Nouns are the words that name people, places, organisations and things. Style and grammar support how people interpret nouns in content.
Proper nouns are the names of people and specific things
Any name for a specific person, organisation, place or thing is a ‘proper noun’.
Proper nouns always start with capital letters, except for some commercial terms.
- Shark Bay
- Collingwood Football Club
- Torres Strait Regional Authority
- Prime Minister of Australia
There are specific capitalisation conventions for the:
Common nouns are words for generic things
Common nouns describe people, places, times or things in a general sense. They have a capital letter only when they are the first word in a sentence.
- local government
- prime ministers
Capitalise nouns only if they are part of a proper noun. Don’t capitalise them if you use them as common nouns.
- The ACT’s Office of the Commissioner for the Environment was the first such agency in Australia. [‘Office’ is part of the formal title.]
- I worked in the office for 11 years. [‘Office’ is not part of the formal title, even if it refers to the Office of the Commissioner for the Environment.]
Common nouns can be concrete or abstract
Concrete nouns name things you can identify through one or more of the 5 senses.
Abstract nouns name intangible things. These include ideas, emotions and physical feelings.
Some nouns can be either concrete or abstract, depending on the context.
- The office is upstairs. [Concrete noun]
- Alfred Deakin was the first to hold the office of Attorney-General in Australia. [Abstract noun]
Verbal nouns are also called ‘gerunds’
Gerunds are nouns that form by attaching an ‘-ing’ to a verb.
- meet [verb], meeting [noun]
- report [verb], reporting [noun]
You can combine gerunds and other verbal nouns with a determiner (such as ‘my’ or ‘your’).
- Your writing has improved. [‘Your’ is the determiner; ‘writing’ is the noun; ‘has improved’ is the verb.]
- They resent Bill’s laughing at them. [‘Bill’s’ is the determiner; ‘resent’ is the verb; ‘laughing’ is the noun.]
Verbal nouns also include nouns that relate to verbs in another way. For example, the noun can form by adding other types of suffix to a verb like ‘-ation’ or ‘-ment’. These are not gerunds.
- fixation [Noun related to the verb ‘fix’]
- attachment [Noun related to the verb ‘attach’]
Other verbal nouns don’t have any suffix but have the same spelling as the verb. It is context that gives the distinction.
- ‘fix the issue’ [verb], ‘a quick fix’ [noun]
- ‘report an issue’ [verb], ‘annual report to the minister’ [noun]
Nouns can be singular or plural
Nouns can be singular or plural. Most English words add an ‘-s’ or ‘-es’ to form the plural, but there are many exceptions. Check a dictionary if you’re not sure.
- a computer, many computers
- a policy, many policies
- the standby, many standbys
- the Attorney-General, many attorneys-general
Some nouns don’t change to form the plural.
an aircraft, many aircraft
Don’t use an apostrophe before (or after) the ‘s’ to show the plural.
Adjust the desks and chairs.
Adjust the desk’s and chair’s.
Collective nouns describe a group in a single word
Collective nouns are a type of common noun. They label groups of people or things.
- cluster [for example, of desks]
A collective noun usually has a singular verb. This is so, even if it’s made up of component parts.
- The government intends to act.
- The committee is meeting.
- The government intend to act.
- The committee are meeting.
An exception is when you need to draw attention to the individual parts of the collective noun.
- The branch meets once a week. [‘The branch’, as a whole, meets once a week. The singular form of the verb is used.]
- The branch are divided over the new meeting schedule. [The individuals in ‘the branch’ have different opinions about the new meeting schedule. The plural form of the verb is used.]
Nouns can be countable or uncountable
You can sort nouns by whether they can be separated into individual units and counted:
- You can count countable nouns.
- You cannot count uncountable nouns.
Would you like a cup of coffee or tea? [‘Cup’ is countable; ‘coffee’ and ‘tea’ are uncountable.]
A countable singular noun must have a determiner.
- The report is being printed.
- Our report is being printed.
Report is being printed.
An uncountable noun has no plural and only a singular verb. Uncountable nouns don’t need to have a determiner. Whether it has one depends on the meaning of the sentence.
- Respect is an Australian Public Service value. [No determiner with ‘respect’. The value is not quantifiable.]
- The leadership avoided a spill. [‘The’ is the determiner with ‘leadership’. The noun refers to a single, specific group of people.]
Some nouns can be used both ways. The meaning depends on whether the noun is countable or uncountable in the way it is used:
- In the uncountable form, it refers to the whole idea or quantity.
- In the countable form, it refers to a specific example or type.
- Language is powerful. [In this context, ‘language’ is uncountable.]
- Australians speak many languages besides English. [In this context, ‘language’ is countable.]
Noun trains are hard to understand
Strings of 3 or more nouns are known as ‘noun trains’. Each noun in a noun train modifies the next.
Rewrite a sentence to avoid using a noun train. This will help you write in plain language.
The agency’s new system will help to improve how it manages injuries. [No noun train]
The agency’s new system will help in the achievement of injury management outcome improvements. [Noun train included]
The digital edition relates grammatical concepts to the principles of plain language. It relates word choice to grammatical information about types of words.
It provides an overview on types of words to introduce grammatical concepts about parts of speech and how they relate to sentence structure.
The sixth edition called types of words ‘word classes’. It had summary information about parts of speech on pages 68 to 70. This formed part of Chapter 5 on grammar.
The Content Guide did not have any in-depth information on grammatical concepts.
About this page
Dixon JC and Bolitho B (2005–2019a) Course notes and exercises: English grammar for writers, editors and policymakers, Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University, Canberra.
Dixon JC and Bolitho B (2005–2019b) Report writing, Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University, Canberra.
Murphy EM with Cadman H (2014) Effective writing: plain English at work, 2nd edn, Lacuna, Westgate.
Seely J (2001) Oxford everyday grammar, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Stilman A (2004) Grammatically correct, Writer’s Digest Books, Ohio.
Truss L (2003) Eats, shoots and leaves: the zero tolerance approach to punctuation, Profile Books, London.
This page was updated Monday 6 September 2021.