What Are Nouns? (with Examples)

The Quick Answer
What are nouns?

A noun is a word for a person, place, or thing. Everything we can see or talk about is represented by a word that names it. That "naming" word is called a noun.

Nouns

A noun is a word for a person, place, or thing. Everything we can see or talk about is represented by a word that names it. That "naming" word is called a noun.

Often a noun will be the name for something we can touch (e.g., lion, cake, computer), but sometimes a noun will be the name for something we cannot touch (e.g., bravery, mile, joy).

Everything is represented by a word that lets us talk about it. This includes people (e.g., man, scientist), animals (e.g., dog, lizard), places (e.g., town, street), objects (e.g., vase, pencil), substances (e.g., copper, glass), qualities (e.g., heroism, sorrow), actions (e.g., swimming, dancing), and measures (e.g., inch, ounce).

Easy Examples of Nouns

  • People: soldier, Alan, cousin, lawyer
  • Animals: aardvark, rat, shark, Mickey
  • Places: house, London, factory, shelter
  • Things: table, London Bridge, chisel, nitrogen, month, inch, cooking
  • Ideas: confusion, kindness, faith, Theory of Relativity, joy

Common Nouns and Proper Nouns

A noun can be categorized as either a common noun or a proper noun.
  • Common Noun. A common noun is the word used for a class of person, place, or thing (e.g., person, city, dog).
  • Proper Noun. A proper noun is the given name of a person, place, or thing, i.e., its own name (e.g., Michael, New York, Rover).
  • (Note: A proper noun always starts with a capital letter.)
The difference between common nouns and proper nouns becomes clearer when they're listed side by side.
Common NounProper Noun
boyDavid
sailorAdam
lawyerSarah
mother-in-lawJanice
townMilton Keynes
bridgeThe Golden Gate Bridge
towerEifel Tower
streetHoneysuckle Crescent
catFido
monkeyBonzo


Read more about using capital letters for proper nouns but not common nouns.

The Different Types of Nouns

A noun can usually be further categorized depending on its meaning (e.g., Is it something tangible?) or its structure (e.g., Is it made up of more than one word?). It is not unusual for a noun to fit into several noun categories. For example, the common noun mother-in-law is a gender-specific noun (it's always a female), a concrete noun (it's something you can perceive), a countable noun (it's something you can count), and a compound noun (it's made up of more than one word).

Below is a list of the different types of nouns with examples:

Abstract Nouns

Abstract nouns are things you cannot see or touch. For example:
  • bravery
  • joy
  • determination
Read more about abstract nouns.

Concrete Nouns

Concrete nouns are things you can see or touch. For example:
  • tree
  • hammer
  • cloud

Collective Nouns

Collective nouns are words that denote groups. For example:
  • team
  • choir
  • pack

Compound Nouns

Compound nouns are nouns made up of more than one word. For example:
  • court-martial
  • pickpocket
  • water bottle

Countable and Non-countable Nouns

A countable noun is a noun with both a singular and a plural form (e.g., dog/dogs, pie/pies). A non-countable noun is a noun without a plural form (e.g., oxygen, patience). For example:

These are countable:
  • mountain (singular) / mountains (plural)
  • fight / fights
  • kiss / kisses
With no plural forms, these are non-countable:
  • food (always singular)
  • music (always singular)
  • water (always singular)

Gender-specific Nouns

Gender-specific nouns are nouns that are definitely male or female. For example:
  • king
  • vixen
  • actress

Gerunds

Gerunds are nouns that end -ing and that represent actions. Gerunds have verb-like properties. For example (gerunds shown in bold):
  • happily building a tower
  • quickly drawing the scene
  • suddenly attacking the enemy
In the examples above, the gerunds are modified with adverbs and have direct objects. These are verb-like traits. This is what differentiates gerunds from verbal nouns. Let's dissect one more example:
  • Gradually boiling the haggis is best.
  • (Here, the gerund boiling is modified by the adverb gradually and its direct object is the haggis. Just like normal nouns, verbal nouns are modified with adjectives, and they can't take direct objects.

Verbal Nouns

Verbal nouns are nouns derived from verbs. (Verbal nouns have no verb-like properties.) For example (verbal nouns shown in bold):
  • a good building
  • a fine drawing
  • an effective attack
In the examples above, the verbal nouns are shown with adjectives to differentiate them from gerunds (which are often confused with verbal nouns). Gerunds are modified with adverbs not adjectives. Let's dissect one more example:
  • The ceremonial cutting of the cake has started.
  • (Like gerunds, verbal nouns are derived from verbs, but, unlike gerunds, they have no verb-like properties. In this example, the verbal noun cutting is not showing any verb-like qualities. It is not modified by a determiner and an adjective (the and ceremonial) and it requires a preposition (of) to link it to the cake. In contrast, in the sentence "Cutting the cake carefully is key," the word cutting (which, despite being spelled the same, is now a gerund) is showing verb-like qualities. More specifically, it is modified with an adverb (carefully) and has a direct object (the chord).)

