The standard definition of a noun
Many people define a noun simply as a word that names any person, place, thing, or concept. According to this definition, the words Tom, library, monkey, and freedom are all nouns. However, not all of these words are always nouns.
This standard definition of a noun is not wrong; it just needs some refining. To say that a given word is a noun because it names something is not always accurate. To give an example, consider the word monkey. If asked what word class monkey belongs to, most people would say without hesitation that monkey is definitely a noun because a monkey is a thing.
However, depending on how it is used in a sentence, monkey might not be a noun. Of course, the word monkey can be (and usually is) a noun, such as in the sentence, “The monkey climbed up the tree.” The word monkey can have other functions, though. For example, in the phrase, “The children continued to monkey around,” monkey is a verb. If someone asks, “Can you hand me the monkey wrench?” monkey is being used as an adjective.
The properties of nouns
It is not entirely accurate to classify a word as a noun simply because it names something. A more precise definition is needed to truly understand what a noun is. To fully understand nouns, we need to think in terms of what a noun does within a sentence. A noun can be thought of as a word that, given its function within a sentence, has most or all of the properties of nouns,¹ which are as follows:
1) A noun can be pluralized without making a sentence confusing.
The sentences, “The monkey climbed up the tree,” and “The monkeys climbed up the tree,” both make perfect sense. “A monkeys climbed up the tree” does not make sense, but only because it clashes with the article which precedes it; the article can be changed or simply omitted. “Some monkeys climbed up the tree,” and “Monkeys climbed up the tree,” both make sense. This is an indicator that monkey is a noun as it is being used.
Monkey cannot be pluralized in “The children continued to monkey around.” Doing so would result in the grammatically-incorrect “The children continued to monkeys around.”
2) A noun can be preceded by the articles the or a.
Our example, “The monkey climbed up the tree,” shows this property in action. If a word cannot be preceded by the in a phrase, that word is probably not a noun. Monkey is not be a noun in “The children continued to monkey around,” because “The children continued to the monkey around” is not proper English.
It is important to note that the word the or a does not need to immediately precede a noun for the noun to have this property. Often, adjectives are placed between articles and their corresponding nouns, such as in “The short, hairy monkey climbed up the tree.”
This property is sometimes tricky to spot. For instance, in the phrase, “The monkey wrench was too small for the job,” it might appear as though monkey is a noun because it is preceded by the, but monkey is an adjective in this sentence. Notice that the first property of nouns does not apply to monkey this phrase — “The monkeys wrench were too small for the job,” is incorrect, indicating that monkey is not a noun in this instance. “The monkey wrenches were to small for the job,” does make sense because wrench is a noun in this phrase.
3) A noun can be preceded by one or more adjectives.
We will again look at the sentence, “The monkey climbed up the tree.” Monkey is a noun because it can be modified by adjectives, as in the example we saw earlier: “The short, hairy monkey climbed up the tree.” Monkey cannot be a noun in “The children continued to monkey around,” because it is not grammatically correct to put adjectives in front of it; “The children continued to short, hairy monkey around,” is nonsensical.
As with the previous property, this one can be deceiving sometimes, as words that are not nouns are occasionally appear to be preceded by adjectives. In the sentence, “They would slow dance to their favorite song,” it looks like dance follows an adjective (slow). However, dance is a verb in this sentence because “They would a slow dance to their favorite song,” and “They would slow dances to their favorite song,” are faulty sentences. Because dance is not a noun in this sentence, slow is not an adjective, but an adverb.
4) A noun functions as the head of a noun phrase.
An example of a noun phrase is “the small, funny monkeys,” in the sentence, “We watched the small, funny monkeys.” We can be sure the underlined string of words in this sentence is a noun phrase because all the words in the phrase go towards describing the noun monkeys (which we know is a noun because it is pluralized and it is preceded by adjectives and the word the).
If we strip the other words from the phrase, the sentence still makes sense and retains its meaning, albeit with less detail: “We watched monkeys.” Sentences which contain alternative segments from the noun phrase (e.g.: “We watched the small,” and “We watched funny,”) do not make sense. Thus, it is without question that the string of words revolves around the word monkeys. For this reason, we say that monkeys is the head of this noun phrase. Because monkeys is the head of a noun phrase in this sentence, it must be a noun.
Being the head of a noun phrase is the most important factor that determines whether a word is a noun. If a word does not head a noun phrase within a given sentence, it is not a noun in that sentence even if has other characteristics of a noun. Conversely, if a word does head a noun phrase within a given sentence, it is a noun in that sentence even if it does not possess any of the other characteristics of a noun.
Proper nouns and pronouns
Proper nouns (such as John or New York) have only the third and fourth properties of nouns from the list given above, and pronouns (words like I, you, and they) have only the fourth, but this is enough to make these words nouns according to most grammarians.
The proper noun John is a noun in “Big John plays baseball.” John is the head of a noun phrase in this sentence, and so John is a noun even though “The big John plays baseball,” and “Big Johns play baseball,” are not correct.
The pronoun he, by itself, is a noun phrase in the sentence, “He plays baseball.” Therefore, he is a noun in this sentence even though “The he plays baseball,” “Hes play baseball,” and “Big he plays baseball” are all incorrect.
Because pronouns share so few properties with nouns, some view pronouns as being a part of speech of their own rather than being a subgroup of the noun word class. The next article in this series discusses pronouns in detail.
Nouns that don’t look like nouns
We now have a more accurate idea of what a noun is, and we can classify more words as nouns than we would if we were to use the standard definition given at the beginning of this article.
For instance, consider the word run –which, as an action word, is generally considered to be a verb — in the sentence, “I will not have time for a run.”
Prior to reading this article, you may have thought the word run is a verb. However, run is used as a noun here, as it has all the properties of a noun:
1) Run can be pluralized without creating an ungrammatical sentence (given that the article a is removed): “I will not have time for runs.”
2) Run is preceded by an article: “I will not have time for a run.”
3) Run can have adjectives placed in front of it: “I will not have time for a long, grueling run.”
4) Run is the head of the noun phrase: “a run.”
To simply define a noun as a word that names a person, place, thing, or concept sometimes misses the mark. Hopefully this article has shown you how to identify nouns in any sentence and how to avoid misidentifying other kinds of words as nouns.
Jake Magnum, author of the Magnum Proofreading Blog, is dedicated to helping writers perfect their work. In addition to giving free advice on his blog, Jake helps writers by offering very affordable proofreading services at magnumproofreading.com.
¹Pronouns, such as she, and proper nouns, such as Peter, are exceptions — they are nouns despite not having most of these properties