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Ministry of Education.

Word Class: Nouns

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.

  • Nouns can be defined by what other words can go with them.
  • Nouns can have "the" in front of them.
  • Nouns do not always have "the" in front of them, but it is usually possible to put it in.

She liked chocolate.

She liked the chocolate.

The technical name for "the" is the definite article.

  • Nouns can be identified by their form: that is, by the endings they can take.
    cat cats
    book books
    car cars
  • Nouns carry information about number.
    The technical name for cat (one cat) is singular and for cats (more than one cat) is plural. Cats, horses, chairs, bikes are regular plurals.

Some English nouns have irregular plurals.

Singular  Plural
tooth teeth
goose geese
ox oxen
sheep sheep
deer deer

Some English nouns have slightly different spellings in the plural.

Singular Plural
knife knives
party parties

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.

Maori French English
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.

Chinese English
yi ben shu one book
shi ben shu ten books
  • Some nouns refer to one particular person or place.

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:

  • names of days of the week: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday
  • names of countries: New Zealand, China, Samoa, Australia
  • names of towns and cities: Manukau, Westport, Christchurch, Rotorua
  • names of people: Jodie, Michael, Marama, Sione.
  • Nouns that are not proper nouns are called common nouns.

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.

  • Some nouns refer to qualities and conditions we cannot point to or see or touch: anger, goodness, youth.

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)

  • There is a small group of nouns that seems to bother some people. These are collective nouns like committee, government, audience, team. They describe a "group" or "collection".

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 content page

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