Grammar Bites | Nouns (YouTube Script)
Traditionally, we say that a noun is a person place or thing, but, like we saw with verbs, those traditional categories don’t always serve us very well. What happens when we run into nouns like optimism, sarcasm, or phoneme? They’re all nouns, but they don’t really fit neatly into any of the traditional categories—sarcasm isn’t exactly a thing, is it?
As we’ve mentioned before, one of the key tricks for understanding English grammar is letting go of worrying about what words are and thinking instead about where they fit in a sentence and how they’re being used. Optimism isn’t a person, place, or thing, but there’s no doubt that it can used as a noun in the kinds of places where nouns go.
So, with all that in mind, here’s a simple way to identify nouns in English.
If you want to test whether a word can be used as a noun or not, see whether you can stick the in front of it. The is part of a group of words known as determiners, and these are words that can attach to the front ends of nouns. If you can take a word and put a the in front of it, you can be sure you’re dealing with a noun.
This is an especially handy trick because there are some words that traditional grammars wouldn’t classify as nouns—but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be used as nouns. I’ll probably never get tired of saying it: grammar is about the possibilities, not the rules. So who cares if somebody says that squeamish is an adjective and not a noun—put it in the right spot in a sentence and it works just as well as any person, place, or thing.
Do be careful, though: I don’t mean to say that any word you can put a the in front of automatically becomes a noun. In longer noun phrases, modifiers often appear between the determiner and the noun, so—not that you would—but don’t start defaulting to saying anything that comes after the is a noun. The point is not that anything that comes immediately after the is a noun, but that any word that sounds okay with a the in front of it is a word you can comfortably use as a noun.
Now, people like to complain about the rules of English having too many exceptions, but that’s just because we rely on oversimplified rules. If you think that nouns are persons, places, or things, nouns like imitation might look like exceptions to the rule. But, if you spend time to learn the real characteristics of nouns, you realize that imitation goes everywhere that nouns can go and does everything that nouns can do—it’s not an exception at all. Whenever you run into a rule with an exception, you can probably bet that you’re just dealing with an inaccurate rule. The things we call exceptions are usually governed by very regular patterns with long histories in the language.
But that’s just a long of way saying that what I’m about to say will sound like an exception to our noun test, but it’s not. Any word you can stick a the in front of can function as a noun. But there’s another group of words that can go in the same places as nouns but that don’t work with our the test—and that’s names. Sometimes called proper nouns, words in this group can occupy the same spots in sentences that nouns occupy, but, because they aren’t the same as regular nouns, the same rules don’t apply. With vanishingly rare exceptions, you can’t put a the in front of a name. But that’s okay because you’re going to recognize names by their capital letters before you ever have to worry about using a the on them.
So there you have it the key to identifying individual nouns in your writing. Next, we’ll talk about how nouns link up with other words to form noun phrases.