What are nouns?

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.

Collective nouns

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.

Proper 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.

Abstract 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 whenlearning 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 liinguistics 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 and your children have no interest in the fine details of nouns, then there's not much point reading this page. An overview of basic grammar may be useful - and is enough for most people to have a general idea of how language works.

How do nouns fit into our language?

Depending on who you talk to, there are considered to be between five and eight ways in which nouns are used. The eight ways are: subject, direct object, indirect object, predicate nominative, object of preposition, objective complement, appositive, and noun of direct address.

Taking them one at a time:

Nouns as subjects

A subject is - broadly speaking - something we are talking about. Most sentences have subjects. 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. The subject might be a pronoun rather than a noun (eg 'I want some food') - pronouns are like nouns in many ways, grammatically speaking.

So a noun is being used as 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 (modern as well as ancient) 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.

All kinds of nouns can be used as subjects of sentences: for instance:

The computer is very useful (an item)
The herd of cows was eating grass (a collective noun)
Simon says, 'Stand up' (a person)
is a hot country in the Mediterranean (a place)
can be deadly (an abstract noun)

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, and James is the direct object, since he is the one being kicked.

In languages where nouns take different forms depending on their usage, the direct object of a sentence is usually called the accusative form.

Nouns as indirect objects

Subjects and direct objects are fairly straightforward. But sometimes a sentence is more complex than the examples given above. For instance: 'Millicent gave Miranda an apple'. That sentence has three nouns: Millicent, Miranda and 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 look more closely: what did Millicent actually give? It was, of course, the apple. So the apple is the direct object of that sentence. The sentence could be written, ' Millicent gave an apple to Miranda'. The meaning would be the same, and it would be more obvious that the apple is the object of the giving. Without the apple, Miranda wouldn't receive anything. Miranda is, grammatically, the indirect object of the sentence.

Here is another set of examples:

Sarah went shopping. (Sarah is the subject of the sentence)
Sarah bought a present (Sarah is the subject, the present is the direct object)
Sarah bought Simon a present (Sarah is the subject, the present is the direct object, Simon is the indirect object).

These three forms are the main ways in which nouns are used, so if you want to understand language structure, try and grasp how they work first. The remaining forms of noun are less significant, and I'd never heard of them in school or writing courses, so if you're confused already, pause here until you've fully got the idea of subjects, objects, and indirect objects.

Predicate nominative

This sounds mind-boggling until we remember that 'nominative' is another word for 'subject'. As for predicate, that - in essence - means 'all the rest of the sentence that isn't the subject'. So a predicate nominative refers to a noun which restates or stands for the subject of the sentence directly, but isn't grammatically the subject.

For example: James is a child. James is clearly the subject of the sentence, and there isn't a direct or indirect object. The word 'child' refers to James himself - it' stands for him at the end of the sentence. In Latin or Greek, the nominative form would be used here even though the word 'child' isn't the subject of the sentence grammatically speaking.

More examples of nouns used as predicate nominatives:

The present was a book
John is the leader of the gang
Cyprus is a hot country
Wisdom is the key to success

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
Mary ate some lettuce with mayonnaise
I went shopping in New York
I smiled with happiness when I heard the news.

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 usually be phrased only slightly differently to make it an object of preposition instead: eg 'The class elected Peter as president'.

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 bullied in school' 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' . 'Andrew, do you have a pencil?'

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

The above is probaby more than you ever wanted to know about nouns. But if you're still interested, and would like further examples, here are a few sites that go into even 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.

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