Although I have already tried to show why the traditional definition of a noun (person, place, or thing) is inadequate, now that we have come to define what nouns are, I am going to start with that definition anyway. Am I contradicting myself? Not really. Nouns do refer to people, places, and things, but that doesn't exhaust the extent of their reference. People, places, and things are prototypical nouns. If we're studying a new language, the category that we will call "noun" in that language will be the one that includes these core objects.[1] We will start with these core nouns, observe the patterns that they exhibit, and then use those patterns as a structural test for other words whose category membership may be less clear.

Let's begin with a few examples of such core nouns: teacher, house, car.

All of these words use the same suffixes. They change form to distinguish singular from plural by adding -s:

One teacher, two teachers
One house, two houses
One car, two cars

They also take a different suffix that is traditionally called the possessive ('s for singular nouns, s' for plural ones) although for reasons we will come to later, it's more accurately called the genitive.

the teacher's credential
the house's roof
the car's engine

Nouns can also be formed from preexisting verbs, adjectives, other nouns by adding certain suffixes, e.g., -ment, -tion, -hood, etc. So the presence of such a suffix is good evidence that the word you are looking at is a noun. (See the section on morphology for more information on this process.)

These morphological tests work for a wide variety of nouns, but not all. For example, there are some nouns that form the plural irregularly (e.g., mouse/mice), or show no difference in form at all (e.g., sheep, deer, etc.). Nevertheless, we still want to assign these words to the same category because in other respects they behave just like the more regular words.

Another set of tests looks at the context in which a word can appear in phrases or sentences. As was indicated above, nouns can appear in sentence structures such as the frame in (4), repeated here for convenience:

(4) She has no _____.

Nouns can also appear as the subjects of sentences:

(11) Deprivation is growing among the unemployed.

Nouns also follow certain function words known as determiners (see below), such as the, a(n), my, that, etc. Thus we can say the enrollment, but not *the enroll.


[1] Although the claim is not entirely uncontroversial, most linguists believe that every human language distinguishes at a minimum between nouns and verbs.


Pronouns are words like he, she, or you that let us cross-reference another entity somewhere else in the discourse or in the real world. Traditional grammars state that pronouns replace nouns, but it would be more accurate to say that they replace noun phrases.

(12a) [The airplane parked on the tarmac] appeared damaged.
(12b) It appeared damaged.

In (12b), the pronoun it does not replace just the word airplane of (12a); it replaces the entire string of words, the airplane parked on the tarmac. Replacing only airplane with a pronoun yields an ungrammatical sentence:

(12c) *The it parked on the tarmac appeared damaged.

Pronouns serve the same functions in a sentence that nouns do, most notably they are the heads of noun phrases. They largely observe the same syntactic rules as nouns, for example subject-verb agreement. For these reasons, we will consider pronouns to be a special type of noun rather than an independent word category.

We will use the term referent for the entity to which the pronoun refers. The referent does not necessarily have to be named linguistically. For example, if you and I are standing on a street corner and observe an automobile weaving in and out of traffic at a high rate of speed, you might say to me, "He's driving recklessly." The context of the situation tells me that the referent for he is the car's driver without your needing to use that noun phrase. However, pronouns often do refer to other noun phrases, and in this common situation those noun phrases are called antecedents.

Sometimes, we will need to note what pronoun refers to what antecedent. In this case, we will use a subscript notation. For example:

(13) Genevieve helped Albertj with hisj physics homework.

In (13), the letter j indicates that the pronoun his refers to Albert. In other words, j serves as a co-referencing variable. We can use such subscripts to make assertions about particular interpretations of pronouns. For example:

(14) *Genevievej made herj a sandwich.

We mark (14) as ungrammatical not because it has no sensible interpretation but because her cannot be understood to apply to Genevieve. If her referred to any female other than Genevieve, the sentence would be acceptable.

Pronouns come in several varieties:

Personal pronouns
I, you, he, she, etc. usually refer to a previously mentioned noun phrase or to a clearly implied person.
Reflexive pronouns
myself, yourself, themselves, etc. most commonly refer to the subject of the clause they are in.

(14) The graduating seniorsj threw themselvesj a party.

Because of this requirement that reflexives refer to the subject, reflexive pronouns usually cannot appear in subject position

(15) *Himself went to the party.

For the same reason, transitive verbs with reflexives in the direct object cannot be made passive:

(16a) Ron Howard cast himself in his own movie
(16b) *Himself was cast by Ron Howard in his own movie.

Indefinite pronouns:
somebody, anyone, everything, nothing, etc. don't refer to specific nouns.
Interrogative pronouns:
what, who, or whom, replace a noun phrase in forming a question.
Relative pronouns:
who, whom, which, whose, replace a noun phrase in a relative clause.

Interrogative and relative pronouns occur as parts of more complex structures, which we will study in a later chapter.