Noun, its categories

The Noun

The noun as a part of speech has the categorical meaning of “substance” or “thingness”. It follows from this that the noun is the main nominative part of speech and the central nominative lexemic unit of language.

The categorical functional properties of the noun are determined by its semantic properties.

The most characteristic substantive function of the noun is that of the subject in the sentence. The function of the object is also typical of the noun as the substance word. Other syntactic functions are attribute, adverbial modifier and even predicative.

Apart from these functions, the noun is characterized by some special types of combinability.

In particular, typical of the noun is the prepositional combinability with another noun, a verb, an adjective, an adverb, e.g. an entrance to the house, to turn round the corner, red in the face, far from its destination.

The possessive combinability characterizes the noun alongside its prepositional combinability with another noun, e.g. the President’s speech, the book’s cover.

English nouns can also easily combine with one another by sheer contact, e.g. a sport event, film festival. In the contact group the noun in pre-position plays the role of a semantic qualifier to the noun in post-position.

The noun is generally associated with the article. Because of the comparative scarcity of morphological distinctions in English in some cases only articles show that the word is a noun.

As a part of speech, the noun is also characterized by a set of formal features determining its specific status in the paradigm of nomination. It has its word-building distinctions, including typical suffixes, compound stem models, conversion patterns.

According to their morphological composition we distinguish simple, derivative and compound nouns.

Simple nouns are nouns which have neither prefixes nor suffixes: chair, table, room, fish, map, work.

Derivative nouns are nouns which have derivative elements (prefixes or suffixes or both): reader, sailor, childhood, misconduct, inexperience.

Productive noun-forming suffixes are:

-er – reader, -ist – dramatist, -ess – actress, -ness – madness, -ism – nationalism.

Unproductive suffixes are: -hood – childhood, -dom – freedom, -ship – friendship, -ment – development, -ance – importance, -ence – dependence, -ty – cruelty, -ity – generosity.

Compound nouns are nouns built from two or more stems: appletree, snowball, blueball, reading-hall, dining-room.

Classification of nouns

The most general subclasses of nouns are grouped into five oppositional pairs.

The first nounal subclass opposition differentiates proper and common nouns. The basis of this division is ‘type of nomina¬tion’.

Proper nouns are always written with a capital letter, since the noun represents the name of a specific person, place or thing. The names of days of the week, months, historical documents, institutions, organizations, religions, holy texts are proper nouns.

 Many people hate Monday mornings.

Common nouns are nouns referring to a person, place or thing in a general sense.

 According to the sign, the nearest town is 60 miles away.

The second subclass opposition differentiates animate and inanimate nouns on the basis of ‘form of existence’. The third subclass opposition differentiates human and non-human nouns on the basis of ‘personal quality’. The fourth opposition is countable, uncountable and collective nouns on the basis of ‘quantitative structure’.

A countable noun (or count noun) is a noun with both a singular and a plural form, and it names anything (or anyone) that you can count. Countable nouns are the opposition of non-countable nouns and collective nouns (table, chair, room).

A non-countable noun (or mass noun) is a noun which does not have a plural form, and which refers to something that you could not usually count. A non-countable noun always takes a singular verb in a sentence (oxygen, tea, coffee).

A collective noun is a noun naming a group of things, animals, or persons. You could count the individual members of the group, but you usually think of the group as a whole, as one unit.

 The committee meets every Wednesday afternoon.

Other examples are the jury, the police, crowd, fleet, family, cattle, machinery, foliage.

Somewhat less explicitly distinguished is the division of English nouns into concrete and abstract.

A concrete noun is a noun which names anything (or anyone) that you can perceive through your physical senses: touch, sight, taste, hearing, or smell.

 The judge handed the files to the clerk.

An abstract noun is a noun which names anything which you can not perceive through your five physical senses (justice, afterthought, childhood, schizophrenia).

Categories of nouns


Modern English, as most other languages, distinguishes between two numbers, singular and plural.

The grammatical category of number defines a set of word forms which has one common categorical function, that of the singular/plural distinction. Semantically, number expresses the propositional content and actualizes nouns in communication by providing a qualification book: books, difficulty: difficulties.

The strong member of this binary opposition is the plural, its productive formal mark being the suffix -(e)s [-z, -s, -iz] as presented in the forms dog-dogs, clock-clocks, box-boxes.

