What Is a Noun? | Definition, Types & Examples
A noun is a word that represents a person, thing, concept, or place. Most sentences contain at least one noun or pronoun. For example, the sentences below contain anywhere from one to three nouns.
How are nouns used in sentences?
A complete sentence usually consists of at least a subject and a verb. The subject describes some person or thing, and the verb describes an action carried out by the subject.
In most cases, the subject is a noun or a pronoun. So the most basic role for a noun is to act as the subject for a verb that follows it.
Nouns and pronouns can also play the role of object in a sentence. An object usually comes after the verb and represents something or someone that is affected by the action described. Objects can be direct or indirect:
- The direct object is someone or something that is directly acted upon by the verb.
- The indirect object is someone or something that receives the direct object.
When analysing sentence structure, it’s common to refer to noun phrases. A noun phrase is a noun or pronoun in combination with all the words that belong with it in the sentence, such as any articles, adjectives, or other determiners that modify the noun.
A noun phrase can consist of the noun or pronoun alone or of a much longer series of words (always including at least one noun or pronoun).
Nouns vs pronouns
Pronouns are a much smaller set of words (such as ‘I’, ‘she’, and ‘they’) that are used in a similar way to nouns. They are primarily used to stand in for a noun that has already been mentioned or to refer to yourself and other people.
Like nouns, pronouns can function as the head of a noun phrase and as the subject or object of a verb. You can have a complete sentence consisting of just a pronoun and a verb (e.g., ‘He walks.’), just as you could with a noun (‘Jack walks.’).
Unlike nouns, some pronouns (mainly the personal pronouns) change their forms depending on the grammatical context they’re used in. For example, the first-person pronoun is ‘I’ when it’s used as a subject and ‘me’ when it’s used as an object, whereas a noun like ‘dog’ would look the same in both cases.
Common vs proper nouns
An important distinction is made between two types of nouns, common nouns and proper nouns.
- Common nouns are more general. A common noun refers to a class of person, place, thing, or concept, but not to someone or something specific.
- Proper nouns are the names of specific people, places, things, or concepts. They are always capitalised to distinguish them from common nouns.
Countable vs uncountable nouns
Another important distinction is between countable and uncountable nouns:
- Countable nouns (also called count nouns) refer to things that can be counted. They can be preceded by an indefinite article or a number, and they can be pluralised. Most nouns are countable (e.g., ‘fact(s)’).
- Uncountable nouns (also called noncount nouns or mass nouns) refer to things that can’t be counted. They should never be preceded by an indefinite article or a number, and they cannot be pluralised (e.g., ‘information’).
A common mistake in English is treating uncountable nouns as if they were countable by pluralising them or using an indefinite article. The solution to these problems is usually to rephrase using a related term or phrase that is countable.
Concrete vs abstract nouns
A distinction is often made between concrete nouns and abstract nouns.
- Concrete nouns refer to physical objects, places, or individuals: things or people that can be observed with the senses, such as ‘apple’, ‘hill’, ‘zebra’, and ‘Dorothy’.
- Abstract nouns refer to concepts, ideas, feelings, and processes that can’t be physically located, such as ‘grammar’, ‘justice’, ‘sadness’, and ‘relaxation’.
There’s no grammatical difference between concrete and abstract nouns – it’s just a distinction that’s made to point out the different kinds of things nouns can refer to.
A collective noun is a word used to refer to a group of people or things, such as ‘team’, ‘band’, or ‘herd’. A collective noun can also be a proper noun – for example, the name of a specific company or band.
A collective noun may appear to be singular (e.g., ‘team’) or plural (e.g., ‘The Beatles’) in form, and there’s some disagreement about whether they should be treated as singular or plural grammatically. The following applies for US vs. UK English.
- In US English, it’s standard to treat collective nouns as singular, regardless of whether they look plural or not.
- In UK English, the same words may be treated as plural or singular depending on the context – for example, treated as plural when you’re emphasising the individual members of the group, singular when you’re emphasising the overall collective.
Other types of nouns
There are many nouns in English (more than any other part of speech), and accordingly many ways of forming nouns and using them. Some other important types of nouns are:
To indicate possession with a plural noun that ends in ‘s’, you just add the apostrophe after the ‘s’, and don’t add an extra ‘s’ (e.g., ‘my parents’ house’).
A gerund is a noun that is identical to the present participle (the ‘-ing’ form) of a verb. These are typically nouns that describe the same activity as the verb they were formed from, such as ‘driving’, formed from the present participle of ‘drive’.
Attributive nouns are nouns that are used like adjectives, to modify another noun. For example, ‘company’ is an attributive noun in the phrase ‘company policy’.
Even though attributive nouns work similarly to adjectives, they’re still classed as nouns. This is because they don’t fulfill all the requirements of adjectives. For example, they have to appear before the noun – it wouldn’t make sense to say ‘a policy that is company’.
An appositive noun (or appositive noun phrase) is a noun that comes after another noun to provide additional information about it.
If the appositive provides essential information (i.e., it wouldn’t be clear who or what you are referring to without it), it’s written without any extra punctuation. If it provides extra information that is not essential, it’s surrounded by commas.
A generic noun is a noun that is used to refer to a whole class of things (or people, places, etc.). They can be plural or singular, and they may appear with a definite article, an indefinite article, or no article.
The same noun may be used generically in some contexts and not others. For example, it would be equally possible to use the nouns in the sentences below in a non-generic way (e.g., ‘the people I know best are my brothers’; ‘my father operated a printing press’).
Frequently asked questions about nouns
- What’s the definition of a noun?
- What are the different types of nouns?
There are many ways to categorize nouns into various types, and the same noun can fall into multiple categories or even change types depending on context.
Some of the main types of nouns are:
- What’s the difference between a noun and pronoun?
Pronouns can function just like nouns as the head of a noun phrase and as the subject or object of a verb. However, pronouns change their forms (e.g., from ‘I’ to ‘me’) depending on the grammatical context they’re used in, whereas nouns usually don’t.