Rliberni's Blog – Radical language

October 5, 2009

Advanced learners – re-visiting Nouns

Back to the knitting!

After a few posts about general issues around language learning I think it’s time to get back to the knitting (this expression means to do what you are known for or good at) and discuss some more points of English grammar and skill and how to improve these.

I was marking my students’ essays recently and discovered several errors around the use of nouns.  You may, as an advanced student,  find mixed conditionals and ellipsis rather more sexy grammatical concepts than nouns, in my experience, however,  it is often the ‘easy’ aspects of English grammar that create errors. So, ‘yawn, yawn’ I will romp through a quick reminder of nouns, some of their forms and their usage!


Nouns come in different shapes and sizes:

  • singular/plural
  • concrete/abstract
  • compound nouns
  • collective nouns
  • proper nouns
  • countable/uncountable

I hope you are familiar with these terms and understand the differences.

In the next few posts we will look at some of these categories (countable and uncountable has been explored in a previous post)  in more detail and point out the pitfalls for advanced students.

1. Singular and Plural Nouns

These are the nouns you probably think about when you hear the word noun. They are usually accompanied by a definite (the) or indefinite (a) article and only change their form in the plural.

  • a/the book – the books

They are countable or uncountable  and concrete or abstract.

Much of this is probably ‘old hat’ , however, the areas which it is worth spending some time on are those of  plural uncountables or nouns which don’t have a singular form and pluralisation of ‘foreign’ words in English.

Nouns with no singular

Typical groups of these nouns are:

  • clothes – trousers, pyjamas, tights, knickers, jeans
  • tools – scissors, binoculars, scales, goggles
  • school subjects/activities  – maths, athletics, economics, physics
  • games –  cards, dominoes, darts
  • other –  conditions, manners, thanks, goods etc…

We don’t use numbers with these nouns but they can be made countable with the addition of phrases such as a pair of or a set of etc…

  • You need a pair of warm trousers and two pairs of pyjamas.
  • I’ll bring a set of dominoes and a pack of cards.
  • Can you pass me that pair of scissors?

Some plural nouns lose their plural ending when combined with other nouns e.g. pyjama trousers, trouser leg etc..

Try this Gapfillers exercise on Noun Collocations

Plurals of ‘foreign’ words in English

Where words have been imported into English, especially from Latin and Greek, plural forms sometimes follow the original language.

Latin forms:

  • ending in -us           alumnus =alumni, terminus =termini
  • ending is -um         millennium = millennia, curriculum = curricula, datum = data
  • ending in – ex/ix    index = indices, appendix = appendices    
  • ending in a               formula = formulae, antenna = antennae    

Note some of these words appear differently in general usage corpus = corpuses, forum = forums, datum and medium are rarely used (data and media), indexes is sometimes also used. The latin forms are, however, still used and sometimes preferred.

 Greek forms:

  • ending in -is     hypothesis =hypotheses, axis = axes
  • ending in -on   criterion = criteria, phenomenon = phenomena

Phenomena and criteria are sometimes used as singular forms.

A word on agreement:

Failure to agree the verb with the subject is one of the most common mistakes made by students of all levels. Remember to check your nouns when used as subjects and ensure that you use the correct verb form.

Check for more detail in your grammar book. It isn’t possible in these short posts to cover every example. My aim is to give you a snapshot of some the English language areas you could be exploring to improve your skills.


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