Classes of nouns

The head of a noun phrase

The head of a noun phrase either takes the form of a noun or a pronoun. The head determines such features of the noun phrase as number (singular or plural) and gender (masculine, feminine or neuter). In terms of meaning, the head determines what kind or type of entity the whole noun phrase refers to.

Thus, the following noun phrases have the same noun, car, as head and therefore refer to the same kind of entity, namely some kind of car. The exact reference of the full noun phrases differ because of the different determiners and modifiers that accompany the head.

(1) the blue car that Lisa bought

(2) the yellow car that is parked outside my office

(3) a French car with four-wheel steering

Nouns can be grouped into different classes based on their grammatical properties.

Proper nouns and common nouns

A first major distinction among nouns is that between proper nouns and common nouns. Simply put, proper nouns are nouns that functions as names of people, cities, countries, etc. Typical examples are: Bill, Stockholm, and Denmark. All other nouns are common nouns, e.g. car, water, and democracy.

The distinction is relevant to capitalisation. Thus, proper nouns always start with a capital letter.

Since proper nouns are used to refer to unique individuals, places, and so on, they do not show a distinction between definite and indefinite forms, which for common nouns is signalled by the definite and indefinite articles. Most proper nouns occur without an article, like Sweden, Lund, Bill, etc. However, there are also classes of poper nouns which have a definite article as part of their name. Examples include names of daily newspapers (The Times, the Observer, etc.), names of theatres, museums, hotels, restaurants, and similar establishments (the Metropolitan, the British Museum, the Hilton, the Ritz, etc. If the name of such an establishment consists of a noun or noun phase in the genitive, then even these proper nouns occur without an article (McDonald's, Sloppy Joe's).

Proper nouns in the plural form another important class that occur with the definite article. Typical examples include names of mountain ranges (the Himalayas), groups of islands (The Canaries), and others (the Midlands, the Neherlands, the Balkans).

Countable and uncountable nouns

Common nouns may be divided into countable and uncountable nouns. As the terminology suggests, countable nouns can combine with numerals like one, two, three, etc., whereas uncountable nouns cannot. Moreover, uncountable nouns are always singular, whereas most countable nouns may be either singular or plural. A number of properties related to this basic difference distinguish the two classes of nouns. The following table lists the most important ones, and provides examples of both types of noun. (The asterisk * marks an example as ungrammatical.)

 

countable nouns

uncountable nouns

accept the indefinite article:
a car, a house, an accident, etc.

do not accept the indefinite article:
*a money, *an evidence, *a knowledge, etc.

typically have a plural form:
car - cars, house - houses, accident - accidents

have no plural form:
money - *moneys, evidence - *evidences, nonsense - *nonsenses

can, and sometimes must, be replaced by the pronoun one:
I sold my old car and bought a new one.

cannot be replaced by the pronoun one:
*Bill prefers empirical evidence to anecdotal one.

in the plural, combine with plural quantifiers like many, a great number of, etc.:
many cars, a great number of houses

only combine with singular quantifiers like much, a great deal of, etc.:
much evidence, a great deal of money

Partitive constructions (click to expand/contract)

There are certain quantifiers that are used in connection with uncountable nouns and others that are used in connection with countable nouns. In (1), quantifiers that can only be used with countable nouns have erroneously been used in connection with uncountable nouns. The resulting constructions are ungrammatical:

(1) *many pork; *quite a few pork; or *a large number of pork.

What we have to say is instead is, for instance

(2) much pork; a large amount of pork; or lots of pork.

Note in relation to this that the relatively informal quantifying expressions a lot of, lots of, and loads of can be used to quantify both countable and uncountable nouns. However, they cannot be used in formal academic writing.

In addition to the ways of quantifying uncountables just mentioned, we can also make use use what is called ‘partitive constructions’. Examples of partitive constructions include the following:

(3) a bottle of water; a clap of thunder; a grain of wheat; a slice of ham; a state of mind; a piece of bread; a box of chocolate; an act of violence

A partitive construction is thus a construction where we make use of a countable noun that can be used to denote a certain portion of something uncountable. By doing this, we can can now count the portions, even though their content as such is uncountable. For example, we can use the following noun phrases:

(4) seven bottles of water; six slices of ham; two boxes of chocolate

As we may conclude from the examples in (iii) and (iv) above, some partitive expressions denote portions or quantities that are fairly well defined, while others are rather inexact. For instance, it is not at all obvious how much violence is included in an act of violence.

For language users in general, it is important to learn the idiomatic partitive expressions that go together with the various uncountable nouns that you somehow want to quantify. Your language will easily be too dull, informal, and inexact if you constantly make use of general expressions such as a piece of X or a bunch of X. Moreover, only using quantifying expressions, such as some X or a great deal of X, is not an option either, since they are too inexact for most purposes.    

