For basic understanding of what nouns are, see the page about nouns.
Depending on who you talk to, there are between five and eight ways in which we can use nouns. These are: subject, direct object, indirect object, predicate nominative, object of preposition, objective complement, appositive, and noun of direct address.
Using nouns as subjects
A subject is – broadly speaking – something we are talking about. Most sentences have subjects, and the subject is often a noun. If I say, ‘Miranda wants some food‘, the subject of the sentence is ‘Miranda’. The word ‘food’ is also a noun, but the important topic of the sentence is Miranda.
A noun is the subject of a sentence if that noun is doing something, or thinking something, or being talked about in reference to something. In languages such as Latin and Greek it’s important to know what the subject of a sentence is, as nouns take particular forms depending on how they’re being used. The subject is also sometimes called the nominative form.
You can use all kinds of nouns as subjects of sentences. For instance:
The computer is very useful (an item)
The herd of cows ate some grass (a collective noun)
Simon says, ‘Stand up’ (a person)
Cyprus is a hot country in the Mediterranean (a place)
Anger can be deadly (an abstract noun)
Using nouns as direct objects
In that sentence above, ‘Miranda wants some food‘ , the word ‘food’ is not the subject of the sentence, but is the object of Miranda’s wants. So, grammatically, it’s known as the direct object. An object of a sentence has something done to it, or is being considered in some way by the subject of the sentence. If I say, ‘Jeremy kicked James‘, Jeremy is the subject since he is the one doing the kicking. James is the direct object, as he is the one being kicked.
In some languages, the direct object of a sentence is called the accusative form.
Using nouns as indirect objects
Subjects and direct objects are fairly straightforward. But sometimes a sentence is more complex. For instance: ‘Millicent gave Miranda an apple‘. The subject of the sentence is Millicent, because she’s the one doing the giving. But what is the direct object?
It might seem at first glance to be Miranda, since she is the recipient of the apple, but what did Millicent actually give? It was the apple. So the apple is the direct object of that sentence. We could write the sentence, ‘Millicent gave an apple to Miranda‘. The meaning would be the same, but it would be more obvious that the apple is the object of the giving. Miranda is, grammatically, the indirect object of the sentence.
Here are a few more examples:
Sarah went shopping. (Sarah is the subject of the sentence)
Samuel bought a present (Samuel is the subject, the present is the direct object)
Selina bought Simon a present (Selina is the subject, the present is the direct object, Simon is the indirect object).
These three forms are the main ways in which we use nouns in English. If your children understand them, they may find it easier when studying other languages where nouns take different forms depending on their grammar. There are also some more complex ways in which nouns can fit into sentences; you can read about them on the complex ways of using nouns page.
For further information on English grammar, see:
Basic English grammar – why it’s worth studying, an overview of the different parts of speech
Verbs – different forms, tenses, and voices
Pronouns – how to use pronouns, and their different uses in sentences
Adjectives – what adjectives are, how to use them, comparative and superlative forms
Adverbs – what adverbs are, when and how to use them