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Kinds and function
There are four kinds of a noun in English:
Common nouns: dog, man, table
Proper nouns: France, Madrid, Mrs Smith, Tom
Abstract nouns: beauty, charity, courage, fear, joy
Collective nouns: crowd, flock, group, swarm, team
A noun can function as:
The subject of a verb: Tom arrived.
The complement of the verbs is, become, seem: Tom is an actor.
The object of a verb: I saw Tom.
The object of a preposition: I spoke to Tom.
A noun can also be in the possessive case: Tom’s books.
A Masculine: men, boys and male animals (pronoun he/they).
Feminine: women, girls and female animals (pronoun she/they).
Neuter: inanimate things, animals whose sex we don’t know and sometimes babies whose sex we don’t know (pronoun it/they).
Exceptions: ships and sometimes cars and other vehicles when regarded with affection or respect are considered feminine. Countries, when referred to by name, are also normally considered feminine.
The ship struck an iceberg, which tore a huge hole in her side.
Scotland lost many of her bravest men in two great rebellions.
Personal masculine/feminine nouns
(a)boy, girl gentleman, lady son, daughter
bachelor, spinster husband, wife uncle, aunt
bridegroom, bride man, woman widower, widow
father, mother nephew, niece
baby infant relative
child Parent spouse
cousin relation teenager
(b) duke, duchess king, queen prince, princess
earl, countess lord, lady
The majority of personal nouns have the same form:
Artist cook driver guide
assistant dancer doctor etc.
actor, actress host, hostess
conductor, conductress manager, manageress
heir, heiress steward, stewardess
hero, heroine waiter, the waitress
Also salesman, saleswoman etc., but sometimes-person is used instead of -man, -woman: salesperson, spokesperson.
C Domestic animals and many of the larger wild animals have different forms:
bull, cow duck, drake ram, ewe stallion, mare
cock, hen gander, goose stag, doe tiger, tigress
dog, bitch lion, lioness
Others have the same form.
1. The plural of a noun is usually made by adding s to the singular:
day, days dog, dogs house, houses
s is pronounced /s/ after a p, k or f sound. Otherwise, it is
When s is placed after ce, ge, se or ze an extra syllable (hz0 is added to the spoken word.
Other plural forms
2. Nouns ending in o or ch, sh,/ss or x form their plural by adding es:
tomato, tomatoes brush, brushes box, boxes
church, churches kiss, kisses
3. But words of foreign origin or abbreviated words ending in o adds only:
dynamo, dynamos kimono, kimonos piano, pianos
kilo, kilos photo, photos soprano, sopranos
When es is placed after ch, sh, ss or x an extra syllable (/Iz/) is added to the spoken word.
Nouns ending in y following a consonant form their plural by dropping they and adding are:
baby, babies country, countries fly, flies lady, ladies
Nouns ending in y following a vowel form their plural by adding s:
boy, boys day, days donkey, donkeys guy, guys
Twelve nouns ending in for the drop the f orfe and add yes. These nouns are a calf, half, knife, leaf, life, loaf, self, sheaf, shelf thief, wife, wolf:
loaf, loaves wife, wives wolf, wolves etc.
The nouns hoof, scarf and wharf take either s or ves-in the plural:
hoofs or hooves scarfs or scarves wharves or wharves
Other words ending in for the add s in an ordinary way:
cliff, cliffs handkerchief, handkerchiefs safe, safes
A few nouns form their plural by a vowel change:
foot, feet louse, lice mouse, mice woman, women
goose, geese man, men tooth, teeth
The plurals of child and ox are children, oxen.
F Names of certain creatures do not change in the plural.
fish is normally unchanged. fishes exist but are uncommon.
Some types of fish do not normally change in the plural:
Carp pike salmon trout
Cod plaice squid turbot
but if used in a plural sense they would take a plural verb.
Others add s:
crabs herrings sardines
eels lobsters sharks
deer and sheep do not change: one sheep,
two sheep. Sportsmen who shoot duck, partridge, pheasant etc. use the same form
for singular and plural. But other people normally add s for the
plural: ducks, partridges, pheasants.