A good dictionary will help you find the right partitive expressions, but you can also get some help from the following list:

 

a word of advice                                 

a round of applause

a work of art

a pile of ashes

a bar of chocolate

a box of chocolate

a cup of chocolate

a packet of cigarettes

a web of deceit

a speck of dust

a work of fiction

a suit of furniture

a blade of grass

a body of knowledge

a roar of laughter

a beam of light

a flash of lightning

a stroke of good luck

a fit of madness 

a piece of music

a piece/item of news  

a piece of pie

an area of research

a body of research

a bag of rice

a field of study

a lump of sugar

a cloud of suspicion

a web of trust

a shot of whisky

a gust of wind  

a log of wood

a splinter of wood

a piece of work

                            

 

                                         


A Swedish perspective: Uncountable/Countable nouns (click to expand/contract)

It is important to understand that even though a certain noun is basically countable, it may also have a fairly frequent uncountable use (and vice versa). Take the word beer, for instance. It is basically uncountable, as are all liquids and substances. In spite of beer being basically uncountable, we can naturally say things such as (1) and (2):

(1) She had three beers yesterday.

(2) This is actually a beer that I don't like.

These examples show that one and the same noun can have both a countable and an uncountable use. In fact, this is not at all uncommon.

It is also important to understand that this distinction between countable and uncountable nouns is not ad hoc. Instead, it is based on what the world is like, or at least on how language users view the world and the various types of entities in it that can be denoted by nouns.

What is meant by this is that whether a noun is categorised as countable or uncountable in a certain language depends on whether or not the speakers of that language think that the entity that the noun is typically used to refer to is possible to count or not. If something is possible to count, it can relatively easily be defined and observed where one of this entity begins and ends and where another one begins and ends, as it were.

Given this brief and simplified account of the ontological and cognitive basis of the uncountable/countable distinction, we should be able to form the hypothesis that fairly closely related languages like English and Swedish, which are primarily spoken by people from relatively similar cultures, should not differ very much when it comes to which nouns are countable and which are uncountable.This hypothesis is correct. For the large majority of nouns, there is no difference in countability between the English noun and its Swedish counterpart. This is good news, of course.

However, there are also a number of important exceptions that we need to be aware of (in addition to remembering that one and the same noun may be used in more than one way), partly in order to get the agreement between subject and verb right. Estling Vanneståhl (2007:99) provides the following list of nouns which are uncountable in English, but countable or plural in Swedish (please note that the list is not intended to be exhaustive):

 

 

UNCOUNTABLE IN ENGLISH

COUNTABLE OR PLURAL IN SWEDISH

abuse

skällsord

advice

råd

applause

applåd/er/

behaviour

beteende/n/

cash

kontanter

change

växel/pengar/

equipment

utrustning/ar/

evidence

bevis

furniture

möbel, möbler

garbage

sopor

gear (informal)

grejer, prylar

hardware

järnvaror

homework

läxa, läxor

information

upplysning/ar/

interest

ränta, räntor

jewellery

smycke, smycken

knowledge

kunskap/er/

lightning

blixt/ar/

money

peng/ar/

news

nyhet/er/

nonsense

dumheter

pollution

förorening/ar/

progress

framsteg

proof

bevis

revenue

statsinkomster

rubbish

sopor

stationery

pappersvaror

stuff (informal)

grejer, prylar

underwear

underkläder

Notice that quite a few of the words on this list are words that are quite frequent, both in academic and everyday uses of English. 


Inherently plural nouns

Some nouns are such that they cannot be used in the singular, that is, they are always regarded as denoting something plural, and they always take plural agreement. Important members of this category appear in the following examples:

(4) My new jeans are Italian.

(5) We have to buy Peter new pyjamas, since his old ones are worn out.

(6) In this experiment, headphones are to be used.

(7) The ship's doctor made use of tweezers to remove the foreign object.

(8) The minutes were kept by Sheila.

(9) The goods have been exported to Germany.

(10) All our valuables have been stolen.

(11) The police are investigating the case.

(12) There were hundreds of police present in Stockholm in connection with the royal wedding.

(13) Do you know how many people are here?

(14) The cattle were seen grazing in the field.

(15) We do not want vermin in our house, but they are here anyway.

A Swedish perspective: Inherent plurals (click to expand/contract)

This may not seem so problematic at first sight. Sometimes we use the corresponding nouns in much the same way in Swedish. This is the case with jeans, for instance which requires a plural adjective in Swedish:

(1) Mina nya jeans var inte dyra.

This is often explained by the fact that jeans, trousers ('byxor'), tights, etc. somehow consist of two parts. The Swedish noun pyjamas, however, is different from its English counterpart, in spite of the fact that pyjamas traditionally consist of two parts. In Swedish we get (2), while the corresponding English sentence would be (3):

(2) Jag måste köpa honom en ny pyjamas.

(3) I must buy him new pyjamas.

In other words, we cannot use *a new pyjamas, since pyjamas is always plural in English.

