1. Definition ____________________________3
2. Categories of Nouns____________________5
3. Forms of Nouns _______________________6
4. Assaying for Noun_____________________ 6
5. Collective Nouns, Company Names, Family Names,
Sports Teams ____________ 7
1. Plural Noun Forms_________________________9
2. Plural Compound Nouns____________________11
3. Special Cases______________________________12
4. Plurals and Apostrophes___________________ 13
5. Singular Subjects, Plural Predicates________14
In traditional school grammars, one often encounters the definition of
nouns that they are all and only those expressions that refer to a
person, place, thing, event, substance, quality, or idea, etc. This is a
semantic definition. It has been criticized by contemporary linguists as
being quite uninformative. Part of the problem is that the definition
makes use of relatively general nouns (“thing,” “phenomenon,” “event”)
to define what nouns are. The existence of such general nouns shows us
that nouns are organized in taxonomic hierarchies. But other kinds of
expressions are also organized in hierarchies. For example all of the
verbs “stroll,” “saunter,” “stride,” and “tread” are more specific words
than the more general “walk.” The latter is more specific than the verb
“move.” But it is unlikely that such hierarchies can be used to define
nouns and verbs. Furthermore, an influential theory has it that verbs
like “kill” or “die” refer to events, and so they fall under the
definition. Similarly, adjectives like “yellow” or “difficult” might be
thought to refer to qualities, and adverbs like “outside” or “upstairs”
seem to refer to places. Worse still, a trip into the woods can be
referred to by the verbs “stroll” or “walk.” But verbs, adjectives and
adverbs are not nouns, and nouns aren’t verbs. So the definition is not
particularly helpful in distinguishing nouns from other parts of speech.
The common semantic definition of nouns in the US is: a noun refers to a
person, place, or thing. Unfortunately, this definition doesn’t work:
running is a noun and it refers to an activity; goodness is a noun and
it refers to a quality. Semantic definitions of nouns are all
problematic but a reasonable rule of thumb is a noun treats things in
the real world as (concrete or abstract) objects or substances.
A noun is the name of a person, place, thing, or idea. Whatever exists,
we assume, can be named, and that name is a noun. A proper noun, which
names a specific person, place, or thing (Carlos, Queen Marguerite,
Middle East, Jerusalem, Malaysia, Presbyterianism, God, Spanish,
Buddhism, the Republican Party), is almost always capitalized. A proper
noun used as an addressed person’s name is called a noun of address.
Common nouns name everything else, things that usually are not
A group of related words can act as a single noun-like entity within a
sentence. A Noun Clause contains a subject and verb and can do anything
that a noun can do:
What he does for this town is a blessing.
A Noun Phrase, frequently a noun accompanied by modifiers, is a group of
related words acting as a noun: the oil depletion allowance; the
abnormal, hideously enlarged nose.
There is a separate section on word combinations that become Compound
Nouns — such as daughter-in-law, half-moon, and stick-in-the-mud.
Another semantic definition of nouns is that they are prototypically
referential. That definition is also not very helpful in distinguishing
actual nouns from verbs. But it may still correctly identify a core
property of nounhood. For example, we will tend to use nouns like “fool”
and “car” when we wish to refer to fools and cars, respectively. The
notion that this is prototypocal reflects the fact that such nouns can
be used, even though nothing with the corresponding property is referred
John is no fool.
If I had a car, I’d go to Marakech.
The first sentence above doesn’t refer to any fools, nor does the second
one refer to any particular car.
The British logician Peter Thomas Geach proposed a very subtle semantic
definition of nouns. He noticed that adjectives like “same” can modify
nouns, but no other kinds of parts of speech, like verbs or adjectives.
Not only that, but there also doesn’t seem to exist any other
expressions with similar meaning that can modify verbs and adjectives.
Consider the following examples.
Good: John and Bill participated in the same fight.
Bad: *John and Bill samely fought.
There is no English adverb “samely.” In some other languages, like
Czech, however there are adverbs corresponding to “samely.” Hence, in
Czech, the translation of the last sentence would be fine; however, it
would mean that John and Bill fought in the same way: not that they
participated in the same fight. Geach proposed that we could explain
this, if nouns denote logical predicate with identity criteria. An
identity criterion would allow us to conclude, for example, that “person
x at time 1 is the same person as person y at time 2.” Different nouns
can have different identity criteria. A well known example of this is
due to Gupta:
National Airlines transported 2 million passengers in 1979.
