Nouns & Pronouns
Nouns and pronouns are the subjects and objects of actions and thoughts. Without these two parts of speech, nothing happens to anything. Writing begins with nouns, with stories built around subjects. Every writer should appreciate the roles of nouns and pronouns.
The complexity of pronouns requires that we dedicate a fair amount of this guide to them. Students tend to struggle with pronoun cases, in particular.
A noun is a person, place, thing, collection, quality, condition, or idea. Many modern texts abbreviate this definition as person, place, thing, or idea. The nouns naming physical or measurable things are concrete nouns. The nouns for qualities, conditions, and ideas are abstract nouns.
Nouns are sentence subjects, predicate nouns, and objects of prepositions. Nouns and pronouns assume one of three roles within a sentence. This relationship to the other words is known as the case of the noun or pronoun. Nouns are subjects, objects, or possessive.
- Subjects of sentences or clauses are in the nominative case.
- Objects of verbs or prepositions are in the objective case.
- “Owners” of other nouns are in the possessive case.
Singular and Plural
A singular noun identifies one person, place, thing, et cetera.
Plural nouns identify more than person, place, thing, et cetera. Usually, adding the letter s or the suffix es to the singular noun forms the plural. Usually is not often enough, granted. Forming a plural noun:
- Add s to a noun… unless the other rules apply.
- Add es to nouns ending in ch, s, sch, sh, x, or z.
- If a noun ends in f or fe, change the f to a v and use es for the plural. (Exceptions exist, as usual.)
- If a noun ends with a consonant or the vowel u and y, change the y to i and add es.
- Add es to nouns ending with a consonant and o. (Exceptions do exist, yet again.)
Ending in s, sh, ch, x, and z
Add es if you need an extra syllable when saying the word. Examples:
churches, businesses, churches, dishes, lunches, taxes, witnesses
Ending in f/ff and fe
Sometimes, but not always, the f changes to a v and es is added to the noun. Unfortunately, the key is that this is not always done.
half/halves, knife/knives, leaf/leaves, life/lives, self/selves, thief/thieves, wife/wives
chiefs, giraffes, plaintiffs, proofs, sheriffs, tariffs
Ending in y
For a noun ending in y, change the y to an i and add es to form the plural. Most people know the “y to i” rule for forming plurals, but there are exceptions.
army/armies, city/cities, duty/duties, family/families
attorneys, journeys, keys, valleys
Ending in o
There are loose guidelines to the adding of s or es to nouns ending in o to form the plurals. If o is preceded by a consonant, add es to form the plural, with some exceptions. If o is preceded by a vowel, add s to the noun.
embargoes, heroes, torpedoes, vetoes
portfolios, radios, ratios, rodeos, studios
Vowels Changing to e
Some nouns change spellings to form plurals. A common change is the conversion of a vowel or vowels to e to form a plural.
foot/feet, goose/geese, man/men, tooth/teeth, woman/women
A noun naming a group or collection is a collective noun. Collectives are not plural nouns. A collective noun is a different word for the group. Plurals tend to end in s, while collective nouns look and act like singular nouns.
Collective nouns have a unique property: they take singular verbs in American English and plural verbs in International (U.K.) English.
The team is late. (U.S.)
The team are late. (U.K.)
This difference is most obvious when dealing with proper collectives, such as business names. “IBM are…” sounds odd to Americans.
Proper and Common Nouns
A proper noun is the name of a particular person or thing and is capitalized. Titles of books or other creative materials are considered proper nouns. Other nouns are referred to as common nouns.
Concrete and Abstract Nouns
A concrete noun names a thing that can be perceived by the basic senses. You can see, touch, or smell a concrete item. An abstract noun names a concept, such as an emotion or quality, that cannot be sensed.
concrete: woman, tree, house, cat, airplane, cliff, river
abstract: love, quality, greed, loyalty
A compound noun is two words acting as one noun, a hyphenated word, or a compound word. Compounds written as one words are said to be “solid” formations. (Trivia for grammarians, we suppose.)
A pronoun is a word that takes the place of a preceding noun or an understood subject. Pronouns are often used to avoid repeating a noun within a sentence or paragraph. A pronoun subject takes the place of noun simple subjects in sentences. A pronoun object receives action or is the object of a preposition.
Personal pronouns refer to people, with the exceptions of “it,” which refers to an animal or thing, and “they,” which can refer to people or things.
The personal pronoun forms: subject, object, possessive, and possessive adjective.
|Subject||Object||Simple Possessive||Possessive Adjective|
|First Person, Plural||we||us||ours||our|
|Second Person and Plural||you||you||yours||your|
|Third Person, Male||he||him||his||his|
|Third Person, Female||she||her||hers||hers|
|Third Person, Thing||it||it||its||its|
|Third Person, Plural||they||them||theirs||their|
|Second Person, “Proper”||thou||thee||thine||thy|
Subjective (Nominative) Case
Nominative case pronouns can be sentence subjects, predicate compliments, infinitive compliments, and appositive subjects.
