Using nouns correctly in English is relatively simple, with standard rules and only a few exceptions. Use these pages to learn about the English grammar rules for gender, plurals, countable and uncountable nouns, compound nouns, capitalization, nationalities, and forming the possessive.
NOUNS IN ENGLISH
1. Gendered nouns
- Nouns answer the questions “What is it?” and “Who is it?” They give names to things, people, and places.
In general there is no distinction between masculine, feminine in English nouns. However, gender is sometimes shown by different forms or different words when referring to people or animals.
Masculine Feminine Gender neutral man woman person father mother parent boy girl child uncle aunt husband wife spouse actor actress prince princess waiter waitress server rooster hen chicken stallion mare horse
Many nouns that refer to people’s roles and jobs can be used for either a masculine or a feminine subject, like for example cousin, teenager, teacher, doctor, student, friend, colleague
- Mary is my friend. She is a doctor.
- Peter is my cousin. He is a doctor.
- Arthur is my friend. He is a student.
- Jane is my cousin. She is a student.
It is possible to make the distinction for these neutral words by adding the words male or female.
- Sam is a female doctor.
- No, he is not my boyfriend, he is just a male friend.
- I have three female cousins and two male cousins.
Infrequently, nouns describing things without a gender are referred to with a gendered pronoun to show familiarity. It is also correct to use the gender-neutral pronoun (it).
- I love my car. She (the car) is my greatest passion.
- France is popular with her (France’s) neighbours at the moment.
- I travelled from England to New York on the Queen Elizabeth; she (the Queen Elizabeth) is a great ship.
2. Regular and irregular plural nouns
Most nouns form the plural by adding -s.
Singular Plural boat boats house houses cat cats river rivers
A noun ending in s, x, z, ch, sh makes the plural by adding-es.
Singular Plural bus buses wish wishes pitch pitches box boxes
A noun ending in a consonant and then y makes the plural by dropping the y and adding-ies.
Singular Plural penny pennies spy spies baby babies city cities daisy daisies
There are some irregular formations for noun plurals. Some of the most common ones are listed below.
Singular Plural woman women man men child children tooth teeth foot feet person people leaf leaves mouse mice goose geese half halves knife knives wife wives life lives elf elves loaf loaves potato potatoes tomato tomatoes cactus cacti focus foci fungus fungi nucleus nuclei syllabus syllabi/syllabuses analysis analyses diagnosis diagnoses oasis oases thesis theses crisis crises phenomenon phenomena criterion criteria datum data
Some nouns have the same form in the singular and the plural.
Singular Plural sheep sheep fish fish deer deer species species aircraft aircraft
IRREGULAR VERB/NOUN AGREEMENT
Some nouns have a plural form but take a singular verb.
Plural nouns used with a singular verb Sentence news The news is at 6.30 p.m. athletics Athletics is good for young people. linguistics Linguistics is the study of language. darts Darts is a popular game in England. billiards Billiards is played all over the world.
Some nouns have a fixed plural form and take a plural verb. They are not used in the singular, or they have a different meaning in the singular. Nouns like this include: trousers, jeans, glasses, savings, thanks, steps, stairs, customs, congratulations, tropics, wages, spectacles, outskirts, goods, wits
Plural noun with plural verb Sentence trousers My trousers are too tight. jeans Her jeans are black. glasses Those glasses are his.
3. Countable and uncountable nouns
- It’s important to distinguish between countable and uncountable nouns in English because their usage is different in regards to both determiners and verbs.
Countable nouns are for things we can count using numbers. They have a singular and a plural form. The singular form can use the determiner “a” or “an”. If you want to ask about the quantity of a countable noun, you ask “How many?” combined with the plural countable noun.
Singular Plural one dog two dogs one horse two horses one man two men one idea two ideas one shop two shops
- She has three dogs.
- I own a house.
- I would like two books please.
- How many friends do you have?
