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In the beginning, it is said, was the word (to paraphrase a biblical line). If so, that word — whatever it may have been — soon multiplied exponentially. Presently, words begat phrases; phrases begat clauses; clauses, eventually, begat sentences. Before long, homo sapiens was able to engage in phatic discourse; a few thousand years later and the likes of Shakespeare and (later still) Dickens were working wonders with the written word. It’s taken a long time to get here; yet the process is always ongoing.

Languages can be broken down into their constituent parts and analysed in an almost forensic manner. Two main categories of vocabulary are nouns and verbs: without them, communication would be almost impossible.

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Nouns are words for things; verbs are words for actions. This is simple to understand. However it is important to know that there are different types of noun, just as there are different types of verb (transitive, intransitive, ditransitive, complex-transitive, etc.).

Let’s begin by looking at concrete nouns. These are nouns that represent general objects, rather than specific things or concepts. The word ‘dog’ is a concrete noun. Some more examples: boy; girl; book; house; school; jeans; and literally thousands more.

By contrast, abstract nouns refer to concepts — incorporeal things. ‘Fear’ is very real, yet it cannot be touched. Nor can ‘memory’ — yet no-one would deny that memories can be very powerful things.

Of course, some nouns can be both concrete and abstract, depending on their use. We can talk about someone’s ‘beauty’ (abstract) or describe them as ‘a beauty’ (concrete). It’s the same with ‘charity’ — as an abstract noun it means «generosity and helpfulness especially toward the needy or suffering» (Merriam-Webster); in a concrete sense, the same dictionary resource describes ‘charity’ as «an institution engaged in relief of the poor».

We can use nouns to refer to specific things: people, places, buildings, songs, books, food, etc. When used in this way, they are called proper nouns. ‘Manchester’ is a proper noun; so is ‘Manchester City Football Club’. ‘Justin Bieber’ is a proper noun (he’s some other less pleasant things too — but let’s not go there); so is ‘Monserrat Caballe’. So is ‘Montserrat’, the mountain, for that matter. And so on.

What is important to note is that we do not put an article (‘a’, ‘an’, ‘the’) before a proper noun. We do not say ‘the London’, ‘the Maria’ or ‘the President Trump’. We can however say ‘the president’, as this is a common noun, not a proper noun.

There are exceptions. We put ‘the’ before the name of a river (e.g. ‘the Thames’), sea (e.g. ‘the Mediterranean’), ocean (e.g. ‘the Pacific’), mountain chain (not an individual mountain — so ‘the Andes’ but not ‘the Everest’) or a country that takes a plural name (e.g. ‘the United States of America’). These are the only cases where we put ‘the’ before a proper noun.

A plural noun can be regular or irregular. For example, the noun ‘ladies’ is plural, as it ends in the letter ‘s’ (most plural nouns end in ‘s’). ‘Children’, ‘men’, ‘people’, however, are all examples of irregular plurals. They do not end in ‘s’. Note that when using apostrophes to denote possession (we call this ‘the Saxon genitive’), we treat irregular plurals in the same way as we do singular nouns. For example, we say ‘the boy’s bag’; we also say ‘the children’s room’. For regular plurals, we simply place an apostrophe after the final ‘s’, e.g. ‘ladies’ bags’; ‘babies’ toys’.

A problem that many students experience with nouns is to determine whether they are countable or uncountable. If a word is plural, it is countable. So ‘cars’, ‘tables’, ‘pens’, ‘dogs’ and ‘people’ are all countable nouns (one person; two people, three people, etc.) whereas words like ‘sugar’, ‘time’ and ‘money’ are all examples of uncountable nouns. We use the quantifier ‘many’ with countable nouns (‘many people’) and ‘much’ with uncountable nouns (‘much time’).

However things get more complicated. Some nouns can be both countable and uncountable. The word ‘beer’ for example, can refer to the drink in general (uncountable) or a single drink (‘two beers, please’ — countable). It’s the same with the noun ‘time’: if we are referring to ‘time’ as a concept (‘I don’t have enough time’) it’s uncountable. But if we use the word ‘time’ to denote frequency, it is countable (‘I have been to the cinema many times this year’).

Some nouns are never used in the plural. Nouns such as ‘advice’, ‘progress’, ‘information’ and ‘news’ are always counted as singular. If we wish to talk about a specific item regarding these nouns, we need to used words like ‘piece’, ‘item’ or ‘article’ (e.g. ‘I have a piece of advice for you’; ‘there is a news item you should read’).

The final example above (‘news item’) indicates another way that nouns can be used — as adjectives. If we put a noun immediately before another noun it describes that noun. For example ‘train station’, ‘school bag’, ‘cat basket’, ‘tennis court’, and so on. Sometimes these noun-noun combinations have been used so many times they become one word: ‘bedroom’, ‘toothbrush’, ‘ashtray’, etc.

As we can see, nouns can be used in many ways. Try out our test on nouns to check your understanding.

A. Porter

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