Spanish Nouns: The 9 Types of Spanish Nouns You Must Know
Nouns are our guiding force when learning Spanish.
They help us make sense of the world around us.
Without them, we would not be able to name the objects, places, people and ideas—both visible and invisible—with which we interact every day.
Imagine your life without nouns. You see a beautiful flower, a good book or a handsome guy. You want to say something about them, you point at them, you throw out some action words and descriptive adjectives but… you are still literally at a loss for words. You have no words to assign to these things, no names by which to call them!
Now you go home and want to tell your mother or your roommate about what you saw today—but you don’t have nouns. You can say “I saw it there. It smelled so beautiful!” How would anyone know what you’re talking about?
At the end of any day without nouns, everything would be “it” and every person would be “he,” “she” or “them.” You catch my drift? Nouns are essential for proper communication.
Let this post be a reminder of that importance. Here you will learn all the different kinds of nouns we have in Spanish, when and how to use them—plus even more precious info that will help you lots during your exams (or during your conversations with your Spanish-speaking friends).
What’s in a Spanish Noun?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a noun is:
“any member of a class of words that typically can be combined with determiners to serve as the subject of a verb, can be interpreted as singular or plural, can be replaced with a pronoun, and refer to an entity, quality, state, action, or concept.”
This might seem a bit too dense and confusing. You can also refer to the dictionary’s “Simple English” definition of the word for a clearer understanding:
“a word that is the name of something (such as a person, animal, place, thing, quality, idea, or action) and is typically used in a sentence as subject or object of a verb or as object of a preposition.”
Much better, right? This is the definition we are going to be using when referring to a noun, since we are not here to learn how to be the best grammarian in the world but the best Spanish speakers in the universe (wink, wink).
So, we now know nouns are used to name physical objects, people, places, animals and also invisible things such as ideas, qualities or actions. Our definition also tells us that nouns are typically the subject or the object in a sentence, and that they can also be the object of a preposition.
Let’s have a look at all this in action:
María come helado en el parque. (María eats ice cream in the park.)
María [person, subject]
come helado [thing, object]
en el parque [thing/place, prepositional object].
Los perros no comen carne en Madrid. (Dogs don’t eat meat in Madrid.)
Los perros [animal, subject]
no comen carne [thing, object]
en Madrid [place, prepositional object].
Correr es bueno para la salud. (Running is good for your health.)
Correr [action, subject]
es bueno para la salud [idea, prepositional object].
Te ofrezco mi amistad. (I offer you my friendship.)
Te ofrezco mi amistad [idea, object].
Mi hermana viaja en tren. (My sister travels by train.)
Mi hermana [person, subject]
viaja en tren [thing, prepositional object].
As you can see, our definition seems to be spot on. However, it is incomplete. As in any other language, nouns in Spanish can be classified in different groups depending on their nature.
In English we have proper nouns (Mary), abstract nouns (love), countable nouns (book – books), collective nouns (honeycomb, archipelago), etc.
Much the same happens in Spanish. You’ve still got your proper nouns (María), abstract nouns (el amor), countable nouns (el libro – los libros) and collective nouns (panal, archipiélago). This is what you are going to master in the next few minutes of reading.
Spanish Nouns: The 9 Types of Spanish Nouns You Must Know
1. Nombres Propios (Proper Nouns)
Simply put, a proper noun is a noun used to refer to a specific and unique entity. When we say entity, we mean people, animals, buildings, oceans, cities and so on.
Proper nouns are usually written in capital letters. Here you have some examples:
el Océano Atlántico (the Atlantic Ocean)
However, this is not always the case, especially in Spanish.
Take as an example the days of the week. In English, you always capitalize them:
You do not capitalize them in Spanish:
There are a few exceptions to this, mostly related to festivities like Miércoles Santo (Holy Wednesday) and Jueves Lardero (Fat Thursday).