National Airlines transported (at least) 2 million persons in 1979.
Given that, in general, all passengers are persons, the last sentence
above ought to follow logically from the first one. But it doesn’t. It
is easy to imagine, for example, that on average, every person who
travelled with National Airlines in 1979, travelled with them twice. In
that case, one would say that the airline transported 2 million
passengers but only 1 million persons. Thus, the way that we count
passengers isn’t necessarily the same as the way that we count persons.
Put somewhat differently: At two different times, you may correspond to
two distinct passengers, even though you are one and the same person.
For a precise definition of identity criteria, see Gupta.
Recently, the linguist Mark Baker has proposed that Geach’s definition
of nouns in terms of identity criteria allows us to explain the
characteristic properties of nouns. He argues that nouns can co-occur
with (in-)definite articles and numerals, and are “prototypically
referential” because they are all and only those parts of speech that
provide identity criteria. Baker’s proposals are quite new, and
linguists are still evaluating them.
Categories of Nouns
Nouns can be classified further as count nouns, which name anything that
can be counted (four books, two continents, a few dishes, a dozen
buildings); mass nouns (or non-count nouns), which name something that
can’t be counted (water, air, energy, blood); and collective nouns,
which can take a singular form but are composed of more than one
individual person or items (jury, team, class, committee, herd). We
should note that some words can be either a count noun or a non-count
noun depending on how they’re being used in a sentence:
a. He got into trouble. (non-count)
b. He had many troubles. (countable)
c. Experience (non-count) is the best teacher.
d. We had many exciting experiences (countable) in college.
Whether these words are count or non-count will determine whether they
can be used with articles and determiners or not. (We would not write
“He got into the troubles,” but we could write about “The troubles of
Some texts will include the category of abstract nouns, by which we mean
the kind of word that is not tangible, such as warmth, justice, grief,
and peace. Abstract nouns are sometimes troublesome for non-native
writers because they can appear with determiners or without: “Peace
settled over the countryside.” “The skirmish disrupted the peace that
had settled over the countryside.” See the section on Plurals for
additional help with collective nouns, words that can be singular or
plural, depending on context.
Forms of Nouns
Nouns can be in the subjective, possessive, and objective case. The word
case defines the role of the noun in the sentence. Is it a subject, an
object, or does it show possession?
· The English professor [subject] is tall.
· He chose the English professor [object].
· The English professor’s [possessive] car is green.
Nouns in the subject and object role are identical in form; nouns that
show the possessive, however, take a different form. Usually an
apostrophe is added followed by the letter s (except for plurals, which
take the plural “-s” ending first, and then add the apostrophe). See the
section on Possessives for help with possessive forms. There is also a
table outlining the cases of nouns and pronouns.
Almost all nouns change form when they become plural, usually with the
simple addition of an -s or -es. Unfortunately, it’s not always that
easy, and a separate section on Plurals offers advice on the formation
of plural noun forms.
Assaying for Nouns
Back in the gold rush days, every little town in the American Old West
had an assayer’s office, a place where wild-eyed prospectors could take
their bags of ore for official testing, to make sure the shiny stuff
they’d found was the real thing, not “fool’s gold.” We offer here some
assay tests for nouns. There are two kinds of tests: formal and
functional — what a word looks like (the endings it takes) and how a
word behaves in a sentence.
· Formal Tests
1. Does the word contain a noun-making morpheme? organization,
misconception, weirdness, statehood, government, democracy,
philistinism, realtor, tenacity, violinist
2. Can the word take a plural-making morpheme? pencils, boxes
3. Can the word take a possessive-making morpheme? today’s, boys’
· Function Tests
4. Without modifiers, can the word directly follow an article and create
a grammatical unit (subject, object, etc.)? the state, an apple, a crate
5. Can it fill the slot in the following sentence: “(The) _________
seem(s) all right.” (or substitute other predicates such as
unacceptable, short, dark, depending on the word’s meaning)?
