What is a noun? The definition used to be so simple. You may even remember your elementary school teachers telling you a noun was a person, place or thing. Then it got a little more complicated when they added “idea” to the list. Then it got even more confusing when you asked about “coffee” in “coffee table.” Is it a noun or an adjective? What about when you add an apostrophe and “s” to it to show possession? Is it still a noun, or does it become an adjective? And round and round you go. It’s exhausting, but there are answers.
There are a lot of definitions for “noun,” from the simple list to the complex linguistic explanation, but the best way to explain what a noun is is to explain what a noun does. Remember when you read that verbs do verb-y things? Well, here are the noun-y things that nouns do:
Not all nouns do all of these things all of the time, and not all the words that do some of these things are nouns, but by and large, if it looks like a noun and acts like a noun, it’s probably a noun.
In English, most nouns are not inherently male or female like they are in many other languages. However, there are a few nouns that do indicate masculinity/femininity:
Most English nouns can be made plural simply by adding -s to them, but there are a few exceptions.
Common nouns are simply things that exist in mass quantities whereas proper nouns are names of specific things. For example, “building” is a common noun. There are millions of them in the world. They’re common. However the Empire State Building is the name of one specific building. There’s only one, and that’s it’s name. It’s a proper noun.
Common nouns are not capitalized (unless they begin a sentence, of course), but proper nouns are always capitalized.
Count (or countable) nouns are nouns that can be counted and therefore made plural. You can have just one eye, but more likely, you have two eyes. One eye, two eyes – you can count them.
Non-count (or non-countable/uncountable) nouns are those that we do not generally pluralize. Most liquids, powders and grains fall into this category. Even though there are many corn flakes in your bowl, you say you eat cereal for breakfast, not cereals. And you put sugar on it, not sugars, and you drink coffee with it, not coffees.
We sometimes pluralize non-count nouns when we are referring to the container or form in which they come. You order two coffees (one for you, one for your friend), but what you really mean is two cups of coffee. You’re counting the cups, not the liquid.
Concrete nouns are those that can be perceived with the five senses. If you can see, taste, smell, touch and/or hear it, it’s a concrete noun. If it’s a concept or idea (love, peace, hate, justice) that cannot be perceived physically, it’s an abstract noun.
Possessive nouns can function in the same way as possessive adjectives and pronouns, but possessive nouns are simply nouns with ‘s or ‘ at the end to show possession. They’re still nouns, but they function as adjectives or pronouns depending on how you use them.
What is a noun? Any word that does one or more of these noun-y things.