Uncountable nouns are for the things that we cannot count with numbers. They may be the names for abstract ideas or qualities or for physical objects that are too small or too amorphous to be counted (liquids, powders, gases, etc.). Uncountable nouns are used with a singular verb. They usually do not have a plural form.
We cannot use a/an with these nouns. To express a quantity of an uncountable noun, use a word or expression like some, a lot of, much, a bit of, a great deal of , or else use an exact measurement like a cup of, a bag of, 1kg of, 1L of, a handful of, a pinch of, an hour of, a day of. If you want to ask about the quantity of a countable noun, you ask “How much?”
- There has been a lot of research into the causes of this disease.
- He gave me a great deal of advice before my interview.
- Can you give me some information about uncountable nouns?
- He did not have much sugar left.
- Measure 1 cup of water, 300g of flour, and 1 teaspoon of salt.
- How much rice do you want?
Some nouns are countable in other languages but uncountable in English. They must follow the rules for uncountable nouns. The most common ones are:
accommodation, advice, baggage, behavior, bread, furniture, information, luggage, news, progress, traffic, travel, trouble, weather, work
- I would like to give you some advice.
- How much bread should I bring?
- I didn’t make much progress today.
- This looks like a lot of trouble to me.
- We did an hour of work yesterday.
Be careful with the noun hair which is normally uncountable in English, so it is not used in the plural. It can be countable only when referring to individual hairs.
- She has long blond hair.
- The child’s hair was curly.
- I washed my hair yesterday.
- My father is getting a few grey hairs now. (refers to individual hairs)
- I found a hair in my soup! (refers to a single strand of hair)
4. Definite pronouns
- Pronouns replace nouns. A different pronoun is required depending on two elements: the noun being replaced and the function that noun has in the sentence. In English, pronouns only take the gender of the noun they replace in the 3rd person singular form. The 2nd person plural pronouns are identical to the 2nd person singular pronouns except for the reflexive pronoun.
Subject Pronoun Object Pronoun Possessive Adjective (Determiner) Possessive Pronoun Reflexive or Intensive Pronoun 1st person singular I me my mine myself 2nd person singular you you your yours yourself 3rd person singular, male he him his his himself 3rd person singular, female she her her hers herself 3rd person singular, neutral it it its itself 1st person plural we us our ours ourselves 2nd person plural you you your yours yourselves 3rd person plural they them their theirs themselves
Subject pronouns replace nouns that are the subject of their clause. In the 3rd person, subject pronouns are often used to avoid repetition of the subject’s name.
- I am 16.
- You seem lost.
- Jim is angry, and he wants Sally to apologize.
- This table is old. It needs to be repainted.
- We aren’t coming.
- They don’t like pancakes.
Object pronouns are used to replace nouns that are the direct or indirect object of a clause.
- Give the book to me.
- The teacher wants to talk to you.
- Jake is hurt because Bill hit him.
- Rachid recieved a letter from her last week.
- Mark can’t find it.
- Don’t be angry with us.
- Tell them to hurry up!
POSSESSIVE ADJECTIVES (DETERMINERS)
Possessive adjectives are not pronouns, but rather determiners. It is useful to learn them at the same time as pronouns, however, because they are similar in form to the possessive pronouns. Possessive adjectives function as adjectives, so they appear before the noun they modify. They do not replace a noun as pronouns do.
- Did mother find my shoes?
- Mrs. Baker wants to see your homework.
- Can Jake bring over his baseball cards?
- Samantha will fix her bike tomorrow.
- The cat broke its leg.
- This is our house.
- Where is their school?
Possessive pronouns replace possessive nouns as either the subject or the object of a clause. Because the noun being replaced doesn’t appear in the sentence, it must be clear from the context.
- This bag is mine.
- Yours is not blue.
- That bag looks like his.
- These shoes are not hers.
- That car is ours.
- Theirs is parked in the garage.
