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What Are Singular Nouns, and How Do They Work?

Updated on
October 7, 2022
Grammar
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A singular noun is a noun that refers to only one person, place, thing, or idea. It’s contrasted with plural nouns, which refer to more than one person, place, thing, or idea. An example of a singular noun is cat, which represents one cat; an example of a plural noun is cats, which represents two or more cats. 

Singular nouns are pretty straightforward, but they can get tricky when you’re working with complicated singular nouns like mass nouns or collective nouns. So below, we explain singular and plural nouns and when to use each as well as give plenty of singular noun examples. 

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What is a singular noun?

All nouns represent people, places, things, or ideas. If the noun describes only one of these, such as one person or one place, then it’s a singular noun. If it describes more than one, such as two people or multiple places, then it’s a plural noun

Singular nouns are the standard form of nouns, so you don’t have to add anything to make a noun singular. Plural nouns, however, are usually formed by adding an –s or -es to the end of a singular noun. Be careful, though, because a lot of irregular plural nouns don’t follow this rule. 

When do you use singular and plural nouns?

In English grammar, if you are describing a single person, place, thing, or idea, you use the singular form of the noun. 

one student

a teacher

this class

If you are describing more than one of these, you use the plural form of the noun. 

fifteen students

a few teachers

these classes

Singular nouns are simple enough because, unlike with plural nouns, you don’t have to add anything to them. However, singular nouns can get a little confusing when you’re dealing with mass nouns and collective nouns

Mass nouns, or uncountable nouns, are nouns that represent things that are challenging to measure or assign a number to, such as air, rice, or intelligence. Collective nouns are nouns that represent a group as a single unit, such as family, committee, or herd. We discuss the singular and plural rules for these types of nouns in the next section. 

5 singular and plural rules

1 If a singular noun is the subject of a sentence, the verb must use the singular form. 

In English, the grammar law of subject-verb agreement states that the verb of a sentence must match the number of the subject. If the subject is singular, the verb must be singular as well; if the subject is plural, the verb must be plural. 

With the exception of first- and second-person pronouns, most singular nouns use the third-person singular form of the verb. This typically involves adding an –s or –es to the end of the verb (you can read the detailed rules in the link above). 

[singular] Maria eats dinner at 7 p.m. 

[plural] Maria and her family eat dinner at 7 p.m. 

[singular] The movie passes the Bechdel Test. 

[plural] The movies pass the Bechdel Test. 

2 Large numbers like hundred, thousand, million, and billion are singular when specific and plural when general.

Large numbers might seem like they’d be plural, but they actually switch between singular and plural nouns based on their context. 

Treat them as singular if they: 

  • are an exact number
    • fifteen million
    • eight hundred
  • use a quantifier like several or few
    • a few thousand
    • several billion

However, these numbers are plural if they are used in a general sense, without a specific or exact amount. 

in the hundreds

millions of years

3 Mass nouns are always singular.

Mass nouns are always singular, even when they represent something that has many parts, like sand. This is especially important when it comes to subject-verb agreement. 

The snow fall quietly.

The snow falls quietly.

Be careful because some words that are mass nouns can also be countable nouns, depending on how they’re used. The basic rule is that they’re mass nouns when used generally but countable nouns when used specifically. 

[general & singular] Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. 

[specific & plural] My grandmother’s jewelry collection has some beauties. 

4 Collective nouns are singular when referring to one group but plural when talking about multiple groups.

Collective nouns can be confusing because they represent multiple things that act as a single group. Basically, collective nouns are singular when they refer to one group but plural when they refer to two or more groups. 

Let’s look at the collective noun team, which represents more than one member. If you’re talking about one team, use team as a singular noun. 

Our team works well together. 

If you’re talking about more than one team, use team as a plural noun. 

There are twenty-three teams in the tournament. 

5  Quantities or amounts as a whole act as singular. 

Plural nouns can act as singular if the context refers to them as a whole. This is typical for specific amounts of money and time. 

Fifteen dollars is too much for streaming a movie. 

The first two kilometers is the hardest part of the bike trail.  

When the context refers to them as individual units, treat them as plural. 

There are two kilometers left in the race. 

Tricky noun examples

The following singular noun examples may look plural, but they’re actually singular. Keep an eye out for them when writing.

  • acoustics
  • aerobics
  • athletics
  • billiards
  • civics
  • classics (as a school subject)
  • crossroads
  • darts (as a game)
  • dominos/dominoes (as a game)
  • economics
  • ethics
  • gymnastics
  • headquarters
  • linguistics
  • logistics
  • mathematics
  • mechanics (as a scientific concept)
  • news
  • physics
  • politics
  • series
  • statistics

Singular nouns FAQs

What is a singular noun?

A singular noun is a noun that represents only one person, place, thing, or idea. Singular nouns are contrasted with plural nouns. 

What’s the difference between singular and plural nouns?

The difference between singular and plural nouns is the amount. Singular nouns represent only one of something, while plural nouns represent two or more of something. 

When should you use singular nouns?

Use singular nouns when referring to only one of what the noun represents. Be careful with collective nouns and mass nouns—they represent multiple things as a whole but act as singular nouns. 

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