logo ELT Concourse teacher training
Concourse 2



This is a major word class but, oddly, sometimes neglected on the basis that all languages have nouns so there can't be much to talk about.  The first part is true, the second much more debatable.
You may have seen nouns referred to in some analyses as substantives but that is a rather old-fashioned term we will avoid.

If this is your first visit feel free to take things as they come.  Alternatively, here's a guide to the contents.
Clicking on -top- at the end of each section will bring you back to this menu.

Identifying nouns Forming nouns Verbal nouns and gerunds The functions of nouns Classifying nouns Which classification? Count nouns
Types of nouns Mass nouns Proper nouns Collective nouns Classifier nouns Compound nouns Shell nouns
Mass vs. count Summary of mass and count Misleading learners Markedness in nouns Plural markers Nouns and determiners Idiomatic uses


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.



Forming nouns

Because nouns are so central to any language, it will be unsurprising to find that there are many ways in which they are formed.  Some nouns, of course, most, in fact, are simple nouns, not formed from other words and having no obvious features identifying them as nouns.  There is nothing, for example, about the form of words like:
    house, car, problem, screen, key, joy, sky, place
etc. which allows us to identify them as nouns.  Only seeing what they do in the syntax of the language allows us to classify them accurately.
Other nouns are, however, clearly derived from words in other classes.  Here's a short list of the most frequent and obvious ways nouns are formed by suffixation in English:

This suffix refers to a generalised noun derived from a particular case of another.  Examples are:
    drainage, leafage, percentage, package, parentage etc.
The suffix is also used to form nouns from verbs, again referring to a generalised concept from the verb, as in:
    carriage, assemblage, marriage, towage, passage etc.
In fact, most words ending in -age are nouns and that is a helpful guide to learners.
This suffix is usually one which forms adjectives but these can be converted into nouns such as:
    musical, national, original, neutral, criminal etc.
Quite rarely, the suffix is used to form nouns from verbs as in, e.g.:
    dismissal, portrayal, deferral, refusal etc.
Most words ending in -al are not nouns, however.  The way to bet is that they are adjectives.
-an, -ant, -crat, -ee,-eer, -er, -ist, -ite, -or, -ster
All these noun-forming suffixes refer to people in favour of something, the doer of a verb or a person concerned with a field of enquiry.  The most common is -er which forms new nouns readily from verbs.  Others, such as -al and -or are no longer productive.  For example:
    disciplinarian, vegetarian, republican, historian, inhabitant, participant, democrat, technocrat, escapee, employee, engineer, mountaineer, gardener, speaker, Marxist, fascist, socialite, actor, doctor, mobster, gangster etc.
The -ite ending is widely used in geology to describe types of minerals and rocks as in dolerite, anthracite, malachite and many more.
This is a rare noun-forming suffix and usually forms causal verbs such as truncate, desiccate and so on but it can be used to form a noun from another as in, e.g.:
    doctorate, subordinate, graduate, sophisticate etc.
It is also frequently used to denote chemical derivatives such as:
    phosphate, carbonate, silicate etc.
-ation, -cation, -sion, -tion
These are variations on a theme, all ending in -ion.  They readily form nouns from verbs such as:
    replication, organisation, deification, electrification, decision, conversion, devotion, notation etc.
Almost all words ending in -ion are nouns of some description.
-ery (and -ory), -ry
These suffixes are now almost fully unproductive but are used to signal an activity or the place where an activity takes place.  Examples are:
    brewery, bakery, conservatory, observatory, surgery, upholstery, hostelry, colliery etc.
This suffix is mostly confined to people or types of language and is sometimes used to invent new terms such as:
    Japanese, Maltese, computerese, managementese, bureaucratese, teacherese etc.
This suffix is sometimes replaced by -speak as in BBC-speak, IT-speak, Cambridge-speak etc.
This suffix was frequently used to form female versions of male nouns so we used to have, e.g.:
    stewardess, hostess, manageress, actress etc.
However, times change and the ending is now often disparaged as sexist language so all of the above, shorn of the ending can be used to describe people of either (or all) sex(es).
For non-human nouns, the suffix is still in frequent use, however, and we still encounter, e.g.:
    tigress, lioness, goddess etc.
Even for humans, some -ess suffixes are still in common use for want of a better expression so we still encounter, e.g.:
    duchess, marchioness, princess, seamstress etc.
A range of nouns have alternative male / female forms and they include, e.g.:
    goose / gander, duck / drake, king / queen, sister / brother, uncle / aunt and a host more.
See the guide to gender, linked below, and the section in this guide on markedness, for more about sex marking on nouns.
This suffix often forms adjectives but has a noun-forming function to denote quantities such as:
    handful, bottleful, carful, houseful etc.
-hood, -ship
These suffixes refer to a stage in life or a condition such as:
    boyhood, adulthood, falsehood, childhood, neighbourhood, township, friendship, comradeship, guardianship etc.
-ism, -ocracy, -ology, -aphy, -apy
These are all to do with political or moral positions or fields of academia such as:
    Marxism, Trumpism, democracy, autocracy, sociology, biology, geography, therapy etc.
This suffix is used to derive nouns from adjectives ending in -ible and -able and words are often coined for the nonce with this suffix.  For example:
    availability, divisibility, permissibility, doability, pickupability, burnability etc.
-let, -ette
These are confined to marking another noun for size such as:
    leaflet, eyelet, kitchenette, launderette etc.
-man / -woman
Both these suffixes denote the doer of an action and are formed from verbs.  Just like the -ess suffix, however, the forms are now often disparaged as sexist language so are less productive than they once were.  We still encounter, e.g.:
    laundryman / laundrywoman, fisherman / fisherwoman, spokesman / spokeswoman, countryman / countrywoman, businessman / businesswoman and more.
See the guide to gender, linked below, and the section in this guide on markedness, for more about sex marking on nouns.
-ment, -ness
Both these are productive suffixes denoting the state of being in a position or having a quality.  For example:
    discernment, management, disappointment, happiness, gratefulness, forgiveness etc.
This is a suffix derived from the old word ware meaning an item for sale, now only seen in the plural.  It is still productive and the term in computing of software is only attested from 1960.  Other terms such as spyware, bloatware and so on are even more recent.


