Nouns Questions and Answers with Explanation

Nouns are naming words. They give titles to people, places, things and ideas.

Imagine a world without names. Imagine, for a moment, the horror and absurdity of ordering a simple meal without naming words. “I’ll take one of those things with the two soft, round things on the outside and one of those brown mushy things on the inside, and it’s got some red stuff and some yellow stuff and some round, green things on it.” Oh, you must mean a hamburger! You see, I couldn’t even get through this ridiculous scenario without using a couple of generic naming words, such as stuff or things. What’s in a name? Sometimes, a name is everything.

The noun comes from the Latin word nomen, meaning “name”. Nouns are names of people, places, things, and ideas. Anything we can imagine has a name. If someone discovers a person, place, thing, or idea without a name, you can be sure that steps will be taken to remedy that situation.

Any nutritious sentence is chock full of nouns. In the examples below, each of the bold words is a noun.

My friend, Buddy, has a Ph.D. in physics.

The squirrel stole nuts from the chipmunk.

My dog watches television in the evenings.

The purpose of this exam is to scare the life out of you.

The weight of gold is measured in karats.

Nouns Questions and Answers

Question : “Is there a litmus test to determine whether a word is a noun?”

Answer : While there is no sure-fire way to determine whether a word is a noun in every situation, some people find it helpful to apply the following technique in puzzling it out. This procedure works for all nouns except names of specific people, places, or things, also known as proper nouns.

There are three words in the English language called articles: a, an and the. If in doubt about whether a word is a noun, just place an article before it. If the combination makes sense on its own, the word is a noun.

Test the word joy : the joy. Joy is a noun. Test pride : the pride. Pride is a noun. Try exultation : an exultation. Exultation is a noun. See, it works. All three of these article-noun combinations sound correct.

Conversely, the test differentiates other parts of speech from nouns. What happens when we apply the test to the adjective beautiful: a beautiful. The combination does not make sense, so we know that beautiful is not a noun. The rambunctious doesn’t make sense either, so rambunctious can’t be a noun. Apply the test to the verb eat: an eat. The test verifies that eat is not a noun.

Beware of those sentences in which the noun is described by adjectives. For example, in the sentence “The large, round apple lay on the table,” the article the comes before the word large. The sentence makes perfect sense although large is still an adjective. Even though the article may not directly precede a noun, its presence in a sentence indicates that there is a noun nearby. To find the noun, we test the words that follow the article. First, test large: the large. The combination doesn’t make sense. Next, test round: the round. The combination doesn’t make sense. Next, test apple : the apple. Eureka! We’ve found the noun.

Types of Nouns

In English there are different types of nouns. First, nouns can either be common or proper.

1. Common nouns are general nouns: Magnet, gargoyle, angel, orchid, subway, persimmon, petticoat. Common nouns do not begin with capital letters unless they start sentences.

2. Proper nouns are nouns that refer to specific people, places, or things: Dmitri, Sisley, Scarlet O’Hara, Little Orphan Annie, Rutherford B.Hayes, Marlon Brando, Ichabod Crane, Zaire, Denmark, Alcatraz. Proper nouns always begin with capital letters.

Nouns can also be concrete or abstract.

1. Concrete nouns are nouns that can be touched or held: house, taxicab, typewriter, computer, shoes, stove, refrigerator.

2. Abstract nouns are nouns that cannot be touched or held: love, fear, honesty, hostility, truth, intrigue, regrets. They exist only in our minds as ideas or feelings.

All nouns will fall into two categories, one from each set, simultaneously. Toyota is a proper as well as concrete. Love is common as well as abstract.

Abstract and Concrete Nouns

Question : A weatherman at one of the TV stations asked, “What kind of noun is the word smog? A case could be made for it as a concrete noun, and a case could be made for it as an abstract noun.”

Answer : Since it contains particulate matter which can be measured by sophisticated meteorological instruments, we vote for “concrete”.

Capitalizing Proper Nouns

If you are unsure whether or not a noun is proper and should be capitalized, check these rules. Always capitalize

  • names of specific people. Clark Gable, Emily Dickson, Napoleon.
  • names of specific places or regions: Yosemite, Los Angeles, France, Jupiter, the Milky Way, Wrigley Field, Chicago.
  • names of specific agencies, organisations, or bodies. Supreme Court, Red Cross, National Science Foundation, Bureau of Public Works, Daughters of the American Revolution.
  • names of historical events, periods, and documents: the Middle Ages, D-Day, the Magna Carta..
  • names of days, months, holidays, and special days of observance: Monday, January, Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day.
  • titles of rank or respect before a name: Lord Nelson, President Truman, Mrs. Robinson.
  • the principal words in titles of books, magazines, articles, plays, movies, songs, or pieces of art: The Last Supper, A Tale of Two Cities, The New Yorker, The Foreigner. Articles (a, an, the), conjunctions, and prepositions are not typically capitalized unless they begin with the title.
  • words which show family relationship when they are used as names and when they are used with names: Grandma, Mother, Aunt, Uncle Jon, Cousin Mark.
  • words referring to deities or holy books: Krishna, God, Allah, the Koran, the Talmud, the Bible.

Board Chairman vs. Chairman of the Board

Question : A gentleman who sounded distinguished by his tone and choice of words was sending out a business letter. He asked, “How do I sign the letter? Should it be ‘Board Chairman,’ ‘Chairman,’ or ‘Chairman of the Board’?”

Answer : We asked who the recipients were. Were they casual acquaintances, or were they well acquainted with him? He said that some were and some were not. He was advised to write “Chairman of the Board.” If the recipients had been all intimates, then “Chairman” would have been fine. Some might feel that this was more of an etiquette question than a grammatical one.

