Definition of term nouns

You might have learnt that a noun is a ‘naming’ word. This is true – names of people and places are nouns: Esmerelda, Cambridge, Faculty of English; and so are the names of things: eye, paw, loris, fruit. However, working with this definition will send you adrift when you confront individual texts: The large-eyed loris paws the fruit. Or, The small-pawed loris eyes the fruit. In these sentences, only loris and fruit are nouns (adjectives (large-eyed, small-pawed) and verbs (paws, eyes) will be dealt with in later units). Also, it is a less helpful concept when dealing with intangibles like frisson, poetics, telekinesis. Nouns are far more easily identified by the way in which they fit into phrases. If the word in context can sit in the testframe the/a/an ________ , then it’s usually a noun:

The loris

A paw

An eye

a frisson

the poetics

the telekinesis

Almost all nouns take an –s in the plural and apostrophe –’s in possessive groups: the lorises, the loris’s paw.

Names of people, places, entities, dates and times are known as Proper Nouns:

Queen Elizabeth

Christmas Day



Mid-Atlantic Ridge

Compound nouns consist of two words which may or may not be nouns themselves: blackboard, bus shelter, go-between (test: the blackboard, a bus shelter, the go-between). Three word compounds do occur but are far less frequent: hug-me-tight (a dancer’s cross-over cardigan), forget-me-not, father-in-law. Typographically compound nouns can take a hyphen, a white space, or be written all as one word. The choice is to a large extent decided by each publishing house’s house-style, and how it looks to the writer on the page (I didn’t write housestyle as it doesn’t immediately look divisible, but I could have written house style). Notice how some compound nouns can have a colloquial flavour about them:

pull-ons, pullovers, roll-ons, step-ins, pop-overs

These were all types of twentieth-century ladies’ clothing. Pull-ons, roll-ons and step-ins were/are types of girdle, and a pop-over was a tunic worn over a jumper and tights. These particular compound nouns consist of [verb + preposition], and semantically they indicate how the garment is put on. Make-up and cross-over (a type of nineteenth-century shawl) also fit the pattern (and drawers follows the same semantic path). The reason for the colloquial flavour is because nouns consisting of [verb + preposition] are relatively new in the system. Contrast dandelion, which is an obscured three-component compound, French dent de lion, ‘tooth of lion’.

University College London's
The Internet Grammar of English links:


Demonstration of nouns in action

Compound nouns used to be a crucial constituent of Old English poetry. Here is a modern poem composed with the Old English tradition in mind. I have marked Proper Nouns in orange, common nouns in red, and compound nouns in green:

Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea:

Green, swift upsurges, North Atlantic flux

Conjured by that strong gale-warning voice

Collapse into a sibilant penumbra.

Midnight and closedown. Sirens of the tundra,

Of eel-road, seal-road, keel-road, whale-road, raise

Their wind-compounded keen behind the baize

And drive the trawlers to the lee of Wicklow.

L’Etoile, Le Guillemot, La Belle Hélène

Nursed their bright names this morning in the bay

That toiled like mortar. It was marvelous

And actual, I said out loud, ‘A haven,’

The word deepening, clearing, like the sky

Elsewhere on Minches, Cromarty, The Faroes.


Although the poem is about a sea gale, the nouns in this poem evoke places and their times and cultures: the North Atlantic sea areas, Ireland, the fishing-boats of Northern France, and Old English poetry.

I have not marked North Atlantic, gale-warning, or wind-compounded, because in context they are not acting as nouns but as compound adjectives modifying the noun to their right: North Atlantic flux, strong gale-warning voice, wind-compounded keen.

Eel-road, seal-road, keel-road, whale-road are a type of compound known as a kenning. A kenning is a poetical device common to the Germanic tradition using two or more words where one would do. In this case, all four compounds are different ways of expressing sea.