Another example of proper names being capitalized in English but not in Spanish are the months of the year. Indeed, if you have a look at a Spanish calendar, months will be capitalized, but this is basically for practical and aesthetic purposes.
There are a couple of other instances where the month is part of an important historical event and must be capitalized, as is the case with El Levantamiento del Dos de Mayo (The Dos de Mayo Uprising).
Apart from those exceptions, you will mainly see sentences like the following:
Estaremos de vacaciones del 23 de septiembre al 2 de octubre. (We will be on holiday from September 23 to October 2.)
Mi cumpleaños es el 27 de agosto. (My birthday is August 27.)
Viviré aquí hasta marzo. (I will live here until March.)
The third difference between English and Spanish proper names is that names of languages are capitalized in English, while being written in lower case in Spanish:
Estamos aprendiendo español. (We are learning Spanish.)
El inglés es mi idioma favorito. (English is my favorite language.)
Hablo polaco todos los días. (I speak Polish every day.)
Important note! Not capitalizing the days of the week, the months of the year or the names of languages in English is considered a spelling error. Similarly, capitalizing them in Spanish is equally an error and something you should definitely avoid, especially if you are studying for a language test or exam.
2. Nombres Comunes (Common Nouns)
A common noun is a noun used to name people, animals, things, places, abstract ideas and feelings, etc. The difference with proper nouns is that a common noun is not the name of a specific and unique entity. Have a look at the following examples:
el hombre (man)
la hermana (sister)
el cartero (postman)
el estudiante (student)
el futbolista (footballer)
el gato (cat)
el perro (dog)
el pájaro (bird)
el pez (fish)
la ardilla (squirrel)
el serpiente (snake)
el pan (bread)
el ordenador (computer)
el sofá (sofa)
el libro (book)
la mesa (table)
la silla (chair)
la tienda (shop)
el centro comercial (mall)
la escuela (school)
la iglesia (church)
la casa (house)
Abstract ideas and feelings
la amistad (friendship)
el amor (love)
el odio (hatred)
el alma (soul)
la felicidad (happiness)
Remember one very important thing: A common noun is always written in lower case, unless it is the first word in a sentence. Have a look:
No solo siento dolor. Dolor, tristeza y soledad. Esa es mi vida (I feel not only pain. Pain, sadness and loneliness. That is my life).
3. Nombres Concretos (Concrete Nouns)
The easiest way to understand what concrete nouns are is to remember your five senses. If you can see, hear, smell, taste and/or touch something (or… somebody), then you have a concrete noun. If you cannot see it, hear it, smell it, taste it or touch it, then it is not a concrete noun.
You can treat this category as a supercategory of nouns, because inside the concrete nouns bag you will have other categories such as common nouns, proper nouns, countable nouns, uncountable nouns and collective nouns.
In order for you to see this more clearly, I will give you some examples of concrete nouns and I will give you the various noun categories they belong to. Here we go:
La televisión (television)
concrete noun (you can see it, hear it and touch it)
common noun (not the name of any specific entity, like a Phillips TV)
countable (una televisión, dos televisiones)
concrete noun (you can see, hear and touch this person)
proper noun (this person’s name is Antonio)
countable (Yes! You can count proper names and say “hay tres Antonios en esta clase,” meaning “there are three Antonios in this class.”)
El elefante (elephant)
concrete noun (oh boy, you can definitely see and hear an elephant when it is around)
common noun (not the name of a specific and unique entity, like Dumbo)
countable (un elefante, dos elefantes)
La sal (salt)
concrete noun (you can see, touch and taste it)
common noun (not the name of any specific entity)
uncountable (una sal, dos sales – have a look at uncountable nouns below in order to understand them better)
El amor (love)
not a concrete noun (you can feel love, but you cannot physically interact with the abstract concept of love)
This last example is an instance of abstract noun, which will be dealt with in the following section.
4. Nombres Abstractos (Abstract Nouns)
On the other side of the coin we have abstract nouns, which are nouns with which we cannot interact in any way. We cannot see them, hear them, smell them, taste them or touch them. You can, however, feel them and think about them, so please do not think they are useless!
