General features of nouns

The category of gender

The category of number

The category of case

Article determination

Practical tasks and assignments

General features of nouns

Noun is the main nominative part of speech.

  • The general meaning of the category is thingness, as the main function of the noun is to nominate things.
  • The main functions of the noun in the sentence are the functions of the subject, object, predicative (subject complement), complement in prepositional phrases.
  • The noun in English has a set of formal features, such as special word-building patterns, typical affixes (e.g. –er, -tion), compound stem models and conversion types. A noun has subcategories of gender, number, case, article determination.

Nouns can also be divided into some subclasses on the basis of their common meanings and their ability to combine with other elements and express different grammatical subcategories:



Proper nouns are individual names of people or things—personal names (Mary, Johnson), geographical names (London, Brooklyn), names of ships, hotels etc.

 Common nouns can be applied to any individual of a class of people or things (dog, book, family, snow, kindness).

 Class nouns denote people or things belonging to a class of certain objects. They are countable and generally used with the article (dog, cat, apple).

 Collective nouns denote a number or collection of similar individuals or things regarded as a single unit (machinery, police, family).

 Nouns of material denote material: iron, gold, bread, water. They are uncountable and are generally used without any article.

 Abstract nouns  denote some quality, state, action or idea, e.g. love, fight, kindness.

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 The category of gender

Gender in grammar means a set of two or more grammatical categories into which the nouns of certain languages are divided, sometimes but not necessarily corresponding to the sex of the referent when animate.

In modern English this category is rather lexical than grammatical. It is not a feature of nouns themselves (as in German or Russian). Rather, it relates directly to the meaning of nouns, with particular reference to biological sex. Thus, gender may be mainly expressed by lexical means, such as:

1)    by using different roots for different sexes (boy – girl)

2)    by special lexical suffixes (-ess: actor – actress)

3)    by a combination of a personal pronoun with the  root morpheme ( a special word-formation pattern) (he-goat, she-goat)

4)    by composition (boy-friend, girl-friend)

Gender is expressed grammatically by means of certain personal, possessive and reflective pronouns.(The doctor took her bag.)

Modern English is rather sensitive to the question of gender usage and there is a tendency to use more sexually neutral style. In vocabulary there is a tendency to replace “male” words with generic meaning by neutral items, for example, to use “bartender” instead of “barman,” or use ‘chairperson’ instead of ‘chairman’.

In grammar it is recommended to avoid using the third-person pronoun “he” after sexually neutral words such as ‘person’, ‘doctor’—a possible alternative is the use of the combination ‘he/she’ or ‘he or she’, or turning singular into plural to avoid the problem.

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The category of number

The English number system constitutes a two-term contrast: SINGULAR, which denotes ‘one’, and PLURAL, which denotes ‘more than one.’

General quantitative characteristics of words let us divide them into COUNTABLE and UNCOUNTABLE, which exist in two forms: VARIABLE and INVARIABLE.


  • Singular invariable (always agree with the verb in the singular)
    • non-count nouns: concrete material (gold, bread)
    • non-count nouns: abstract (love, joy)
    • collective (furniture)
    • some nouns ending in –s (news, summons)
    • some names of professional activities (mathematics, physics, politics)
    • abstract substantivised adjectives (the beautiful, the true)

Plural invariables (always agree with the verb in the plural)

    • summation plurals (objects consisting of two halves) (scissors, pants)
    • nouns in –s rendering the collective meaning of indefinite plurality (thanks, supplies, clothes)
    • nouns in –s denoting diseases (mumps, measles)
    • unmarked plural collective nouns (cattle, police)
    • personal substantivized adjectives (the rich, the poor)

 VARIABLE NOUNS (nouns, occurring with either singular or plural verb)

Subclasses of variable nouns (depending on the way of formation):

  • Regular plurals (boy-boys)
    • voicing (calf-calves)
    • mutation (foot-feet)
    • -en plural (ox-oxen)
    • zero (sheep-sheep)
    • Irregular plurals —foreign
      •  -us  -i (radius – radii)
      • –a  -ae (larva – larvae)
      • –um-a (stratum-strata)
      • –ex, ixà (matrix-matrices)
      • –is-es (thesis-theses)
      • –on-a (criterion – criteria)
      • –eauàeaux (tableau – tableaux)
      • zero spelling (chassis – chassis)
      • –o- i (tempo –tempi)
      • base-im (cherub – cherubim)

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The category of case

Case indicates the relations of the noun (or pronoun) to the other words in the sentence.