Collective Nouns, Company Names, Family Names, Sports Teams
There are, further, so called collective nouns, which are singular when
we think of them as groups and plural when we think of the individuals
acting within the whole (which happens sometimes, but not often).
the] numberpublicstaffteamThus, if we’re talking about eggs, we could
say “A dozen is probably not enough.” But if we’re talking partying with
our friends, we could say, “A dozen are coming over this afternoon.” The
jury delivers its verdict. [But] The jury came in and took their seats.
We could say the Tokyo String Quartet is one of the best string
ensembles in the world, but we could say the Beatles were some of the
most famous singers in history. Generally, band names and musical groups
take singular or plural verbs depending on the form of their names: “The
Mamas and the Papas were one of the best groups of the 70s” and
“Metallica is my favorite band.”
Note that “the number” is a singular collective noun. “The number of
applicants is steadily increasing.” “A number,” on the other hand, is a
plural form: “There are several students in the lobby. A number are here
to see the president.”
Collective nouns are count nouns which means they, themselves, can be
pluralized: a university has several athletic teams and classes. And the
immigrant families kept watch over their herds and flocks.
The word following the phrase one of the (as an object of the
preposition of) will always be plural.
· One of the reasons we do this is that it rains a lot in spring.
· One of the students in this room is responsible.
Notice, though, that the verb (“is”) agrees with one, which is singular,
and not with the object of the preposition, which is always plural.
When a family name (a proper noun) is pluralized, we almost always
simply add an “s.” So we go to visit the Smiths, the Kennedys, the
Grays, etc.When a family name ends in s, x, ch, sh, or z, however, we
form the plural by added -es, as in the Marches, the Joneses, the
Maddoxes, the Bushes, the Rodriguezes. Do not form a family name plural
by using an apostrophe; that device is reserved for creating possessive
When a proper noun ends in an “s” with a hard “z” sound, we don’t add
any ending to form the plural: “The Chambers are coming to dinner” (not
the Chamberses); “The Hodges used to live here” (not the Hodgeses).
There are exceptions even to this: we say “The Joneses are coming over,”
and we’d probably write “The Stevenses are coming, too.” A modest
proposal: women whose last names end in “s” (pronounced “z”) should
marry and take the names of men whose last names do not end with that
sound, and eventually this problem will disappear.
The names of companies and other organizations are usually regarded as
singular, regardless of their ending: “General Motors has announced its
fall lineup of new vehicles.” Try to avoid the inconsistency that is
almost inevitable when you think of corporate entities as a group of
individuals: “General Motors has announced their fall lineup of new
vehicles.” But note that some inconsistency is acceptable in all but the
most formal writing: “Ford has announced its breakup with Firestone
Tires. Their cars will no longer use tires built by Firestone.” Some
writers will use a plural verb when a plural construction such as
“Associates” is part of the company’s title or when the title consists
of a series of names: “Upton, Vernon, and Gridley are moving to new law
offices next week” or “Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego & Associates have won
all their cases this year.” Singular verbs and pronouns would be correct
in those sentences, also.
The names of sports teams, on the other hand, are treated as plurals,
regardless of the form of that name. We would write that “The Yankees
have signed a new third baseman” and “The Yankees are a great
organization” (even if we’re Red Sox fans) and that “For two years in a
row, the Utah Jazz have attempted to draft a big man.” When we refer to
a team by the city in which it resides, however, we use the singular, as
in “Dallas has attempted to secure the services of two assistant coaches
that Green Bay hopes to keep.” (This is decidedly not a British
practice. In the UK, the city or country names by which British
newspapers refer to soccer teams, for example, are used as plurals — a
practice that seems odd and inconsistent to American ears: “A minute’s
silence will precede the game at Le Stadium today, when Toulouse play
Munster, and tomorrow at Lansdowne Road, when Leinster attempt to reach
their first European final by beating Perpignan” [report in the online
Plural Noun Forms
The plural form of most nouns is created simply by adding the letter s.
· more than one snake = snakes
· more than one ski = skis
· more than one Barrymore = Barrymores
Words that end in -ch, x, s or s-like sounds, however, will require an
-es for the plural:
· more than one witch = witches
· more than one box = boxes
· more than one gas = gases
· more than one bus = buses
· more than one kiss = kisses
· more than one Jones = Joneses
Note that some dictionaries list “busses” as an acceptable plural for
“bus.” Presumably, this is because the plural “buses” looks like it
ought to rhyme with the plural of “fuse,” which is “fuses.” “Buses” is
still listed as the preferable plural form. “Busses” is the plural, of
course, for “buss,” a seldom used word for “kiss.”
