English nouns

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English nouns form the largest category of words in English, both in terms of the number of different words and in terms of how often they are used in typical texts.[1][p. 16] Like nouns in general, English nouns typically denote physical objects, but they also denote actions (e.g., get up and have a stretch), characteristics (this red is lovely), relations in space (closeness), and just about anything at all.[2][p. 30] They typically have singular and plural forms and head noun phrases that function as subjects and objects and have determiners and adjective phrase modifiers as dependents.[1][p. 82]

For the purposes of this article, English nouns include English pronouns, but not English determiners.[3]


English nouns are classified as common nouns, proper nouns, and pronouns, each with its own typical syntactic behaviour.[1][p. 84]

Common nouns[edit]

Common nouns are the most typical nouns, the most numerous, and the most frequently used.

Proper nouns[edit]

Proper nouns are used for the names of people, companies, institutions, etc. They differ from common nouns in that they resist any kinds of dependents.


English pronouns are very few in number and the fairy distinct from common and proper nouns. They are the only English nouns to have distinct case and gender forms.


In conversation, pronouns are roughly as frequent as other nouns. In fiction, pronouns are about one third of all nouns, and in news and academic English, pronouns are a small minority of nouns (<10%).[4][p. 235]



Common nouns[edit]

Common nouns in English have very little inflectional morphology: they typically have singular and plural forms, each of which can be plain or genitive (possessive). Here is an example of a regular and irregular noun and an irregular noun:[1][p. 82]

Singular Plural
Plain Genitive Plain Genitive
Regular cat cat's cats cats'
Irregular woman woman's women women's


Those types that are undisputedly pronouns are the personal pronouns, relative pronouns, interrogative pronouns, and reciprocal pronouns. The full set is presented in the following table along with dummy there. Nonstandard, informal and archaic forms are in italics.

Nominative Accusative Reflexive Independent genitive Dependent genitive
(subject) (object) (possessive)
First-person Singular I me myself mine my

mine (before vowel); me (esp. BrE)

Plural we us ourselves


ours our
Second-person Singular Standard (archaic plural and later formal) you* you* yourself* yours your*
Archaic informal thou thee thyself thine thythine (before vowel)
Plural Standard you you yourselves yours your
Archaic ye you yourselves yours your
Nonstandard yeyou ally'allyouseetc. (see above) yeyou ally'allyouse yeerselvesy'all's (or y'alls) selves yeersy'all's (or y'alls) yeery'all's (or y'alls)
Third-person Singular Masculine he* him* himself* his*
Feminine she* her* herself* hers her*
Neuter it it itself its its
Epicene they them themselves


theirs their
Plural they them themselves theirs their
Generic Formal one one oneself one's
Informal you you yourself your your
Wh- Relative & interrogative For persons who whom


whose whose
Non-personal what what
Relative only which which
Reciprocal each other

one another

Dummy there


Interrogative only. *This is Kim's, whose we forgot is not possible.

Derivational (for common nouns)[edit]

Noun forming[edit]

The most common noun-forming affixes are: -tion, -ism, -ity, and -ness.[4][p. 322] For example, the verb activate + -tion becomes the noun activation. Nouns can also be formed by conversion (no change, e.g., runrun) and compounding (putting two bases together, e.g., grand + mothergrandmother).[1][p. 284]


There are many prefixes that can be attached to a noun to change its meaning. A small list of examples include anti-, bi-, dis-, hyper-, mega-, non-, & re- (e.g., re- + vision → revision).[4][p. 320]

Semantics of nouns[edit]

See below for semantics of noun phrases.


Common nouns and proper nouns prototypically denote physical entities and in English, any word that denotes an entity must be a noun. For example one of the things that apple denotes is "a common, round fruit produced by the tree Malus domestica, cultivated in temperate climates."[5] Pronouns do not denote anything.


Count nouns allow noun phrases with a number determiner (e.g., three apples), and mass nouns does not (*Hand me those three luggages.). English nouns typically have both count and mass senses, though for a given noun one sense typically dominates. For example, apple is usually countable (two apples), but it also has a mass sense (e.g., this pie is full of apple). When discussing different types, a count form is available for almost any noun (e.g., This shop carries many cheeses. = "many types of cheese").[6]

Most mass nouns are singular only (e.g., meat, information, mud, love), but some are plural only (e.g., police, jeans, genitals, remains, etc.).

Mass nouns denote things that, when put together, remain the same thing. For example, if I have luggage and you give me more luggage, I still just have luggage. Count nouns fail this test: if I have an apple, and I give you more apple or more apples, I no longer just have an apple.[6][p. 52]


English has lost the system of grammatical gender that was present in Old English, and while there is some disagreement over what has replaced it, generally speaking English is said to have a system of "natural gender", which applies only to the pronouns.[7] A "natural gender" is one "in which there is a clear correlation between masculine and feminine nouns and biological traits in the referent."[7][p. 11] There is also a second system whereby who correlates with persons and pronoun what correlates with non-persons.

Some grammars attempt to assign various genders to English common nouns,[8] while others deny that such a scheme makes sense.[2]

Noun phrases[edit]

Nouns head noun phrases (NPs). Though people informally say that a noun is the subject of a sentence, it is actually the noun phrase that functions as subject, object, predicative complement, etc.