The other, non-productive ways of expressing the number opposi¬tion are vowel interchange in several relict forms (man - men, woman-women,  tooth-teeth,  etc.),  the  archaic suffix -(e)n supported by phonemic interchange in a couple of other relict forms (ox-oxen, child-children, cow-kine, brother-brethren), the corre¬lation of individual singular and plural suffixes in a limited number of borrowed nouns (formula - formulae, phenomenon - phenomena, alumnus-alumni, etc.). In some cases the plural form of the noun is homonymous with the singular form (sheep, deer, fish, etc.).

The essential meaning of singular and plural seems clear enough: the singular number shows that one object is meant, and the plural shows that more than one object is meant. However, language facts are not always so simple as that. The category of number in English nouns gives rise to several problems which claim special attention.

First of all, it is to be noted that there is some difference between, say, three houses and three hours. Whereas three houses are three separate objects existing side by side, three hours are a continuous period of time measured by a certain unit of duration.

If we take such plurals as waters (e.g. the waters of the Atlantic), or snows (e.g. A Daughter of the snows), we shall see that we are drifting further away from the original meaning of the plural number. In the first place no numeral could be used with nouns of this kind. We could not possibly say three waters, or three snows. We cannot say how many waters we mean when we use this noun in the plural number. What is the real difference in meaning between water and waters, snow and snows? It’s obvious that the plural form in every case serves to denote a vast stretch of water (e.g. an ocean), or of snow, or rather of ground covered by snow (e.g. in the arctic regions of Canada). In the case of water and waters we can state that the water of the Atlantic refers to its physical or chemical properties, whereas the waters of the Atlantic refers to a geographical idea: it denotes a seascape. So we see that between the singular and the plural an additional difference of meaning has developed.

The difference between two numbers may increase to such a degree, that the plural form develops a completely new meaning which the singular has not got at all. Thus, for example, the plural form colours has the meaning “banner” which is restricted to the plural (e.g. to serve under the colours of liberty.). It is natural to say that the plural form has been lexicalized.

In comparison with many other languages, including German and Russian, the expression of number as singular and plural by mean of variant components is simple in English. As a rule, the singular is unmarked (zero). Out of five possible ways to denote plural in Old English only one (-as) has survived to be the general plural morpheme in Modern English (-(e)s) and there are only few nouns which, also for historical reasons, have other means of plural formation.

We must also consider here two types of nouns differing from all others in the way of number: they have not got the usual two number forms, but only one form. The nouns which have only a plural and no singular are usually termed “pluralia tantum” (which is the Latin for “plural only”) and those which have only a singular and no plural are termed “singularia tantum” (the Latin for “singular only”).

Among the pluralia tantum are nouns trousers, scissors, pincers, breeches, environs, outskirts, dregs. As it is obvious from these examples, they include nouns of two types. On the one hand, there are the nouns which denote material objects consisting of two halves (trousers, scissors, etc); on the other, there are those which denote a more or less indefinite plurality (e.g. environs, dregs, supplies, outskirts earnings, politics, police). If we compare the English pluralia tantum with the Russian, we’ll see that in some cases they correspond to each other (e.g. trousers – брюки, scissors – ножницы, environs – окрестности), while in others they do not (деньги-money).

Close to this group pluralia tantum nouns are also some names of sciences, e.g. mathematics, phonetics, also politics, and some name of diseases, e.g. measles, mumps, rickets, creeps (мурашки), hysterics. The reason for this seems to be that, for example, mathematics embrace a whole series of various scientific disciplines, and measles are accompanied by the appearance of a number of separate inflamed spots on the skin. It is typical for English that some of this pluralia tantum may be accompanied by the indefinite article, and if they are the subject of a sentence the predicate verb may stand in the singular, which would be unthinkable in Russia.

The direct opposite of pluralia tantum are the singularia tantum, i.e. nouns which have no plural form. Among these we must first of all note some nouns denoting material substance, such as milk, butter, and some abstract notions peace, usefulness. Nouns of this kind express notions which are, strictly speaking, outside the sphere of number. But in the morphological and syntactical system of the English language a noun cannot stand outside the category of number. If the noun is the subject of a sentence, the predicate verb will have to be either singular or plural. With the nouns just mentioned the predicate verb is always singular. Some nouns denoting substance, or material, may have a plural form, if they are used to denote either an object made of the material or a special kind of substance, or an object exhibiting the quality denoted by the noun. Thus the noun wine, as well as the noun milk, denotes a certain substance, but it has a plural form wines used to denote several special kinds of wine.

Certain nouns denoting groups of human beings (family, government, party, etc) and also animals (cattle, poultry, etc) regarded as a single unit are termed collective nouns.

