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Nouns: An Overview

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This post provides an overview of the Noun. Skill level: Beginner


  1. Define the term “noun” semantically, morphologically, and syntactically.
  2. Discuss features of nouns in English (number, possession).
  3. Create nouns from other parts of speech using only syntactic placement to indicate the change.

I’d love to say that nouns are a self-explanatory category. I mean, we all know what a noun is, right? Or, we’ve heard the word and have a general idea, or… something. The purpose of this post is to codify that “something” into a more concrete understanding. If you know exactly what a noun is and can accomplish all of the above objectives already, then feel free to move along.

If not, or if you want a refresher, read on.

Nouns Defined: Semantics, Morphology, Syntax

Semantics [the branch of linguistics that deals with meaning] gives the classic definition of nouns. The Schoolhouse Rock jingle leaps to mind: it defines a noun as “a person, place, or thing”:

Well every person you can know,
And every place that you can go,
And any thing that you can show,
You know they’re nouns.
~Schoolhouse Rock

If only it were that easy. I’ll set aside my objection to “every person you can know” for later in this post. More pressing, as far as lexical terms are concerned, while the jingle does a good job in giving concrete examples of nouns, it doesn’t address anything abstract like, say, “existentialism.” In fact, “thing” leaves much to be desired. Some have expanded the definition of “noun” to “a person, place, thing, or idea” to include abstract terms. It’s a nice start, but it doesn’t quite cover all the bases.

Take “running,” for example. Person, place, thing, or idea? Maybe it’s a verb?

“Running makes me want to puke my guts out.” (Not a verb. In this example, it’s a gerund, AKA a present participle acting as a noun.)

So basically, the semantic definition, while providing a decent introduction to nouns, falls short in categorizing them completely.

Morphology [the branch of linguistics that deals with the smallest units of linguistic meaning (so, syllable structure, but not really)] defines nouns according to their features. In English, nouns can receive markers for number (-s/-es/-ies) and possession (-‘s/-s’).

  • book → books
  • bus → buses
  • pony → ponies
  • girl → girl’s [object]
  • girls → girls’ [object(s)]

This distinction only works for count nouns, though. Non-count nouns (such as “rice,” “sunshine,” “liberty,” etc.) don’t take a number marker. (For more on count vs. non-count nouns, see here.) Often, the possession marker seems awkward on them as well. (Compare “the rice’s color” vs. “the color of the rice.”)

Morphology can help identify individual nouns. Words ending with -ion, -tion, -ist, -ism, -ness, or -er are easy enough to spot as nouns. These types of noun-marking morphemes (or syllables, but not really) are useful in converting other parts of speech to nouns:

  • happy → happiness
  • create → creation
  • existential → existentialist

This aspect of nouns is useful to know, especially in writing. However, in terms of defining nouns, the morphological distinctions still fall short. Which leads me to syntax.

Syntax [the branch of linguistics that deals with word order and structure] defines nouns according to their place and features in sentence structure:

  • Nouns take Adjectives as compliments: “horse” → “pretty horse”; “tiny horse”; “angry, gnashing, feral horse”
  • Nouns act as compliments to Determiners, specifically Articles (the, a/an), Demonstratives (this/these, that/those, which), and Possessive Pronouns (my, your, his/her/its, our, their). If you can couple it with a determiner, it’s a noun: “horse” → “the horse”; “that horse”; “our horse”
  • Nouns (and more specifically, Determiner Phrases [DPs], which have nouns within them) act as compliments to Prepositions. The general term is “object of a preposition”: “atop the horse”; “under the horse”; “amid horses”
  • Nouns (again, more specifically DPs) occupy Subject and Object positions within a sentence; they have a close relationship with Verbs: “The horse ran the whole way”; “I see a horse”; “The horse sees me.”

I like the syntax definition best because A) I’m biased that way and B) It allows for a pretty straightforward litmus test. Slap an article in front of a word, and if it makes sense, it’s a noun. How easy is that?

A Word on Proper Nouns

Schoolhouse Rock says “every person you can know” is a noun, and gives the example of “Mrs. Jones.” THEY ARE WRONG.

Proper Nouns are, ironically enough, not Nouns at all. They’re Determiners. While they do have concrete referents, they fail the syntactic substitution test noun-to-noun, but pass when substituted for Determiners or DPs:

  • “The man” ≠ *”The Michael”
  • “The man” = “Michael”
  • “He” = “Michael” (Pronouns are Determiners, remember.)

Even in this example, though “Michael” is not universally interchangeable with “he” or “the man,” but relies on context. “Michael” could refer to a woman, to a car, to a cat, or to any other object that someone might brand with a proper name. There is no easy lexical definition for most proper names; they rely instead on context and in turn clarify meaning (which points to them being members of a grammatical category rather than a lexical one).

In other words, Nouns that are elevated to Proper Nouns receive Determiner status. (This creates the possibility for some fun wordplay, if  nothing else. See A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh for some lovely examples.)

Exercise #1

Identify all the nouns in the following sentence. [Hint: There are 6.] How do you know they are nouns?

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
~Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, chapter 1

Exercise #2

Wordplay: Pick 5 words belonging to a lexical category other than Noun (Verb, Adjective, Adverb, Preposition) and place them within a noun structure (Determiner Phrase). Use the structure in a sentence.

  • Example A: “think” (Verb) → “a think” → “I’m going to sit in the corner and have a think, all right?”
  • Example B: “pretty” (Adjective) → “my pretty” → “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!” [My compliments to the Wicked Witch of the West.]

Please note that this sort of writing might possibly mess with your word processor’s built-in grammar-check. That’s half the fun, actually. Also, Verbs and Adjectives are more easily converted than Adverbs and Prepositions, but play around as you please. That’s sort of the point.

Exit Question: How is a better understanding of Nouns useful to writers in developing their craft?

4 thoughts on “Nouns: An Overview”

  1. I love many things about you…always have, always will. I just found this website and read all your posts in one sitting. I have to say, I mostly love that you know what a gerund is. We still teach that at my school…to fourth graders…most of their parents think we are teaching a different language…nope…it is English. Love ya!

    1. Shalisa! <3 I love that you still teach gerunds, especially to fourth-graders! (It gives me hope for the future, hahaha.) I also love that *that's* your favorite thing out of all my posts so far. Team Grammar for the win!

      Thanks for reading, and thanks double for the encouraging words. I love you back, always have, always will!

  2. Ha! I did it! I found all the nouns in Exercise #1. But only because you told me there were six… 🙂 Great post. Thanks for calling out School House Rock.

    1. I’m not trying to call them out, exactly. They probably weren’t wrong when they wrote the jingle, but people were probably still diagramming sentences back then, too. It’s all x-bar theory now, and proper nouns just don’t fit into the noun category. 😉

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