Nouns only function as the head of a nominal, which in turn mostly functions as the head of an NP. NPs typically function as subject, object, and predicative complement, along with the other functions shown in the following table:[9][chapter 5]

Functions of NPs with pronouns and other nouns
Function Non-pronoun Pronoun
Subject Jess is here. She is here.
Object I have two pens. I have them.
Object of a preposition It went to your address. It went to you.
Predicative complement This is my brother. This is him.
Determinative the box's top its top
Adjunct Try again Monday. I did it myself.
Modifier a Shetland pony a she goat
Subject in interrogative tags that's right, isn't it?

Nominals (see Internal structure, below), also appear as pre-head modifier in a nominal (e.g., a two day conference).

Internal structure[edit]

Every noun phrases (NP) has a head NP or a head nominal, a nominal being a phrase intermediate between an NP and a noun. An NP with a nominal may also have a determiner. Roughly speaking, the nominal includes everything after the determinative (similar to the way a clause has a verb phrase that includes basically everything after the subject).

The following tree shows the internal structure of an NP with all the main types of dependents: modifiers, a determinative, and a complement.

This is a noun phrase with an external modifier adverb phrase "even" and a head noun phrase. The head has a predeterminer modifier "all" and a head NP. The NP has a determiner DP "the" and a head nominal. The nominal has a head nominal and a modifier relative clause "that Bill gets". The head has a head nominal and a complement PP "from Lloyds". The head has a modifier AdjP "preposterous" and a head noun "salary".


A basic NP splits into an optional determinative (usually a determiner phrase or a genitive NP) and a head nominal (e.g., [many] [good people]). In the diagram above, the determiner is the, and the head nominal is preposterous salary from Lloyds that Bill gets. The determinative, if present, always precedes the nominal and is licensed by the head noun. That is, it must agree in number and countability (e.g., many people, *many person, some police, *a police) with the head noun.


Various kinds of modifiers are possible, as the diagram above shows.

Inside the nominal, modifiers can be divided into pre-head (before the noun) and post-head (after the noun). Adjective phrases are very common pre-head modifiers, as exemplified by preposterous in the tree diagram above. Other common pre-head modifers include nominals (e.g., a new world order) and verb phrases (e.g., a regularly dripping faucet). Preposition phrases are common as post-head modifers (e.g., an apple in a tree) and relative clauses, as exemplified by that Bill gets in the tree diagram above. Post-positive adjective phrases are also possible (e.g., an attorney general).

Insider the NP, but outside the nominal, there are also predeterminer modifiers (e.g., a third the size) – as exemplified by all in the tree diagram above – and external modifiers, which are often adverb phrases (e.g., simply the best way) – as exemplified by even in the tree diagram above.


A nominal can occasionally include a complement, a dependent licensed by the head noun. Usually these are subordinate clauses (e.g., the idea that I was there; no doubt whether she was there) or preposition phrases, as exemplified by from Lloyds in the tree diagram above. When there is a complement, usually there's only one, but up to three are possible (e.g., a bet for $10 with DJ that it wasn't true.)

Semantics of noun phrases[edit]

Noun phrases typically inherit the denotation of the head noun (see above). On top of this, they may have many other semantic characeristics including definiteness, specificity, number, quantification, gender, and person.


Noun phrases often refer. For example the two NPs in JP is my friend refer to the same person.[10] Not all NPs refer though. The underlined NPs in the following examples do not refer:

  1. Who likes ice cream?
  2. It's raining.
  3. There's a problem.
  4. Nobody came.

References and notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e Huddleston, Rodney; Pullum, Geoffrey K. (2005). A student's introduction to English grammar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  2. ^ a b Huddleston, Rodney; Pullum, Geoffrey K. (2002). The Cambridge grammar of the English language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  3. ^ Some theories suggest that determiners are actually types of pronouns or the other way around. See English determiners for more on this point. Also, for the purposes of simplicity, this article will set aside the DP hypothesis.
  4. ^ a b c Douglas, Biber (2011). Longman student grammar of spoken and written English. Longman. ISBN 0-582-23726-2. OCLC 734063137.
  5. ^ "apple - Wiktionary". en.wiktionary.org. Retrieved 2021-03-29.
  6. ^ a b Gillon, Brendan S. (1999), Viegas, Evelyne (ed.), "The Lexical Semantics of English Count and Mass Nouns", Breadth and Depth of Semantic Lexicons, Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, 10, pp. 19–37, doi:10.1007/978-94-017-0952-1_2, ISBN 978-90-481-5347-3, retrieved 2021-03-29
  7. ^ a b Curzan, Anne (2003). Gender shifts in the history of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  8. ^ Quirk, Randolph; Greenbaum, Sidney (1985). A Comprehensive grammar of the English language. London: Longman. ISBN 0-582-51734-6. OCLC 11533395. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  9. ^ Huddleston, Rodney; Pullum, Geoffrey K. (2002). The Cambridge grammar of the English language. Cambridge University Press.
  10. ^ See also sense and reference and philosophy of language.