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5.2: Nouns

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    Learning Objectives
    • Identify functions of nouns
    • Identify plural nouns
    • Identify count vs. non-count nouns
    • Identify compound nouns

    Icon of man wearing bowtieIcon of 3 city buildings Icon of coffee mugIcon of head with a lightbulb inside

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Nouns are a diverse group of words, and they are very common in English. Nouns are a category of words defining things—people, places, items, concepts. The video below is brief introduction to them and the role they play:

    Now that you’ve seen and identified some nouns, let’s get started. In this outcome we will discuss nouns and their proper function in language.

    Functions of Nouns

    a word cloud of several nouns. the word nouns is the largest word.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    As we’ve already learned, a noun is the name of a person (Dr. Sanders), place (Lawrence, Kansas, factory, home), thing (scissors, saw, book), or idea (love, truth, beauty, intelligence).

    Let’s look at the following examples to get a better idea of how nouns work in sentences. All of the nouns have been bolded:

    Example \(\PageIndex{1}\):
    • The one experiment that has been given the most attention in the debate on saccharin is the 1977 Canadian study done on rats.
    • The Calorie Control Council, a group of Japanese and American manufacturers of saccharin, spent $890,000 in the first three months of the 1977 ban on saccharin on lobbying, advertisements, and public relations.
    • A flat-plate collector located on a sloping roof heats water which circulates through a coil and is pumped back to the collector.
    • The blades start turning when the windspeed reaches 10 mph, and an anemometer is attached to the shaft to measure windspeed.
    • The multi-fuel capacity of the Stirling engine gives it a versatility not possible in the internal combustion engine.
    • The regenerative cooling cycle in the engines of the Space Shuttle is made up of high pressure hydrogen that flows in tubesconnecting the nozzle and the combustion chamber.

    Types of Nouns

    Of the many different categories of nouns, a couple deserve closer attention here.

    Common vs. Proper Noun

    Icon of unshaven, unkempt man's facevs.Icon of man wearing top hat and monocle

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    Common nouns are generic words, like tissue. They are lower-cased (unless they begin a sentence). A proper noun, on the other hand, is the name of a specific thing, like the brand name Kleenex. Proper nouns are always capitalized.

    • common noun: name
    • proper noun: Ester

    Concrete vs. Abstract Noun

    icon of brick paversvs.Dotted line forming a rough circle/triangle shape

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\)

    Concrete nouns are things you can hold, see, or otherwise sense, like book, light, or warmth.

    Abstract nouns, on the other hand, are (as you might expect) abstract concepts, like time and love.

    • concrete noun: rock
    • abstract noun: justice

    The rest of this section will dig into other types of nouns: count v. non-count nouns, compound nouns, and plural nouns.

    Regular Plural Nouns

    Icon of two men wearing suits

    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\)

    A plural noun indicates that there is more than one of that noun (while a singular noun indicates that there is just one of the noun). English has both regular and irregular plural nouns.

    Let’s start with regular plurals: regular plural nouns use established patterns to indicate there is more than one of a thing.

    Recognize nouns marked with plural form –s.

    We add the plural suffix –s to most words.

    • apple → apples
    • key → keys
    • computer → computers

    However, after sounds s, z, sh, ch, and j, we add the plural suffix –es.

    • box → boxes
    • wish → wishes
    • kiss → kisses
    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Do you know how to spell the plurals for the following words?

    Singular Plural Singular Plural
    book peach
    chair buzz
    picture watch


    Singular Plural Singular Plural
    book books peach peaches
    chair chairs buzz buzzes
    picture pictures watch watches

    After the letter o.

    We add the plural suffix –es to most words that end in o.

    • tomato → tomatoes
    • hero → heroes

    We add the plural suffix –s to words of foreign origin (Latin, Greek, Spanish, etc.)

    • piano → pianos
    • photo → photos
    • video → videos

    While you won’t be expected to know which words have a foreign origin, being familiar with (or memorizing) some common words that use this plural can be really helpful. And remember, if you’re ever in doubt, the dictionary is there for you!

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    What are the correct plurals for the following words?

    Singular Plural Singular Plural
    solo portfolio
    veto memo
    echo radio
    avocado zero
    studio potato


    Singular Plural Singular Plural
    solo solos portfolio portfolios
    veto vetoes memo memos
    echo echoes radio radios
    avocado avocados zero zeroes
    studio studios potato potatoes

    After –y and –f, –fe

    When a word ends in y and there is a consonant before y, we change the y to i and add –es.

    • baby → babies
    • fly → flies

    But not after a vowel + y

    • toy → toys
    • monkey → monkeys
    • day → days
    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    What are the correct plurals for the following words?

