice, information, news
  • furniture, luggage
  • rice, sugar, butter, water
  • electricity, gas, power
  • money, currency

We usually treat uncountable nouns as singular. We use a singular verb. For example:

  • This news is very important.
  • Your luggage looks heavy.

We do not usually use the indefinite article a/an with uncountable nouns. We cannot say "an information" or "a music". But we can say a "something" of:

  • a piece of news
  • a bottle of water
  • a grain of rice

We can use some and any with uncountable nouns:

  • I've got some money.
  • Have you got any rice?

We can use a little and much with uncountable nouns:

  • I've got a little money.
  • I haven't got much rice.

Uncountable nouns are also called "mass nouns".

 

Here are some more examples of countable and uncountable nouns:

 

Countable

Uncountable

dollar

money

song

music

suitcase

luggage

table

furniture

battery

electricity

bottle

wine

report

information

tip

advice

journey

travel

job

work

view

scenery

 

When you learn a new word, it's a good idea to learn whether it's countable or uncountable.

Nouns that can be Countable and Uncountable

Sometimes, the same noun can be countable and uncountable, often with a change of meaning.

 

Countable

 

Uncountable

There are two hairs in my coffee!

hair

I don't have much hair.

There are two lights in our bedroom.

light

Close the curtain. There's too much light!

Shhhhh! I thought I heard a noise.
There are so many different noises in the city.

noise

It's difficult to work when there is so much noise.

Have you got a paper to read? (newspaper)
Hand me those student papers.

paper

I want to draw a picture. Have you got some paper?

Our house has seven rooms.

room

Is there room for me to sit here?

We had a great time at the party.
How many times have I told you no?

time

Have you got time for a cup of coffee?

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's greatest works.

work

I have no money. I need work!

 

Partitive Structure with Uncountable Nouns

To count or quantify an uncountable noun we use a unit of measurement - a measure word. For example, we cannot usually say “two breads” because “bread” is uncountable. So, if we want to specify a quantity of bread we use a measure word such as “loaf” or “slice” in a structure like “two loaves of bread” or “two slices of bread”. We call this structure a partitive structure.

 

partitive structure:

quantity

measure word

of

uncountable noun

examples:

two

cups

of

coffee

several

games

of

tennis

a

drop

of

water

 

We can use the same uncountable noun in different partitive expressions with different meanings. For example, a loaf of bread and a slice of bread are partitive expressions with different meanings. A loaf of bread is what we call a whole unit of bread that we buy from a baker. A slice of bread is what we call a smaller unit of bread after it has been cut from a loaf. 

Here are some more examples:

  • Don't forget to buy a bag of rice when you go shopping.
  • Can I have one cup of coffee and two cups of tea.
  • The police found some items of clothing scattered around the floor.
  • I need a truck that will take at least three pieces of furniture.
  • You'd think a tablespoon of honey would be more than enough.

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