Synonyms for Love

Question: “What noun has the most synonyms?” asked a journalism teacher in Montana.

Answer : That is a difficult question to answer. Synonyms are words with similar meaning. To find the winner, one would have to compare all nouns. However, a case could be made for the word love. Here’s the list:

admiration, adoration, affair d’amour, affair de coeur, affection, amorousness, amour, appreciation, ardor, attachment, attraction, benevolence, charity, charm, comfort, Cupid, darling, dear, delectation, delight, desire, devotedness, devotion, ecstasy, emotion, enamor(ment), endearment, enjoyment, entertainment, enthusiasm, Eros, exultation, fancy, feeling, felicity, fervor, flame, flavor, fondness, friendship, gladness, gratification, gusto, happiness, indulgence, jocularity, joy, la belle passion, le grande passion, liking, merriment, passion, piety, pleasure, preference, rapture, raptus, regard, relish, satisfaction, sensulality, sentiment, stellification, sweetheart, tang, tiredness, transport, worship, zeal, zest.

These seventy words we listed in Sisson’s Synonyms, An Unabridges Synonym and Related-term Locator by A.F.Sission. Sisson lists only fifty-three synonyms for hate. Maybe that’s a good sign.

From My Files: Hide-and-Seek

Many people have asked what the nouns which are shouted at the conclusion of “Hide-and-Seek” mean. They sound like “Ollie, ollie oxen free.” Could this have been Paul Bunyan calling for Babe to return from the pasture? Not at all. It does mean “All thee, all thee outs in free.” Players can come home “free” without being tagged “out.”

Properties of Nouns

Nouns are characterized by four properties: gender, number, person and case.


Gender refers to the classification of nouns according to sex. Many languages assign this sex or gender to their nouns rather arbitrarily. In the Romance languages, for instance, all nouns are either masculine or feminine. In French la ville (the city) and la lune (the moon) are both feminine, but le village (the village) and le soleil (the sun) are masculine. Le crayon (the pencil) is masculine, but la plume (the pen) is feminine. There is no logic to this system.

Latin and German add a third gender to this mess, the neuter gender. The German word for sun (die sonne) is feminine, and the word for moon (der mond) is masculine; but the German words for girl (das madchen) and woman (das weib) are illogically neuter! Such distinctions impose the additional task of incorporating the genders of nouns into the articles, prepositions, adjectives, and verbs that function alongside them.

English smartly negates these confusions by employing a natural gender. Nouns that refer to males are of the masculine gender: man, boy. Nouns that refer to females are of the feminine gender: woman, girl. Nouns that could refer to males or females are of the common gender: animal, child. Nouns that refer to sexless objects are of the neuter gender: toy, apple. The meaning and usage of the noun should reveal its gender. This system makes sense. Most nouns are of the neuter or common genders. The issue of gender will become more important when we reach the chapter on pronouns.

It is a simple matter to identify the genders of words that are specifically either masculine or feminine. In most cases, the gender is inherent in the meaning of the word. The noun hen refers to females, so it is always feminine. The noun rooster refers to males, so it is always masculine. We also differentiate between men and women, boys and girls, fathers and mothers, monks and nuns, lords and ladies, and rams and ewes, among many others.

Such gender distinctions are fading as society becomes more equality-minded. No one with any sensibility has spoken of an executrix since Nixon was in office. The bottom line with most gender-specific nouns is that sex is irrelevant, and many words once masculine now refer to both males and females. Discriminate according to merit. Leave sex out of it!


The number of a noun indicates how many people or objects it refers to. Nouns that refer to just one of anything are singular, and nouns that refer to more than one of anything are plural. In their simplest forms, nouns are singular. Pluralization requires changes. Let’s allow some callers to demonstrate the rules for pluralizing nouns.

A General Pluralizing Rule

Question: “Is there a general rule for making nouns plural?” asked a menu writer.

Answer : Yes, of course, there is. For most nouns, add -s or -es to their singular forms. If a noun ends with a sound that melds smoothly with s, then simply add -s.

  • kite->kites
  • cake->cakes
  • waiter->waiters
  • bib->bibs
  • field->fields
  • hunter->hunters
  • flag->flags
  • trip->trips
  • birthday->birthdays

If a noun ends in a sound that does not meld smoothly with s, then add -es. These sounds, /ch/, /sh/, /s/, /x/, and /z/, are called the sibilant sounds.

  • church –> churches
  • lunch –> lunches
  • waltz –> waltzes
  • box –> boxes
  • wish –> wishes
  • quiz –> quizzes
  • mess –> messes
  • class –> classes
  • arch –> arches
  • fox –> foxes
  • fish –> fishes
  • dish –> dishes

Pleases note that you must double the final consonant z before adding -es.

Plurals of Nouns Ending in Y

Question : “I’m always confused about nouns ending in y. How do I make these words plural? Why didn’t they teach all these things in elementary school?”

Answer : Perhaps they did, and the caller has just forgotten. But, if  didn’t, let’s straighten out the issue now. When a noun ends in y preceded by a consonant, change the y to i and then add -es. In many cases, the y will make a long /e/ sound (long e says its own name).

  • lady –> ladies
  • fly –> flies
  • city –> cities
  • cherry –> cherries
  • candy –> candies
  • berry –> berries
  • Mounty –> Mounties
  • county –> counties
  • enemy –> enemies

When a noun ends in quy (again, the y makes a long /e/ sound), change the y to i and then add -es.

  • soliloquy –> soliloquies
  • colloquy –> colloquies

When a noun ends in y preceded by a vowel, just add-s. These words use the vowel and the y in combination to make a single vowel sound. Changing the y to i would destroy their partnership.

