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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

  • The cat sat on the mat.
  • Please hand in your assignments by the end of the week.
  • Cleanliness is next to godliness.
  • George Washington was the first president of the United States of America.

A noun can co-occur with an article or an attributive adjective. Verbs and adjectives can't. In the following, an asterisk (*) in front of an example means that this example is ungrammatical.

  1. the name (name is a noun: can co-occur with a definite article the.)
  2. *the baptize (baptize is a verb: cannot co-occur with a definite article.)
  3. constant circulation (circulation is a noun: can co-occur with the attributive adjective constant.)
  4. *constant circulate (circulate is a verb: cannot co-occur with the attributive adjective constant.)
  5. a fright (fright is a noun: can co-occur with the indefinite article a.)
  6. *an afraid (afraid is an adjective: cannot co-occur with the article a.)
  7. terrible fright (The noun fright can co-occur with the adjective terrible.)
  8. *terrible afraid (The adjective afraid cannot co-occur with the adjective terrible.)

In linguistics, a noun is a member of a large, open lexical category whose members can occur as the main word in the subject of a clause, the object of a verb, or the object of a preposition.[1]

Lexical categories are defined in terms of how their members combine with other kinds of expressions. The syntactic rules for nouns differ from language to language. In English, nouns may be defined as those words which can occur with articles and attributive adjectives and can function as the head of a noun phrase.

In traditional English grammar, the noun is one of the eight parts of speech.



The word comes from the Latin nomen meaning name. Word classes like nouns were first described by the Sanskrit grammarian Pāṇini and ancient Greeks like Dionysios Thrax, and were defined in terms of their morphological properties. For example, in Ancient Greek, nouns inflect for grammatical case, such as dative or accusative.

Different definitions of nouns

Expressions of natural language have properties at different levels. They have formal properties, like what kinds of morphological prefixes or suffixes they take and what kinds of other expressions they combine with; but they also have semantic properties, i.e. properties pertaining to their meaning. The definition of a noun at the outset of this article is thus a formal, traditional grammatical definition. That definition, for the most part, is considered uncontroversial and furnishes the means for users of certain languages to effectively distinguish most nouns from non-nouns. However, it has the disadvantage that it does not apply to nouns in all languages. For example in Russian, there are no definite articles, so one cannot define nouns as words that are modified by definite articles. There have also been several attempts to define nouns in terms of their semantic properties. Many of these are controversial, but some are discussed below.

Names for things

In traditional school grammars, one often encounters the definition of nouns that they are all and only those expressions that refer to a person, place, thing, event, substance, quality, or idea, etc. This is a semantic definition. It has been criticized by contemporary linguists as being uninformative.[citation needed] Contemporary linguists generally agree that one cannot successfully define nouns (or other grammatical categories) in terms of what sort of object in the world they refer to or signify. Part of the conundrum is that the definition makes use of relatively general nouns (thing, phenomenon, event) to define what nouns are.

The existence of such general nouns demonstrates that nouns refer to entities that are organized in taxonomic hierarchies. But other kinds of expressions are also organized into such structured taxonomic relationships. For example the verbs stroll, saunter, stride, and tread are more specific words than the more general walk. Moreover, walk is more specific than the verb move, which, in turn, is less general than change. But it is unlikely that such taxonomic relationships can be used to define nouns and verbs. We cannot define verbs as those words that refer to changes or states, for example, because the nouns change and state probably refer to such things, but, of course, aren't verbs. Similarly, nouns like invasion, meeting, or collapse refer to things that are done or happen. In fact, an influential theory has it that verbs like kill or die refer to events,[2][3] one of the categories of things that nouns are supposed to refer to.

The point being made here is not that this view of verbs is wrong, but rather that this property of verbs is a poor basis for a definition of this category, just like the property of having wheels is a poor basis for a definition of cars (some things that have wheels, such as most suitcases or a jumbo jet, aren't cars). Similarly, adjectives like yellow or difficult might be thought to refer to qualities, and adverbs like outside or upstairs seem to refer to places, which are also among the sorts of things nouns can refer to. But verbs, adjectives and adverbs are not nouns, and nouns aren't verbs, adjectives or adverbs. One might argue that definitions of this sort really rely on speakers' prior intuitive knowledge of what nouns, verbs and adjectives are, and, so don't really add anything over and this. Speakers' intuitive knowledge of such things might plausibly be based on formal criteria, such as the traditional grammatical definition of English nouns aforementioned.

