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Nouns and Articles

Nouns are words that are names of people, places, things, concepts,…. In sentences, nouns are subjects of verbs, objects of verbs, subject complements, and objects of prepositions. Nouns are often preceded by determiners (see det in Correction Symbols Two). The articles (a, an, the) are important determiners.

Note the noun teacher in the following sentences:

The teacher is talking to the class. (subject of verb)

The students are watching the teacher. (object of verb)

John is a teacher. (subject complement)

George gave his essay to the teacher. (object of preposition)

A. There are two types of nouns.

1. Proper nouns include names of particular people, countries, states, cities, schools, rivers, lakes, mountains, oceans, languages, months, days,…. They always begin with capital letters. Here are some examples:

John Fleming


De Anza College



United States



2. All others are common nouns. Here are some examples:









B. There are two types of common nouns.

1. Count nouns have plural forms. Most count nouns have both singular and plural forms, but a few have plural forms only:




2. Noncount nouns have singular forms only:




3. Note that many noncount nouns are often used as count nouns. This is especially true of nouns that refer to things we eat and drink:





When a noncount noun is used as a plural count noun, it usually means one of the following:

a. Containers

two coffees, for example, can mean two cups of coffee

b. Kinds

several fruits, for example, can mean several kinds of fruit

4. Here are some common noncount nouns:

beer, bread, butter, cereal, cheese, coffee, corn, cream, flour, food, fruit, honey, ice cream, juice, margarine, meat, milk, pasta, pepper, rice, salt, spaghetti, sugar, tea, vinegar, water, wheat
advice, beauty, behavior, crime, equality, experience, freedom, fun, happiness, hate, health, help, homework, honesty, ignorance, information, insanity, insurance, love, news, patience, peace, permission, progress, unemployment, work
accounting, biology, Chinese, engineering, English, geography, history, Indonesian, linguistics, literature, mathematics, music, philosophy, physics, psychology, Russian, Spanish, Turkish
baggage, cloth, clothing, equipment, food, fruit, furniture, homework, jewelry, junk, luggage, machinery, mail, money, stuff, transportation, trash
cold, darkness, electricity, fire, fog, hail, heat, humidity, ice, lightning, rain, sleet, snow, sunshine, thunder, weather, wind
air, beer, blood, cereal, chalk, coal, copper, corn, cotton, cream, detergent, dust, flour, fog, gasoline, glass, honey, hydrogen, ice, iron, juice, leather, lotion, milk, nylon, oil, oxygen, pepper, pollution , polyester, rice, rope, salt, shampoo, silk, smog, smoke, soap, steam, string, sugar, thread, vinegar, water, wheat, wine, wood, wool

C. Nouns can have three kinds of meaning.

1. Definite. A noun is definite when the writer and reader share information about the noun. Nouns can be definite for the following reasons:

The noun has been mentioned before:

An old man lived in a big house. The old man had three grandchildren who came to the big house every Saturday morning.

A noun can be followed by a phrase or clause that makes it definite:

the president of De Anza College

the book that I bought yesterday

The noun refers to something unique:

the sun

the moon

The noun is definite because of its setting. In a classroom, for example, everyone will understand the same meaning for these nouns:

the blackboard

the teacher

the clock

Nouns can be definite for members of groups. A group of classmates will understand the same meaning for the following nouns:

the teacher

the exam

the textbook

The noun phrase includes a superlative or ordinal number:

the slowest writer

the most difficult assignment

the first page

2. Indefinite. A noun is indefinite when the writer and reader don’t share information about the noun.

3. Generic. A noun is generic when it represents a whole class (not an individual or individuals). Generic meaning can be expressed in different ways (in D. below, the three sentences in which the noun bicycle is used generically all have the same meaning).

D. Uses of a, an, the, and no article

1. The definite article the is used with:

A few proper nouns (names of canals, deserts, forests, oceans, rivers, seas; plural names of islands, lakes, and mountains; a few countries;… )

The Mississippi River is the longest in the United States.

Singular or plural count nouns (definite)

The old man in the big house loved to see the children who came to visit.

Noncount nouns (definite)

The coffee that I had this morning was not very good.

Singular count nouns (generic)

The bicycle is excellent transportation.

2. The indefinite articles a and an are used with:

Singular count nouns (indefinite)

A man is sitting on the bench at the bus stop.

Singular count nouns (generic)

A bicycle is excellent transportation.

3. No Article (and no other determiner) is used with:

Most proper nouns (definite)

George and Fred both speak English.

Plural count nouns (generic)

Bicycles are excellent transportation.

Noncount nouns (generic)

Coffee is served in nearly all restaurants.

Plural count nouns (indefinite)

I talk to students every day.

Noncount nouns (indefinite)

I need information.

 Updated Wednesday, November 23, 2005 at 8:05:54 AM by John Fleming -
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