  • boy –>  boys
  • play –> plays
  • clay –> clays
  • tray –> trays
  • ploy –> ploys
  • toy –> toys
  • chimney –> chimneys
  • valley –> valleys
  • alley –> alleys

Plurals or Nouns Ending in F or FE

Question: A ranger in the high Sierras was creating posters warning tourists of predators. He asked, “What do I do to make wolf plural?”

Answer : As a general rule, make words ending in f or fe plural by changing the f or fe to v and adding -es.

  • calf –> calves
  • elf –> elves
  • half –> halves
  • knife –> knives
  • leaf –> leaves
  • life –> lives
  • loaf –> loaves
  • self –> selves
  • shelf –> shelves
  • thief –> thieves
  • wife –> wives
  • wolf –> wolves

However, this rule is subject to exception. For some nouns ending in f, simply add -s.

  • belief –> beliefs
  • roof –> roofs
  • dwarf –> dwarfs
  • chief –> chiefs
  • safe –> safes

Other nouns ending in f can take either of the above forms. You can change the f to v and add -es, or you can just add -s.

  • beef –> beeves or beefs
  • hoof –> hooves or hoofs
  • scarf –> scarves or scarfs
  • wharf –> wharves or wharfs

If in doubt, consult your dictionary.

Please be careful not to let this rule lead you to confuse the plural noun beliefs with the singular verb believes.

I respect the beliefs of my friend.

My friend believes in God.

Plural of Nouns Ending in O

Question : “How do you spell the plural of piccolo? I’m a musician, and I often write articles about music for the local newspaper. I have been criticized in the past for spelling the plurals of instruments incorrectly.”

Answer : In general, for nouns ending in an o preceding by a vowel, simply add -s.

  • cameo –> cameos
  • stereo –> steroes
  • rodeo –> rodeos
  • Oreo –> Oreos
  • folio –> folios
  • tattoo –> tattoos

For nouns ending in an o preceded by a consonant, add -es.

  • echo –> echoes
  • potato –> potatoes
  • tomato –> tomatoes
  • torpedo –> torpedoes

This rule, too, is full of exceptions. For musical terms, many of which end in an o preceded by a consonant, just add -s to form the plural.

  • alto –> altos
  • piccolo –> piccolos
  • piano –> pianos
  • cello –> cellos
  • contralto –> contraltos
  • soprano –> sopranos

For other words that end in a o preceded by a consonant, also add -s to form the plural.

  • zero –> zeroes
  • halo –> halos
  • albino –> albinos

As for these others with the consonants plus o ending, add -s or -es.

When in doubt, look it up.

Irregular Plurals

Question : I’m having a heck of a time figuring out how to make some words plural. Some are easy because they have a nice rule to tell you what to do. Then, there are some others that just change, as mouse changes to mice. Is there anything that I can do to learn these sorts of plurals?”

Answer : My sad answer has to be no. There are some nouns that form irregular plurals. They make changes specific to their own cases. These we simply must memorize. However, most changes are changes in vowels. Consonants are, for the most part, left alone.

  • foot –> feet
  • mouse –> mice
  • woman –> women
  • goose –> geese
  • tooth –> teeth
  • man –> men

There are even some nouns that do not change at all between their singular and plural forms.

  • deer –> deer
  • fish –> fish
  • sheep –> sheep
  • trout –> trout
  • moose –> moose
  • species –> species

For a very small number of words, add -en to their singular forms to make them plural.

  • child –> children
  • ox –> oxen

The best way to verify that the plural form of a noun is correct is to look it up in the dictionary.

Irregular Plurals: People/Person

Question : Heard by many of our callers on a national radio broadcast, a physician, who had recently arrived in America, was expressing concern about the lack of blood at his hospital. “If we have more than one people requiring blood….” They asked about the use of the word people.

Answer : Obviously, people should be person. The doctor has mistakenly used the irregular plural of the noun person. The word he used implies one group of people rather than one individual, a person.

Plurals of Foreign Origin : Latin

Question: “Is Latin really dead?” lamented an executive. “When I used the word memoranda in my office, my secretary criticized me.”

Answer : Latin is certainly not dead. It is alive in English, and we use it in many of our words. Memoranda is the Latin plural of while memorandums is the English plural, but both are acceptable. Similarly, the singular noun referendum can be made plural in the Latin way, referenda, or the American way, referendums.

American English has co-opted many foreign words to its own devices while other words still keep only their foreign plurals. The singular noun basis becomes bases in its plural form. The singular noun nemesis becomes nemeses in its plural form. These Latin words just keep the Latin plurals.

Latin is not the sole language from which modern English words have originated, and there are many other methods of pluralization from across the globe that you can find in English. If in doubt of the plural form, consult your dictionary.

Plurals of Foreign Origin: More Latin

Question : The headmistress of a girls’ preparatory school asked,”How do you spell the plural form of the word alumna on the commencement ?”

Answer: A singular female graduate in an alumna; plural female graduates are alumnae. A singular male graduate is an alumnus; plural male graduates are alumni. These are English words that have retained their Latin plural forms. The pronunciations of the masculine and feminine plurals are the same. Both end with a long /i/ sound (long i sounds like eye or that i in ride).

Plurals of Compound Words

Question: Several writers called on a conference line: “We’re still not confident that we’re correctly pluralizing compound words wand words linked by hyphens,” they said. The writers were dealing with material widely disseminated to the public through newspapers, and all owned by many style guides plus a half dozen handbooks.

Answer : Creating the plurals of simple compound words, such as steamboat or hatbox, is easy. Simply apply the appropriate rule to the second half of the compound word; thus, steamboat becomes steamboats, and hatbox becomes hatboxes.

