A noun names a person, a place, an animal, a thing, or an idea. Nouns can be plural or singular and can be the subject or object of a verb. For example:
- The books are on the table.
- Love is all you need.
- John is in the garden.
- London is lovely in the summer.
Sometimes, it’s difficult to know if a word is a noun or another part of speech. For example, in English, the word ‘love’ can be a noun and it can be a verb. We need to look at how the word is used in the sentence to work out what part of speech it is. Here are some tips. Nouns are often the subject or object of a verb. Nouns often come after an article like ‘a’ or ‘the’. Nouns often come after an adjective like ‘red’ or ‘pretty’ or ‘big’. Nouns are often used with a determiner like ‘this’ or ‘those’.
Common and Proper Nouns
There are different kinds of noun. First, we have proper nouns and common nouns.
Proper nouns are the names of people (Julie, Mr Johnson), places (Paris, Africa, California), organisations (Coca Cola, the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford University), works of art (the Mona Lisa), days of the week (Monday), months (June, October) and festivals (Christmas, Ramadan). In English, proper nouns usually have capital letters at the beginning of the word.
Common nouns are everything else. Words like ‘book’, ‘table’, ‘mountain’, ‘love’ and ‘money’ are all common nouns.
Countable and Uncountable Nouns
Second, there are two types of common noun. These are countable nouns and uncountable nouns. It’s really important to know if a noun is countable or uncountable, because it changes how we use it in a sentence.
Countable nouns are things which can be counted like ‘table’, ‘apple’ or ‘boy’. They usually change their form when we make a plural (they often add an ‘s’), and can be used with either a singular or a plural verb: one book falls, two books fall.
On the other hand, uncountable nouns are usually things which can’t easily be counted, like ‘love’, ‘rice’ or ‘water’. Uncountable nouns do not make a plural or change their form, and they are always used with a singular verb. We can’t say one rice, two rices.
However, sometimes there’s not much logic to whether a noun is countable or uncountable. For example, ‘work’ is uncountable but ‘job’ is countable. ‘Trip’ is countable, but ‘travel’ is uncountable. ‘Word’ is countable, but ‘vocabulary’ is uncountable. Sometimes, a noun is even different in US English and UK English, like ‘Lego’ or ‘accommodation’ (both uncountable in the UK but countable in the US).
Here are some kinds of nouns that are often uncountable:
- Abstract nouns (nouns that talk about ideas): love, happiness, peace, democracy.
- Subjects from school or university: Maths, French, history.
- Materials: metal, wood, plastic.
- Liquids: water, coffee, milk.
- Gases: air, oxygen, carbon dioxide.
- Things that are made up of lots of small pieces: sand, rice, salt.
Here’s a list of some uncountable nouns that we often use:
advice Could you give me some advice?
dust The old table was covered with dust.
electricity Electricity runs through this wire.
equipment Could you give me a list of the equipment we need for the trip?
evidence What evidence is there against John?
fog I could hardly see because of the thick fog.
fun We had a lot of fun at the party.
furniture I really need to buy some new furniture for my new flat.
happiness How can we increase our happiness?
help The teacher would like some help with moving the chairs.
homework How much homework do you get?
information Could you give me some information about things to do in London?
knowledge He has such a lot of knowledge about history.
luck I need a bit of luck!
luggage Please put leave all your luggage at the hotel and we’ll pick it up later.
money How much money do you have in your purse?
news The news is good! John has passed the exam!
pasta I love pasta!
progress We haven’t made much progress on our project.
research Julie is doing research in neuroscience.
snow There’s been a lot of snow this year.
spaghetti Could we have spaghetti with meatballs?
spinach She likes spinach with garlic.
traffic Was there a lot of traffic in central London?
vocabulary Vocabulary is very important in language learning.
work Do you have any work to do this weekend?
Words that can be both countable and uncountable
Many, many words can be used in both an uncountable way and a countable way. This is especially true of uncountable food and drink, such as ‘coffee’ or ‘yogurt’. When we’re talking in general about coffee or yogurt, the words are uncountable. But, we can use them in a countable way when we mean ‘one cup of’ or ‘one pot of’:
- Uncountable: Coffee is my favourite drink.
- Countable: Could you buy two coffees and two teas, please?
- Uncountable: My children eat a lot of yogurt.
- Countable: I bought a pack of six yogurts.
Other words that act like this include: water, juice, salad, curry and cake.
Another way that we use uncountable nouns in a countable way is when we use the word to mean ‘a kind of’ or ‘a type of’:
- Uncountable: She loves cheese.
- Countable: That shop sells lots of cheeses (=different kinds of cheese).
Other words that can be used in this way include jam, wood, plastic, bread, metal, fabric. There are a few words that change their meaning depending on if they used in a countable way or an uncountable way. For example:
Hair Countable = one hair
Urg! There’s a hair in my food!
Uncountable = all the hair on a person’s head
She has very beautiful hair.
Paper Countable = a newspaper
I bought all the papers this morning.
Uncountable = paper in general
Could you give me some paper to write on?
Light Countable = a single lamp or light bulb
The Christmas tree was covered in lights.
Uncountable = light in general
The room was full of light.
Experience Countable = one event
I travelled to Thailand and it was a really great experience.
Uncountable = when you’ve done something for a long time
She has a lot of experience with children.
Nouns which are always plural
Some nouns are always used in a plural form and with a plural verb. You can’t count them in the normal way. Sometimes you can use phrases like ‘one pair of’ or ‘three pairs of’ if you’d like to count them. Nouns like this are often clothes, or tools that have two parts. Here’s a list of words that are always plural:
Trousers My trousers are too long.
Tights I need to wear tights with this dress.
Shorts He bought some blue shorts.
Scissors There are three pairs of scissors in the drawer.
Tweezers Could you pass me those tweezers?
Binoculars She gave me some binoculars.
Glasses (for seeing better) I’ve lost my glasses!
Sunglasses My sunglasses are in my bag.
Clothes She put her clothes in the suitcase.
Belongings Whose belongings are these?
Congratulations Many congratulations!
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