Proper and Common Nouns in English Grammar
Did you know there are two kinds of noun: common nouns and proper nouns. Common nouns refer to general nouns and proper nouns refer to specific nouns.
Proper and Common Nouns
A 'noun' is a word, used as a name for a specific thing/person or a set of things/people. We use nouns to refer to everything including objects, living things, actions, places, feelings, etc.
Because the concept of a noun is very broad, they are categorized into different smaller categories. This helps us study them easier. In this article we are going to talk about nouns' classes. All nouns are categorized into one of these two categories:
- Common Nouns
- Proper Nouns
Common nouns are generic names which refer to a class of entities or an instance of a specific entity. We use them to name things, places, ideas or a type or group of people. In other words, we name common things with common nouns.
A large amount of nouns in the English language are common nouns. We can categorize them into different groups:
- Concrete nouns: nouns we can see, touch, hear, smell etc.
- Abstract nouns: nouns we cannot perceive with our five senses
- Compound nouns: nouns made up of more than one word
- Countable nouns: nouns we can count
- Uncountable nouns: nouns we cannot count
- Gender-specific nouns: nouns that are either male or female
- Collective nouns: nouns that represent a group of nouns
- Verbal nouns: nouns that are formed from verbs
Now let's look at some examples from each categories:
Usually all the grammatical rules related to nouns, is applied to common nouns, i.e. they can be plural or singular, they take a definite or indefinite articles, they can be countable or uncountable. Proper nouns are the ones that are treated specially, for example, normally they don’t have plural forms, they are always capitalized, they don’t come with an article, they are not countable normally.
Common nouns are always written in small letters and they are not capitalized, unless they come at the beginning of a sentence.
His father is a hard-working man .
Father is a common noun.
Fathers are hard-working .
'Fathers' is a plural common noun, yet it is written with capital letter cause it is at the beginning of the sentence.
As opposed to common nouns which are generic, proper nouns are specific nouns usually referring to a unique thing or a unique group of things. We use proper nouns to name people, things and places which are unique.
- Names of people: Johnny, Lisa, Tom, Max, Rafael, George Orwell, Leo Tolstoy
- The days of the week: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday
- The month of the year: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, etc.
- Countries: France, England, India, Iran, Russia, Italy, Spain
- States: New York, New Jersey, Nevada, California, Florida
- Cities: Paris, London, New Delhi, Tehran, Moscow, Rome, Madrid
- Towns: Louisville, Lockport, Adams, Harpersfield, Arcadia, Yorktown
- Streets, squares, parks: Wall Street, Houston Street, Madison Avenue, Broadway, Mosholu Parkway, Victory Boulevard, Love Lane, Madison Square, Central Park
- names of people
- names of pets
- days of the week
Notice that the words ‘street’, ‘avenue’, ‘parkway’, ‘boulevard’, ‘lane’, ‘park’, and ‘square’ are also capitalized because they are parts of the proper noun.
- Newspaper names: the New York Time, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post
- Book titles: War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Ulysses, Nausea, To Kill a Mockingbird
- Movie titles: Scarface, Last Tango in Paris, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, No Country for Old Men
Remember that a book or movie title may include other words, but not all of them are capitalized.
- Languages: English, French, Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Persian
Nouns of Address
Job and Professional Titles
When we address or refer to people by their professional or official titles instead of their actual names, the titles we use are ‘nouns of address’ and are considered proper nouns and consequently must be capitalized. However, they are common nouns in other circumstances. Take a look at the following examples:
We need your wisdom , Mr . Secretary .
Here ‘Mr. Secretary’ refers to a man who is the Secretary of State.
It’s an honor to meet you , Doctor .
Here the noun ‘Doctor’ is a title used to refer to someone who is a doctor.
Who is the executive director of this company ?
The ‘executive director’ is the title of a job, but is not preceding a proper noun, so it’s not capitalized.
I had a meeting with Executive Director Rick Sanchez .