REFLEXIVE & INTENSIVE PRONOUNS
Reflexive and intensive pronouns are the same set of words but they have different functions in a sentence.
Reflexive pronouns refer back to the subject of the clause because the subject of the action is also the direct or indirect object. Only certain types of verbs can be reflexive. You cannot remove a reflexive pronoun from a sentence because the remaining sentence would be grammatically incorrect.
- I told myself to calm down.
- You cut yourself on this nail?
- He hurt himself on the stairs.
- She found herself in a dangerous part of town.
- The cat threw itself under my car!
- We blame ourselves for the fire.
- The children can take care of themselves.
Intensive pronouns emphasize the subject of a clause. They are not the object of the action. The intensive pronoun can always be removed from a sentence without changing the meaning significantly, although the emphasis on the subject will be removed. Intensive pronouns can be placed immediately after the subject of the clause, or at the end of the clause.
- I made these cookies myself.
- You yourself asked Jake to come.
- The Pope himself pardoned Mr. Brown.
- My teacher didn’t know the answer herself.
- The test itself wasn’t scary, but my teacher certainly is.
- We would like to finish the renovation before Christmas ourselves.
- They themselves told me the lost shoe wasn’t a problem.
5. Indefinite pronouns
- Indefinite pronouns don’t refer to a particular person, place, or thing. There is a commonly-used group of indefinite pronouns formed from quantifiers or distributives + the words any, some, every, and no.
People Places Things All everyone
everywhere everything Part (positive) someone
somewhere something Part (negative) anyone
anywhere anything None no one
Indefinite pronouns with some and any are used to descibe incomplete or indefinite quantities in the same way as some and any by themselves.
These indefinite pronouns are placed in sentences at the same place you would normally put a noun.
Noun Pronoun I would like to go to Paris this summer. I would like to go somewhere this summer. Jim gave me this book. Someone gave me this book. I won’t tell your secret to Sam. I won’t tell your secret to anyone. I bought my school supplies at the mall. I bought everything at the mall.
In affirmative statements, indefinite pronouns with some are used to describe indefinite quantities, those with every are used to describe completeness, and those with no are used to describe absence. Often indefinite pronouns with no are used in affirmative statements with negative meanings, but these statements don’t use not.
- Everyone is sleeping in my bed.
- Someone is sleeping in my bed.
- No one is sleeping in my bed.
- I gave everything to Sally.
- He saw something in the garden.
- There is nothing to eat.
- I looked everywhere for my keys.
- Keith is looking for somewhere to live.
- There is nowhere as beautiful as Paris.
Any and its pronouns can also be used in positive statements, with a meaning closer to every: “no matter which”, “no matter who”, or “no matter what”.
- They can choose anything from the menu.
- You may invite anybody you want to your birthday party.
- We can go anywhere you’d like this summer.
- He would give anything to get into Oxford.
- Fido would follow you anywhere.
Only the indefinite pronouns with any can be used in negative statements.
- I don’t have anything to eat.
- She didn’t go anywhere last week.
- I can’t find anyone to come with me.
Many negative sentences using the indefinite pronouns with any can be turned into positive sentences with negative meanings using the indefinite pronouns with no. However, there is a shift in meaning in doing this. The sentences with no pronouns will be more emphatic and imply defensiveness, desperation, etc.
- I don’t know anything about it. = neutral
- I know nothing about it. = defensive
- I don’t have anybody to talk to. = neutral
- I have nobody to talk to. = desperate
- There wasn’t anything we could do. = neutral
- There was nothing we could do. = defensive
Indefinite pronouns with every, some, and any can be used in questions. These questions can usually be answered with a “yes” or a “no”.
Any and every pronouns are used with true questions.
- Is there anything to eat?
- Did you go anywhere last night?
- Is everyone here?
- Have you looked everywhere?
However those can be turned into questions for which we already know the answer by making them negative. With these negative questions, the speaker is showing some annoyance. The answer he is expecting is “no”.
