What Is a Noun? | Examples, Definition & Types

A noun is a word used to represent a thing, concept, place, or person. Sentences typically contain at least one noun or pronoun. The first sentence of this article, for instance, contains six nouns: “noun,” “word,” “thing,” “concept,” “place,” and “person.”

Nouns are one of the main parts of speech (word classes) in English and many other languages. Nouns are often introduced by articles (“a,” “an,” or “the”) or other determiners (e.g., “your,” “some”), although they can also stand alone.

The example sentences below have all the nouns highlighted in bold.

Examples: Noun in a sentence
The doors in my house need a fresh coat of paint.

Davina took her dog out for a walk in the park on Saturday.

Beethoven is my favorite composer. I enjoy all his symphonies.

How are nouns used in sentences?

To form a complete sentence, you normally need at least a subject and a verb. Nouns very often play the role of subject in a sentence, in which case they typically appear at the start of the sentence, followed by the verb.

Examples: Nouns as subjects
Water is wet.

Jennifer said hello.

Motorcycles are noisy and dangerous.

Another important part of many sentences is the object. There are two kinds of objects—direct and indirect:

  • The direct object represents something or someone that is directly acted upon by the action of the verb.
  • The indirect object represents something or someone that receives the direct object. It occurs only in combination with a direct object, appearing directly before it.
Examples: Nouns as objects
Have you seen Darren recently?

I’ll send Mom your regards.

Please hand your sister some bread.

In some of the examples above, a series of words is highlighted instead of an individual noun. This is a noun phrase: a noun or pronoun plus any articles, adjectives, and determiners modifying it.

Noun phrases play the same roles in sentences as individual nouns. Examples are shown below with the same color-coding as above: subject, verb, indirect object, direct object.

Examples: Noun phrases as subjects and objects
My parents’ dog is unfortunately sick right now.

An unstoppable force meets an immovable object.

You have no right to ask him that!

John and Linda kept their marriage a secret.

Common noun vs proper noun

A distinction is made in English between common nouns and proper nouns:

  • Common nouns are not capitalized unless they appear at the start of a sentence or in a title. They refer to general classes of things, people, concepts, and places, but not to something or someone specific.
  • Proper nouns are always capitalized, unlike common nouns. They are the names of specific people, places, things, and concepts.
Examples: Common noun vs proper noun
Jonathan hoped to go on a trip to Amsterdam during his summer vacation, but travel disruptions made him change his plans.

My mother’s name is Janice. She works as a teacher.

Note
Sometimes, the rules of which nouns are considered proper and common (i.e., which nouns to capitalize) aren’t entirely obvious. For instance, the names of days and months are proper (e.g., “Sunday,” “May”), whereas the names of seasons are common (e.g., “spring”).

Countable and uncountable nouns

Another distinction is made between countable and uncountable nouns:

  • Countable nouns (aka count nouns) are used for things that can be counted. They may be pluralized (e.g., “houses”) or preceded by an indefinite article (e.g., “a house”) or number (e.g., “one house”).
  • Uncountable nouns (aka noncount nouns or mass nouns) refer to anything that can’t be counted and is treated as a mass. They are never pluralized or preceded by numbers or indefinite articles (e.g., “research,” “water”).

People sometimes mistakenly treat uncountable nouns as if they were countable. Make sure to be aware of which nouns are uncountable and avoid pluralizing them or using indefinite articles (“a” or “an”) with them. When necessary, uncountable nouns can be quantified using a unit of measurement or a phrase like “a lot of.”

Examples
  • Garance gave me three feedbacks on my performance.
  • Garance gave me three pieces of feedback on my performance.
  • I got stuck in a traffic on the way to the office.
  • I got stuck in traffic on the way to the office.
  • I got stuck in a traffic jam on the way to the office.

Collective noun

Collective nouns are used to refer to groups of things or people collectively (e.g., “group,” “staff,” “flock”). The issue that arises with these nouns is whether to treat them as plural. There’s some difference between American and British English on this issue:

  • American English is more likely to treat these nouns as singular in most cases, although it’s still possible to treat them as plural.
  • British English is more flexible, tending to treat them as singular or plural depending on context (e.g., “the board have discussed …” vs. “the board has decided …”).
Examples: Collective nouns
I’m worried that the band is going to break up.

