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The Bridge: Nouns

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Many guides in The Bridge consider issues which are not mentioned (much, anyway) on initial training courses because they are considered a bit too theoretical or too complex to be covered properly on short, introductory courses.
Nouns are an exception because many courses avoid dwelling on their properties in the mistaken idea that the category is so obviously simple that it doesn't need teaching.
Nouns are, in fact, not as simple as many believe and there is a much fuller in-service guide to the area, linked below.

Here we will consider only:

  1. How nouns may be classified
    In other words, what you need to tell learners about a noun when they discover it for the first time.
  2. What nouns do
    In other words, how the syntax of English deals with nouns and the functions they perform in sentences.


Classifying nouns

If your school education covered any language analysis at all, you were probably taught that nouns can be divided into:

While such a classification has its uses, it is functionally limited when teaching English as a foreign or second language because it tells us nothing useful about how to make acceptable syntax using nouns.

For our purposes, we need to look at a classification which reveals something about how nouns work with the rest of the language.  This classification is:

  1. Count nouns
    such as pen, keyboard, mouse, screen, disc, microphone
  2. Mass nouns
    such as paper, ink, tea, sugar, nicotine, information
  3. Proper nouns
    such as Google, Lake Geneva, the Alps, Manchester, Germany
  4. Collective nouns
    such as crew, majority, committee, jury, team
? As an introductory task, try to match the noun with its type.

That wasn't quite as easy as it looked because the categories are not completely watertight.  More to come about this.

We'll take them one at a time and briefly consider their characteristics.  There is more detail, naturally, in the in-service guide to the area, linked below.


Count nouns

Almost all the nouns in any language fall into this category.
If you don't tell learners that the noun they have encountered is a regular count noun, they will almost certainly presume that it is.
These nouns share characteristics:

The category includes:

  1. Physical entities (sometimes referred to as concrete nouns), such as
        friend, computer, socket, insect, apple, mat
  2. Abstract concepts (some of which are debatably fully abstract in the sense that they can be perceived with at least one sense although they cannot usually be touched, smelt or tasted) such as
        event, accident, position, tune, coincidence, smile

Within this category there are some irregularities, most of which stem from older or foreign uses of nouns.


Mass nouns

This is, in English, a very large category and some languages have either very few mass nouns or none at all.  The term mass noun is used here because uncountable, the term often used on initial training courses and in classrooms, is inaccurate and misleading, as we shall shortly see.

The shared characteristics are:

The category includes:

  1. abstract qualities:
        anger, happiness, significance
  2. substances:
        silver, iron, water, alcohol
  3. nouns formed from verbs:
        training, teaching, running
    (There are many nouns derived from verbs which are countable such as killing, furnishing, greeting, shooting, reading, painting etc., and not all nouns which end in -ing are derived directly from verbs such as outing, thing, stocking, fining, piling, ceiling etc.)
  4. most infectious diseases
        malaria, flu, pox

All mass nouns may be made into or used as count nouns.  Usually in three ways:


Collective nouns

This is a small group.
The shared characteristics are:

The category includes:

  1. People and animals:
        jury, team, pack, group, squad, crowd
  2. Inanimate objects:
        clump, nest, pile, hill, field


Proper nouns

This is another minor area but one fraught with irregularities.  For more, see the in-service guide.
The category includes:

  1. People and positions:
        The President, The Dali Lama, Aunt Mary, Smith
  2. Places:
        Britain, Berlin, The Alhambra, Lake Michigan
  3. Institutions
        Harvard, Eton School, The Department of Energy

Irregularities include in particular the (non-)use of articles:
    Germany, The Netherlands, Russia, The Emirates, The Himalayas, St Paul's, The British Museum
and so on.  The in-service guide has more on this.



There is a guide in the in-service section to this important area.  Here we are only concerned with noun marking.
It happens in three ways:

Apart from mass uses of nouns, English usually marks number.  Regular marking is with -s or -es but there are a few irregularities with words borrowed from other languages or left-over parts of older forms of English.
So we have:
    people, guns, children, socks, matches
English rarely uses diminutives but they are always the marked forms.  So we have:
    booklet, codling, kitchenette, hillock
Although marking for sex is becoming unfashionable and thus:
    actress, manageress, hostess
and many more are disparaged, some marking for sex remains:
    brother / sister, duke / duchess, lion / lioness, husband / wife, bride / groom
For a fuller consideration of markedness in nouns, see the guide and for markedness in general there is also a link below.


Grammatical functions of nouns

If you were paying attention on an initial training course, you'll be aware that nouns and nouns phrases can function as:

  1. The subject of a verb:
        The jury decided on their verdict
  2. The object of a verb:
        He sent the jury out to think again

They can, however, do a bit more than that and it is worth alerting your learners to the function of a noun in these circumstances, too:

  1. As a subject complement which is co-referential with the subject:
        He is the Prime Minister
  2. As an object complement which is co-referential with the object:
        They elected him chair of the meeting
  3. As an indirect object:
        They gave the dog a bone
  4. In apposition, referring to the same entity:
        Speak to Mr Jones, the manager
  5. As the complement (or object, if you prefer) of a preposition:
        He waited on the platform
  6. As an addressee:
        This group, listen to me.
  7. As a classifier:
        He spent time in the town square

? Try a final test on this to see if you need to re-read this section.


Guides in other areas
Initial plus essential guides In-service guides
noun essentials nouns
word class essentials markedness