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Concourse 2

Nouns: the essentials


Nouns are the words we use to give names to things, actions and people.  There different types of nouns but they all do the same thing.


Proper nouns

Albert Einstein  

Proper nouns are the names for people and places.  They usually begin with a Capital letter.  There is a range of types and a number of difficulties for learners and teachers:

  • People
    • Mary, Tiger Woods, Mr. Smith, Uncle Fred etc.
      English does not use an article with proper nouns for people unless we are distinguishing two people with the same name as in, e.g.:
          No, I don't mean the John who works in IT, I mean the John from Finance.
      Many languages routinely use an article with people's names so elementary learners in particular may say something like.:
          *I'll talk to the Mr. Smith
      English can use an article with names if there is some restriction:
          the young King Edward, the old Mr. Smith etc.
      English, exceptionally, uses the articles with some titles:
          the Duke of Westminster
          the Reverend Smith

      but not
          *the Bishop Smith
          *the Lord Michael
  • Jobs and Positions
    • The President, The Pope, The Queen etc.
      We usually put the definite article, the, before these nouns because there is only one of them that is the reference (although, of course, there are a number of presidents, queens, kings, prime ministers and so on, but both speaker and listener know which one is the topic).  This is, incidentally, known as homophoric reference but that is not something with which you should trouble your learners.
  • Times
    • Monday, February, the summer, Christmas, Easter
    • Capitalisation:
      Days, months and festivals are capitalised but seasons are generally not capitalised in English (other languages do things differently).
    • Article use:
      When the noun is used with a unique meaning for days, months and festivals, the article is omitted:
          On Monday, in February 1934, at Christmas etc.
      When the nouns are restricted in some way, the article is used, especially with the adjectives previous and following:
          the previous March, the following Christmas, the May of 1986, the Monday afterwards
      The adjectives next and last do not require the article if the time is implicit in what is being said:
          she arrived last Wednesday and is leaving next Thursday
          they spent last Easter with us and will return next Christmas
      but when it is not clear from the point of speaking which time is the topic, the article is used:
          she left the next Wednesday, having arrived the Thursday before
          I spent the next Whitsun in Rome
      Seasons are a little tricky.  They usually function as common countable nouns, see below, and take the article normally:
          I enjoy the summers here
          the winter is always harsh in Scotland

      They can, however, function like other times and the article is then omitted:
          she came in spring and stayed till autumn
      Usually, seasons are not capitalised.
    • Plurals:
      Days of the week and seasons regularly take plurals:
          I spent many summers in Spain
          I get bored on Sundays
  • Places and buildings etc.
    • Britain, Germany, Margate, London, Lake Victoria, Jamaica, The Thames, The Suez Canal, Baker Street, St Paul's Cathedral, The Tate Gallery etc.
      The use of the article is idiomatic in English (not so in many languages) so this is a cause of a good deal of error.  There are some rules of thumb, however:
      • rivers, mountain ranges and canals
        We usually put the before these: The Thames, The Nile, The Himalayas, The Alps, The Suez Canal, The Panama Canal
      • lakes, countries, islands, streets and cities
        We do not usually put the before these:
            Lake Tanganyika, France, Crete, Rome
        But we do put the in front of the name of the country if it contains a classifying adjective like united or Arab:
            The United States of America, The United Kingdom, The Federal Republic of Germany, The United Arab Emirates
        One or two countries have, in the past, been used with an article but the practice is dying out: The Sudan, The Argentine, The Gambia, for example.
        There are some exceptions including:
            The Hague, the Bronx, the City (of London), the Strand, The Mall etc.
      • buildings and mountains
        This is a very idiomatic area and not easy to learn or teach because there are rules of use rather than rules of grammar.  Again, a classifying adjective denoting the name of the building or mountain will usually compel the use of the article.
        The Guggenheim Museum, The British Museum, Scotland Yard, Mont Blanc, The Eiger
      • continents
        Do not usually take the article and are always capitalised so:
        Asia, Europe, (South) America, Antarctica etc.
        the Antarctic, the Arctic


Collective nouns

In all languages, some nouns are used for groups of things or people.  In English, these can be both singular and plural but in most languages they are only singular.  For example, in English, we can say:
    The army is very large (thinking about it as a single thing)
    The army are helping
(thinking about the army as a lot of people)
We can also have:
    The football team are playing on Sunday
    The football team is playing on Sunday
In the first one, we are thinking about all the players separately; in the second one we are thinking of it as a single thing, the team.
Other collective nouns are, e.g., navy, crew, flock, herd, staff, committee, government, class, staff etc.
In American English these words are normally used with a singular verb.


Plural nouns

One class of nouns appears only in the plural.

