A noun is the name of a person, place, thing, or idea. Whatever exists can be named, and that name is a noun. A proper noun, which names a specific person, place, or thing (Carlos, Queen Elizabeth, Canada, God, Buddhism, the Liberal Party), is almost always capitalized. Common nouns name everything else, nonspecific things that usually are not capitalized (dog, street, religion, assignment, intelligence).
Nouns are essential building blocks of noun phrases and noun clauses. A noun phrase, frequently a noun accompanied by modifiers, is a group of related words acting as a noun: the abnormal, hideously enlarged nose. A noun clause contains a subject and verb and can also do anything that a noun can do: What he does for this town is a blessing.
Categories of Nouns
Nouns can be classified further as count nouns, which name anything that can be counted (four books, two continents, a few dishes, a dozen buildings); non-count nouns, which name something that can’t be counted (water, air, energy, blood); and collective nouns, which can take a singular form but are composed of more than one individual person or items (jury, team, class, committee, herd). We should note that some words can be either a count noun or a non-count noun depending on how they’re used in a sentence:
|He got into trouble.||He had many troubles.|
|Experience is the best teacher.||We had many exciting experiences in college.|
Whether these words can be used with articles and determiners or not depends on if they are count or non-count nouns. (We would not write “He got into the trouble,” but we could write about “The troubles of Ireland.”)
Abstract nouns are words that are not tangible, such as warmth, justice, grief, and peace. Abstract nouns are sometimes troublesome for non-native writers because they can appear with determiners or without: “Peace settled over the countryside.” “The army disrupted the peace that had settled over the countryside.”
Compound nouns are nouns that are composed of two or more words. A variety of combinations are possible:
- noun + noun (football)
- noun + adjective (mouthful)
- noun + preposition (passer-by)
- noun + verb (sunshine)
- preposition + noun (underground)
- verb + noun (search engine)
- adjective + noun (blue jay)
- verb + preposition (take-out).
There are three forms of compound nouns:
- the closed form, in which the words are melded together, such as softball, notebook
- the hyphenated form, such as daughter-in-law, take-off
- and the open form, such as post office, real estate
Noun-Uses of Gerunds and Infinitives
Both gerunds and infinitives can function as nouns, which means they can do just about anything that a noun can do. Although they name things, like other nouns, they normally refer to activities rather than people or objects. Here are five noun-uses of gerunds and infinitives:
1. Gerunds and infinitives can both function as the subject of a sentence:
- Playing basketball takes up too much of her time.
- To play basketball for Carleton is his favourite fantasy.
2. It is not impossible for an infinitive to appear at the beginning of a sentence as the subject, but it is more common for an infinitive to appear as a subject complement.
- His favourite fantasy is to play basketball for Carleton.
The gerund can also play this role:
- His favourite fantasy is playing basketball for Carleton.
3. Both of these verbal forms can further identify a noun when they play the role of noun complement and appositive:
- His desire to play basketball for Carleton became an obsession.
- I could never understand his desire to play basketball for Carleton.
- His one burning desire in life, playing basketball for Carleton, seemed a goal within reach.
4. While we do not find many infinitives in this next category, it is not uncommon for gerunds to take on the role of object of a preposition:
- She wrote a newspaper article about dealing with college athletes.
- She thanked her coach for helping her to deal with the pressure.
Two prepositions, except and but, will sometimes take an infinitive.
- The committee had no choice except to elect Smith chairperson.
- What is left for us but to pack up our belongings and leave?
5. And, finally, both gerunds and infinitives can act as a direct object:
Here, however, we need to make the choice between gerund and infinitive forms as direct object. Why do we decide to run, but we would never decide running? On the other hand, we might avoid running, but we would not avoid to run. And finally, we might like running and would also like to run. Although it is seldom a serious problem for native English speakers, deciding whether to use a gerund or an infinitive after a verb can be perplexing among ESL students. When in doubt, consult a dictionary. The online version of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary should help.
