What Is a Common Noun? | Examples & Definition

Nouns and Pronouns updated on  January 9, 2024 4 min read
Common nouns are not capitalized—they are general terms for people, places, things, or ideas (e.g., “father,” “village,” “pencil,” “envy”). Proper nouns, in contrast, are always capitalized.

A common noun can name something concrete (e.g., “infant”) or abstract (e.g., “love”), including types of living organisms, inanimate objects, and intangible concepts.

Examples: Common nouns
The squirrel narrowly escaped the owl by hiding in the bushes.
In his desperation, he considered the possibility of leaving the country.
Now an old man, Bill was proud to see his grandson take over the company.

Common nouns vs proper nouns

Nouns can be categorized as either common nouns or proper nouns. Some nouns can function in both ways, depending on the context (e.g., “president” or “President Nixon”).

  • Common nouns typically name a broad category (e.g., “doctor”) rather than being the designated name of an individual (e.g., “Doctor Green”). The only situation in which a common noun is capitalized is when it begins a sentence (e.g., “Salmon can swim upstream”) or is part of a title (e.g., The Notebook). They are often modified by adjectives, articles, and determiners.
  • Proper nouns are always capitalized. They may represent specific individuals (e.g., “Joseph”), families (e.g., “Wilson”), organizations (e.g., “Apple,” “the Catholic Church”), places (e.g., “Dubai”), racial or ethnic groups (e.g., “First Nations”), or landmarks (e.g., “London Bridge”), among other things. Typically, proper nouns are not accompanied by articles, determiners, or adjectives because they are recognizable by their names alone.

Examples: Common and proper nouns
Her surname is Pérez.
Harrison Ford played a lead role in Star Wars.
The Cultural Revolution removed power from any rival of the Maoists.

Note
The APA publishes guides to inclusive, bias-free language that can help you stay current with preferred capitalization styles for racial and ethnic groups.

Common nouns that can become proper nouns

When common nouns are used to name an identifiable individual (e.g., a specific region, officeholder, publication, or work of art), they are capitalized as proper nouns (e.g., “the South,” “Senator Sanders,” “Houston Chronicle,” “Water Lillies”).

Typically, terms used for family members (e.g., “I gave my mom a gift”) are common nouns. If they are used in place of a name, however, they function as proper nouns (e.g., “This gift is for Mom”).

If a noun is used to replace a name, as in the example of familial terms such as “mom,” it must be capitalized. Familial names used as proper nouns, or as part of a proper noun, do not take any determiner or article (e.g., “Give this to your uncle” vs. “Give this to Uncle John”).

Examples: Capitalization of family roles
Our dad was a musician.
I want to be like Aunt Cora when I’m her age.

Common nouns can also become proper nouns when they are used as part of a specific titleholder or officeholder’s name (e.g., “my professor” vs. “Professor Aguilar”).

Examples: Capitalization of jobs and titles
One of the most powerful committees in Congress is the Appropriations Committee.
During his time as president, President Macron has implemented numerous reforms.

Nouns that designate compass directions (e.g., “east,” “northwest”) are treated as proper nouns in two scenarios: when they carry a specific cultural connotation (e.g., “the West,” “the Far East”) or when they refer to a specific, recognizable regional name (e.g., “Phoenix is in the Southwest,” “We visited the South of France”).

Examples: Capitalization of jobs and titles
She’s flying south from Boston.
Western Asia has been referred to as the Near East.
We’re taking a tour of South America.

Note
In literary contexts, it was once common to capitalize abstract concepts such as “Reason,” “Love,” and “Justice” to emphasize their importance. Modern capitalization conventions have evolved away from this use.

In contrast, other words that were once proper nouns have become common nouns, such as “cellophane” (once trademarked by DuPont) and “granola” (a brand name once owned by Kellogg). Brand names tend to become generic over time when the name becomes associated with a category of product rather than a specific brand.

Academic concepts are generally common nouns

Abstract academic concepts are typically common nouns. In most cases, they should not be capitalized. The names of models, theories, frameworks, and disciplines are not by default given the same capitalization treatment as literary works, for example. Even if there is a proper noun in a model or theory’s name (e.g., an author’s surname), the common nouns surrounding it typically should not be capitalized.

Examples: Models, theories, frameworks, and disciplines
Our study tested the Uzawa-Lucas model.
We discussed Faraday’s law of induction in today’s physics lab.
She was interested in French postmodernism, post-structuralism, and postcolonialism.
The Schrödinger equation paved the way for modern quantum mechanics.

Note
There are many exceptions to this generalization. For instance, in MLA style, schools of thought are capitalized if they could be ambiguous (e.g., “Romanticism” is sometimes capitalized to avoid being confused with the generic term for “the state of being romantic”). When in doubt, try searching in a scholarly database, such as Google Scholar, to determine which capitalization style is preferred in your discipline.

Common nouns quiz

Test your knowledge of common nouns using the quiz below. Select the correct answer for each question.

Do you want to know more about commas, parts of speech, email, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.


US vs UK

Rhetoric

Verbs

Honor or honour

Onomatopoeia

Participles

Practise or practice

Palindrome

Intransitive verbs

Color or colour

Anachronism

Simple past tense

Toward or towards

Portmanteau

Regular verbs

Behaviour or behavior

Paradox

Past progressive


Frequently asked questions about common nouns

What is the difference between common and proper nouns?

Common nouns are not capitalized. They represent generic categories of people, places, things, or ideas (e.g., “dentist,” “office,” “rubric,” “forgetfulness”). Common nouns are often accompanied by articles (i.e., “a,” “an,” or “the”) or determiners (e.g., “this,” “his,” “every”).

Proper nouns are always capitalized. They name specific, identifiable individuals, places, or things (e.g., “Robin,” “the Nile,” “Boeing 747”). Typically, proper nouns do not need an article or determiner.

Are academic concepts capitalized?

In general, academic concepts are not capitalized; most are common nouns. This includes disciplines, models, theories, and frameworks (e.g., “string theory,” “existentialism”).

Common nouns are not capitalized even when they are used alongside proper nouns (which are always capitalized) in the name of an academic concept (e.g., “Newton’s laws,” “the Black–Scholes model”).

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Magedah Shabo

Magedah is an author, editor, and educator who has empowered thousands of students to become better writers.

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