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Nouns are commonly thought of as "naming" words, and specifically as the names of "people, places, or things". Nouns such as John, London, and computer certainly fit this description, but the class of nouns is much broader than this. Nouns also denote abstract and intangible concepts such as birth, happiness, evolution, technology, management, imagination, revenge, politics, hope, cookery, sport, literacy....   

Because of this enormous diversity of reference, it is not very useful to study nouns solely in terms of their meaning. It is much more fruitful to consider them from the point of view of their formal characteristics.  

Characteristics of Nouns

Many nouns can be recognised by their endings. Typical noun endings include:  


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

Most nouns have distinctive SINGULAR and PLURAL forms. The plural of regular nouns is formed by adding -s to the singular:  

car cars
dog dogs
house houses

However, there are many irregular nouns which do not form the plural in this way:  

man men
child children
sheep sheep

The distinction between singular and plural is known as NUMBER CONTRAST.  

We can recognise many nouns because they often have the, a, or an in front of them:  

      the car  
      an artist  
      a surprise  
      the egg  
      a review
These words are called determiners, which is the next word class we will look at.  

Nouns may take an -'s ("apostrophe s") or GENITIVE MARKER to indicate possession:  

      the boy's pen  
      a spider's web  
      my girlfriend's brother  
      John's house
If the noun already has an -s ending to mark the plural, then the genitive marker appears only as an apostrophe after the plural form:  
      the boys' pens  
      the spiders' webs  
      the Browns' house
The genitive marker should not be confused with the 's form of contracted verbs, as in John's a good boy (= John is a good boy).  

Nouns often co-occur without a genitive marker between them:  

      rally car  
      table top  
      cheese grater  
      University entrance examination
We will look at these in more detail later, when we discuss noun phrases.  


Common and Proper Nouns

Nouns which name specific people or places are known as PROPER NOUNS.  
Many names consist of more than one word:  
      John Wesley  
      Queen Mary  
      South Africa  
      Atlantic Ocean  
      Buckingham Palace
Proper nouns may also refer to times or to dates in the calendar:  
       January, February, Monday, Tuesday, Christmas, Thanksgiving
All other nouns are COMMON NOUNS.   

Since proper nouns usually refer to something or someone unique, they do not normally take plurals. However, they may do so, especially when number is being specifically referred to:  

      there are three Davids in my class  
      we met two Christmases ago
For the same reason, names of people and places are not normally preceded by determiners the or a/an, though they can be in certain circumstances:  
      it's nothing like the America I remember  
      my brother is an Einstein at maths
Identify all the nouns in the following extract.   

Click on all the words that you think are nouns; they will appear in the box below. You don't have to type anything but you can click in the box to edit your answers if you need to.  
The major thoroughfares were already lit by the new gas, but this was not the bright and even glare of the late Victorian period: the light flared and diminished, casting a flickering light across the streets and lending to the houses and pedestrians a faintly unreal or even theatrical quality.  [W2B-006-68] 

More on Nouns...


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