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Concourse 2

Nouns: the essentials

4

Nouns are the words we use to give names to things, actions and people.  There are different types of nouns but they all do the same things.  Generally, nouns function as the subjects or objects of verbs, like this:

  1. John enjoys camping
  2. The machine broke

In 1., the noun camping is the object and John is the subject.
In 2., the noun is machine and is the subject.
So, we can talk of subject nouns and object nouns.

The second essential is that, although in following we focus on individual words for simplicity's sake, nouns should be described as noun phrases even if they only consist of one word.  The noun phrases are underlined in these examples:
    My car has broken down
    She opened
the letter from her mother
   
The old hospital is being rebuilt
    I like
strawberries
   
Mary's sister enjoyed the classical concert
    That's
the man who owned the big house on the corner
and in the last example, we have three noun phrases, embedded in one another: the big house, the corner and the man who owned the big house on the corner.
So, we can now talk of subject noun phrases and object noun phrases with some confidence and having the right terminology helps our understanding.


3

Three sorts of noun phrase

On this site, we use this classification but you may see others, especially in older books.

  1. Common nouns
    are the most frequent and apply to things, feelings and people.  For example:
        people, house, apply, happiness, sugar, use, table, computer
    and many thousands more.
    They are of two basic sorts:
    1. count nouns
      take a plural and can come with a singular or plural verb form.  For example:
          There are two cows over there
          She has a new car
          That's the first problem we need to solve
          We have four good neighbours

      etc.
    2. mass nouns
      refer to things we do not count and come only in the singular (except in some special uses).  For example:
          The furniture is worn out
          Would you like some coffee?
          I enjoy running
          She has no time
          We are taking food with us

      etc.
      For more about the difference between count and mass nouns, read on.
  2. Proper nouns
    are usually spelled with a capital letter (in English) and refer to people, jobs, times and places.  For example:
        I spoke to Fred
        He is the Chief Executive Officer
        Come on Monday
        I went to Berlin

    There are some special rules for these, explained below.
  3. Collective nouns
    refer to groups of people and things and can be either singular or plural.  For example:
        They have joined a new class
        She keeps a flock of sheep
        The police are coming soon
        The government is about to fall

    For more, see below.

einstein

Proper noun phrases

Albert Einstein  

Proper nouns are the names for people and places.  They usually begin with a Capital letter.  There is a range of types and a number of difficulties for learners and teachers:


crowd

Collective noun phrases

In all languages, some nouns are used for groups of things or people.  In English, these can be both singular and plural but in most languages they are only singular.  For example, in English, we can say:
    The army is very large (thinking about it as a single thing)
and
    The army are helping
(thinking about the army as a lot of individual people)
We can also have:
    The football team are playing on Sunday
and
    The football team is playing on Sunday
In the first one, we are thinking about all the players separately; in the second one we are thinking of it as a single thing, the team.
Other collective nouns are, e.g., navy, crew, flock, herd, staff, family, committee, government, class, staff etc.
(There is a difference between collective nouns which are not usually followed by the of + noun phrase and assemblage nouns such as:
    a swarm of bees
in which the of-construction is usually seen.)
In American English these words are normally used with a singular verb as is the case in most languages.

scissors

Plural nouns

One class of nouns appears only in the plural.

This list can be greatly extended


milkpencils

Mass nouns and Count noun phrases

milk pencils  

The distinction between these two types of nouns either does not exist at all in some languages or is very differently handled.  The problems for learners in this area are extensive.

Most nouns in English are count nouns.  Count nouns have a singular (for one) and plural (for more than one).  This means we can say, for example:
    I have three pencils
    I want that pencil
    The pencil is here
    Those pencils are no good
    Please give me a pencil
    I have several pencils on the desk
Count nouns cannot usually appear in the singular without an article (a(n) or the) so we do not find:
    *Pencil is needed
    *Person is here

etc.
In some set phrases, the rule is broken so we do find:
    Please write in pencil
    They walked arm in arm

Many nouns in English are mass nouns.  These nouns do not have a plural.  We can say, for example:
    I want that milk
    I have some milk
    The milk is here
    This milk is bad
    Please give me some milk
    I have some milk in the glass
Mass nouns always use a singular verb and never take a plural.

