What Is a Noun?

A noun is a word that stands for a person, a place, a thing, or an idea.

  • Jack and Jill went up the hill.
  • Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittensOscar Hammerstein
  • The most unusual and surrealistic place in New York City is Central ParkChristo
  • The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense.—Tom Clancy

Note that the possessive form of a noun is still a noun:

  • The dog ate the cat’s food.

So is an attributive noun (i.e., a noun used to describe another noun):

  • Fido likes cat food better than dog food
  • Tutankhamen was called the boy king

Note the difference between NOUNS and pronouns, which are words that stand in for a noun.


Find the Nouns

In the following passage, the nouns are in highlighted and the pronouns are underlined.

Dorothy  lived  in  the  midst of  the  great  Kansas prairies,  with Uncle Henrywho  was  a  farmer,  and  Aunt Emwho  was  the  farmer’s  wife.  Their house  was  small,  for  the  lumber  to build  it  had  to be carried  by  wagon  many  miles.  There  were  four  walls,  a  floor  and  a  roofwhich  made  one  room;  and  this  room  contained  a  rusty  looking  cookstove,  a  cupboard  for  the  dishes,  a  table,  three  or  four  chairs,  and  the  bedsUncle Henry  and  Aunt Em  had  a  big  bed  in  one  corner,  and  Dorothy  a  little  bed  in  another  corner.  There  was  no  garret  at  all,  and  no  cellar—except  a  small  hole  dug  in  the  ground,  called  a  cyclone  cellarwhere  the  family  could  go  in  case  one  of  those  great  whirlwinds  arose,  mighty  enough  to crush  any  building  in  its  pathIt  was reached  by  a  trap  door  in  the  middle  of  the  floor,  from  which  a  ladder  led  down  into  the  small,  dark  hole.

From The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum.


Singular and Plural Nouns

In English, we have to mark nouns to indicate whether they are singular or plural. A noun is singular if it represents only one item. It is plural if it represents two or more items. To mark a noun as plural, we usually add –s to the end of the word. Do not add an apostrophe (‘) to make a noun plural. Apostrophes are used to indicate the possessive form of the noun.

  • One, one bat! Two, two bats! Ah! Ah! Ah!—Count von Count, Sesame Street

For words that end in ch, x, s, or an s sound, add es.

  • To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxesThe Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery

For many words ending in f, the f gets changed to a v, and then –es is added.

  • One wife, two wives
  • One leaf, many leaves
  • One wolf, a pack of wolves

However, some words that end in f or ff just get an –s:

  • One cliff, two cliffs

For some words that end in o, add –es. For others, just add -s. Use a dictionary to make sure that you made the right choice:

  • One tomato, two tomatoes
  • One stereo, two stereos

If a word ends with a consonant and the letter y, the letter y gets changed to an i, and then –es is added.

  • One baby, two babies
  • One lady, two ladies

If the word ends with a vowel and then the letter y, just add –s.

  • One toy, two toys
  • One kidney, two kidneys

For some words that are derived from Old English words for groups of animals, the singular form is the same as the plural form:

  • One sheep, two sheep
  • One deer, two deer
  • One moose, two moose

Some very common words from Old English have irregular plural forms.

  • One woman, two women
  • One child, two children
  • One mouse, two mice
  • One goose, two geese

So do many words that were recently borrowed from other languages. To find the plural form of a word, you can look in the dictionary. Your computer’s spell-check function may alert you to irregular plurals :

  • One species, two species (the word specie means metal currency)
  • One octopus, two octopi
  • One stigma, several stigmata

Sometimes, many people disagree about how to make an English word plural, especially if the word has come from another language. In those cases, a dictionary may list more than one possible spelling for a word:

  • mosquito. n. (plural, mosquitoes; also mosquitos)

Some publishing companies require their editors and proofreaders to use a particular edition of a particular dictionary as a reference, and to pick the preferred spelling, which is the one that is listed first. In your own work, you can use whichever form you prefer, but it’s nice to stick with the same form of the same word throughout a piece.