There are several nouns that have irregular plural forms. Plurals formed
in this way are sometimes called mutated (or mutating) plurals.
· more than one child = children
· more than one woman = women
· more than one man = men
· more than one person = people
· more than one goose = geese
· more than one mouse = mice
· more than one barracks = barracks
· more than one deer = deer
And, finally, there are nouns that maintain their Latin or Greek form in
the plural. (See media and data and alumni, below.)
· more than one nucleus = nuclei
· more than one syllabus = syllabi
· more than one focus = foci
· more than one fungus = fungi
· more than one cactus = cacti (cactuses is acceptable)
· more than one thesis = theses
· more than one crisis = crises*
· more than one phenomenon = phenomena
· more than one index = indices (indexes is acceptable)
· more than one appendix = appendices (appendixes is acceptable)
· more than one criterion = criteria
A handful of nouns appear to be plural in form but take a singular verb:
· The news is bad.
· Gymnastics is fun to watch.
· Economics/mathematics/statistics is said to be difficult. (“Economics”
can sometimes be a plural concept, as in “The economics of the situation
demand that . . . .”)
Numerical expressions are usually singular, but can be plural if the
individuals within a numerical group are acting individually:
· Fifty thousand dollars is a lot of money.
· One-half of the faculty is retiring this summer.
· One-half of the faculty have doctorates.
· Fifty percent of the students have voted already.
And another handful of nouns might seem to be singular in nature but
take a plural form and always use a plural verb:
· My pants are torn. (Nowadays you will sometimes see this word as a
singular “pant” [meaning one pair of pants] especially in clothing ads,
but most writers would regard that as an affectation.)
· Her scissors were stolen.
· The glasses have slipped down his nose again.
When a noun names the title of something or is a word being used as a
word, it is singular whether the word takes a singular form or not.
· Faces is the name of the new restaurant downtown.
· Okies, which most people regard as a disparaging word, was first used
to describe the residents of Oklahoma during the 1930s.
· Chelmsley Brothers is the best moving company in town.
· Postcards is my favorite novel.
· The term Okies was used to describe the residents of Oklahoma during
the 1930s. (In this sentence, the word Okies is actually an appositive
for the singular subject, “term.”)
Plural Compound Nouns
Compound words create special problems when we need to pluralize them.
As a general rule, the element within the compound that word that is
pluralized will receive the plural -s, but it’s not always that simple.
Daughters-in-law follows the general rule, but cupfuls does not. See the
special section on Compound Nouns and Modifiers or, better yet, a good
dictionary, for additional help.
With words that end in a consonant and a y, you’ll need to change the y
to an i and add es.
· more than one baby = babies
· more than one gallery = galleries(Notice the difference between this
and galleys, where the final y is not preceded by a consonant.)
· more than one reality = realitiesThis rule does not apply to proper
· more than one Kennedy = Kennedys
Words that end in o create special problems.
· more than one potato = potatoes
· more than one hero = heroes. . . however . . .
· more than one memo = memos
· more than one cello = cellos. . . and for words where another vowel
comes before the o . . .
· more than one stereo = stereos
Plurals of words that end in -f or -fe usually change the f sound to a v
sound and add s or -es.
· more than one knife = knives
· more than one leaf = leaves
· more than one hoof = hooves
· more than one life = lives
· more than one self = selves
· more than one elf = elves
There are, however, exceptions:
· more than one dwarf = dwarfs
· more than one roof = roofs
When in doubt, as always, consult a dictionary. Some dictionaries, for
instance, will list both wharfs and wharves as acceptable plural forms
of wharf. It makes for good arguments when you’re playing Scrabble. The
online version of Merriam-Webster’s WWWebster Dictionary should help.
Plurals and Apostrophes
We use an apostrophe to create plural forms in two limited situations:
for pluralized letters of the alphabet and when we are trying to create
the plural form of a word that refers to the word itself. Here we also
should italicize this “word as word,” but not the ‘s ending that belongs
to it. Do not use the apostrophe+s to create the plural of acronyms
(pronounceable abbreviations such as laser and IRA and URL*) and other
abbreviations. (A possible exception to this last rule is an acronym
that ends in “S”: “We filed four NOS’s in that folder.”)