But here, ‘Executive Director’ is preceding a proper noun. Therefore, it is capitalized.
Have you met the pope ?
Here, the noun ‘pope’ is not preceding a proper noun (in this case a particular pope); as a result, it is not capitalized.
I met Pope Francis when I was in Rome .
But here, the noun ‘Pope’ is preceding a particular pope and is used as a title. Therefore, it is capitalized.
Family Relationships or Familial Roles
When we directly address or refer to a member of our family or relatives by their titles (dad, mom, sister, aunt, etc.) instead of their actual names, we use nouns which are common nouns in other circumstances, but in this case are considered proper nouns and must be capitalized. Let’s see some examples.
I’m really sorry , Mom .
‘Mom’ is used as a noun of address. As a result, it is capitalized.
Was your mom angry ?
Here, although the word ‘mom’ is referring to a particular mom, it is not capitalized since is not addressing a person (directly).
Please tell Dad that I’m sorry .
Here, ‘Dad’ is a proper noun because it functions as one and is a noun of address.
Is your dad unemployed ?
Here although the word ‘dad’ is referring to a particular ‘dad’, but is still a common noun and is not used as a noun of address. Therefore, it is not capitalized.
Appellations are names or titles (common nouns) that we can add to people’s names. In this case, an appellation is considered a part of the proper noun they are added to. Therefore, we need to capitalize them. Let’s see how it works.
Prince Charles is the heir to the British throne .
The word ‘prince’ is a common noun that is used as a title before a proper noun. Therefore, it is capitalized.
Who is Princess Fiona ?
The word ‘princess’ is a common noun that is used as a title before a proper noun. Therefore, it is capitalized.
We consider commercial ‘brands’ as proper nouns. Although the object we refer to by a brand name may not be unique, the brand it belongs to is. Let’s see some examples.
I can’t afford to buy a new MacBook .
Here ‘MacBook’ is the name of a laptop made by Apple.
I wish to get a Porsche .
Here ‘Porsche’ is a brand of car.
I ordered a Pepsi , not Coke .
In this sentence, ‘Pepsi’ and ‘Coke’ are cola brands.
Cardinal Directions or the Directions of the Compass
We don’t capitalize the four cardinal directions unless we use them immediately before names of regions.
Have been to the west of Canada ?
Here, the word ‘west’ is not immediately preceding the proper noun ‘Canada’, so it is not capitalized.
Have you been to the West Coast ?
Here, ‘West’ is immediately preceding the word ‘Coast’, therefore it is capitalized.
We must always capitalize proper nouns whether they are at the beginning of a sentence or in the middle of one. Proper Nouns include at least one word and in some cases, more than one word. If they include more than one word, we capitalize all of them. When certain words referring to specific places or regions (such as street, road, avenue, square, boulevard, lane, parkway, park, river, ocean, sea, lake, canals, etc.) precede proper nouns, we capitalize them.
Proper adjectives are formed from certain proper nouns (names of people and places including continents, countries, cities, etc.) and like proper nouns, they must be capitalized.
Do you prefer Italian food or Chinese food ?
The words ‘Italian’ and ‘Chinese’ are both proper adjectives and respectively made from the proper nouns ‘Italy’ and ‘China’.
I married an African woman .
Here ‘African’ is a proper adjective and comes from the proper noun ‘Africa’.
Proper Nouns with and without THE (definite article)
We don’t normally use the definite article ‘the’ with proper nouns, unless it’s part of the proper noun referring to a particular place or organization (like companies, hotels, museums, etc.). The definite article ‘the’ also precedes countries with ‘States’, ‘Kingdom’, or ‘Republic’ in their names; names of canals, rivers, seas, and oceans: plural names of people and places, and names made with ‘of’. Let’s see some examples:
‘Jenifer’ is a proper noun, so ‘the’ can’t precede it.
Warner Brothers is an American entertainment conglomerate . ’
(name of a company without ‘the’)
The Wonderful Brothers Co .
(name of a company with ‘the’)