Headphones corresponds to Swedish hörlurar, which is also normally plural, even though (4) is fully grammatical:

(4) Min ena hörlur är trasig.

The Swedish word corresponding to the English tweezers is pincett. This noun is not plural in Swedish, even though it can be said to consist of two parts. It seems as if this rule or tendency (i.e. that nouns that denote objects that consist of two parts are treated as plural) is stronger in English than in Swedish. This means, for instance, that (5) does not correspond to (6) or (7), but to (8):

(5) Jag behöver en pincett nu.

(6) *I need a tweezers now.

(7) *I need a tweezer now.

(8) I need (some) tweezers now.

Even though minutes is plural in English, the corresponding Swedish word protokoll is a regular noun that can be either singular or plural:

(9) Protokollet var välskrivet.

(10) Protokollen hade inte blivit justerade.

Goods corresponds to Swedish varor. However, in Swedish it is perfectly normal to use the singular vara (11), while good is not normally used in the singular in English (12):

(11) Jag letar efter en viss vara.

(12) *I'm looking for a certain good.

However, in the field of economics, the singular good is actually used, as in the authentic (13):

(13) Money is a good that acts as a medium of exchange in transactions. Classically it is said that money acts as a unit of account, a store of value, and a medium of exchange. Most authors find that the first two are nonessential properties that follow from the third. In fact, other goods are often better than money at being intertemporal stores of value, since most monies degrade in value over time through inflation or the overthrow of governments (http://economics.about.com/cs/studentresources/f/money.htm, emphasis by AWELU).

Just like valuables is plural in English, värdesaker is plural in Swedish. The singular värdesak is normally not used in Swedish, even though it occurs. So does in fact the singular valuable in English, but this, too, is rather infrequent.

Finally in this subsection we have some nouns that do not end in a plural -s, but which are problematic because they are always plural, often in a collective or generic sense. For instance, when we use the police, we normally refer to the whole police force, and when we talk about people, we often talk about people in general.

It is important, however, that we understand that there is a clear difference between being uncountable and being inherently plural with a (typically) collective/generic meaning. Grammatically, the most important difference is that while uncountable nouns always take singular subject-verb agreement, plural nouns always take plural agreement.

Even though these nouns are inherently plural and collective in English, this need not be the case in other languages, such as Swedish. For instance while (14) is fully grammatical in Swedish, (15) is not possible to use in English. Instead we have to use (16):

(14) Polisen var ung och stilig.

(15) *The police was young and handsome.

(16) The policeman was young and handsome.


Nouns in -ics

Nouns that end in -ics look plural, but are actually most often treated as singular. Thus, when heading a noun phrase which functions as the subject, they trigger singular agreement on the verb.

(16) Statistics is becoming increasingly popular among our students.

(17) Mathematics is an integral part of our culture.

(18) Western economics has tended not to be influenced by theories from other parts of the world.

In the examples above, the nouns in -ics denote academic disciplines. However, some of these nouns may also be used to denote the practical application of the discipline, and are then treated as ordinary plurals, e.g. by taking plural determiners and by triggering plural agreement on the verb.

(19) These statistics show that our production of beef has almost doubled.

(20) The acoustics of the new concert hall are very lively.

Zero plurals

Zero plural nouns are nouns that look the same in the plural as they do in the singular. A well-known example is the noun sheep. Since sheep is a zero plural noun, it looks the same in the two sentences below. However, this does not prevent it from being singular in the first sentence and plural in the second one, as indicated by the different verb forms, is and are:

(21) My sheep is black.

(22) My sheep are black.

Other nouns that belong to this category are aircraft, Chinese, deer, elk, headquarters, horsepower, hovercraft, means, offspring, Portuguese, salmon, series, species, trout, and Vietnamese. When in doubt, please consult a good dictionary.

Foreign plurals

There is a group of nouns whose members are commonly referred to as 'foreign plurals'. What the nouns in this group have in common is that both their singular and their plural forms have been borrowed from other languages, which means that the plural ending is not the regular English -s, but something else.

Examples of such foreign plural nouns that are important to remember, especially when writing academic texts (since many of these words tend to be academic in nature), are analysis-analyses, basis-bases, criterion-criteria, diagnosis-diagnoses, hypothesis-hypotheses, parenthesis-parentheses, phenomenon-phenomena, stimulus-stimuli, and thesis-theses

What usually happens when a word is borrowed into English (or into some other language) is that it is changed in line with the morphology of the language into which it has been borrowed. Consequently, there are some foreign words in English that have both a foreign and an English plural form. Examples include appendix-appendixes/appendices, cactus-cactuses/cacti, focus-focuses/foci, and index-indexes/indices.

A couple of etymologically plural nouns are sometimes used as (uncountable) singulars. The two most common examples are media and data. The singular uses are not universally accepted, however, so non-native writers are well-advised to use them as plurals in examples like the following:

(23) These data show that our initial assumption was right.

(24) The media have become more interested in environmental issues.