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 Ling 131: Language & Style

Topic 2 (session A) - Being creative with words and phrases > More on word classes > Nouns

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Session Overview
(Semi) Automatic poetry
Introducing word classes
More on word classes
Manipulating word classes
Changing word class - affixation
Changing word class - functional conversion
New words for old
Word class problems
Word class checklist
Useful Links
Grammar Website

More on word classes - Nouns

(a) Meaning

Nouns are often defined for young children as 'naming words' because they refer to concrete objects in the outside world. Here, then, is our noun, which, for fun, we can call Mr Solid:

The problem with the meaning definition, though, is that there are lots of nouns which refer not to concrete things but abstractions (e.g. 'love', 'happiness'), processes (e.g. 'the laughing', 'a twinkling') and so on.

(b) Internal Form

Plural morphemes

In English many nouns can be made plural by the addition of a plural ending (e.g. 'cats', 'dogs', 'horses'). This kind of ending is an example of one of the 'building blocks' called morphemes which make up words.

Nouns that can be made into plurals are usually called count nouns, because you can 'count' them:


one cat

two cats


one dog

two dogs


one horse

two horses


one ox

three oxen

But there are many nouns which are not countable. These are usually called uncountable or mass nouns:


*one furniture

*two furnitures


*one grief

*two griefs

So this internal-form property of nouns is also not completely reliable.

Other 'nouny' endings

There are other internal form markers which come at the end of some nouns, for example:





These various '-ion' endings are a reflection (there's another one!) of the fact that these words were borrowed into English from Latin. But not very many nouns in English have such endings.

There are also morphemes which can be added to words from other open word classes to turn them into nouns, for example:


arrow pointing right



arrow pointing right



arrow pointing right



arrow pointing right


But again, many nouns do not have such 'nouny' endings (e.g. 'book', 'pen'), and some endings can end words belonging to different word classes (so 'cutting', for example, with its '-ing' ending, can be a noun, a verb or an adjective in different sentential contexts).

(c) Function

Although it is probably the most difficult of the three defining criteria to come to terms with, the most reliable way to spot a noun is in relation to its function. So, if it is the head of a noun phrase (e.g. 'the boy', 'a girl', 'a good book', 'the man who I met') it must be a noun by virtue of its surrounding grammatical context. Hence in 'a press cutting' the word 'cutting', which we have just seen to be formally ambiguous, must be a noun.

Nouns can also modify other nouns inside noun phrases, in which case they normally have to occur closer to the head noun than the other modifiers:

An enormous grey stone wall

Although the function criterion is the most reliable by far, when in doubt the most sensible thing is to use all three criteria (form, meaning and function) in combination.

chuckle Stop!


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