A noun is a word which names a person, an animal, a thing, a place, an event, or an idea.
This dog barks too much.
Minnesota has beautiful lakes.
Necessity is the mother of invention.
Articles (the, a, an) can accompany nouns and give us information about their character. For example, the tree
is a specific tree, while a tree could be any tree. The definite article 'the' is used with both singular and plural
nouns, while the indefinite article 'a' or 'an' is used only with singular nouns. Note that other languages, if they
possess articles, will often make them agree in gender (which English does not have), case, and number. Rules
for article use and omission in English are complicated and may differ greatly from the foreign language you are
The present participle is used to form progressive tenses:
He is reading.
It can also be used as an adjective:
They bought new reading glasses.
But notice what role the word cooking plays in the next sentence:
Writing is hard.
Other words can be substituted for writing in the last sentence, such as tennis, life, or getting married. Thus
cooking is a noun. It is identical in form to the present participle, but has a new function -- it is called a gerund,
often referred to as a verbal noun because it shares properties of both verb and noun.
Gerunds are called verbal nouns because they can play a noun and a verb function simultaneously. In the
Having some experience is an asset for this job
the gerund phrase having some experience has a noun function; it can be replaced by another noun. In addition,
within the phrase itself, some experience is the direct object of having. This shows its verbal function. The same
applies to the infinitive verbal nouns described below.
Another link between nouns and verbs is seen in the infinitive. The infinitive is the form of the verb without
person or tense, often preceded in English by to: to run, to walk, to be, etc. However, this form can also
function as a noun within a sentence, either as a direct object:
He wants to leave.
As a subject:
To err is human, to forgive divine.
Or as a subject complement:
To know him is to love him.
Notice that when we use infinitives as nouns they often accompany verbs which express wants, desires,
commands or requests.
Other words used as nouns
Infinitives are not the only verbs we use as nouns. Action verbs such as drive, drink or swim can also become
nouns as we see in these examples:
I drive to Toronto every week.
They drink too much.
Adjectives can also (occasionally) function as nouns:
Red is my favourite color
Big is beautiful.
Groups of words functioning as nouns
In the following sentences, two words together have a noun function within the sentence:
The ticket agent helped us choose an airline.
The army officer was stationed at an army base.
The French professor lost her toothbrush.
In these examples two nouns are needed to represent a single noun concept. In English we can put two nouns
together, either as one word or keeping them separate, without changing the form of either one.
In the following examples there are fewer nouns in the bolded sections, but the section is still, in fact, doing the
work of a noun. Test this using any simple noun or the pronouns it or that as a substitute for the bolded section
to see if we are dealing with noun functions.
What really happened remains a mystery.
He told us what he knew on the subject.
I'm curious about what was said behind my back.
These long strings of words (clauses and phrases) can always be replaced by another simple noun or by a
pronoun, which further emphasizes their status as a noun. Regardless of their form, the words we have focused
on so far all function as nouns.
You will notice that the bolded sections above all begin with the word what . These groups of words are
serving a noun function, but we will look at them in more detail to discover their other dimensions when we
discuss relative clauses in a later unit.
The Grammatical Function of Nouns
Now that we have introduced the various types of noun, let's move on to examine the relationship between
nouns and verbs.
Look at the following sentences:
(1) Tom, Dick, and Harry walk to the zoo.
(2) The dog sits patiently by the door.
(3) He wonders about the price of mangoes.
(4) The repairs to the highway cost a lot of money.
(5) Ottawa is sending troops overseas.
In each instance the bolded part of the sentence is the subject. The subject is the person, thing, concept or idea
that is the topic of the sentence.
Notice that the subject can be a pronoun (he), a set of proper names (Tom, Dick, Harry), a non-human (dog),
a place (Ottawa) or even a phrase (the repairs to the highway). In fact, subjects (or any other noun phrase) can
consist of several words. In the following examples, the subject (in bold) is a group of words rather than simply
Who is at the door?
My mother's brother is at the door.
What made you cry?
The fact that I lost my car made me cry.
You will notice that the verb does not always express an action. It can be a state of body (sit), a state of mind
(wonder), a state of affairs (cost) as well as an action (walk, send).
With a subject and a conjugated verb (i.e., one that agrees with its subject in person and number) you have all
you need for a sentence. But often a sentence contains more than the bare essentials, as we will see in the
(1) I love my dog.
