Nouns and noun-like things

This is an edited version of material taken from my book Grammar for Teachers. Some sections are incomplete. To read the full text you need to purchase a copy of the book, which is available as a download. Find out more.


Most people have a fairly shrewd idea of what a noun is. Nouns tell us about people places things and ideas. They can be divided into two groups: proper nouns and common nouns.

Proper nouns are the names of individual people, places, organisations, works of art, and so forth. The important thing about proper nouns is that they refer to things that are one-off. You can only have one George Washington or Milton Keynes. We mark this special nature by awarding initial capital letters. When official titles are used in this way we give them a capital letter:

The Hungarian Foreign Minister…

When they aren’t, we don’t:

…regular consultative meetings of foreign ministers…

All other nouns are common. Some people like to divide common nouns into abstract and concrete nouns, but this is more to do with what they mean than how they behave grammatically. For example, there is little grammatical difference between these concrete nouns:

car    stone    book       

and these abstract nouns:

dream    hope    idea.

A more useful way of dividing nouns is into countable and uncountable. As the names suggest, countable nouns regularly have a plural form, which usually ends in ‘s’, while uncountable nouns do not. Uncountables include all proper nouns and many (but not all) abstract nouns. For example, you cannot have more than one contentment. There is also a small group of concrete nouns that are usually uncountable, mostly things that are thought of in the mass rather than as a set of individual items: sand, mud, ice, butter, and so forth. But beware: almost all uncountables can become countable in special situations. For example…

To read the rest of this section, you will need to buy my book Grammar for Teachers. Find out more.


But before that, there is an important group of words that can also act as the subject, object, or complement of a clause: pronouns. It is sometimes said that they are called pronouns because they are used ‘instead of nouns’. This is a rather misleading oversimplification. Look at that last sentence. This is definitely a pronoun, but it isn’t standing in for a noun. It is referring back to a whole sentence which begins, It is sometimes said… So it is more accurate to say that pronouns refer back to something already written or said. This may be:

  • a noun
  • another pronoun or group of pronouns
  • a noun phrase (shortly to be explained)
  • a section of text – part or all of a sentence, or even a group of sentences
  • an idea or fact already mentioned.

In addition, you will probably have noticed that we sometimes use it as the subject of a sentence when it refers back to nothing at all:

It is raining.

In sentences like that, it is described as a dummy subject because in effect the sentence has no real subject. There can be used in a similar way:

There’s a lot of politics involved.

Types of pronoun
Pronouns come in a range of shapes and sizes, according to use:

  • personalI / me    he/him etc
  • possessive: mine    hers etc
  • reflexive: myself    themselves etc
  • demonstrative: this    that etc
  • indefinite: someone    anyone etc
  • interrogative: who    what etc
  • relative: who    that etc

Pronouns in use
The best way to get a good hold on how pronouns work is to…

To read the rest of this section, you will need to buy my book Grammar for Teachers.
Find out more.

Noun phrases

We have seen that a noun can be the subject, object or complement of a clause. But nouns don’t often stand on their own in this way. More frequently they form the headword of a noun phrase. Noun phrases are made up of four elements:

determiner   +  premodifier  +  headword  +  postmodifier

While it is true that you can use the single noun elephants as the subject, you cannot use elephant. Elephant eats grass (X) is not a complete clause; it needs something else. For example:

An elephant eats grass.

The commonest type of word to come before a noun in this way is the article: a / an / the.

There are several other words that serve a similar purpose:

  • this, that, etc.
  • my, his, her, etc.
  • some, any, etc.

All these words help to give the noun slightly greater definition, and are called determiners.

Modifiers are single words or groups of words that change or add to the meaning of another word. In a noun phrase they change or add to the meaning of the noun headword. If they come before the headword they are called pre modifiers and if they come after it they are called postmodifiers.

Our noun headword elephant can be given a lot more definition by adding words before it to modify its meaning:

An elephant eats grass. —> A hungry young bull elephant eats grass.

Hungry and young are both adjectives modifying elephant. One way of building up a noun phrase is just to string a number of adjectives together before the noun:

a  large purple house
a fast and powerful car

It is not only adjectives that can come before a noun to modify it. In the phrase a hungry young bull elephant, bull also modifies the noun. It tells us the elephant is a male. But bull is a noun, and nouns are frequently used before a noun headword to modify it.

We can also give information to define the noun by placing words after it…

To read the rest of this section, you will need to buy my book Grammar for Teachers.
Find out more.


We have seen one very important feature of adjectives: they are placed before a noun to modify it. Most adjectives can be used in this way, which is called attributive.

But adjectives can also be used in another way: as a complement. We can use an adjective as a subject complement. For example:

Elephants are big. (subject+verb+complement)

This use of adjectives is called predicative. Most adjectives can be used both attributively and predicatively, but a few are restricted to one or other of the two categories. For example alone can only be used predicatively. We can’t talk about an alone person (X).

Types of adjective
An important way of categorising adjectives is into qualitative and classifying adjectives. Qualitative adjectives give information about the qualities of the noun they modify. Examples are big, hungry, and expensive. Classifying adjectives place the noun into a class or category such as pregnant, annual, and western.

Qualitative adjectives
The categorising of adjectives might seem interesting but unimportant, except for the fact that …

To read the rest of this section, you will need to buy my book Grammar for Teachers.
Find out more.