It’s not easy to describe a noun. In simple terms, nouns are “things” (and verbs are “actions”). Like food. Food (noun) is something you eat (verb). Or happiness. Happiness (noun) is something you want (verb). Or human being. A human being (noun) is something you are (verb).
The simple definition is: a person, place or thing. Here are some examples:
- person: man, woman, teacher, John, Mary
- place: home, office, town, countryside, America
- thing: table, car, banana, money, music, love, dog, monkey
The problem with this definition is that it does not explain why “love” is a noun but can also be a verb.
Another (more complicated) way of recognizing a noun is by its:
1. Noun Ending
There are certain word endings that show that a word is a noun, for example:
- -ity > nationality
- -ment > appointment
- -ness > happiness
- -ation > relation
- -hood > childhood
But this is not true for the word endings of all nouns. For example, the noun “spoonful” ends in -ful, but the adjective “careful” also ends in -ful.
2. Position in Sentence
We can often recognise a noun by its position in the sentence.
Nouns often come after a determiner (a determiner is a word like a, an, the, this, my, such):
- a relief
- an afternoon
- the doctor
- this word
- my house
- such stupidity
Nouns often come after one or more adjectives:
- a great relief
- a peaceful afternoon
- the tall, Indian doctor
- this difficult word
- my brown and white house
- such crass stupidity
3. Function in a Sentence
Nouns have certain functions (jobs) in a sentence, for example:
- subject of verb: Doctors work hard.
- object of verb: He likes coffee.
- subject and object of verb: Teachers teach students.
But the subject or object of a sentence is not always a noun. It could be a pronoun or a phrase. In the sentence “My doctor works hard”, the noun is “doctor” but the subject is “My doctor”.
A. Countable and Uncountable Nouns
English nouns are often described as “countable” or “uncountable”.
1. Countable Nouns
Countable nouns are easy to recognize. They are things that we can count. For example: “pen”. We can count pens. We can have one, two, three or more pens. Here are some more countable nouns:
- dog, cat, animal, man, person
- bottle, box, litre
- coin, note, dollar
- cup, plate, fork
- table, chair, suitcase, bag
Countable nouns can be singular or plural:
- My dog is playing.
- My dogs are hungry.
We can use the indefinite article a/an with countable nouns:
- A dog is an animal.
When a countable noun is singular, we must use a word like a/the/my/this with it:
- I want an orange. (not I want orange.)
- Where is my bottle? (not Where is bottle?)
When a countable noun is plural, we can use it alone:
- I like oranges.
- Bottles can break.
We can use some and any with countable nouns:
- I’ve got some dollars.
- Have you got any pens?
We can use a few and many with countable nouns:
- I’ve got a few dollars.
- I haven’t got many pens.
“People” is countable. “People” is the plural of “person”. We can count people:
- There is one person here.
- There are three people here.
2. Uncountable Nouns
Uncountable nouns are substances, concepts etc that we cannot divide into separate elements. We cannot “count” them. For example, we cannot count “milk”. We can count “bottles of milk” or “litres of milk”, but we cannot count “milk” itself. Here are some more uncountable nouns:
- music, art, love, happiness
- advice, information, news
- furniture, luggage
- rice, sugar, butter, water
- electricity, gas, power
- money, currency
We usually treat uncountable nouns as singular. We use a singular verb. For example:
- This news is very important.
- Your luggage looks heavy.
We do not usually use the indefinite article a/an with uncountable nouns. We cannot say “an information” or “a music”. But we can say a something of:
- a piece of news
- a bottle of water
- a grain of rice
We can use some and any with uncountable nouns:
- I’ve got some money.
- Have you got any rice?
We can use a little and much with uncountable nouns:
- I’ve got a little money.
- I haven’t got much rice.
Notes : Uncountable nouns are also called “mass nouns”.
