Common nouns

What is a common noun?

Consider for a moment the poor common noun, forced to live in the shadow of its glamorous cousin, the proper noun, with its exciting locations around the world (Paris, New York, Peckham), its expensive brands (Gucci, Versace, Lamborghini) and its swanky, conspicuous capital letters. Meanwhile, the common noun has to work hard to represent the everyday, anonymous items – the grass, the roads, the clouds, the injustices, the dodecahedrons – to which no one has bothered to apply a specific name.

However, every now and then, there comes a time when the common noun gets its chance to shine. Sometimes (in fact, quite often), the common noun appears at the start of the sentence and gets the capitalisation treatment.

Capital letters, in fact, were invented to mark the beginning of paragraphs in medieval manuscripts, rather like permanent bookmarks embedded in the text. They might have been decorated with pictures of fabulous beasts or with gold leaf, and there was none of this segregation between words that were deemed worthy of capital letters and the common herd. Gradually, though, those proper nouns seized the capital letters for themselves and banned the commoners from getting their hands on them. Shame!

The other exception is when the common noun features in the title of something – a book (To Kill a Mockingbird), a film (A Bridge Too Far), a government department (the Exchequer), a personal title (Prime Minister), etc. However, you should be careful with the personal titles or job descriptions as they can quickly lose their precious capital with the application of a modifier: for example, May is a prime minister in difficulty or she has now been the prime minister of the UK for a year.

Other parts of speech can be introduced to make common nouns a bit more interesting: adjectives can be used to give them a makeover, such as lush grass, dusty road, broody clouds, obvious injustices, errr… fascinating dodecahedrons?

Relative clauses can also give common nouns a bit more context, some backstory: for example, the dusty road that led to my best friend’s house.

Examples of common nouns

There are everywhere you look! However, contrasting them with proper nouns, here are some common nouns with relative clauses.

 Proper noun  Common noun
 Manchester United  the club that has won the League 20 times
 Champs-Élysées  the most famous street in France
 David Bowie  the man who fell to Earth