The Basics and Beyond: Nuances and Types of Nouns

By Tenielle Fordyce-Ruff

Nouns are one of the basic building blocks of speech and writing. In fact, we learn nouns so early in our development that we don’t really think much about them.  Think about interacting with a baby just learning to speak.  You point to objects and name them – you teach nouns.

While we learn nouns, they aren’t all simple.  Some have irregular plurals.  Others take different modifiers depending on whether you can count them.  Some are abstract and you have to be careful to match number for those.  And while you might just know some of these rules, this month I’ll give you more detail so that you can ensure you’re using nouns correctly.

As a little refresher, nouns are names.  They name people, places, and things.  They also have cases, nominative, objective, and possessive.  Fortunately, in English only possessive nouns change spellings.  Nouns also have properties of number (singular/plural), gender (masculine/feminine/neutral), and person (first, second, third).  The spelling of a noun usually changes for number, rarely changes for gender, and never changes for person.  And not to stray too far from nouns, but they need to agree with the verbs in the sentence.

So, with that brief refresher out of the way, let’s look at types of nouns and some nuances.

Common and Proper Nouns

As the name implies, these are the most common nouns.  They are generic in a sense.  They name nonspecific people, places, or things: judge, county, religion.

Common nouns have one nuance to remember: plurals.  While most English nouns add -s or -es to form the plural, some common nouns have irregular plurals:

Foot – Feet

Mouse – Mice

Man – Men

Woman – Women

Life – Lives

Child – Children

Chances are that if you’re a native English speaker, you don’t even think about these types of irregular plurals.  But some plurals are the same as the singular, and you need to pay attention to the verb to make sure you let the reader know if you’re writing about one or more.

            Deer – Deer

            Fish – Fish

And more specific to the law, make sure you create the correct plurals for some common nouns that have a postpositive adjective.  These phrases come from French and have a noun followed by an adjective, unlike most adjectives in English that come before the noun.

            Notary public – Notaries public

            Attorney general – attorneys general

Proper nouns, on the other hand, name specific people, places, or things:  Justice Roberts, Boundary County, Christianity.

Just like common nouns, these nouns add -s or -es to form the plural, and the regular rules for possessives apply.  So, if a proper noun needs to become plural, don’t use an apostrophe:

            We are going to visit the Reeds.(not We are going to visit the Reed’s.)

Likewise, add an ‘s to a singular proper noun to form a possessive. 

            Justice Bevan’s opinion was released yesterday.

Concrete and Abstract Nouns

Concrete nouns name something you can perceive with your five senses: dog, flower, sky.  Abstract nouns name things you cannot perceive with your five senses: love, the public good, happiness.

When concrete nouns in a sentence relate to each other, they must agree in number.

            Both attorneys waited until the last minute to file the complaints.

            Each attorney filed the complaint early.

This rule can change, however, with abstract nouns.  Some idiomatic expressions use a singular abstract noun with a plural concrete noun.

            Three witnesses promised to appear, and they all kept their word.

Countable and Uncountable Nouns

The names here probably make this very obvious.  You can count countable nouns, but not uncountable nouns.  For instance, try to count books.  Now try to count milk.

While this might seem silly, knowing whether a noun is countable helps you correctly express some ideas.  When you need to indicate quantity or relative quantity.

When you want to indicate a generic quantity of something, you use amount with uncountable nouns and number with countable nouns. 

            The amount of spilled milk was incredible.

            The number of books I read is astonishing.

And when you need to indicate the opposite of more of something, you use less with uncountable nouns and fewer with countable nouns.

            I need to drink less coffee.

            She reads fewer books than I do.

Compound and Collective Nouns

(Confession: I put these together because they both begin with “C” and I wanted the list to be in parallel.  That really is the only similarity.)  Compound nouns are formed from two smaller words: sunflower, snowball, textbook.  Collective nouns indicate a group of things as a whole: board, bunch, court.

Collective nouns can be tricky in writing when we need to replace them with a pronoun.  In many instances, when speaking we use a plural pronoun.  But in writing, collective nouns always take a singular pronoun.

            The court has hearings today. It will be very busy.

This makes sense, as we don’t use plural verbs with collective nouns.

            The court goes to Moscow next month.

Of course, this isn’t a problem for compound nouns.  We would never replace a plural compound noun like sunflowers with a singular pronoun.

Appositive Nouns

Well, so much for parallelism in my list!  An appositive is a noun or noun phrase that identifies or describes another noun or noun phrase.  For instance:

I sit on the Editorial Advisory Board for The Advocate, an official publication of the Idaho State Bar.

There, the phrase in bold describes The Advocate.

Appositives have a few nuances.  First, they must agree in number, gender, case, and person with the noun they refine.

John C. Calhoun, vice president under both John Quincy Adam’s and his archrival Andrew Jackson, had a career unique in American history.[i]

Here, both Calhoun and vice president are in the nominative case.  It would be incorrect to write:

John C. Calhoun’s career, vice president under both John Quincy Adam’s and his archrival Andrew Jackson, was unique in American history.[ii]

There, Calhoun’s is possessive, but vice president isn’t.

Next, appositives can be restrictive or non-restrictive, and that affects punctuation.  A restrictive appositive exclusively identifies the noun it refers to; a non-restrictive one explains the noun more.  So, if an appositive is non-restrictive, set it off with commas, parentheses, or em-dashes. 


Although nouns aren’t a part of speech we tend to worry much about when writing, understanding a few nuances can ensure your writing is clear and correct.

[i] Bryan A. Garner, The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style 146 (2d ed 2006).

[ii] Id.

Tenielle Fordyce-Ruff is a member of the Idaho State Bar and an Associate Clinical Professor of Law at Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law Arizona State University.