Plato recognised a class of words in Greek that he called onoma or "name". This was translated into Latin as nomen, which is the origin of our word noun.
Nouns enable us to name things that exist in the world.
The familiar traditional definition of a noun is "a naming word": it refers to a thing, a person, or a substance.
This is a good starting point.
There are more precise ways of defining nouns.
She liked chocolate.
She liked the chocolate.
The technical name for "the" is the definite article.
Some English nouns have irregular plurals.
Some English nouns have slightly different spellings in the plural.
Young children will often put an -s ending on irregular nouns and say *sheeps or *tooths. This shows that they have learned the general rule about how to make a plural in English. They will learn irregular forms later as they build up experience.
Not all languages have singular and plural forms for nouns. In Maori, and in spoken French, a plural is indicated by a change in the definite article rather than in the noun itself.
|te kuri||le chien||the dog|
|nga kuri||les chiens||the dogs|
The French words chien and chiens are pronounced the same, even though they are spelled differently.
Chinese students learning English often have difficulty with the plural -s form because in Chinese the plural is not indicated in the word form.
|yi ben shu||one book|
|shi ben shu||ten books|
These are called proper nouns, and they always have a capital letter. (The word "proper" comes from French propre meaning "one's own".) Most proper nouns do not have the in front of them.
Proper nouns include:
Some nouns are the names of things or people that you can point to, see, or touch: chair, house, book, train, frog, astronaut.
These are called concrete nouns.
These are called abstract nouns.
Nouns can be further classified as to whether they are countable or uncountable (or mass).
Most common nouns in English are countable. These are nouns that have a singular and a plural form, such as book/s, frog/s, woman/women.
Some nouns name things that cannot be counted, like honesty, furniture, heat, mud, calcium, anger. These are called uncountable or mass nouns. Many of them are also abstract nouns because they refer to things you cannot see, hear, or touch.
In special circumstances, uncountable nouns for food and drink can be used as countable nouns. By convention, this means "servings of".
I had a beer with my lunch. (a glass of beer)
I'll have two sugars, thanks. (two spoonfuls or lumps of sugar)
One roast beef and two cottage pies coming up. (one serving of roast beef and two servings of cottage pie)
Which one of the following do you say?
The committee is meeting this afternoon. The committee are meeting this afternoon.
The decision depends on whether you think of a committee as a unit or a complete group:
The committee is ...
Or as a number of individuals:
The committee are ...
Both versions are now generally considered acceptable, depending on the meaning.
Exploring Language is reproduced by permission of the publishers Learning Media Limited on behalf of Ministry of Education, P O Box 3293, Wellington, New Zealand, © Crown, 1996.
Published on: 25 Feb 2009