The word game, used by sportsmen to mean an animal/animals hunted,
is always in the singular and takes a singular verb.
G A few other words don’t change:
aircraft, craft (boat/boats) quid (slang for £1)
counsel (barristers working in court)
Collective nouns, crew, family, team etc., can take a singular or plural verb; singular if we consider the word to mean a single group or unit:
Our team is the best
or plural if we take it to mean a number of individuals:
Our teams are wearing their new jerseys.
When a possessive adjective is necessary, a plural verb with there is more usual than a singular verb with its, though sometimes both are possible:
The jury is considering its verdict.
The jury is considering their verdict.
Certain words are always plural and take a plural verb:
garments consisting of two parts:
breeches pants pyjamas trousers etc.
and tools and instruments consisting of two parts:
binoculars pliers scissors spectacles
glasses scales shears etc.
Also certain other words including:
arms (weapons) particulars
damages (compensation) premises/quarters
greens (vegetables) spirits (alcohol)
pains (trouble/effort) valuables
A number of words ending in ics, acoustics, athletics, ethics, hysterics, mathematics, physics, politics etc., which are plural in form, normally take a plural verb:
His mathematics are weak.
But names of sciences can sometimes be considered singular:
Mathematics is an exact science.
Words plural in form but singular in meaning includes news:
The news is good
mumps rickets shingles
and certain games:
billiards darts draughts
Some words which retain their original Greek or Latin forms make their plurals according to the rules of Greek and Latin:
crisis, crises / crisis/, krais:z/ phenomenon, phenomena
erratum, errata radius, radii
memorandum, memoranda terminus, termini
oasis, oases /au’elsis/, /are is:z/
But some follow the English rules:
dogma, dogmas gymnasium, gymnasiums
the formula, formulas (though formulae are used by scientists)
Sometimes there are two plural forms with different meanings:
appendix, appendixes or appendices (medical terms)
appendix, appendices (addition/s to a book)
index, indexes (in books), indices (in mathematics)
Musicians usually prefer Italian plural forms for Italian musical terms:
the libretto, libretti tempo, tempi
But s is also possible: librettos, tempos.
- Normally the last word is made plural:
boy-friends break-ins travel agents
But where man and woman are prefixed both parts are made plural:
men drivers women drivers
The first word is made plural with compounds formed of verb + er nouns + adverbs:
hangers-on lookers-on runners-up
and with compounds composed of noun + preposition + noun:
ladies-in-waiting sisters-in-law wards of the court
Initials can be made plural:
MPs (Members of Parliament)
VIPs (very important persons)
OAPs (old age pensioners)
UFOs (unidentified flying objects)
Uncountable nouns (also known as non-count nouns or mass nouns)
1 Names of substances considered generally:
bread cream gold paper tea
beer dust ice sand water
cloth gin jam soap wine
coffee glass oil stone wood
advice experience horror pity
beauty fear information relief
courage help knowledge suspicion
death hope mercy work
Also considered uncountable in English:
baggage damage luggage shopping
camping furniture parking weather
These, with hair, information, knowledge, news, rubbish, are sometimes countable in other languages.
Uncountable nouns are always singular and are not used with a/an:
I don’t want (any) advice or help. I want (some) information.
He has had no experience in this sort of work.
These nouns are often preceded by some, any, no, a little etc. or by nouns such as bit, piece, slice etc. + of:
a bit of news a grain of sand a pot of jam
a cake of soap a pane of glass a sheet of paper
a drop of oil a piece of advice
Many of the nouns in the above groups can be used in a particular sense and are then countable and can take a/an in the singular. Some examples are given below.
hair (all the hair on one’s head) is considered uncountable, but if we
consider each hair separately we say one hair, two hairs etc.:
Her hair is black. Whenever she finds a grey hair she pulls it out.
