Before digging into the definition of a noun, allow me to be pedantic. I want to address two other definitions for nouns that you a) have probably heard, and B) are WRONG.
- A noun is a person, place, or thing: While technically true, this definition is too vague. There are two types of things: objects (which are tangible things) and concepts (which are intangible things).
- A noun is a person, place, thing, or idea: While "idea" and "concept" may be synonyms, they are not the same. An idea by definition exists in the minds of people yet not the real world. This does not describe several nouns, such as time and war; while these nouns are intangible and only defined by human perception, they are undoubtedly real and have real consequences. In fact, an idea is one of three types of concepts:
- Ideas: intangible perceptions or beliefs (good, evil, democracy, equality, Judaism)
- States: emotions or feelings (joy, trust, fear, sadness, anger)
- Qualities: distinctive attributes (courage, honesty, credibility, decency)
A noun is a person, place, object, or concept (ideas, states, and qualities).
In a sentence, nouns function as subjects, direct objects, appositives, indirect objects, predicate nominatives, objects of prepositional phrases, and dummy subjects. Nouns can be classified in three ways: by case, by title, and by number.
Classifying by case
Nouns fulfill one of three roles in a sentence: as a subject, an object, or an indicator of possession. While nouns in English do not change depending on their status as a subject or object, their corresponding pronouns do (see pronouns). Possessive pronouns, however, are different than regular pronouns. A possessive noun shows ownership by adding an ’s to the word (Mike's, the woman's, China's). If the word that is showing possession already ends in an s, the writer can choose to only add the apostrophe for simplicity's sake (the governess', the Joneses') or add 's (Chris's, Belarus's). Possessive nouns function as modifiers for other nouns.
Classifying by title
Most nouns are common nouns that are generic and not specific. These are nouns like boy (person), park (place), chair (object), and love (concept). Yet some nouns are specific and have specific names; these are proper nouns and are always capitalized. Examples of proper nouns are Michael Jackson (person), Cincinnati (place), Honda Civic (object), and Wednesday (concept).
Classifying by number (plurality)
Since nouns are items, they can be expressed in amounts greater than one. This is called plurality. All nouns break down into three types of nouns when it comes to plurality: count nouns, noncount nouns, and collective nouns:
- COUNT NOUNS: nouns that can be easily counted and can thus be pluralized by adding a suffix (see below)
- NONCOUNT NOUNS: nouns that can’t be counted, like jeans, lightning, homework, air, or dirt. These words cannot be pluralized by adding a suffix (jeanses, lightnings, homeworks, airs, dirts)-- instead, they need a pluralized unit that can be counted to be added before the noun (pairs of jeans, bolts of lightning, pages of homework, cubic centimeters of air, clumps of dirt).
- COLLECTIVE NOUNS: a group made of many members that is considered a singular and not plural entity (e.g. audience, crowd, mob). Collective nouns can be pluralized with a suffix (audiences agree, crowds pay) or be broken into units like noncount nouns (members of the audience, voices of the crowd), though each creates a different meaning.
Practical Question: How do I pluralize a word?
First, remember that only count nouns and collective nouns can be pluralized.
When pluralizing a noun with a suffix, a regular noun is pluralized by adding an -s to the end (cars, planes, dogs).
If the noun already ends in an s, or a ch, sh, x, or z, the word is pluralized with an -es (peaches, buses, washers, exes) unless the -ch sounds like k (monarchs).
If the noun ends in y, you need to look at the previous letter. If the previous letter is a vowel, just add the -s (days, lackeys). If the previous letter is a consonant, change the y to an -ies (cherries, spies, philosophies).
Similarly, if the noun ends in o, you need to look at the previous letter. If the previous letter is a vowel, add -s (videos, zoos). If the previous letter is a consonant, add -es (heroes, potatoes).
If the noun ends in -f or -fe, you need to look at the previous two letters. If the previous two letters are vowels, add the normal -s (chiefs, spoofs). If the previous two letters are not both vowels, replace the f or fe with -ves (knives, wolves).
For compound nouns, pluralize the most important word (sisters-in-law, passersby)
Any words that cannot be pluralized in these ways is an irregular noun, and cannot be pluralized in a normal fashion because the word is foreign in origin. This includes words of Latin origin (antennae, algae, cacti), Greek origin (crises, analyses, octopi), and Italian origin (paparazzi). Though some words have more recently followed standard pluralization rules (antennas, cactuses, and octopuses are all acceptable plurals), these irregular foreign words that follow the pluralization of their original language still crop up.
Note that, when shifting subject verb agreement, pluralization can shift from the noun to the verb (Dogs run vs dog runs). Verbs use the same pluralization rules listed above (preaches, stomachs, slays, tries, shoos, echoes) with the exception of -f and -fe: the verb form always adds the -s and never changes the ending to -ves (the criminal knifes a victim, the dog wolfs down food).
One other grammatical quirk separates nouns: the type of article that can precede it. While articles are their own part of speech in many other language (called determiners), there are only three in English: a, an, and the. These articles are considered a type of adjective with one additional rule: they must precede both the noun and any other adjectives the noun has. If a noun is specific, then it is preceded by the (Pick up the glass over there). If the noun is general or one of many possible choices, it is preceded by a or an (Take a glass out of the cupboard). A precedes these general nouns if the noun starts with a consonant sound (a fish, a ball, a opossum), while an precedes general nouns that start with a vowel sound (an anchor, an egg, an hour).