Prototypically referential expressions

Another semantic definition of nouns is that they are prototypically referential.[4]

Predicates with identity criteria

The British logician Peter Thomas Geach proposed a more subtle semantic definition of nouns.[5] He noticed that adjectives like "same" can modify nouns, but no other kinds of parts of speech, like verbs or adjectives. Not only that, but there also do not seem to be any other expressions with similar meaning that can modify verbs and adjectives. Consider the following examples.

grammatical: John and Bill participated in the same fight.
ungrammatical: *John and Bill samely fought.

There is no English adverb samely. In some other languages, like Czech, however there are adverbs corresponding to samely. Hence, in Czech, the translation of the last sentence would be fine; however, it would mean that John and Bill fought in the same way: not that they participated in the same fight. Geach proposed that we could explain this, if nouns denote logical predicates with identity criteria. An identity criterion would allow us to conclude, for example, that person x at time 1 is the same person as person y at time 2. Different nouns can have different identity criteria. A well known example of this is due to Gupta:[6]

National Airlines transported 2 million passengers in 1979.
National Airlines transported (at least) 2 million persons in 1979.

Given that, in general, all passengers are persons, the last sentence above ought to follow logically from the first one. But it doesn't. It is easy to imagine, for example, that on average, every person who travelled with National Airlines in 1979, travelled with them twice. In that case, one would say that the airline transported 2 million passengers but only 1 million persons. Thus, the way that we count passengers isn't necessarily the same as the way that we count persons. Put somewhat differently: At two different times, you may correspond to two distinct passengers, even though you are one and the same person. For a precise definition of identity criteria, see Gupta.[6]

Recently, Mark Baker[7] has proposed that Geach's definition of nouns in terms of identity criteria allows us to explain the characteristic properties of nouns. He argues that nouns can co-occur with (in-)definite articles and numerals, and are prototypically referential because they are all and only those parts of speech that provide identity criteria. Baker's proposals are quite new, and linguists are still evaluating them.

Classification of nouns in English

Proper nouns and common nouns

Proper name redirects here. For the philosophy of language concept, see Proper name (philosophy).

Proper nouns (also called proper names) are nouns representing unique entities (such as London, Jupiter or Johnny), as distinguished from common nouns which describe a class of entities (such as city, planet or person).[8] Proper nouns are not normally preceded by an article or other limiting modifier (such as any or some), and are used to denote a particular person, place, or thing without regard to any descriptive meaning the word or phrase may have. The meaning of proper noun capitalization is uniqueness within an implicit context, that is, it provides a name to an instance of a general type when the instance is unique within an implicit context. Context shifts therefore can affect it, as discussed later (see Intersections of common and proper senses).

In English and most other languages that use the Latin alphabet, proper nouns are usually capitalized.[9] Languages differ in whether most elements of multiword proper nouns are capitalised (e.g., American English House of Representatives) or only the initial element (e.g., Slovenian Državni zbor 'National Assembly'). In German, nouns of all types are capitalized. The convention of capitalizing all nouns was previously used in English, but ended circa 1800.[citation needed] In America, the shift in capitalization is recorded in several noteworthy documents. The end (but not the beginning) of the Declaration of Independence (1776) and all of the Constitution (1787) show nearly all nouns capitalized, the Bill of Rights (1789) capitalizes a few common nouns but not most of them, and the Thirteenth Constitutional Amendment (1865) only capitalizes proper nouns.

Intersections of common and proper senses

Sometimes the same word can function as both a common noun and a proper noun, depending on context. Two variants of this principle can be distinguished, although the distinction is blurred by real-world use of the labels to refer to instances of both types. They have no universally agreed names (that is, no standardized metalanguage), but the names "capitonym"[10] and "specific designator"[11] have some currency.


