Complex ways of using nouns

For a basic introduction to nouns, see the page about nouns in English grammar. For the most straightforward use of nouns as subject, direct object or indirect object of a sentence, see basic use of nouns.

The names for the remaining ways of using nouns are, in my view, less significant. I had never heard of the names of these constructions in school or writing courses, and only came across them when my sons were studying grammar with an American course.

Predicate nominative

To understand this, remember first that ‘nominative’ is another word for ‘subject of a sentence’. As for predicate, that – in essence – means ‘all the rest of a sentence that isn’t the subject’. So a predicate nominative refers to a noun which re-states or stands for the subject of the sentence directly, but isn’t, grammatically speaking, the subject.

For example: James is a child. James is the subject of the sentence, and there is no direct or indirect object. The word ‘child’ refers back to James himself . In Latin or Greek, the nominative form would be used here even though the word ‘child’ isn’t the subject of the sentence.

More examples of using nouns as predicate nominatives:

The present was a book
Cyprus is a hot country
Wisdom is the key to success

Using nouns as objects of prepositions

Prepositions are little words such as ‘from’ or ‘by’. If a noun is used after one of them, it’s a bit like an indirect object, but not exactly. For example: Thomas was walking with Timothy.

In that sentence, Thomas is the subject, the word ‘with’ is a preposition, so Timothy, in this sentence, is the object of a preposition.

More examples of nouns used as objects of prepositions:

The cat sat on the fence
I went shopping in New York
I smiled with happiness when I heard the news.

Using nouns as objective complements

These work a bit like predicate nominatives, except that they refer to the object of a sentence rather than the subject. In other words, the objective complement (or object complement) is a noun that renames or stands for the object of the sentence. For example: The class elected Peter president. Class is the subject, Peter is the object, and the word president explains more about the object – so it’s the objective complement.

Object complements are more often adjectives than nouns (eg ‘I painted my room blue‘; ‘he made me happy‘) and are not always classified as different types of noun, since (a) they’re fairly rare in this form (b) they’re yet another form of object. A sentence with a noun as objective complement can often be phrased slightly differently to make it an object of preposition instead: eg ‘The class elected Peter as president‘.

Using nouns as appositives

An appositive is very like a predicate nominative, except that it doesn’t have a verb linking it with the subject. The sentence: James is a child has a subject and predicate nominative form, whereas in the sentence: ‘James, a child of ten years old, was reading a book,‘ the phrase ‘a child of ten years old’ is still part of the subject. Not everyone makes the distinction between subjects and appositives, so it’s not a particularly important word to remember.

Nouns of direct address

Known as the ‘vocative’ form in Latin and Greek, this type of noun is used when talking to someone directly. For instance: ‘Come here, children,’ or, ‘Andrew, do you have a pencil?’

Nouns of direct address are usually addressed to people or (possibly) animals. But in theory they can be used with other types of noun. People sometimes swear at hammers or computers, or sing patriotic songs to their countries. Poets might address abstract concepts such as freedom or love.

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