Nouns – how to use them correctly
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Nouns – definition
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
We went to town and bought a lamp
The joy she felt was clear for all to see.
The trouble was caused by a power failure.
Thunder could be heard from a distance of three miles.
The cow with the curly horn was the most spectacular of the herd.
Nouns constitute much of the content of both speech and writing. They can usefully be categorised as follows:
- Common nouns
- Proper nouns
- Abstract nouns
Common nouns. This is the term for objects such as ‘book’, ‘coat’, ‘window’, ‘apple’, ‘man’, ‘woman’.
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
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’.
Plurals of nouns are formed in a variety of ways in English.
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/
Writing. In writing the examples above would be pluralised by the simple addition of the letter ‘s’.
Other nouns require an extra syllable to form a plural, according to their use in speech or writing.
Speech. The plural of the terms ‘house’, ‘ostrich’, and ‘entrance’ are formed as follows:
hou/z/e/z/ ostrich/e/z/ entrance/z/
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.
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.
Irregular plurals. English has many words which are borrowings from other languages. The result of this is a number of irregular plurals:
SINGULAR PLURAL analysis analyses crisis crises appendix appendices narcissus narcissi amoeba amoebae
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]
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
Archaic plurals. Some plurals are formed by the addition of ‘en’, because of the origin of the word in Old English:
children oxen brethren
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’.
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).
Terms such as ‘den’ (of robbers) ‘team’ (of players) ‘queue’ (of people) ‘party’ (of delegates) are also collective nouns.
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.
Film-makers used this form in producing The Shining, and houses are protected by various kinds of ‘cladding’.
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.
Here are some examples, based on one common, single noun (book)
the interesting book
the book on the shelf
the book which my friend gave me
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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