Literary Exercise

Here is another storm-poem that shows consciousness of the old poetic form with compound nouns. Identify the nouns in the extract below. First read the text, then click below to see the nouns made explicit.

In the text below, the Proper Nouns are marked in orange, common nouns in red, and compound nouns in green.

First Things First

Woken, I lay in the arms of my own warmth and listened

To a storm enjoying its storminess in the winter dark

Till my ear, as it can when half-asleep or half-sober,

Set to work to unscramble that interjectory uproar,

Construing its airy vowels and watery consonants

Into a love-speech indicative of a Proper Name.

Scarcely the tongue I should have chosen, yet, as well

As harshness and clumsiness would allow, it spoke in your praise,

Kenning you a god-child of the Moon and the West Wind

With power to tame both real and imaginary monsters,

Likening your poise of being to an upland county,

Here green on purpose, there pure blue for luck.

Loud though it was, alone as it certainly found me,

It reconstructed a day of peculiar silence

When a sneeze could be heard a mile off, and had me walking

On a headland of lava beside you, the occasion as ageless

As the stare of any rose, your presence exactly

So once, so valuable, so there, so very now.

This, moreover, at an hour when only too often

A smirking devil annoys me in beautiful English,

Predicting a world where every sacred location

Is a sand-buried site all cultured Texans do,

Misinformed and thoroughly fleeced by their guides,

And gentle hearts are extinct like Hegelian Bishops.

Grateful, I slept till a morning that would not say

How much it believed of what I said the storm had said

But quietly drew my attention to what had been done

—So many cubic metres the more in my cistern

Against a leonine summer—, putting first things first:

Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.

Hide explicit nouns.

Click here to see the nouns in the above poem made explicit.

What is the impact of the nouns in the text above? Write your answer below:

Compare your answer with the sample answer below:


The poem is about the noise of a storm waking the poet and sounding like the name of someone he loves, who is no longer present. The morning reveals rainwater in the poet’s cistern against summer drought, and he reflects in a practical way that living without love won’t kill him. The nouns are not really about the storm, or the agonies of lost love, but relatively concrete things (some of which belong to the lexicon of Old English poetry):

arms, ear, tongue, hearts;

vowels, consonants, tongue, love-speech, praise

devil, monsters;

storm, moon, west wind, water;

day, hour, morning;

mile, headland, lava, site, world, location;

sneeze, rose, cistern

In Stanza Two, I have marked being as a noun, because in context, it could be replaced by nouns such as composure or comportment, but –ing forms can be rather hard to classify: the –ing form in paid for the writing of a poem is preceded by an article (the), but the –ing form in paid for writing a poem could not easily take the or a, even though the meaning is the same. These types of –ing forms are known as verbal nouns (there is a unit on –ing forms later in the course).

On purpose is a prepositional phrase, where the noun purpose is governed by the preposition on. Originally, the phrase was ‘on set purpose’.

I have coloured the nouns that Auden capitalized as Proper Nouns, but this is his artistic judgement – in most modern texts, bishop, moon and west wind would not be so regarded. Texans would, being derived from a placename, and Hegel was a person, hence the capital letter, but here Hegelian is used adjectivally, modifying the noun bishop. By convention, capital letters are given to the compounds Proper Noun, Noun Phrase, Verb Phrase.

Careful with the more in the last stanza (So many cubic metres the more in my cistern). The article the in front of it makes it look like a noun, but it is a comparative adjective: ‘so many more cubic meters’.

Three nouns take the suffix –ness: storminess, harshness, clumsiness. –ness, an Old English suffix, creates nouns from adjectives. The Oxford English Dictionary has some wonderful compound examples under the headword -ness, suffix .

Teaching Point

Nouns are an important part of writing and most authors use lots of them. There are various suffixes (-ness, -ism) which form nouns, but the quickest means of identification is to use the testframe the ________. The ways in which nouns are used in literary writing has changed over time, and this unit has focused on authors who are interested in the Old English tradition of compounding.

A Loris.