Plural Noun Forms
The plural form of most nouns is created simply by adding the letter –s. For example:
- more than one snake = snakes
- more than one ski = skis
- more than one Barrymore = Barrymores
Words that end in -ch, -x, -s or s-like sounds, however, will require an -es for the plural. For example:
- more than one witch = witches
- more than one box = boxes
- more than one bus = buses
- more than one Jones = Joneses
There are several nouns that have irregular plural forms. For example:
- more than one child = children
- more than one woman = women
- more than one man = men
- more than one person = people
- more than one goose = geese
- more than one mouse = mice
- more than one barracks = barracks
- more than one deer = deer
And, finally, there are nouns that maintain their Latin or Greek form in the plural. (See media and data and alumni, below.)
- more than one nucleus = nuclei
- more than one syllabus = syllabi
- more than one focus = foci
- more than one fungus = fungi
- more than one cactus = cacti (cactuses is acceptable)
- more than one thesis = theses
- more than one crisis = crise
- more than one phenomenon = phenomena
- more than one index = indices (indexes is acceptable)
- more than one appendix = appendices (appendixes is acceptable)
- more than one criterion = criteria
The words data and media are Latin plurals. The singular Latin forms of these words, however, are seldom used: datum as a single bit of information or medium as a single means of communication. Hence, authorities nowadays approve sentences like “My data is lost” and “The media is out to get the President.”
A handful of nouns appear to be plural in form but take a singular verb. For example:
- The news is bad.
- Gymnastics is fun to watch.
- Economics/mathematics/statistics is said to be difficult. (“Economics” can sometimes be a plural concept, as in “The economics of the situation demand that . . . .”)
Another handful of nouns might seem to be singular in nature but take a plural form and always use a plural verb. For example:
- My pants are torn.
- Her scissors were stolen.
- The glasses have slipped down his nose again.
When a noun names the title of something or is a word being used as a word, it is singular whether the word takes a singular form or not. For example:
- The Albion Rooms is the name of a nice restaurant downtown.
- Beautiful Losers is my favourite novel.
With words that end in a consonant and a -y, you’ll need to change the -y to an -i and add -es. For example:
- more than one baby = babies
- more than one gallery = galleries (Notice the difference between this and galleys, where the final y is not preceded by a consonant.)
- more than one reality = realities
However, this rule does not apply to proper nouns:
- more than one Kennedy = Kennedys
Words that end in –o create special problems. For example:
- more than one potato = potatoes
- more than one hero = heroes
- more than one memo = memos
- more than one cello = cellos
. . . and for words where another vowel comes before the -o:
- more than one stereo = stereos
Plurals of words that end in -f or -fe usually change the f sound to a v sound and add s or -es. For example:
- more than one knife = knives
- more than one leaf = leaves
- more than one life = lives
There are, however, exceptions:
- more than one dwarf = dwarfs
- more than one roof = roofs
When in doubt, consult a dictionary. The online version of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary should help.
Collective Nouns, Company Names, Family Names, Sports Teams
Collective nouns are singular when we think of them as groups and plural when we think of the individuals acting within the whole (which happens sometimes, but not often). For example:
- [the] number
Thus, we could say that “The Tokyo String Quartet is one of the best string ensembles in the world” but it is also correct to say that “The Beatles were some of the most famous singers in history.”
Note that “the number” is a singular collective noun. “The number of applicants is steadily increasing.” “A number,” on the other hand, is a plural form: “There are several students in the lobby. A number are here to see the president.”
Collective nouns are count nouns, which means they can be pluralized: “Universities have several athletic teams and classes.”
The word following the phrase one of the (as an object of the preposition of) will always be plural.
- One of the reasons we do this is that it rains a lot in spring.
- One of the students in this room is responsible.
Notice, though, that the verb (is) agrees with one, which is singular, and not with the object of the preposition, which is always plural.
When a family name (a proper noun) is pluralized, we almost always simply add an s. So we go to visit the Smiths, the Kennedys, the Grays, etc. When a family name ends in s, x, ch, sh, or z, however, we form the plural by added -es, as in the Marches, the Joneses, the Maddoxes, the Bushes, the Rodriguezes. Do not form a family name plural by using an apostrophe; that device is reserved for creating possessive forms.