3. Nouns that can be Countable and Uncountable
Sometimes, the same noun can be countable and uncountable, often with a change of meaning.
|There are two hairs in my coffee!||hair||I don’t have much hair.|
|There are two lights in our bedroom.||light||Close the curtain. There’s too much light!|
|Shhhhh! I thought I heard a noise.||noise||It’s difficult to work when there is too much noise.|
|Have you got a paper to read? (= newspaper)||paper||I want to draw a picture. Have you got some paper?|
|Our house has seven rooms.||room||Is there room for me to sit here?|
|We had a great time at the party.||time||Have you got time for a coffee?|
|Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s greatest works.||work||I have no money. I need work!|
B. Kinds of Nouns
1. Proper Nouns (Names)
A proper noun is the special word (or name) that we use for a person, place or organization, like John, Marie, London, France or Sony. A name is a noun, but a very special noun – a proper noun. Proper nouns have special rules.
|common noun||proper noun|
|country, town||England, London|
|shop, restaurant||Maceys, McDonalds|
|month, day of the week||January, Sunday|
|book, film||War & Peace, Titanic|
a. Using Capital Letters with Proper Nouns
We always use a Capital Letter for the first letter of a proper noun (name). This includes names of people, places, companies, days of the week and months. For example:
- They like John. (not *They like john.)
- I live in England.
- She works for Sony.
- The last day in January is a Monday.
- We saw Titanic in the Odeon Cinema.
b. Proper Nouns without THE
- We do not use “the” with names of people. For example:
|first names||Bill (not *the Bill)|
|full names||Hilary Gates|
We do not normally use “the” with names of companies. For example:
- Renault, Ford, Sony, EnglishClub.com
- General Motors, Air France, British Airways
- Warner Brothers, Brown & Son Ltd
We do not normally use “the” for shops, banks, hotels etc named after a founder or other person (with -‘s or -s). For example:
|shops||Harrods, Marks & Spencer, Maceys|
|hotels, restaurants||Steve’s Hotel, Joe’s Cafe, McDonalds|
|churches, cathedrals||St John’s Church, St Peter’s Cathedral|
We do not normally use “the” with names of places. For example:
|towns||Washington (not *the Washington), Paris, Tokyo|
|states, regions||Texas, Kent, Eastern Europe|
|countries||England, Italy, Brazil|
|continents||Asia, Europe, North America|
Exception! If a country name includes “States”,”Kingdom”, “Republic” etc, we use “the”:
|states||the United States, the US, the United States of America, the USA|
|kingdom||the United Kingdom, the UK|
|republic||the French Republic|
We do not use “the” with “President/Doctor/Mr etc + Name”:
|the president, the king||President Bush (not *the President Bush)|
|the captain, the detective||Captain Kirk, Detective Colombo|
|the doctor, the professor||Doctor Well, Dr Well, Professor Dolittle|
|my uncle, your aunt||Uncle Jack, Aunt Jill|
|Mr Gates (not *the Mr Gates), Mrs Clinton, Miss Black|
Look at these example sentences:
- I wanted to speak to the doctor.
- I wanted to speak to Doctor Brown.
- Who was the president before President Kennedy?
We do not use “the” with “Lake/Mount + Name”:
|the lake||Lake Victoria|
|the mount||Mount Everest|
Look at this example sentence:
- We live beside Lake Victoria. We have a fantastic view across the lake.
We do not normally use “the” for roads, streets, squares, parks etc:
|streets etc||Oxford Street, Trenholme Road, Fifth Avenue|
|squares etc||Trafalgar Square, Oundle Place, Piccadilly Circus|
|parks etc||Central Park, Kew Gardens|
Many big, important buildings have names made of two words (for example, Kennedy Airport). If the first word is the name of a person or place, we do not normally use “the”:
|people||Kennedy Airport, Alexander Palace, St Paul’s Cathedral|
|places||Heathrow Airport, Waterloo Station, Edinburgh Castle|
If the full (registered) name of a company starts with “The”, then we use “The” if we use the full name, for example:
The Post Publishing Public Co., Ltd
c. Proper Nouns with THE
We normally use “the” for country names that include “States”,”Kingdom”, “Republic” etc:
|States||the United States of America/the USA|
|Kingdom||the United Kingdom/the UK|
|Republic||the French Republic|
We normally use “the” for names of canals, rivers, seas and oceans:
|canals||the Suez Canal|
|rivers||the River Nile, the Nile|
|seas||the Mediterranean Sea, the Mediterranean|
|oceans||the Pacific Ocean, the Pacific|
We normally use “the” for plural names of people and places:
|people (families, for example)||the Clintons|
|countries||the Philippines, the United States|
|island groups||the Virgin Islands, the British Isles|
|mountain ranges||the Himalayas, the Alps|
Look at these sentences:
- I saw the Clintons today. It was Bill’s birthday.
- Trinidad is the largest island in the West Indies.
