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Common Nouns and Proper Nouns Explained 

Grammatical errors steal the spotlight from everything else on the page. As a result, your intention can be lost by seemingly small grammatical errors. Or worse, all of your hard work can be written off altogether when these minor mistakes are seen as a distraction. 

With words you can change the world. You can also change your meaning. The proper noun and common noun rules you learned as a kid can certainly come back to haunt you. Or you can deepen your understanding and use both proper nouns and common nouns to wield a special kind of power. By way of example, here are some ways to accidentally—or intentionally—use nouns incorrectly. 

Remember how those boring common nouns are always written in lower-case, unless they’re at the beginning of a sentence? Well, proper nouns get all the glory, and must always be capitalized to show their powerful proper noun status. If you really want to shake things up, ignore the rules of capitalization for a proper noun and reduce the person “Albert Einstein”  from a person to a common thing:

  • albert einstein 

You don’t need to forget the rules for correctly wielding common noun vs proper noun use to send a message. In language, we have all kinds of power when it comes to expressing our disdain or dislike for someone without having to state it directly. 

For example, try getting all willy-nilly with quotation marks and put Einstein’s name inside some scare quotes. Similar to pairing air quotes with an eye-roll when speaking, scare quotes around common nouns and proper nouns allow you to subtly register your criticism without the pesky challenge of having to specify or defend it. This works well for both proper nouns and common nouns:

  • “Albert Einstein”

Capitalizing a name is easy to remember, but the rules get trickier when the distinction between proper nouns and common nouns begins to blur. Is it History class or history class? High School or high school? Almost everything looks like a  proper noun in a title; how do you define proper noun use? Is there a way to tell the difference between a common noun vs proper noun usage? 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 and define proper noun use once and for all.

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 distinguish between common nouns and proper nouns, and more.

Common Noun vs Proper Noun

A common noun refers to a general person, place, thing, or idea. They are only capitalized when they begin a sentence or when they are part of a title. Basically every thing is a type of noun. 

A proper noun explicitly names a particular person, place, thing, or idea. Let’s look at some examples.

Common noun words Proper noun words
  • country
  • king
  • movie
  • war
  • period
  • theory
  • Australia
  • King Kamehameha
  • Star Wars
  • World War II
  • Jurassic Period
  • Big Bang Theory


Let’s look at another example that distinguishes the common noun vs proper noun usage in a sentence.

Example:

  • The word web is a common noun and goes uncapitalized except in a title of a book or novel, such as in Charlotte’s Web, which is an example of many proper noun words that come from typically common nouns.

Proper nouns and common nouns enjoy some shared properties: 

  • Both common nouns and proper nouns refer to a person, place, thing, or idea. 
  • Both can be a subject or an indirect object in a sentence. 
  • Both common nouns and proper nouns can also be in noun phrases that are part of prepositional phrases, adjective phrases, and adverb phrases where the proper nouns and common nouns are the objects in these sentences.
  • Both common nouns and proper nouns 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. Typically, names are always proper noun words, both first and last, and therefore it is easy to see the difference between common noun vs proper noun usage. The definition of a proper noun is exemplified by names, given that the original reason to create a proper noun was to provide a proper title for an individual.  

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 comes from the belief that fewer and less are synonyms. They are not. A common noun tends to be used with these quantifiers or actual numerical values. Technically, as we will see below, proper noun words can actually be quantified as both count and noncount determiners.

Count nouns/words can be counted and used directly with quantifiers or numerical values. Let’s look at examples using the count nouns cat, bean, and tree.

Quantifiers:

  • Many cats
  • Several beans
  • A few trees

Numerical values:

  • Two cats 
  • Four beans 
  • Twenty-two trees

Mass nouns/words are not usually considered countable. These are words such as blame, sugar, and knowledge. For example, you can’t have three blames. In other words, you can only describe “how much” of a mass noun using terms of quantity—like a lot of, a little of, a bunch of— or in relation to a countable noun. Here are examples:

Terms of quantity:

  • All the blame
  • A lot of sugar
  • A little knowledge

In relations to a countable noun:

  • Two cups of sugar
  • Several branches of knowledge

A proper noun can be used with count or non-count determiners and numerical values directly. For example:

  • There are twelve Laurens on the college campus.

Check out this example that shows both count and non-count common nouns and proper nouns in a single sentence

Example:

  • Both Marys in this apartment complex have four cats and a complete lack of knowledge about cats.

There are proper noun words – or two Marys – in this sentence. Each Mary can count her cats (a common noun), indicating that cats is a count term. A decrease in cats would be stated as fewer cats. Fewer refers to numerical value, typically four or less. 

Neither Mary can count her knowledge, however, as it’s a mass term. Any further decrease in her knowledge would result in less knowledge. Less 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 look specifically at the definition of a proper noun to define proper noun use. If you’re still not sure how to count or measure various terms, our grammar check can help.

Proper Nouns

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

Linguists make further distinctions between the definition of a proper noun versus the definition of a proper name. Wikipedia does as good a job as anyone in explaining the difference based again on the definition of a proper noun and its syntactic role. Click site to learn more. While interesting, you can understand common nouns and proper nouns without learning these distinctions by understanding how to define proper noun use in the first place.

The most apparent reason for knowing how to properly understand the definition of a proper noun was demonstrated with our friend Einstein 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 considered to define proper noun use?).

What else needs to be capitalized to further define proper noun use? Other proper nouns include 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? Good, 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, and actually show where stress and intonation play a role in speech. There’s a reason that you can HEAR caps-locked words and phrases when they’re shouted, even on paper, at you. So it is with names: you can hear the capitalization in them even if you’re not aware of it, and the voicing you stress when you see a proper noun and common noun will actually be placed on the proper noun in speech. This is one of those weird implicit grammar things you learn as a child subconsciously that you continue into adulthood. Capitalization reflects this natural stress on a proper noun in writing. 

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 use 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 is to define proper noun usage, and show this in your writing. In the quote above, for example, man serves as both a proper noun and common noun. In instances where a word can serve both proper noun and common noun functions, its meaning determines its case. Below is a not exhaustive common and proper nouns list:

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…

 

Typically if given a common and proper nouns list like the one above, you begin to notice a pattern. 

 

By definition of a proper noun, proper nouns tend to include specific information. 

  • Mother Teresa is a specific person 
  • Advil is a specific brand
  • Starbucks is a specific coffee chain

 

Telling the difference between a proper noun and common noun gets easier the more you understand nouns as a whole. Once you are able to define proper noun use, determining what are common nouns is easier. Hopefully the common and proper nouns list above helped

When in doubt, create your own common and proper nouns list to reinforce your understanding; and refer back to this guide if you find yourself lost among all the persons, places, things, and personified ideas of the world!

 

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