We drink beer, coffee, gin, but we can ask for a (cup of coffee, a gin, two
gins etc. We drink wine out of glasses. We can walk in the woods.
experience meaning ‘something which happened to someone’ is countable:
He had an exciting experience/some exciting experiences
(= adventure/s) last week.
work meaning ‘occupation/employment/a job/jobs’ is singular:
He is looking for work/for a job. I do homework.
She does housework.
But road works means ‘repair of roads’.
works (plural only) can mean ‘factory’ or ‘moving parts of a machine’.
works (usually plural) can be used of literary or musical compositions:
Shakespeare’s complete works.
Some abstract nouns can be used in a particular sense with a/an, but in the singular only:
My children are a great help to me. A good map would be a help.
It was a relief to sit down.
a knowledge + of:
He had a good knowledge of mathematics.
a dislike/dread/hatred/horror/love + of is also possible:
a love of music a hatred of violence
a mercy/pity/shame/wonder can be used with that-clauses
introduced by it:
It’s a pity you weren’t here. It’s a shame he wasn’t paid.
a fear/fears, a hope/hopes, a suspicion/suspicions
These can be used with that-clauses introduced by there:
There is a fear/There are fears that he has been murdered.
We can also have a suspicion that…
Something can arouse a fear/fears, a hope/hopes, a suspicion/suspicions.
The form of the possessive/genitive case
‘s is used with singular nouns and plural nouns not ending in s:
a man’s job the people’s choice
men’s work the crew’s quarters
a woman’s intuition the horse’s mouth
the butcher’s (shop) the bull’s horns
a child’s voice women’s clothes
the children’s room Russia’s exports
A simple apostrophe (‘) is used with plural nouns ending in s:
a girls’ school the students’ hostel
the eagles’ nest the Smiths’ car
Classical names ending in a usually add only the apostrophe:
Pythagoras’ Theorem Archimedes’ Law Sophocles’ plays
Other names ending in s can take ‘s or the apostrophe alone:
Mr Jones’s (or Mr Jones’ house) Yeast’s (or Yeats’) poems
With compounds, the last word takes the ‘s:
my brother-in-law’s guitar
Names consisting of several words are treated similarly:
Henry the Eighth’s wives the Prince of Wales’s helicopter ‘s
can also be used after initials:
the PM’s secretary the MP’s briefcase the VIP’s escort
Note that when the possessive case is used, the article before the person or thing ‘possessed’ disappears:
the daughter of the politician = the politician’s daughter
the intervention of America = America’s intervention
the plays of Shakespeare = Shakespeare’s plays
Use of the possessive/genitive case and of + noun
The possessive case is chiefly used of people, countries or animals as shown above. It can also be used:
1.Of ships and boats: the ship’s bell, the yacht’s mast
2. Of planes, trains, cars and other vehicles, though here the of construction is safer:
a glider’s wings or the wings o a glider
the train’s heating system or the heating system of the train
In time expressions:
a week’s holiday today’s paper tomorrow’s weather
in two years’ time ten minutes’ break two hours’ delay
a ten-minute break, a two-hour delay is also possible:
We have ten minutes’ break/a ten-minute break.
In expressions of money + worth:
1’s worth of stamps ten dollars’ worth of ice-cream
With for + noun + sake: for heaven’s sake, for goodness’ sake
In a few expressions such as:
a stone’s throw journey’s end the water’s edge
- We can say either a winter’s day or a winter day and a summer’s day or a summer day, but we cannot make spring or autumn possessive, except when they are personified: Autumn’s return.
- Sometimes certain nouns can be used in the possessive case without the second noun. a/the baker’s/butcher’s/chemist’s/florist’s etc. can mean ‘a/the baker’s/butcher’s etc. shop’.
Similarly, a/the house agent’s/travel agent’s etc. (office) and the dentist’s/doctor’s/vet’s (surgery):
You can buy it at the chemists. He’s going to the dentists.
Names of the owners of some businesses can be used similarly:
Some very well-known shops etc. call themselves by the possessive form and some drop the apostrophe: Foyles, Harrods.