More about Nouns (Noun Phrases)

It's quite rare to find a noun functioning by itself (i.e., without any modifiers) in a sentence.
  • Man proposes, but God disposes. (German canon Thomas à Kempis)
  • (This example features two nouns without any modifiers. That's rare.)
In real life, it is far more common for a noun to be accompanied by modifiers. Here's the first list of nouns again. This time, each noun (highlighted) has at least one modifier.
  • People: the soldier, my cousin, dopey Alan, the greedy lawyer
  • Animals: that aardvark, one rat, a shark, funny Mickey
  • Places: the house in the corner, inner London, dirty factory, no shelter
  • Things: this table, our London Bridge, the sharp chisel, that nitrogen, last month, an inch, her cooking
  • Ideas: utter confusion, some kindness, your faith, the Theory of Relativity, a joy
A noun with any sort of modifier (even it's just a or the) is called a noun phrase. Like any noun, a noun phrase can function as a subject, an object, or a complement within a sentence. In each example below, the noun phrase is underlined and the head noun is shaded.
  • Singing in the bath relaxes me.
  • (Here, the noun phrase is the subject of the verb relaxes.)
  • I know the back streets.
  • (Here, the noun phrase is the direct object of the verb know.)
  • She was the devil in disguise.
  • (Here, the noun phrase is a subject complement following the linking verb was.)
As most nouns feature in noun phrases, let's look quickly at the definition for "phrase."
It follows therefore that a noun phrase functions as a noun in a sentence. We can test this because we know that a noun can be replaced by a pronoun (e.g., he, she, it, them). Looking at the examples above, we can replace each noun phrase with a pronoun.
  • It relaxes me.
  • I know them.
  • She was him.
Here are some real-life examples of noun phrases as subjects, objects, and complements:
  • This man has a nice smile, but he's got iron teeth. (Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko on Mikhail Gorbachev)
  • (This man is the subject of the verb has. The phrase a nice smile is the direct object of has. The noun phrase iron teeth is the direct object of the verb got. Here's the "pronoun test": He has one, but he's got them.)
  • I never learned from a man who agreed with me. (Science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein)
  • (The noun phrase a man who agreed with me is the object of the preposition from. Here's the "pronoun test": I never learned from him.)
  • Every man of courage is a man of his word. (French dramatist Pierre Corneille)
  • (Every man of courage is the subject of the verb is. The noun phrase a man of his word is a subject complement following the linking verb is. Here's the "pronoun test": He is one.)
It can get quite complicated. It's not unusual for nouns and noun phrases to be embedded within noun phrases. Looking at the last example, courage and word are both nouns, but they are not the head nouns of the phrases. They are both objects of the preposition "of," sitting in prepositional phrases that modify the head nouns.

The last thing to say about noun phrases is that they can be headed by pronouns as well as nouns, and they can be quite long.
  • Anybody who wants the presidency so much that he'll spend two years organizing and campaigning for it is not to be trusted with the office. (Journalist David Broder)
  • (Here, anybody is a pronoun. The rest of the noun phrase is an adjective clause modifying the head "noun". Here's the "pronoun test": He is not to be trusted with the office.)

More about Nouns (Noun Clauses)

Let's look quickly at the definition for "clause".
It follows therefore that a noun clause functions as a noun in a sentence, and that means we can apply the "pronoun test."

Lots of noun clauses start with that, how, or a "wh"-word (e.g., what, who, which, when, where, why). Here are some easy examples. In each example, the noun clause is underlined, the subject is shaded, and the verb of the noun clause is bold.
  • I know that the story is true.
  • I saw how the accident happened.
  • I understand why it was necessary.
  • I know who said that.
  • (Often, the opening word (i.e., how, that or the "wh"-word) is the subject of the noun clause.)
Like all nouns, a noun clause can function as a subject, an object, or a complement within a sentence. In the four examples above, the noun clauses are all objects (direct objects). Here are some more easy examples of noun clauses as subjects, objects, and complements.
  • Whoever smelt it dealt it.
  • (Here, the noun clause is a subject.)
  • My command is whatever you wish
  • (Here, the noun clause is a subject complement.)
  • I will give what you said some thought.
  • (Here, the noun clause is an indirect object. That's pretty rare.)
Here are some real-life examples:
  • That he believes his own story is remarkable. (Jerome Blattner)
  • (Here, the noun clause is the subject of the sentence. Starting a sentence with a noun clause starting That is acceptable, but it grates on lots of people's ears. Many writers prefer "The fact that…".)
  • Light knows when you are looking at it. ("Light and space" artist James Turrell)
  • (Here, the noun clause is the direct object of the verb knows.)
  • It is a light thing for whoever keeps his foot outside trouble to advise and counsel him that suffers. (Greek tragedian Aeschylus)
  • (Here, the noun clause is the object of a preposition (for).)
  • My relationships are between me and whomever I am with, not between me and the world. (Actress Lili Reinhart)
  • (Here, the noun clause is the object of a preposition (between).)
  • Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it. (Playwright George Bernard Shaw)
  • (Here, the noun clause is a subject complement.)