Verbal nouns, deverbal nouns and gerunds

Missing from the list above is the ubiquitous -ing suffix used to form nouns.  Adding that suffix to a verb can often form words which appear to be nouns (and sometimes are) but which also retain some verbal qualities.  For example, in:
    Driving when you are tired is dangerous
we have the gerund form driving which is operating as a noun and is the subject of the copular verb, be.
It does, however, retain some features normally associated with verbs because:

Other formations are better described a verbal nouns or deverbal nouns because they have lost some or all verbal qualities and function grammatically just as other nouns do.
Verbal nouns retain some verb-like qualities but deverbal nouns are just nouns.
For example, in:
    The old buildings are dangerous
we have a noun, building, derived from the verb build which does not show any verbal qualities (in this case) so:

In the list above, there are other ways of making verbal nouns using a variety of suffixes.
The distinction, briefly, is that gerunds retain considerable verb-like features but verbal nouns operate as all other nouns and have lost any verbal characteristics.

The situation is not clear cut, however, and there is a cline from the gerund forms which retain verb-like characteristics and the pure nominal forms which are noun-like in their behaviour.  The situation is:


For more on the distinction between participle verb forms, gerunds, verbal and deverbal nouns, see the guide to catenative verbs, linked below.



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 examples, the noun performing the function is in italics.




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, family, committee etc.)
    See the note below on the difference between collective and assemblage nouns.

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

new classification 

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 (?was) in favour.
  8. We keep the china over there.

For a little more on how concord works with collective nouns, see the guide to the area, linked below.

In some analyses, we might add a fifth category, classifiers and partitives, because they exhibit phenomena unique to themselves.  Examples 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 are separate guides on this site, linked below, to classifiers, partitives and group nouns and to compounding.



Choosing which classification to use

For teaching purposes, both classifications have some utility:



Types of nouns: salient features


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 etc.
  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 etc.
  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 (the singular of which is plurale tantum).
  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
    See below on pluralisation for more.

Mass nouns

Mass nouns are distinguishable because they can act as arguments (e.g., as subjects and objects) in their bare form so we allow, e.g.:
    She gave advice
    Money was helpful

but not
    *They made suggestion
    *Coin was heavy

and, of course, because they do not occur in the plural.
In fact, with two exceptions, count nouns cannot stand without a determiner so, for example:
    Q: What shall I clean it with?
    A: Water
    A: *Brush
The exceptions are:
    They walked arm in arm (an example of parallelism in which apparently countable nouns are used to refer not to the items themselves but to a concept or relationship in which case they are considered as mass nouns)
    Come here, child (a rare vocative use).