Names of people can sometimes be used similarly to mean ‘
. . .’s house’:
We had lunch at Bill’s. We met at Ann’s.
of + noun is used for possession:
When the possessor noun is followed by a phrase or clause:
The boys ran about, obeying the directions of a man with a whistle.
I took the advice of a couple I met on the train and hired a car.
With inanimate ‘possessors’, except those listed in A above:
the walls of the town the roof of the church the keys of the car
However, it is often possible to replace noun X + of + noun Y by noun Y + noun X in that order:
the town walls the church roof the car keys
Unfortunately, noun + of + noun combinations cannot always be
replaced in this way and the student is advised to use of when in doubt.
Examples of these:
1 Noun + noun:
‘London ‘Transport ‘ ‘Fleet Street ‘ Tower ‘Bridge
hall ‘door ‘traffic warden ‘ ‘petrol tank
hitch-hiker ‘skyjacker ‘river bank
‘kitchen ‘table ‘ winter ‘clothes
2.Noun + gerund:
‘fruit picking ‘ ‘lorry driving ‘ coal-mining
weight-lifting ‘bird-watching ‘surf-riding
Gerund + noun:
‘waiting list’ diving-board ‘driving licence
‘landing card ‘dining-room ‘swimming pool
B Some ways in which these combinations can be used:
1 When the second noun belongs to or is part of the first:
‘shop ‘window ‘ picture frame ‘college ‘library
‘church bell ‘ garden ‘gate ‘gear lever
But words denoting quantity: lump, part, piece, slice etc. cannot be used in this way:
a piece of cake a slice of bread
2. The first noun can indicate the place of the second:
‘city ‘street ‘corner ‘shop ‘country ‘lane ‘street market
3. The first noun can indicate the time of the second:
‘summer ‘holiday ‘Sunday paper ‘November fogs
‘spring ‘flowers ‘dawn ‘chorus
The first noun can state the material of which the second is made:
‘steel ‘door ‘rope ‘ladder ‘gold ‘medal
‘stone ‘wall ‘silk ‘shirt
wool and wood are not used here as they have adjective forms: woollen and wooden. gold has an adjective form golden. but this is used only figuratively:
a golden handshake a golden opportunity golden hair
The first noun can also state the power/fuel used to operate the second:
‘gas ‘fire ‘petrol engine ‘oil ‘stove
The first word can indicate the purpose of the Second:
‘coffee cup ‘escape hatch ‘chess board ‘
reading lamp ‘skating rink ‘tin opener
‘golf club ‘notice board ‘football ground
Work areas, such as a factory, farm, mine etc., can be preceded by the name of the article produced:
Fish- farm gold-mine oil- rig
or the type of work done:
‘inspection pit ‘ assembly plant ‘decompression chamber
These combinations are often used of occupations, sports, hobbies and the people who practise them:
‘sheep fanning ‘ sheep farmer! pop singer
‘windsurfing ‘water skier ‘disc jockey
and for competitions:
football match ‘tennis tournament ‘beauty contest ‘car rally
The first noun can show what the second is about or concerned with. A work of fiction may be a ‘detective/murder/mystery/ghost/horror/spy story. We buy ‘bus/train/plane tickets. We pay ‘feel/laundry/
milk/telephone bills, ‘entry fees, ‘income tax, ‘car insurance. ‘water rates, ‘parking fines.
Similarly with committees, departments, talks, conferences etc.:
‘housing committee, ‘education department, ‘peace talks
These categories all overlap to some extent. They are not meant to be mutually exclusive but aim to give the student some general idea of the uses of these combinations and help with the stress.
As will be seen from the stress-marks above:
1. The first word is stressed in noun + gerund and gerund + noun combinations, when there is an idea of purpose as in B5 above, and in combinations of type B7 and B8 above.
2. Both words are usually stressed in combinations of types Al, B1-3 above, but inevitably th.ere are exceptions.
3. In place-name combinations both words usually have equal stress:
‘King’s ‘Road ‘Waterloo ‘Bridge ‘Leicester ‘Square
But there is one important exception. In combinations where the last word is Street, the word Street is unstressed:
‘Bond Street ‘Oxford Street