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From VOA Learning English, this is Everyday Grammar.

Imagine you hear a mother or father talking to a child. The parent wants the child to do well in school, but the child does not like to read books.

The exchange might sound something like this:

A: To get a good grade, the first thing you have to do is read books.

B: Why do people always tell me to read books? I don't think books are fun.

A: Lots of people don't read books – that's why they do badly in school. The last thing you want is a bad grade!

Today's Everyday Grammar program is not about reading books, nor is it about how Americans lecture their children. In fact, our report is about something very different: commonly used nouns.

Today we are going to explore two of the most commonly used nouns in American English: people and thing.

What are nouns?

A noun is traditionally defined as a word that names a place, object, or person. Nouns can be plural -- meaning more than one -- or possessive, or they can be both plural and possessive.*

You can read more about these words in an Everyday Grammar program called "Understanding Noncount Nouns." You can find it and other stories on our website, learningenglish.voanews.com.

Are nouns common in conversation?

Sometimes words take the place of nouns. These words are called pronouns. Examples include I, us, that, it and so on.

In American English, speakers use pronouns much more often than they use nouns. This information comes from Susan Conrad and Douglas Biber, two experts on English grammar.

Conrad and Biber say that Americans generally use pronouns more when speaking because they understand the activities and things that the pronouns represent.

This is not to say that nouns are never heard in everyday conversation! In fact, a few nouns are often used in conversation. Two such words are people and thing.

People

The noun people is a plural noun. It does not generally suggest a specific group of individuals. Instead, American often use people when they mean everyone.

Conrad and Biber say that people is the most commonly used noun when Americans are speaking with one another. They generally use this word to make a general statement about life.

For example, you might hear someone say "Lots of people make the same mistake," or "Why do people always criticize me?"

This use of people is considered polite and acceptable in formal and informal speech. You will hear it at school, at restaurants, in the workplace, and even in political speeches.

Thing

According to Conrad and Biber, the noun thing is almost as common in American English as the noun people.

The word thing can suggest an object, but this meaning is rare in conversation.

Instead, the word thing has several meanings.

#1 Thing refers to an event or activity

First, thing can mean an event or activity.

For example, imagine you are traveling to a city and your friend wants to make a suggestion. He or she could say "After you arrive, the first thing you should do is eat a hamburger."

#2 Thing refers to a speech or some kind of communication

Second, thing can suggest a statement or some kind of communication.

For example, you might hear students talking quietly after school: "The last thing I heard was that Tommy asked Laura to the dance."

In this sentence, thing refers to some kind of communication – in this case, a rumor – about two people going to a dance together.

#3 Thing refers to a general situation

Third, the word thing can refer to a general situation. In many cases, the speaker will give a general opinion about the situation by using an adjective.

For example, you might hear a person say "It's a good thing you bought an umbrella. I think it's going to rain today!"

The speaker is showing that they have a good opinion about the other person's decision to buy an umbrella.

Think back to the conversation

Now, think back to the exchange at the beginning of our program.

A: To get a good grade, the first thing you have to do is read books.

B: Why do people always tell me to read books! I don't think books are fun.

A: Lots of people don't read books – that's why they do badly in school. The last thing you want is a bad grade!

You will notice several uses of people and thing in this conversation.

The word people is used to make a general statement about life.

The word thing, in the example, is used to suggest a general situation in which the speaker expresses their opinion.

Our goal here is not to give you a list of all of the meanings of people and thing. Instead we want to tell you about the most common meanings of these common nouns.

Learning how these two words are used will not only help you understand Americans when they speak. Using these words will also help you sound more natural to an American.

The next time you are watching an American film or television show, try to listen to how the speakers use the nouns people and thing.

Try to use what you know about the situation to understand the meaning.

These definitions are difficult to learn, but the most important thing is that you do not give up.

I'm John Russell.

And I'm Jill Robbins.

John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.

* Nouns in English are called either count or noncount. We will not study the difference between these nouns in this report, but if you want to learn more about them, you can read our earlier Everyday Grammar program, called "Understanding Noncount Nouns"

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Words in This Story

conversation – n. an informal talk involving two people or a small group of people

lecture – v. to talk to (someone) in an angry or serious way

possessive – n. relating to a word or a form of a word that shows that something or someone belongs to something or someone else

rumor – n. information or a story that is passed from person to person but has not been proven to be true

politeadj. having or showing good manners or respect for other people

formaladj. suitable for serious or official speech and writing

informal adj. having a friendly and relaxed quality

grammar – n. the set of rules that explain how words are used in a language

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