Nouns belong to an open class

Nouns compose by far the largest class of words. This is because they are generally used to name things. As there is an almost infinite number of things to be named the class is expansive. In addition, as humankind progresses, discovers and invents new things, so we need new words to describe these new things. This class is, therefore, constantly being added to – it is an open class (like lexical verbs, adjectives and adverbs).

By way of example, relatively recent new nouns in English include:

  • Hashtag – a short character string beginning with #, used by users of Twitter to make it easier for others to find your public contributions to a particular topic of discussion.
  • Staycation – a money-saving vacation at home.
  • Jeggings – an item of clothing that is a cross between leggings and jeans.
  • Snollygoster – a shrewd, unprincipled person, especially a politician. Interestingly, snollygoster is not actually a new word. The Oxford English Dictionary records it first being used in 1846 but there is evidence that the word was revived in 2009 during the US General Election. This demonstrates how words in open classes can disappear and reappear, as social structures, fashions, and so on, change.

Noun forms

Plural form

When more than one item is to be denoted, nouns appear in their plural form. The majority of nouns indicate number by adding an ‘-s’ or ‘-es’, e.g.

  • hashtag/hashtags
  • staycation/staycations
  • echo/echoes

There are several other ways in which the plural form is constructed, depending on the word spelling. For example, some words ending in ‘-f’ delete the ‘-f’ and add ‘-ves’ (e.g. leaf/leaves). However, as this is not an article about spelling, these spelling rules will not be discussed further here. It is sufficient to note that nouns may appear in plural form.

Possessive form

When ownership of an item or idea is to be denoted, nouns appear in their possessive form. A possessive noun is typically formed by the addition of an apostrophe and sometimes an ‘-s’, e.g.

  • the characters of the hashtag/the hashtag’s characters
  • the sense of humor of my tweetheart/my tweetheart’s sense of humor
  • the noise of the echoes/the echoes’ noise

Noun categories

Proper v Common

Nouns can be divided into two broad contrasting categories: (1) proper nouns, and (2) common nouns. These are described below.

proper nouns

These nouns refer to unique things, people, places, institutions, and so on, e.g.

Tower of London

[thing]

Adam

[person]

Newcastle

[place]

Department of Health

[institution]

common nouns

In contrast, common nouns do not refer to unique things, people, and so on, but refer to a category of objects or to a specific instance of that category, e.g.

category

specific instance

trees

tree

animals

animal

cups

cup

collective nouns

Collective nouns refer to groups of people, animals, places, things, ideas, emotions, and so on. The group as a whole may be given a name, e.g.

  • a flock of geese
  • a pride of lions
  • a colony of inmates

Arguably, collective nouns are a type of common noun. However, this category sometimes stands alone.

Concrete v Abstract

Nouns can be further subdivided into (1) concrete nouns, and (2) abstract nouns, as follows.

concrete nouns

These nouns refer to perceivable, tangible objects in the world, e.g.

cup

book

house

abstract nouns

In contrast, abstract nouns refer to things that are intangible, such as ideas and emotions, e.g.

happiness

love

friendship

Countable v Mass

A third subdivision involves the notion of quantity and separates the nouns into (1) countable nouns, and (2) mass nouns.

countable nouns

These nouns represent objects that can be counted. This implies, therefore, that it is possible to have more than one of the object in question, e.g.

cat

[cf. five cats]

computer

[cf. two computers]

brother

[cf. three brothers]

mass nouns

These nouns contrast with countable nouns in that they are uncountable. Examples include:

water

oil

flour

It is not generally possible to have, for example, two waters, three oils or four hays, and so on.

Classifying nouns

We can, therefore, describe every noun in the English language in terms of the above three contrastive categories, i.e. (1) common/proper, (2) concrete/abstract, and (3) countable/mass. For example, the word table would be described as a common, concrete, countable noun, whereas the word love is a common, abstract, mass noun. Nouns can, therefore, be represented diagrammatically, as exemplified in Table 1.

NOUN

proper

common

concrete

abstract

countable

mass

table

 X

X

X

love

 X

 X

X

David

 X

X

X

Sterling

 X

X

X

tension

 X

X

X

Table 1. Classification of nouns

Exclusive categories?

Note that whilst the word tension has been described in Table 1 as a mass noun, on the basis that one would not generally talk of ‘two tensions’, ‘three tensions’, and so on, it is possible to postulate occasions in which the noun could be described as countable. Consider the following.

there are three tensions in the political arena

On this occasion, the noun tension is in plural form because there is an implicit reference to an ability to actually count tensions (e.g. those from the far-right, the centre-left, and the far-left of the political arena). The same sort of argument could be assumed for the words ink and hay, which we earlier defined as mass nouns. For example, if one were thinking of different makes of ink or types of hay, one may be able to construct meaningful utterances such as:

we are considering the three inks available to artists

the farmer is sorting the four hays into separate barns

Thus, the description and meanings assigned to words is dependent upon their context of occurrence (see Semantics).