  • inchworm –> inchworms
  • afterthought –> afterthoughts
  • chophouse –> chophouses
  • housewife –> housewives
  • lightsaber –>lightsabers
  • werewolf –> werewolves

Pluralizing other compound words whose pieces are connected by hyphens, such as mother-in-law, or whose separate words are regarded as a unit, such as court martial, is almost as simple. Just make the most important word plural. Mother-in-law becomes mothers-in-law, and court martial becomes courts martial. This most-important-word will always be a word that can be described or modified, a noun.

  • Chief of Staff –> Chiefs of Staff
  • son-in-law –> sons-in-law
  • looker-on –> lookers-on
  • runner-up –> runners-up
  • brigadier generals –> brigadier generals
  • attorney generals –> attorneys generals
  • daughter-in-law –> daughters-in-law
  • deputy sheriff –> deputy sheriffs

One of the writers then asked, “What if none of the pieces of the compound word are nouns? Like drive-in. Neither drive nor in is a noun, so we can’t really tell which one is the main word.” The answer is to pluralize the last word of the compound. Drive-in becomes drive-ins. The plural of play-off is play-offs, and the plural of has-been becomes has-beens. While neither of the pieces of each of these compound words is a noun on its own, they work to become a noun together.

Plurals of Numbers, Letters, and Abbreviations

Question: “How do I pluralize numbers? Everyone’s telling me a different way. Help! I want to be correct.”

Answer : These are the rules of pluralizing numerals, letters, and abbreviations:

  • To form the plurals of numbers written as numerals, just add -s.

My parents loved the 1950s.

I feel safest flying on 747s.

  • To form the plurals of single letters, add apostrophe s (‘s).

Elementary school taught me the three R’s.

Watch your p’s and q’s.

Don’t forget to cross your t’s and dot  your i’s.

  • To form the plurals of strings of multiple letters, add -s without an apostrophe (‘).

I gave her three IOUs.

My daughter learned her ABCs.

  • To form the plurals of abbreviations with internal periods, add apostrophe s (‘s).

C.P.A’s, D.D.S.’s , M.D.’s

My brother has two Ph.D.’s

  • To form the plurals of abbreviations that end with periods but have no internal periods, add -s before the terminal period.

eds., Nos., chs., figs.

There are ten vols. in the complete set.

  • To form the plurals of abbreviations without periods, just add -s.

APPRs, MIRVs, kWs, Kgs

The tunnel was twenty kms in length.

Plurals of Words Not Normally Pluralized

Question : Another caller asked, “How do I make the plural of a word that doesn’t really have a plural, like if, and, but in the phrase ‘ifs, ands, or buts’?”

Answer : Here is yet another confusing plural issue. To create the plural forms of words that do not have true plural forms, simply add -s. As you can see in the written version of the caller’s spoken question, the plurals of if, and, and but are ifs, ands, and buts. Here are two more examples:

Lenny will teach you the dos and don’ts of small engine repair.

How many  totallys does the average teenager utter each minute?

Notice that I did not change the y to i and add -es in totally. The word is an adverb and cannot have a plural form. The plurality of totally involves multiple occurrences of the word totally in a teenager’s utterances. The meaning of the sentence is clearer if the y is left alone.

Plural of Ms.

Question: “How do you form the plural of Ms.?” asked an editor at a women’s magazine.

Answer : Ms. is a title or respect attached to a woman’s name that does not imply a particular marital status. Since Ms. lacks internal periods, add -s to form the plural, Mss. Take heed, however. Without the capital, mss. is an abbreviation of manuscripts.

It is also this scholar’s opinion that since men do not have to identify their marital status it is difficult to understand why women do. This is an inequality that should be rectified, and is by the use of Ms. instead of Miss or Mrs.

Plurals of Nouns Containing Apostrophes

Question: “How do you make a plural out of a noun containing an apostrophe?” asked a representative of Weinstock’s Department Stores.

Answer: That’s easy! Your noun does not require any changes. Just say, “There are two Weinstock’s in St.Paul.” Pluralizing other nouns with internal apostrophes is not always so easy, but that discussion must wait until we reach the possessive case.

From My Files: Pluralizing Proper Nouns

At Christmas and Hanukkah time, hundreds of grammar-conscious citizens call, asking how to spell the plurals of proper names on holiday cards. Many of the calls come from the stationery stores that print the cards. Here are a few rules that will help the curious pluralize proper names. Please note that, in every case, the spellings of the proper names should not change except for the addition of -s or -es.

With proper names ending in a sound that blends well with s, simply add -s.

  • Brown –> the Browns
  • Ericson –> the Ericsons
  • Hogan –> the Hogans
  • Lindberg –> the Lindbergs
  • Shaw –> the Shaws
  • Whitlock –> the Whitlocks

With proper nouns ending in sounds that don’t blend well with s, the sibilant sounds, add -es.

  • Cox –> the Coxes
  • Douglas –> the Douglases
  • Firch –> the Firches
  • Jones –> the Joneses
  • Martinez –> the Martinezes
  • Nemetz –> the Nemetzes

Do not forget that other than the addition of -s or -es, the spelling of a pluralized proper name does not change. With names that end in y, you do not change that y to i. With names that end in f or fe, do not change that f or fe to v. The name remains the same.

  • Cory –> the Corys
  • Handy –> the Handys
  • Montgomery –> the Montgomerys

Number Issues

Number, on the surface, appears to be a simple matter. A noun is singular, or it is plural. End of story. Oh, but you must not forget that there are exceptions to every rule and complications to any simple situation. If you take one thing away from this post, it should be the lesson that any language worth its salt has more twists and variations than any one person can explore in a lifetime. English is certainly one of these.