A More Sophisticated Definition for "Noun"

Right, we started with defining a noun as a "naming word," and now we're talking about nouns being clauses functioning as subjects, objects, or complements. As grammarians like to talk about the functions of phrases and clauses, let's summarize this page with a good test for spotting nouns:


Let's dissect one more example.
  • A cynic is a man who looks around for a coffin when he smells flowers. (Journalist H L Mencken)
The bold text in the example above is functioning as a noun (a subject complement). As it includes subjects (who and he) and verbs (looks and smells), you might think it meets the criteria to qualify as a noun clause. It's not though. It's a noun phrase. Those subjects and the verbs feature in the adjective clause who looks around for a coffin when he smells flowers. (When he smells flowers is an adverbial clause embedded in the adjective clause.) There are separate entries for adjective phrases and clauses and adverbial phrases and clauses. Hey, if you can follow what's going on in this example, you're well down the path between sentence butcher and sentence surgeon.

Why Should I Care about Nouns?

Most native English speakers can form noun phrases and noun clauses without giving the grammar a second thought. So, if the truth be told, understanding how they function isn't particularly useful unless you're required to teach them or to compare them with similar structures in a foreign language you're learning.

That said, here are four common issues associated with nouns.

(Issue 1) Only use capital letter with a proper noun.

Don't give a common noun (e.g., dog, brochure, mountain) a capital letter just because it's an important word in your sentence. Only proper nouns (e.g., Dexter, The Summer Brochure, Ben Nevis) get capital letters.
  • Read the Instructions carefully.
  • (Instructions is a common noun. It doesn't get a capital letter.)

(Issue 2) Treat a collective noun as singular, but go plural if the context dictates.

It is normal to treat a collective noun as singular. However, if the context highlights the individuals in the group, you can treat a collective noun as plural.
  • The group arrives before the audience.
  • (Here, the verb is arrives not arrive because group is treated as singular.)
  • The group were out of time.
  • (Here, the verb is were not was because group is treated as plural. This might be preferable if the context puts the focus on the group's individuals.)
To avoid making a decision on whether to go singular or plural, add a term like members of and force the plural.
  • The members of the group were out of time.
  • (The word members becomes the head noun of the new noun phrase.)

(Issue 3) When a noun phrase is the subject of a verb, ensure subject-verb agreement with the head noun.

  • The Spitfire's 9-yard belt of bullets give us the term "the full nine yards."
  • (The head noun in this noun phrase is belt. All the other words in the noun phrase are modifiers. As belt is singular, the verb give is wrong. It should be gives.)
Do not be tricked into agreeing the verb with the nearest noun (here, bullets). When a noun phrase is the subject of a verb, the head noun governs the verb.

Read more about subject-verb agreement

(Issue 4) Choose the right version of who and whom at the start of a noun clause.

Who is the subject of a verb. Whom isn't. It's the same deal with whoever and whomever. Let's play around with one of the examples from above.
  • My relationships are between me and whomever I'm with.
  • (Here, whomever is the object of the preposition with.)
  • My relationships are between me and whoever is interested.
  • (Here, whoever is the subject of the verb is. Note that the clause whoever is interested is the object of the preposition between, but that doesn't mean that whoever becomes whomever. If your whoever is the subject of a verb, then whoever, not whomever, is correct.)
If this made no sense to you whatsoever, just go with who or whoever every time. Firstly, they're more common, but, secondly, most grammarians agree that whom and whomever are on their last legs in English. They're going the same way as hither and thither.
Interactive Test
 

See Also

The different types of nouns Abstract nouns Collective nouns Compound nouns Concrete nouns Non-countable nouns (mass nouns) Gender-specific nouns Gerunds Verbal nouns Noun clauses Noun phrases What are adjectives? What are adverbs? What are conjunctions? What are interjections? What are prepositions? What are verbs? What are pronouns? The different types of pronouns