Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
We call them the parts of speech, but they’re used in writing as well. And they are one way we’ve been categorizing words for more than two thousand years.
Words can be classified in other ways as well, but this classification is common to many, not only English-speaking people, and is a basic way to look at words and their functions, their location in sentences, and their relationship to other words and the other categories of words.
The list is simple. In English we have only eight parts of speech to help us communicate—
If you’re humming a tune or singing a song after reading this list, you’re no doubt familiar with the SchoolHouse Rock! TV cartoons from the 1970s and later.
Conjunction Junction helped us recognize conjunctions such as and, but, and or. Lolly, Lolly, Lolly Get Your Adverbs Here helped us with adverbs. And Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla had us craving pronouns so we wouldn’t have to repeat that name again and again and again. How’d you like to have to write a novel without pronouns? I shudder to think of the annoyance factor.
In other articles we may go deeper into the intricacies of each of the parts of speech, but in this series, we’re just going to take a peek at them, beginning with nouns.
Nouns are people, places, things, concepts, and ideas. They can perform actions and be acted upon. They can be modified by adjectives, and some are items that can be counted and/or made plural. They are often paired with a definite (the) or indefinite (a, an) article, although they don’t have to be. Nouns can have names (Bob, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Coke), but they don’t have to be named (man, museum, drink).
Sentences can have any number of nouns; they are not limited to only a single noun.
Multiple nouns can perform an action together (compound subject)—
Walter and Stephanie sang a duet.
Multiple nouns can be acted upon by the same person (compound object)—
Kilgore shot both Artie and Stephen.
And a sentence maybe have multiple but independent subjects acting on multiple but independent objects—
Tedesco closed in on the killer as his partner chased after the thief.
There are other ways several nouns could be used per sentence, but let’s look at the specifics and some definitions so there’s no confusion over terms.
~ Many nouns (concrete nouns) can be appreciated through the senses—felt, seen, heard, tasted, smelled. Abstract nouns (ideas and concepts), however, are not observed through the senses. (Not usually, that is. But this is fiction, where the rules are often different. See Identifying Nouns below.)
~ Nouns can function as subject, object, or complement.
When nouns are subjects, they perform the action of the sentence. They do something or are something.
Bo raced after the cat.
Lola felt faint.
The girl was ecstatic.
Bo and Lola vacationed in Cancun. (compound subject)
When nouns are direct objects, something is done to or with them. Direct objects answer the question who or what is receiving the action.
Bo ate the Popsicle before it melted. (What did Bo eat/what was eaten?)
Lola felt a bump under her hair. (What did Lola feel/what was felt?)
Frannie hit Rachael. (Who did Frannie hit/who was hit?)
The doctor gave my daughter a prescription and a lollipop. (What did the doctor give/what was given?) (This is a compound direct object, two direct objects belonging to the same verb.)
When nouns are indirect objects, something is done to or for them. Indirect objects can only be used in sentences that also have direct objects. Indirect objects often come before direct objects, but they don’t have to. Indirect objects answer the question to or for whom.
Bo gave me the Popsicle before it melted. (Gave it to whom?)
Bo gave the Popsicle to me before it melted.
Bo gave me and Johnny Popsicles before they melted. (compound indirect object)
Lola handed Peter divorce papers.
Lola’s lawyer prepared divorce papers for her husband.
Nouns can serve as the object of a preposition.
He ran into the woods.
The car stopped on the bridge.
Noun complements can rename or modify another noun (both subjects and objects).
The kitten is a Himalayan.
Pinocchio became a boy.
The media called Allan Edgar Jones a monster.
Bailey named his sword Slayer.
~ Nouns can be single words—boy, Danny, hope—or groups of words—Earl of Warwick, Vice President Judson Thomas, swimming pool.
~ Words can be joined to create a compound noun with a meaning different from the individual words. Compound nouns can be open, hyphenated, or closed. Examples—father-in-law, birthday cake, garment bag, blackmail, background, snake in the grass, pain in the patootie.
~ Words can be joined to create noun clauses or phrases that can work as nouns—in the place of nouns—both as subjects and objects.
The fact that I didn’t tell you the truth means nothing now.
That you were late again tells me you don’t care.
He doesn’t know what one says to a new widow.
Where to meet was the question on everyone’s mind.
They didn’t know where to meet.
Maxine didn’t know how to swim.
The details that I needed to tell you two weeks ago are no longer relevant.
~ Most nouns can be made singular or plural, although non-count nouns (weather, furniture, information) usually can’t be made plural. However, there are exceptions.
Wine is considered a non-count noun; we ask for two glasses of wine, not two wines. Yet when wine is used as a type—the wines of the region—it can be made plural.
A further exception for fiction can occur in dialogue or a character’s thoughts. A character may well say, “Bring us two white wines, please.”
~ Nouns can show possession. Possessive nouns modify other nouns.
The boy’s bike was crushed in the driveway.
Wanda’s earring fell off.
Canada’s gross domestic product rose for a fifth year.
~ Nouns in English do not have gender (as do nouns in some other languages).
~ Even some verb forms can operate as nouns. Gerunds are the -ing form of verbs used as nouns. Not every -ing word is a noun, of course. But all gerunds end in -ing and function as nouns.
Running is not on my list of favorite sports. Eating, however, is.
The skiing was superb that year.
Whistling helps me fight off fear.
~ Names and titles point to nouns. Proper nouns, usually names, are capitalized. In English, other nouns (common nouns) are typically not capped unless they start a sentence.
Milo didn’t realize he wouldn’t be able to reach the brake when he started the car.
Her contact passed the note to Carly in the public library.
It was the Elmore City Library.
It was the city library.
The boys ran all the way to the Crossroads Theater.
It was one of their favorite theaters.
Theaters were their favorite places to pass a hot afternoon.
~ If a word can be recognized or appreciated through one of the sense elements—sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell—it’s a noun or pronoun, yet not all nouns can be recognized in this manner; we often don’t use our senses in regard to concepts and ideas, although love might stink or freedom might taste like the sweetest honey.
~ If a word can follow either an indefinite article (a, an) or the definite article (the) and make grammatical sense, it’s a noun (or, rarely, a pronoun*). The same holds true for quantity words such as many, some, and a few and numbers, such as ten.
A dream gives us a reason to live.
Many dreams give us reasons to live.
*The one I wanted was sold out.
*A nobody won the race.
~ If a pronoun can be substituted for the word, it’s a noun.
It gives us a reason to live.
They give us reasons to live.
These give us reasons to live.
In fiction we make up a lot of nouns—people, places, and things—that don’t exist outside our fictional worlds. Recognize that you have the right to create objects and people to fill your imaginary settings. Yet whether you make up nouns or use familiar ones, be specific rather than general most of the time.
Rather than say flower, use rhododendron. Rather than vehicle, say pickup or sedan or 4Runner.
No, you don’t need to be a name or brand dropper, but give readers an instant visual or audio by using specific nouns rather than generic nouns or nouns with two or three adjectives piled on.
Nouns create the visuals of your fiction—make them rich in specifics. Make them accurate. Make them strong enough to support the story you build around them.