Get Down with Nouns.

What is a noun?

The most basic of all basic definitions of a noun would be this: the name of a person, place, thing OR idea. That definition is definitely helpful, BUT English is a pretty complex (and at times confusing) language, so nothing is ever that simple.

The word “noun”, is a noun, because it is the name of something. BUT noun is not JUST any noun. It is an abstract noun, an inanimate noun and a count noun. (It also is NOT a proper noun, but we won’t hold that against it.) NOW: what the heck does all that mean? Well, I’ll tell ya.

First we’ll look at proper versus common nouns. This is the easiest category I find, and one of the categories most people would be familiar with, whether they know it actively or not. Common nouns refer to general categories, like man, driver, hairspray. These are all things or people, but they are not SPECIFIC things or people. And they aren’t places (specific ones or otherwise), at least not the last time I checked. Whenever you are writing and you have a noun, if it is common you wouldn’t capitalize the first letter. Where as with a PROPER noun, ya would. Hopefully. Proper nouns refer to a specific noun, and the first letter of any proper noun should be capitalized. This generally refers to the names of places or people, like Sarah (oh so very proper), or Hollywood, or The Metropolitan Museum of Art. These are specific places or people, as opposed to just saying that girl, or that museum, or that place where all those famous people live. No capital letters required, unless you’re getting really close and personal with that noun. Now if all ya’ll are comfortable with that we can move along to concrete versus abstract nouns.

A concrete noun is exactly what it sounds like. Anything that is a noun, that physically exists on the planet, is concrete. Grammar wise. Like my computer is a concrete noun, the table my computer rests on, also a concrete noun. Abstract nouns are ideas or concepts that cannot be physically represented. Like, love. Or anger. There are images we associate with these nouns, but you can’t really point out an object called “anger.” You can try, but you would fail. And I prefer success. Moving along, next we can take a look at inanimate versus animate nouns.

Inanimate and animate nouns could also be described as human and non-human nouns, but as an animal lover, I prefer to stick with inanimate and animate. It is a more inclusive use of language I find. Basically anything ALIVE is an animate noun. My dogs, Teddy and Ally, are animate nouns. The bones I give them to chew when they are acting out and preventing me from doing my homework, are inanimate nouns. The bones I guess at one point were part of a living creature… BUT we won’t confuse ourselves. Anything that isn’t currently alive is an inanimate noun. SO, salt and pepper shakers are inanimate, food is inanimate, I would hope so anyway. Plants and the like are considered inanimate, I realize they are technically “alive” but for grammar purposes we will consider them dead. A big thing with animate and inanimate nouns is it would designate what pronoun we would use to refer to that noun. We would use “he” or “she” to refer to an animate noun, and “it” to refer to an inanimate noun. Bringing it back to plants you wouldn’t necessarily say “she needs watering.” (unless you’re my best friends mother), you would say “it needs watering.” And taking us back to the example of my pups, I would say “Teddy is hungry, he needs fed.” not “Teddy is hungry, it needs fed.” When you read or say these things out loud they sound or look wrong, because it has been ingrained in our brain when we learned English the difference between inanimate or animate nouns, we may just not have realized we knew this information.

The last subcategory of nouns is, to me, the most confusing. BUT, don’t let that put you off. This category is referred to as count and noncount nouns (also referred to as “mass nouns.”) When nouns in this category are used incorrectly, it can have grave grammatical consequence… So, pay attention. A count noun is really any noun that can be counted. Sounds relatively simple, right? Counting in this context means, one balloon, two balloons, three balloons…. You get the picture. A non count noun on the other hand cannot be counted in this way. Let’s take wine for instance. You can’t really go one wine, two wines, three wines, four… (You might count this way if you have had three or four glasses of wine… but that doesn’t make it right.) You actually use a unit of measure to count noncount nouns (or to keep track of your consumption, in this case.) So, it becomes one glass of wine, two glasses of wine, three glasses of wine. One time I actually saw a BAG of wine advertised, which I found odd, but took pleasure in the fact that it was grammatically correct. Count nouns can’t stand alone, they have to be accompanied by “a” or “an”, where as noncount nouns are totally comfortable flying solo, which is good because they are usually incompatible with “a” or “an.” I say usually because some noncount nouns can be treated as count nouns. That’s where it gets tricky and confusing. ALSO, another tricky area, the less vs. fewer situation. UGH.

I am writing a novel here… To conclude with count nouns, the grammatically correct way to ask for MORE of a count noun is “Could I get MORE balloons, please?” (Also, the polite way.)  The same goes for a noncount noun “Could I get more wine, please?” (Also, the polite way… This is near the BEGINNING of the night.) BUT when you are indicating the opposite, with a count noun you say “I would like FEWER balloons, thanks.” Where as with a noncount noun, you ask for less. “I think you should give her LESS wine. Thanks.” Of course, in colloquial language the word less is kind of thrown around, count or noncount, but this is a handy rule to keep in mind if you are ever in scholarly company, ya lush.

Until next time, sarah.

Barry, Anita K. “Human Grammar: Language as Human Behavior”, New Jersey: Pearson, 2002. Print.


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