- Mount Everest is in the Himalayas.
We normally use “the” with the following sorts of names:
|hotels, restaurants||the Ritz Hotel, the Peking Restaurant|
|banks||the National Westminster Bank|
|cinemas, theatres||the Royal Theatre, the ABC Cinema|
|museums||the British Museum, the National Gallery|
|buildings||the White House, the Crystal Palace|
|newspapers||the Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Post|
|organisations||the United Nations, the BBC, the European Union|
We normally use “the” for names made with “of”:
- the Tower of London
- the Gulf of Siam
- the Tropic of Cancer
- the London School of Economics
- the Bank of France
- the Statue of Liberty
2. Possessive ‘s
When we want to show that something belongs to somebody or something, we usually add ‘s to a singular noun and an apostrophe ‘ to a plural noun, for example:
- the boy’s ball (one boy)
- the boys’ ball (two or more boys)
Notice that the number of balls does not matter. The structure is influenced by the possessor and not the possessed.
|one ball||more than one ball|
|one boy||the boy’s ball||the boy’s balls|
|more than one boy||the boys’ ball||the boys’ balls|
The structure can be used for a whole phrase:
- the man next door’s mother (the mother of the man next door)
- the Queen of England’s poodles (the poodles of the Queen of England)
3. Compound Nouns
A compound noun is a noun that is made with two or more words. A compound noun is usually [noun + noun] or [adjective + noun], but there are other combinations (see below). It is important to understand and recognize compound nouns. Each compound noun acts as a single unit and can be modified by adjectives and other nouns.
There are three forms for compound nouns:
- open or spaced – space between words (tennis shoe)
- hyphenated – hyphen between words (six-pack)
- closed or solid – no space or hyphen between words (bedroom)
Here are some examples of compound nouns:
|noun||+||noun||bus stop||Is this the bus stop for the number 12 bus?|
|fire-fly||In the tropics you can see fire-flies at night.|
|football||Shall we play football today?|
|adjective||+||noun||full moon||I always feel crazy at full moon.|
|blackboard||Clean the blackboard please.|
|software||I can’t install this software on my PC.|
|verb(-ing)||+||noun||breakfast||We always eat breakfast at 8am.|
|washing machine||Put the clothes in the red washing machine.|
|swimming pool||What a beautiful swimming pool!|
|noun||+||verb(-ing)||sunrise||I like to get up at sunrise.|
|haircut||You need a haircut.|
|train-spotting||His hobby is train-spotting.|
|verb||+||preposition||check-out||Please remember that check-out is at 12 noon.|
|noun||+||prepositional phrase||mother-in-law||My mother-in-law lives with us.|
|preposition||+||noun||underworld||Do you think the police accept money from the underworld?|
|noun||+||adjective||truckful||We need 10 truckfuls of bricks.|
Compound nouns tend to have more stress on the first word. In the phrase “pink ball”, both words are equally stressed (as you know, adjectives and nouns are always stressed). In the compound noun “golf ball”, the first word is stressed more (even though both words are nouns, and nouns are always stressed). Since “golf ball” is a compound noun we consider it as a single noun and so it has a single main stress – on the first word. Stress is important in compound nouns. For example, it helps us know if somebody said “a GREEN HOUSE” (a house which is painted green) or “a GREENhouse” (a building made of glass for growing plants inside).
Different varieties of English, and even different writers, may use the open, hyphenated or closed form for the same compound noun. It is partly a matter of style. There are no definite rules. For example we can find:
- container ship
If you are not sure which form to use, please check in a good dictionary.
Plural forms of compound nouns
In general we make the plural of a compound noun by adding -s to the “base word” (the most “significant” word). Look at these examples:
|a school teacher||three school teachers|
|one assistant headmaster||five assistant headmasters|
|the sergeant major||some sergeants major|
|a mother-in-law||two mothers-in-law|
|an assistant secretary of state||three assistant secretaries of state|
|my toothbrush||our toothbrushes|
|a woman-doctor||four women-doctors|
|a doctor of philosophy||two doctors of philosophy|
|a passerby, a passer-by||two passersby, two passers-by|
Note that there is some variation with words like spoonful or truckful. The old style was to say spoonsful or trucksful for the plural. Today it is more usual to say spoonfuls or truckfuls. Both the old style (spoonsful) and the new style (spoonfuls) are normally acceptable, but you should be consistent in your choice. Here are some examples:
|old style plural
|new style plural|
|teaspoonful||3 teaspoonsful of sugar||3 teasponfuls of sugar|
|truckful||5 trucksful of sand||5 truckfuls of sand|
|bucketful||2 bucketsful of water||2 bucketfuls of water|
|cupful||4 cupsful of rice||4 cupfuls of rice|
Some compound nouns have no obvious base word and you may need to consult a dictionary to find the plural:
Note that with compound nouns made of [noun + noun] the first noun is like an adjective and therefore does not usually take an -s. A tree that has apples has many apples, but we say an apple tree, not apples tree; matchbox not matchesbox; toothbrush not teethbrush.