Mass nouns cannot occur with an indefinite article so we do not allow, e.g.:
    *a milk
    *an alcohol
    *a water
    *an oxygen


See below for some more examples of what is sometimes called idiomatic uses of count nouns without determiners.
Mass nouns form the next largest category and include:

  1. abstract qualities:
        anger, happiness, significance
    This is not, however, a reliable rule because, for example:
        belief, joy, pleasure, prejudice, suggestion, theory and virtue
    can be or are conventionally used as count nouns.
  2. substances:
        silver, iron, water, alcohol
  3. many nouns formed from verbs (often called gerunds):
        training, teaching, running
    (There are many nouns derived from verbs which are countable such as
        killing, furnishing, greeting, shooting, reading, sweeping, 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
    but, oddly, cold is a count noun when it refers to illness but a mass noun when it refers to temperature.
  5. many mass nouns which, in most other languages, where such differences exist, are count nouns.  These include:
        accommodation, advice, furniture, information, 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 ridiculous behaviour which is unhelpful
        a conduct which I can't condone
        a blanket 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.

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.  These are only capitalised when a unique reference is assumed.
  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
      Ellipsis of the noun frequently results in the classifier used alone 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
  5. Proper nouns may be made plural if there is more than one so we get, e.g.:
        We have two Smiths working here
        I spoke to both the Ms Smiths
  6. When proper nouns lie in apposition, the genitive 's structure falls on the second part so we get, e.g.:
        I saw Mr Smith, my neighbour's dog in the park
    Compare that with:
        That's Rover, my neighbour's dog in the park
    The only way to disambiguate the two uses is in speaking where the tone units are, respectively:
        I saw Mr Smith my neighbour's | dog in the park
        That's Rover | my neighbour's dog | in the park

Collective nouns

This is quite a small group including nouns like army, navy, crew, family, staff, committee etc.
Collective nouns may be quite specific or operate much more generally so, for example, group may be applied to people, books, cars and a huge range of other entities and words such as crowd, batch, set and so on are equally promiscuous although even with these terms there are restrictions, usually to do with classifying the animate or inanimate.
The more specific group nouns are better referred to as assemblage nouns and they include items like:
    pod (whales, dolphins, porpoises)
    flock (birds, sheep, goats)
    shoal (fish)
    squad (soldiers, sports players)
and so on.
It is tempting to teach somewhat arcane uses of assemblage nouns, especially, for animals such as:
    a pace of asses
    a murder of crows
    a skulk of foxes
    a labour of moles

and so on.  However, it is a temptation worth avoiding because a) they are not known to many expert and native users of English and b) they are of dubious historical validity, many having been invented by Dame Juliana Berners in the 15th century.
However, the guide to classifiers and partitives, linked below, contains a list of the most useful ones which are in general use under its section on assemblages.  That includes some specific terms such as:
    a company of actors
    a bunch of grapes

and so on.
There is a 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
        my family are coming
        his family isn't coming
        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.
    3. If there is an internal conflict in the collective, the plural verb form is selected.
  2. In US usage, a singular verb form is preferred as it is in most languages.

Classifier nouns

Some confusion can be caused when nouns look like adjectives so, for example, in:
    This is a paperback book
it appears that the word paperback is functioning as an adjective to describe the book just as splendid or good operate to describe the book in:
    This is a splendid book
    This is a good book
The distinction is that a word which simply describes, such as splendid or good, is an epithet but a word which categorises is a classifier and, although they seem to be doing similar jobs in the syntax, they are not.
Epithets can be modified but classifiers rarely can:
    This is an absolutely splendid book
    This is a very good book
    *This is an absolutely paperback book
    *This is a very history book

Additionally, although epithets can usually be used predicatively as in:
    This book is splendid
    This book is good

it is unnatural or plain wrong to use classifiers this way, usually:
    ?This book is paperback
    *The book is history
Finally, noun classifiers cannot be made comparative or superlative so we allow:
    This is an even more splendid book
    This is the best book

but we cannot have
    *This is a more paperback book
For more, see the guides to classifiers and adjectives linked below.


