, a noun
is a member of a large, open lexical category
whose members can occur as the main word in the subject
of a clause
, the object
of a verb
, or the object of a preposition
Lexical categories are defined in terms of how their members combine with other kinds of expressions. The syntactic rules for nouns differ from language to language. In English, nouns may be defined as those words which can occur with articles and attributive adjectives and can function as the head of a noun phrase.
In traditional English grammar, the noun is one of the eight parts of speech.
The word comes from the Latin nomen
". Word classes like nouns were first described by the Sanskrit grammarian
and ancient Greeks like Dionysios Thrax
; and were defined in terms of their morphological
properties. For example, in Ancient Greek, nouns inflect for grammatical case
, such as dative or accusative. Verbs
, on the other hand, inflect for tenses
, such as past, present or future, while nouns do not. Aristotle
also had a notion of onomata
(nouns) and rhemata
(verbs) which, however, does not exactly correspond with modern notions of nouns and verbs.
Vinokurova's dissertation gives a more detailed discussion of the historical origin of the notion of a noun.
Different definitions of nouns
Expressions of natural language
have properties at different levels. They have formal
properties, like what kinds of morphological prefixes
they take and what kinds of other expressions they combine with; but they also have semantic
properties, i.e. properties pertaining to their meaning. The definition of a noun at the outset of this page is thus a formal
, traditional grammatical definition. That definition, for the most part, is considered uncontroversial and furnishes the propensity for certain language users to effectively distinguish most nouns from non-nouns. However, it has the disadvantage that it does not apply to nouns in all languages. For example in Russian
, there are no definite articles, so one cannot define nouns as words that are modified by definite articles. There are also several attempts of defining nouns in terms of their semantic
properties. Many of these are controversial, but some are discussed below.
Names for things
In traditional school grammars
, one often encounters the definition of nouns that they are all and only those expressions that refer to a person
, or idea
, etc. This is a semantic
definition. It has been criticized by contemporary linguists as being uninformative. Contemporary linguists generally agree that one cannot successfully define nouns (or other grammatical categories) in terms of what sort of object in the world
they refer to
. Part of the conundrum
is that the definition makes use of relatively general
nouns ("thing", "phenomenon", "event") to define what nouns are
. The existence of such general
nouns demonstrates that nouns refer to entities that are organized in taxonomic hierarchies
. But other kinds of expressions are also organized into such structured taxonomic relationships. For example the verbs "stroll","saunter", "stride", and "tread" are more specific words than the more general
"walk". Moreover, "walk" is more specific than the verb "move", which, in turn, is less general than "change". But it is unlikely that such taxonomic relationships can be used to define
nouns and verbs. We cannot define
verbs as those words that refer to "changes" or "states", for example, because the nouns change
probably refer to such things, but, of course, aren't verbs. Similarly, nouns like "invasion", "meeting", or "collapse" refer to things that are "done" or "happen". In fact, an influential theory
has it that verbs like "kill" or "die" refer to events, which is among the sort of thing that nouns are supposed to refer to. The point being made here is not that this view of verbs is wrong, but rather that this property of verbs is a poor basis for a definition
of this category, just like the property of having wheels
is a poor basis for a definition of cars (some things that have wheels, such as my suitcase or a jumbo jet, aren't cars). Similarly, adjectives like "yellow" or "difficult" might be thought to refer to qualities, and adverbs like "outside" or "upstairs" seem to refer to places, which are also among the sorts of things nouns can refer to. But verbs, adjectives and adverbs are not nouns, and nouns aren't verbs, adjectives or adverbs. One might argue that "definitions" of this sort really rely on speakers' prior intuitive knowledge of what nouns, verbs and adjectives are, and, so don't really add anything over and beyond this. Speakers' intuitive knowledge of such things might plausibly be based on formal
criteria, such as the traditional grammatical definition of English nouns aforementioned.
Prototypically referential expressions
Another semantic definition of nouns is that they are prototypically referential.
That definition is also not very helpful in distinguishing actual nouns from verbs. But it may still correctly identify a core property of nounhood. For example, we will tend to use nouns like "fool" and "car" when we wish to refer to fools and cars, respectively. The notion that this is prototypical
reflects the fact that such nouns can be used, even though nothing with the corresponding property is referred to:
- John is no fool.
- If I had a car, I'd go to Marrakech.
The first sentence above doesn't refer to any fools, nor does the second one refer to any particular car.
Predicates with identity criteria
The British logician Peter Thomas Geach
proposed a very subtle semantic definition of nouns. He noticed that adjectives like "same" can modify nouns, but no other kinds of parts of speech, like verbs
. Not only that, but there also doesn't seem to be any other
expressions with similar meaning that can modify verbs and adjectives. Consider the following examples.
- Good: John and Bill participated in the same fight.
- Bad: *John and Bill samely fought.
There is no English adverb "samely". In some other languages, like Czech, however there are adverbs corresponding to "samely". Hence, in Czech, the translation of the last sentence would be fine; however, it would mean that John and Bill fought in the same way: not that they participated in the same fight. Geach proposed that we could explain this, if nouns denote logical predicates with identity criteria. An identity criterion would allow us to conclude, for example, that "person x at time 1 is the same person as person y at time 2". Different nouns can have different identity criteria. A well known example of this is due to Gupta:
- National Airlines transported 2 million passengers in 1979.
- National Airlines transported (at least) 2 million persons in 1979.
