Part 1

1.  Definition ____________________________3

2.  Categories of Nouns____________________5

3.  Forms of Nouns _______________________6

4.  Assaying for Noun_____________________ 6

    5.    Collective Nouns Company Names
           Family Names Sports Teams ____________ 7

Part 2

1.  Plural Noun Forms_________________________9

2.  Plural Compound Nouns____________________11

3.  Special Cases______________________________12

4.  Plurals and Apostrophes___________________ 13

5.  Singular Subjects Plural Predicates________14


Appendix ________________________________________17



In traditional school grammars one often encounters the definition of nouns that they are all and only those expressions that refer to a person place thing event substance quality or idea etc. This is a semantic definition. It has been criticized by contemporary linguists as being quite uninformative. Part of the problem is that the definition makes use of relatively general nouns ("thing " "phenomenon " "event") to define what nouns are. The existence of such general nouns shows us that nouns are organized in taxonomic hierarchies. But other kinds of expressions are also organized in hierarchies. For example all of the verbs "stroll " "saunter " "stride " and "tread" are more specific words than the more general "walk." The latter is more specific than the verb "move." But it is unlikely that such hierarchies can be used to define nouns and verbs. Furthermore an influential theory has it that verbs like "kill" or "die" refer to events and so they fall under the definition. Similarly adjectives like "yellow" or "difficult" might be thought to refer to qualities and adverbs like "outside" or "upstairs" seem to refer to places. Worse still a trip into the woods can be referred to by the verbs "stroll" or "walk." But verbs adjectives and adverbs are not nouns and nouns aren't verbs. So the definition is not particularly helpful in distinguishing nouns from other parts of speech.

The common semantic definition of nouns in the US is: a noun refers to a person place or thing. Unfortunately this definition doesn't work: running is a noun and it refers to an activity; goodness is a noun and it refers to a quality. Semantic definitions of nouns are all problematic but a reasonable rule of thumb is a noun treats things in the real world as (concrete or abstract) objects or substances.


A noun is the name of a person place thing or idea. Whatever exists we assume can be named and that name is a noun. A proper noun which names a specific person place or thing (Carlos Queen Marguerite Middle East Jerusalem Malaysia Presbyterianism God Spanish Buddhism the Republican Party) is almost always capitalized. A proper noun used as an addressed person's name is called a noun of address. Common nouns name everything else things that usually are not capitalized.

A group of related words can act as a single noun-like entity within a sentence. A Noun Clause contains a subject and verb and can do anything that a noun can do:

What he does for this town is a blessing.

A Noun Phrase frequently a noun accompanied by modifiers is a group of related words acting as a noun: the oil depletion allowance; the abnormal hideously enlarged nose.

There is a separate section on word combinations that become Compound Nouns — such as daughter-in-law half-moon and stick-in-the-mud.

Another semantic definition of nouns is that they are prototypically referential. That definition is also not very helpful in distinguishing actual nouns from verbs. But it may still correctly identify a core property of nounhood. For example we will tend to use nouns like "fool" and "car" when we wish to refer to fools and cars respectively. The notion that this is prototypocal reflects the fact that such nouns can be used even though nothing with the corresponding property is referred to:

John is no fool.

If I had a car I'd go to Marakech.

The first sentence above doesn't refer to any fools nor does the second one refer to any particular car.

The British logician Peter Thomas Geach proposed a very subtle semantic definition of nouns. He noticed that adjectives like "same" can modify nouns but no other kinds of parts of speech like verbs or adjectives. Not only that but there also doesn't seem to exist any other expressions with similar meaning that can modify verbs and adjectives. Consider the following examples.

Good: John and Bill participated in the same fight.

Bad: *John and Bill samely fought.

There is no English adverb "samely." In some other languages like Czech however there are adverbs corresponding to "samely." Hence in Czech the translation of the last sentence would be fine; however it would mean that John and Bill fought in the same way: not that they participated in the same fight. Geach proposed that we could explain this if nouns denote logical predicate with identity criteria. An identity criterion would allow us to conclude for example that "person x at time 1 is the same person as person y at time 2." Different nouns can have different identity criteria. A well known example of this is due to Gupta:

National Airlines transported 2 million passengers in 1979.

National Airlines transported (at least) 2 million persons in 1979.

Given that in general all passengers are persons the last sentence above ought to follow logically from the first one. But it doesn't. It is easy to imagine for example that on average every person who travelled with National Airlines in 1979 travelled with them twice. In that case one would say that the airline transported 2 million passengers but only 1 million persons. Thus the way that we count passengers isn't necessarily the same as the way that we count persons. Put somewhat differently: At two different times you may correspond to two distinct passengers even though you are one and the same person. For a precise definition of identity criteria see Gupta.

Recently the linguist Mark Baker has proposed that Geach's definition of nouns in terms of identity criteria allows us to explain the characteristic properties of nouns. He argues that nouns can co-occur with (in-)definite articles and numerals and are "prototypically referential" because they are all and only those parts of speech that provide identity criteria. Baker's proposals are quite new and linguists are still evaluating them.

Categories of Nouns

Nouns can be classified further as count nouns which name anything that can be counted (four books two continents a few dishes a dozen buildings); mass nouns (or non-count nouns) which name something that can't be counted (water air energy blood); and collective nouns which can take a singular form but are composed of more than one individual person or items (jury team class committee herd). We should note that some words can be either a count noun or a non-count noun depending on how they're being used in a sentence:

a.  He got into trouble. (non-count)

b.  He had many troubles. (countable)

c.  Experience (non-count) is the best teacher.

d.  We had many exciting experiences (countable) in college.