When a proper noun ends in an s with a hard z sound, we don’t add any ending to form the plural: “The Chambers are coming to dinner” (not the Chamberses); however, there are exceptions even to this: we say “The Joneses are coming over,” and we’d probably write “The Stevenses are coming, too.”
The names of companies and other organizations are usually regarded as singular, regardless of their ending: “General Motors has announced its fall lineup of new vehicles.” Some writers will use a plural verb when a plural construction such as “Associates” is part of the company’s title or when the title consists of a series of names: “Upton, Vernon, and Gridley are moving to new law offices next week” or “Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego & Associates have won all their cases this year.” Singular verbs and pronouns would be correct in those sentences, also.
The names of sports teams, on the other hand, are treated as plurals, regardless of the form of that name. We would write that “The Blue Jays have signed a new third baseman” and “The Blue Jays are a great organization.” When we refer to a team by the city in which it resides, however, we use the singular, as in “Ottawa has attempted to secure the services of two assistant coaches that Toronto hopes to keep.”
Plurals with Apostrophes
We use an apostrophe to create plural forms in two limited situations: for pluralized letters of the alphabet and when we are trying to create the plural form of a word that refers to the word itself. Do not use the apostrophe + s to create the plural of acronyms and other abbreviations. (A possible exception to this last rule is an acronym that ends in S: “We filed four NOS’s in that folder.”)
- Jeffrey got four A’s on his last report card.
- You have fifteen and’s in that last paragraph.
Singular Subjects, Plural Predicates, etc.
We frequently run into a situation in which a singular subject is linked to a plural predicate:
- My favourite breakfast is cereal with fruit, milk, orange juice, and toast.
Sometimes, too, a plural subject can be linked to singular predicate:
- Mistakes in parallelism are the only problem here.
In such situations, remember that the number (singular or plural) of the subject, not the predicate, determines the number of the verb.
A special situation exists when a subject seems not to agree with its predicate. For instance, when we want each student to see his or her counselor (and each student is assigned to only one counselor), but we want to avoid that “his or her” construction by pluralizing, do we say “Students must see their counselors” or “Students must see their counselor”? The singular counselor is necessary to avoid the implication that students have more than one counselor apiece. Do we say “Many sons dislike their father or fathers”? If we don’t mean to suggest that the sons have more than one father, we use the singular father. Sometimes good sense will have to guide you. We might want to say “Puzzled, the children scratched their head” to avoid the image of multi-headed children, but “The audience rose to their foot” is plainly ridiculous and about to tip over.
In “The boys moved their car/cars,” the plural would indicate that each boy owned a car, the singular that the boys (together) owned one car (which is quite possible). It is also possible that each boy owned more than one car. Be prepared for such situations, and consider carefully the implications of using either the singular or the plural. You might have to avoid the problem by going the opposite direction of pluralizing: moving things to the singular and talking about what each boy did.
Compound Noun Plurals and Possessives
Most dictionaries will give variant spellings of compound plurals. When you have more than one truck filled with sand, do you have several truckfuls or trucksful? The dictionary will give you both, with the first spelling usually preferred. (And the same is true of teaspoonfuls, cupfuls, etc.) The dictionary will help you discover that only one spelling is acceptable for some compounds — like passersby.
For hyphenated forms, the pluralizing -s is usually attached to the element that is actually being pluralized: daughters-in-law, half-moons, mayors-elect.
As a general rule, then, the plural form of an element in a hierarchical term belongs to the base element in the term, regardless of the base element’s placement:
- first sergeants
- sergeants major
- lieutenant generals
- deputy assistant secretaries of state
The possessive of a hyphenated compound is created by attaching an apostrophe -s to the end of the compound itself: my daughter-in-law’s car, a friend of mine’s car. If this sounds clumsy, use the “of” construction to avoid the apostrophe: the car of a friend of mine, etc. This is especially useful in pluralized compound structures: the daughters-in-law’s car sounds quite strange, but it’s correct. We’re better off with the car of the daughters-in-law.