With compound nouns made of [noun + noun] the second noun takes an -s for plural. The first noun acts like an adjective and as you know, adjectives in English are invariable. Look at these examples:
|long plural form becomes ›||plural compound noun
[noun + noun]
|100 trees with apples||100 apple trees|
|1,000 cables for telephones||1,000 telephone cables|
|20 boxes for tools||20 tool boxes|
|10 stops for buses||10 bus stops|
|4,000 wheels for cars||4,000 car wheels|
4. Noun as Adjective
As you know, a noun is a person, place or thing, and an adjective is a word that describes a noun:
Sometimes we use a noun to describe another noun. In that case, the first noun “acts as” an adjective.
|Noun as adjective||Noun|
The “noun as adjective” always comes first
If you remember this it will help you to understand what is being talked about:
- a race horse is a horse that runs in races
- a horse race is a race for horses
- a boat race is a race for boats
- a love story is a story about love
- a war story is a story about war
- a tennis ball is a ball for playing tennis
- tennis shoes are shoes for playing tennis
- a computer exhibition is an exhibition of computers
- a bicycle shop is a shop that sells bicycles
The “noun as adjective” is singular
Just like a real adjective, the “noun as adjective” is invariable. It is usually in the singular form.
|Boat race||Boat races||NOT boats race ,boats races|
|Toothbrush||Toothbrushes||NOT teethbrush, teethbrushes|
|Shoe-lace||Shoe-laces||NOT Shoes-lace, shoes-laces|
|Cigarette packet||Cigarette packets||NOT cigarette packet, cigarettes packets|
In other words, if there is a plural it is on the real noun only.
A few nouns look plural but we usually treat them as singular (for example news, billiards, athletics). When we use these nouns “as adjectives” they are unchanged:
- a news reporter, three news reporters
- one billiards table, four billiards tables
- an athletics trainer, fifty athletics trainers
When we use certain nouns “as adjectives” (clothes, sports, customs, accounts, arms), we use them in the plural form:
- clothes shop, clothes shops
- sports club, sports clubs
- customs duty, customs duties
- accounts department, accounts departments
- arms production
How do we write the “noun as adjective”?
We write the “noun as adjective” and the real noun in several different ways:
- two separate words (car door)
- two hyphenated words (book-case)
- one word (bathroom)
There are no easy rules for this. We even write some combinations in two or all three different ways: (head master, head-master, headmaster)
How do we say the “noun as adjective”?
For pronunciation, we usually stress the first word:
- shoe shop
Can we have more than one “noun as adjective”?
Yes. Just like adjectives, we often use more than one “noun as adjective” together. Look at these examples:
car production costs: we are talking about the costs of producing cars
England football team coach: we are talking about the coach who trains the team that plays football for England
Note: in England football team coach can you see a “hidden” “noun as adjective”? Look at the word “football” (foot-ball). These two nouns (foot+ball) have developed into a single noun (football). This is one way that words evolve. Many word combinations that use a “noun as adjective” are regarded as nouns in their own right, with their own dictionary definition. But not all dictionaries agree with each other. For example, some dictionaries list “tennis ball” as a noun and other dictionaries do not.
government road accident research centre: we are talking about a centre that researches into accidents on the road for the government
Newpapers often use many nouns together in headlines to save space. Look at this example:
BIRD HEALTH RESEARCH CENTRE MURDER MYSTERY
To understand headlines like these, try reading them backwards. The above headline is about a MYSTERY concerning a MURDER in a CENTRE for RESEARCH into the HEALTH of BIRDS.
Note, too, that we can still use a real adjective to qualify a “noun as adjective” structure:
- empty coffee jar
- honest car salesman
- delicious dog food
- rising car production costs
- famous England football team coach