Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

English – Part 3: Nouns

© 2013 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

For most of us, I suspect that while we vaguely recall being taught the grammar of our native language, for the most part, we don't remember or care what the formal rules are. We just "know" how to speak in an acceptable way even if it might not be quite correct. When someone says to me, "We done that yesterday." I know that they really meant, "We did that yesterday." From a practical viewpoint, language is more about communicating than correct usage. That said, it doesn't hurt to know how to—and to intentionally—speak and write correctly. People will judge you by the way you speak and write. [For a tongue-in-cheek look at my thoughts about grammar, see "Rex on English and Writing".]

In contemporary English, there are eight parts of speech: noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, adverb, conjunction, preposition, and interjection (sometimes called an exclamation). In this and subsequent essays, we'll look at each. Note though, there will not be a test at the end!

Note that not only did I write, "In English …", I wrote, "In contemporary English, …". The rules may differ between languages, and may even have changed during a particular language's evolution. And then there are different conventions for different dialects.

Many words can be used as more than one part of speech, for example:

  • "I bought a drink." (noun) / "I drink coffee." (verb)
  • "The early bird catches the worm!" (adjective) / "The plane arrived a few minutes early." (adverb)
  • "All children are admitted free." (adjective) / "They gave their all." (noun) / "That's for all of us." (pronoun) / "The instructions were all wrong." (adverb)

Although this series of essays is about English parts of speech, in the spirit of normal, I'll make occasional comments about interesting differences with other languages. Besides, if you ever try to learn another language, sooner or later you'll run into concepts and conventions, some of which are quite different from those in English, and which might not even have an English counterpart.

For many years, many American university students were encouraged—indeed required—to buy a copy of William Strunk, Jr. and E.B White's The Elements of Style. For anyone interested in a more current and eminently readable alternative, I suggest Patricia T. O'Conner's Woe is I. From that book, you can learn something practical each time you open it over a cup of coffee, even if you read only a few sentences or paragraphs at a sitting. [Thanks much Scott for that book, a gift that keeps right on giving!]

Getting Started

As far back as I can recall a noun (abbrev. n) has been the name of a person (e.g., man and Mary), place (e.g., street and Paris), or thing (car and Parliament House). We can extend that definition to include other concrete things such as actions (swimming), as well as abstract things such as ideas (joy) and qualities (honesty).

Nouns can be classified as either proper or common. A proper noun refers to something unique, and, typically, it is capitalized. Examples are John Lennon, Amsterdam, the Earth, Google, the Pacific Ocean, and the Pyramids of Egypt. All non-proper nouns are common, including earth when it refers to the soil rather than the planet. Pets usually have names, and they are often considered members of the family. As a result, we treat their names as proper nouns too. And while racehorses are generally not considered pets, they too have proper-noun names. [Some would argue that a proper noun may consist of a single word only; they refer to multi-word proper nouns as proper names. Using that model, examples are the White House, the Kingdom of Norway, and Doctors without Borders.] Proper nouns and names that identify people may take on titles, as in "Dr. Livingston, I presume" and "Sir Richard Francis Burton". In English, the days of the week and the months of the year are proper nouns, so are capitalized. [This is not the case in Spanish or French.] Interestingly, the season names—such as summer and spring—are proper nouns, yet that are typically not capitalized. Also, while the Unites States of America (often abbreviated as America) is a proper noun, a person from that country, an American [spelled with a leading capital letter], is not, since it doesn't refer to a unique thing.

Verbal and Adjectival Nouns

Many nouns have their root in a corresponding verb. For example, swim leads to the verbal nouns swimming and swimmer, and organize leads to organization and organizer. Some nouns have their root in a corresponding adjective. For example, lonely leads to loneliness, likely leads to likelihood, and absurd leads to absurdity.

Countable Nouns

Another form of classification for nouns is countable vs. uncountable. A countable noun can occur in the plural form, can be combined with numbers, and can be used with an indefinite article (see later below). For example, dog allows dogs, three dogs, a dog, several dogs, and every dog. An uncountable noun is, well, a noun that isn't countable! An instance of the countable noun computer belongs to the family having the uncountable noun name, equipment. We cannot say equipments, each equipment, or use numbers with that word.

A common mistake in regard to countable vs. uncountable nouns is with the use of the comparatives less and fewer. One can have less ice (uncountable) and fewer ice cubes (countable), but one cannot have less ice cubes. One has less time, but fewer hours. Interestingly, the opposite comparative for both words, more, can be used for both countable and uncountable nouns. Can a noun be used in both countable and uncountable contexts? Absolutely! For example, "I eat fruits", and "Some fruits are tropical".

Noun Phrases and Clauses

Simply put, a noun phrase is a phrase that can serve as a noun. For example, "The big black bear attacked the hive of angry honeybees." Likewise, a noun clause is a clause that can serve as a noun. For example, "I know that the flight time to London is five hours."

Collective Nouns

A collective noun is a singular noun that names a group of two or more things. For example, "A committee might have many members" and "She bought a set of wine glasses". Now, when it comes to the names of collections of birds and animals, without a doubt, English has a very large and exotic set. Yes, we all know about a flock of sheep and a school of fish, but what about a congregation of alligators, a bellowing of bullfinches, a gulp of cormorants, an escargatoire of snails, a chattering of starlings, and a gam of whales? To see a long list, click here. [A pet peeve of mine occurs in sports reports in the British Commonwealth. Take the game of cricket (PLEASE!). Sentences like, "England were all out for 95 runs", abound. Now the last time I looked, England was a singular place—it's not multiplying is it? Eek!—so I believe it should be, "England was …". The thing that does exist in the plural is the players on the English team; in which case, "The players on the English team were …" is what was really intended.]