A capitonym is a word that changes its meaning (and sometimes pronunciation) when it is capitalized. It is a type of homonym. The capitalized version's meaning sometimes may be a special case of the lowercase version's meaning, or it may be eponymously related to it. For example:

Capitalized word Lowercased word Relationship between the words
Catholic [of the Roman Catholic Church] catholic [universal] The former grew from the latter as a special case
China [the country] china [the tableware] The latter is related to the former via eponymity, although the linguistic paths of the words to English were not of the typical direct eponymous connection[12]
Ionic [the architectural style] ionic [relating to ions] Not related
Job [the Biblical person] job [employment] Not related
Lima [a city in Peru] lima [a type of bean] The latter grew from the former eponymously[12][13]
March [the month] march [the style of moving] Not related
Pole [a person from Poland] pole [a long rod] Not related
Polish [from Poland] polish [a paste rubbed on something to make it shiny] Not related
Specific designators

There are many words that are generally common nouns but that can easily "serve temporary proper noun duty" (or "contextual proper noun duty"). Some examples are agency, avenue, boulevard, box, building, bureau, case, chapter, city, class, college, day, edition, floor, grade, group, hospital, level, office, page, paragraph, part, phase, road, school, stage, step, street, type, university, week. The temporary proper noun duty occurs when the common noun is paired with a number or other word to create a name for a specific instance of an abstraction (that is, a specific case of a general type). It is then referred to as a "specific designator". For example:

  • Mary lives on the third floor of the main building. (common noun senses throughout)
  • Mary lives on Floor 3 of the Main Building. (same information content but recast cognitively as proper names. There is no etic difference except the cognitive one of the specificity that the capitalization imbues. It establishes an implicit sense that "within our commonly understood context, the main building being referenced is the only main building. It is a unique object [as far as our context is concerned].)
  • My bookmark takes me to the main page of the English Wikipedia.
  • What is the proper name of that page?
  • It is the Main Page.
  • Sanjay lives on the beach road. [the road that runs along the beach]
  • Sanjay lives on Beach Road. [the specific road that is named with the capitalized proper name "Beach Road". It is a unique instance of a road in the world, although its proper name is unique only within our province. Our neighboring province also has a road named Beach Road.]
  • In 1947, the U.S. established the Central Intelligence Agency.
  • In 1947, the U.S. established a central intelligence agency to coordinate its various foreign intelligence efforts. It was named the Central Intelligence Agency.
  • India has a ministry of home affairs. It is called the Ministry of Home Affairs. (Within the context of India, it is the only ministry of home affairs, so you can name it by capitalizing the common noun. Within the context of planet Earth, it is a unique organization, but capitalizing the common noun is not a viable way to arrive at a unique proper name for it, because other countries also may use that same name for their unique organization. Another way to say the same idea is that within India's namespace, the naming convention provides sufficient uniqueness of the identifier, but within planet Earth's namespace, it does not. In physical reality, every country's interior ministry is a cosmically unique object. It is simply a matter of naming, and of whether a naming convention provides identifiers that are unique, which depends on the scope of context.)
  • The university has a college of arts and sciences.
  • The University of San Diego has a college of arts and sciences, which is called the College of Arts and Sciences.
  • The university has a school of medicine.
  • The University of Hawaii at Manoa has a school of medicine, which is called the John A. Burns School of Medicine.
  • This northwestern university has a school of medicine.
  • The Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine is headquartered in Chicago.
  • The 16th robotic probe to land on the planet was assigned to study the planet's north pole, and the 17th probe was assigned to its south pole. (common noun senses throughout)
  • When Probe 17 overflew the South Pole, it passed directly over the place where Captain Scott's expedition ended. (In this hypothetical sentence, it is the Earth's south pole that is being referenced, and its proper name is the South Pole.)