Seemingly Singular Plurals

Some nouns that appear to be plural in form are treated singularly: news, physics, mathematics, measles, mumps, etc.

Politics is a bloodthirsty business.

The news these days is never illuminating.

These nouns, though plural in appearance because they end in s, are generally treated as singular. Popular usage has changed their natures so that we usually regard each of them as a single object or idea.

Strictly Plural

Other nouns are only used in their plural forms.

  • billiards
  • clothes
  • forceps
  • gallows
  • nuptials
  • pants
  • pincers
  • pliers
  • remains
  • riches
  • scissors
  • shears
  • suds
  • tongs
  • trousers

Hand me that pair of pliers.

My trousers are missing!

The garden shears sliced through the branches.

In singular forms, these nouns do not have any meaning as nouns. Imagine each of them without the plural ending. Riches becomes an adjective, rich. Remains becomes a verb, remain. Others are not even real words without the pluralizing s (trouser? sud?). These nouns are plural through and through.

Collective Nouns

There is yet another class of nouns for which number can problematic, the collective nouns. Collective nouns, though singular in number, name a group of people or objects.

  • army
  • audience
  • band
  • class
  • clergy
  • committee
  • company
  • congregation
  • corps
  • crowd
  • faculty
  • family
  • flock
  • herd
  • mob
  • multitude
  • number
  • team

Collectives are troublesome because they can be treated as singular or plural depending on usage. If we regard the members of the group that the collective noun names as a unit, then the noun is singular.

The crowd shouted its approval to the mayoral candidate.

The team of mules pulls the plow through the field day after day.

The company is declaring bankruptcy.

The members of these groups are a unit, so the nouns that name them are singular.

If we regard the members of the group as separate entities, then the noun is plural.

The class turned in their research papers last Friday.

The congregation are faith personified.

My family took our vacation early this year.

Here, the members of each group act on their own and not as a unit, so the collective noun is plural. However, we rarely use collective nouns in a plural manner.

Animals and Collective Nouns

Question: “When our family went whale watching, one of the crew members pointed at two of the beasts and said, ‘Look at the gam of whales.’ He explained that a gam is a group of two or more whales. Are there similar words to describe other groups of animals?”

Answer : Yes, there are. Here’s a list. There are some wonderful words in it, such as a shrewdness of apes, an exaltation of larks, and a murmuration of starlings.

  • Ant : colony
  • Ape : shrewness
  • Ass : pace
  • Badger : cete
  • Bear : sloth
  • Bee : swarm
  • Bird : flock
  • Buffalo : gang
  • Cattle : herd
  • Coot : covert
  • Duck : plump
  • Elk : gang
  • Finch : charm
  • Fox : skull
  • Frog : knot
  • Gesse : gaggle
  • Hog : drift
  • Kitten : kindle
  • Lark : exaltation
  • Lion : pride
  • Mallard : sord
  • Meadowlark : pod
  • Nightingale : watch
  • Peacock : muster
  • Pheasant : nide
  • Quail : bevy or covey
  • Seal : trip or Pod
  • Sheep : flock
  • Snipe : wisp
  • Sparrow : host
  • Starling : murmuration
  • Teal : spring
  • Vermin : skulk
  • Walrus : pod
  • Whale : gam or pod
  • Wildcat : clowder
  • Wild fowl : skein
  • Wild hog : sounder
  • Woodcock : full

Many of these are infrequently used, but shrewd word watchers will know about some of their curious origins. With popular use, they evolved into dictionary-defined words.

Troublesome Plurals

The plural forms of many nouns are often misused. The following list has been excerpted from the context of questions called in over the past twenty-five years. Each caller had used a plural incorrectly.

Singular : British Plural : American Plural

abacus : abaci : abacuses, abaci

agendum : agenda : agendums, agendas, agenda

alumna (fem.) : alumnae : alumnae

alumnua (mas.) : alumni : alumni

apparatus : apparati : apparatuses, apparatus

Plural of Mongoose

[aler-announce]Question : “Could you tell me what the plural of mongoose is? I think I know, but I want to verify my decision. I’m not asking any reason in particular, other than to satisfy my curiosity.”[/alert-announce]

Answer : Let’s start with what the plural is not. It is not mongeese. Please uses mongooses, instead. I know it sounds weird, but it’s right. This is one of those special situations where the standard rule doesn’t apply.

What on earth are you doing with more than one mongoose? Have you heard about the man who had too many snakes in his backyard? He knew that a neighborhood pet shop has several mongooses in its care and decided to order one to get rid of the slithery pests. He wrote a letter saying, “Please send me a mongoose.” Realizing that his job probably required more than one, he changed mongoose to mongeese. Looking at mongeese, he decided it was incorrect. He changed the word to mongooses, but this did not look right either. Frustrated, he wrote another sentence. “On second thought, send me another one.”

After Hours Plurals

Question : A bartender was utterly confused about filling on order. Many of his customers enjoy a gin and tonic before a hearty meal. At dinner one of them asked the waiter for “three gins and tonic, please.” The bartender called us wondering if he should have sent over three gins and one bottle of tonic.

Answer : The bartender made the right move, sending over three individually mixed drinks of gin and tonic. He was right, though, to question the customer’s use of the plural. Since the man ordered three of the potions, he could have said, “Three gins in tonics, please.” Each of the gins would then be accompanied by a tonic. But, if they are heavy drinkers, then they really might want three gins and just one tonic. The key is to make each noun in the name of the drink plural. Each is equally important to the final cocktail.

How would a diner ask for more than one Scotch and soda? Would he ask for “three Scotch and sodas”? No. The correct order would be for “three Scotches and sodas.”