Collective nouns fall under the following groups:

a) nouns used only in the singular and denoting a number of things collected together and regarded as a single object: foliage, machinery.

b) nouns which are singular in form though plural in meaning: police, poultry, cattle, people, gentry.

c) nouns that may be both singular and plural: family, crowd, fleet, nation.


Case is the morphological category of a noun manifested in the forms of noun declension and showing the relations of the nounal referent to other objects or phenomena.

The category is expressed by the opposition of the uninflected form called the nominative case (weak member) and the inflected form –‘s called the possessive case (strong member of the opposition).

Four special views advanced at various times by different scholars should be considered as successive stages in the analysis of the problem.

The first view is called the “the theory of positional cases” (J.C. Nesfield, M. Deutschbein, M. Bryant). This theory is directly connected with the old grammatical tradition.

According to this theory, the unchangeable forms of the noun are differentiated as different cases by virtue of the functional position occupied by the noun in the sentence thus the English noun would distinguish nominative, genitive, vocative, dative and accusative, and only the genitive case is an inflexional one.

The Nominative case (subject to a verb). Rain falls.

The Vocative case (address). Are you coming, my friend?

The Dative case (indirect object to a verb). I gave John a penny.

The accusative case (direct object, and also object to a preposition). The man killed a rat.

The second view is called “theory of prepositional cases” (G. Curme).

Here we should distinguish two cases: dative case (to + noun, for + noun) and genitive case (of + noun). These prepositions, according to Curme are “inflexional prepositions”, i.e. grammatical elements equivalent to case-forms.

The third view of the English noun case recognizes a “limited case theory” (H. Sweet, O. Jespersen, A.I. Smirnitsky, S.G. Barkhudarov). The limited case theory is based on the opposition of nominative case (weak member) and possessive (strong member of the opposition).

The limited case theory is at present most broadly accepted among linguists in our country and abroad.

The fourth theory, advanced by G.N. Vorontsova is called “theory of the possessive postposition”, or postpositional theory. According to Vorontsova, there are no cases at all. And ‘s is the postpositional element, which can be transformed.

Of the various reasons substantiating the postpositional theory the following two should be considered as the main ones.

First, the postpositional element –‘s is but loosely connected with the noun, which finds the expression in its use not only with single nouns, but also with whole word-groups of various status, e.g. somebody else’s daughter, the man I saw yesterday’s son.

Second, there is an indisputable parallelism of functions between the possessive postpositional constructions and the prepositional con¬structions. This can be shown by transformation of the above example: somebody else’s daughter → the daughter of somebody else.


         Gender, in the English language, is a distinction of certain words according as they indicate sex or the lack of it.

        Gender, in English, belongs only to nouns and pronouns. No other words have any distinctions of gender.

The category of gender is expressed in English by the obligatory correlation of nouns with the personal pronouns of the third person.

The category of gender is strictly oppositional. It is formed by two oppositions related to each other on a hierarchical basis.

One opposition functions in the whole set of nouns, dividing them into person (human) nouns and non-person (non-human) nouns. The other opposition functions in the subset of person nouns only, dividing them into masculine nouns and feminine nouns.

As a result of the double oppositional correlation, a specific system   of three genders arises, which is represented by the traditional terminology: the neuter (i.e. non-person) gender, the masculine (i.e. masculine person) gender, the feminine (i.e. feminine person) gender.

The strong member of the upper opposition is the human subclass of nouns. The weak member of the opposition comprises both inanimate and animate non-person nouns. Here belong such nouns as tree, mountain, love, cat, swallow, ant, crowd, etc.

The strong member of the lower opposition is the feminine subclass of person nouns. Here belong such nouns as woman, girl, mother, bride, etc. The masculine subclass of person nouns comprising such words as man, boy, father, bridegroom, etc. makes up the weak member of the opposition.

The oppositional structure of the category of gender can be shown schematically on the following diagramme

     According to James Fernald there are 3 genders in English

- Masculine: all nouns denoting being of the mail sex

- Feminine: all nouns denoting being of the female sex

- Neuter: all nouns denoting objects of no sex

J. Leech gives the following classification of English genders:



Human (personal)                                      Non-human (non-personal)






English words can be:

- Morphologically marked for gender (actress - actor)

- Semantically marked for gender (boy-girl, king-queen)

- Lexically marked for gender (boyfriend-girlfriend)

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Exam Questions. The Subject of Theoretical Grammar. Syntagmatic relations. Segmental units. History of English Grammars. Parts of speech. The noun as a part of speech.

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Exam Questions. The Subject of Theoretical Grammar. Syntagmatic relations. Segmental units. History of English Grammars. Parts of speech. The noun as a part of speech.

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