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Grammar and Usage of Nouns: What is a Noun?

You learned it at age five: the part of speech that denotes a person, place, thing, or idea is a noun. Grammar was simple. Then high school, testing, and college happened. Now your palms sweat at the thought of identifying parts of speech.

Unlike other subjects, once we learn the how of grammar, we tend to forget the why. But professors aren’t handing out tests with questions as basic as “What is a noun?” so does it matter?

It does. Ideas are only as good as our ability to convey them. Strong writers are strong readers, and strong readers see beyond the words and understand the mechanics. If reading Shakespeare is a challenge or you can’t get your writing to express your thoughts, perhaps you’re attempting the literary equivalent of learning division before learning addition.

Shakespeare was a person like the rest of us. He went to grammar school, but never attended university. However, he made up for his lack of a higher education with a commitment to learning the rules of grammar and a handful of tricks. (There’s also been debate about whether he plagiarized some of his work. Avoid similar accusations by citing your sources and trying our plagiarism and grammar check.)

Ready to get back to basics?

Introduction to Nouns

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.”

— William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116

One of Shakespeare’s favorite tricks was the polyptoton, and it’s laughably easy to pull off. To do it, one word is used as more than one part of speech. Anyone can do it with an understanding of how each part of speech functions.

In Sonnet 116, the verb alters precedes the noun alteration, and remover precedes remove. It’s simple to employ, and it has staying power: Neil Armstrong tried it on the moon with “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Some static got in the way when we heard it back on Earth, unfortunately.

Another John (Lennon) sent it to work in lyrics such as “Nothing you can do that can’t be done, nothing you can sing that can’t be sung.”

As poetic as the notion of the “natural poet” is, it’s a lie. Great writing is learned, and anyone who understands the parts of speech can learn the same tricks as Shakespeare. So let’s define noun and learn them.

Semantically, this is the part of speech that refers to a person, place, thing, or idea. To dig into the morphological properties and syntactic rules, check this out.

What is a Noun?

Knowing how to define a noun is one thing; knowing how to identify and use the various types is another. You need both.

A Noun by Any Other Name

Proper: a particular person, place, thing, or idea.

  • Prudent Aunt Patty is so particular and proper; it’s preposterous!

The particular name in this sentence, Aunt Patty, is capitalized because it’s proper.

Need help with proper capitalization of citations in APA format? We’ve got you covered.

Common: refers to a person, place, thing, or idea, but not by its proper name.

  • Basket
  • Biscuit
  • Flower

Concrete: tangible, perceivable by the senses

  • Book
  • Rose
  • Girl

Abstract: intangible, without physical properties

  • Love
  • Mercy
  • Beauty

Count: refers to things that can be counted

  • Cat
  • Tree
  • Pencil

Non-Count (Mass): typically cannot be counted

  • News
  • Happiness
  • Water

Tip: Every rule has exceptions. For example, the abstract non-count love is made countable with the colloquial partitive expression whole lotta. The lesson is not that breaking the rules will produce a hit single, but to learn to identify the exceptions.

The second lesson is to cite your sources. For citing in APA, MLA, and more styles, check out Citation Machine.

Possessive: shows possession or belonging

  • *Jane’s mother
  • Led Zeppelin’s record
  • the man’s ill-fitting trousers

Tip: Of can also be used to indicate possession

  • roof of the house
  • front of the line
  • hem of the ill-fitting trousers

Collective: a singular word to refer to a group

  • Platoon
  • Jury
  • Congress

Plural: more than one

  • Cats
  • Wishes
  • Children

Compound: two or more words combined

  • Community college
  • Father-in-law
  • Firefly

Grammar and Usage

Depending on what you consider fun, you’re about to get into the really fun stuff. Long gone is the question what is a noun? You’re on to bigger and better things, ready to battle the next boss: Grammar and her sidekick, Usage.

Grammar makes the rules; usage brings the style. Grammar builds the house, usage decorates. Like home decor, usage follows trends, and style guides exist to keep you informed of standards and updates. Head over here if you’re working with MLA format.

You can’t decorate a house until you build it, so grammar is the place to start. A noun can serve many different grammatical functions, a few of which are:

Simple subject: While a complete subject contains the person, place, or thing that a sentence is about, as well as all of its modifiers, the simple subject is smaller in scope.

  • The aging man frequently wears ill-fitting trousers.

The complete subject is the aging man, and the simple subject is man.

Predicate nominative: Found in the predicate, this refers to and provides more information about the subject. To identify it, take the subject of the sentence along with linking verb and ask who?

  • The aging man wearing ill-fitting trousers is Robert Plant.

Using the steps above, we ask: The aging man is who? Robert Plant, that’s who.

Direct or indirect object of verb: The direct object receives the action of the verb, while the indirect object usually identifies to or for whom the action is done.

  • Willie Dixon sued Led Zeppelin.

Willie Dixon sued whom? Led Zeppelin, the direct object. Who sued Led Zeppelin? Willie Dixon, the indirect object.

Noun Phrases: These can function as a subject, object, or complement in a sentence. Click here to learn more.

Anomalous but Acceptable Usage

Understanding the rules for just this one part of speech opens up a trick that is behind some of the most memorable sentences ever written. Of course, some of the worst sentences ever written follow the same method. Proceed with caution.

Verbing: Verbing is a new word for Shakespeare’s old trick, polyptoton. Writers employing this trick may want to revisit the What is a noun section above, because this can yield embarrassing or exquisite results, depending on the writer. It sounds like:

  • He forgot how to dog.

This sentence verbs the word dog. And that sentence verbed the word verb. You see the slippery slope we’re on? This usage is strictly casual and not for academic use.

  • Let’s sunset that project and leverage capabilities to maximize results.

Ooph. You will hear this in business writing and formal writing. Whether those are two separate categories or two names for the same category is for you to decide.

  • Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle.

Sounds different when Shakespeare does it, doesn’t it? When he broke the rules, he did it well.

  • The thunder would not peace at my bidding.

There he goes again. And when you understand what he’s doing and why he’s doing it, you see how simple yet effective it is.

This is only one device of the dozens that he, and every other great writer, employed. Shakespeare invented thousands of new words, many with this little trick of merely turning a noun on its side and giving it movement. The real tragedy is that we call this verbing instead of Shakespearing.