After After Hours Plurals

Question : The same bartender called several weeks later with a question about his appetizers. He was serving scrumptious shrimp canapes to his customers and wanted them to sound as good as they looked. The bartender knew that one appetizer would be an hors d’oeuvre, but was unsure of what form the plural of this French world would take.

Answer :  One hors d’oeuvre becomes many hors d’oeuvres. One canape’ becomes many canapes. Both French words are pluralized in the English manner.

Time – Singular or Plural

Questions : “Is the word time singular or plural?” asked an executive from an educational publishing house. “The sentence in question is ‘Rather than continue wasting both our time, we need to set matters straight.’ “

Answer : This same question has been asked in different forms numerous times. If the time in the sentence is actually two separate blocks of time, one belonging to each party, then use the plural.

Rather than continue wasting both our times, we need to set matters straight.

If you both share a single block of time, then use the singular form.

Rather than continue wasting both our time, we need to set matters straight.

In other words, it’s a judgement call. My personal preference is for the plural form, times. Since the word both is used in the sentence “…. both our time…”, I see two separate blocks of time. This is but one humble opinion.

We actually advised the executive to take a more direct approach by eliminating the word both and using the singular form of the noun.

Rather than continue wasting our time, we need to set matters straight.

This is a sentence that anyone can utter, free from grammatical doubt or worry.

From My Files : Grammar Crises

Some mistakes deserve forgiveness. When your Average Joe makes a grammatical slip, we can understand. Our world is quite lacking in equality, and not everyone gets the same opportunities to study and learn. What I find almost unforgivable is an educated person who makes similar mistakes. Even more aggravating is a recognized and well-educated civic leader who is gauche enough to commit these offences. Such an individual was once granted a radio interview. She sputtered, “I know what you could have one crisis, but in your particular situation, you claim to have many financial crisises.” No. No. No. Review your plurals. One crisis become many crises.


The grammatical term person describes the relationship of a noun to the speaker. The person of a noun indicated whether it names the person or persons speaking, spoken to , or spoken of. There are three persons: first, second, and third.

The forms of nouns do not change because of the change of person. A noun such as mouse will take the same form whether it in the first, second, or third person. Clues as to what person a noun ins in come from the context in which it is used. Pay close attention to the verb in the sentence and any pronouns that refer to the noun. Why these features are so important will become clear when you complete the subsequent posts on pronouns and on verbs.

First Persons

A noun in the first person names the person or persons speaking. Always use one of the pronouns I or we to refer to the first person. The first person I or we may have a standard noun as an appositive. We will deal with appositives shortly.

I, Eric, will meet you there.

We, the people, seek to forma  more perfect noun.

In the first example, the proper noun Eric is in the first person since it is some person named Eric who utters or writes the sentence. In the second example, the noun people is in the first person because there are some people who utter this sentence to express their desire for a more perfect union.

Second Person

A noun in the second person names the person or persons spoken to.

John, please pass the salt.

Hurry up, children!

In the first example, the proper noun John is in the second person since it names the fellow toward whom the speaker directs his or her request to pass the salt. In the second example, the noun children is in the second person because it names the individuals to whom the speaker issues the command to hurry.

Third Person

A noun in the third person names the person or persons spoken of.

The knight defeated the dragon.

The princess escaped from the evil wizard’s clutches.

The king was joyful at her safe return.

In the first example, the nouns knight and dragon are both in the third person. In the second example, the nouns princess, wizard’s, and clutches are all in the third person. In the third example, the nouns king and return are in the third person. Every third person noun names an individual or thing spoken of. None of them name the  person(s) or thing(s) speaking or spoken to.


In grammar case describes the syntactical relationship of a noun or pronoun to the other words in the sentence. Both nouns and pronouns possess this property, but we will limit our current discussion of case to nouns. There are three cases: nominative, possessive, and objective.

Nominative Case

Nouns in the nominative case name the words that statements are made about. Nouns in the nominative case may be subjects of sentences, or they may be subject complements (also called predicate nominatives), nouns which follow a linking verb and describe the subject of the sentence. The subject complement and subject must always agree in case, person, number, and gender because they refer to the same individual.

The catcher missed the ball.

Elvis is a car slaesman in Beauford, Oklahoma.

The guitarist broke his G string.

In the first example, the noun catcher is in the nominative case. It names the person who missed the ball, the subject. In the second example, the nouns Elvis and salesman are both in the nominative case. The former is the subject of the sentence. The latter is a subject complement following a linking verb, is, and renames the subject. In the third example, the noun guitarist is in the nominative case, since it names the subject of the sentence, the person who broke the guitar string.

Objective Case

Nouns in the objective case are 1) direct objects, the targets of the actions of verbs, 2) indirect objects, the objects that are recipients of the actions of the verbs and that precede the direct objects in the sentences, or 3) words that are connected to other words in sentences, such as objects of prepositions or objects of verbals.

My dog buried her bone.

Peter gave Jill a gift.

Bill’s excuses for his behavior are irrelevant.

Giving my cat a bath is an unpleasant task.

In the first example, the noun bone is in the objective case because it is the target of the dog’s action, the thing that was buried. Bone is a direct object.

In the second example, both Jill and gift are in the objective case. Gift is a direct object, the target of Peter’s action because it is the thing that was given. Jill is an indirect object, since she is the recipient of the direct object gift. Please see the article on verbs for a clear distinction between direct and indirect objects.

In the third example, the noun behavior is in the objective case. It is the object of the proposition for. Objects, as you might expect, are always in the objective case.

In the final example, both the nouns cat and bath are in the objective case. Bath is a direct object, the target of the gerund giving, while cat is an indirect object, the recipient of the action of giving. Both are objects, so both are in the objective case.

