English Grammar: The Noun

 By Pacific Lava
1. Overview
In English a noun is a word that functions as the name of specific thing or set of things, such as
  • Living creatures: cat, horse
  • Objects: house, tree
  • Places: New York, street
  • Actions: study, smile
  • Ideas: luck, pride
Linguistically, an English noun is a part of speech as the main word in the subject of a clause, the object of a verb, or the object of a preposition.

In real English world, the noun is usually core of sentence. There are some important syntactic rules related to nouns' use cases. For example, nouns are those words which can be led with articles and adjectives.

Besides, nouns have some exclusive grammar concepts, such as gender, case, and number. They are critical to study and use noun, and are main contents in this section.

2. Subcategories of Noun
Nouns themselves are defined into some lexical subcategories, following table shows their relationships and examples.

NounsProper NounsVancouver, West Lake, Chris, May, Marseilaise
Common NounsCountable NounsIndividual Nounsdog, car, year, dream, problem
Collective Nounsfamily, data, army, bacteria, team
Uncountable NounsMass Nounscoal, ink, oil, sand, water
Abstract Nounsage, fun, luck, respect, truth


3. Individual Nouns
Individual nouns are the simplest nouns, each represents an individual object like dog, car, year, dream, or problem.

In general, an individual noun has both singular and plural forms, such as student and week in following examples.
  • The student lives here for 1 week.
  • The student lives here for 4 weeks.
  • The students live here for 1 week.
  • The students live here for 4 weeks.
4. Collective Nouns
A collective noun is used to refer to an entire group that should have more than one member. It looks like a singular noun but actually means more than one member. For example, family stands for parents and children, but it's in singular.

Here are some examples of collective nouns:
  • People: army, board, choir, class, committee, family, gang, group, jury, staff
  • Animals: flock, herd, pod, swarm
  • Things: bacteria, bunch, collection, fleet, flotilla, pack, set
Because collective noun logically includes more than one objects, it becomes a common question: do we take it as singular or plural? We summarize 3 types of collective nouns to discuss.

Collective nouns are taken as either singular or plural:  If as singular, emphasizes all members as one unit; if as plural, means all members of it. Most of collective nouns can be used in both ways. For example,[list]His family isn't large.
(It's about family, not family members, so used as singular.)Our family enjoy this restaurant.
(It means all family members, so used as plural.)

In some cases, singular or plural doesn't matter in meaning and logic, both are acceptable. For example,
  • His staff is very excellent.
  • His staff are very excellent.
  • The jury is about to announce the winner.
  • The jury are about to announce the winner.

Collective nouns are taken as singular:  Some collective nouns are only used as singular, like community, company, gang, opposition. For example,[list]Our company is sending the message to users.Our company receives the responses very quickly.

To represent all individuals of this type of collective noun, suggest to make the subject plural in form by adding a word like members, such as:
  • The gang members disagree on the proposal.
  • The members of our company receive the announcement today.
Notice that following sentences use real plural from of collective noun. In this case collective noun acts as individual noun:
  • The gangs disagree on the proposal.
    (multiple gangs)
  • The companies receive the announcement today.
    (multiple companies)

Collective nouns are taken as plural:  Some collective nouns are only used as plural, like bacteria, data, people, police. This type of collective noun doesn't have plural form. For example,[list]The data are downloaded from Internet.Bacteria are often a cause of disease.Local people dislike the tour project.

5. Mass Nouns
Mass noun are used to represent a sort of material, characterized by the fact that they cannot be modified by a numeral without specifying a unit of measurement, so it is uncountable noun too.

Examples of mass noun:

beer, brandy, cake, cheese, cloth, coal, coffee, coke, cotton, curry, ...

In general, mass noun doesn't have plural form because it is uncountable. But there are 3 exceptions:

Some mass nouns can be used to express "one unit": In this case, it can be either singular or plural, as similar as countable none. Compare following examples,

  • Two black coffees, please.
    Two cups of black coffee, please.
  • One black coffee, please.
    One cup of black coffee, please.
  • He bought three cabbages.
    He bought three heads of cabbage.
  • He bought a cabbage.
    He bought a head of cabbage.

Some mass nouns can be used to mean "a sort of entity": In this case they no longer play the role of mass nouns, but are treated as count nouns, in either plural or singular. For example,

  • Many cleaning agents today are technically not soaps, but detergents.
  • The device is made of stainless steels.
  • It's a special tea planted at Monkey Mountain.

Some mass nouns' plural forms have special meanings: Actually, these words just look like mass nouns' plural forms. They aren't mass nouns anymore, but new words with meanings related to original mass nouns. For examples,

  • waters: the sea or seas bordering a particular country or continent or located in a particular part of the world
  • rains: the rainy season; seasonal rainfall, as in India
6. Abstract Nouns
Abstract nouns refer to intangible things, like actions,feelings, ideals, concepts and qualities. They are normally uncountable and don't have plural form.

For example:
  • secret
  • happiness
  • freedom
  • courage
The secret to happiness is freedom; and the secret to freedom is courage. - Thucydides

Because abstract noun is uncountable, theoretically it should be in singular form and without any articles. However, in some cases abstract nouns do have articles, either "the" or "a/an"; just like in Thucydides' example we can see 2 "the" in front of "secret".

The relationship between abstract noun and article is quite complicated, and will be discussed further in other pages related to topics of countable and uncountable nouns, and articles.