In this sentence my dog is the direct object of the verb. This object is directly affected by the nature of the verb,
the dog being the object of my affection. In our discussion of transitive verbs we considered the notion that a
consequence or result completes the meaning of the verb. If we consider the idea I love, we will usually want to
complete the thought by stating what or whom it is that I love, and in this way we arrive at the direct object of
the verb love, or of any other transitive verb. Consider these examples:
My neighbour bakes pies.
The woman drives a truck.
The politician knows many people.
Now compare the following:
(2) I wrote a letter.
(3) I wrote my parents a letter.
In (2) the verb is wrote, and the answer to what or whom is a letter, the thing which resulted directly from the
writing, called the direct object.
In (3) more information is given: a letter is still being written, so it remains the direct object; but now we also
know the beneficiary of the action, my parents, and this is called the indirect object. We ask ourselves what
was written to determine the direct object, and to whom or for whom it was done in order to determine the
indirect object. The letter is the direct object (result) of the action of writing, and the parents are the indirect
objects as recipients of the letter, to whom or for whom the writing was done.
In English, we also see the direct or indirect object of an active verb become the subject of a passive verb.
Compare the following sentences:
(4) A mosquito bit him.
(5) The doctor gave him a shot.
In (4) the direct object of the active verb becomes the subject of the passive one, but in (5) it is the indirect
object which appears in subject position.
The use of the pronoun him in sentences (4) and (5) could cause difficulty for the beginning ESL writers. Since
the form of both objects is identical, be sure that you can identify direct objects by asking what and indirect
objects by to whom/what, or for whom/what. This could affect how you translate the pronoun when it becomes
the subject of a passive sentence since not all languages have the flexibility English has in this instance.
Sometimes it is wise to convert a passive sentence into an active one if you are in doubt.
Object of the preposition
If we simply say I wrote to my parents, there is no direct object because we do not know what is being written.
My parents is now the object of the preposition to. Prepositions are (usually) small words which indicate the
relationship of their object to other words in the sentence in terms of direction, position, or time, to name a few.
The bolded words in the following phrases are objects of the prepositions in italics.
under the table over the hill for the team
The nature of the types of object described above is expressed in some languages (notably German, Greek,
and Latin) by case. Grammatical case indicates the relationship of a noun or pronoun to other words in the
sentence, shown by a change in the form of the noun or pronoun. While English nouns (and articles or
adjectives accompanying them) retain their form regardless of whether they are subject or any type of object,
this is not true of nouns and pronouns with their accompanying articles or adjectives in case-dependent
While we are often not conscious of it, English, in fact, uses three cases. Look at the following examples, and
notice whether the nouns change in any way to reflect their grammatical case:
The young children are playing happily.
The story they hear is Goldilocks.
My parents gave us a delicious dinner.
She watches the young children.
She reads the children a story.
We are having dinner with my parents.
He ran over the boy's foot.
My parents' house was gutted by fire.
Only in the possessive case do we see any change in the form of the nouns involved: an apostrophe + s is
added to boy and parents to indicated that they "possess" something. Notice that when the noun is plural and
has a final s, as in parents, you must place the apostrophe after the final s to indicate that the noun is both plural
In English we refer usually to the subjective case for subjects, but you may also hear the term nominative case.
The possessive case is easily identified in English and should not cause trouble for translators; this case is often
called the genitive case in other languages.
THE SUBJECT COMPLEMENT
Words which follow verbs are not always direct or indirect objects. After a particular kind of verb, nouns
remain in the subjective case. We call these subjective completions or subject complements.
In the following, notice how the nouns in the sentence relate to each other and to the verb:
(1) My mother is a biologist.
(2) The car is a red station wagon.
(3) John's neighbour has become a friend.
The subject in each of these sentences refers to the same person or thing mentioned after the verb. More
complete information is given about the subject, so this form is called the subjective completion. The noun
following the verb to be is never a direct or indirect object but rather a subjective completion, which is put in
the nominative or subjective case.
To be is one of the copulative verbs like to become, to seem, to appear, to look, among others, all of which
couple or link the subject with the words following the verb. With these verbs there is no action given or
received, but the subject of sentence (1) -- my mother -- is the same person as the subjective completion -- a
biologist. In other words,
my mother = a biologist.
Contrast these two sentences:
My mother is a biologist.
My mother dated a biologist.
Clearly the two nouns in the first sentence refer to the same person, whereas those in the second refer to
I went for a drive in my new car.
Would you like a drink?
They're having a swim
He was bitten by a mosquito.
He was given a shot by the doctor.
(My mother = biologist)
(My mother is not a biologist.)