In terms of meaning, nouns are sometimes described as ‘naming words’ – words for people, animals and things. The noun class does include many words of this kind: brother, baby, rabbit, horse, handbag, chair. These all refer to physical beings or objects – they are concrete nouns. But there are also many abstract nouns – nouns with abstract (non-material) meanings, like pleasure, sight, kindness.

To identify nouns we need to look beyond meaning, at grammatical behaviour – the forms of words, and the ways they combine with other words.

There are some typical features which can help us identify a word as a noun.

Typically, we can change the form to make it plural (more than one). This is usually done by adding an -s or -es:

  • soldiers
  • eggs
  • cars
  • foxes

We can generally make it possessive by adding -’s:

  • the soldier’s hat
  • the egg’s yolk
  • the car’s engine

Typically, we can put the, a or an in front of it:

  • the soldier
  • an egg
  • a car

As well as this, many nouns have recognisable suffixes (endings):

  • -er/-or: painter, plumber, writer, actor
  • -ism: criticism, egotism, magnetism, vandalism
  • -ist: artist, capitalist, journalist, scientist
  • -ment: arrangement, development, establishment, government
  • -tion: foundation, organisation, recognition, supposition

These grammatical behaviours can help us identify typical nouns. There are also some special kinds of nouns which behave a little differently. For example, proper nouns are a special class of nouns which refer to specific people, places or organisations. They are capitalised (i.e. given a capital letter to begin with), as in these examples:

  • Ah but my colleague Paul is going away for those two weeks in September.[S1A-095 #269]
  • And Argentina have possession back now.[S2A-010 #115]
  • Mrs Wellstood left for a haven in Cornwall when the first bombs fell on London.[W2F-014 #37]
  • I guess Microsoft likes November launches. [W2B-036 #14]

Certain grammatical differences can often be observed between common and proper nouns. Proper nouns usually refer to someone or something unique, so they are less likely to be pluralised than common nouns. It’s quite rare to see proper nouns turned into plurals but it can happen in certain cases, for example:

  • I’ve got a lot of Julians in my class. [S1A-032 #287]
  • I bet it’s busy on Sundays. [S1A-006 #255]

The speakers here are referring to many different people called Julian and to Sundays in general, rather than to one particular person or day.

Unlike common nouns, proper names are not normally preceded by the determiners a/an. This is, again, because they usually refer to someone or something unique. We wouldn’t normally say a Sally or a Japan or a Manchester United. There are sometimes exceptions:

  • So this is a very common sight on a Saturday at Paestum. [S2A-024 #21]

Here the speaker means ‘any Saturday’ rather than a particular one.

All other nouns (those which don’t belong to the special class of proper nouns) are called common nouns. We saw many examples of these above: chair, soldier, car, criticism, and so on.

There are further distinctions that can be made between types of nouns. One of these is the difference between count and non-count nouns.


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