Whether these words are count or non-count will determine whether they can be used with articles and determiners or not. (We would not write "He got into the troubles " but we could write about "The troubles of Ireland."

Some texts will include the category of abstract nouns by which we mean the kind of word that is not tangible such as warmth justice grief and peace. Abstract nouns are sometimes troublesome for non-native writers because they can appear with determiners or without: "Peace settled over the countryside." "The skirmish disrupted the peace that had settled over the countryside." See the section on Plurals for additional help with collective nouns words that can be singular or plural depending on context.

Forms of Nouns

Nouns can be in the subjective possessive and objective case. The word case defines the role of the noun in the sentence. Is it a subject an object or does it show possession?

·  The English professor [subject] is tall.

·  He chose the English professor [object].

·  The English professor's [possessive] car is green.

Nouns in the subject and object role are identical in form; nouns that show the possessive however take a different form. Usually an apostrophe is added followed by the letter s (except for plurals which take the plural "-s" ending first and then add the apostrophe). See the section on Possessives for help with possessive forms. There is also a table outlining the cases of nouns and pronouns.

Almost all nouns change form when they become plural usually with the simple addition of an -s or -es. Unfortunately it's not always that easy and a separate section on Plurals offers advice on the formation of plural noun forms.

Assaying for Nouns

Back in the gold rush days every little town in the American Old West had an assayer's office a place where wild-eyed prospectors could take their bags of ore for official testing to make sure the shiny stuff they'd found was the real thing not "fool's gold." We offer here some assay tests for nouns. There are two kinds of tests: formal and functional — what a word looks like (the endings it takes) and how a word behaves in a sentence.

·  Formal Tests

1.  Does the word contain a noun-making morpheme? organization misconception weirdness statehood government democracy philistinism realtor tenacity violinist

2.  Can the word take a plural-making morpheme? pencils boxes

3.  Can the word take a possessive-making morpheme? today's boys'

·  Function Tests

1.  Without modifiers can the word directly follow an article and create a grammatical unit (subject object etc.)? the state an apple a crate

2.  Can it fill the slot in the following sentence: "(The) _________ seem(s) all right." (or substitute other predicates such as unacceptable short dark depending on the word's meaning)?

Collective Nouns Company Names
Family Names Sports Teams

There are further so called collective nouns which are singular when we think of them as groups and plural when we think of the individuals acting within the whole (which happens sometimes but not often).



[the] number

Thus if we're talking about eggs we could say "A dozen is probably not enough." But if we're talking partying with our friends we could say "A dozen are coming over this afternoon." The jury delivers its verdict. [But] The jury came in and took their seats. We could say the Tokyo String Quartet is one of the best string ensembles in the world but we could say the Beatles were some of the most famous singers in history. Generally band names and musical groups take singular or plural verbs depending on the form of their names: "The Mamas and the Papas were one of the best groups of the 70s" and "Metallica is my favorite band."

Note that "the number" is a singular collective noun. "The number of applicants is steadily increasing." "A number " on the other hand is a plural form: "There are several students in the lobby. A number are here to see the president."

Collective nouns are count nouns which means they themselves can be pluralized: a university has several athletic teams and classes. And the immigrant families kept watch over their herds and flocks.

The word following the phrase one of the (as an object of the preposition of) will always be plural.

·  One of the reasons we do this is that it rains a lot in spring.

·  One of the students in this room is responsible.

Notice though that the verb ("is") agrees with one which is singular and not with the object of the preposition which is always plural.

When a family name (a proper noun) is pluralized we almost always simply add an "s." So we go to visit the Smiths the Kennedys the Grays etc.When a family name ends in s x ch sh or z however we form the plural by added -es as in the Marches the Joneses the Maddoxes the Bushes the Rodriguezes. Do not form a family name plural by using an apostrophe; that device is reserved for creating possessive forms.

When a proper noun ends in an "s" with a hard "z" sound we don't add any ending to form the plural: "The Chambers are coming to dinner" (not the Chamberses); "The Hodges used to live here" (not the Hodgeses). There are exceptions even to this: we say "The Joneses are coming over " and we'd probably write "The Stevenses are coming too." A modest proposal: women whose last names end in "s" (pronounced "z") should marry and take the names of men whose last names do not end with that sound and eventually this problem will disappear.

The names of companies and other organizations are usually regarded as singular regardless of their ending: "General Motors has announced its fall lineup of new vehicles." Try to avoid the inconsistency that is almost inevitable when you think of corporate entities as a group of individuals: "General Motors has announced their fall lineup of new vehicles." But note that some inconsistency is acceptable in all but the most formal writing: "Ford has announced its breakup with Firestone Tires. Their cars will no longer use tires built by Firestone." Some writers will use a plural verb when a plural construction such as "Associates" is part of the company's title or when the title consists of a series of names: "Upton Vernon and Gridley are moving to new law offices next week" or "Shadrach Meshach Abednego & Associates have won all their cases this year." Singular verbs and pronouns would be correct in those sentences also.

The names of sports teams on the other hand are treated as plurals regardless of the form of that name. We would write that "The Yankees have signed a new third baseman" and "The Yankees are a great organization" (even if we're Red Sox fans) and that "For two years in a row the Utah Jazz have attempted to draft a big man." When we refer to a team by the city in which it resides however we use the singular as in "Dallas has attempted to secure the services of two assistant coaches that Green Bay hopes to keep."

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