Noun Adjuncts

A noun can modify another noun, in which case, it is a noun adjunct. Examples are oak tree, fruit salad, door key, and chicken noodle soup.

Plural Forms

We've seen examples of both singular and plural nouns, but what are the rules for turning the former into the latter? I remember well when I first read through my introductory German book, which said, "There are eight common ways to form a plural." That seemed unnecessarily complicated, until I started looking at the idiosyncrasies of plurals in English. Yes, there are the obvious ones, adding an s (cat/cats) or es (peach/peaches). But then there are all those "little" exceptions, of which English is so fond: baby/babies, shelf/shelves, man/men, child/children, goose/geese, mouse/mice, person/people, criterion/criteria, and on ad infinitum! And sheep and deer serve in both roles. (So does fish, but fishes does exist.) And then there are nouns retaining their foreign origins. For example, cactus/cacti, forum/fora, opus/opera, and chateau/chateaux. However, if you look in an American-English dictionary, don't be surprised if you find the following: cactus/cactuses, forum/forums, opus/opuses or opera/operas, and chateau/chateaus. Sacrebleu!

Some nouns exist only in the plural form, such as eyeglasses, scissors, shorts, and trousers. Now these all come in "pairs", even though they each represent a single object. Yet we use them in countable contexts, as in "I want to buy some shorts", even if we intend to buy only one pair. However, when it comes to using articles or numbers, we really need to say "a pair of shorts" or "three pairs of eyeglasses", for example.

Quite a few nouns are hyphenated, and care must be taken when forming plurals. For example, three-year-olds and six-packs both have the s at the very end. However, brothers-in-law, commanders-in-chief, and attorneys-general all have the s after the first word.

When multiple nouns are involved, more than one word can have plural forms: for example, gentleman farmer/gentlemen farmers.

Regarding plurals, I'll leave you with the factoid that Japanese doesn't have them! Of course, if that were the end of that story, that would be way too easy, so they invented the concept of counters, which go along with the actual count, and describe some fundamental aspect of the object. For example, in English we might say, "I have three books"; the Japanese equivalent is something like, "I have three flat/bound-thingy book". The word book stays in the singular.


English has articles: the indefinite articles a and an, and the definite article the. Articles go before nouns or noun phrases to indicate any one non-specific thing or one or more specific thing(s). Examples are "a woman", "an apple", and "the men on horseback".

Fortunately, when one learns a new noun in English, one needn't attach an article to it. Okay, but why mention this? Well, more than a few languages classify their nouns as having grammatical gender. For example, in Spanish, which has two genders—masculine and feminine—one learns el señor (the man) rather than just señor, to reflect that a man has masculine gender. You might say, "That's obvious; of course a man is masculine!", but note that, similarly, one learns la casa (the house) instead of simply casa, because a house has feminine gender. All nouns in Spanish have one or the other gender; that's just something to which you have to get used. [At least the gender of a great many Spanish nouns can be determined by the noun's ending, something not true in German. German has three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter, and of course, each has its own set of articles. Sigh! My favorite example is der Mann (the man), die Frau (the woman), and das Mädchen (the girl). For some reason, German boys are considered masculine while German girls are neuter! See American writer, Mark Twain's, humorous essay called, "Die Schreckliche Deutsche Sprache" ("The Awful German Language"), in which he put the worst possible spin on that language, but in an entertaining way. And as you might have noticed, in German, all nouns are capitalized.] By the way, Old English nouns had gender!

For the most part, articles are quite straightforward; however, the choice between the two indefinite articles is worth a mention. Simply stated, "Use a when the following noun [phrase] starts with a vowel sound; otherwise use an." Note carefully, that I wrote "vowel sound", not "vowel". Not all vowels are pronounced as vowel sounds. For example, regarding nouns with a leading vowel:

  • an apple
  • an egg but a ewe and a eucalypt tree
  • an Indian
  • an orange but a one-way street
  • an umbrella but a union

And for nouns with a leading consonant:

  • a house but an honest man and an heir, as in the latter two cases, the h is silent.

In American English, the h in herb is generally silent whereas in British English it is not, resulting in an (h)erb and a herb, respectively.

In older, period-English dialog, one often comes across "an hotel". Considering the word's French origin, hôtel, where the h is silent, one can see why a supposedly sophisticated English person might drop the h.

Actually, the rule stated above assumes the article is followed directly by the noun [phrase]. However, while "an orange" is correct, so too is "a big orange". So it's the sound of the first syllable of the word following the article that really matters.

As it happens, an article is not, in fact, one of the eight parts of English speech. So what is it then? I've searched numerous on-line places and comprehensive paper dictionaries, and not one of them actually answers that question. All they say is that a and an are indefinite articles and the is a definite article! As best as I have been able to figure out, articles are used as adjectives. That said I have seen example of these words used as adverbs.

Although not a grammatical gender issue, due to political correctness, gender-specific nouns like actor/actress are being used less often with the masculine form being used instead for both. On the other hand, with more woman running things, some people classify committee leaders as chairmen/chairwomen, or they simply use chair. However, my experience has been that more and more words ending in -man (such as chairman) are being used for woman as well as men. [The politically correct chairperson didn't appear to get much traction.]


If you have made it this far, no doubt you'll have found that the humble noun is much more interesting that it first seemed, right? No? Surely, the list of animal-group names alone was worth the read!

Stayed tuned for more than you want to know about pronouns and other exciting parts of speech. Now, about that test …