    Singular Plural Singular Plural
    supply key
    fry play
    ally boy


    Singular Plural Singular Plural
    supply supplies key keys
    fry fries play plays
    ally allies boy boys

    When a word ends in –f or –fe, we change the f to v and add –es.

    • leaf → leaves
    • life → lives
    • scarf → scarves
    • calf → calves
    • loaf → loaves

    But not in these words

    • cliff → cliffs
    • roof → roofs
    • belief → beliefs
    • chief → chiefs
    Exercise \(\PageIndex{4}\)

    What are the correct plurals for the following words?

    Singular Plural Singular Plural
    wolf self
    chief half
    sheaf roof
    knife thief


    Singular Plural Singular Plural
    wolf wolves self selves
    chief chiefs half halves
    sheaf sheaves roof roofs
    knife knives thief thieves

    Irregular Plural Nouns

    Icon of 9 geese flying in a V formation

    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\)

    Irregular plurals, unlike regular plurals, don’t necessarily follow any pattern, and require a lot of memorization. Mastering this type of pluralization uses a different region of your brain than regular pluralization, meaning it’s an entirely different skill set than regular pluralization. So don’t get too frustrated if you can’t remember the correct plural. If you’re ever in doubt, the dictionary is there for you.

    No Change (Base Plurals)

    In some words, the singular form is used for both singular and plural.

    • fish
    • deer
    • sheep
    • offspring
    • series
    • species

    Mid-Word Vowel Change

    In a few words, the mid-word vowels are changed to form the plural. This video lists all seven of these words and their plurals.


    The plural for a computer mouse (as opposed to the fuzzy animal) can either be mice or mouses. Some people prefer mouses as it creates some differentiation between the two words.

    Plural –en

    • child → children
    • ox → oxen
    • brother → brethren
    • sister → sistren

    Brethren and sistren are antiquated terms that you’re unlikely to run into in your life; however, since these are the only four words in English that use this plural, all four have been included above.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{5}\)

    What are the correct plurals for the following words?

    Singular Plural Singular Plural
    goose moose
    fish child
    man tooth


    Singular Plural Singular Plural
    goose geese moose moose
    fish fish child children
    man men tooth teeth

    Borrowed Words –i, –en, –a, –es, –ae

    In words borrowed from Latin and Greek, the plural from the original language is used.

    Singular –us; Plural –i

    • cactus → cacti
    • fungus → fungi
    • syllabus → syllabi

    In informal speech, cactuses and funguses are acceptable. Octopuses is preferred to octopi, but octopi is an accepted word.

    Singular -a; Plural –ae

    • formula → formulae (sometimes formulas)
    • vertebra → vertebrae
    • larva → larvae

    Singular –ix, –ex; Plural –ices, –es

    • appendix → appendices (sometimes appendixes)
    • index → indices

    Singular –on, –um; Plural –a

    • criterion → criteria
    • bacterium → bacteria
    • medium → media

    Singular –is; Plural –es

    • analysis → analyses
    • crisis → crises
    • thesis → theses
    Exercise \(\PageIndex{6}\)

    What are the correct plurals for the following words?

    Singular Plural Singular Plural
    memorandum emphasis
    focus basis
    nucleus phenomenon
    appendix curriculum
    parenthesis hypothesis
    stimulus vertebra


    Singular Plural Singular Plural
    memorandum memoranda emphasis emphases
    focus foci (focuses is also acceptable) basis bases
    nucleus nuclei phenomenon phenomena
    appendix appendices (appendixes is also acceptable) curriculum curricula
    parenthesis parentheses hypothesis hypotheses
    stimulus stimuli vertebra vertebrae

    Count vs. Non-Count Nouns

    Count Nouns

    A count noun (also countable noun) is a noun that can be modified by a numeral (three chairs) and that occurs in both singular and plural forms (chair, chairs). The can also be preceded by words such as a, an, or the (a chair).

    Quite literally, count nouns are nouns which can be counted.

    Non-Count Nouns

    A non-count noun (also mass noun), on the other hand, has none of these properties. It can’t be modified by a numeral (three furniture is incorrect), occur in singular/plural (furnitures is not a word), or co-occur with a, an, or the (a furniture is incorrect).

    Again, quite literally, non-count nouns are nouns which cannot be counted.