English Nouns With an Irregular Plural Form
Singular Plural
Change the vowels in the middle  
foot feet
goose geese
louse lice
man men
tooth teeth
woman women
Final ‑f is unchanged
cliff cliffs
chief chiefs
cuff cuffs
roof roofs
Ends in –o, but gets –es  
potato potatoes
tomato tomatoes
volcano volcanoes
echo echoes
hero heroes
torpedo torpedoes
veto vetoes
Add –en  
brother brethren
child children
ox oxen
Same for singular and plural
aircraft aircraft
bison bison
deer deer
fish fish (but fishes if you mean different species of fish)
grapefruit grapefruit
grouse grouse
means means
offspring offspring
salmon salmon
series series
sheep sheep
species species
swine swine
trout trout
tuna tuna
From Middle English  
die dice
Loan words from Latin  
-us to –i ending
alumnus (male) alumni
bacillus bacilli
cactus cacti
focus foci
fungus fungi
nucleus nuclei
radius radii
stimulus stimuli
syllabus syllabi
-us to –era  
genus genera
-um to –a ending  
bacterium bacteria
curriculum curricula
datum data
medium media (sometimes mediums)
memorandum memoranda
ovum ova
phylum phyla
stratum strata
symposium symposia
stadium stadia
spectrum spectra
millennium millennia
-a to –ae ending
alga algae
alumna (female) alumnae
amoeba amoebae
antenna antennae (sometimes antennas)
formula formulae (or formulas)
larva larvae
nebula nebulae
vertebra vertebrae
vita vitae
-ix  or –ex to –ices
appendix appendices
codex codices
index indices (sometimes indexes)
matrix matrices
vertex vertices
Loan words from Greek
-on to –a
criterion criteria
phenomenon phenomena
automaton automata
polyhedron polyhedra
-is to –es
analysis analyses
antithesis antitheses
axis axes
basis bases
crisis crises
diagnosis diagnoses
ellipsis ellipses
emphasis emphases
hypothesis hypotheses
neurosis neuroses
oasis oases
paralysis paralyses
parenthesis parentheses
synopsis synopses
synthesis syntheses
thesis theses
-ma to –mata
stigma stigmata
enigma enigmata (sometimes enigmas)
dogma dogmata (sometimes dogmas)
stoma stomata
schema schemata
lemma lemmata
Loan words from French
add –x
beau beaux (sometimes beaus)
bureau bureaux (sometimes bureaus)
château châteaux (sometimes châteaus)
tableau tableaux
same for singular and plural
faux pas faux pas
Loan words from Italian
-o to –i
concerto concerti
libretto libretti
graffito graffiti
Loan words from Hebrew
add –im (masculine words)
cherub cherubim (sometimes cherubs)
seraph seraphim (sometimes seraphs)
kibbutz kibbutzim
add –ot (feminine words)
matzah matzot
Loan words from Japanese
often no change for the plural
samurai samurai


Count and Noncount Nouns

Some nouns (count nouns) refer to things that can be counted. Others (noncount nouns) refer to things that cannot be counted. For example, you can count the number of pills in a bottle. Thus, pills is a count noun. In contrast, you cannot count the number of water in a bottle. Thus, water is a noncount noun. Nouncount nouns are sometimes called mass nouns.

Noncount nouns are almost always used as a singular, except when they are being used poetically (And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters—Genesis 1:2, King James Version).

You can use some unit of measure (such as ounces or milliliters) to describe the amount of water in the bottle. Those units are count nouns, but water is still a noncount noun. In English, we use the adjective many when describing count nouns and much when describing noncount nouns:

  • How many ounces of water are in the bottle?
  • How much water is in the bottle?

Some noncount nouns are collective nouns that are used to describe groups of items that can be counted:

  • They did not have much furniture: just one table, two chairs, and a bed.


Collective Nouns

A collective noun refers to a group of that is being treated as a unified whole, such as a wolf pack or a sports team. In the United States, collective nouns usually take a singular form of the verb. However, the plural form of the verb can be used to indicate that the members of that collective were acting individually. In British English, in contrast, collective nouns that refer to teams, governments, or corporations usually take a plural form of the verb.

  • Manchester United were defeated yesterday.

In contrast, sometimes a plural noun is used to refer to refer to some kinds of collective nouns, such as mathematics. Even though those words end with an s, they are still treated as if they were singular.

  • Mathematics is an essential subject.