Compound nouns

There is a cline from combinations in which it is clear that the first noun is acting as a classifier and true compound nouns which represent a single concept.  For example, in
    university teacher
the first noun serves to classify the second and the stress falls naturally on the second item as it would if the first were an epithet (/ˌjuː.nɪ.ˈvɜː.sɪ.ti.ˈtiː.tʃə/).  Compare, for example, happy teacher (/ˈhæp.i.ˈtiː.tʃə/) in which both the adjective and the noun carry stress.
The same is true for the difference between:
    senior teacher
    Senior Teacher
in which the first simply implies age or length of service (so the stress falls on the second item) but the second, capitalised version is a job title and the stress falls on the first item (/ˌsiː.nɪə.ˈtiː.tʃə/ vs. /ˈsiː.nɪə.ˈtiː.tʃə/).
And in:
    picture frame
the stress falls on the first element (/ˈpɪk.tʃə.freɪm/) and that is an indication of a compound rather than a classifier + noun combination.
At the proper compound end of the cline we find items such as
which is clearly now an accepted compound noun because
a) the stress falls on the first element (/ˈbeɪ.bi.ˌsɪ.tə/)
b) the item is written as one word (or, by some, hyphenated)
Each edition of an English-language dictionary is updated regularly to include combinations of classifier + noun (or, indeed epithet + noun) which have become accepted compounds.  For example, terms such as superglue, gaslight, mouseclick, compact disc, hard drive, toner cartridge and many more were originally stressed on the second element with the first acting as an epithet or classifier.  As the terms became more familiar, the stress moved to the first element and the orthography often changed from two words via hyphenation to a one-word spelling.
Hyphenation is still variable across users of the language and between dictionaries.

Plurality is sometimes an issue with compound nouns.

One obvious characteristic of compounds is that when they are plural, the plural marker usually falls on the second element so we get, e.g.:
    beach huts not *beaches hut
    child minders not *children minder
    desk drawers not *desks drawer
In a lot of cases, of course, the first element is a mass noun which can take no plural so this makes good sense and we find:
    water works
    sugar lumps
    water board

Some noun classifiers are, however, irregularly marked for number.  We can have:
    a saloon car
    a sports car
    a sports bag
    a camera bag
    a complaint form
    a complaints department
and so on.
The way to bet is that they are singular so we have
    model car collection
    portrait gallery
    landscape photography

and so on.
Learners who do not have parallel structures in their first languages will often be tempted to make all noun classifiers plural.


Shell nouns

Particularly in the field of English for Academic and English for Business areas, there has quite recently been some interest in the concepts of shell nouns.  Briefly, what shell nouns do is to encapsulate ideas in a way that makes the noun itself the shell for a set of propositions.  For example in:

The problem is that too many vehicles use the new bypass causing congestion at peak times so the aim is to limit the traffic by improving and extending alternative routes through the suburbs.

we have two shell nouns, problem and aim which respectively encapsulate the propositions of identifying an issue and seeking a solution.
The shell noun is usually followed by the proposition that it encapsulates linked either with a that-clause (problem) or just a simple copula such as be (aim).
Shell nouns are usually abstract concepts and come in different flavours (from Schmid, 2018, whose list is more detailed and longer):

  1. Factual
    Factual shell nouns include, e.g., fact, phenomenon, reason, result, proof, sign, difference, similarity, aspect, part, problem, advantage, drawback and so on into which clauses or very much longer stretches of text are conceptualised.
  2. Mental
    Mental shell nouns include, e.g., idea, theory, mystery, belief, knowledge, view, illusion, doubt, question, disbelief, aim, plan, solution, regret, delight, fear, worry etc.
  3. Modal
    Modal shell nouns express most kinds of modality:
    Epistemic (related to truth): possibility, danger, truth, reality
    Deontic (related to duty): permission, mission, need
    Dynamic (related to ability and willingness): ability, capacity, opportunity
    If the terms for modality do not seem familiar and you want to know more, try the guide to types of modality, linked in the list of related guides at the end.
  4. Eventive
    These shell nouns include: event, act, situation, attempt, effort, struggle, priority, trouble, problem, success, mistake, situation, context, position, place, time, way, procedure, provision etc.

