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Concourse 2



Identifying nouns

That's easy.  Nouns are labels for things, aren't they?  Well, yes and no.  Which of the following would you classify as a noun?  Click on the table when you have an answer.



How nouns function

Here are some nouns being nouns.  Can you identify the grammatical function of each word in blackClick here when you have done that.

  1. How do you feel about it, Mary?
  2. That's John, the boss.
  3. It looks like a crab.
  4. They made her the manager.
  5. The inspector is arriving tomorrow.
  6. She is inspecting the organisation.
  7. The animal is a crab.
  8. Who gave the children the food?
  9. I brought it for the staff.
  10. The window catch is broken.

In summary, to identify a noun we need to look at what it does in the sentence and where it comes.  If a word is performing any of the above functions, the way to bet is that it's a noun or noun phrase of some kind.
If any of the terms above, such as object, subject and indirect object are unfamiliar to you, you can follow a guide to objects and subjects on this site, linked in the list of related guides at the end.

Here's the cut-out-and-keep summary of what nouns do and how to identify them from their grammatical (rather than communicative) function.  In the example, the noun performing the function is in italics.

noun functions


Classifying nouns

The traditional classification

You may have learned at some time that there are three sorts of nouns.  That's a traditional way to divide them, like this:

  1. Common nouns
    1. abstract (such as love, happiness, envy etc.)
    2. concrete (such as table, computer, paper etc.)
  2. Proper nouns (such as Birmingham, Peter, The Labour Party etc.)
  3. Collective nouns (such as army, flock, committee etc.)

In summary, the old classification looks like this:
old style classification

The classification was based on what we understand the notion of the noun is, not its grammatical function in a sentence.
This is a classification now considered somewhat out of date and unreliable.  Can you think why?  Click here when you have an answer.

A more modern classification

Most grammars these days classify nouns into four main categories based not on notions of meaning but on grammatical function.  Like this:


There are two examples of each of the four main types in this list.  Click here when you have sorted them into the 4 main categories.

  1. The crew mutinied.
  2. Do you take milk?
  3. She climbed Mount Snowdon in the winter.
  4. The sheep are coming down the hillside.
  5. He moved the pictures downstairs.
  6. I've never been to Amsterdam.
  7. The majority were in favour.
  8. We keep the china over there.

In some analyses, we might add a fifth category, classifiers and partitives, because they exhibit phenomena unique to themselves.  Example are:

  1. Classifiers:
        He drives a sports car
        He works in a steel plant
        She's a reception manager
        You are a language teacher
  2. Partitives:
        Pass me a bit of bread
        Use a length of rope
        Replace a pane of glass
        I have a pile of papers to get through

There is a separate guide on this site, linked below, to classifiers and partitives.


Choosing which classification to use

For teaching purposes, both classifications have some utility:

