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A noun is the name of a person, place, thing, or idea.
Whatever exists, we assume, can be named, and that name is a noun. A proper
noun, which names a specific person, place, or thing (Carlos, Queen
Marguerite, Middle East, Jerusalem, Malaysia, Presbyterianism, God, Spanish,
Buddhism, the Republican Party), is almost always capitalized. A proper noun
used as an addressed person's name is called a noun of address. Common
nouns name everything else, things that usually are not capitalized.
A group of related words can act as a single noun-like entity
within a sentence. A Noun Clause contains a subject and verb and can do
anything that a noun can do:
he does for this town
is a blessing.
A Noun Phrase, frequently a noun
accompanied by modifiers, is a group of related words acting as a noun: the
oil depletion allowance; the abnormal, hideously enlarged nose.
There is a separate section on word combinations that become
Compound Nouns — such as daughter-in-law, half-moon, and stick-in-the-mud.
Categories of Nouns
Nouns can be classified further as count nouns, which name
anything that can be counted
(four books, two continents, a few dishes, a dozen buildings); mass nouns
(or non-count nouns), which name something that can't be counted (water, air,
energy, blood); and collective nouns, which can take a singular form but
are composed of more than one individual person or items (jury, team, class,
committee, herd). We should note that some words can be either a count noun or a
non-count noun depending on how they're being used in a sentence:
He got into trouble. (non-count)
He had many troubles. (countable)
(non-count) is the best teacher.
We had many exciting experiences
(countable) in college.
Whether these words are count or non-count will determine whether
they can be used with articles and determiners or not. (We would not
write "He got into
the troubles," but we could write about "The
troubles of Ireland."
Some texts will include the category of abstract nouns, by
which we mean the kind of word that is not tangible, such as warmth, justice,
grief, and peace. Abstract nouns are sometimes troublesome for
non-native writers because they can appear with determiners or without: "Peace
settled over the countryside." "The skirmish disrupted the peace that had
settled over the countryside." See the section on Plurals for additional
help with collective nouns, words that can be singular or plural,
depending on context.
Forms of Nouns
Nouns can be in the subjective, possessive, and objective case. The
word case defines the role of the noun in the sentence. Is it a subject,
an object, or does it show possession?
The English professor
[subject] is tall.
He chose the English professor
The English professor's
[possessive] car is green.
Nouns in the subject and object role are identical
in form; nouns that show the possessive, however, take a different form. Usually
an apostrophe is added followed by the letter s (except for plurals,
which take the plural "-s" ending first, and then add the apostrophe). See the
section on Possessives for help with possessive forms. There is also a
table outlining the cases of nouns and pronouns.
Almost all nouns change form when they become plural,
usually with the simple addition of an -s or -es. Unfortunately,
it's not always that easy, and a separate section on Plurals offers
advice on the formation of plural noun forms.
Assaying for Nouns*
Back in the gold rush days, every little town in the American Old
West had an assayer's office, a place where wild-eyed prospectors could take
their bags of ore for official testing, to make sure the shiny stuff they'd
found was the real thing, not "fool's gold." We offer here some assay tests for
nouns. There are two kinds of tests: formal and functional — what a word looks
like (the endings it takes) and how a word behaves in a sentence.
word contain a noun-making morpheme? organization, misconception,
weirdness, statehood, government, democracy,
philistinism, realtor, tenacity, violinist
word take a plural-making morpheme? pencils, boxes
word take a possessive-making morpheme? today's, boys'
modifiers, can the word directly follow an article and create a grammatical unit
(subject, object, etc.)? the state, an apple, a crate
fill the slot in the following sentence: "(The)
_________ seem(s) all right." (or substitute other predicates such as
unacceptable, short, dark, depending on the word's meaning)?
Testing the Tests:
With most nouns, the test is clear. "State," for example, can be a
plural ("states"), become a possessive ("state's"), follow an article ("a/the
state"), and fit in the slot ("the state seems all right"). It doesn't have a
noun-making morpheme, but it passes all the other tests; it can pass as a noun.
(The fact that "state" can also be a verb — "We state our case" — is not
relevant.) "Greyness" cannot take plural ending nor can it be possessive, but it
does contain a noun-making morphene and it can follow an article and fit in the
slot sentence. Can the word "grey," which is obviously also an adjective, be a
noun? It's hard to imagine it passing any of the formal tests, but it can follow
an article and fill the slot: "The grey seems acceptable." And what about
"running," which is often part of a verb (He is running for office)? Again, it
won't pass the formal tests, but it will fit the slot sentence: "Running is all
right." (It can also follow an article, but in rather an odd way: "The running
is about to begin.") "Grey" and "running" are nouns, but just barely: one is an
adjective acting like a noun, and the other is a verb acting like a noun (a
Additional Help With Nouns
A simple exercise in Naming Nouns will help answer any
questions you might have about count and non-count nouns and help you
distinguish between plural and singular forms.
The categories of count and non-count nouns can be confusing,
however, and we suggest further review, especially for writers for whom English
is a second language. The second section we offer is called Count and
Non-Count, a basic review of those concepts and their uses in sentences,
with many examples. Third, we offer WORKING WITH NOUNS, a more extensive
(and somewhat more advanced) review of the count and non-count distinction,
along with exercises. Finally, just when you thought you couldn't stand such
riches, we suggest you review the uses of Articles, Determiners, and
Quantifiers with count and non-count nouns.
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