According to the semantic concept of case, case is the semantic relation of the noun to the verb, which may be expressed by different forms in a sentence, for example, by inflection, prepositions or word order.

e.g. “ I bought the car.”

«I” is the doer of the action (so called Agent),

«car” is the affected object (so called Patient)

These relations are shown mainly by word order in English, while in Russian the Agent and the Patient have different case inflections.

According to the syntactic case concept, the main role of case is to indicate relationships between constituents; for example, it may show the dependency of one noun from another—in an English phrase the boy’s book «book” is a head word and “boy’s” is an adjunct, a word dependent on its head.

Therefore, there is no universal point of view as to the case system in English. Traditionally two cases of nouns are distinguished in English: the unmarked Common Case (boy, boys) and the marked Genitive Case (boy’s, boys’).

The main use of the genitive is to express possession:

e.g. The children’s toys are new. = [the toys belonging to children]

The Genitive case has several other meanings:

(a)   possessive genitive

e.g. my son’s wife (=my son has a wife)

 cf the gravity of the earth

(b) subjective genitive

e.g. the boy’s application (=the boy applied)

cf The rise of the sun

c) objective genitive

e.g. the family’s support (=(somebody) supported the family)

cf a statement of the facts

(d) genitive of origin

e.g. the girl’s story (=the girl told the story)

cf the wines of France

(e) descriptive genitive

e.g. a women’s college (= a college for women)

cf the degree of the doctor — a doctor’s degree – a doctoral degree

(f) genitive of measure and partitive

e.g. ten days’ absence — an absence of ten days (=the absence lasted ten days)

the height of the tower

g) appositive genitive

e.g. the city of York (=York is a city)

the pleasure of meeting you (meeting you is a pleasure)

In many instances there is a similarity of function and meaning between a noun in the Genitive Case and the same noun as head of a prepositional phrase with of (‘of-genitive).

e.g. What is the ship’s name?

What is the name of the ship?

In many cases the two forms are equivalent in meaning and are both acceptable. In other cases, either the genitive or the of-construction is the only appropriate choice:

e.g. John’s school; the front of the house.

There are many factors that influence the choice of the genitive construction: structure, euphony, rhythm, emphasis, style, meaning etc..

Normally we use ‘s Genitive with:

  1. Personal names: George Washington’s statue
  2. Personal nouns: the boy’s new bicycle
  3. Collective Nouns: the government’s economic plans
  4. Higher animals: the horse’s tail
  5. Geographical names: Europe’s future
  6. Institutional names and locative nouns: the earth’s interior, the school’s history
  7. Nouns denoting time and period (temporal nouns): a day’s work
  8. Nouns of ‘special relevance to human activity’ (e.g. the game’s history, the mind’s development)

There are some special uses of Genitive:

Group Genitive

This is a modifying genitive, applied to a noun phrase: the teacher of music’s room

 Absolute (Independent) Genitive 

The head of the noun phrase in a genitive construction may be omitted if the context makes its identity clear: My car is faster than John’s.

The ‘local genitive’

The genitive may be ellipted in expressions relating to premises or establishments: Let’s go to McDonald’s. 

Possessives vs compound nouns

It is possible to show the link between two nouns either by using possessive forms with ‘s or ‘of’ (the US bank’s finance division / the finance division of the US bank) or compound nouns (the US bank finance division). Sometimes all three are possible. Sometimes one form is more likely than another.

The genitive or possessive ‘s structure is usually used with the reference to possession, people and animals, personal and professional relationships, or the origin of something in a country or organisation (see the list of usages above).

e.g. Mark’s uncle has just bought a Porsche Boxter.

 The company’s difficulties should not be underestimated.

