Nouns: The Building Blocks of Language

(Originally posted on June 26, 2011)


Just like a medical student begins her training studying the bones and muscles of the human body, all serious language students should start with parts of speech. And the study of parts of speech should begin with nouns.

Basically, a noun is a word that refers to a person, place or thing. Many people now divide things into two sub-groups: concrete nouns and abstract nouns. Concrete nouns are things you can feel or touch or smell or taste. These things have mass and substance. You can pick them up and carry them around. (Fine. You can’t pick up or carry around an airplane, but it’s still a concrete noun. You can certainly touch it.) Conversely, an abstract noun is something you cannot touch or pick up or carry. Abstract nouns are ideas, emotions and ideals. For example, bravery, happiness and memory are all abstract nouns. Things can also be divided into two other groups: countable and uncountable. (See Death of the Countable Noun for more explanation.) The trickiest group of nouns are called compound nouns. They are LOTS of fun.

You can identify parts of speech by characteristics that most, and sometimes all, words of a certain part of speech share. I call these “markers.” You can identify nouns by some basic markers that most nouns have. First, most nouns have two forms: singular and plural*. To make the plural form of a regular noun, you simply add an ~s or ~es to the end of the word. For example:

  • one dog, two dogs
  • one ticket, three tickets
  • one peach, two peaches

The plural ~s is a good way to identify a noun. If you have a word that seems to be a singular noun, try adding the ~s. If the word looks like a plural noun, try taking the ~s away. Do you still have a real word?

This rule doesn’t always work though. Some nouns are irregular, which means the plural form is very different from the singular form. Or the plural form is the same as the singular form. For example:

  • one person, two people
  • one tooth, two teeth
  • one fish, two fish

Also, uncountable nouns don’t have a plural form at all. (One information, two informations?) That’s why they’re uncountable. Finally, verbs in the third person singular form also have an ~s at the end. (I like; she likes) Like is obviously not a noun. That being said, the plural ~s rule is still a good noun marker.

A second excellent noun marker is capital letters. Basically, if a word is capitalized, it’s a noun. Capitalized nouns are also known as proper nouns. (That’s just a fancy way of saying names.) If two or three words are connected and all of them are capitalized, they are all a part of the same name. Take the following group of words as an example. If you have the simple phrase New York’s best pizza, only pizza is a noun and best is an adjective describing the pizza. On the other hand New York’s Best Pizza all together is one long noun that includes New York’s because all of the words are capitalized. (This is probably the name of a restaurant in Kansas.)

There are two exceptions to the capitalization rule. First, and quite obviously, the first word of a sentence is always capitalized in English, but it is not always a noun. Second, sometimes adjectives are capitalized. Some proper nouns have an adjective form that is different. For example:

  • (n) China, (adj) Chinese
  • (n) Germany, (adj) German
  • (n) Thailand, (adj) Thai

Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Very often, the noun form and the adjective form of proper nouns is the same. For example, Philly is the nickname of Philadelphia, the largest city in Pennsylvania. One of the greatest foods ever created is the Philly cheesesteak.**  By itself, Philly is obviously a noun, but when describing this wonderful food of the gods, Philly is an adjective describing the cheesesteak. This one can be very confusing to students. The only advice that I have is to chunk up the sentence and make sure the last word of a chunk is the capitalized word. If the capitalized word is the last word, it’s a noun. However, if ANYTHING comes after the capitalized word in the chunk, the capitalized word is an adjective. (For more on Chunky Language, visit this page.)

Another (almost) guaranteed marker for a noun is the apostrophe s ( ‘s ). The ‘s turns a regular old noun into a possessive noun that shows the relationship (ownership) between two nouns, usually a person and a thing or place. Both the word with the ‘s and the last word of the chunk must be nouns.

  • the school’s new gym
  • Jim’s old job
  • the car’s air-conditioner

Related to ‘s is the preposition of. Very, very often (but not always) the word that comes before of, along with the word after of, is a noun. For example.

  • the top of the stairs
  • the middle of the night
  • most of the food

Finally, there are several noun markers that come at the beginning of a chunk. This specific kind of chunk is called a noun phrase. A noun phrase is a group of words that ends with a noun and includes all of the words connected in front of the noun, like adjectives. Probably the most common noun markers are a(n) and the. Guaranteed, if you see one of these words, there is a noun at the end of the chunk. For example:

  • the homework assignment
  • a fluffy, white dog
  • an enormous, pink elephant
  • the seemingly impossible task

The last word in all of these groups must be a noun. There are a couple of common errors illustrated here. In the first chunk, very often students will identify homework as the noun, but in this case, it’s an adjective. Make sure you go completely to the end of the chunk. Don’t stop at the first word that looks like a noun. The second common error is thinking that fluffy and enormous are nouns. This is because students think that commas always come at the end of the chunk. This is normally true, but sometimes commas replace the conjunction and and connect ideas instead of separating them.

The second group of noun markers also guarantees that a noun is at the end of the chunk. Anytime you see an adjective pronoun like my, her, their, etc., a noun is close by. For example:

  • his favorite band
  • our new house
  • your final exams
  • its pristine beaches

The final group of noun markers is not quite as guaranteed. There is a group of pronouns called demonstrative pronouns. Basically, they are this, that, these and those. Just like the adjective pronouns above, they are often at the beginning of a noun phrase, like:

  • this car
  • these black shoes
  • that noisy monkey
  • those wooden puzzles

Just like the other markers, if a demonstrative pronoun comes at the beginning of a chunk, the last word of the chunk is a noun. However, they can also be used alone, so be careful. Also, they can be followed by one or ones, which are pronouns.

  • That was delicious.
  • I think I’ll get this one.
  • Those belong to Kyra.

By following these rules and looking for the noun markers, you should be able to find any noun in any sentence. However, nothing comes easily. Like anything else, it will take some time and practice. But it is well worth the effort. It’s a valuable skill to have. Trust me.


(Practice Exercises)



*Singular means one. Plural generally means two or more. However, the tricky part of this is zero (0). Even though it is less than one, zero nouns need the plural form.

  • one person / one book
  • two people / two books
  • no people / no books

**The absolute best cheesesteak I have ever had was from a place in Gettysburg, where I went to college for two years, called Robby’s Pizza. After I transferred to a college in Hawaii, whenever I was back in Pennsylvania, I would drive over an hour back to G-burg just for a Robby’s cheesesteak. One of the saddest days of my life was the day I went back and saw that Robby’s had closed. I have searched and searched for a cheesesteak as good and came close once in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, but the search continues. If I can get the recipe for a Robby’s, I’ll be a rich, rich man. Best sandwich in the world.

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