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Nouns: An Introduction


Nouns are categorized as one of the eight main parts of speech. Nouns answer the questions, "What (or who) is it?" and "What's its name?"

In fact, naming is central to what defines a noun. The word "noun" is derived from a Latin word, nomen, meaning, "name."  Also, in English grammar, the related word, "nominative," refers to the clause's subject. Words that tell us what something is called, however, are only part of the story. Nouns can take the shape of hyphenated terms, multi-word titles, and whole phrases such as appositive phrases. Other parts of speech also behave like nouns. Pronouns are an obvious example, but gerund phrases and certain infinitive phrases also serve the same role as nouns do in a clause or phrase.

Modern advertising sometimes seems to work overtime to make the distinction as confusing as possible. What, for example, are the nouns in the following commercial announcement?

Steven Spielberg Presents Taken is brought to you by the makers of Nike: Just Do It, and by Just fifteen minutes could save you fifteen percent or more on car insurance.

If you're a fluent or native speaker of the English language, the sentence above will pose little problem, because you're already used to how advertisers skew grammar: advertisers depend upon slogans and even whole sound-bites to stand in for the name of brand, in the same way that pronouns fill in for nouns.  For the non-native speaker or the student struggling to understand basic grammar, such methods translate into grammar gibberish.

Nouns come in several varieties, all of which make for a hidden potential for error. Knowing how to identify these is useful on many, many levels.  One of the more basic of methods of identification is to diagram the subjects and objects in a sentence.


Nouns are the most basic unit of speech, so their placement on a diagram receives more attention and importance than other parts of speech, excepting verbs. All nouns, regardless of type, are either subjects or objects and are placed on horizontal lines. (Appositive phrases offer a minor variation to this rule.) In the example below, every highlighted word on a horizontal line is a noun. In the case of "collecting pollen in sacs on its legs," this entire gerund phrase is the object of the preposition "by," so the entire phrase, start to finish, is categorized as a noun phrase, even though some of its constituent parts are clearly modifiers. For more information about this, see Verbals: Gerunds and Verbals: Infinitives.

Diagramming Nouns

Last Updated: 06/18/2015


Karl J Sherlock
Associate Professor, English
Phone: 619-644-7871

  • Grossmont
  • Cuyamaca
A Member of the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District