Some things to notice about nouns

  1. Count nouns
    This is the largest category in English and includes
    1. many so-called concrete nouns for people and things:
          child, girl, chair, house, day, pound, piece, part, bit
    2. some slightly less concrete concepts such as
          event, accident, position, tune, coincidence etc.
    3. a small group which have irregular plurals, usually either taken from the language from which they come or from older forms of English:
          children, data, foci, oxen, mice
    4. a subset of the irregular plurals which contains those which have no plural form at all.  Often these are the names of animals:
          sheep, trout, deer etc.
    5. some count nouns which occur only in the plural, marked with 's' or not:
          cattle, people, vermin
      , glasses, binoculars, scales, jeans, belongings, clothes, surroundings
      You may see such nouns described as uncountable or mass nouns.  They are not.  Grammatically, they are followed by a plural verb so, while the use of some may be slightly irregular, they are not mass nouns.  Technically, nouns which only occur in the plural (or do so with a meaning distinct from the singular form such as the distinction between arms (weapons) and arm (limb)) are called pluralia tantum forms.
    6. Some count nouns which appear in different senses as mass nouns:
          made of wood
          cycling through the woods
          some cloths to wipe it with
          cloth is not expensive
  2. Mass nouns
    This is the next largest category and includes
    1. abstract qualities:
          anger, happiness, significance
    2. substances:
          silver, iron, water, alcohol
    3. nouns formed from verbs:
          training, teaching, running
    4. most infectious diseases
          malaria, flu, pox
    5. many mass nouns which, in most other languages, where such differences exist, are count nouns.  These include:
          advice, information, furniture, accommodation, machinery, money
      and many more.
    6. generally mass nouns which can sometimes be pluralised in special (often poetic) senses:
          the waters of the Thames
          the wines of France
          the peoples of the Americas
    7. It is sometimes stated that the use of the indefinite article, a/an, with mass nouns is always prohibited in English so you cannot have, e.g.:
          a water
          a furniture
          a knowledge
      As far as it goes, this is a reasonable rule of thumb for teaching purposes but disguises the truth because it is certainly possible to have, e.g.:
          a good education is important
          a knowledge of French is helpful
          a behaviour which is unhelpful
          a conduct which I can't condone
          a permission has been granted
          a produce which is unique to the area
          a weather which I dislike
      but these are still not instances of the nouns magically becoming count nouns because the instances are quite rare and the plurals of these words are unavailable.  Often, as the examples show, the use of the indefinite article is only possible when the noun has been identified as a unique example in some way.
  3. Proper nouns
    This is a smaller but troublesome group which includes
    1. Persons: Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde, Uncle Tom, Mother Nature etc.
    2. Positions: The President, The Pope, The Queen etc.
    3. Geographical entities and buildings: Britain, Germany, Margate, London, Lake Victoria, Jamaica, The Thames, The Suez Canal, Baker Street, St Paul's Cathedral, The Tate Gallery etc.
      The use or not of the article with this group of proper nouns is very irregular.  It is:
      1. almost always used with
        rivers, positions, mountain ranges and canals:
            The Panama Canal, The Alps, The Deep South, The Nile
      2. almost never used with
        lakes, countries, islands, streets and cities
            Lake Geneva, France, Crete, Rome
        but collectives do take the article: The Canaries, The Federal Republic of ... etc.
      3. variably used with
        buildings and mountains:
            The Guggenheim Museum, Scotland Yard, Mont Blanc, The Eiger
        Elision of the noun frequently results in the classifier used with the article so we get, e.g.:
            The Tate (Gallery), The National (Gallery), The Prado (Gallery), The Guggenheim (Museum) etc.
    4. Some proper nouns are used as collectives and take singular verb forms:
          The Department of State has demanded
          The Home Office has decided
  4. Collective nouns
    This is actually quite a small group including nouns like army, navy, crew, staff, committee etc.
    Collective nouns may be quite specific or operate much more generally so, for example:
    Specific collectives include: pod (whales), flock (birds, sheep or goats), murder (crows), shoal (fish), squad (soldiers) and so on.
    Generalised collectives include: group, crowd, mass, heap, mob and so on.
    There is one complication with this group
    1. In British English these grammatically singular nouns are often used with both singular and plural verbs:
          the crew are mutinous
          the committee are undecided
          the jury is unanimous

          the staff are unhappy
      The use of the verb often depends on how the speaker views the entity.
      1. If we think of it as a collection of individuals, we prefer the plural verb form.
      2. When we are thinking of a single entity, we prefer the singular verb form.
    2. In US usage, a singular verb form is preferred as it is in most languages.


Mass or count?

The distinction made above between mass and count nouns is not an absolute, on-off phenomenon.  Moreover, it is not a distinction which has any utility in many other languages.
There are four related ways in which nouns may cross the borders between mass and count characteristics.