When we talk about ‘country’ or ‘organisations,’ i.e. things which are inanimate, both forms are often possible:

e.g. The policy of the company / the company’s policy is to recruit staff from all EU countries.

In compound nouns the first noun has the same function as a classifying adjective — it tells or describes the nature of the second noun:

e.g. This is a violation of the company policy.

This shoe shop sells sports shoes.

 Communication skills teachers sometimes teach computer studies.

Compound nouns are particularly useful in headlines and reports as they enable a lot of information to be summarised quickly.

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Article determination

Article  is a determiner of a special nature.

Scientists treat the article either as a word or as a formal element within the system of the noun (a kind of morpheme).

Most grammarians still tend to consider the article a formal expression of the category of determination.

The functions of the article:

  • The morphological function: the article may be treated as a part of the noun system.
  • The syntactic: the article limits the left border of the nominal phrase (e.g. This time all the observations were made with the world’s largest six metre telescope.)
  • The communicative function: the article helps to define the difference between the theme (starting point of communication, which is often marked by the definite article) and the rheme (focus of communication, which is often marked by the indefinite article).
  • The semantic function: the article actualises the notion correlating it with reality given in this or that context. This function of the article is defined by its specific or generic reference (i.e. corresponding with the object of reality).

e.g. A lion and two tigers are sleeping in the cage. In this sentence the reference is specific, as we have in mind specific specimens of the class “tiger”.

Tigers are dangerous animals./The tiger is a dangerous animal. In this sentence the reference is generic, singe we are thinking of the class «tiger» without special reference to specific tigers.

Thus it is possible to set up two different systems of article use depending on the type of reference:


Three rules to remember about the articles:


  1. All of them everywhere, a class of objects (generic reference)
  2. One of many objects (specific indefinite reference)
  3. One exact object, a unique object (unique in general or definite in a specific situation) (specific definite reference)


  1. All of them everywhere (generic reference): zero, a/an, the
  2. One of many (specific indefinite): zero, a/an
  3. This one exactly: the


  • What exactly the noun means: all of them everywhere, one of many, or this one exactly?
  • What kind of noun is it? Is it:
    • Count or non-count?
    • Singular or plural?
    • Any special rules?
Generic reference = All of them everywhere. The noun/nouns means all nouns in a group, a class or a species.


Non-count nouns =ZERO ARTICLE

e.g. Temperature is measured in degrees.

Plural nouns = ZERO ARTICLE

e.g. Volcanoes are formed by pressure under the earth’s surface.

Singular nouns to pick out any representative of the group/class (=any of them)  = A/AN

e.g. The best way to learn a language is to live among its speakers.

 A doctor is a highly educated person. Generally speaking, a doctor also has tremendous earning potential.

Singular nouns to generalize about classes of animals, body organs, plants, musical instruments, and complex inventions. Typical for technical and scientific writing = THE

 e.g. The computer is a marvellous invention. The elephant lives in family groups.

Note: Generic a/an cannot be used in describing properties which belong to the class or species as a whole

E.g. The tiger is becoming almost extinct.

Tigers are becoming almost extinct.


All three forms (the, an/an and zero article) may be used for generic reference.

Also compare and see the difference in meaning:

Nora has been studying the medieval mystery play. (=as a genre; generic reference)

Nora has been studying a medieval mystery play. (=only one play; specific indefinite reference)

Nora has been studying medieval plays.(= probably a subset of plays)

 How do you know it’s generic? The “all…everywhere” test

Here’s a simple test you can use to identify generic references while you’re reading. To use this test, substitute “all [plural noun] everywhere” for the noun phrase. If the statement is still true, it’s probably a generic reference.


  • A whale protects its young—”All whales everywhere” protect their young. (true—generic reference)
  • A whale is grounded on the beach—”All whales everywhere” are grounded on the beach. (not true, so this is not a generic reference; this “a” refers to “one of many”)

You’ll probably find generic references most often in the introduction and conclusion sections and at the beginning of a paragraph that introduces a new topic.


Specific reference
 Specific indefinite reference = One of many, some. We cannot identify the noun exactly. Both reader and writer cannot identify it yet.


Non-count nouns = ZERO ARTICLE

e.g. Our science class mixed boric acid with water today.

