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Common Nouns and Proper Nouns Explained in Under Five Minutes

“All I need is a sheet of paper and something to write with, and then I can turn the world upside down.”

— Friedrich Nietzsche

Grammatical errors steal the spotlight from everything else on the page. As Nietzsche said, with words you can change the world. You can also change your meaning. By way of example, here are some ways to accidentally—or intentionally—insult Nietzsche with poor grammar as your only weapon:

Ignore the rules of capitalization for a proper noun and reduce him from a person to a common thing:

  • friedrich nietzsche

You don’t need to forget the rules for correctly wielding a proper noun and common noun to send a message. Try getting all willy-nilly with quotation marks and put his name inside some scare quotes. Similar to pairing air quotes with an eye-roll when speaking, scare quotes allow you to subtly register your criticism without the pesky challenge of having to specify or defend it:

  • “Friedrich Nietzsche”

Capitalizing a name is easy to remember, but the rules get trickier when the distinction between common and proper begins to blur. Is it History class or history class? High School or high school? Almost everything looks proper in a title; which are common? And what about sources that use sentence case in their titles?

Take a deep breath.

If your words aren’t working for you, they’re working against you. Keep reading to get them back on your side.

If what’s stressing you out is related to citing, try Citation Machine Plus. Our plagiarism checker will flag text that may need a citation, while our citing tools can help you create citations in APA, MLA format, and more styles. In the meantime, this guide is here to help you learn how to define proper noun, and more.

Common Noun vs Proper Noun

Proper nouns and common nouns enjoy some shared properties. Both refer to a person, place, thing, or idea. Both can be a subject or a complement in a sentence. Both identify and name ourselves, others, and everything around us.

Names are one of the cultural universals according to anthropologists: no society is able to get along without them. And it’s this process of naming that forks the road to create the definition of a proper noun and distinguishes it from its common cousin.

The common form refers in general terms to a person, place, thing, or idea. They are only capitalized when they begin a sentence or when they are part of a title.

Example:

  • The word web is common and goes uncapitalized except in a title, such as Charlotte’s Web.

If you need a quick refresher on these types, head over to this informative site. The two subdivisions that cause a common usage error are count and noncount (or mass). That error precedes from the belief that fewerand less are synonyms. They are not.

Count words can be counted. These are words such as cat, bean, and tree. Mass words are not usually considered countable. These are words such as blame, sugar, and knowledge.

To measure or count a mass word, a partitive expression such as a lot of or a lack of must accompany it. Count words use determiners and numbers to show their size.

Example:

  • Mary has four cats and a complete lack of knowledge about cats.

Mary can count her cats, indicating that cats is a count term. A decrease in cats would be stated as fewer catsFewer refers to number.

She cannot count her knowledge, however, as it’s a mass term. Any further decrease in her knowledge would result in less knowledgeLess is used to measure quantity. Here’s a cautionary tale to help you remember:

Mary shoulders all the blame
for her four cats’ disdain;
disdain that’s seeping from all eight yellow eyes.
Should her less-than-stellar knowledge
go unchecked by book or college
she’ll have fewer cats, by death or otherwise.

That little doggerel is an original, and you are no doubt tempted to cite it in all of your academic work from this day forward. If you’re using quotes in your paper, head over to our plagiarism checker for help in giving proper credit. With Mary’s misdeeds behind you, it’s time to move on and define proper noun. If you’re still not sure how to count or measure various terms, our grammar check can help.

Proper Noun Words

The key to learning how to define proper noun lies in specificity. To be proper, it must explicitly name a person, place, or thing. You’ll notice idea has been left off of that list, and that is because ideas and other intangible things are rarely proper unless through personification.

Linguists make further distinctions between a proper noun and proper name. Wikipedia does as good a job as anyone in explaining it. Click site to learn more. While interesting, you can understand common nouns and proper nouns without learning these distinctions.

The most apparent reason for properly identifying a proper noun was demonstrated with our friend Nietzsche earlier: the words we capitalize are given distinction and stand apart as something unique or different. Your own name is capitalized for the same reason: it explicitly refers to you and there is only one of you.

Perhaps you want to rebel against the norm and find an example that bucks this rule. The poet E.E. Cummings stands apart, contrastingly, for lacking capitalization in his name in some of his books (e.e. cummings), which is just good fun and let’s you know what to expect from his poetry. His widow once shouted at a man for suggesting he’d legally changed his name to appear that way, however, so every writer who puts his name on paper should consider their style guide and tolerance for being hollered at before doing so. The mention of his name at the start of this paragraph follows APA format, which is available in Citation Machine. Upgrading to Citation Machine Plus will also snag you access to a grammar and plagiarism checker (notice what’s capitalized and what’s not in this sentence—can you spot what is proper?).

What else to capitalize? Specific names of people, countries, businesses, institutions, holidays, special events, or events in history. Capitalize compass directions only when they’re naming a specific section of a country, and capitalize seasons only when they are personified.

Got all that? Because there’s more.

Job titles are proper noun words depending upon their position in a sentence. The rule, with few exceptions, is to capitalize a job title before a name, but not if it comes after or instead of a name.

There’s a trick to this. Uppercase letters have a sound to them. There’s a reason that you can HEAR caps-locked words and phrases when they’re shouted on paper at you. So it is with names: you can hear the capitalization in them even if you’re not aware of it.

If you’re trying to decide whether to capitalize a job title, imagine your mother hollering it. The voice she reserves for shouting your FULL NAME when you’re in a good bit of trouble will help you define proper noun when you’re in a pinch. Try it:

Professor Plum, get down here!

                                     vs

Mr. Plum, the professor, get down here.

One of those tells Professor Plum that his moment of reckoning has arrived. The other runs out of steam fast. The option that can be yelled in utter frustration is the one that receives capitalization.

Formal epithets exist outside of this rule. Vlad the Impaler is always Vlad the Impaler. Impaler Vlad lacks the same punch.

Common and Proper Nouns List

“Don’t write about Man; write about a man.”

– E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web

A final consideration in the definition of a proper noun is usage. In the quote above, for example, man serves as both a proper noun and a common one. In instances where a word can serve both functions, its meaning determines its case. Below are some additional examples of common nouns and proper nouns.

Common Proper
my mother Mother Teresa
the diner The Tick Tock Diner
coffee shop Starbucks
hamburger Whopper
ibuprofen Advil
human Humankind
history History of Western Civilization II
algebra Algebra I
our father, Jerry Our Father, who art…