In our last week’s article we gave you an overview of the parts of speech or word classes of the English language. This week, we want to have a closer look at one of those. This article is the first one of a series of articles that will dig deeper into the English word classes, what makes them and how you can distinguish them.
The following article will deal with one of the biggest and most obvious word classes: nouns. Lets explore how you can distinguish nouns from other words and have a look at the difference between count and non-count nouns.
Nouns In The English Language
What are nouns?
Nouns can also be called “naming word” because they are used to express or describe the general name of something. This can be the name of a person or animal, a place or thing, an idea or action, or even of a concept or quality. Consider the following examples:
Living beings: Beatrix, king, officer, cat, rodent, bacteria, tree, mushroom, daisy
Objects & items: screw, planet, chair, pants, trumpet, window
Places: Los Angeles, garden, drawer, Europe, lake, restaurant
Actions: running, explosion, flight, handling, shout
Qualities: size, sadness, color, build
States: joy, confusion, anger, sadness
(Abstract) ideas: love, dream, theory, regulation, sponsorship, perfection, physics
Nouns can have different linguistic functions in a sentence. Next to the subject of a sentence, nouns are used different kinds of objects (direct, indirect, of a verb or of a preposition).
Since we are talking about linguistics already: nouns belong to the so-called open parts of speech. This means that the class can be extended and new words can be added. The opposite would be a close class that has only a number of words in it with no possibility of adding new ones.
Count nouns and non-count nouns
In English, we differentiate between count nouns or countable nouns and mass nouns or uncountable nouns.
Count nouns can be combined with numerals, indefinite articles like a and an, or a quantifier like each and several. They have a distinct plural form that often (not always) differs from the singular form. For example:
Beatrix owns two cats. Several cats can bee seen roaming in her garden though. 👍
Non-count nouns can not form a plural form since they are not countable. They can not be paired with a numeral, an indefinite article or a quantifier. The entities a non-count noun describes cannot be counted, while the items the entity consist of may be counted (e.g. one table, two tables vs. furniture). Have a look at the following examples:
Pick up the garbage. 👍
Marilyn found three garbage in the backyard after the festival, but several garbage on the meadow behind the house. 🚫
A variety of nouns can belong to both classes, depending on the context. This means they can occur as uncountable entities as well as single and countable items. For example:
Ben brought five beers at the store. 👍
He likes beer. 👍
Nouns and gender
Nouns often reflect case, number in gender in many languages. In English, some nouns can be distinguished with regard to singular and plural by their form (cat & cats, ox & oxen). However, English nouns do not change appearance when it comes to gender. Languages like French and Russian, however, change their nouns according to it’s gender.
What is Nominalization?
Generally speaking, nominalization is the process of turning a word that belongs to another class (like an adjective or verb) into a noun. Consider the following example:
This battle will cost us many men if we do not consider the weak and the ill.
There are a few tests that help you to identify a noun. These tests can be divided into two categories: tests that look at the form of the word (formal tests) and tests that check the function of the word (function tests).
- Morpheme Test: Can I add a morpheme to the word that can only be added to nouns?
- Plural Test: Can I ad a typical plural suffix to the word?
- Possessive Test: Can I add a possessive marker to the word?
These three tests check what kind of affixes (morphemes) can be added to a word. Considering the test under (1), there are some morphemes that can only be added to nouns, like -tion, -ness or –hood:
affection, sadness, brotherhood 👍
beautifultion, fastness, runninghood 🚫
The second test tries to form the plural of a word with the common English plural-suffix -(e)s. If it can be added, it’s a noun since only nouns can have a plural form in English:
cats, buses, bottles 👍
warms, quicklys, drivings 🚫
The third test checks whether the possessive form of a word can be formed using a morpheme that marks possession:
Andrew‘s, today‘s, the dog‘s
strong‘s, fast‘s, talking‘s 🚫
- Article test: Can the word follow an article without need for a modifier?
The function test available to distinguish nouns from other word classes is the one where you check whether it can follow a definite or indefinite article without any other modifier:
the cat, a table, an idea 👍
the fast, a neat, an asking 🚫