Because the orthographic classification has room for various implicit cognitive frames, it is somewhat arbitrary, which is to say, individuals can make different choices without either one being "wrong", and they cannot easily describe to each other their differing frames, because of the implicitness. However, readers dislike seeing juxtaposed capitalization differences, that is, inconsistencies. Therefore, most publishers attempt to codify consistent handling of the framing using style guides. For example, the Associated Press's AP Stylebook[14] uses a dictionary format, and in many of its entries it offers guidance to AP journalists and editors on how to consistently implement the AP's preferred logic regarding the times when common and proper senses intersect. For example, when the Federal Bureau of Investigation is first mentioned, "Bureau" is capitalized because it is serving as a specific designator, that is, it is a common noun "serving contextual proper noun duty". However, subsequent mentions, such as "the bureau announced …", are lowercased, because the word is being used in its common noun sense.[14] The same logic applies to the word ocean. AP says, "ocean: The five, from the largest to the smallest: Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean, Antarctic Ocean, Arctic Ocean. Lowercase ocean standing alone or in plural uses: the ocean, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.[14] The American Medical Association's AMA Manual of Style, 10th edition[11] similarly gives guidance to its users. For example, it is AMA style not to capitalize words such as level or case or stage even when they are serving specific-designator duty (for example, "In case 5, the patient was found to have stage IIIA disease").[11]

Capitonym or specific designator?

The nature of capitonyms and specific designators is often related: in both cases, a word root's common and proper senses may be logically related to each other. A few words can be viewed as either capitonyms or specific designators; the evaluation is subjective. For example:

  • The common noun moon denotes any natural planet-like satellite of a planet, whereas the proper noun Moon references a specific moon, that is, the Earth's moon. Dictionaries descriptively reflect that the latter sense is "often" capitalized (by which they imply "often [or usually] capitalized in educated writers' published writing".[12][13]
  • The same status described above for moon/Moon also describes sun/Sun.[12][13]
  • The common noun god denotes any deity from any religion, whereas the proper noun God references a specific monotheistic God. Dictionaries descriptively reflect that the latter sense is capitalized (by which they imply "[almost] always in educated writers' published writing").[12][13]
  • The common noun crown metonymically became Crown in referring to specific monarchs. Throughout human history, there have been various Crowns and various united kingdoms, but today the words Crown and United Kingdom often/usually have a specific reference that is known around the world (that is, relating to Britain).

The unifying theme of these subjective capitonym/specific designator fence-riders is that they are not just special cases, but very special cases, in terms of shifting from common to proper, that is, from many instances to one unique instance. In addition, in the cases of the celestial bodies, it is clear which sense came first: the proper sense. When language first developed, to the extent that humans knew their context, the Sun and the Moon were cosmically unique objects. As humans' context widened, their newfound need for common nouns to name the general type was supplied by retronymy, in which the most logical way to create a common noun was to use the same word but broaden its senses.

Translation decisions

The common meaning of the word or words constituting a proper noun may be unrelated to the object to which the proper noun refers. For example, someone might be named Tiger Smith despite being neither a tiger nor a smith. For this reason, proper nouns are usually not translated between languages, although they may be transliterated. For example, the German surname Knödel becomes Knodel or Knoedel in English (not the literal Dumpling). However, the transcription of place names and the names of monarchs, popes, and non-contemporary authors is common and sometimes universal. For instance, the Portuguese word Lisboa becomes Lisbon in English; the English London becomes Londres in French; and the Greek Ἁριστοτέλης (Aristotelēs) becomes Aristotle in English.

Countable and uncountable nouns

Count nouns are common nouns that can take a plural, can combine with numerals or quantifiers (e.g., one, two, several, every, most), and can take an indefinite article (a or an). Examples of count nouns are chair, nose, and occasion.

Mass nouns (or non-count nouns) differ from count nouns in precisely that respect: they can't take plural or combine with number words or quantifiers. Examples from English include laughter, cutlery, helium, and furniture. For example, it is not possible to refer to a furniture or three furnitures. This is true even though the pieces of furniture comprising furniture could be counted. Thus the distinction between mass and count nouns should not be made in terms of what sorts of things the nouns refer to, but rather in terms of how the nouns present these entities.[15][16]

Collective nouns

Collective nouns are nouns that refer to groups consisting of more than one individual or entity, even when they are inflected for the singular. Examples include committee, herd, and school (of fish). These nouns have slightly different grammatical properties than other nouns. For example, the noun phrases that they head can serve as the subject of a collective predicate, even when they are inflected for the singular. A collective predicate is a predicate that cannot normally take a singular subject. An example of the latter is talked amongst themselves.

