Common vs. Proper Nouns: A Simple Guide

Today, we’re going to check out nouns, specifically, we’re going to explore two types: common and proper nouns and why they matter.

A noun is the name of a person, place, or thing.

Nouns are divided into two classes—proper nouns and common nouns. What is the difference between proper and common nouns?

What are Common Nouns?

First up, common nouns. These are the generic names for people, places, or things. They’re not capitalized unless they start a sentence. Think of words like:

♦ city
♦ teacher
♦ street
♦ town
♦ desk
♦ tree
♦ cloud
♦ idea
♦ thought
♦ letter

♦ In the sentence The dog barked loudly, dog is a common noun.

What are Proper Nouns?

Now, let’s talk about proper nouns. These are the specific names of people, places, or things. They always start with a capital letter. Examples include:

♦ New York City
♦ Rover
♦ Mrs. Smith
♦ Lincoln
♦ Napoleon
♦ Ruth
♦ America
♦ Monday
♦ December
♦ Richardson

♦ In the sentence Rover barked at Mrs. Smith in New York City, Rover, Mrs. Smith, and New York City are proper nouns.

Morphology is a big help for writers. It helps you pick the right words, grasp word meanings, and write well-organized sentences. Morphological awareness contributes to improved writing style and expression.

Differences Between Common and Proper Nouns

Understanding the difference is crucial. Common nouns are general names, while proper nouns are specific.

♦ river (common noun)
♦ Mississippi River (proper noun)

Proper nouns always get a capital letter, while common nouns usually begin with a small letter (unless they begin a sentence).

A proper noun is a specific name that can belong to multiple people or places, like the name James. But when we use it, we’re usually referring to one specific individual. But when we say a common noun like man, we’re not talking about one person in particular. Instead, were referring to an entire group or class of people.

Changing from One to the Other

You might wonder if proper and common nouns can switch. The short answer is yes, they can.

When a Common Noun Becomes Proper

A common noun becomes a proper noun when used as the particular name of a ship, a newspaper, an animal, etc.

♦ Common Noun: We adopted a cat.
♦ Proper Noun: We adopted a cat and named her Whiskers.

♦ Common Noun: They visited the park.
♦ Proper Noun: They visited Central Park in New York.

♦ Common Noun: She started a business.
♦ Proper Noun: She started a business called Bright Ideas Tech.

In each of these sentences, a common noun (like cat, park, business) is given a specific name or identity, turning it into a proper noun.

When a Proper Noun Becomes Common

When you use a proper noun as a name for any object in a class, it becomes a common noun.

♦ Proper Noun: They Googled the restaurant’s location.
♦ Common Noun: Nowadays, people often google things they don’t know.

♦ Proper Noun: I bought a Jacuzzi for my home.
♦ Common Noun: Many luxury homes have a jacuzzi in the bathroom.

♦ Proper Noun: He’s a real Romeo.
♦ Common Noun: The guy she met was a total Romeo, charming and romantic.

In these examples, a brand name or specific name (Google, Jacuzzi, Romeo) is used to describe a general category or type, making it a common noun.

Exceptions to the Rules

Like everything else in grammar, there are a few exceptions to the rules.

Certain Proper Nouns

Certain Proper words have turned into everyday words if we use them specifically. They also usually start with a small letter.

Kleenex: Originally a brand name for tissues, but now often used to refer to any brand of facial tissue.
Band-Aid: A brand name for adhesive bandages, but commonly used to refer to any adhesive bandage, regardless of the brand.
Xerox: Originally the name of a company known for its photocopiers, its now frequently used as a verb or noun to mean photocopying.
Google: This is the name of the internet search engine, but its also widely used as a verb meaning to search for something online.
Photoshop: A brand of image-editing software that has become synonymous with altering digital images, regardless of the software used.
Tupperware: A brand name for plastic storage containers, often used to refer to any plastic food storage containers.

These terms have become so common that people use them without even knowing they started as brand names.

Personification of Common Nouns

Personification is when you treat something non-human, like an object, animal, or even an emotion, as if it were a human. This means giving it human qualities or behaviours.

This usage is known as personification, and we attribute personification to the object, animal, or quality.

♦ Example: Time crawled.
Time is described as if it could crawl like a human.

♦ Example: The old car groaned as it started.
The car is given a human-like ability to groan.

♦ Example: Jealousy reared its ugly head.
Jealousy, an emotion, is portrayed as a person doing an action.

When you give something a name, its considered a proper noun and should start with a capital.

Proper Nouns and Groups of Words

Proper nouns can include a combination of words, some of which are usually used for other things.