The argument is not that the examples above are always shell nouns but that they can act as shell nouns serving to conceptualise things in a way that ordinary content nouns such as beach, happiness, hedge, fruit, money, person, teacher, train and so on cannot.
The use of shell nouns is particularly common is some kinds of academic texts in which the author is concerned to set up a series of propositions under an overall heading of, e.g., reason, problem, theory, outcome, necessity and so on.
There is a guide to teaching shell nouns in the EAP section of this site, linked below.
If you would like a list of potential shell nouns, click here.



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.  Few languages require their speakers to consider mass vs. count properties of a noun before attaching the grammar to it.
It has been persuasively suggested that the distinction is not a valid one in English because a large number of nouns can be used in both ways.
There are a number of 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, (re)semblance, 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
    I have an increasingly poor memory
    Computer memory is getting cheaper
    I have a happy memory of growing up in the country
    Memories of early childhood are usually unreliable
    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 frightens 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
    She bears some resemblance to her sister
    We have returned to some semblance of normality
    Look for any family resemblances
    We have returned to a semblance of normality
    Many hundreds of nouns can be used in both general (mass) and particular (count) senses.  For example, we can ask about the evolution of a language (and that is reference to its development) or we can ask about the evolution of language (which is reference to language as a mass concept, not a particular language).
    We can also speak of the atmosphere in an mass way when making reference to the skin of gases around the earth but we can also use the word countably to refer to multiples of atmospheric pressure.
  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 two examples of the three major sorts of partitives are given here.
    Mass use Singular or plural use
    General partitives
    Ice is blocking the pipe There a lump of ice blocking the pipe
    The boys threw pieces of concrete on the road
    Typical partitives
    The atmosphere was full of dust A cloud of dust came over the house
    Cloud of mosquitoes followed us everywhere
    Restricted partitives
    Wheat grows here He was chewing an ear of wheat
    The farmer inspected the ears of wheat
    In these cases, it is the partitive which can be made plural or is 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 as 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.
    We can, naturally, use many of these as count nouns but here the focus is on their use as mass nouns.
  5. The understood mass use
    We know from our knowledge of the article system that a singular mass noun cannot stand without a determiner so while we allow:
        His house was expensive
        The house was sold
    etc., we do not allow:
        *House was sold
    We also know that this restriction does not apply to mass nouns so we allow:
        Housing was expensive
    as well as
        The housing was expensive.
    It follows, therefore, that if someone uses a usually count noun in the singular without an article or other determiner, the understanding is that a mass use is meant
    So for example, if we say:
        An apple would be a good addition to this
    we are using the noun apple in its usual count-noun guise, but if we say:
        Apple would be a good addition to this
    we clearly intend that apple is understood as a mass noun.
  6. Classifiers
    An alternative way in which mass nouns may be made count nouns is, instead of the use of a pluralised partitive, to use the noun as a classifier.
    For example, although the words coffee, gold and water are generally considered and most frequently used as mass nouns, they can occur in the following mass-noun uses:
        Two coffee cups
        Three gold bars
        A single water jug

    and so on.
    When count nouns act as classifiers like this they are, naturally, functioning quasi-adjectivally rather than as nominal items in their own right.
  7. Hyponymy
    Often, superordinates or hypernyms are mass nouns while the hyponyms which they subsume are count nouns so we get, e.g.:
        housing: house, flat, room, bedsit, mansion, palace, villa etc.
        equipment: tool, oil, pipe, saw, screwdriver etc.
        gear: rucksack, tent, water carrier, groundsheet etc.
    and so on.
  8. Alternative count nouns
    It is often possible in English to select a synonymous count noun in place of a mass noun so we encounter pairs such as:
    Mass nouns Count nouns
    gear, equipment
    shoe, sandal etc.
    suitcase / case / bag
    app, program
  9. Changes over time
    Language is not static so over time and some nouns have managed to shift from mass to count or vice versa.  For example:
    wages was once a mass noun but the singular form is now encountered frequently and the noun is treated as a count noun (the King James Bible [circa 1611] has, Romans 6, 23, the wages of sin is death).
    accommodation was once a count noun with a plural in common use but now usually occurs as a mass noun.  The plural form is also in use in other meanings.
    mathematics and physics were both count nouns originally but are now treated as mass nouns and history is now a mass noun when applied to an academic subject but still a count noun when referring to particular types or versions of history as in, e.g.:
        On his bookshelf were four histories of the Crusades.

Here is a list of most of the most common and troublesome mass nouns in English.  It's not complete and many, such as wood, kindness, fire, work, weight, damage, travel and so on, can be used with or without different meanings as count nouns.
This list is available as a PDF document from the link at the end.


