Students of English grammar classes are often confused by the difference between what is a common and proper noun. Simply stated, a proper noun is capitalized, whereas a common noun is not. Any grammar teacher, however, will tell you that the difference goes deeper than that: there are special rules for identifying and creating proper nouns, and these might take special studying to understand completely. The English language is unique in what it considers to be proper nouns and what it considers to be common nouns. Read on to learn more about the difference between a common and proper noun, how to use them correctly in sentences, and how to come up with your own examples of each.
A common noun is any generic uncapitalized noun. Here are some examples: ball, tree, flower, moon, dog. Notice that these were all single. Here are some plural examples of common nouns: balls, trees, flowers, moons, dogs. Most of the time, these nouns end in “s” to indicate plurality.
Now, a common noun can be capitalized, but only sometimes: only at the beginning of a sentence will a common noun have its first letter in the capital case. A basic definition of a common noun is a person, place thing or idea that is not specific to a certain, particular, or named person, place, thing, or idea.
In truth, a proper noun functions exactly the same way a common noun does, in that it is a person, place, thing, or idea. However, this proper noun is capitalized. You use them the same way in a sentence as a common noun, but it retains its capitalization whether or not it is at the beginning of a sentence. Proper nouns include the days of the week, the months of the year, towns, cities, streets, states, countries, and brands.
Names are all proper nouns, too! Notice how your own first, middle, and last name are all capitalized: they are proper nouns because they indicate a specific, particular person – you!
In each of the examples below, sentence “A” uses a common noun, and sentence “B” replaces this common noun with a proper noun. See if you can tell the difference:
Whenever you see a capital, question whether or not it is a proper noun. Make sure that the capitalized word is in fact a noun: ask yourself, is it a person, place, thing, or idea? You might not be aware that there are also proper adjectives. Below, the first example contains a proper noun, and in the second example, there is a proper adjective. Can you understand the difference between the two?
In the first example, Asia is the subject of the sentence and is clearly a proper noun. In the second example, Asian is an adjective and clearly describes the kind of food.
It doesn’t often take much to know which nouns in a sentence are proper nouns, unless the proper noun is the first word in the sentence. Remember – just because it is capitalized does not mean that it is a proper noun! For this reason, most students like to practice determining the kind of noun that is the first word in the sentence. For more practice with what is a common and proper noun, read through a grammar textbook and complete the practice problems assigned by your English teacher.