Most mass nouns are:

Materials: metals, liquids, gases, cloth etc.
iron
For example:
It's made of iron
She needs water
There's no air in here
The chair is covered with blue cloth
     Ideas and Feelings
love
For example:
She has no understanding
You have my sympathy
Love is important for children
His anger was clear
Small objects
rice
For example:
They grow rice here
The sand gets in my shoes
The dust is everywhere
Use milk powder in the pudding
     States
sleep
For example:
I need more sleep
Childhood is a good time
You can't buy happiness
Weather
snow
For example:
There's a lot of snow this winter
We have a lot of rain in the spring
The sunshine is nice
 

There are hundreds of mass nouns in English but here is a list of very common ones:

advice
air
anger
art
bread
cash
cheese
childhood
clothing
coffee
damage
danger
education
energy
equipment
fire
food
freedom
friendship
fun
furniture
gold
hair
happiness
health
heat
help
honesty
housework
humour
imagination
information
intelligence
kindness
knowledge
labour
laughter
love
luck
management
metal
milk
money
music
news
paper
pronunciation
punctuation
quality
quantity
rain
rice
rubbish
safety
sand
shopping
sleep
smoke
snow
soup
sport
strength
sugar
sunshine
tea
time
traffic
transportation
travel
understanding
warmth
water
weather
weight
wood
work

That list is available as a PDF document from the link in the table at the end.

It is possible, of course, to make mass nouns countable by the addition of what is called a partitive or a quantifier as in, e.g.:
    three hours' sleep
    a piece of iron
    a bar of chocolate
    two means of transportation
    pints of milk
    drifts of snow

etc.
As you will see, however, the choice of quantifier or partitive is not an easy one to make.

grammar

The grammar of mass and count noun phrases

before

Noun Before the noun But ... For example
pencil
Singular count nouns like
pencil, car, house, person, cat, elephant
one, every, any, this, that, the, a(n) We must always use a determiner with these nouns I have only one blue pencil
Every child's pencil is broken
Any black pencil is OK
This old pencil is no good
That pencil is better
pencils
Plural count nouns like
pencils, cars, houses, people, cats, elephants
many, both, some, several, these, those, the, a couple of or no word a/an is not possible
It is possible to have no determiner
I have many pencils
I want some pencils
There are several pencils on the desk
These new pencils are no good
Those pencils are better
Give me a couple of sharp pencils
Both pencils were broken
Pencils must be sharp
milk
Mass nouns like
milk, information, hope, education, tea
much, little, less, more, this, that or no word How much milk do we have?
We have a little milk
There is less milk in the fridge
Give me some more milk
This milk is bad
That milk is better
Milk is good for children

after the noun

Noun After the noun But ... For example
pencil
Singular count nouns like
pencil, car, house, person, cat, elephant, team
a singular verb like is, breaks, opens, lives Singular collective nouns (like team or family) can be plural The pencil is on the floor
The car was clean
The houses look nice
The person is ringing the bell
The cats sleep here
The elephant smells awful
The team is coming

The team are playing
pencils
Plural count nouns like
pencils, cars, houses, people, cats, elephants, team
Always a plural verb The pencils are on the desk
The cars have arrived
The houses look beautiful
The people are here
The cats are eating
The elephants are angry
The team are here

Her family are really friendly
milk
Mass nouns like
milk, information, hope, education, tea
Always a singular verb No exceptions The milk is in the fridge
The information is useful
Hope is important
Education is necessary
Tea is common in England


Try a simple matching test on this area.



Related guide
in-service guide to nouns for a guide which includes some of the above (with extensions) and focuses on grammar more
mass nouns for a PDF list of the most common mass nouns in English
concord for more about verb forms with nouns in English
(un)countability for more on mass and count concepts in English
articles essentials for an overview of the article system
articles for a fuller guide to the article system in the in-service section
determiners for a consideration of how nouns are determined (in-service guide)
modification to see how noun phrases are constructed and get some ideas about how to teach them
subject and object to see how nouns and verbs work together to make meanings