The first words children learn are likely to be nouns, describing things, people or places, or ideas. Nouns also tend to be the first grammatical form that are explained in schools, since it’s easy to give examples of nouns: pencil, computer, table, window…. they’re all solid things that we can see and touch, and are good examples of basic nouns.When talking about objects, there can be either just one, or more than one. When there is more than one, we make the noun a plural form, usually by adding the letter -s onto the end. So examples of plural nouns are: pencils, computers, tables, windows.
Some word are used to describe groups of objects or animals – such as a herd (of cows) or a class (of children) – they’re not plural words as such, but are words for collections of individual nouns. They are known as collective nouns.
In addition to general items or objects, the names given to people or places (or animals, or cars, or books …) are also a form of nouns, known as proper nouns. They are distinguished by having the first letter written as a capital (uppercase). So John, Mr Dickson, Africa, London, Wuthering Heights…. all are examples of names, and are proper nouns.
A third category of noun, which can be harder for small children to grasp, is that of ideas or concepts. Words like happiness, anger, rules, truth – all convey ideas and are classified as abstract nouns.
What makes a word a noun?
So why are all these disparate kinds of word grouped as nouns? With other parts of speech, such as adjectives, it’s easier to see what they have in common. But an abstract noun seems a long way from a collective noun or a proper noun. Why not give them all distinct names and treat them differently?
The reason for this is that nouns – all of them – can be used in certain ways in sentences. This concept is unlikely to be studied in any great depth in British schools, although American school children study grammar to a much greater extent, and will learn, at the end of their primary years, the different forms in which nouns are used.
Is there any reason for learning this? It may seem like a lot of academic balderdash, with little practical use. The theory is that a good understanding of English grammar can help when writing, and also when learning foreign languages. However many people succeed in learning second or third languages without any deep knowledge of how nouns work in English, and there are plenty of successful writers who barely know what a noun is, let alone the various ways in which it can be used.
I prefer to believe that it’s actually interesting to understand better how our language works. Some people are fascinated by linguistics in general; others like to see the logical structure of language. Knowing the correct forms may help in better writing if it doesn’t come naturally, too.
If you are interested in finding out how nouns are used in sentences in English, the page basic use of nouns explains about subjects and two kinds of object; these are really the only uses that are of significance for most people. For grammar geeks, however there’s a further page on the complex use of nouns in English.
If you would like further examples, here are a few sites that go into more detail:
What is a noun? – this one just looks at the kinds of noun in depth, rather than their grammatical forms
The tongue untied – nouns – this site looks at five of the above ways that nouns can be used in sentences, and another one which I tend not to count as a noun myself. Lots of examples.
Wikipedia on nouns – historical background, very detailed description of how they work, and even more complexity. Fascinating.
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