Good: The boys talked among themselves.
Bad: *The boy talked among themselves.
Bad: The committee talked among themselves.

Concrete nouns and abstract nouns

Concrete nouns refer to physical entities that can, in principle at least, be observed by at least one of the senses (for instance, chair, apple, Janet or atom). Abstract nouns, on the other hand, refer to abstract objects; that is, ideas or concepts (such as justice or hatred). While this distinction is sometimes useful, the boundary between concrete and abstract is not always clear; consider, for example, the noun art, which usually refers to a concept (e.g., Art is an important element of human culture) but which can refer to a specific artwork in certain contexts (e.g., I put my daughter's art up on the fridge).

In English, many abstract nouns are formed by adding noun-forming suffixes (-ness, -ity, -tion) to adjectives or verbs. Examples are happiness (from the adjective happy), circulation (from the verb circulate) and serenity (from the adjective serene).

Nouns and pronouns

Nouns and noun phrases can typically be replaced by pronouns, such as he, it, which, and those, in order to avoid repetition or explicit identification, or for other reasons. For example, in the sentence Janet thought that he was weird, the word he is a pronoun standing in place of the name of the person in question. The English word one can replace parts of noun phrases, and it sometimes stands in for a noun. An example is given below:

John's car is newer than the one that Bill has.

But one can also stand in for bigger subparts of a noun phrase. For example, in the following example, one can stand in for new car.

This new car is cheaper than that one.

Substantive as a word for noun

Starting with old Latin grammars, many European languages use some form of the word substantive as the basic term for noun (for example, Spanish sustantivo, "noun"). Nouns in the dictionaries of such languages are demarked by the abbreviation s. or sb. instead of n, which may be used for proper nouns instead. This corresponds to those grammars in which nouns and adjectives phase into each other in more areas than, for example, the English term predicate adjective entails. In French and Spanish, for example, adjectives frequently act as nouns referring to people who have the characteristics of the adjective. The most common metalanguage to name this concept is nominalization. An example in English is:

The poor you have always with you.

Similarly, an adjective can also be used for a whole group or organization of people:

The Socialist International.

Hence, these words are substantives that are usually adjectives in English.

The word nominal also overlaps in meaning and usage with noun and adjective.

See also


  1. ^ Loos, Eugene E., et al. 2003. Glossary of linguistic terms: What is a noun?
  2. ^ Davidson, Donald. 1967. The logical form of action sentences. In Nicholas Rescher, ed., The Logic of Decision and Action, Pittsburgh, Pa: University of Pittsburgh Press.
  3. ^ Parsons, Terence. 1990. Events in the semantics of English: a study in subatomic semantics. Cambridge, Mass.:MIT Press
  4. ^ Croft, William. 1993. "A noun is a noun is a noun - or is it? Some reflections on the universality of semantics". Proceedings of the Nineteenth Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society, ed. Joshua S. Guenter, Barbara A. Kaiser and Cheryl C. Zoll, 369-80. Berkeley: Berkeley Linguistics Society.
  5. ^ Geach, Peter. 1962. Reference and Generality. Cornell University Press.
  6. ^ a b Gupta, Anil. 1980, The logic of common nouns. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
  7. ^ Baker, Mark. 2003, Lexical Categories: verbs, nouns, and adjectives. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  8. ^ Lester, Mark; Larry Beason (2005). The McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage. McGraw-Hill. p. 4. ISBN 0-07-144133-6. 
  9. ^ "The Proper Noun". Retrieved 2007-03-23. 
  10. ^ Steeves, Jon, Online Dictionary of Language Terminology, 
  11. ^ a b c Iverson, Cheryl (editor) (2007), AMA Manual of Style (10 ed.), Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780195176339 , section 10.4: Designators.
  12. ^ a b c d e Houghton Mifflin (2000), The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed ed.), Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 978-0-395-82517-4 
  13. ^ a b c d Merriam-Webster (1993), Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (10th ed ed.), Springfield, Massachusetts, USA: Merriam-Webster, ISBN 978-0877797074 
  14. ^ a b c Associated Press (2007), The Associated Press Stylebook (42 ed.), New York, NY, USA: Basic Books, ISBN 978-0-465-00489-8 
  15. ^ Krifka, Manfred. 1989. "Nominal Reference, Temporal Constitution and Quantification in Event Semantics". In R. Bartsch, J. van Benthem, P. von Emde Boas (eds.), Semantics and Contextual Expression, Dordrecht: Foris Publication.
  16. ^ Borer, Hagit. 2005. In Name Only. Structuring Sense, Volume I. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