A summary of count and mass nouns




Misleading learners

The terms countable and uncountable nouns are sometimes used for 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.


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 guides to markedness and to gender, both 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:
If it ends in -e, add -s but add -es for all other endings.
There are, however, some exceptions and issues to note:

  1. Phonemic changes, particularly the voicing of the final consonant.
    /t/, /p/, /f/, /k/ /θ/ endings All other endings
    cats /kæts/
    cups /kʌps/
    kick /skɪks/
    laughs /lɑːfs/
    maths /mæθs/
    boys /ˈbɔɪz/
    girls /ɡɜːlz/
    fathers /ˈfɑːð.əz/
    homes /həʊmz/
    cubs /kʌbz/
    and the right-hand list could be greatly extended.
    An exception is the word house (/haʊs/ whose plural is pronounced /ˈhaʊz.ɪz/.
    This is a regular system to which there is a guide linked below.
    The pronunciation and spelling of the plural of words ending in f is slightly irregular, so we get:
    calf – calves
    elf – elves
    half – halves
    hoof – hooves
    leaf – leaves
    life – lives
    loaf – loaves
    scarf – scarves (and derived forms)
    self – selves (and derived forms)
    sheaf – sheaves
    shelf – shelves
    (and derived forms)
    thief – thieves (and derived forms)
    wife – wives (and derived forms)
    wolf – wolves
    and in all these cases the final /f/ is replaced by /vz/
    However, the plural of roof is seen both as roofs and ?rooves (and differently pronounced).  The word wharf also has two acceptable plural forms, wharves and wharfs, as does dwarf.  The status of oaf changing to oaves is unclear.
    Other nouns ending in /f/ do not alter the morphology so we get, e.g.:
    cliff – cliffs
    muff – muffs
    proof – proofs
    gulf – gulfs

    and so on.
  2. Older English plurals
    A small number of nouns have retained older English plural forms involving a change to the vowel (ablaut) or an ending other than a simple -s or -es suffix.  They include words like
    child – children
    die – dice
    foot – feet
    goose – geese
    louse – lice
    mouse – mice
    man – men
    ox – oxen
    penny – pence
    (or pennies)
    person – people
    tooth – teeth
    woman – women
    which simply have to be learned and taught individually.  That is, by the way, almost a complete list.
    Sometimes a phenomenon known as suppletion is at work here: the derivations of the singular and plural nouns are different so the words look unconnected.  The word person is derived from Old French but the word people is a later derivation from a different French word.
    This also accounts for the plural of cow being cattle.
  3. Zero-marked plurals
    Some nouns have no marking in the plural (a Ø plural) but the plural still exists. These often (not always) refer to animals:
    Some of these words do take regular plurals when we are considering small numbers of identifiable entities:
        six fishes
        two shrimps

    but some resist any kind of plural marking.
    Note: These are all count nouns and should not be confused with mass nouns which take no plural.  No plural form is not the same thing as a zero plural form.
  4. Invariable unmarked plurals
    A few words in English are always plural but take no inflexion to show it.  Examples are:
    Again, these are unmarked plural forms of countable nouns, not mass nouns.


A much larger group of 'irregular' plurals are loan words 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.  When both the original language form and the English plural is available, the former is usually preferred in technical and formal writing.
We get, for example:

