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English Nouns: Common and Proper

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English Nouns: Common and Proper

A noun can be defined semantically as “a word that names a person, place, thing, or idea.” In English, nouns can be singular or plural. Singular means “one.” Plural means “not one.” English nouns can also be possessive or non-possessive. English nouns can be classified into categories: common and proper.

Common Nouns

A common noun refers to a general, nonspecific referent. Common nouns are generally not capitalized unless at the beginning of the sentence or within a title.

The term common means “belonging to all, owned or used jointly, general, of a public nature or character” and comes from the Old French comun meaning “common, general, free, open, public,” which comes from Latin communis “in common, public, shared by all or many; general, not specific; familiar, not pretentious.” The term common in the context of common nouns does not mean “ordinary” but refers rather to a noun that denotes an entire group rather than a specific member of the group.

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Examples of common nouns include:

  • girl
  • boy
  • man
  • woman
  • city
  • town
  • street
  • avenue
  • state
  • country
  • movie
  • show
  • book
  • today
  • yesterday
  • month
  • band
  • mountain
  • forest
  • park

Common nouns contrast with proper nouns.

Proper Nouns

A proper noun refers to a specific, unique referent. Proper nouns such as particular persons, places, organizations, companies, titles, religions, languages, nationalities, ethnicities, months, and days are always capitalized in written English.

The term proper means “adapted to some purpose, fit, apt” and comes from the Old French propre meaning “own, particular,” which comes from Latin proprius meaning “one’s own, particular to itself” and pro privo meaning “for the individual, in particular.” The term proper in the context of proper nouns does not mean “right or correct” but refers rather to a noun that denotes a particular member of a group rather than an entire group.

Many common nouns include more than one word and are therefore a phrase rather than a word. Capitalize all nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs that form a proper noun phrase. Generally do not capitalize determiners, conjunctions, and prepositions except at the beginning of the proper noun phrase.

Examples of proper nouns include:

  • Heather
  • James
  • Dr. Smith
  • Mrs. Johnson
  • Chicago
  • New York City
  • First Street
  • Pennsylvania Avenue
  • California
  • United States of America
  • The Avengers: Endgame
  • Curious George
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
  • Wednesday
  • Thursday
  • December
  • The Backstreet Boys
  • Mount Denali
  • Rocky Mountain National Forest
  • Central Park

Common or Proper

Some nouns can be common or proper depending on context.

  • I call my mom Mom.
  • The professor asked to be addressed as Professor.
  • The Moon is a moon.
  • That Whopper I had for lunch was a whopper!
  • My sister Kitty wants to get a kitty.
  • The east river is the East River.
  • The Grand Canyon is indeed a grand canyon.
  • I ate an apple while I used my Apple.
  • I lost my keys in the Keys.

Nouns are words that denote a person, place, thing, or idea. English nouns can be categorized as common or proper.

CommonProper
girlHeather
boyJames
manDr. Smith
womanMrs. Johnson
cityChicago
townNew York City
streetFirst Street
avenuePennsylvania Avenue
stateCalifornia
countryUnited States of America
movieThe Avengers: Endgame
showCurious George
bookHarry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
todayWednesday
yesterdayThursday
monthDecember
bandThe Backstreet Boys
mountainMount Denali
forestRocky Mountain National Forest
parkCentral Park

References

Faigley, Lester. 2003. The brief Penguin handbook. New York: Pearson Longman.

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Written by Heather Johnson

Heather is a writer, librarian, linguist, wife, and mother who loves her husband, children, dogs, and cat. She has a bachelor's degree in English with a minor in creative writing and master's degrees in library and information science and English studies with a concentration in linguistics.

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