  • Pairs:
    Some tools and items of clothing appear in the plural because the phrase a poair of is usually omitted in English:
    scissors, pliers, tongs, shears secateurs etc.
    shorts, trousers, tights, flannels etc.
  • Pluralia tantum are nouns which only appear in the plural or are used in the plural with a particular sense.  There are plenty of these and when they occur in your teaching, you need to point out their special use.  Some examples will suffice (a '-' in the second column means that there is no obvious singular noun equivalent):
    plural singular difference
    funds fund money vs. a collection of money
    brains brain intelligence vs. thinking organ
    customs custom checking of luggage vs. usual practice
    guts gut courage vs. digestive organ
    clothes cloth attire vs. piece of material
    arrears -  
    amends -  
    annals -  
    auspices -  
    contents -  
    fireworks firework display vs. individual device
    greens -  
    heads head side of a coin vs. part of the body
    looks look appearance vs. the act of looking
    minutes minute record of proceedings vs. time period
    pains pain efforts vs. unpleasant feeling
    remains -  
    surroundings -  
    tropics tropic warm areas of the world vs. line of latitude
    wits wit intelligence vs. amusing person

This list can be greatly extended

  • Invariable unmarked plurals
    A few words in English are plural but take no inflexion to show it.  Examples are:
    cattle, clergy, people, police, vermin


Mass nouns and Count nouns

milk pencils  

The distinction between these two types of nouns either does not exist at all in some languages or is very differently hadled.  The problems for learners in this area are extensive.

Most nouns in English are count nouns.  Count nouns have a singular (for one) and plural (for more than one).  This means we can say, for example:
    I have three pencils
    I want that pencil
    The pencil is here
    Those pencils are no good
    Please give me a pencil
    I have several pencils on the desk

Many nouns in English are mass nouns.  These nouns do not have a plural.  We can say, for example:
    I want that milk
    I have some milk
    The milk is here
    This milk is bad
    Please give me some milk
    I have some milk in the glass
Mass nouns always use a singular verb and never take a plural.

Most mass nouns are:

Materials: metals, liquids, gases, cloth etc.
For example:
It's made of iron
She needs water
There's no air in here
The chair is covered with blue cloth
     Ideas and Feelings
For example:
She has no understanding
You have my sympathy
Love is important for children
His anger was clear
Small objects
For example:
They grow rice here
The sand gets in my shoes
The dust is everywhere
Use milk powder in the pudding
For example:
I need more sleep
Childhood is a good time
You can't buy happiness
For example:
There's a lot of snow this winter
We have a lot of rain in the spring
The sunshine is nice

There are hundreds of mass nouns in English but here is a list of very common ones:


It is possible, of course, to make mass nouns countable by the addition of what is called a partitive or a quantifier as in, e.g.:
three hours' sleep
a piece of iron
a bar of chocolate
two means of transportation
pints of milk
drifts of snow

As you will see, however, the choice of quantifier or partitive is not an easy one to make.


The grammar of mass and count nouns


Noun Before the noun But ... For example
Singular count nouns like
pencil, car, house, person, cat, elephant
one, every, any, this, that, the, a(n) We must always use a determiner with these words I have only one pencil
Every pencil is broken
Any pencil is OK
This pencil is no good
That pencil is better
Plural count nouns like
pencils, cars, houses, people, cats, elephants
many, some, several, these, those, the, a couple of or no word a/an is not possible
It is possible to have no determiner
I have many pencils
I want some pencils
There are several pencils on the desk
These pencils are no good
Those pencils are better
Give me a couple of pencils
Pencils must be sharp
Mass nouns like
milk, information, hope, education, tea
much, little, less, more, this, that or no word How much milk do we have?
We have a little milk
There is less milk in the fridge
Give me some more milk
This milk is bad
That milk is better
Milk is good for children

after the noun

Noun After the noun But ... For example
Singular count nouns like
pencil, car, house, person, cat, elephant, team
a singular verb like is, breaks, opens, lives Singular collective nouns (like team or family) can be plural The pencil is on the floor
The car was clean
The houses look nice
The person is ringing the bell
The cats sleep here
The elephant smells awful
The team is coming

The team are playing
Plural count nouns like
pencils, cars, houses, people, cats, elephants, team
Always a plural verb The pencils are on the desk
The cars have arrived
The houses look beautiful
The people are here
The cats are eating
The elephants are angry
The team are here

Her family are really friendly
Mass nouns like
milk, information, hope, education, tea
Always a singular verb No exceptions The milk is in the fridge
The information is useful
Hope is important
Education is necessary
Tea is common in England

For more in related areas try the guides to:

in-service guide to nouns for a guide which includes some of the above (with extensions) and focuses on grammar more
concord for more about verb forms with nouns in English
(un)countability for more on mass and count concepts in English
articles for an overview of the article system and some ways to teach it
determiners for a consideration of how nouns are determined
modification to see how noun phrases are constructed and get some ideas about how to teach them
subject and object to see how nouns and verbs work together to make meanings