  1. The general and the particularised
    Words such as hair, business, cheese, wine, beer, life, noise, time etc. are often used as mass nouns but there are occasions when we can singularise the concepts and, indeed, pluralise them.  Like this:
    Mass use Singular or plural use
    I must get my hair cut
    Hair loss is my problem
    There's a hair in my salad
    The police found hairs in the man's car
    Business is suffering from inflation
    Business is good just now
    A business such as mine requires commitment
    Opening new businesses requires planning
    Cheese is an ancient dairy product
    Cheese goes well with fruit
    A cheese like this should not be kept in the fridge
    I like to offer a range of cheeses in the shop
    Wine is produced in this area
    Wine is getting stronger these days
    Can I offer you a German wine?
    We have a choice of wines
    Beer is welcome on hot days
    Beer is a very ancient discovery
    I would like a cold beer
    The pub sells 15 different beers
    Life is difficult
    Is there life on Mars?
    He had a good life
    He wrote a book on the lives of famous scientists
    Noise is everywhere in big cities
    Noise frighten her
    The central heating is making a worrying noise
    She dislikes loud noises
    Time is the enemy
    Time will tell
    I remember a time when life was easier
    There are times when I like her
  2. Distinct meanings
    Some words are polysemous and exhibit different (but connected) meanings in mass and count-noun use.
    For example:
    Mass use Singular or plural use
    This cloth is cheap but durable Pass me a clean cloth
    I enjoy walking in the country There are over 190 countries in the world
    Dress is formal Why not wear the red dress?
    The problem is that she has no experience Her experiences as a volunteer will be helpful
    The wood was too hard to cut easily He took a stroll in the woods
    Work is scarce in villages The works of Goethe are hard to access
    See also the section below on plural and singular differences (whether mass or count nouns).
  3. Partitive use
    All mass nouns may be made count nouns by the use of a partitive, to which there is a separate guide linked in the list at the end so only one example of the three major sorts of partitives is given here.
    Mass use Singular or plural use
    General partitives
    Ice is blocking the pipe There a lump of ice blocking the pipe
    Typical partitives
    The atmosphere was full of dust A cloud of dust came over the house
    Restricted partitives
    Wheat grows here He was chewing an ear of wheat
    In these cases, it is the partitive which can be made plural or singular, not the noun itself.
    Partitives may, of course, also be used with count nouns as in, e.g.:
        A pile of chairs
        Three heaps of books

  4. The understood partitive
    In colloquial uses, the partitive is often omitted and the mass noun is used a count noun which can be singular or plural.  This most frequently occurs with typical partitives which refer to the measures of the substance, such as spoonful, pint, glass, bowl, scoop, portion, cup etc., and can be retrieved by the hearer / listener without too much difficulty.  For example:
        Just one sugar please
        Two or three coffees?
        Two soups, please
        Three teas
        A beer, please
        Two ice-creams please
    This is not reliable, however, because most mass nouns resist the omission of the partitive and, when the meaning is as a mass noun, we cannot have:
        *Three sauces
        *A salt
        *Three strings
        *Three papers
        *A bread
        *Five bacons
        *Two cakes

    etc. even when the partitive is often quite predictable.

A summary of count and mass nouns (for your classroom wall?):

summary of mass and count nouns


Markedness: size, number and gender markers in nouns

Certain forms of nouns (and other word classes such as adjectives) may be described as marked insofar as they are differentiated from the form which is usual and taken for granted.  For example,

It is unfashionable to use gender markings on many nouns so the use of, e.g., the -ess ending to denote females (manageress, stewardess etc.) and the use of specific nouns for female and male people is deprecated, so we now prefer police officer for policewoman / man etc.  Sometimes, however, the gender distinction is unavoidable.
There are two types:

unmarked forms
In these nouns, it is not possible by inspecting the morphology to see which sex is meant:
    bachelor – spinster (although bachelor girl (rather than *spinster boy) is heard with a preference now for the adjective as in single person / man / woman)
    sister – brother
    mother – father
    aunt – uncle
    lady – gentleman
    queen – king
    woman – man
    nun – monk
marked forms
In these words, the marking is made morphologically, usually with the suffix -ess but not invariably, so the sex difference can be seen:
    bridegroom – bride (unusual in that the male form is marked)
    duke – duchess
    emperor – empress
    god – goddess
    hero – heroine
    host – hostess
    widower – widow
(unusual in that the male form is marked)

A large group of nouns referring to people remains unmarked for gender (and the list grows as words like actress and hostess fall out of favour).  There is, for example, no distinction in:
artist, person, chair(man), guest, professor, criminal, speaker, child, vet, consultant, freelancer, doctor, novelist, parent, teacher and many more.

Occasionally, it is necessary to insert a marker for gender if the sense requires a distinction to be made so we get:
male nurse, man servant, woman friend, girl Friday and so on.
As people become more sensitive to connotation, these terms, too, are falling out of fashion.

Gender marking or its absence is irrational in English (why is there not, e.g., a guestess or a criminaless?) and the suffixes are unproductive so no new forms appear.

domesticated or 'higher animals
There are no political or social pressures acting on nouns for animals (providing they are of the higher sort) so we have, e.g.:
    buck – doe
    bull – cow
    cock – hen
    gander – goose
    stallion – mare
    tiger – tigress
    lion – lioness

non-domesticated or 'lower' animals
Lower animals, i.e., those with which we feel no particular affinity or are not normally domesticated, do not usually take any kind of sex marking although terms such as dog-otter are available for people to whom it might matter.