We serve bread and water on weekends.

Plural nouns = ZERO ARTICLE

e.g. We’re happy when people bring cookies!

We need volunteers to help with community events.

 Singular nouns = A/AN

e.g.  Bring an umbrella if it looks like rain.

You’ll need a visa to stay for more than ninety days.

 In certain situations, we always use “a” or “an.” These situations include:

  1.  Referring to something that is one of a number of possible things. Example: My lab is planning to purchase a new microscope. (Have you chosen one yet? No, we’re still looking at a number of different models.)
  2. Referring to one specific part of a larger quantity. Example: Can I have a bowl of cereal and a slice of toast? (Don’t you want the whole box of cereal and the whole loaf of bread? No, thanks. Just a bowl and a slice will be fine.)
  3. With certain indefinite quantifiers. Example: We met a lot of interesting people last night. (You can also say “a bunch of” or “a ton of” when you want to be vague about the exact quantity. Note that these expressions are all phrases: a + quantifier + of.)
  4. A=per, for Example: My attorney asked for $200 an hour, but I’ll offer him $200 a week instead.
  5. Introducing a noun to the reader for the first time (also called “first mention”). Use “the” for each subsequent reference to that noun if you mean “this one exactly.” Example: I presented a paper last month, and my advisor wants me to turn the paper into an article. If I can get the article written this semester, I can take a break after that! I really need a break!


Specific definite reference = This one exactly. Both the reader and the writer can identify the exact noun that is being referred to in this context.


Non-count nouns = THE

E.g. Step two: mix the water with the boric acid.

The laughter of my children is contagious.


Plural nouns = THE

E.g. We recruited the nurses from General Hospital.

The projects described in your proposal will be fully funded.


Singular nouns = THE

E.g. Bring the umbrella in my closet if it looks like rain.

Did you get the visa you applied for?


In certain situations, we always use “the” because the noun or the context makes it clear that we’re talking about “this one exactly.” Examples of these situations include:

  1. Unique nouns E.G. The earth rotates around the sun.
  2. Shared knowledge (both participants know what’s being referred to, so it’s not necessary to specify with any more details)  E.G. The boss just asked about the report.  Meet me in the parking lot after the show.
  3. Second mention (with explicit first mention or with implied first mention) e.g. I found a good handout on English articles. The handout is available online.  /  Dr. Frankenstein performed a complicated surgery. He said the patient is recovering nicely. (“The patient” is implied by “surgery”—every surgery has a patient.)
  4. Ordinals and superlatives (first, next, primary, most, best, least, etc.) e.g. The first man to set foot on the moon…  The greatest advances in medicine…
  5. Specifiers (sole, only, principle, etc.) e.g. The sole purpose of our organization is…  The only fact we need to consider is…
  6. Restricters (words, phrases, or clauses that restrict the noun to one definite meaning) e.g. Study the chapter on osmosis for the test tomorrow.  Also study the notes you took at the lecture that Dr. Science gave yesterday.
  7. Plural nouns in partitive -of phrases (phrases that indicate parts of a larger whole)  Compare: Most of the international students (emphasis on part of the group) vs Most international students (emphasis on the group as a whole)




 Article translation tips

Since there is no article in Russian, the translator often has to convey the article function by various lexical or syntactical means in Russian.


e.g. Assumption is an important tool in solving mathematical problems. (generic reference) = Допущение является важным инструментом…

An assumption will facilitate the solving of this problem (specific indefinite reference) — Любое/Какое-либо допущение поможет решить…

The assumption contributed to solving the problem. (specific definite reference) — Данное допущение помогло решить…


Remember, in some cases the use of absence of the article may change the meaning of a word:

e.g. a government — прави­тельство; government – управление


When the indefinite article manifests the rheme (focus of the utterance), it is recommended to put the equivalent Russian noun in the final position of a Russian sentence:

A formal analysis of the system was attempted. – Попытались провести формальный анализ этой системы.


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What do we call nouns which are individual names of people or things?

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Proper nouns

 What do we call nouns which can be applied to any individual of class of objects?

Show answer »

Common nouns

What do we call nouns which denote a number or collection of similar objects regarded as a single unit?