External links

Simple English

  • The dog slept.
  • That is John.
  • This is the Alton police station.
  • The pay of the job is high.
  • Go there on Monday.
  • I like pumpkins.

A noun is a kind of word (see part of speech) that is usually the name of a person, place, thing, quality, or idea. In English, nouns can be singular or plural.

Nouns often need a word called an article or determiner (like the or that). These words usually do not go with other kinds of words like verbs or adverbs. (For example, people do not say "I will the go to school" because go is a verb.) Adjectives can also describe nouns. In English, there are more nouns than any other kind of word.

Every language in the world has nouns, but they are not always used in the same ways. They also can have different properties in different languages. For example, in some other languages, nouns do not change for singular and plural, and sometimes there is no word for the.

Some examples of nouns in English are: time, people, way, year, government, day, world, life, work, part, number, house, system, company, end, party, information.


The history of the word noun

The word 'noun' comes from the Latin nomen meaning "name." Words like nouns were described in early days by the Sanskrit grammarian Pāṇini and ancient Greeks like Dionysios Thrax.

Uses of nouns

In English sentences, nouns can be used as a subject, object, or complement. They often come after prepositions, as the 'object of preposition'.

Nouns can sometimes describe other nouns (such as a soccer ball). When they do this, they are called modifiers.

There are also verb forms that can be used in the same way as nouns (such as 'I like running.) These are called verbals or verbal nouns, and include participles (which can also be adjectives) and infinitives.

Kinds of nouns

Nouns are grouped into common nouns, and proper nouns. There are also pronouns. These have commonly been considered a different part of speech from nouns, but in the past some grammars have included them as nouns[1] as do many modern linguists[2].

Proper nouns

A proper noun (also called proper name) is a name given to individual people, places, companies, or brands. Some examples of proper nouns are: London, John, God, October, Mozart, Saturday, Coke, Mr. Brown, Atlantic Ocean

Proper nouns begin with an upper case (capital) letter in English and many other languages that use the Roman alphabet. (However, in German, all nouns begin with an upper case letter.) The word "I" is really a pronoun, although it is capitalized in English, like a proper noun.

Some common nouns (see below) can also be used as proper nouns. For example, someone might be named 'Tiger Smith' -- even though he is not a tiger or a smith.

Common nouns

Common nouns are all other nouns that are not proper nouns. Sometimes the same word can be either a common noun or a proper noun, depending on how it is used; for example:

  • there can be many gods, but there is only one God.
  • there can be many internets (two or more networks connected together), but the largest internet in the world is the Internet.

Number and countability

In English and many other languages, nouns have 'number'. But some nouns are only singular (such as furniture, physics) and others are only plural (such as clothes, police). Also, some nouns are 'countable' (they can be counted, for example, one piece, two pieces) but others are not (for example, we do not say one furniture, two furnitures).


Nouns are words for things, and since things can be possessed, nouns can also change to show possession in grammar. In English, we usually add an apostrophe and an s to nouns to make them possessive, or sometimes just an apostrophe when there is already an s at the end, like this:

  • This is Sam. This is Sam's cat.
  • The woman's hair is long.
  • There are three cats. The cats' mother is sleeping.

How adjectives become nouns

Most adjectives become nouns by adding the suffix ness. Example: Take the adjective 'natural', add 'ness' to get 'naturalness', a noun. To see a list of 100 adjectives used in Basic English, click here

Other pages


  1. "noun, a.1" The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. <>.
  2. Huddleston, R. & Pullum, G. K. (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

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