- I shall arrive Monday.
- You knew all the answers.
- They brought many gifts.
- I believe it was they who stole the money.
- If I were she, I would leave California.
- It is I, the Masked Avenger!
- Janet seems to be she who held the gun.
- The guests are to be they who donated the most.
- Many philosophers, he among them, attempted to justify lying.
When a pronoun is used in a comparison, with the pronoun following as or than, the nominative case is used.
No one is more skeptical than I [am].
Stuart was as difficult as she [was].
Objective case pronouns can be objects of verbs, objects of prepositions, and as appositive objects.
Direct Object of (Conceptual) Verb:
The agent advised her and me to sign the publisher’s contract.
Direct Object of Verb:
The book struck me when it fell.
Appositive Object of a Verb:
The panel asked questions of the authors, both him and me.
The bookstore received no orders from them.
Possessive pronouns are usually predicate adjectives, describing to whom the subject of a sentence belongs. Possessive adjectives resemble simple possessives. They precede nouns, acting as adjectives.
Its home is a mountain cave.
My book is nowhere to be found.
Reflexive and Intensive Pronouns
Reflexive and intensive pronouns refer back to their antecedents. The pronoun is reflexive when a verb or verb phrase exists between the pronoun and antecedent. The reflexive “refers back” to the subject or is a member of the subject group. Intensive pronouns directly follow the nouns they emphasize.
She convinced herself it wasn’t a lie.
As CEO, you can give yourself a raise.
He himself signed the confession.
Some teachers, like myself, admit grammar is confusing.
The reflexive pronouns are always objects, not subjects. As an intensive form, they should not stand alone. When an individual is described as belonging to a group, the implication is that the group validates the individual’s status.
Note: Some people have adopted the idiomatic (and incorrect) use of reflexives as subjects.
Indefinite pronouns replace nouns without identifying a specific person or thing. Indefinite pronouns can be doubles, acting as adjectives.
When acting as a pronoun, these words stand alone, without nouns following. In the adjective form, a noun follows the word, making it a specific reference.
Both were assigned new articles for the magazine.
Both writers were late.
See demonstrative adjectives, a term we prefer.
Demonstrative pronouns refer to specific noun antecedents. When preceding a noun, demonstrative pronouns act as adjectives.
Interrogative pronouns are used to ask or answer questions. In some sentences, they express doubt. Notice the “answer” appears in the response, not as an antecedent within the question.
Who was the company founder?
The company was founded by whom?
Who did you leave with?
With whom did you leave?
Nouns and pronouns are generally the subjects or objects within a sentence. They can also serve as complements, clarifying another noun or pronoun.
In standard English sentence structures the subject appears before the verb, naming the person, thing, or concept that is doing or being.
A complement is a word appearing in the predicate of the sentence, completing or adding clarity to the sentence. There are four noun/pronoun complement forms:
- Direct Objects
- Indirect Objects
- Subjective Complements
- Objective Complements
A direct object receives action from the subject, indicating who or what is being affected by the action.
The club struck the golfball.
An indirect object does not receive action from the subject, but the action is taken for or to the indirect object.
On their anniversary, John sent Mary a dozen roses.
The students gave the teacher various excuses for late homework.
Subject and Object Complements
Adjectives can also serve as subjective and objective complements.
A subjective complement follows a linking verb and names, explains, or clarifies who or what the subject is. The subjective complement is also called the predicate nominative form.
Dr. Smith is a veterinarian.
An objective complement is associated with the object of a sentence and names, explains, or clarifies the object.
The banker considered the loan a mistake.
Objects of Prepositions
The object of a preposition is a noun or pronoun that concludes a prepositional phrase and explains to what or to whom the preposition is related.
The squirrel went up the tree.
An appositive follows a noun or pronoun and is set apart by commas. The appositive names, explains, or clarifies, the noun or pronoun if follows.
Bugs Bunny, a famous actor, lives in a hole in the ground.
A direct address is when the speaker or writer attempts to gain the attention of a specific person or group within a sentence.
Team, we need to practice daily to improve.
Mary, I think your poetry is wonderful.
Barnet, Sylvan, Pat Bellanca, and Marcia Stubbs. A Short Guide to College Writing. Penguin Academics. 2nd ed. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2005. (ISBN: 0321224698)
Christ, Henry I. Modern English in Action, Ten. Boston: D. C. Heath and Co, 1965.
Ellsworth, Blanche and John A. Higgens. English Simplified. 10th ed. New York: Pearson Education, 2004. (ISBN: 0321104293)
________. Pocket Style Manual. 4th ed. Boston: Bedford, 2004. (ISBN: 0312406843)
Mulvey, Dan. Grammar the Easy Way. Hauppauge, N.Y: Barron’s, 2002. (ISBN: 0764119893)
Scholastic Writer’s Desk Reference. New York: Scholastic, 2000. (ISBN: 0439216508)