The team are confident we can win the next match.

Concrete and abstract nouns

Though it has no grammatical significance and can be somewhat subjective, a distinction is often made between concrete and abstract nouns:

  • A concrete noun names a physical object, place, person, or animal that can be observed with the senses: “banana,” “John,” “canyon,” “clouds,” “Pennsylvania.”
  • An abstract noun instead names something less tangible: concepts, feelings, and processes such as “truth,” “freedom,” “importance,” “aging,” and “indecisiveness.”

Compound nouns

A compound noun is a noun made up of more than one word. This could be two nouns, a noun combined with another part of speech such as an adjective, or various other combinations, as long as the resulting combination functions as a noun.

Compound nouns, like other compound words, are written in several different ways:

  • An open compound has spaces between the words (e.g., “walking stick,” “house party,” “living room”). Most compound nouns are written this way.
  • A hyphenated compound has hyphens between the words (e.g., “know-it-all,” “father-in-law,” “well-being”). Relatively few compound nouns are written this way—often those comprising three or more words.
  • A closed compound is written as one word with no hyphens or spaces (e.g., “girlfriend,” “household,” “smartphone”). The most established and commonly used compound nouns tend to become closed as they become more familiar.

Gerund

A gerund is a noun based on the present participle form (i.e., the “-ing” form) of a verb. Gerunds refer to the same activity as the verbs from which they are formed.

Their meaning sometimes extends beyond the literal process involved; for example, “building” refers not only to the process of building something but to a large built structure such as a house. (“Meaning” itself is another example.)

Example: Gerund
The training was intense, but Eugene’s passion for dancing kept him going.

Possessive noun

A possessive noun is the form of a noun that’s used to indicate possession: that something or someone is owned by or in some sense belongs to something or someone else.

This normally consists of the noun followed by an apostrophe s (e.g., “the house’s windows”). With a plural noun ending in “s,” only an apostrophe is added, not an additional “s” (e.g., “the windows’ latches”).

Possessive nouns, just like possessive pronouns, may be used either attributively (directly before another noun; e.g., “Felicia’s bag”) or on their own (e.g., “that bag is Felicia’s”).

Example: Possessive noun
Harry’s pen ran out of ink, so he asked to borrow Amelia’s.

Noun vs pronoun

A pronoun is a word such as “it,” “me,” “something,” or “what” that is used in place of a noun that has already been mentioned or is obvious from the context.

There are far fewer pronouns than nouns. Since what they refer to is nonspecific, the same pronoun can be used in many different contexts. For example, think of all the different things the personal pronoun “it” may refer to.

Unlike nouns, pronouns often change depending on their role in a sentence. For example, the first-person pronoun is “I” in the subject position and “me” in the object position, but a noun is the same in any position: “I spoke to the officer”; “The officer spoke to me.”

Examples: Pronouns in a sentence
It isn’t fair to ask her to do that.

What shall we do? Let’s [i.e., let us] discuss this among ourselves.

Everyone wishes you all the best. Look after yourself!

Frequently asked questions about nouns

Is a name a proper noun?

People’s names are proper nouns. This includes first names (e.g., “Kyle,” “Sarai”), family names (e.g., “Klein,” “the Ruperts”), and titles that are part of an individual’s name (e.g., “Pope Francis,” “Professor Martinez”).

The names of many non-human entities are also proper nouns. This includes brands (e.g., “Coca-Cola,” “Microsoft”), organizations (e.g., “New York University,” “the World Health Organization”), religions (e.g., “Eastern Orthodoxy,” “Buddhism”), and holidays (e.g., “New Year’s Day,” “Mid-Autumn Festival”), among other things.

How can you identify a noun clause?

Noun clauses often (but not always) begin with relative pronouns (e.g., “which,” “that,” “who”) or subordinating conjunctions (e.g., “if,” “whether”). 

A noun clause functions as a noun in a sentence (unlike a relative clause, which functions as an adjective), and it is the only type of noun that contains a verb.

How do noun clauses work?

Noun clauses essentially function as nouns, but they can serve various grammatical functions. Their roles include the following: subject, object, appositive, and subject complement (e.g., predicate nominative).

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