The word noun comes from Latin nomen, which means name. At a basic level, a noun names a person, place, or thing:

New York

Often you can put an article (the or a) before the noun, a verb afterwards, and before you know it you have a sentence:

The phone rang.

As with all parts of speech, a word’s function in the sentence is dependent on context, on how it interacts with the words around it. With every new part of speech that you learn, the previous ones will come into focus more clearly.

Common and Proper Nouns

There are two types of nouns. Proper nouns refer to specific persons, places, or things, and they begin with a capital letter. The others are called common nouns, and the only time they are capitalized is if they are an important title or if they occur at the beginning of a sentence:

Common Nouns Proper Nouns
boy John
Pope Pope Francis
planet Mars
brand Lego
President Nixon
state Florida
race Daytona 500

Abstract and Concrete Nouns

As mentioned, all nouns are either common or proper nouns. However, we can use two other terms to categorize nouns. Nouns can also be classified as concrete or abstract. A concrete noun is something you can easily experience using your senses. You can see your friend, you can stand on a hill, and you can hear an airplane.

Yet a noun doesn’t have to be just a person, place, or thing. It can also be something that resembles a quality, an idea, or an action. These nouns are more abstract in nature. Here are some examples:

Quality, Concept, Idea Action
difference celebration
juiciness counting
majority competition
absence bungee jumping
religion sewing
freedom water polo
happiness birth

The most confusing here are the action words. Aren’t they supposed to be verbs? The answer is that not every action is automatically a verb. For example, any word that looks like a verb and ends in –ing is a present participle, and present participles are not verbs (they’re called verbals). In fact, sometimes a verbal (e.g., sewing) can be a noun. It all depends on how the word is used in the sentence.

In the next section we will review some of the main uses of nouns. Context will tell you a lot about whether a word is a noun.

The Uses of Nouns

At the core of every sentence is a subject that normally contains at least a noun or pronoun (the pronoun standing in for the noun). This subject does the action of the main verb:

Colleen called.

A noun can also be the direct object of the verb. In other words, it receives the action of the verb:

Emily ran a marathon.

If the noun is the indirect recipient of the action, then we call it the indirect object:

I sent an email to Madeleine.

A noun can also be the object of a preposition:

The wind whispered through the trees.

There are other uses as well, but the point is that nouns don’t exist in a vacuum. They have a job to do.

And that’s what will allow you to recognize the more confusing nouns, especially the ones that are more abstract or look like actions. Take the following example:

Practice took a long time.

The word practice might look like an action, and in another sentence it might be a verb (I practice), but here we already have a main verb (took). So we can figure out that practice has to be the subject (the thing that took a long time).