Show answer »

Collective nouns

What do we call nouns which denote material?

Show answer »

Nouns of material

What do we call nouns which denote some non-material quality of state, action or idea?

Show answer »

Abstract nouns

In the following text define the class of the nouns in bold (concrete “thing” nouns, material, collective, abstract, proper).

 “You’ve probably made several resolutions for 2002: join the gym, give up chocolate. Chances are, however, that you didn’t even consider how you could improve your career.”


Show answer »

Noun of material


Show answer »

Abstract noun

Which sentence below contains an absolute genitive phrase?

A.The final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.

B. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals will be staged next year.

C. Pickled vegetables are available at the grocer’s.

Show answer »


Which sentence below contains a group genitive phrase?

A. The Prince and Princess’s visit was postponed for an unknown reason

B. Her memory is like an elephant’s.

C. An Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him.

Show answer »


Study the sentence below. Which form of the verb should be used with the invariable noun?

The unemployed is/are calling for more Government spending.

Show answer »


Study the sentence below. Which form of the verb should be used with the invariable noun?

I can’t say that economics is/are a subject I’ve ever been very interested in.

Show answer »


What kind of reference is implied for the word in bold? Which article should be used with it (a/an, the, or zero)

Atlantis is … world’s most expensive hotel.

Show answer »

the (specific definite reference)

Noun: Practical tasks and assignments

Task 1

In the following text define the class of underlined nouns (concrete “thing” nouns, material, collective, abstract, proper)

Bear convicted of theft

A (1) bear who kept stealing (2) honey from a beekeeper’s hives has been convicted of (3) theft and criminal damage in (4) Macedonia.

But the bear was nowhere to be seen as the court in Bitola handed down its judgment, reports the Daily Telegraph.

The case was brought by a frustrated beekeeper, who, after a protracted battle, turned to the law to stop the bear from attacking his (5) beehives.

Task 2

Gender Quiz

Give the feminine equivalents of:

  1. nephew
  2. duke
  3. wizard
  4. horse
  5. man-servant
  6. gentleman
  7. host
  8. murderer
  9. master
  10. hero


Give the masculine equivalents of:

  1. nun
  2. bride
  3. governess
  4. nurse
  5. bitch
  6. widow

Supply the gender-free words for:

  1. chairwoman
  2. policeman
  3. barmaid
  4. air hostess
  5. headmistress
  6. businesswoman
  7. fireman
  8. bachelor
  9. fiancée


Task 3

Number Quiz

Give the plural of the following words:

  1. piano
  2. volcano
  3. photo
  4. Negro
  5. leaf
  6. safe
  7. scarf
  8. staff
  9. calf
  10. loaf
  11. strife
  12. man-of-war
  13. foot-man
  14. step-son
  15. court-martial
  16. man-eater
  17. passerby
  18. hanger-on
  19. forget-me-not
  20. ox
  21. dormouse
  22. louse
  23. deer
  24. sheep
  25. trout
  26. dozen
  27. genius
  28. oasis
  29. gladiolus
  30. fungus
  31. basis
  32. apex
  33. criterion
  34. phenomenon
  35. radius
  36. memorandum
  37. index
  38. nucleus
  39. erratum
  40. rendezvous
  41. corps
  42. wunderkind


Are these words singular or plural?

  1. paraphernalia
  2. media
  3. dice
  4. pence
  5. cherubim
  6. series
  7. news
  8. vermin
  9. fowl
  10. means


Give the plural of the following nouns and comment of changes in the meaning:

  1. cloth
  2. folk
  3. air
  4. physic
  5. colour
  6. manner
  7. pain
  8. premise
  9. quarter
  10. people


Task 4

Use of Articles

Determine the kind of reference for the underlined nouns. Check you answer under the spoiler.