From Latin:
singular plural
antenna antennae or antennas
apex apices or apexes
appendix appendices or appendixes
aquarium aquariums or aquaria
corpus corpora or corpuses
criterion criteria (only)
curriculum curriculums or curricula
focus focuses or foci
genius geniuses or genii
index indexes or indices
matrix matrixes or matrices
medium mediums or media
nebula nebulas or nebulae
radius radiuses or radii
terminus terminuses or termini
vertebra vertebras or vertebrae
symposium symposiums or symposia
virus viruses (only)
A few Latin-derived words in English resist Anglicisation including:
    bacillus (bacilli), bacterium (bacteria), erratum (errata), genus (genera), larva (larvae), 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.  (When the singular refers to a kind of spiritualist who claims to make contact with the dead, the regular plural is used.)
From Greek:
Many Greek nouns in English retain the Greek plural forms:
singular plural
analysis analyses
basis bases
crisis crises
ellipsis ellipses
hypothesis hypotheses
parenthesis parentheses
schema schemata
thesis theses
but some have been completely Anglicised:
singular plural
automaton automatons (rarely automata)
demon demons (never demones)
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
bureau bureaux
plateau plateaux / plateaus
tableau tableaux
because those words originate in Parisian French and are more recent importations.  Words originally Norman French have existed in English for so long that they are not considered loan words and have taken on English rather than the original French morphology.
From Italian:
These are frequently musical terms and both plural forms are generally possible.  For example:
singular plural
libretto librettos or libretti
soprano sopranos (only)
tempo tempos or tempi
virtuoso virtuosos or virtuosi
Three oddballs from Italian are Italian plurals treated as singular in English.  They are:
graffiti (singular graffito)
paparazzi (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).  When cherub is used to refer to an attractive child, the plural is Anglicised to cherubs.
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:
    bananas [probably from Wolof, a West African language, via Portuguese or Spanish]
    blitzes and kindergartens [from German]
    boomerangs [from an extinct language of New South Wales]
    bungalows [from Gujarati]
    chimpanzees [from a Bantu language of Angola]
    chocolates [from Nahuatl (Aztecan)]
    kangaroos [from Guugu Yimidhirr]
    moccasins and tomahawks [from Powhatan]
    robots [from Czech]
    verandas [from Hindi]
Again, this list could be very greatly extended but this is not that kind of site.

Plural nouns

One class of nouns appears only in the plural.

Again, this list can be extended but this is not that kind of site.




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 Verbal concord Pronoun concord Examples
Singular count nouns one, each, every, any, this, that Zero article is not (usually) possible: a/an or the must be used if no other determiner is present. singular verb form he, she, it but they is often used for nouns not marked for sex each one has
any person who sees
the woman is smiling at you
Plural count nouns
(and pluralia tantum)
many, some, several, these, those, a couple of Zero article is possible.
a/an is not possible.
the is possible.
plural verb form they many pencils were useless
tigers are dangerous
the beers are in the fridge
those clothes are dirty
Mass nouns much, little, less, more, this, that Zero article is possible.
a/an is not possible.
the is possible.
singular verb form it 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
it or they depending on notion 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. plural for mountain ranges,
singular for countries (The Netherlands, The United States etc.) but plural for island countries and areas
he, she, they for people
it (erstwhile she) for countries
they for mountain ranges and islands unless they form a single nation
The Soviet Union was huge
This is my friend, John
The Maldives are / is beautiful
The Channel Islands are interesting
The Federal Republic of Germany is represented
I hiked in the Alps

For more, go to the guide to determiners or the guide to the article system, both linked in the list at the end.
* Regarding the use of verbal concord with collective nouns, a major and widely respected British newspaper, The Times, sets it style guide to the effect that it:
... use[s] the singular verb with corporate bodies (the company, the government, the council etc.).  But we prefer the plural use for couple, family, music groups, and bands, the public and sports teams.  Thus, France (the country) is a top place for holidays but France (the rugby team) are the Six Nations champions.
The Times, 26th March 2022


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.
See the guide to the article system for more in this area.


Related guides
the word-class map for links to guides to the other major word classes
nouns: essentials for a simpler guide which includes some of the above (with small extensions especially in proper nouns and the use of articles)
shell nouns for a more detailed look at these functions of certain nouns
the article system for the in-service guide to the way and ways to select the right article for a noun
determiners for an expansion of the table above regarding these modifiers
classifiers, partitives and group nouns for the ways English makes mass nouns countable and much else
pronouncing noun and verb inflexions which includes plurals of nouns
mass nouns for a PDF list of common mass nouns (as above)
concord for more about verb forms with nouns in English
catenative verbs for more on the distinction between participles, gerunds and verbal nouns
(un)countability for more on mass and count concepts in English in the initial plus section (so simpler and shorter)
compounding for the guide to all areas of compounding, including noun + noun compounds
idiomaticity for more on items such as binomials
types of modality for a guide explaining the types of modality mentioned in the part about shell nouns above
markedness for more on how marking is achieved in English (and not just for nouns)
gender for the guide to gender marking in English and other languages and to efforts to remove it
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

Schmid, H-J, 2018, Shell Nouns in English: a personal roundup, Caplletra 64 (Primavera, 2018), pp. 109-128. ISSN 0214-8188, ISSN versió electrònica 2386-7159