There are no differences in form between nouns in the nominative and objective cases. Understanding the differences between the two, however, will enhance your own speech and writing and help you to use more precise English. Look for context clues to determine which case a noun is in.

This section has introduced several new grammatical concepts without providing solid, in-depth definitions. Direct objects, indirect objects, prepositions, verbals, and gerunds are not parts of our current grammar vocabulary. For now, suffice it to say that they do exist and that a more detailed discussion has been postponed for later chapters.

Possessive Case

Nouns in the possessive case show ownership. They are words which own. Nouns in the possessive case do differ in form from nouns in the nominative and objective cases.

The pirate’s treasure was lost at sea.

The children’s toys littered the playroom floor.

The treasurer’s note has made me a little nervous.

In these three examples, the words pirate’s, children’s, and treasurer’s are all in the possessive case. The treasure belongs to the pirate, the toys belong to the children, and the note belongs to the treasurer.

The rules used to put a noun in the possessive case are simple. For all singular and plural nouns that do not end in s, add apostrope s (‘s).


  • boy : boy’s
  • baker : baker’s
  • judge : judge’s


  • mice : mice’s
  • children : children’s
  • brethren : brethren’s

Grammarians disagree over how to punctuate the possessive form of singular nouns that end in s. Our opinion is that one should add apostrophe s (‘s). Stick to the general rule when possible.

  • boss : boss’s
  • Charles : Charles’s
  • Jones : Jones’s
  • lass : lass’s
  • bus : bus’s
  • Dickens : Dickens’s

Please see the post on punctuation for a few notable exceptions to this rule.

For plural nouns that end in s, just add an apostrophe (‘)

  • sailors : sailors’
  • dogs : dogs’
  • girls : girls’
  • friends : friends’
  • scientists : scientists’
  • soldiers : soldiers’

Many of you may remember those writers who called to ask about the plurals of compound nouns. You are wandering about ow to make the possessive case forms of these words.

Fortunately, this answer is simple. If the compound noun, whether it is singular or plural, does not end in s, apostrophe s (‘s).

  • sister-in-law : sister-in-law’s
  • Chiefs of Staff : Chiefs of Staff’s
  • editor-in-chief : editor-in-chief’s

If the compound noun is plural and ends in s, just add an apostrophe (‘).

  • has-beens : has-beens’
  • brigadier generals : brigadier generals’
  • deputy sheriffs : deputy sheriffs’

The same set of rules applies to names of organizations, companies, or political bodies that consist of more than one word.

  • Supreme Court : Supreme Court’s
  • Planned Parenthood : Planned Parenthood’s
  • Johnson & Johnson : Johnson & Johnson’s

Sometimes possession is shared by several nouns. In these cases, just make the last word in the series possessive.

America and Canada’s timber resources are dwindling.

Thomas and French’s discovery shocked the world.

Leslie and Eric’s lasagna is to die for.

These sentences all contain nouns that show joint ownership. In the first sentence, the resources belong to America and Canada. In the second sentence, the discovery belongs to both Thomas and French. In the third sentence, the lasagna belongs to both Eric and Leslie.

To show individual ownership, apply the possessive sign to each item in the series.

America’s and Canada’s timber resources are dwindling.

Thomas’s and French’s discoveries shocked the world.

Leslie’s and Eric’s lasagnas are to die for.

In these examples, each noun has individual ownership of resources, of a discovery, or of a lasagna. These things are not shared.

Many English teachers advise against applying the possessive case to inanimate objects. Possession is a privilege limited to living things. It does not make sense for a car or a bicycle to own anything in the way that the possessive case expresses ownership. The type of possession allowed inanimate objects is typically expressed by a phrase beginning with of.

the roof of the house not the house’s roof.

the hood of the car not the car’s hood.

the tire of the bike not the bike’s tire.

Like many grammar issues, however, this one requires a judgement call. Through popular usage, some nouns that name inanimate objects have acquired the rights to their possessive case forms.

  • my mind’s eye
  • a moment’s delay
  • a week’s vacation
  • two week’s notice
  • the sun’s rays
  • the Season’s Greetings

At times creative license may grant you the right to make use of an inanimate object in a possessive form. Think hard. Work carefully. You will make the right decision.

A Possessive Error

Question: “Announcing the Opening of Ventura Counties Largest Bookstore.” This pathetic announcement was sent to most of the residents in the general Ventura area. Several people wondered about the grammatical correctness of this advertisement.

Answer : There is only one Ventura County. If there were more, then one would spell them “Ventura Counties.” However, in this single Ventura County, a bookstore, presumably the area’s largest, belongs to the county. The noun county needs to take its possessive case form. The advertisement should read, “Announcing the Opening of Ventura County’s Largest Bookstore.”

Uses of Nouns

Question : “Can nouns be used in different ways?” asked a curious caller.

Answer: Certainly, they can. Nouns can be subjects, appositives, direct objects, indirect objects, subject complements, objects of infinitives, objects of gerunds, or objects of participles. We even see nouns masquerading as other parts of speech, but no matter how they’re used, they are still nouns. These issues will all be discusses in full detail in subsequent articles. Please be patient!

Some other things you should know about nouns

We have looked at the major classifications and properties of nouns, but there are a few more things to note before this discussion of noun ends.


Personification is the act of treating an inanimate object or an idea as if it had human qualities. Accordingly, personification allows nouns that name inanimate objects to take animate characteristics such as masculine or feminine gender.

I heard Death’s knock at my door and then felt his icy hand on my shoulder.

The sea was unkind today, refusing to share her treasures.

