Monday Morning Grammar: Nouns Part III—Properties

Although a bit later than expected, Mots Justes is picking up today on a continuing series on the noun. In previous posts, we established the basics and discussed pluralization. Today we’ll look at the four properties of nouns:

1. Case alludes to how a noun relates to other words in a sentence. Only nouns and pronouns have case.

a. A noun in nominative case functions as the subject of a sentence or clause. It is the person, place, or thing that is performing the verb:

The boys left because the cafeteria was serving fish sticks for lunch again.

The number (discussed below) of a subject determines the number of the verb and usually comes before it, but a subject can appear anywhere in a sentence:

From the cafeteria windows watched the girls.

A noun or pronoun that follows to be or any of its variants and refers to the same thing as the subject is also in nominative case. It is called a predicate nominative because it appears in the part of the sentence or clause that contains a verb—i.e., the predicate:

The vehicle was a golf cart.

b. A noun in objective case functions as an object in a sentence or clause. Objects appear in two places:

i. a noun acted on by a transitive verb:

The boys drove a golf cart.

ii. a noun connected to another part of the sentence by, say, a preposition:

The boys drove to the store.

An object usually follows a verb, but like a subject can appear anywhere in a sentence:

The boys bought fresh hot dogs and nachos; the stale donuts they declined.

Be careful not to mistake an object as the subject of a verb that follows it:

The stunt pulled by the boys has limited privileges for the whole school.

Here, stunt is the subject and agrees with the verb has limited.

c. Possessive case shows

i. ownership, possession, or occupancy (the golf cart’s wheels);

ii. a relationship (the boys’ principal);

iii. agency (the school’s lawyer); or

iv. shorthand for an of phrase (a week’s detention versus detention of one week).

The form of a noun does not change between nominative and objective case, but it does for possessive case. In general, to make a singular noun possessive, simply add ’s (the principal’s rage). To make a plural noun that ends in s or es possessive, add an apostrophe (the boys’ adventure). To make an irregular plural noun possessive, add ’s (the children’s punishment).

Possessives will be discussed in more detail in a later MJ post.

2. Gender refers to the sex of a noun. It can be masculine, feminine, or neuter. In English, there are four instances in which gender is assigned to a noun (unlike, say, German, which assigns gender to many more of its nouns, regardless of the following):

a. when a noun refers specifically to male or female people or animals (king versus queen or rooster versus hen);

b. when part of a compound noun contains a masculine or feminine noun or pronoun (spokesman or girlfriend);

c. when a noun has a feminine suffix (actress, executrix); or

d. when a noun refers to a nonliving thing as if it were male or female, such as the tradition of dubbing a ship “she.” This is called personification.

3. Number has to do with how many people, places, or things a noun refers to—basically whether a noun is singular (referring to one thing) or plural (referring to two or more things). MJ already discussed plurals at length in the previous post in this series.

4. Person works for nouns in the same way it does for pronouns.

A first-person noun is speaking:

We seniors will select the commencement speaker.

A second-person noun is being spoken to:

Boys, be quiet during the ceremony.

A third-person noun is being spoken about:

The band played the graduation march.

Next week in Monday Morning Grammar, MJ will wrap up this series on nouns.


Chicago Manual of Style, The. 15th ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.


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