Nouns are words that name a thing, or that denote a thing as a member of a class of similar things. English nouns may be substantive (having a physical and tangible referent, such as a person, place, or object), or they may be abstract (having a non-physical or intangible referent, such as an idea or abstraction). A proper noun is a special class of noun that names a particular thing. See Appendix:English proper nouns for more.
Many nouns in English have no ending that identifies them as nouns, but there are a number of suffixes common to nouns:
- -ation : relation, termination, vocation
- -dom : Christendom, freedom, kingdom
- -er : dancer, painter, reader, writer
- -hood : falsehood, motherhood, likelihood
- -ism : mutualism, socialism
- -ist : nationalist, racist
- -ity : charity, identity, levity
- -ness : idleness, kindness, watchfulness
- -or : author, governor, victor
- -ee : trainee, addressee
Nouns in English may be compound, where two nouns (or a noun and another word) have been combined to create a new noun. Such compounds may have the two components written together, with a hyphen, or with a space between them:
- Great Dane
- He started with one cake, I gave him another which left him with two cakes.
Nouns ending in soft -ch, -s, -sh, -x, or z in the singular add -es instead. A few English nouns retain plural endings inherited from their Old English form. Likewise, a number of words borrowed from Greek, Latin, or other languages have irregular plural forms borrowed from the original language:
- apple → apples
- church → churches
- ox → oxen
- mouse → mice
- phenomenon → phenomena
- locus → loci
- oasis → oases
Collective nouns, however, refer to a group of more than one thing but are usually treated as singular nouns. In some regions, collective nouns are treated as plural if the verb indicates an action that each member of the group takes.
- The school of fish was quite large.
- The whole department is working late to meet the deadline.
Nouns may be countable or uncountable. A countable noun may be used with a numeral to indicate that there are several discrete instances of the object. An uncountable noun (also called a mass noun) refers to objects or substances that cannot be counted, or which are not normally counted. Not all countable nouns have a plural form that differs from the singular form, but uncountable nouns typically lack a plural form. Some nouns have both a countable and an uncountable meaning, depending on the context.
- (countable) We watched five movies last weekend. There wasn't one movie I liked.
- (uncountable) We ate salty popcorn.
- (countable) I drank two glasses of soda.
- (uncountable) The cup was made of glass.
- (countable) A deer walked into the road. There are still two deer in the woods.
Some nouns are uncountable (also known as mass nouns), that is, they are not used in the plural. Many uncountable nouns denote substances (e.g. liquids, like water), actions (e.g. talking), conditions (e.g. happiness), or certain other abstractions (e.g. mathematics and descriptivism), which are difficult to separate into individual units. It is not always obvious from the referent, though, whether a noun is countable. For example, furniture is uncountable even though chair is countable. Many nouns have senses that are countable and other senses that are uncountable. In a restaurant, for example, one may order two waters, using a sense of water that means “a serving of water”. Entries in this dictionary for nouns with uncountable senses indicate the uncountable senses with the tag uncountable and the countable senses (if any) with the tag countable.
Almost every noun has a meaning that allows a plural. Even nouns that are mainly uncountable in everyday use often form plurals in discussions by specialists in the associated fields of business, trade, craft, or science. For example, although "cement" is uncountable in everyday speech, specialists may compare different "cements", meaning types, or instances, or samples, or "pours" of cement.
Some nouns are always, or almost always, found in a plural form. These are called plurale tantum (“always plural”):
- spectacles / glasses
- The boy ate his meal.
- The girl ate her meal, too.
- The dog ate its meal.
Some English nouns have two gender forms, one with an ending that implies a masculine referent, and one with an ending that implies a feminine referent. The masculine form of some pairs may also be gender neutral:
- actor / actress
- hero / heroine
- widower / widow
A genitive noun indicates that its referent possesses or owns an object or property. Most singular nouns form the genitive by adding 's while most plural nouns just add an apostrophe ( ' ) to the end.
- John has a garden, which we call John’s garden
- All the trees had lost their leaves and all of the trees’ leaves were on the ground.
