linguist • writer • editor • lecturer • broadcaster
[Thursday 03 January, 2013]
A noun is a word whose job is naming, or labelling. So what does a noun name? People, places, objects, concepts, ideas . . . anything you want to talk about, really. You’ll realise, therefore, that there are a lot of nouns about. And that’s where the grammarian’s problem starts. The nouns don’t all work in sentences in the same way. They fall into different groups, depending on the way they’re used.
- The most important division is into proper nouns and common nouns. Proper nouns are written with a capital letter at the beginning, such as in Dora, Derby, and December. All the others are common nouns, such as horse, happiness, and hydrogen. Look at the entry on proper noun and common noun for more information about them.
- The common nouns are of two main types. Most of them are count nouns, such as car and horse - you can ‘count’ them, and say two cars, three horses, and so on. The others are non-count nouns, such as warmth and mud - you can’t count them, or say *two warmths and *three muds.
- You can divide all the common nouns from another point of view: there are concrete nouns and abstract nouns. Concrete nouns are nouns which refer to things that you can see, feel, measure, and so on - nouns such as cat, carrot, computer, and carbon-dioxide. Abstract nouns are nouns which refer to notions that you can’t observe or measure, such as music, mercy, muddle, and mood.
So, when you’re analysing nouns, there are three chief questions to ask about each one. First, decide whether it’s proper or common. If it’s proper, there’s nothing more to do. But if it’s common, then you can ask two more questions. Is it count or non-count? Is it concrete or abstract? Here are a few to start you off:
Fred proper
egg count, concrete
noun count, abstract
wealth non-count, abstract
mud non-count, concrete
Try going through the nouns in this entry and see what comes up.
(Do you know why there’s an asterisk in front of *two warmths and *three muds? If you don’t, click here.)

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