A Guide to Nouns
A noun was traditionally described as “a person, place, or thing,” but some definitions further specify what can constitute a thing, including an action, an idea, a quality, or a state of existence. This post discusses types of nouns and other issues related to nouns.
Classes of Nouns
Abstract and Concrete Nouns
Abstract nouns are those that refer to concepts or ideas, such as justice or evolution. By contrast, concrete nouns represent physical entities that can be observed by one or more senses; examples include apple, dog, and house. Some nouns have both abstract and concrete meanings—for example, a pillar is a column that serves as a commemorative object or a structural support, but by extension, the word refers to a figurative concept related to the latter sense: a principle, for example, that is part of the identity of an organization. (In addition, a person may be referred to as “a pillar of the community,” but although person is concrete, the person does not literally provide structural support for an edifice.)
A collective noun is one that, despite the lack of plural inflection, refers to a group (as in the case of committee) or to an entity consisting of multiple members (for example, government or police). In American English, such terms take a singular verb form unless the emphasis is clearly on the constituents of the collective, as in “The staff were pleased to hear about the new workplace policy,” though many writers (and editors) are more comfortable with a revision that more explicitly focuses on the individuals, such as “Members of the staff were pleased to hear about the new workplace policy.”
A compound noun is one that consists of two or more words. Compound nouns may be closed (warlord), hyphenated (mind-set), or open (“post office”). Generally, a compound of more than two words is hyphenated, as in jack-in-the box, but a proper name consisting of more than two words is almost always open (“Royal Canadian Mounted Police”).
Countable and Mass Nouns
Countable nouns are those that may take an indefinite article (a or an) or a plural form, or be combined with a numeral (such as three) or a counting quantifier (such as several). Countable nouns include car, finger, and event. Mass, or uncountable, nouns, are those that do not have these properties, such as blood, equipment, and information. Many nouns have senses as both countable and mass nouns. For example, rain is an uncountable phenomenon, but one can refer to a succession of rains.
A proper noun is one that denotes a unique entity, such as a specific person (John), place (Earth), or thing (iPhone). Writers frequently err in capitalizing generic descriptions thought to be specific. For example, a person might be described as “a Marketing Director”; though the person does in fact hold that job title, it is not unique to that person (although it is capitalized as part of the entity description “Marketing Director John Smith,” which is unique).
Similarly, one might be said to have “earned a Master’s Degree”; although the diploma that documents conferring of the degree is unique, a degree demonstrating mastery of a particular academic discipline is distributed to numerous people, and thus the word is generic. In addition, words that, as part of a specific appellation, are capitalized are sometimes erroneously capitalized in isolation, as in “the Committee.” This style is common in content published by institutions and organizations (and sometimes codified in their house style guides) that refers in shorthand to a particular committee, and it is a tradition in legal text, but in most other contexts it is considered an error.
Considerations About Nouns
Nominalization and Conversion
Avoid the jargonistic overuse of noun forms of verbs in place of the verbs themselves, itself known jargonistically as nominalization, to make sentences more concise, direct, and accessible. (For example, “effect a transposition” is easily replaced by transpose.)
A related issue is conversion, by which a verb becomes a noun (as in the use of take in “We filmed the scene in one take” or “What’s your take on that?”). Many conversions are unobjectionable in isolation, but take care not to let them overwhelm your prose.
One obstacle to clarity, prevalent in business content, is the use of multiple nouns as adjectives describing a terminal noun, as in “The topic of the webinar is compliance risk management program governance.”
Avoid such strings of nouns-cum-adjectives before a noun, which many people may read haltingly because even if they are familiar with the terms that constitute the phrase, they will not know until they reach the actual noun that they have come to the end of it. Revise the phrase to reflect a more relaxed syntax so that it can be read with relative lack of effort: “The topic of the webinar is governance of programs pertaining to compliance risk management.”
English is maddeningly inconsistent, especially in forming plurals. For example, the plural of avocado is avocados (avocadoes is a variant), while tomato is rendered tomatoes in its plural form. (These words derive from the same language, Nahuatl, and as in the case of the name of the language, the ending sound of both native words is l, but they took different paths through Spanish.)
Other problematic words include those ending in y and some words adopted from Greek and Latin; for example, plural endings for some Latin words (such as antenna and index) vary depending on sense. Another complicating category is compound nouns (such as fathers-in-law). When in doubt, consult a dictionary. (And, to be safe, when not in doubt, consult a dictionary.)
Other types of nouns that may require writers to consult with a dictionary (or a style guide) so that plural forms are correctly rendered include plurals of proper nouns and for abbreviations, letters, and numerals.
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