In the first example, the noun Death’s is proper. It is a particular name of a particular individual and is capitalized as proper nouns should be. This noun is possessive, a property that would be denied to a normal inanimate noun. Personification of death also gives the word an active intelligence, making Death an individual who knocks at doors. The pronoun his provides Death with a masculine gender. Personified, death becomes Death, an animated, willful character.

In the second example, the sea is personified. It gains the distinctly human abilities to be unkind and to refuse to share. the feminine pronoun her gives the usually neuter sea a feminine gender. The sea has taken on the characteristics of a selfish woman.

Heteronyms and Homonyms

Question: “Is there a name for words which have identical spellings but different pronunciations and meanings?”

Answer : Yes, these words are called heteronyms. I assume you’re talking about row (means “a line” and rhymes with slow) and row (means “a fight” and rhymes with wow) or lead (means “to conduct” and rhymes with weed) and lead (means “a metallic element” and rhymes with red). There are many, many others, but these should suffice to explain.

homonyms, of course, are words which have the same sound and spelling but different meanings. Some homonyms are: Catholic (means “of or pertaining to the Catholic church”) and catholic (means “universal”) or Pacific (means “of pertaining to the Pacific Ocean”) and pacific (means “peaceful”).


Question: A called asked, “What is a substantive? I’ve gone back to teaching after  a hiatus and was bemused to find that many of my students were unfamiliar with the term.”

Answer : Although the term substantive is somewhat dated, we continue to receive inquiries as to its meaning. The updated term for substantive is nominal, and it applies to any noun or pronoun or any word, phrase, or clause that performs the same function as a noun.

There is an olive in each martini glass.

I knew that she did not like meatloaf.

In the first example, the substantive or nominal there displaces the subject olive. More specifically, there is a dummy element, a word that fills the place of the subject and introduces the sentence. In the second example, the substantive or nominal clause that she did not like meatloaf functions as a single noun. It is the direct object in the sentence, naming the thing that I knew.

Noun Phrases

Question: “Could you tell me what a noun phrase is? I’m in school preparing to become an English teacher. I went into teaching because my mom spent most of her adult life in the teaching profession. She always used the term noun phrase when she was explaining sentence construction.”

Answer : A noun phrase is a group of words that is composed of a noun and a number of optional modifiers and that lacks subject or predicate. Phrases do not have subjects and predicates. Clauses do. Put those issues on hold for now, however, and take a look at these sentences:

My shopping cart hit that expensive Mercedes.

My poor kitty has a cold.

Pigs are filthy.

In the first example, that expensive Mercedes is a noun phrase that serves as a direct object. It names the target of the action of the verb. In the second example, my poor kitty is a noun phrase. It serves as the subject of the sentence and names the animal that has a cold. In the third example, the single, unmodified noun pigs is a noun phrase that serves as the subject of the sentence and names the animals that are filthy. Even though it is composed of only one word, we still consider it a noun phrase. Noun phrase, since they do the work of nouns, are nominals or substantives.


The word appositive comes from two Latin words, ad, meaning “near”, and ponere, meaning “to place”. An appositive is a word, phrase, or clause that is placed beside another word to rename, explain, or enhance it. The appositive is a substantive or nominal set off by commas from the word which it identifies. We say that the appositive is used in apposition with the other word.

The king, my brother, has been murdered.

We spotted Tom Hanks, the movie star, at the cafe yesterday.

In the first example, the noun brother is used in apposition with the subject king. The appositive renames or describes the subject king by specifying which king the sentence is about.

In the second example, the noun star is used in apposition with the proper noun Tom Hanks, a direct object. The appositive clarifies the proper name, telling us which Tom Hanks was seen. For all we know, the writer could have a cousin named Tom Hanks. Remember that the appositive and the noun to which it refers always share the same four properties – gender, number, person, and case – since they both name the same entity.

The Value of Appositives

Question: “I’m a businessman,” the caller stated. “I find that my letter are very boring to read. Is there any way I can improve them? Let me give  you an example of my sentences: ‘I am the president of a large corporation. The name of the corporation is the XYZ Corporation.'”

Answer : The caller had never been taught about appositives. One of the greatest strengths of the appositive is its ability to combine separate ideas into a single, clear sentence. With the knowledge of appositives, the caller could have written, “I am the president of a large corporation, XYZ.” XYZ is an appositive, renaming corporation.

Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Information

When we write sentences, it sometimes becomes necessary to add pieces of information, as we just saw in our discussion of appositives. Some of this information is essential to the complete meaning of the sentence. Other pieces which are not essential are present in addition to the complete meaning of the sentence and may be removed without any significant change in meaning. The essential information is restrictive, while the nonessential information is nonrestrictive.

For example, a friend of mine from a large family uttered this sentence: “My brother Peter sent me the chess service.” The sentence contains a piece of information, the proper noun Peter. It is an appositive, renaming the subject of the sentence brother. Whether the proper noun is restrictive or nonrestrictive depends upon the nature of the family.

If my friend has just one brother, then the information is nonrestrictive. When my friend said that his brother had given him the present, we knew whom he was talking about since he has only one brother. The meaning is complete without the added information.

If, on the other hand, my friend has several brothers in addition to Peter, the information is restrictive. It indicates precisely which brother gave my friend the present. Without the information, we could not know which brother my friend was talking about. The proper noun is then essential to the complete meaning of the sentence.

We punctuate sentences differently to distinguish between restrictive and nonrestrictive information. Nonrestrictive information is always set off from the rest of the sentence by commas.

My brother, Peter, sent me the chess service.

Restrictive information is never punctuated.

My brother Peter sent me the chess service.

As our knowledge of grammar grows, we will see more examples of restrictive and nonrestrictive in clauses and phrases.