When I arrived at their house, the big dog, which was called Rover, was barking loudly because it was lonely.

Nouns form the biggest word class of all. They may be either concrete or abstract:

  • Concrete nouns pick out people or objects and are very easy to recognise:

house, dog, Rover.

  • Abstract nouns refer to unobservable notions, and may be harder to recognise.

success, childhood, route, remark, hour, idea

More detail is available on:

Singular, Plural and Collective Nouns

When I arrived at their house, the big dog, which was called Rover, was barking loudly because it was lonely.

dog – dogs

tooth – teeth

The contrast between singular and plural is called number. It’s the basis for two important parts of English grammar:

  • the noun’s morphology

dogs is an inflection of the word dog. Some nouns have irregular plural inflections:

child – children

man – men

  • the agreement between verbs and their subjects.

    The dog is barking. The dogs are barking.

Collective nouns are names for groups.

team family committee herd

Are these sentences correct? (Click for answer.)

The rugby team is doing well – it’s top of the league.

The audience was very large.

The committee is meeting tonight.

Are these sentences correct? (Click for answer.)

The rugby team are doing well – they’ve been training hard.

The audience were reminded not to smoke.

The committee have been arguing about the budget.

Common and Proper Nouns

When I arrived at their house, the big dog, which was called Rover, was barking loudly because it was lonely.

  • Dog is a common noun.
  • Rover is a proper noun.

Proper nouns are names that are always written with an initial capital letter.

Click here for a list of proper nouns of different types.

Unlike common nouns, they:

  • are generally singular;
  • do not normally combine with a determiner:

    The dog is barking. Not: Dog is barking.

    Rover is barking. Not: The Rover is barking.


We do say on Wednesdays and the Smiths.

These proper nouns are being used as common nouns, so they can have a determiner or be plural, but they are still written with a capital letter.

Countable and Mass Nouns

  • Countable nouns name individual people or things:


girl people items eggs


  • Mass nouns name some kind of concrete or abstract ‘stuff’:


food fun stuff information furniture advice


This contrast is important in grammar for two reasons:

  • only countable nouns can be either singular or plural.


a girl two people several items some eggs


  • it affects the choice of determiners:

Singular countable nouns must combine with a determiner.


I learned a wonderful thing. I learned wonderful thing.

The determiners a/an, every, and each are only used with singular countable nouns. (Click for a note on few versus little.)


a thing every dog each person
a stuff a things


Singular mass nouns, and plural countable nouns, may occur without any determiner.


I learned wonderful stuff. I learned wonderful things.


The determiner some is mainly used with mass nouns and plural countable nouns.


some stuff some nouns.
some noun.

But many common nouns can be used either as countable or as mass nouns.


two ice-creams

some ice-cream

a time

some time

a thought

some thought


The distinction alters the meaning.


He had some ice cream on his face.

He had an ice cream.




Self-assessment on nouns

[2016 note: unfortunately the links no longer work, but you may find the exercise useful even without the answers.]

1. Click on the two concrete nouns in the following sentence, slightly adapted from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, then click on the two abstract nouns. (NB not all the underlined words are nouns!)

To lose one parent, Ernest, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.

2. In the following verse there are six nouns, of different types:

Lord make the nations see

That men should brothers be

And form one family

The wide world o’er.

Decide for each whether it is singular or plural, and whether it is a collective noun; clicking on the word will give the correct answer.

3. In the following sentence there are four nouns:

Madrid, a mighty city, is the capital of Spain.

Decide for each whether it is proper or common. Clicking will reveal the answer.

4. In the following sentence find the countable noun and click on it; then find the mass noun.

We rashly ordered some delicious-looking food, including a superb grilled lobster.

More proper nouns

Proper nouns include these categories:

given and family names Tom Smith
Titles, terms of address Mrs Brown; Sir Bob; Lady Jones; Uncle Jim
towns, cities, villages; roads Orchard Close, Brailes, near Banbury
continents, countries, counties, states Asia, France; Yorkshire; Arizona
institutions, teams, clubs British Society; Greenpeace; Spurs;
days of the week; months Wednesday, October
ships, boats SS Great Britain; Golden Hind; Polly
religions, events, festivals Buddhism, Olympic Games, New Year

Back to common and proper nouns

Few or little?

In standard English this is the rule:

  • Use few or fewer with plural countable nouns.
  • Use little or less with mass nouns.
  • But: much and more go with either kind of noun.
few/fewer little/less more
Few people

Fewer people

Fewer bottles

Fewer plays

Fewer countable nouns

Little food

Less food

Less stuff

Less drama

Less grammar

More food

More dogs

More bottles

More stuff

More nouns

More grammar


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