Section 4: Nouns

A NOUN is a form-class word that typically names entities or concrete/abstract things.

The more noun characteristics a noun has, the more prototypical it is. A noun like government has all five characteristics:

  1. Has a noun-making morpheme: government
  2. Can occur with the plural morpheme: governments
  3. Can occur with the possessive morpheme: government’s
  4. Can directly follow an article: the government
  5. Fits the frame sentence: The government seems all right.

These characteristics serve as the primary tests for identifying nouns. Therefore, government is a good candidate for a prototypical noun. Many other nouns have four or five of these characteristics, making them also prototypical: cat, sandwich, love, warrior, currency, etc.

The fewer noun characteristics a noun has, the more it becomes a peripheral case.

Peripheral cases include:

  • nouns derived from adjectives (happiness, diligence)
  • nouns derived from verbs (reaction, runner)
  • adjectives that are also nouns (red, cold)
  • verbs that are also nouns (run, hit)

For example, a noun like happiness only fulfills two of the five noun characteristics:

Fits the frame sentence: Happiness seems all right.

Has a noun-making morpheme: happiness

The morpheme –ness makes nouns from adjectives, as in friendliness and creaminess.

Does not usually occur with the plural morpheme: *happinesses

Does not usually occur with the possessive morpheme: *happiness’s

Does not directly follow an article when it stands alone without modifiers: *a/the happiness

With modifiers, the article becomes more common: the happiness of the people

Happiness is not a good example of a prototypical noun because it only has two noun characteristics. That makes it a peripheral case.

When analyzing for nouns, we classify its FORM as noun. We classify its FUNCTION as nominal.

In this respect, a nominal is a noun or any group of words that can substitute for a noun (word, phrase, or clause) and perform nominal functions. In other words, they can do anything that a noun can do, including filling any of the common nominal slots in a sentence:


Whoever ate my lunch is in big trouble.
SOMEONE is in big trouble.

That the museum cancelled the lecture disappoints me.
SOMETHING disappoints me.

Subject complement (SUBJECT COMPLEMENT SLOT - most commonly following a linking verb)

The truth was that the moving company lost all your furniture.
The truth was SOMETHING.

The first place winner will be whoever swims the farthest in an hour.
The first place winner will be SOMEONE.

Direct object (DIRECT OBJECT SLOT - most commonly following a transitive verb)

Do you know when the train should arrive?
Do you know SOMETHING?

Our dog eats whatever we put in his bowl.
Our dog eats SOMETHING.

Object complement (OBJECT COMPLEMENT SLOT - modifies a nominal in an object position)

Her grandfather considers his biggest mistake that he did not finish college.
Her grandfather considers his biggest mistake SOMETHING.

The committee has announced the winner whoever wrote the essay on noun clauses.
The committee has announced the winner SOMEONE.

Indirect object (INDIRECT OBJECT SLOT)

The judge will give what you said some deliberation during her decision.
The judge will give SOMETHING some deliberation during her decision.

The group has given that most Americans do not support their cause.
The group has given SOME PEOPLE do not support their cause.

Object of the preposition (OBJECT OF THE PREPOSITION SLOT - a preposition MUST be followed by a nominal object)

Some people believe in whatever organized religion tells them.
Some people believe in SOMETHING.

My husband did not think about that I wanted some nice jewelry for my birthday.
My husband did not think about SOMETHING.

Adjective complement

I am pleased that you are studying noun clauses.

The toddler was surprised that throwing a tantrum did not get him his way.


That man, whoever he is, tried to steal some library books.

Your question, whether you should wear the blue dress or the pink one, is frivolous in this situation

We will analyze for these eight functions throughout Analyzing Grammar in Context.

Members of all four form classes can be divided into further subclasses based on certain semantic features. These features often have grammatical consequences. The following are some of the subclasses of nouns:

Proper Nouns

Common Nouns

Definition: The names of specific places, persons, or events.

Definition: All other nouns.

Examples: Las Vegas, President Lincoln, July 4th

Examples: city, president, holiday

Grammatical consequences: proper nouns usually cannot follow articles (a, an, the):

  • in Las Vegas
  • by President Lincoln
  • on July 4th

Grammatical consequences: common nouns can follow articles (a, an, the):

  • in the city
  • by the president
  • on the holiday


Count Nouns

Noncount (Mass) Nouns

Definition: Refer to things that are considered separate entities.

Definition: Refer to things that we think of as not countable because they occur in a mass.

Examples: pen, cell phone, egg

Example: ink, airtime, flour

Grammatical consequences: count nouns occur with many and other determiners that establish number:

  • many pens
  • two cell phones
  • each egg

Grammatical consequences: noncount nouns only occur in the singular with much and other indefinite determiners:

  • much ink
  • some airtime
  • a lot of flour

Other subclasses of nouns include human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate, and male and female.

Finally, nominative is the case used in inflected languages to indicate the subject of a sentence. In English, the nominative case is evident in the pronouns I, he, she, we, and they, as opposed to the object forms me, him, her, us, and them.

To test your understanding of the concepts discussed on this page, begin with the link below for an example practice exercise:


For a bit more of a challenge, analyze the following sentence from The Brothers Karamazov for nouns.

While he was wearying every one with his tears and complaints, and turning his house into a sink of debauchery, a faithful servant of the family, Grigory, took the three-year-old Mitya into his care.

To review your answers to these two samples, check the NOUN SAMPLES ANALYSES page.