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