Nouns are an open word class; new nouns are being devised almost every day, it seems. A recent example is chocoholic. Nouns are by far the most numerous word class; they also tend to make up more of a text than other open word classes.
Look at the paragraph above. How many nouns are there? (Do not count repetitions.)
The traditional notional definition of noun goes something like this: ‘a noun is the name of a person, place or thing’ You can probably see some problems with this already. First, there is the question of what we mean by ‘name’; we will see another situation below where this word is needed. More importantly, many nouns have nothing to do with people, places or things, for example, nouns referring to abstract concepts such as love, beauty, pain, war, or nouns referring to actions, such as singing, laughter, fight.
Look at these nouns and decide if they fit the above definition:
arrival, bomb, carpet, death, description, joke, science, teacher, tree, walk
As the activity shows, the notional definition is generally not very helpful. Because of this we look for formal features to help us to identify nouns. In this approach, a noun is a word which
a) changes its form for singular and plural and for the genitive: dog, dogs, dog’s, dogs’ (see below for an explanation of these terms)
b) can act as the head of a noun phrase (new information) and can be preceded by a determiner such as some: some people
Point b) is dealt with mainly in A3. Here we will concentrate on a) and related matters.
Glob is a word you won’t find in a dictionary because it is invented. Look at these sentences and work out if it is a noun.
1. There are two globs on your shoulder.
2. Her feelings were a mixture of embarrassment, anger and glob.
3. It is always useful to have a glob around.
4. You can glob all you like; I’m not coming.
5. He is a glob teacher.
Did you use the notional or the formal definition to decide? If you used the formal one, which point(s)?
Number: singular and plural
The change in form between singular and plural, or rather the choice between the two, is called ‘number’. This is a word you already know, but here it is being used in a slightly different way, as a technical term.
Number is an obligatory choice in English (unlike some languages). Nouns must be either singular or plural: table/tables. However, not all nouns in English have both a singular and plural (and this means that on its own it is not always a reliable test of whether a word is a noun). There are some nouns which only occur in the singular; we will look at them later in this section.
There are also some nouns that only occur as plurals; here are some examples:binoculars, clothes, glasses, jeans, scissors, shorts, trousers, underpants
They look just like any other plural, but it is not possible to remove the ‘-s’ to make a singular form; ‘clothe’ is not acceptable. And it is not possible to use a number in front: ‘two clothes’, though a plural quantifier is possible: many clothes. In other cases a singular is possible but it has a different meaning, for example, a short means a strong alcoholic drink in a small glass. Where needed, a counting expression, such as a pair of, can be used to make them countable:
a pair of scissors
As you can see from the examples above, several plural nouns refer to items of clothing or tools, but there are many others:
arms, authorities, congratulations, contents, goods, grounds, surroundings, thanks, troops
Try to turn the underlined plural nouns into the singular, adding a if necessary. What effect does this have? Use a good dictionary if you are not sure.
1. On arrival you will need to pass through immigration and customs.
2. She took off her glasses and looked him straight in the eye.
3. The house is surrounded by extensive grounds.
4. You are always in our thoughts.
Problems with number
In addition to plural nouns, there are other problems with number:
- there are words that look plural, in that they seem to have an added -s, but which in fact are singular, for example, measles, news, mathematics. You can tell this by looking at the following verb if the noun is a subject:
The news is very bad.
- there are words which look singular but are plural: cattle, police, people
The police have been informed.
These are similar to the plural nouns above.
- there are some nouns referring to groups of people, called ‘collective’ nouns, which can be plural or singular, depending on whether they are regarded as a single group or as a collection of individuals: committee, enemy, family, government, team
1. Her family has produced many politicians.
2. Her family have threatened to disown her.
The plural is the normal choice with the names of football teams because they are regarded as a collection of individuals:
Manchester United are coming to play here.