Grammar Basics: Nouns

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A noun is often described as a word representing a person, such as child, an animal, such as goat, a thing, such as house or an idea, such as inevitability. We can refer to the meanings of nouns as their semantic properties, but words have other properties too. To revert to morphology, we can see that certain word endings are typically found in nouns. The -ability ending of inevitability is one. Others areness, as in kindness, and  -ion, as in relation. We can also see that when a word ends in -s it might possibly be the plural form of a noun, and that when it ends in -‘s or –s’ it will normally be the form of a noun that indicates possession or attribution. A third indicator of the class to which a word belongs is its syntactic role, the way it behaves in a sentence. A noun can be preceded by a definite or indefinite article, an adjective or by other determiners. Most noticeably, if a word is the subject or object of a sentence it will typically be a noun (or a pronoun). To summarize, a noun can be identified by its semantic, morphological and syntactic properties.

Nouns, once identified as such, can be countable or uncountable. Table, boy, book, mountain and house are countable. They can be preceded by either the definite or indefinite article (that’s the, or a or an) or by words like your or this. Countable nouns also have the characteristic of being able to form plurals. Weather, thoughtfulness, gold, Arctic and music, on the other hand, are uncountable. They cannot be preceded by the indefinite article, and do not normally have plurals. Occasionally, however, nouns can be countable in one context and uncountable in another. When we refer to beer in general it’s uncountable, but when we want some we can say Let’s go and have a beer.

Nouns can also be abstract or concrete. From the examples given, it’s easy to see that table, say, is concrete: a table is something we can touch and bump into. Thoughtfulness, on the other hand, is not something we can touch and bump into, because it’s abstract.

Finally, we distinguish between common nouns and proper nouns. Proper nouns describe things or people that are unique, such as Africa, the United Nations or Elizabeth II. By contrast, there are several continents, organizations and monarchs, so continent, organization and monarch are common nouns.

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10 responses to “Grammar Basics: Nouns

  1. Pingback: Grammar Basics: Words (2) | Caxton

  2. There seems to be an exception to the countable/uncountable distinction in the case of certain abstract nouns: A knowledge of German; A willingness to act.
    I discuss it here:
    http://lavengro.typepad.com/peter_harvey_linguist/2013/03/countable-and-uncountable-nouns-an-exception.html

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    • The ‘Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English’ considers these examples where ‘abstract nouns can have countable and uncountable uses’:

      What’s your highest level of education? (uncountable)

      Although she was a girl she wanted an education. (countable)

      They had received kindness, thoughts and good wishes from total strangers.uncountable)

      It would be a ‘cruel kindness‘ to uphold the county court order. (countable)

      It explains the difference thus:

      ‘Here the indefinite article a/an signals the countable use of education and kindness. The uncountable noun refers to the general abstraction, while the countable noun refers to particular instances or types of it.’

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  3. Peter Harvey

    That is essentially the same as the ‘beer’ example that you give. It doesn’t address my point about ‘knowledge’ or ‘willingness’.

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    • Immediately before this passage, the LSGSWE covers the countable and uncountable use of ‘tea’ and ‘wine’ and introduces the section on abstract nouns with ‘In a similar way . . .’

      ‘The Cambridge Grammar of English’ by Carter and McCarthy (and thus not the CGEL) has a section on ‘Non-Count Nouns Used Countably’ in which it groups ‘nouns . . . referring to food and drink and other materials and substances’ together with ‘some abstract nouns’. Its examples of the latter include ‘an additional difficulty’ and ‘a great experience’. These don’t seem to me to be materially different from ‘a knowledge of Russian’ and ‘a willingness to act’. If they were, wouldn’t the grammar books make a point of it?

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  4. Peter Harvey

    ‘Difficulty’ clearly makes the plural ‘difficulties’. ‘Experience’ makes ‘experiences’ but that is not the same meaning. It is similar to ‘knowledge’ and ‘willingness’, which cannot make plurals, *knowledges, willingnesses’, but which can nevertheless be used with the indefinite article.

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    • The OED has some 30 citations for ‘knowledges’ of which the most recent is from 1994. The BNC has 22 and the COCA 198, but none of the three sources has any record for ‘willingnesses’. Maybe there’s just something about the semantic nature of certain words that determines their behaviour.

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  5. The simple plural forms seem to be 17th century., The later ones (19th century) refer to forms of knowledge or known items:
    1825 Coleridge Aids Refl. (1848) I. 128 It is the office‥of reason, to bring a unity into all our conceptions and several knowledges.

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  6. It’s certainly unusual.

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  7. Pingback: Grammar Basics: Lexical Verbs | Caxton

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