    Example \(\PageIndex{2}\):

    The sentence pairs below compare the count noun chair and the non-count noun furniture.

    a wooden chair

    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\)

    There are chairs in the room. (correct)
    There are furnitures in the room. (incorrect)

    There is a chair in the room. (correct)
    There is a furniture in the room. (incorrect)

    There is chair in the room. (incorrect)
    There is furniture in the room. (correct)

    Every chair is man made. (correct)
    Every furniture is man made. (incorrect)

    All chair is man made. (incorrect)
    All furniture is man made. (correct)

    There are several chairs in the room. (correct)
    There are several furnitures in the room. (incorrect)

    Determining the Type of Noun

    In general, a count noun is going to be something you can easily count—like rock or dollar bill. Non-count nouns, on the other hand, would be more difficult to count—like sand or money. If you ever want to identify a singular non-count noun, you need a phrase beforehand—like a grain of sand or a sum of money.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{7}\)

    Select the correct word to complete each sentence (in some cases, both words may be correct). Determine whether the correct word is a count or a non-count noun.

    1. Each day, we have a lot of (work/job) to do.
    2. Each one of us has a (work/job) to do.
    3. I’m learning a lot of (slang/expressions).
    4. I don’t know much (slang/expressions).
    5. I don’t know many (slang/expressions).
    6. She has to wash her tonight (hair/hairs).
    7. She found a couple of gray (hair/hairs) in her eyebrows.
    1. Each day, we have a lot of work to do. Work is a non-count noun.
    2. Each one of us has a job to do. Job is a count noun.
    3. I’m learning a lot of slang. I’m learning a lot of expressions.
    • Both sentences are correct. Slang is a non-count noun, and expressions is a count noun.
    1. I don’t know much slang. Slang is a non-count noun.
    2. I don’t know many expressions. Expressions is a count noun.
    3. She has to wash her tonight hair. Hair is a non-count noun.
    4. She found a couple of gray hairs in her eyebrows. Hairs is a count noun.
    • Hair refers to a large mass of hair, while hairs are individual ones (one or two) found on the floor, on clothing, and occasionally in food!

    Compound Nouns

    A compound noun is a noun phrase made up of two nouns, e.g. bus driver, in which the first noun acts as a sort of adjective for the second one, but without really describing it. (For example, think about the difference between a black bird and a blackbird.)

    two photographs; one of a crow the other of a blackbird.

    Figure 1 - A crow is a black bird, while a blackbird is a specific species of bird.

    Compound nouns can be made up of two or more other words, but each compound has a single meaning. They may or may not be hyphenated, and they may be written with a space between words—especially if one of the words has more than one syllable, as in living room. In that regard, it’s necessary to avoid the over-simplification of saying that two single-syllable words are written together as one word. Thus, tablecloth but table mat, wine glass but wineglassful or key ring but keyholder. Moreover, there are cases which some people/dictionaries will write one way while others write them another way. Until very recently we wrote (the) week’s end, which later became week-end and then our beloved weekend.

    There are three typical structures of compound nouns.

    Types of Compound Nouns

    Short compounds may be written in three different ways:

    • The solid or closed forms in which two usually moderately short words appear together as one. Solid compounds most likely consist of short units that often have been established in the language for a long time. Examples are housewife, lawsuit, wallpaper, basketball, etc.
    • The hyphenated form in which two or more words are connected by a hyphen. This category includes compounds that contain suffixes, such as house-build(er) and single-mind(ed)(ness). Compounds that contain articles, prepositions or conjunctions, such as rent-a-cop and mother-of-pearl, are also often hyphenated.
    • The open or spaced form consisting of newer combinations of usually longer words, such as distance learning, player piano, lawn tennis, etc.

    Hyphens are often considered a squishy part on language (we’ll discuss this further in Text: Hyphens and Dashes). Because of this, usage differs and often depends on the individual choice of the writer rather than on a hard-and-fast rule. This means open, hyphenated, and closed forms may be encountered for the same compound noun, such as the triplets container ship/container-ship/containership and particle board/particle-board/particleboard. If you’re ever in doubt whether a compound should be closed, hyphenated, or open, dictionaries are your best reference.


    The process of making compound nouns plural has its own set of conventions to follow. In all forms of compound nouns, we pluralize the chief element of a compound word (i.e., we pluralize the primary noun of the compound).

    • fisherman → fishermen
    • black bird → black birds
    • brother-in-law → brothers-in-law

    The word hand-me-down doesn’t have a distinct primary noun, so its plural is hand-me-downs.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{8}\)

    What are the correct plurals for the following words?

    Singular Plural Singular Plural
    do-it-yourself rabbit’s foot
    have-not time-out
    spoonful lieutenant general
    runner-up passerby


    Singular Plural Singular Plural
    do-it-yourself do-it-yourselves rabbit’s foot rabbits’ feet
    have-not have-nots time-out time-outs
    spoonful spoonfuls lieutenant general lieutenant generals
    runner-up runners-up passerby passersby


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