Most English nouns have a possessive form constructed by adding the particle 's to the end of the noun. If the noun already ends in -s, then an apostrophe (') is added to the end of the word in most situations, after the final -s. If the word ends in the sound of /s/, but does not end in an -s, then 's is added, but the resulting word is pronounced as if a vowel were present:
- cheese → cheese's
- lion → lion's
- lions → lions'
- wolf → wolf's
- wolves → wolves'
- women → women's
- box → box's
Most nouns can appear before another noun, modifying it in an adjectival manner, called attributive. The adjectival meaning is directly derived from the meaning of the noun. In attributive use the modifying noun, sometimes called a noun adjunct, is considered to remain a noun. A multiple-word noun phrase (a compound noun) is often written with hyphens instead of spaces to help the reader treat the phrase as a unit.
- We usually eat dinner from the dinner table.
- The dinner-table manufacturer is in North Carolina.
To determine that "amazon physique" contains a noun adjunct while "amazonian physique" contains an adjective, note these linguistic tests:
- Adjectives can generally be predicative
- Her physique is amazonian, but not *Her physique is amazon
- Adjectives can be graded, accepting more or less
- She is more amazonian than I remember, but not *She is more amazon than I remember
In English, attributive pseudo-adjectives are prepositive; that is, they precede the noun they modify.
Relations with other parts of speech
Many words may function like a noun in a sentence. In the phrase, "the undead are coming", undead acts like a noun and in grammatical terms is called a "substantive". This can happen with almost any adjective. Here are some tests to determine if a word is actually a noun, or just acting like one:
- Nouns typically license a variety of determiners; undead (and other "substantives") accepts only the.
- Nouns can be modified by adjectives; "substantives" can't.
- Nouns typically have a non-inflected singular; "substantives" don't have singulars at all.
- Nouns typically have an inflected plural; "substantives" have non-inflected plurals.
- Nouns cannot be modified by adverbs; "substantives" can.
- Nouns cannot be graded; "substantives" typically can
- The meat had a chickeny flavour.
- She was very presidential.
- He had a gentle, childlike manner.
Informally, many nouns can be used as a verb (inflecting with endings such as -ed, -ing or prefixed with to), depending on the type of noun what the verb version means. In particular, a location implies to go to that location, an activity implies to do that activity - but the specific meaning can generally be determined from the context.
- We're going pubbing this evening, do you want to come?
- I footballed for several hours this morning.
- I think Sarah should be sent off, she keeps trying to hockey-stick people.
A noun phrase is a collection of words that functions together as a unit, with the noun identifying the core actor or recipient of the action. It may consist of a noun alone, or of a noun with one or more modifiers. The modifier may be an adjective, possessive, or a determiner (such as an article, numeral, or demonstrative). It may include a prepositional phrase or a clause that modifies the noun:
- Books are great.
- A book is lying here.
- That book is mine.
- Your green book is falling apart.
- The five largest books are sitting on the shelf.
- Every book I own has been read.
- My cats sleep often.
- I own three large dogs.
- The smell of fish bothers me.
- I gave a cracker to my bird.
- Mary, did my hamster crawl through here?
Most English nouns may be used attributively (as if they were adjectives) to modify another noun:
- computer store
- dog hair
- elephant ears
- winter sport
Nouns used attributively usually precede the noun that they modify. The attributive use may either furnish a description (physical or of character) or provide information about the origin, composition, nature, or use of the following noun.
Other types of words used as nouns
- The noun go has evolved from the verb go:
- Houston has given us a go for re-entry.
- The noun five has evolved from the numeral five:
- I paid her a five.
- The poor have no money.
- Walking is good exercise.
- I love to read.
In these cases the words do not always behave grammatically like nouns in every way. For example, gerunds can be modified by adverbs, but nouns cannot. Infinitives cannot form a plural, be modified by adjectives, or be objects of prepositions.
Clauses with both their own subject and verb can function in some of the same ways that nouns can.
- That he is poor is not obvious.
- He hoped that John would go.