Functions of Noun

10 Principal Functions of English Nouns

When we speak of the functions of nouns, we simply mean the different functions that nouns can serve in sentences.

Within the context of this study, we will be exploring ten different functions that nouns can perform when they occur in sentences.

1.  Subject of the Sentence

SentencesOpens in new window are formed with the subject being the basic part of the sentence. Nouns can serve as subjectsOpens in new window when they answer the question: “Who or what is doing the action?” or “Who or what is being the state of being?” in a sentence

    For Example:
  • 1)  John kicked the ball.
  • 2)  The sky seemed hazy.

In 1), kicked is the verb. John tells who or what kicked the ball. Therefore, John, which is the do-er of the action, is the subject, of the sentence.

In sentence 2), seemed, a verb of being, is the verb. Sky tells who or what was being hazy. Sky is the subject of the sentence. The subject usually comes before the verb.


2.  Direct Object of the Verb

A noun can function as a direct object in a sentence when it answers the question, “Whom or what is receiving the action of the verb?” If a direct objectOpens in new window is existing in a sentence, it would normally follow the verb. The verb must be a verb of action.

In sentence 1) above, “John kicked the ball,” the noun, John is the subject. He is the do-er of the action. The verb, kicked is the action that John performed.

Now is there another noun in the sentence? What is that other noun? Does it answer the question, “John kicked whom or what? If it does, then, the noun is the direct object. In order to find a direct object in a sentence, we must carry out the following tests:

  1. At first, we must check to ensure the verb is an action verb. Usually, a direct object must receive action, so the verb must be an action verb (Does the verb perform an action?)
  2. Thereafter, the question “What?”, or “Whom?”, will be asked after the action verb. For example, John kicked what? If one word in the sentence answers the question, then the sentence has a direct object.
    For Example:
  • 1)  John kicked the ball.
  • First, is kicking an action? — definitely yes.
  • Then, is there a word that answers the question, “John kicked what?” — definitely yes.
  • Ball, is definitely the direct object.
  • 2)  Andy played a piano.
  • First, is playing an action? — definitely yes.
  • Piano, is definitely the direct object.
  • 3)  Gretchen is happy.
  • Is is an action? — definitely no.
  • With the absence of an action verb, there can be no direct object.
  • 4)  Joel drove across the bridge.
  • Is drove an action? — definitely yes.
  • Is there a word that answers the question: Joel drove “Whom” or “what?” — definitely no.
  • Nothing receives the action. Therefore, there is no direct object.

3.  Indirect Object

An Indirect Object is a person or thing to whom or for which something is done. A noun can function as an indirect objectOpens in new window, which, like a direct objectOpens in new window, requires a verb of action.

As the receiver of the direct object, which is directly the receiver of the action, an indirect object receives the action of the verb indirectly.

    For Example:
  • 1)  Jane supplied him some goods.
  • Jane supplied what? some goods.
  • Goods is the direct object.
  • To whom/what or for whom/what did Jane supply the goods? Him.
  • Him is the indirect object.
  • 2)  Gretchen lent Jackson the book.
  • Gretchen lent what? the book
  • book is the direct object.
  • To whom/what or for whom/what did Gretchen lend the book? Jackson.
  • Jackson is the indirect object.

4.  Subject Complement

Nouns can function as Subject ComplementsOpens in new window, usually when they follow a verb of being and answer the question “Who?”, or the question “What?”.

    For Example:
  • The lady is an engineer.

    →The word (engineer), which follows the linking verb, is, is the subject complement. It functions to rename or describe the subject (lady). It also completes the meaning of the subject (lady) in the sentence.

In the sentence above, the verb is, is a verb of being. Verbs of being usually connect words that follows the verb back to the subject.

However, when a verb of being carries out this function, it is called a linking verbOpens in new window. The subject (lady) in the example above answers the question “Who” or “what” is an engineer?

We can tell that the subject complemenOpens in new windowt is a noun partly because it is interchangeable with the subject. That is, the subject complement engineer could swap places with the subject lady without changing the meaning of the sentence.

The obvious distinction between a subjectOpens in new window and a subject complement is their positions in the sentence. See again the example, and other examples below.

  • 1)  The lady is an engineer.
  • Lady is the subject.
  • Lady = engineer.
  • Engineer is the subject complement.

