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What Is an Inanimate Noun?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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An inanimate noun indicates a place, thing, or idea that is non-living, such as the words "rock," "house," and "love." In the English language, these types of nouns do not typically take on a possessive form through the addition of an apostrophe and "s" that is commonly used with other types of nouns. Some research indicates that young people tend to prefer to make an inanimate noun the object of a sentence, which can result in passive voice. These types of words are in contrast to animate nouns, which indicate living people, animals, and other organisms such as "woman," "boy," and "cat."

There are a wide range of words that qualify as an inanimate noun, since it can apply to just about any non-living thing, location, or concept. For the most part, these nouns are used in much the same way as animate ones, though there are a few important distinctions. An inanimate noun does not usually have a possessive form in English through the use of "-'s" as a suffix. Rather than saying "The car's door," most English speakers simply say "the car door." There are exceptions to this, however, such as "yesterday's news" or "the clock's minute hand."

The words "that" and "which" are typically used as part of a modifying clause after an inanimate noun. This can be seen in sentences like "The car that was blue" or "The rock, which I gave to my friend, was petrified wood." In contrast to this, "who" is often used to refer to an animate noun that indicates a person, like "The boy who cried wolf."

Research with young English speakers has also demonstrated a natural tendency to use an inanimate noun as the object of a sentence, rather than the subject. This works well for sentences like "The boy hit the ball," or "The cat jumped onto a chair," as the animate noun is performing the action. Using an inanimate noun as an object can lead to passive voice in a sentence, however, which can be a problem in writing.

Many young people, and even experienced writers, want to naturally use the animate noun as the "doer" of a sentence. In an expression like "The blanket fell on the cat," however, the inanimate noun is the subject performing the action of the sentence. If this is rewritten as "The cat was under the falling blanket," then it becomes a passive sentence. The subject is no longer performing the action, which can make it somewhat boring or less dynamic and interesting to read.

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Discussion Comments
By Kristee — On Jul 27, 2012

I tend to avoid making inanimate nouns possessive. For example, instead of saying, “the clock's minute hand,” I would say, “the minute hand of the clock.”

I've noticed that I use the preposition “of” a lot in my writing. A friend pointed that out to me as well, so I have been trying to limit my use of it to when I'm referring to inanimate nouns.

I'm not sure why I do this. I guess I just think it sounds more logical and personifies the object less than an apostrophe and an “s” would.

By seag47 — On Jul 26, 2012

Wow! “The cat was under the falling blanket,” would be a horrible way to describe this scene! If I read a book that was written with sentences constructed in this way, then I wouldn't read it for very long!

Active voice generally is better, though I hate to admit it. My English professor drilled this into my head years ago, and I always argued that sometimes, the passive voice needed to be used, and the word “was” really was necessary at times.

I never knew that about young people tending to use inanimate nouns in that way, though. It's interesting how our writing develops and changes over time.

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