A noun is a part of speech that identifies a person, place, thing, or idea. In this lesson, in addition to learning how to identify nouns, you’ll learn the difference between proper and common nouns and a bit about how nouns function in sentences.

What Are Nouns?

You probably remember learning about nouns at some point, but you may be hard-pressed to explain what they are. Nouns are incredibly important in spoken and written language, but the good news is that they’re also pretty easy to understand. Figuring out the basics of how nouns operate in sentences will help you learn lots of other more complex rules down the road.

Definition of Nouns

A noun is a part of speech, and parts of speech simply refer to types of words. You may be familiar with a lot of basic parts of speech, like nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Nouns identify people, places, things, and ideas. Nouns can be categorized as either common or proper. Common nouns name general people, places, things, and ideas, while proper nouns name specific people, places, things, and ideas. For example, examples of nouns naming people would be:

Common Noun Proper Noun
president Barack Obama
teacher Mrs. Sanders
brother Joe

In our first column, we have general, or common, nouns. In our second column, we have specific, or proper, nouns. Note that typically, the first letter in a common noun isn’t capitalized unless that common noun is the first word in a sentence. The first letter in a proper noun is typically capitalized.

Nouns also identify places. Common nouns naming places include ‘hometown,’ ‘country,’ and ‘airport.’ Corresponding specific, proper nouns would include ‘Cincinnati,’ ‘Argentina,’ and ‘Hartsfield International Airport.’

Nouns identifying things include ‘space shuttle,’ ‘movie,’ and ‘cartoon.’ Those are common nouns, and proper nouns that correspond with them to name particular things would include ‘Challenger,’ ‘The Godfather,‘ and ‘The Simpsons.‘ Nouns identifying ideas include ‘joy,’ ‘boredom,’ and ‘liberty.’ So, now that nouns may be a bit more familiar, you can no doubt guess that they are very, very common in sentences.

Nouns in Sentences

A key thing to remember about nouns is that every sentence needs to have one to be complete. Some sentences have pronouns instead of nouns. We’ll get more into that in another lesson.

Nouns perform and often receive the actions being performed in sentences, and they play other roles in sentences, too. Without nouns, we’d end up with incomplete sentence fragments like, ‘walks around’ or ‘stomped on.’

Nouns in these sentences would tell us who was doing what and where. For example, ‘Bigfoot walks around his apartment.’ and, ‘Jim’s ex-girlfriend stomped on his heart.’ are complete sentences that are a lot more descriptive thanks to nouns (and a few other parts of speech).

There is an exception to the rule that every sentence needs a noun. Some sentences contain short commands, like ‘Leave!’ or ‘Stop.’ In each of these examples, the noun is understood without actually being included. The understood noun, or pronoun, here is ‘You.’ The speakers in those very short sentences really mean, ‘You leave!’ and ‘You stop.’

Lesson Summary

Remember that nouns are parts of speech that name people, places, things, and ideas. They can be general, also known as common nouns, or they can be proper nouns that name particular people, places, things, or ideas. Every sentence must include a noun (or pronoun) to be complete, with the exception of short, commanding sentences in which the noun (or pronoun) is understood.

Lesson Outcome

This lesson will make it easier for you to understand how to:

  • Describe what a noun is
  • Distinguish between common nouns, proper nouns and pronouns
  • Understand the role of a noun in a sentence
  • Recognize exceptions to the rule that all sentences need nouns