Proper nouns are a subcategory in the word family called ‘nouns.’ They are nouns that describe specific or one-of-a-kind people, animals, places, objects, ideas, or things. These things can either be ‘concrete,’ meaning that they physically exist, or they can be ‘abstract’ (e.g., emotions and feelings).
What are common and proper nouns?
In English, every noun is either a proper or common noun. Common nouns refer to a class, or group, of the same type of people, animals, places, things, and ideas. Some examples of common nouns include:
In English, each noun fits into ‘proper nouns’ or ‘common nouns.’ Let’s look at both and uncover their differences with some examples.
Common nouns always refer to a ‘class’ or ‘group’ of the same type of object, animal, place, etc. Some examples of common nouns include:
Proper nouns always refer to a specific member of that group:
- Tommy’s Cat
- Tesla Cars
Using proper nouns
Once you spot the key features of a proper noun in a sentence, they are easy to use. Next, add them to a sentence in the same way you would a common noun.
Remember! If you use proper nouns, you might need to include a determiner
Determiners are words that are often placed in front of nouns to make the word more specific; some common determiners include:
Though proper nouns don’t always need determiners, common nouns regularly do.
Examples of proper vs. common nouns
To answer the questions ‘what is a proper noun’ and ‘what is a common noun,’ look at the following examples. Notice how the proper nouns are both:
- Referring to something specific
- Always capitalized.
Common nouns require determiners more frequently than proper nouns do.
- Proper: Jeremy went to the shops.
Common: The boy went to the shops.
- Proper: Let’s throw this ball so that Rover can fetch it!
Common: Let’s throw this ball so the dog can fetch it!
- Proper: I had Cornflakes for breakfast.
Common: I had cereal for breakfast.
- Proper: My brother just came back from Australia.
Common: My brother just came back from another country.
- Proper: I bought a new iPhone.
Common: I bought a new smartphone.
Confusing proper nouns
While it is normally relatively simple to tell proper and common nouns apart, there are some instances where it is less clear which category the noun belongs to.
This could be because the noun in question can be put in either category depending on the situation or because the noun was originally a proper noun and is now often used as a common noun.
But, we still need to determine whether these nouns are proper or common when writing them to know whether to capitalize them. Bearing this in mind, let’s look at some of these confusing proper nouns and see how we can determine whether they are proper or common.
Family relationship nouns
One particularly tricky noun group is nouns that indicate a familial relationship between two people. For example, many writers, including accomplished adult writers, frequently ask themselves, “is it Mum or mum?” or “is Uncle or uncle better here?”.
This is because these nouns can be either proper or common, depending on the context.
One way to determine whether a particular instance of a family relationship noun is a proper noun is to try swapping it for a different adequate noun and see if the sentence works grammatically.
For example, if we take this sentence:
I think mum is in the shed.
And replace ‘mum’ with the proper noun ‘Sharon’:
I think Sharon is in the shed.
We can see that the sentence is grammatically correct, which therefore suggests that ‘mum’ is a proper noun in this instance and should be capitalized:
I think Mum is in the shed.
On the other hand, if we take this sentence:
I’ve heard that your uncle is great at knitting.
and you replace ‘uncle’ with the proper noun ‘Stuart.’
I’ve heard that your Stuart is great at knitting.
Another group of nouns can confuse certain brand names.
Most brand names are proper nouns, as they are the names of specific companies or company sub-sets.
However, there are a few brand names that we have come to use to refer to whole groups of items, just like common nouns. For instance, the noun ‘Hoover’ is a proper noun, but it is also used to refer to vacuum cleaners. As such, it can be easy to forget that these are proper nouns, so that you might see sentences like this:
I can’t hear you; my dad has the hoover on.
This is incorrect capitalization. Although these brand names are being used like common nouns, they are still proper nouns and should be treated as such:
I can’t hear you; my dad has the Hoover on.
Another confusing set of nouns is the seasons: summer, autumn, winter, and spring.
Many people assume that because we always capitalize the days of the week (Monday, Saturday) and the months of the year (January, May, October), the seasons, by extension, should also be capitalized.
As such, you will often see a sentence like this:
We like to visit the local gardens in the Spring.
However, this is incorrect. Seasons are common nouns and should only be capitalized at the start of sentences or as part of a title. Otherwise, sentences with seasons in them should look like this:
We like to visit the local gardens in the spring.
If this seems strange, remember that you can always try the proper noun test from above, where you replace the season with a known appropriate noun. So, if we replace ‘spring’ in the above sentence with ‘May,’ for example:
We like to visit the local gardens in May.
We can see that the resulting sentence is not grammatical and that ‘spring’ must not be a proper noun.