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What Is a Descriptive Noun?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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A descriptive noun serves to indicate a specific person, place, thing, or idea in a way that is intentionally evocative or descriptive rather than being general. It still provides the basic function of a noun within a clause, but does so in a way that is more expressive than some other nouns. The word “dog,” for example is a noun but is not inherently descriptive of any particular breed or type of dog; while a word like “spaniel” or “poodle” indicates a clearer concept. A descriptive noun can be either a common or proper noun and should be capitalized as appropriate.

Use of a descriptive noun in a sentence often provides more specific meaning without the need for adjectives that may make the sentence too wordy. Descriptive words can provide just as much meaning and imagery in a single word as multiple words may otherwise be required to create. A simple sentence that lacks a descriptive noun, or verbs, would be, “The dog walked into the room.” This is grammatically sound as a sentence, containing a subject in the form of the noun phrase, “The dog,” a predicate, “walked,” and a direct object in the form of a prepositional phrase, “into the room.”

The sentence, however, is fairly boring and can be made much more interesting through the inclusion of expressive words, which might be added or used as a substitution for existing words in the sentence. While an adjective could be used, such as “The big dog,” it is often preferable for a writer to avoid these types of statements and “show” that the dog is big rather than “telling” the reader that it is. Use of a descriptive noun such as “great Dane” indicates that the dog is big by specifying the type of dog that it is; the writer shows the size to the reader rather than telling the reader that it is big.

A descriptive verb could be used to make the sentence even more evocative and interesting. Rather than, “The dog walked into the room,” the sentence could be rewritten as, “The great Dane sauntered into the library.” The verb “sauntered” indicates a particular type of walk, which is preferable to “slowly walked,” and a second descriptive noun can be used to indicate exactly what type of room the dog has entered. Much like any other type of noun, a descriptive noun can be common, such as “librarian,” or proper, like “New York,” and should be capitalized accordingly.

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Discussion Comments

By StarJo — On Jan 06, 2013

Descriptive nouns are really powerful in poetry. Boring nouns really have no place in short works like this, and the more descriptive you can be in just a few words, the better the poem will be.

By DylanB — On Jan 05, 2013

@giddion – I think that descriptive verbs can do great things in combination with descriptive nouns. I recall changing both in the same sentence in school for a bigger impact.

Like the article mentioned, turning “walked” into “sauntered” makes for a more detailed image. In your sentence, I might say, “The zinnia towered in the garden,” but if given the choice, I would also add the adverb “majestically” to really spice things up.

By giddion — On Jan 05, 2013

We all start out writing the most basic sentences in elementary school. Once we have a good grasp on what the parts of a sentence are, we move on to descriptive nouns.

I remember first hearing about how to use one in place of a boring noun to add interest. Just a simple substitution could really make a sentence more colorful.

My teacher started with the sentence, “The flower grew in the yard.” She switched to descriptive nouns and turned it into, “The zinnia grew in the garden.” That was the most simple example, but it was the start of a change in my writing for the better.

By Oceana — On Jan 04, 2013

It sounds like a descriptive noun is any type of noun that isn't overly generic. In this case, there are limitless possibilities!

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