Nouns – how to use them correctly

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Nouns – definition

nouns Nouns are the words we use for the names of objects, feelings, states of being, natural things, and groups.

objects lamp, hat, gate, spoon, book
feelings joy, sadness, fear, anger
states of being confusion, agreement, war
natural things thunder, electricity, gravity, speed
groups herd, pack, catalogue, crowd


redbtn We went to town and bought a lamp

redbtn The joy she felt was clear for all to see.

redbtn The trouble was caused by a power failure.

redbtn Thunder could be heard from a distance of three miles.

redbtn The cow with the curly horn was the most spectacular of the herd.

redbtn Nouns constitute much of the content of both speech and writing. They can usefully be categorised as follows:

  • Common nouns
  • Proper nouns
  • Abstract nouns

redbtn Common nouns. This is the term for objects such as ‘book’, ‘coat’, ‘window’, ‘apple’, ‘man’, ‘woman’.

redbtn Proper nouns. This is the term for names of people, places, days of the week, months of the year. Proper nouns are written with an initial capital letter:

John Smith November
Tuesday Buckingham Palace

redbtn Abstract nouns. This is the term for feelings such as ‘anger’, ‘joy’, ‘fear’, ‘sadness’, and for other intangible phenomena such as ‘beauty’, ‘philosophy’, ‘gravity’, ‘humour’.

redbtn Plurals of nouns are formed in a variety of ways in English.

redbtn Speech. Many nouns are made plural by the addition of a voiced /z/ or voiceless /s/ sibilant or ‘s’ sound as in tins /z/ mats /s/ sweets /s/ cows /z/

redbtn Writing. In writing the examples above would be pluralised by the simple addition of the letter ‘s’.

redbtn Other nouns require an extra syllable to form a plural, according to their use in speech or writing.

redbtn Speech. The plural of the terms ‘house’, ‘ostrich’, and ‘entrance’ are formed as follows:

hou/z/e/z/ ostrich/e/z/ entrance/z/

redbtn Writing. The written form of these plurals is constructed by adding the letter ‘s’ — except in the case of ‘ostrich’ where ‘e’ and ‘s’ are added.

redbtn In these cases, the written version is echoing the spoken word where, for ease of articulation, a vowel sound is added when forming the plural.

redbtn Irregular plurals. English has many words which are borrowings from other languages. The result of this is a number of irregular plurals:

analysis analyses
crisis crises
appendix appendices
narcissus narcissi
amoeba amoebae

redbtn English also has compounds such as the following, called ‘plurals in the first element’:

mothers-in-law [not mother-in-laws]
spoonsful [not spoonfuls]
passers-by [not passer-byes]
courts-martial [not court-martials]

redbtn However, there are also examples of the converse. That is, where the plural is formed in the final element in terms such as:

girlfriends grownups takeoffs

redbtn Archaic plurals. Some plurals are formed by the addition of ‘en’, because of the origin of the word in Old English:

children oxen brethren

redbtn The term ‘chicken’ is the archaic plural of the word ‘chick’. Over the centuries however, it has come to stand for the singular. The plural is now formed by the addition of a final ‘s’ in ‘chickens’.

redbtn Collective nouns. This is the term for one single term which refers to a group of items. Many English collective nouns refer to animals. For example, flock (sheep), brace (game-birds), set (badgers), pride (lions).

redbtn Terms such as ‘den’ (of robbers) ‘team’ (of players) ‘queue’ (of people) ‘party’ (of delegates) are also collective nouns.

redbtn Participles as nouns. Some nouns are formed from verb participles. For example, it is common to refer to ‘the cleaning’ which may be done weekly.

redbtn Film-makers used this form in producing The Shining, and houses are protected by various kinds of ‘cladding’.

redbtn Noun-phrases. These are utterances which may act as subject, object or predicate in a sentence. In other words they function exactly as a single noun, but they comprise more than one word.

redbtn Here are some examples, based on one common, single noun (book)

the book
the interesting book
the book on the shelf
the book which my friend gave me

redbtn All of these noun phrases could be used to start or to finish a sentence:

The book on the shelf is the one I was looking for in the first place.

John gave me the book on the shelf.

Self-assessment quiz follows …

© Roy Johnson 2003

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