Here you have some examples of abstract nouns:
el amor (love)
el alma (soul)
la verdad (truth)
la amistad (friendship)
la felicidad (happiness)
la idea (idea)
el pensamiento (thought)
la soledad (loneliness)
5. Nombres Animados (Animate Nouns)
This group is really, really easy. Animate nouns refer to living beings (people, animals and any other kind of living creature). Examples of animate nouns can be:
el hermano (brother)
el perro (dog)
el vecino (neighbor)
los amigos (friends)
el dragón (dragon)
el elfo (elf)
There are times when we personify objects, giving them life. This kind of noun is called Animate Inanimate Nouns. Examples of these can be seen in almost every cartoon or Disney-like movie, or can be found in fantasy books and books about the supernatural.
Some animate inanimate nouns can be some of the characters from “Beauty and the Beast” and our beloved Pinocchio. Also, any toy a child treats like a living thing and gives a “voice” to is equally animate for them!
6. Nombres Inanimados (Inanimate Nouns)
As you may have already guessed, inanimate nouns are those used to refer to lifeless things. It can be an object, a place, a thought, an idea, a feeling and so on. Remember, though, that inanimate nouns can become animate! (See the last section.)
Examples of inanimate nouns are:
el tostador (toaster)
el libro (book)
el vaso (glass)
la tristeza (sadness)
el parque (park)
el limón (lemon)
la ansiedad (anxiety)
la pared (wall)
Here you have an example of an inanimate noun which has been “brought to life” by me:
Mi muñeca me dijo que tenía frío. (My doll told me she was cold.)
7. Nombres Individuales vs Nombres Colectivos (Individual Nouns vs Collective Nouns)
Individual and collective nouns are easier to understand when explained together.
On the one hand, individual nouns are nouns that refer to a single entity (person, animal or thing).
On the other hand, collective nouns refer to a single group composed of multiple entities (people, animals or things).
There is one very important thing you need to understand before going on. Individual/collective does not mean singular/plural, nor does it mean uncountable/countable! You will have collective names in both the singular and the plural, and you will have collective nouns that are uncountable, paradoxically!
The best way to understand and see this is by using some examples:
(student bodies) – rarely used
As you can see, the word abeja is a common, individual noun, which has a plural form because it is countable. If you want to refer to the “group” formed by bees, you will have to use the common, collective noun, enjambre, which is also countable—hence the plural form, enjambres.
On the other hand, when referring to the institution of “the police,” the word policía is uncountable, so this is a collective uncountable noun.
Since I have just mentioned countable and uncountable nouns, let me tell you a little more about them.
8. Nombres Contables vs Nombres Incontables (Countable Nouns vs Uncountable Nouns)
These two are really easy to understand.
Countable nouns are those that can be counted. A great number of nouns both in Spanish and English are countable. If you have a singular noun and can count it, like un árbol, dos árboles, tres árboles (one tree, two trees, three trees), then the noun is countable.
Some examples of Spanish countable nouns are:
un coche (one car)
dos coches (two cars)
tres coches (three cars)
un lápiz (one pencil)
dos lápices (two pencils)
tres lápices (three pencils)
una mesa (one table)
dos mesas (two tables)
tres mesas (three tables)
Not only things can be countable. People and animals can be countable too! Have a look:
un hermano (one brother)
dos hermanos (two brothers)
tres hermanos (three brothers)
un gato (one cat)
dos gatos (two cats)
tres gatos (three cats)
On the other hand, we have uncountable nouns. Uncountable nouns are those nouns that cannot be counted.
This group includes liquids (agua/water), powders and spices (azúcar/sugar, sal/salt), a lot of abstract nouns (inteligencia/intelligence), feelings and sensations (frío/coldness) and some food (queso/cheese).
