Nouns can be categorized in many different ways. A reader named Caley wanted to know about these categories: concrete, abstract, collective, and compound nouns.
A student named Caley sent me this message:
“My writing teacher loves your book and uses it a lot. I would like for you to explain concrete, compound, abstract, and collective nouns.”
I remember learning that a noun is a person, place, or thing; but unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that.
People, places, and things are all concrete nouns. They’re things you can see or touch such as kittens and puppies, trees and flowers, sticks and stones, and cities and countries.
People often find abstract nouns more confusing. They’re things such as concepts, feelings, ideas, states of mind, and attributes. For example, "honor," "loyalty," "courage," "truth," and "freedom" are all abstract nouns.
If you have an abstract word like those, and you want to test whether it’s really a noun, one way to do it is to see if you can replace the word with one that is more recognizable to you as a noun—a concrete noun.
For example, let’s say you have this sentence:
I’m out of gumption today.
If you want to figure out whether "gumption" is a noun, see if you can replace it with a concrete noun:
I’m out of milk today.
You can. You can replace "gumption" with the concrete noun "milk," so it’s a good bet that "gumption" is an abstract noun.
Try it with this sentence:
Don’t you have any decency?
Is "decency" a noun in that sentence? Sure, because you can replace it with other nouns:
Don’t you have any rocks?
Don’t you have any kittens?
Don’t you have any trees?
Words sometimes serve multiple purposes too, so a word such as "hate" can be both an abstract noun and a verb.
In this sentence it’s a verb:
I hate fishing.
In this sentence it’s an abstract noun:
Don’t bring your hate in here.
No need to get confused though. You can still use the concrete-noun test to see when it’s a noun. When you can replace "hate" with a concrete noun, then you know it’s probably playing a role as an abstract noun:
Don’t bring your dog in here.
Don’t bring your fish in here.
Don’t bring your cookies in here. (Well, on second thought, the cookies are fine.)
Since you can replace "hate" with the nouns "dog," "fish," and "cookies," "hate" is a noun in the sentence "Don’t bring your hate in here."
Collective nouns are a type of concrete noun. (That may be why people find all these different categories hard to understand—there’s overlap between them.)
Collective nouns are words that describe a group of things, usually people:
In American English, we tend to treat collective nouns as singular, so although there are multiple people in a band or on a team, we treat them as one thing:
The band is playing tonight.
The board is meeting tomorrow.
The class is doing a project on kittens.
The committee is planning an event.
The team is selling custom made maracas to raise money.
Nouns of Assembly
A particularly fun type of collective noun is what are called “nouns of assembly” or “terms of venery.” These are phrases that typically describe a group of animals, such as
a pride of lions
a murder of crows
But they can sometimes also describe people who have certain kinds of jobs, and sometimes people also make up funny or clever new ones such as
a blister of shoes
a forest of books
an agony of dentists
I just made those up.
But the real terms go all the way back to the 1400s when they appeared in books about hawking, hunting, and heraldry, the most famous of which was called "The Book of St. Albans."
Compound nouns are usually nouns that are made up of two other words, and they can be formed three different ways:
- Open compounds (two separate words, such as "coffee house").
- Closed compounds (two words that are now written as one, such as "football").
- Hyphenated compounds (two words that are joined by a hyphen, such as "collar-bone").
The frustrating thing about compound nouns is that they change over time. Often they’ll start as open or hyphenated compounds and then merge into a single word, and different dictionaries will show them written in different ways.
For example: "tree-hugger." Collins Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary have it hyphenated, but Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary has it as an open compound.
It’s common to find those differences between compound words in dictionaries. The best thing you can do is pick one dictionary and use it as your guide.
Nouns can be categorized in even more ways. If you want more, read this article about common nouns and proper nouns.
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