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What Are Nouns Study Guide

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Updated on Sep 21, 2011

What Are Nouns

The finest language is mostly made up of simple unimposing words.

GEORGE ELIOT (MARY ANNE EVANS), (1819–1880)

BRITISH POET

Learn what makes up one of the two fundamental parts of the English language— the noun—and how to identify its six special components.

Nouns are naming words. They identify people, places, or things in our world, and come in six different forms: common, proper, concrete, abstract, collective, and compound. A single noun can fall into several of these categories. Consider the word notebook, which is a common noun, a concrete noun, and a compound noun all at one time. Let's see why.

Common and Proper Nouns

Markers, skateboard, cell phones, bike trail, shoelaces—these are everyday items that we call common nouns. They are ordinary names for people, places, or things that can be singular or plural. Look around you, what do you see? Four walls, perhaps a window or two, some furniture or books—all of these are common nouns. The nonspecific, ordinary noun notebook belongs as well.

Words like Atlantic Ocean, Mardi Gras, Phoenix, SpongeBob, and Mercedes-Benz are called proper nouns, because they name very specific people, places, or things. They are easy to recognize because of their capital letter, and can be either singular or plural. Be careful though! Don't fall into the trap of thinking that every capitalized word in a sentence is a proper noun. Remember, sentences must begin with a capital letter, too!

Philadelphia cheesesteak sandwiches are famous.

Philadelphia is a proper noun, and happens to begin the sentence. It would be capitalized anywhere it appeared in the sentence.

Cheesesteak sandwiches from Philadelphia are famous.

Cheesesteak sandwiches is a common noun, but is capitalized because it begins the sentence. It would be lowercase anywhere else in the sentence.

Unless the word notebook is part of a brand name, like the Chic Unique Notebook, it does not belong in this category, because proper nouns are very specific.

Notice the differences between these common and proper nouns in the chart below:

Concrete and Abstract Nouns

Words that refer to something that physically exists are concrete nouns. Concrete nouns can be countable, like soccer ball, controller, pizza, toothpick, and notebook, or uncountable, like air, oxygen, rice, milk, and sand. Concrete nouns that are countable can be made plural; uncountable concrete nouns are always singular.

Abstract nouns name feelings, ideas, and characteristics, or qualities. They are concepts that cannot be seen or touched; they have no physical existence. Words like tranquility, stubbornness, health, and curiosity belong in this category. Abstract nouns are usually singular, uncountable nouns, but there are some exceptions—like idea/ideas, noise/noises, freedom/freedoms, and power/powers. Can you think of others?

Collective Nouns

Have you ever heard of a gaggle of geese? A troop of kangaroos? Perhaps a quiver of cobras, or a kaleidoscope of butterflies? These are just a few of a long list of interesting terms we use to name groups of people or things, called collective nouns. Collective nouns can refer to a single unit, or to the individual members.

Term     team
Single unit: The team plays its final game.
Individual members: The team must wash their new uniforms.
Term     cast
Single unit: The cast is rehearsing.
Individual members: The cast carefully practice their lines.

Compound Nouns

Toothpaste, fruit juice, jack-in-the-box. These words are what we call compound nouns. When we put two or more words together to create a new word, we have made a compound noun. These three compound nouns show the three ways a compound noun can be written: as one single word, as two or more separate words, or as a hyphenated word. Can you tell what two words make up the compound noun notebook? Yes, note and book.

Let's look at how some compound nouns are formed:

Practice exercises for this concept can be found at What Are Nouns Practice Exercises.

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