- Isn’t there anything to eat?
- Didn’t you go anywhere last night?
- Isn’t everyone here?
- Haven’t you looked everywhere?
Some is only used with questions that we think we already know the answer to, and questions that are not actually questions (invitations, requests, etc.). The answer we are expecting with these questions is “yes”.
- Are you looking for someone?
- Have you lost something?
- Are you going somewhere?
- Could somebody help me, please? = request
- Would you like to go somewhere this weekend? = invitation
These questions can be made even more definite by making them negative. In this case, we are quite certain the answer is “yes”.
- Aren’t you looking for someone?
- Haven’t you lost something?
- Aren’t you going somewhere?
- Couldn’t somebody help me, please?
- Wouldn’t you like to go somewhere this weekend?
6. Compound nouns
Words can be combined to form compound nouns. These are very common, and new combinations are invented almost daily. They normally have two parts. The first part tells us what kind of object or person it is, or what its purpose is. The second part identifies the object or person in question. Compound nouns often have a meaning that is different, or more specific, than the two separate words.
First part: type or purpose Second part: what or who Compound noun police man policeman boy friend boyfriend fish tank water tank dining table dining-table
You have noticed that the compound noun can be written either as a single word, as a word with a hyphen, or as two words. There are no clear rules about this. A good rule of thumb is to write the most common compound nouns as one word, and the others as two words.
The elements in a compound noun are very diverse parts of speech.
Compound elements Examples noun + noun bedroom
noun + verb rainfall
noun + adverb hanger-on
verb + noun washing machine
verb + adverb lookout
adverb + noun onlooker
adjective + verb dry-cleaning
adjective + noun greenhouse
adverb + verb output
Stress is important in pronunciation, as it distinguishes between a compound noun and an adjective with a noun. In compound nouns, the stress usually falls on the first syllable.
- a ‘greenhouse = place where we grow plants (compound noun)
- a green ‘house = house painted green (adjective and noun)
- a ‘bluebird = type of bird (compound noun)
- a blue ‘bird = any bird with blue feathers (adjective and noun)
7. Capitalization rules for nouns
- Capital letters are used with particular types of nouns, in certain positions in sentences, and with some adjectives. You must always use capital letters for:The beginning of a sentence
- Dogs are noisy.
- Children are noisy too.
The first person personal pronoun, I
- Yesterday, I went to the park.
- He isn’t like I am.
Names and titles of people
- Winston Churchill
- Marilyn Monroe
- the Queen of England
- the President of the United States
- the Headmaster of Eton
- Doctor Mathews
- Professor Samuels
Titles of works, books, movies
- War and Peace
- The Merchant of Venice
- Crime and Punishment
- Spider Man II
Months of the year
Days of the week
- New Year’s Day
- Thanksgiving Day
Names of countries and continents
Names of regions, states, districts
Names of cities, towns, villages
- Cape Town
Names of rivers, oceans, seas, lakes
- the Atlantic
- the Pacific
- Lake Victoria
- the Rhine
- the Thames
Names of geographical formations
- the Himalayas
- the Alps
- the Sahara
Adjectives relating to nationality
- French music
- Australian animals
- German literature
- Arabic writing
Collective nouns for nationalities
- the French
- the Germans
- the Americans
- the Chinese
- I speak Chinese.
- He understands English.
Names of streets, buildings, parks
- Park Lane
- Sydney Opera House
- Central Park
- the Empire State Building
- Wall Street
8. Nationalities in English
Forming nationality adjectives and nouns from country names is not always simple in English. Use the nationality adjective ending in -ese or -ish with a plural verb, to refer to all people of that nationality (see the last two examples below). The adjective listed also often refers to the language spoken in the country, although this is not always the case.
- Country: I live in Japan.
- Adjective: He likes Japanese food.
- Noun: She is Japanese.
- She speaks Japanese.
