Nouns and noun-phrases in English grammar

Nouns & noun phrases

We gave a loose definition of what a noun is in an earlier section, but we now need to consider this in more detail taking into account what nouns might look like, what their purpose is, where they occur in sentences and how they interact with other words. The first thing to note is what spaces they can occupy in a sentence – they can take on the role of:

  • the subject of a verb: the camera never lies
  • the object of a verb: the police arrested the criminal
  • the complement: he became a barrister

It is sometimes possible to spot a noun by its ending:

indication, importance, interference, discernment, suitability, fairness, fatherhood

Quite often nouns will occur with other words, or a combination of other words, to make up noun phrases – some possibilities include:

  • with an article: the government, an insect
  • with an adjective: good times, legal wrangle
  • with a preposition: by car, under duress
  • with a quantifier: many dangers, loads of friends
  • with other determiners: your fault, these houses

In some of the examples above, a few of the nouns have an s at the end. Nouns which refer to more than one of that particular thing are called plural nouns; if the noun refers to only one of that thing then it is said to be singular. Examples of plural nouns are: dangers, friends, houses. The usual rule for making plurals is simply to add an s to the noun, but in some cases we need to make other changes first. Look at the following examples:

  • opportunity – opportunities
  • success – successes
  • leaf – leaves
  • dish – dishes
  • lunch – lunches
  • box – boxes

In addition to these minor alterations that need to be made to some nouns to make a plural, some have no obvious plural form, for instance, sheep, deer, fish (fishes?), cattle, vermin and so on, while others are almost always plural: scissors, trousers, shorts, glasses (spectacles), outskirts, headquarters, barracks. There are also other nouns which have irregular plurals, although they are few in number: mice, teeth, geese, children. To make matters even more confusing there are a number of nouns that look plural but are treated as singulars and we can check this claim by looking at the verb agreement:

  • I’m afraid the news is bad.
  • Physics was my best subject at school.
  • Billiards is not as popular as snooker these days.

In each case the verb used is the singular form, so we must conclude that the nouns are singular as opposed to the following where it is clear that nouns are plural:

  • Where are the scissors?
  • My trousers have got a hole in them.
  • My glasses are broken.

As well as these irregularities, there are words of foreign origin, usually Latin or Greek, which seem to retain their original plural endings rather than normalising to the English rules for making plurals. Examples include:

  • datum – data ***
  • syllabus – syllabi
  • medium – media
  • phenomenon – phenomena
  • criterion – criteria
  • paparazzo – paparazzi
  • bureau – bureaux

*** note that although data is the plural of datum, data is also often used as an uncountable/mass noun. For example:

  • The data is available from head office.
  • The data processing department is responsible for the reports.
  • Although you will sometimes see ‘The data are (sic) unreliable’, it would be very peculiar to read ‘They collected sixty data’ because although ‘data’ is plural in origin it is rarely used as a countable.

So far, we have mainly been discussing nouns which can be used in either the singular or the plural form, but how do we categorise the nouns in the following examples? Try to make the bold nouns plural and see what effect it creates.

  • Milk is good for you.
  • Have you got the information I need?
  • Here’s the money I borrowed.
  • Could you put some more wood on the fire?
  • It’s time to tell the truth.

Making these nouns plural would not leave us with a correctly formed English sentence.

In other words, there are two types of nouns; those nouns that can be either singular or plural nouns called countable nouns and those that (in most contexts) can only be singular calleduncountable nouns.

From now on we will use C for countable nouns and U for uncountable nouns. As a general rule, those nouns which can either be counted or are separable objects are C (book, chair, tiger, bridge), while those nouns that denote things like abstract ideas, materials, substances, liquids, granular things and so on (imagination, formica, glue, oil, sugar) are U.

It’s also important to recognize that classification of some nouns is different in different varieties of English. For example, accommodation in the sense of somewhere to sleep (e.g. hotel accommodation) is always an uncountable noun in British English. But hotel accommodations is perfectly good in North American English. Interestingly, the singular form accommodation is used in a different sense as in:

  • The politicians reached an accommodation so that they could deal with the hurricane emergency together.

Once more we need to keep in mind that there are exceptions to this general rule, for example, beeris a U noun, but we can of course ask for three beers, which is a kind of shorthand for three pints/bottles/glasses of beer. The same can be said for other liquids like tea, coffee, water etc.

English also has a number of nouns which are both C and U depending on the context and the intended meaning; for example, experience, glass.

  • He’s had a lot of experience in negotiation.
  • I’ve had several nasty experiences with dodgy sales people.
  • This ceiling is made of glass.
  • We need four wine glasses.

If we want to talk about a certain number/volume of an uncountable noun, we have to resort to using special descriptive words:

  • a loaf of bread
  • a bar of soap/chocolate
  • an item of news
  • a piece of information
  • an article of clothing
  • a bag/cup/kilo of rice
  • a cup of coffee

One very important and highly productive feature of nouns in English is that they can be put together to form a new phrase without our having to make any structural changes to the grammar of either noun; for example:

tea cup, computer screen, dog kennel, government decision, vacuum cleaner, chalk board, dandruff shampoo, internet facility, garden fence

When two or more nouns combine like this, the first noun is said to modify the second. In a sense, the first noun is playing the role of an adjective, which is what most people have in mind when we think about modification, but nouns can do the job equally well.

It is worth mentioning that not every language has this facility, but native speakers of English are quite happy to invent their own combinations of nouns in order to describe things, events or ideas that they have not come across before; this is particularly true in the workplace where we need constantly to refer to innovations and new concepts.

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