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Getting Smarter through Language

Common and Proper Nouns

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Nouns are words that name or identify general people, places, things, or ideas. See the examples below.

These are nouns that name people: man, woman, child, teacher, boss, driver, scientist, and so on.

These are nouns that name places: city, country, kitchen, river, lake, school, church, hospital, and so on.

These are nouns that name things: chair, flower, mouse, pencil, photograph, sandwich, and so on.

These are nouns that name ideas: comfort, energy, success, memory, friendship, love, peace, dream, and so on.

Common Nouns

Common nouns identify objects in general. When you say “the president of the United States,” the word “president” is a common noun. It does not name a specific president.

When you say “the lake was very cold,” the word “lake” is a common noun. It does not refer to a specific lake; It is just the lake I went to.

In the sentences below, the common nouns are in bold:

  • I want to go to the lake this weekend.
  • Many people learn English for their jobs.
  • Would you like a green apple or a banana?
  • The weather in the mountains is cold this time of the year.

Proper Nouns

Proper nouns name or identify a unique or specific person, place, or thing.

Why is it important to know the difference between a common and a proper noun? You must capitalize When you write a proper noun, it must be capitalized.

Compare these example sentences

Example A

  1. They talked to the president about the problem.
  2. They talked to President Joe Biden about the problem.

In Sentence 1, the word “president” is used as a common noun, so it is written in lowercase.

In Sentence 2, the word “president” is part of the name of the president; it is his title, so it is used as a proper noun and is capitalized.

Example B

  1. I gave my son an apple.
  2. I gave my son an Apple computer.

In Sentence 3, “apple” is used as a common noun. It is just an apple, so you write it in lowercase.

In Sentence 4, “Apple” is used as a proper noun. It refers to the name of a specific brand of computers, so you must capitalize it.

Example C. Compare how “mountains” is capitalized in these sentences:

  1. What are these montains called?
  2. They are called the Rocky Mountains.

In Sentence 5, “mountains” is a common noun, so it is not capitalized.

In Sentence 6, “Mountains” is a proper noun part of the name of the mountains (the Rocky Mountains), so it is capitalized.

Categories of Proper Nouns

Proper noun can be further categorized as names (or proper names), brands, appelations, and nouns of address (job titles and family relationships). Let’s look at definitions and examples of these.

Names of People, Places, Brands, Publications...

Proper names are always capitalized. This includes

  • people’s names;
  • names of places: France, New York City, the “Amazon River”;
  • brand names: McDonald’s, Honda, Sina Weibo, Microsoft, Instagram, Twitter; and
  • names of books, magazines, newspapers, and other publications: The New York Times, National Geographic, Harry Potter,
  • Good morning, Patrick.
  • I saw Mary Johnshon and her husband at the party.
  • Before he was elected president of the United States, Joe Biden was a senator from Delaware.
  • What are you reading, Maria? — I’m reading “The Lord of the Rings” by J. R. R. Tolkien.
  • I hear that the Rocky Mountains in Colorado are beautiful in the spring.

Appellations and Job Titles

Sometimes you add another words to a person’s name. This is called an appellation.

Similarly, a job title can also be added to the name or used by itself (without the person’s name) to refer to that person.

Appellations and job titles become part of the person’s name, so they are also capitalized. See the examples below.

Appelations

  • I am watching Queen Elizabeth on TV.
  • John the Baptist is a character in the Bible.
  • After the interview, Senator Smith left the room quickly.
  • The reporters have many important questions for President Biden.

Job titles

  • How are you today, Dr. Gonzalez?
  • Good morning, Doctor.
  • Nice to meet you, Mr. President.
  • Is Professor Franco teaching this course this semester?

Practice

Complete a short exercise to assess what you have learned.

Concrete and Abstract Nouns

Nouns can also be categorized into concrete and abstract nouns. See Concrete and Abstract Nouns for more information.

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