- The Spanish stay up late.
- The Chinese are very hard-working.
Country Adjective Noun Africa African an African America American an American Argentina Argentinian an Argentinian Austria Austrian an Austrian Autralia Australian an Australian Bangladesh Bangladesh(i) a Bangladeshi Belgium Belgian a Belgian Brazil Brazilian a Brazilian Britain British a Briton/Britisher Cambodia Cambodian a Cambodian Chile Chilean a Chilean China Chinese a Chinese Colombia Colombian a Colombian Croatia Croatian a Croat the Czech Republic Czech a Czech Denmark Danish a Dane England English an Englishman/Englishwoman Finland Finnish a Finn France French a Frenchman/Frenchwoman Germany German a German Greece Greek a Greek Holland Dutch a Dutchman/Dutchwoman Hungary Hungarian a Hungarian Iceland Icelandic an Icelander India Indian an Indian Indonesia Indonesian an Indonesian Iran Iranian an Iranian Iraq Iraqi an Iraqi Ireland Irish an Irishman/Irishwoman Palestine Palestinian a Palestinian Jamaica Jamaican a Jamaican Japan Japanese a Japanese Mexico Mexican a Mexican Morocco Moroccan a Moroccan Norway Norwegian a Norwegian Peru Peruvian a Peruvian the Philippines Philippine a Filipino Poland Polish a Pole Portugal Portuguese a Portuguese Rumania Rumanian a Rumanian Russia Russian a Russian Saudi Arabia Saudi, Saudi Arabian a Saudi, a Saudi Arabian Scotland Scottish a Scot Serbia Serbian a Serb the Slovak Republic Slovak a Slovak Sweden Swedish a Swede Switzerland Swiss a Swiss Thailand Thai a Thai The USA American an American Tunisia Tunisian a Tunisian Turkey Turkish a Turk Vietnam Vietnamese a Vietnamese Wales Welsh a Welshman/Welshwoman Yugoslavia Yugoslav a Yugoslav
9. Forming the possessive
- The possessive form is used with nouns referring to people, groups of people, countries, and animals. It shows a relationship of belonging between one thing and another. To form the possessive, add apostrophe + s to the noun. If the noun is plural, or already ends in s, just add an apostrophe after the s.
- the car of John = John’s car
- the room of the girls = the girls’ room
- clothes for men = men’s clothes
- the boat of the sailors = the sailors’ boat
For names ending in s, you can either add an apostrophe + s, or just an apostrophe. The first option is more common. When pronouncing a possessive name, we add the sound /z/ to the end of the name.
- Thomas’s book (or Thomas’ book)
- James’s shop (or James’ shop)
- the Smiths’s house (or the Smiths’ house)
FUNCTIONS OF THE POSSESSIVE
‘Belonging to’ or ‘ownership’ is the most common relationship the possessive expresses.
- John owns a car. = It is John’s car.
- America has some gold reserves. = They are America’s gold reserves.
The possessive can also express where someone works, studies or spends time
- John goes to this school. = This is John’s school.
- John sleeps in this room. = This is John’s room.
The possessive can express a relationship between people.
- John’s mother is running late.
- Mrs Brown’s colleague will not be coming to the meeting.
The possessive can express intangible things as well.
- John’s patience is running out.
- The politician’s hypocrisy was deeply shocking.
There are also some fixed expressions where the possessive form is used.
EXAMPLES WITH TIME
- a day’s work
- a month’s pay
- today’s newspaper
- in a year’s time
- For God’s sake! (= exclamation of exasperation)
- a stone’s throw away (= very near)
- at death’s door (= very ill)
- in my mind’s eye (= in my imagination)
The possessive is also used to refer to shops, restaurants, churches and colleges, using the name or job title of the owner.
- Shall we go to Luigi’s for lunch?
- I’ve got an appointment at the dentist’s at eleven o’clock.
- Is Saint Mary’s an all-girls school?
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