There are several ways to classify the types of nouns that exist in the English language. Traditionally, it is taught that nouns are words that refer to people, places, things, or ideas.
Modern linguistics find this definition to be problematic because it relies on non-specific terminology, such as "thing," to define a noun. Yet, most of our social understanding of nouns defers to this traditional definition.
So, let's clear things up and dive a little deeper. Below, you'll find the major classifications of the types of nouns in English, along with an example or two so you can see these types of nouns in action.
Proper nouns are nouns that refer to specific entities. Proper nouns like Nebraska, Steve, Harvard, or White House are capitalized to show their distinction from common nouns, such as "man" or "building."
Common nouns refer to general, unspecific categories of entities. So, while Nebraska is a proper noun because it names a specific state, state is a common noun because it can refer to any state. While Harvard refers to a particular institution of higher learning, the common noun university can refer to any such institution.
Material nouns refer to materials or substances from which things are made. Let's take cotton, for example. Cotton is an adjective when used in cotton dress. However, cotton is a material noun when used to describe the crop. For example: We use cotton from a local farm in our t-shirts.
A compound noun contains two or more words that join together to make a single noun. Compound nouns can be two words written as one (closed form) such as softball and toothpaste, words that are hyphenated (hyphenated form) such as six-pack and son-in-law, or separate words (open form) such as post office and upper class that go together by meaning.
Countable nouns can occur in both single and plural forms, can be modified by numerals, and can co-occur with quantifying determiners such as many, most, more, several, etc.
For example, the noun bike is a countable noun.
There is a bike in that garage.
In this example, the word bike is singular because it refers to one bike that is sitting in a particular garage.
However, bike can also occur in the plural form.
There are six bikes in that garage.
In this example, the plural noun bikes refers to more than one bike because it is being modified by the numeral six.
In addition, countable nouns can co-occur with quantifying determiners like "several," rather than a numeral.
In that garage, several bikes are broken.
Conversely, some nouns are not countable. They're called uncountable nouns or mass nouns. For example, the word clutter is an uncountable noun.
The garage is full of clutter.
This sentence makes grammatical sense. However, the following example does not.
That garage is full of clutters.
Uncountable nouns usually cannot take plural forms. Therefore, clutters isn't grammatical.
Substances, liquids, and powders are entities that are often signified by mass nouns such as milk, rice, wood, sand, water, and flour. Other more abstract examples that cannot be counted would be air, freedom, or intelligence.
Look at that gaggle of geese.
There used to be herds of wild buffalo on the prairie.
A bevy of swans is swimming in the pond.
A colony of ants live in the anthill.
Concrete nouns are nouns that refer to things that exist physically and can be touched, seen, smelled, felt, or tasted. Here are some examples:
Can I pet your dog?
Please pass the salt.
Your sweater is made of such soft wool.
Concrete nouns can be perceived by at least one of our senses.
All you need is love.
I hate my new school.
We must use this time wisely.
In these sentences, the abstract nouns refer to concept or entities that cannot be perceived concretely or touched physically.
Possessive nouns demonstrate ownership over something else. The best way to spot them is to look for an apostrophe. Here are some examples:
Melissa's imagination ran wild as she daydreamed about her trip to Ireland.
Ireland's landscape is truly breathtaking.
The puppy's favorite toy is the squeaky newspaper.
These nouns are demonstrating ownership, but they're also still persons, places, or things.
Personal pronouns take the place of nouns when referring to people, places or things, and therefore play the part of a noun in a sentence. They include I, you, he, she, it, and they.
Amy works at a flower shop. She enjoys her job.
The Greeks invented democracy. They sought freedom and equality.
These pronouns take on other forms depending on the type of function they're performing in a sentence.
When used to signify possession of another noun, pronouns take on their possessive form, including mine, ours, hers, and theirs.
Marley loves pepperoni pizza. The last slice of pizza is hers.
When used as the object of a preposition, pronouns take on their objective case. Examples include him, her, me, us, and them.
Jennifer is paying for the tickets. Hand the money over to her.
Things don't look good for John and Ray. The police are on to them.
Gerunds are verbs that function as nouns. Sounds funny, right? They are a little funny because, at first glance, they appear to be verbs. In truth, they're acting as a noun. Here's an example:
In this sentence, "mind" is the verb and borrowing is a noun, the direct object of the sentence. Anytime you spot a word ending in -ing, pause and take a good look at its place in the sentence.
There are many different types of nouns, each designed to serve a different purpose in a sentence. Some get specific, such as proper nouns. Others are more generic, such as abstract nouns.
No matter the type, each noun is always going to refer to a person, place, thing, or idea. That's why the traditional definition of a noun is always going to stick around. At its core, it's accurate. There's just a lot more to be said for them than that.