At the time the Constitution of the United States was written, the word people was used as a collective noun, instead of being the plural form of the word person. When the Framers of the Constitution said that a particular right belonged “to the people,” they meant a collective right, such as the right to elect someone to the House of Representatives. When they wanted to refer to more than one individual, they said “persons,” not “people.”

Some nouns refer to things that are thought of as a pair (e.g., a pair of pants, a pair of scissors). Those words are treated as plurals, but the word pair is treated as a singular. When a verb is conjugated to the word scissors, the verb has to be in the plural form (are as opposed to is). When the verb to be is conjugated to the word pair, it has to be in the singular form (is as opposed to are).

  • The scissors are not in the drawer. There is a pair of scissors on the table.


Compound Nouns

Nouns that consist of more than one word are called compound nouns. The rules for making them plural can be complicated. To understand these rules, you will have to understand adjectives and prepositions.
If there is only one noun, make the noun plural:

  • One attorney general, two attorneys general
  • One sergeant major, two sergeants major
  • One passer-by, two passers-by

If the compound consists of a noun and a prepositional phrase, make the main noun plural:

  • One daughter-in-law, two daughters-in-law


Possessive Nouns

If I possess something, I own it. To show that one noun owns another noun, we put the noun that represents the owner into the possessive form. For most singular nouns, we simply add –‘s:

  • Laurie’s computer
  • Sophie’s choice

If you have a singular noun that ends in an ‘s, you have to play it by ear. Sometimes, it makes sense to add ‘s:

  • The seamstress’s sewing machine

If adding ‘s would add too many “s” sounds to the end of a singular noun, some style guides tell you to add just an apostrophe:

  • Moses’ laws

To avoid this problem, you could rephrase as follows::

  • The laws of Moses

For plural nouns that end in s, we usually just add the apostrophe:

  • The albatrosses’ nest is on an island

For irregular plurals that do not end in an s, add ‘s, just as you would to a singular noun:

  •  The children’s toys

For compound nouns, you generally add the ‘s to the end of the entire compound:

  • The attorney general’s office
  • His mother-in-law’s birthday

If you have two or more nouns that own something together, put the last one on the list in the possessive form:

  • She is Tom, Dick, and Harry’s sister


Common and Proper Nouns

A noun is a word that refers to a person, place, thing, or idea. Some nouns represent the name of a particular person, etc. Those nouns are called proper nouns. The other nouns are called common nouns. For example, my name is Laurie Endicott Thomas. Thus, Laurie Endicott Thomas is a proper noun. My first name is Laurie, which is also used as a proper noun. I am a person. Since person is a common noun, we don’t capitalize it unless it appears at the beginning of a sentence or perhaps in the title of a book.

As a human being, I am a member of the species Homo sapiens. Homo sapiens is the scientific name for the human species. Scientists use a naming system for all living things. According to that system, every species gets a binomen, which is a name that consists of two words. The first word is the name of the genus (plural, genera), which is the larger group to which the species belongs. The second word identifies the species within that genus. Some publications, such as scientific journals, put the binomen in italics. Others, such as newspapers, do not.

Verbal Nouns

There are three basic ways to turn a verb into a noun. You can use the bare infinitive, the “to” form of the infinitive, or a gerund (which is made out of the present participle):

  • They went for a swim (bare infinitive)
  • They love to swim (“to” form of the infinitive)
  • Swimming is good exercise (gerund).

These forms of the verb are explained in more detail under verbs.

Verbing (Using Nouns as Verbs)

English grammar is so flexible that you can easily turn a noun into a verb. For example, the word site means location, such as the location of a building.

  • You must wear a hardhat at the construction site.

However, we can also use the word site as a verb that means to place something in a location.

  • The new industrial park was sited in a rural setting.

Note the difference between to site and to sight. They sound the same but have completely different meanings (see acryologia). To sight means to see something that is being sought or that is rarely seen.

  • The bear was sighted (not sited) in a residential neighborhood (the bear was seen in the neighborhood, it had not been put there deliberately).

Verbing is a time-honored practice in English. Shakespeare used it for poetic and sometimes humorous effect. However, you should be cautious about verbing in formal writing. If a word is not listed as a verb in the dictionary, think twice before using it as a verb in formal writing.