Given that, in general, all passengers are persons, the last sentence above ought to follow logically from the first one. But it doesn't. It is easy to imagine, for example, that on average, every person who travelled with National Airlines in 1979, travelled with them twice. In that case, one would say that the airline transported 2 million passengers
but only 1 million persons
. Thus, the way that we count passengers
isn't necessarily the same as the way that we count persons
. Put somewhat differently: At two different times, you
may correspond to two distinct passengers
, even though you are one and the same person. For a precise definition of identity criteria
, see Gupta.
Recently, Baker has proposed that Geach's definition of nouns in terms of identity criteria allows us to explain the characteristic properties of nouns. He argues that nouns can co-occur with (in-)definite articles and numerals, and are "prototypically referential" because they are all and only those parts of speech that provide identity criteria. Baker's proposals are quite new, and linguists are still evaluating them.
Classification of nouns in English
Proper nouns and common nouns
(also called proper names
) are nouns representing unique entities (such as London
), as distinguished from common nouns which describe a class of entities (such as city
In English and most other languages that use the Latin alphabet, proper nouns are usually capitalized. Languages differ in whether most elements of multiword proper nouns are capitalised (e.g., American English House of Representatives) or only the initial element (e.g., Slovenian Državni zbor 'National Assembly'). In German, nouns of all types are capitalized. The convention of capitalizing all nouns was previously used in English, but ended circa 1800. In America, the shift in capitalization is recorded in several noteworthy documents. The end (but not the beginning) of the Declaration of Independence (1776) and all of the Constitution (1787) show nearly all nouns capitalized, the Bill of Rights (1789) capitalizes a few common nouns but not most of them, and the Thirteenth Constitutional Amendment (1865) only capitalizes proper nouns.
Sometimes the same word can function as both a common noun and a proper noun, where one such entity is special. For example the common noun god denotes all deities, while the proper noun God references the monotheistic God specifically.
Owing to the essentially arbitrary nature of orthographic classification and the existence of variant authorities and adopted house styles, questionable capitalization of words is not uncommon, even in respected newspapers and magazines. Most publishers, however, properly require consistency, at least within the same document, in applying their specified standard.
The common meaning of the word or words constituting a proper noun may be unrelated to the object to which the proper noun refers. For example, someone might be named "Tiger Smith" despite being neither a tiger nor a smith. For this reason, proper nouns are usually not translated between languages, although they may be transliterated. For example, the German surname Knödel becomes Knodel or Knoedel in English (not the literal Dumpling). However, the transcription of place names and the names of monarchs, popes, and non-contemporary authors is common and sometimes universal. For instance, the Portuguese word Lisboa becomes Lisbon in English; the English London becomes Londres in French; and the Greek Aristotelēs becomes Aristotle in English.
Countable and uncountable nouns
are common nouns that can take a plural
, can combine with numerals
(e.g. "one", "two", "several", "every", "most"), and can take an indefinite article ("a" or "an"). Examples of count nouns are "chair", "nose", and "occasion".
Mass nouns (or non-count nouns) differ from count nouns in precisely that respect: they can't take plural or combine with number words or quantifiers. Examples from English include "laughter", "cutlery", "helium", and "furniture". For example, it is not possible to refer to "a furniture" or "three furnitures". This is true even though the pieces of furniture comprising "furniture" could be counted. Thus the distinction between mass and count nouns shouldn't be made in terms of what sorts of things the nouns refer to, but rather in terms of how the nouns present these entities.
are nouns that refer to groups
consisting of more than one individual or entity, even when they are inflected for the singular
. Examples include "committee", "herd", and "school" (of herring). These nouns have slightly different grammatical properties than other nouns. For example, the noun phrases
that they head
can serve as the subject
of a collective predicate
, even when they are inflected for the singular. A collective predicate
is a predicate that normally can't take a singular subject. An example of the latter is "talked to each other".
- Good: The boys talked to each other.
- Bad: *The boy talked to each other.
- Good: The committee talked to each other.
Concrete nouns and abstract nouns
refer to physical bodies
which you use at least one of your senses
to observe. For instance, "chair", "apple", or "Janet". Abstract nouns
on the other hand refer to abstract objects
, that is ideas or concepts, such as "justice" or "hate". While this distinction is sometimes useful, the boundary between the two of them is not always clear; consider, for example, the noun "art". In English, many abstract nouns are formed by adding noun-forming suffixes ("-ness", "-ity", "-tion") to adjectives or verbs. Examples are "happiness", "circulation" and "serenity".
Nouns and pronouns
can typically be replaced by pronouns
, such as "he", "it", "which", and "those", in order to avoid repetition or explicit identification, or for other reasons. For example, in the sentence "Janet thought that he was weird", the word "he" is a pronoun standing in place of the name of the person in question. The English word one
can replace parts of noun phrases
, and it sometimes stands in for a noun. An example is given below:
- John's car is newer than the one that Bill has.
can also stand in for bigger subparts of a noun phrase. For example, in the following example, one
can stand in for new car
- This new car is cheaper than that one.
Substantive as a word for "noun"
Starting with old Latin
grammars, many European languages use some form of the word substantive
as the basic term for noun. Nouns in the dictionaries of such languages are demarked by the abbreviation "s" instead of "n", which may be used for proper nouns instead. This corresponds to those grammars in which nouns and adjectives phase into each other in more areas than, for example, the English term predicate adjective
entails. In French and Spanish, for example, adjectives frequently act as nouns referring to people who have the characteristics of the adjective. An example in English is:
- The poor you have always with you.
Similarly, an adjective can also be used for a whole group or organization of people:
- The Socialist International.
Hence, these words are substantives that are usually adjectives in English.