Showing possession in English is a relatively easy matter. By adding an apostrophe and an s we can manage to transform most singular nouns into their possessive form:
- the car’s front seat
- Charles’s car
- a hard day’s work
Some writers will say that the -s after Charles’ is not necessary and that adding only the apostrophe (Charles’ car) will suffice to show possession. Consistency is the key here: if you choose not to add the -s after a noun that already ends in s, do so consistently throughout your text.
Most words that end in an unpronounced s form their possessive by adding an apostrophe + s. So we would write about “Illinois’s next governor” and “Arkansas’s former governor.” However, many non-English words that end with a silent s or x will form their possessives with only an apostrophe. So we would write “Alexander Dumas’ first novel.”
When we want the possessive of a pluralized family name, we pluralize first and then simply make the name possessive with the use of an apostrophe. Thus, we might travel in the Smiths’ car when we visit the Joneses (members of the Jones family) at the Joneses’ home.
Inanimate Objects and Possessives
Many writers consider it bad form to use apostrophe -s possessives with pieces of furniture and buildings or inanimate objects in general. Instead of “the desk’s edge,” we should write “the edge of the desk.” This rule is no longer universally endorsed. We would not say “the radio of that car” instead of “that car’s radio” (or the “car radio”) and we would not write “the desire of my heart” instead of “my heart’s desire.” For expressions of time and measurement, the possessive is shown with an apostrophe -s: “one dollar’s worth,” “two years’ experience,” “an evening’s entertainment,” and “two weeks’ notice.”
Possessives of Plurals & Irregular Plurals
Most plural nouns already end in s. To create their possessive, simply add an apostrophe after the s:
- The Pepins’ house is the big blue one on the corner.
- The lions’ usual source of water has dried up.
With nouns whose plurals are irregular (see Plurals), however, you will need to add an apostrophe followed by an s to create the possessive form.
- She plans on opening a women’s clothing boutique.
- Children’s health is a high priority.
(But with words that do not change their form when pluralized, you will have to add an -s or -es.)
- The crop was destroyed by the deer’s overfeeding.
Possessives of Nouns Joined by And
When two nouns possess something, the apostrophe’s placement depends on whether the nouns are acting separately or together.
- Miguel’s and Cecilia’s new cars are in the parking lot.
This means that each of them has at least one new car and that their ownership is a separate matter.
- Miguel and Cecilia’s new cars are in the parking lot.
This construction tells us that Miguel and Cecilia share ownership of these cars. The possessive (indicated by ‘s) belongs to the entire phrase, not just to Cecilia.
When one of the possessors in a compound possessive is a personal pronoun, we have to put both possessors in the possessive form or we end up with something silly: “Bill and my car had to be towed last night.” (This means that Bill himself got towed together with the car.)
- Bill’s and my car had to be towed last night.
Possessives with Appositive Forms
When a possessive noun is followed by an appositive, a word or a phrase that renames or explains that noun, the apostrophe + s is added to the appositive, not to the noun. When this happens, we drop the comma that would normally follow the appositive phrase.
- We must get Joe Bidwell, the family attorney’s signature.
Create such constructions with caution, however, as you might end up writing something that looks silly, like “I wrecked my best friend, Bob’s car.”
You’re frequently better off using the “of” form, writing something like “We must get the signature of Joe Bidwell, the family attorney” and “I wrecked the car of my best friend, Bob.”
Constructions like “a dog of hers” or “a friend of my dad’s” are called double possessives because they contain two possessive forms: the possessive preposition of is followed by a possessive pronoun or the possessive form of a noun (noun + ‘s). Although double possessives look confusing, the rule is fairly simple: the noun preceding the of needs to be indefinite, and the noun following the of needs to be human. For example, “a doctor of John’s” is correct but “a doctor of the hospital’s” is not. When the of is followed by an inanimate noun, we simply omit the ‘s: “a doctor of the hospital.”
- Plurals and Possessives
- Count and Non-Count Nouns
- Sorting Nouns
- Concrete vs. Abstract Nouns
- Diagramming Sentences: Parts of Speech