What Is a Common Noun? | Definition & Examples

A common noun is a noun that describes a type of person, thing, or place or that names a concept. Common nouns are not capitalized unless they appear at the start of a sentence, unlike proper nouns, which are always capitalized.

Common nouns include the names of different jobs, plants and animals, geographical features, abstract ideas, objects, and many other things.

Examples: Common nouns in a sentence
The cat climbed the tree in an attempt to catch a bird.

Inequality is a major problem in many societies.

The farmer said his name was Tom.

Common nouns vs. proper nouns

Common nouns are defined by contrast with proper nouns. That means that all nouns are either common or proper (though the same noun can be both, in different contexts).

What Is a Proper Noun?
  • Common nouns are general: they usually name classes of things, people, and places rather than specific things, people, and places. They are only capitalized at the start of a sentence, and they can be modified by articles, determiners, and adjectives.
  • Proper nouns are the names of specific individuals, things, places, companies, etc. They are always capitalized and typically not modified by articles, determiners, or adjectives.
Examples: Common and proper nouns
My grandmother’s name is Delilah.

Bill Gates is the co-founder of Microsoft.

World War II was the largest military conflict in history.

Common nouns that can become proper nouns

Common nouns can often become proper (i.e., gain capitalization) when they are used as a name, or as part of a name.

For example, nouns designating family roles, such as “dad,” are common in most cases. But when they’re used directly as a name, without any articles or other determiners, they become proper and gain capitalization.

Examples: Capitalization of family roles
My dad always told me to be more self-confident.

Thanks, Grandma!

In a similar way, nouns that act as titles (e.g., “president,” “archbishop,” “professor”) are capitalized only when they’re used as part of the name of someone holding that title.

Examples: Capitalization of jobs and titles
The current president of the United States is President Biden.

The current archbishop of Canterbury is Archbishop Justin Welby.

The cardinal directions (north, east, south, west) are common nouns in most cases. But they become proper when used with a cultural or political meaning or in the name of a specific location.

Examples: Capitalization of cardinal directions
We’re heading to the west on the highway.

There is no longer a country called East Germany.

Countries categorized as part of the Global South are often still in the process of industrializing.

Note
Common nouns representing important concepts are sometimes capitalized in a literary context to emphasize their importance (e.g., “Nature,” “Truth”).

Conversely, proper nouns sometimes become so general in their meaning that they turn into common nouns. For example, “thermos” was originally a brand name, and therefore capitalized, but is now used more generally to refer to any vacuum flask.

Academic concepts are usually common nouns

One common mistake is to assume that concepts, theories, models, and frameworks are proper nouns, and therefore capitalize them. In fact, they are usually common nouns, although they may include proper nouns (or proper adjectives), which should be capitalized.

Examples: Concepts, theories, models and frameworks
The scientific study of mind and behavior is called psychology. It’s often confused with psychiatry.

The Akaike information criterion evaluates how well a model fits the data it was generated from.

A revolution in scientific thought was initiated by Einstein’s theory of relativity.

In the late 18th century, German idealism responded to ideas from the dominant schools of thought at the time, rationalism and empiricism.

Note
This is a general guideline, not a universal rule—some similar terms are usually capitalized (e.g., “Romanticism,” “Type II error”). If you’re not sure whether to capitalize a specific term, it’s a good idea to check how it’s done in other published texts from your field.

Other interesting language articles

If you want to know more about nouns, pronouns, verbs, and other parts of speech, make sure to check out some of our other language articles with explanations and examples.

Frequently asked questions about common nouns

What’s the difference between common and proper nouns?

Common nouns are words for types of things, people, and places, such as “dog,” “professor,” and “city.” They are not capitalized and are typically used in combination with articles and other determiners.

Proper nouns are words for specific things, people, and places, such as “Max,” “Dr. Prakash,” and “London.” They are always capitalized and usually aren’t combined with articles and other determiners.

Are seasons capitalized?

The names of seasons (e.g., “spring”) are treated as common nouns in English and therefore not capitalized. People often assume they are proper nouns, but this is an error.

The names of days and months, however, are capitalized since they’re treated as proper nouns in English (e.g., “Wednesday,” “January”).

Are academic concepts capitalized?

No, as a general rule, academic concepts, disciplines, theories, models, etc. are treated as common nouns, not proper nouns, and therefore not capitalized. For example, “five-factor model of personality” or “analytic philosophy.”

However, proper nouns that appear within the name of an academic concept (such as the name of the inventor) are capitalized as usual. For example, “Darwin’s theory of evolution” or “Student’s t table.”

Sources in this article

We strongly encourage students to use sources in their work. You can cite our article (APA Style) or take a deep dive into the articles below.

This Scribbr article

Caulfield, J. (2022, November 16). What Is a Common Noun? | Definition & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved December 9, 2022, from https://www.scribbr.com/nouns-and-pronouns/common-nouns/

Sources

Aarts, B. (2011). Oxford modern English grammar. Oxford University Press.

Butterfield, J. (Ed.). (2015). Fowler’s dictionary of modern English usage (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.

Garner, B. A. (2016). Garner’s modern English usage (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.

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Jack Caulfield

Jack is a Brit based in Amsterdam, with an MA in comparative literature. He writes for Scribbr and reads a lot of books in his spare time.