Other examples of uncountable nouns are:
As you can see in the last examples, the fact that a noun is uncountable does not mean it cannot end in -s.
Normally, an uncountable noun ending in -s in English will also be uncountable in Spanish, though the Spanish translation will often have a different ending (you will find some exceptions in bold below):
Then what do we do if we want “more” of any uncountable thing?
In this case, we will have to use what we call unidades (units) in Spanish. You already use units in your everyday life, so this will actually be easier than you may think. Once you have found the perfect unit for your noun, you will be able to have more of it without having to be grammatically incorrect, because units are always countable.
There are literally thousands of different units you could. However, for the sake of time and space, I am going to use some of the most common ones. Let’s keep things easy. Here you go:
un vaso (glass)
un vaso de agua (one glass of water)
dos vasos de agua (two glasses of water)
una pizca (pinch)
una pizca de sal (one pinch of salt)
dos pizcas de sal (two pinches of salt)
un kilo (kilo)
un kilo de harina (one kilo of flour)
dos kilos de harina (two kilos of flour)
una botella (bottle)
una botella de vino (one bottle of wine)
dos botellas de vino (two bottles of wine)
una barra (bar, loaf)
una barra de jabón (one bar of soap)
dos barras de jabón (two bars of soap)
Here you have some other useful Spanish units. Can you guess what they mean in English?
Here are their English definitions. See how you did!
I am sure you have heard many times, be it in English or in Spanish, things like dos cafés (two coffees) or tres panes (three breads). I used to call people who speak like this “lazy,” so please forgive me if you are one of them. We all have to accept that more and more people take the shortest route and omit the unit, but bear in mind that if you are studying for an official exam, you will need to know the full form.
9. Nombres Compuestos (Compound Nouns)
Compound nouns are those which are made up of two or more words. There are different ways to form compound nouns, but the most common ones, both in Spanish and in English, are combinations of:
a noun + a noun
a noun + an adjective
a verb + a noun
You will find some common Spanish compound nouns in the following examples, but keep in mind that they will not necessarily be compound nouns in English.
paraguas [parar (verb) + aguas (noun)] (umbrella)
sacacorchos [sacar (verb) + corchos (noun)] (corkscrew) ← also a compound noun in English!
pelirrojo [pelo (noun) + rojo (adjective)] (redhead) ← also a compound noun in English!
mapamundi [mapa (noun) + mundo (noun)] (world map)
As you can see, the mechanisms to create compound nouns in English and in Spanish are very similar. However, there is a difference between Spanish and English compound nouns that has always caught my attention: The majority of Spanish compound nouns end in -s in their singular form!
What happens is that they take the plural form of the second word in the compound, which is normally a noun. This may seem like nonsense, but I am sure you will be happy to hear that 95 percent of these nouns don’t change when forming the plural, so that’s one less thing to worry about.
Here you have some examples of Spanish compound nouns ending in -s and their plural forms:
el abrelatas / los abrelatas [abrir + latas] (can opener)
el cascanueces / los cascanueces [cascar + nueces] (nutcracker) ← also a compound noun in English!
el pararrayos / los pararrayos [parar + rayos] (lightning rod)
el rompecabezas / los rompecabezas [romper + cabezas] (jigsaw puzzle)
el salvavidas / los salvavidas [salvar + vidas] (life jacket)
See? Both singular and plural are the same. Just remember to use the correct form of the article.
As you have been able to observe, Spanish nouns are very similar to English nouns. They have practically the same categories and subcategories, and the rules they follow are, generally, very much the same.
I know there are other word categories that are also very important, but I think nouns are probably the most important one. Our existence would be so boring and meaningless without nouns to name the people, animals and things around us!
I hope you have enjoyed this post and you are now an expert in Spanish nouns.
Stay smart, and keep on learning!
Francisco J. Vare loves teaching and writing about grammar. He’s a proud language nerd, and you’ll normally find him learning languages, teaching students or reading. He’s been writing for FluentU for many years and is one of their staff writers.