· Jeffrey got four A’s on his last report card.
· Towanda learned very quickly to mind her p’s and q’s.
· You have fifteen and’s in that last paragraph.
Notice that we do not use an apostrophe -s to create the plural of a
word-in-itself. For instance, we would refer to the “ins and outs” of a
mystery, the “yeses and nos” of a vote (NYPL Writer’s Guide to Style and
Usage), and we assume that Theodore Bernstein knew what he was talking
about in his book Dos, Don’ts & Maybes of English Usage. We would also
write “The shortstop made two spectacular outs in that inning.” But when
we refer to a word-as-a-word, we first italicize it — I pointed out the
use of the word out in that sentence. — and if necessary, we pluralize
it by adding the unitalicized apostrophe -s — “In his essay on
prepositions, Jose used an astonishing three dozen out’s.” This practice
is not universally followed, and in newspapers, you would find our
example sentence written without italics or apostrophe: “You have
fifteen ands in that last paragraph.”
Some abbreviations have embedded plural forms, and there are often
inconsistencies in creating the plurals of these words. The speed of an
internal combustion engine is measured in “revolutions per minute” or
rpm (lower case) and the efficiency of an automobile is reported in
“miles per gallon” or mpg (no “-s” endings). On the other hand, baseball
players love to accumulate “runs batted in,” a statistic that is usually
reported as RBIs (although it would not be terribly unusual to hear that
someone got 100 RBI last year — and some baseball commentators will talk
about “ribbies,” too). Also, the U.S. military provides “meals ready to
eat” and those rations are usually described as MREs (not MRE). When an
abbreviation can be used to refer to a singular thing — a run batted in,
a meal ready-to-eat, a prisoner of war — it’s surely a good idea to form
the plural by adding “s” to the abbreviation: RBIs, MREs, POWs. (Notice
that no apostrophe is involved in the formation of these plurals.
Whether abbreviations like these are formed with upper- or lower-case
letters is a matter of great mystery; only your dictionary editor knows
Notice, furthermore, that we do not use an apostrophe to create plurals
in the following:
· The 1890s in Europe are widely regarded as years of social decadence.
· I have prepared 1099s for the entire staff.
· Rosa and her brother have identical IQs, and they both have PhDs from
· She has over 400 URLs* in her bookmark file.
Singular Subjects, Plural Predicates, etc.
We frequently run into a situation in which a singular subject is linked
to a plural predicate:
· My favorite breakfast is cereal with fruit, milk, orange juice, and
Sometimes, too, a plural subject can be linked to singular predicate:
· Mistakes in parallelism are the only problem here.
In such situations, remember that the number (singular or plural) of the
subject, not the predicate, determines the number of the verb. See the
section on Subject-Verb Agreement for further help.
A special situation exists when a subject seems not to agree with its
predicate. For instance, when we want each student to see his or her
counselor (and each student is assigned to only one counselor), but we
want to avoid that “his or her” construction by pluralizing, do we say
“Students must see their counselors” or “Students must see their
counselor”? The singular counselor is necessary to avoid the implication
that students have more than one counselor apiece. Do we say “Many sons
dislike their father or fathers”? We don’t mean to suggest that the sons
have more than one father, so we use the singular father. Theodore
Bernstein, in Dos, Don’ts and Maybes of English Usage, says that
“Idiomatically the noun applying to more than one person remains in the
singular when (a) it represents a quality or thing possessed in common
(“The audience’s curiosity was aroused”); or (b) it is an abstraction
(“The judges applied their reason to the problem”), or (c) it is a
figurative word (“All ten children had a sweet tooth”) (203). Sometimes
good sense will have to guide you. We might want to say “Puzzled, the
children scratched their head” to avoid the image of multi-headed
children, but “The audience rose to their foot” is plainly ridiculous
and about to tip over.
In “The boys moved their car/cars,” the plural would indicate that each
boy owned a car, the singular that the boys (together) owned one car
(which is quite possible). It is also possible that each boy owned more
than one car. Be prepared for such situations, and consider carefully
the implications of using either the singular or the plural. You might
have to avoid the problem by going the opposite direction of
pluralizing: moving things to the singular and talking about what each
Our course work was investigated from different kind of sources. We
chose exactly nouns as a subject of investigation because we think that
it is not completely investigated. Whether or not a noun is uncountable
is determined by its meaning: an uncountable noun represents something
which tends to be viewed as a whole or as a single entity, rather than
as one of a number of items which can be counted as individual units.