Although the meaning of a sentence may not change drastically by swapping around the subject and subject complement, the emphasis of the sentence, which generally falls on the subject, as well as the tone of the sentence will be changed. Here is an example of such swapping:

  • 2a)  All elites are politician.
           (L) Subject | (R) Subject Comp.
  • 2b)  All politicians are elites.
           (L) Subject | (R) Subject Comp.

Obviously, the two sentences are different, and the second version of the sentence is simply untrue. Usually, a subject will go before the verb, but if there is a subject complement in a sentence, it must always follow a verb of being.

  • 3)  Edmund is my uncle.
  • First,is is a verb of being? — definitely yes.
  • Then, is there a word that answers the question, “Edmund is who or what?” — definitely yes.
  • Then the noun, uncle, is subject complement, in–as–much as it follows the verb and renames the subject (Edmund).
  • 4)  Nebuchadnezzar was a king of Babylon.
  • First,is was a verb of being? — definitely yes.
  • Then, is there a word that answers the question, “Nebuchadnezzar was who or what?” — definitely yes.
  • Then the noun, king, is the subject complement, in–as–much as it follows the verb and renames Nebuchadnezzar.

5.  Object of Preposition

Prepositional phrasesOpens in new window are groups of words beginning with a prepositionOpens in new window and generally ending with a noun. The noun that follows a preposition is the object of the prepositionOpens in new window.

    For Example:
  • 1)  From the beginning of the term, Gretchen was certain she would make good grades.
  • beginning is the object of preposition, from;
  • term is the object of preposition, of.
  • 2)  For many in the squad, morning-drilling proved to be the most challenging task.
  • many is the object of preposition, For;
  • squad is the object of preposition, in.

6.  Predicate Nominatives

A Predicate Nominative also called predicate nounOpens in new window, is a noun or pronoun that completes or complement a linking verb and renames the subject of the verb. It typically come after linking verbs.

    For Example:
  • The house feels like home.
  • house is the subject,
  • home is the predicate nominative.
Important Hint 

To identify the predicate nominative, you need to recognize the verb; then see whether the action of the verb was done to someone or something. In the case of the example above, the house being the subject is not doing something but only feels. The house feels like home; thus making home, the predicate nominative.

7.  Object Complement

The Object Complement sometimes called objective complementOpens in new window, is usually a noun, pronounOpens in new window, or an adjectiveOpens in new window which comes after a direct object to rename or modify the direct objectOpens in new window.

    For Example:
  • We met the boy eating.
  • boy is the direct object,
  • eating is the object complement.
Important Hints  

Object complement is easily identified by its position, reference, and agreement. It is usually placed after the object and referencing the object with extra meaning.

In the example we've just seen, eating is an adjectiveOpens in new window that comes after the direct object boy and gives extra details about the boy. This makes eating, the object complement. More so, you need to decide if the verb is acting on the object or if the complement is renaming or describing the subject.

8.  Appositive

Nouns can function as appositive. The appositiveOpens in new window also functions the same way the predicate nominativeOpens in new window does; but whereas the predicate nominative renames the subject in a sentence, the appositive renames another noun in the sentence.

An appositive nounOpens in new window must follow another noun and rename that noun. Comma usually sets off an appositive noun with its modifiers from the rest of the sentence. The appositive noun may immediately follow the noun, as in the following sentence.

    For Example:
  • 1)  Meet my new classmate, James.
    James is a noun immediately following and renaming the noun, classmate. It explains who the classmate is.

An appositive noun will sometimes not immediately follow the noun that it renames, as shown in 2).

  • 2)  Cynthia, my eldest and brightest niece, is intelligent.

9.  Direct Address

A noun can also functions as Direct Address. A Noun of Direct AddressOpens in new window is a person’s name, directly spoken to. Nouns of direct address are typically used to name the listener when you are addressing, or speaking, directly to him or her in conversation.

A noun of direct address is separated by commas; it does not have any grammatical relationship to any part of the sentence. The speaker merely mentions the listener’s name in attempt to catch the listener’s attention.

    For Example:
  • Sanders, I received your proposal mail yesterday.
    →In this sentence, the speaker is requesting Sanders’s attention.

10.  Nominative Absolute

A noun can function as a nominative absolute. The Nominative AbsoluteOpens in new window is a sort of phrase that is made up of a noun followed and modified by a participleOpens in new window or a participial phrase.

    For Example:
  • The book being short, I read it in two hours.