Nouns

noun names a person, place, thing, idea, action, or anything else that can be named.

Properties of nouns

Nouns have four main properties:

  • Case: A noun’s case signals its relationship to other elements in the sentence. The three cases are nominative, objective, and possessive. In English, nominative and objective nouns are the same, while possessives usually use an apostrophe (for plural) or ‘s (for singular).
  • Gender: In English, most nouns don’t have genders. The exceptions are those that denote specifically male or female people or animals—for example, queenboyfriendroosteractressewe.
  • Number: Nouns are either singular or plural. Mass nouns can only be singular.
  • Person: Person relates to whether an individual is speaking (first-person—e.g., “We the people“), spoken to (second-person—e.g., “You are people”), or spoken of (third-person—e.g., “Those people“). This property doesn’t change the form of the noun.

Plural nouns

In English, most plural nouns are formed by adding s or es (for nouns that don’t readily take the s sound—e.g. viruses, washes). When a singular noun ends in y, we usually drop the y and add ies. Nouns ending in f or fe sometimes take s (reef, reefs) and sometimes change the f to v and add es (leaf, leaves). Nouns ending in o sometimes take s (tuxedo, tuxedos) and sometimes es (tomato, tomatoes).

Because there are many exceptions to these rules, English speakers eventually memorize hundreds of irregular plural nouns.

Common nouns and proper nouns

common noun is a word that denotes any unnamed person, thing, or idea that is one of a class of similar people, things, or ideas. For example, these are common nouns:

drawer
girl
petunia
ox
concept
sentence

Official names of people, places, or things are proper nouns. The first letter of a proper noun is capitalized. If a proper noun has two words or more, the first letter of every major word is capitalized—for example:

Joseph
Canada
New York City
People’s Republic of China

Unlike common nouns, proper nouns don’t need modifiers to identify them. For example, when you say, I’m going to the store, the the signals that you’re going to a specific store (store being a common noun) that your listener is familiar with. However, one wouldn’t say, I’m going to the Canada, or Tell the Sara I say hello.

Unlike most phrasal adjectives, a multiword proper noun used as an adjective does not need to be hyphenated. For example, one would write in a New York minute, not in a New-York minute.

Count nouns and mass nouns

There are two types of common nouns. Those that can be counted are count nouns—for example:

boy (boys)
idea (ideas)
country (countries)

Uncountable common nouns are known as mass nouns. Some are uncountable because they’re abstract or can’t be divided into discrete units—for example:

bravery
music
evidence
water
countryside
humanity

Other mass nouns are used to denote indeterminate aggregations of things that in other terms may be countable. For example, furniture is a mass noun even when it denotes an understood number of pieces of furniture. Here are a few other examples:

sushi
faculty
media
luggage
meat
garbage
majority

Most mass nouns, especially the abstract ones, usually take a singular verb—for example:

The music is pretty.

However, mass nouns that denote groups of people or things can sometimes take plural verbs:

The faculty are on strike.

The majority are in favor of the amendment.

There’s no rule governing which mass nouns take plural verbs. The faculty is on strike would not be incorrect. Use what sounds best to you.

Possessive nouns

Singular possessives

To form a possessive of a singular noun or pronoun, add -’s, even when the original word ends with s (for example: Mr. Atkins’s carthe process’s stepsBill Gates’s billionsthe waitress’s tipsCongress’s foot-dragging).

This rule has some exceptions:

a) Personal pronoun possessives have no apostrophe—for example, oursitstheirsyours.

b) Biblical or Ancient names that end in s use only an apostrophe to signal the possessive—for example, Sophocles’ tragediesJesus’ sacrificeEratosthenes’ sphereSocrates’ death.

Plural possessives

For most plural possessives, simply add an apostrophe. For irregular plural nouns that don’t end in s, add -’s—for example children’swomen’sphenomena’s.

Double possessives

A few style guides say that double possessives—i.e., constructions like a buddy of mine or a specialty of Sara’s—are redundant, with the of already indicating possession. These guides would have you write instead a buddy of me or a specialty of Sara.

However, very few respectable publications actually follow this rule. In fact, making the noun non-possessive may even lead to confusion—for example:

We cooked a favorite recipe of my mother-in-law.

Joint possessives

Joint possessives can be tricky. When the two possessors own the same thing, use one -’s at the end of the noun phrase—for example:

Spot and Fido’s food bowl

When the possessors own separate things, use -’s for each one:

William’s and Wallace’s poems

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