For more, see the guide to markedness, linked in the list of related guides at the end.


Plural markers in nouns

crocuses or croci?  

The regular plural system in English is simple and the requires -s or -es suffixes, depending on how the singular form ends.

There are some phonemic changes to consider, particularly the voicing of the final consonant.
Compare, e.g.:
    house (/haʊs/ vs. houses (/ˈhaʊz.ɪz/)
    boy (/bɔɪ/) vs. boys (/bɔɪz/)
    bath (/bɑːθ/ vs. baths (/bɑːðz/)
and so on.
This is, in fact a regular system.
Voicing also affects the pronunciation and spelling of the plural of words ending in /f/ so we get:
    wolf – wolves (/wʊlf/ – /wʊlvz/)
This is not entirely regular so the plural of roof is seen both as roofs and ?rooves (and differently pronounced).

A small number of nouns have retained older English plural forms involving a change to the vowel or an ending other than a simple -s or -es suffix.  They include words like
mouse-mice, ox-oxen, foot-feet, man-men, woman-women, penny-pence, person-people, child-children, goose-geese, die-dice, tooth-teeth, louse-lice
which simply have to be learned and taught individually.  That is, by the way, almost a complete list.

A much larger group of 'irregular' plurals are word derived from Latin, French, Italian and Greek (and a few from Hebrew).  In many of these cases, the plural form of the original language is often preferred but there is a clear tendency to Anglicise the forms.  These are often described as irregular plurals but they are not.  They are simply following the regular plural-forming conventions of the languages from which they have been borrowed.
The way to bet is to impose the English plural system on imports but that is not always the safest procedure.  We get, for example:

From Latin:
singular plural
genius geniuses or genii
apex apices or apexes
appendix appendices or appendixes
corpus corpora or corpuses
criterion criteria (only)
virus viruses (only)
focus focuses or foci 
radius radiuses or radii 
terminus terminuses or termini 
antenna antennae or antennas
nebula nebulas or nebulae
vertebra vertebras or vertebrae 
aquarium aquariums or aquaria
curriculum curriculums or curricula 
medium mediums or media
symposium symposiums or symposia 
index indexes or indices
matrix matrixes or matrices
A few Latin-derived words in English resist Anglicisation including:
    bacillus (bacilli), bacterium (bacteria), genus (genera), larva (larvae), erratum (errata), stratum (strata)
Two oddities are the words agenda and data, both of which are Latin plurals but often treated in English as singular.  The singular forms are agendum and datum and rarely heard.
The word media (singular medium) is also occasionally paired with a singular verb form.
From Greek:
Many Greek nouns in English retain the Greek plural forms:
singular plural
basis bases
analysis analyses
crisis crises
hypothesis hypotheses
parenthesis parentheses
thesis theses
but some have been completely Anglicised:
singular plural
demon demons
automaton automatons
From French:
Whether the words entered English from old Norman French or Modern French matters here.  The older words have taken on the English plural forms.  However, we have, for example:
singular plural
plateau plateaux / plateaus
bureau bureaux
tableau tableaux
From Italian:
These are frequently musical terms and both plural forms are generally possible.  For example:
singular plural
soprano sopranos (only)
virtuoso virtuosos or virtuosi
libretto librettos or libretti
tempo tempos or tempi
Three oddballs from Italian are Italian plurals treated as singular in English.  They are:
graffiti (singular graffito)
(singular paparazzo)
spaghetti (singular spaghetto)
Almost all Italian loan words in English take their plural with a single -s ending rather than the usual -es endings.
From Hebrew:
There are three but the third retains its Hebrew plural: cherub (cherubs or cherubim), seraph (seraphs or seraphim) and kibbutz (only (?) kibbutzim)
From other languages:
English has borrowed freely from other languages but in almost all cases, the words have been Anglicised to conform with the English plural system although the original language has a different way of marking plurality.  For example:
    bungalows [from Gujarati]
    verandahs [from Hindi]
    moccasins and tomahawks [Powhatan]
    kangaroos [from Guugu Yimidhirr]
    boomerangs [from an extinct language of New South Wales]
    chocolates [from Nahuatl (Aztecan)]
[from a West African language]
[from a Bantu language of Angola]
    blitzes and kindergartens [from German]
    robots [from Czech]

Plural nouns

One class of nouns appears only in the plural.