1. Schools should concentrate more on the child and less on exams.

Показать ответ »


2. There were cats in every room.

Показать ответ »

Specific indefinite

3. We are having terrible weather.

Показать ответ »

Specific indefinite

4. Life would be quieter without the telephone

Показать ответ »


5. A baby deer can stand as soon as it’s born.

Показать ответ »


6. English has become the international language of business.

Показать ответ »

Specific definite

7. There was a serious fire in a block of flats in Glasgow last night. The building was totally destroyed.

Показать ответ »

Specific definite

8. The violin is more difficult than the piano.

9. Her coat is made of pure wool.

Показать ответ »

Specific indefinite

10. This tastes lovely. What’s in the sauce?

Показать ответ »

Specific definite

11. There’s a woman from the bank on the phone.

Показать ответ »

Specific indefinite

Task 5

In the following text four articles (a/the) are missing before nouns. Write the articles where necessary (write the article together with the noun/noun group).


Justin Timberlake is adding another job to his resume. Pop star will be the executive producer of a new reality show on MTV. In new show—called “The Phone”—two cell phones will be placed in different parts of large city. The first two people to answer phones will have five seconds to decide if they want to play for cash prizes or not. A person on the other end of the phone will them what they have to do in order to win.

1) e.g. The pop star





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Task 1

Bear convicted of theft

A (1) bear who kept stealing (2) honey from a beekeeper’s hives has been convicted of (3) theft and criminal damage in (4) Macedonia.

But the bear was nowhere to be seen as the court in Bitola handed down its judgment, reports the Daily Telegraph.

The case was brought by a frustrated beekeeper, who, after a protracted battle, turned to the law to stop the bear from attacking his (5) beehives.

(1) Bear – common, class noun

(2) Honey – noun of material

(3) Theft -abstract

(4) Macedonia — proper

(5) Beehives – common, class

Task 2

Give the feminine equivalents of:

  1. nephew—niece
  2. duke—duchess
  3. wizard—witch
  4. horse—mare
  5. man-servant—maid-servant
  6. gentleman—lady
  7. host—hostess
  8. murderer—murderess
  9. master—mistress
  10. hero—heroine


Give the masculine equivalents of:

  1. nun—monk
  2. bride—groom
  3. governess—tutor
  4. nurse—nurse boy
  5. bitch—male dog;
  6. widow—widower


Supply the gender-free words for:


policeman—police officer


air hostess—flight attendant

headmistress—principal, head

businesswoman—business person



fiancée—partner (in an unmarried couple)




Task 3

Number Quiz

Give the plural of the following words. Supply both variants, where possible.

  1. pianos
  2. volcanoes
  3. photos
  4. Negroes
  5. leaves
  6. safes
  7. scarfs/scarves
  8. staffs/staves (different meaning!)
  9. calves
  10. loaves
  11. strives
  12. man-of-wars
  13. foot-men
  14. step-sons
  15. courts-martial
  16. man-eaters
  17. passers-by
  18. hangers-on
  19. forget-me-nots
  20. oxen
  21. dormice
  22. lice
  23. deer
  24. sheep
  25. trout
  26. dozen
  27. genii
  28. oases
  29. gladioli
  30. fungi
  31. bases
  32. apices
  33. criteria
  34. phenomena
  35. radii
  36. memoranda
  37. indices
  38. nuclei
  39. errata
  40. rendezvous  (different pronunciation)
  41. corps (different pronunciation)
  42. wunderkinder


Are these words singular or plural?

  1. paraphernalia singularia tantum
  2. media collective, singularia tantum; also plural of ‘medium’
  3. dice as ‘a cube’ – singular; if ‘a cube for a game of dice’ — plural (sing. ‘die’)
  4. pence plural (sing. ‘penny’)
  5. cherubim either as sing. or pl. of ‘cherub’
  6. series both sing. and pl.
  7. news singularia tantum
  8. vermin pluralia tantum
  9. fowl both sing. and pl.
  10. means both sing. and pl.


Give the plural of the following nouns and comment of changes in the meaning:

  1. cloth a piece of fabric (pl. cloths); ‘clothes’ – wear, garment
  2. folk folk/folks — people; folks — close family, such as mother and father
  3. air air—uncountable, a mixture of gases; airs—(to put on airs)—arrogant behaviour



Task 4

Use of Articles

See the spoiler

Task 5

  1. The pop star
  2.  In the new show
  3. of a large city
  4. to answer the phones






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