What Is a Proper Noun? | Definition & Examples

A proper noun is a noun that serves as the name for a specific place, person, or thing. To distinguish them from common nouns, proper nouns are always capitalized in English.

Proper nouns include personal names, place names, names of companies and organizations, and the titles of books, films, songs, and other media.

Examples: Proper nouns in a sentence
I’ve never been to Egypt.

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Mr. Smith’s class is reading Much Ado About Nothing.

Her favorite Michael Jackson song was “Human Nature.”

Proper nouns vs. common nouns

Proper nouns are defined by contrast with common nouns—that is, if a noun isn’t proper, it’s common, and vice versa.

  • Proper nouns name specific people, things, and places. They are always capitalized.
  • Common nouns are more general—they name generic types of people, things, and places. They are normally only capitalized at the start of a sentence.
Examples: Proper and common nouns
Barbara’s cat is named Whiskers.

Reza is a teaching assistant at Belmont High School.

The Apollo 11 mission was the first time that humans (Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin) walked on the surface of the Moon.

What Is a Proper Noun?

Articles with proper nouns

Unlike common nouns, proper nouns usually stand on their own, not preceded by any articles or determiners. For example, to refer to someone called Sunita, you usually wouldn’t say “the Sunita,” “a Sunita,” or “that Sunita” but simply “Sunita.”

There are exceptions to this rule, though. The names of some countries and other kinds of organization are preceded by a definite article (“the”)—these are names partially made up of nouns that are usually common, such as “republic” or “association.” The article itself isn’t capitalized.

Examples: Proper nouns with definite articles
Tensions are increasing between the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China.

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Additionally, some proper nouns are always pluralized, and they tend to be preceded by a definite article (which isn’t capitalized).

Examples: Pluralized proper nouns
Many climbers dream of traveling to the Himalayas.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, life in Northern Ireland was disrupted by the Troubles.

It’s also possible to treat proper nouns more like common nouns—for example, to refer collectively to several people or things with the same name, or to distinguish between them. In these cases, articles, determiners, adjectives, and pluralization are used in the same way as for common nouns.

Examples: Proper nouns treated as common nouns
The Smiths are a nice family.

No, I don’t mean that Jocelyn, I mean blonde Jocelyn.

I knew a Marieke once.

London is actually quite a common place name. There are 11 Londons in North America alone.

Nouns that can be either proper or common

Many common nouns designating roles become proper when they’re used as (part of) the name of a specific person with that role. For example, words for family roles are capitalized only when they’re used in the same way as names (without any articles or determiners).

Examples: Capitalization of family roles
My mom says I have to be back in time for dinner.

Is Grandpa coming with us?

Nouns that act as titles (e.g., political, religious, or professional titles) are only capitalized when they are used as part of the name of a specific person holding that title.

Examples: Capitalization of jobs and titles
Johnson now acts as the chief executive officer of the company.

The pope who launched the Crusades was Pope Urban II.

The 16th president of the United States was President Lincoln.

The cardinal directions (compass directions: north, east, south, and west) are treated as common nouns. But they’re capitalized when they’re used as part of the name of a specific place or region, or when they’re used in a political or cultural sense.

Examples: Capitalization of cardinal directions
To the north, you’ll see another important landmark.

My family lives in South Carolina.

During the Cold War, the world was divided into two opposing political camps, East and West.

Proper adjectives

Adjectives that are derived from proper nouns (and therefore capitalized) are sometimes referred to as proper adjectives. These are often words designating a specific nationality, language, or ethnic group (e.g., “Dutch”) or words derived from a person’s name (e.g., “Machiavellian”).

Examples: Proper adjectives
My mother is Moroccan and my father is Brazilian.

I really struggle with German grammar.

I can’t stand bureaucracy. I find it so Kafkaesque.

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 proper 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.

What is a proper adjective?

A proper adjective is an adjective that was derived from a proper noun and is therefore capitalized.

Proper adjectives include words for nationalities, languages, and ethnicities (e.g., “Japanese,” “Inuit,” “French”) and words derived from people’s names (e.g., “Bayesian,” “Orwellian”).

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”).

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, December 02). What Is a Proper Noun? | Definition & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved December 8, 2022, from https://www.scribbr.com/nouns-and-pronouns/proper-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.