This list can be greatly extended but this is not that kind of site.


Misleading learners

The terms countable and uncountable nouns are sometimes used for two of the categories above.  While this may be helpful for some purposes, the terms are misleading.
For example, money is a mass noun we can count and almost all mass nouns can be made count nouns by the use of a partitive:
    a slice of cake
    a bit of cheese
    a piece of information
    three quarters of the loaf of bread
or measures
    a pound of sugar
    a pint of ale, a kilo of oil

As we shall see below, the determiner and article systems for mass and count nouns are also different so it is a distortion to describe mass nouns as singular.
By the same token, it is arguably advisable to tell our learners about count and mass uses rather than count and mass nouns because, as we saw above, that's nearer the truth of the matter.  We should be careful not to mislead.



When you are teaching in this area, you need to be alert to the ways in which we use determiners and especially articles.  Here's a guide.

Noun category Determiners Articles Concord Examples
Singular count nouns one, each, every, any, this, that Zero article is not possible: a/an or the must be used if no other determiner is present. singular verb form each one has
any person who sees
the woman is smiling at you
Plural count nouns many, some, several, these, those, a couple of Zero article is possible.
a/an is not possible.
the is possible.
plural verb form many pencils were useless
tigers are dangerous
the beers are in the fridge
Mass nouns much, little, less, more, this, that Zero article is possible.
a/an is not possible.
the is possible.
singular verb form take less sugar
that material is beautiful
the racket was deafening
Collective nouns As for count nouns (singular or plural) As for count nouns (singular or plural) plural or singular verb forms in British English
singular verb form in US English
four teams competed
my team are winning
his team is losing
Proper nouns No determiners are used except when distinguishing (e.g., this Mr. Smith, that River Stour) the may occasionally be used in the rare plurals (e.g., dinner with The Windsors).  It is also used for plural countries, countries pre-modified with an adjective phrase and mountain ranges. singular verb forms but plural for:
mountain ranges, plural countries (The Netherlands, The United States etc.)
The Soviet Union was huge
This is my friend, John
The Maldives are beautiful
The Federal Republic of Germany

For more, go to the guide to determiners, linked in the list at the end.

on foot

Idiomatic uses

on foot  

While there are certainly some irregularities and idiomatic uses of nouns with their articles and determiners much can be explained more usefully and rationally as count nouns being used as mass nouns.  The easy fall-back position taken in too many grammars written for learners and some coursebooks is that these uses are 'exceptions' which must be learned individually.  They are not.
What they actually are is count nouns being conceptualised for the nature of the underlying meaning rather than their number and used, therefore, in the same way as mass nouns.  We may have two feet and two hands but we come to work on foot and make things by hand.  Other examples include:

go to / be:
    in: bed / church / university / school / hospital / court / prison / business
    at: work
travel / arrive / come by:
    bus / plane / car / air / bicycle / sea / ship
    by: day / night
    at: dawn / sunset / dusk / twilight / Christmas / Easter
    in: summer / autumn / winter / spring
Prepositional phrases:
happen / be:
    at: risk
    by: arrangement / accident / chance / contrast / mistake
    in: addition / advance / case / effect / fact / favour / opposition
    on: account / call / demand / oath
Binomial idioms:
day to day, door to door, heart to heart,  face to face, shoulder to shoulder, arm in arm, hand in glove, hand in hand, head over heels, man and boy
Verb + noun collocations:
lose heart, make conversation, take part, pay attention, give way, talk shop, spend time, save trouble, take offence, take root, take place, catch fire, do wrong

All of these are simply unmarked uses of count nouns used in idiomatic expressions rather than exceptions to be learned individually.

Related guides
nouns: essentials for a simpler guide which includes some of the above (with small extensions especially in proper nouns and the use of articles)
concord for more about verb forms with nouns in English
(un)countability for more on mass and count concepts in English
idiomaticity for more on items such as binomials
determiners for an expansion of the table above regarding these modifiers
markedness for more on how marking is achieved in English (and not just for nouns)
classifiers and partitives for the ways English makes mass nouns countable
modification to see how noun phrases are constructed and get some ideas about how to teach them
adjectives for some more on markedness and how nouns are modified
subject and object the essential (i.e., simple) guide to see how nouns and verbs work together to make meanings