Singular verb forms are used with uncountable nouns. The indefinite
articles a, an and numbers are not normally used with uncountable nouns
, e.g. My grammar checker gave me a useful feed back. Please give me an
information about how to access the library on the web. (The plural form
some could, however, be used here –I need some information
about…..)There are several ways to express quantity for uncountable
nouns, e.g. I read an interesting news this morning. An interesting item
of news Could I borrow a paper to make notes? A sheet/a piece of paper
Teachers should be able to give students useful advices about oral
presentations. some useful advice.
Nouns that can be Countable and Uncountable
Sometimes, the same noun can be countable and uncountable, often with a
change of meaning.
Countable UncountableThere are two hairs in my coffee!hairI don’t have
much hair.There are two lights in our bedroom.lightClose the curtain.
There’s too much light!Shhhhh! I thought I heard a noise.noiseIt’s
difficult to work when there is too much noise.Have you got a paper to
read? (= newspaper)paperI want to draw a picture. Have you got some
paper?Our house has seven rooms.roomIs there room for me to sit here?We
had a great time at the party.timeHave you got time for a coffee?Macbeth
is one of Shakespeare’s greatest works.workI have no money. I need work!
Uncountable nouns are substances, concepts etc that we cannot divide
into separate elements. We cannot “count” them. For example, we cannot
count “milk”. We can count “bottles of milk” or “litres of milk”, but we
cannot count “milk” itself. Here are some more uncountable nouns:
· music, art, love, happiness
· advice, information, news
· furniture, luggage
· rice, sugar, butter, water
· electricity, gas, power
· money, currency
We usually treat uncountable nouns as singular. We use a singular verb.
· This news is very important.
· Your luggage looks heavy.
We do not usually use the indefinite article a/an with uncountable
nouns. We cannot say “an information” or “a music”. But we can say a
· a piece of news
· a bottle of water
· a grain of rice
We can use some and any with uncountable nouns:
· I’ve got some money.
· Have you got any rice?
We can use a little and much with uncountable nouns:
· I’ve got a little money.
· I haven’t got much rice.
Countable nouns are easy to recognize. They are things that we can
count. For example: “pen”. We can count pens. We can have one, two,
three or more pens. Here are some more countable nouns:
dog, cat, animal, man, person
bottle, box, litre
coin, note, dollar
cup, plate, fork
table, chair, suitcase, bag
Countable nouns can be singular or plural:
My dog is playing.
My dogs are hungry.
We can use the indefinite article a/an with countable nouns:
A dog is an animal.
When a countable noun is singular, we must use a word like a/the/my/this
I want an orange. (not I want orange.)
Where is my bottle? (not Where is bottle?)
When a countable noun is plural, we can use it alone:
I like oranges.
Bottles can break.
We can use some and any with countable nouns:
I’ve got some dollars.
Have you got any pens?
We can use a few and many with countable nouns:
I’ve got a few dollars.
I haven’t got many pens.
1. A Brief Handbook by Ann Raimes. Houghton Mifflin: New York. 1996.
2. Laycock, Henry. (2005) ‘Mass nouns, Count nouns and Non-count nouns’
Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Oxford: Elsevier.
3. “Theoretical grammar of the English language” B.S. Khaimovich, B.I.
Rogovskaya. Moscow, 1967 y.
4. Laycock, Henry. (2006) Words without Objects. Oxford: Clarendon
5. Merrifield, William (1959). Classification of Kiowa nouns.
International Journal of American Linguistics, 25, 269-271.
6. “Morphology of the English language?.I.Smirnitcky. Moscow, 1959 y.
7. Mithun, Marianne (1999). The languages of native North America (pp.
81-82, 444-445). Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-23228-7.
8. Sprott, Robert (1992). Jemez syntax. (Doctoral dissertation,
University of Chicago, USA).
9. « Modern English language» (Theoretical course grammar) V.N.
Zhigadlo, I.P. Ivanova, L.L. Iofik. Moscow, 1956 y.
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