♦ Eiffel Tower
♦ North Lexington Junction
♦ Stony Brook
♦ Westminster Abbey
♦ White House
♦ Brooklyn Bridge
♦ Flatiron Building

These are actually ‘noun-phrases’, but since they’re all specific names, so we say they are proper nouns.

The Importance of Common and Proper Nouns

Distinguishing between common and proper nouns isn’t just a grammatical exercise; it’s essential for clear and effective communication. The type of noun we choose can significantly alter the meaning and specificity of our sentences, which is crucial in both writing and speech.

When we use a common noun, like apples, we are referring to a general category or group. Saying I love apples implies a general preference for all kinds of apples, specifying no particular type. It’s inclusive, covering every variety of apple out there.

However, when we switch to a proper noun like Granny Smith, we’re getting specific. I love Granny Smith apples doesn’t just express a love for apples; it zeroes in on a particular variety of apple. This level of detail can totally transform what the sentence means. It’s like saying I have a strong preference, not just a general one.

This distinction becomes even more crucial in different contexts. For instance, in a business setting, saying we need to improve our website’s content (using the common noun content) is much vaguer than saying we need to improve our blog’s SEO articles (using more specific terms). The second choice, with proper nouns and more specific language, makes it easier to understand what exactly needs to be done.

Knowing and using this difference can improve your communication skills.

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Exercises for Practice

Try identifying the common and proper nouns in the following sentence, then hit the toggle to find the answers.
1. Last summer, Emily visited Paris and saw the Eiffel Tower.
2. Mike loves eating at McDonalds, especially for their Big Mac.
3. The Mississippi River flows through several American states.
4. In biology class, Mrs. Johnson taught us about the human heart.
5. David’s favourite book is Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone.
6. She drives a Toyota, but her dream car is a Ferrari.
7. The Brooklyn Bridge is a famous landmark in New York City.
8. During the Renaissance, artists like Leonardo da Vinci changed art forever.
9. Mount Everest is the highest mountain in the world.
10. Many people read the New York Times for daily news.

Click on the + button for the answers

1. Last summer, Emily visited Paris and saw the Eiffel Tower.
Proper Nouns: Emily, Paris, Eiffel Tower
Common Nouns: summer

2. Mike loves eating at McDonald’s, especially for their Big Mac.
Proper Nouns: Mike, McDonald’s, Big Mac
Common Nouns: eating

3. The Mississippi River flows through several American states.
Proper Nouns: Mississippi River, American
Common Nouns: river, states

4. In biology class, Mrs. Johnson taught us about the human heart.
Proper Nouns: Mrs. Johnson
Common Nouns: biology class, human heart

5 David’s favourite book is ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’.
Proper Nouns: David, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Common Nouns: book

6. She drives a Toyota, but her dream car is a Ferrari.
Proper Nouns: Toyota, Ferrari
Common Nouns: car, dream

7. The Brooklyn Bridge is a famous landmark in New York City.
Proper Nouns: Brooklyn Bridge, New York City
Common Nouns: landmark

8. During the Renaissance, artists like Leonardo da Vinci changed art forever.
Proper Nouns: Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci
Common Nouns: artists, art

9. Mount Everest is the highest mountain in the world.
Proper Nouns: Mount Everest
Common Nouns: mountain, world

10. Many people read the New York Times for daily news.
Proper Nouns: New York Times
Common Nouns: people, news, day

Try writing your own sentences using both types of nouns.

Common and Proper Noun Tips

1. Introduce Proper Nouns Clearly: When introducing a proper noun for the first time, give a bit of context to help the reader understand.
2. Be Mindful of Cultural Differences: Some words may be proper nouns in one culture and common nouns in another.
3. Distinguish Between Similar Names: If you have characters or places with similar names, make sure to distinguish them clearly for your readers.
4. Check Geographical Names: Be accurate with geographical names; these are always proper nouns.
5. Historical Events as Proper Nouns: Refer to historical events with their proper names for clarity and accuracy.
6. Capitalize Derived Proper Nouns: If a proper noun is derived from a common noun (like American from America), remember to capitalize it.
7. Use Common Nouns for Universality: Common nouns can make your message more universal and widely understandable.

8. Create Contrast: Use the contrast between a common noun and a proper noun for dramatic or comedic effects.
9. Respect Trademarked Names: Be aware of trademarked proper nouns and use them appropriately.
10. Play with Personification: You can use common nouns in a personified way to add creativity to your writing.

Last Words on Proper and Common Nouns

So, there you have it! A simple breakdown of common and proper nouns. Remember, common nouns are general, proper nouns are specific, and capitalization matters. Keep these tips in mind, and watch your writing clarity improve!

Happy writing!



Feature Image by Peter H from Pixabay.



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