What is a noun?

What is a noun? Or to put the question another way, What’s in a name?

If you want the short answer, the definition of a noun is a word that names something, but who ever looked up a grammar question online searching for a short answer?

The concept of the noun has been with us since a group of people saw a gap in the job market and created the role of grammarian. Ancient Sanskrit grammarians decided that nouns were one of four groups of words. The Romans thought that the word nomen should refer not only to what we know as nouns (a descendant of that same word, meaning name), but adjectives too.

Some grammarians will insist that the definition of a noun reflects their formal properties: how they behave with other words in a sentence, for example. However, these properties tend to vary between one language and another.

Closer to many people’s understanding, one definition of a noun is a word that refers to a person, place, object, event, substance, quality or quantity.

However, as in many areas of life, the more tightly the definition of a noun is squeezed, the more examples of nouns slip through the fingers. For example, the word behalf performs like a noun in terms of syntax, but what is it referring to exactly?

Some nouns used to be verbs, and these are known as gerunds: for example, in the sentence my writing has been compared to the works of Oscar Wilde, writing has become a noun.

There are also noun phrases, which can refer to a single word but can as easily contain a bunch of words linked together to describe the same thing: some of the most convoluted sentences I have ever read, for example, in the sentence, This post contains some of the most convoluted sentences I have ever read.

Classifications of nouns

Grammarians have also been busy dividing nouns into various different classifications, often classifying the same word under many different headings.

There are proper nouns, which are routinely capitalised (excepting names with marketing quirks, like iPads) and refer to a unique entity (such as Everton FC, the United States, or Apple), and common nouns, which, because they refer to less specific things (football club, country, or corporation), are a little harder to sum up with snappy definitions.

There are collective nouns, which allow some wriggle room between the singular and plural: for example, you can say that the government are divided and that the government is in disarray.

Some of the things referred to might be concrete nouns, words referring to objects that can be seen, smelt, heard, and so on; some of the words might be abstract nouns.

It is not always fiendishly complicated, either. Creating a possessive noun merely means adding an s and an apostrophe to another noun (butcher’s dog), while compound nouns jam two words together to form a new noun (e.g., motorway, table tennis).

So, what is a noun? It is the name of a name, which sounds a little circular. Herein lies the problem of using language to describe language.