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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. You realized then how to define noun use as a simple concept. Grammar was simple, and so was answering “what is a noun?” in comparison to all the other parts of speech. 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 paper checker to scan for plagiarism and grammar errors.)

Ready to get back to basics? Find out the answer to what is a noun and how to define noun usage once and for all right here.

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, words with the same root word are repeated. 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, here is your opportunity to define and learn about the part of speech known as nouns.

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 noun 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. Proper nouns have given titles, such as someone’s role or name. Also, remember that places, things, or ideas can also be proper. Here are a few examples you may know:

  • Washington, D.C.
  • Newton’s Law of Gravitational Pull
  • Band-Aid


Washington D.C. is an actual place with a given name, and in this case, it is also the capital of the United States! Newton’s Law is capitalized because it is an accepted idea that scientists use frequently, giving credit to Sir Isaac Newton through its capitalization to signify a proper noun. And of course, while everyone runs around calling any sticky bandage on a wound a Band-Aid, it is indeed a proper noun because it is a patented brand.  

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

Common: refers to a general person, place, thing, or idea that is not a given title and is a well-known generic. Remember the earlier example of Band-Aid? It’s common name is a bandage. Here are a few more examples for you:

  • basket
  • biscuit
  • flower

Concrete:refers to tangible, real objects, that are perceivable by the senses, like touch or taste. These are common nouns you can actually engage with physically.

  • book
  • broccoli
  • girl

Abstract: refers to intangible concepts that lack physical properties. These are generally ideas you could experience but not be able to explain easily, as they are based on personal perception. These are a few that are used frequently. They have vague definitions because of each person’s unique perspective:

  • love
  • mercy
  • beauty

Count: refers to things that can be counted with numerical values (one, two, three) or certain quantifiers, like many. Here are some examples with both:

  • two cats
  • many trees
  • twenty-seven pencils

Non-Count (Mass): refers to things that typically cannot be counted with numerical values or use adverbs and general quantifiers, like so much or too much. Here are a few examples:

  • too much news
  • so much happiness
  • that much water

Tip: Every rule has exceptions. For example, the abstract non-count love is made countable with the colloquial partitive expression whole lotta or when describing multiple loves of one’s’ life, whether discussing people or favorite foods! The lesson is not that breaking the rules will produce a hit single or cause heartbreak or debate, 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: refers to those nouns that are modified to show possession or belonging of other persons, places, things, or ideas. Here are a few examples:

  • *Jane’s mother (*Jane is a proper noun, as it is her name, so we capitalize it!)
  • Led Zeppelin’s record
  • the man’s ill-fitting trousers

Tip: Of can also be used to indicate possession of persons, places, things, or ideas

  • roof of the house = house’s roof
  • front of the line = line’s front
  • hem of the ill-fitting trousers = ill fitting trouser’s hem

Collective: refers to a singular noun that actually represents a group of persons, places, things, or ideas. Hint: Group is actually one of these words!

  • platoon
  • jury
  • congress

Plural: refers to more than one person, place, thing, or idea. Plural nouns can be countable or uncountable.

  • cats
  • wishes
  • children

Compound: refers to two or more persons, places, things or ideas combined.Note the multiple ways these compound nouns can be written, and that this includes proper forms sometimes:

  • community college
  • Father-in-law (proper noun, hence the capitalization)
  • 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. Now you will learn the many ways to define noun usage and how to implement this part of speech effectively throughout your writing.

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. Being able to define noun use and know when to use them is a skill. 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. It is not hard to define noun use in terms of the simple subject. It is simply the person, place, thing, or idea performing the action in a given sentence. See the example here:

  • 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 the 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.

  • John made Jeffrey biscuits.

What did John actually make? Biscuits, the direct object, which receives the action of the past tense verb, made. Who did they make the biscuits for? Jeffrey the indirect object, for whom the action of making said biscuits is actually done. 

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 when determining what is a noun, and how to vary their usage, like you see below with these few examples.

Verbing: Verbing is one method of 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 noun 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 to define noun use by changing its intent 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.

What Is a Noun – To Be Continued…

Now that you know all about noun basics, types, and uses, you can start utilizing these rules to improve your own writing. And don’t worry if it’s not at Shakespearean level – at least it will be grammatically sound and you’ll have answered the question, “what is a noun?

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