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 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).
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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
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