Proper noun

Definition of proper noun

What is a proper noun, you ask?

For most people that went to school in the UK, this was perhaps the first classification of noun we encountered, and seems easy to get a handle on.

Generally speaking, the common noun refers to a whole class of entities (rocks, musicians, laptops) and the proper noun narrows the focus down to a particular item (Uluru, Lou Reed, Apple Mac). For example, the following sentence shows how the change in noun can show how the focus changes: He knew there was a band playing at the club tonight, but he had no idea it would be T-Rex.

Proper nouns should be quite easy to spot in English texts, as they virtually always begin with capital letters, and this highlights the fact that the noun refers to a particular, unique item. Some other, more egalitarian languages either profligately splurge capital letters at the beginning of common nouns too (like German) or are more sparing like French, which leaves the days of the week, months, and languages in lower case.

Every proper noun (Tibbles, Crocodile Dundee, Canterbury Cathedral) has at least one corresponding common noun (cat, immigrant, church), but not necessarily vice versa. Not every rock can be as famous as Uluru.

Some linguists introduce a distinction between proper nouns and proper names, with the former referring only to one-word nouns like Africa or Arthur that could still be applied to several different items, while proper names are more precise and more likely to refer to only one entity: for example, South Africa and Arthur King of the Britons. However, this is still a relatively recent invention and not widely enforced.

Another factor to remember is that proper nouns are rarely preceded by a the, an a or any other limiting modifier (like any or some), as a proper noun should refer to a specific item. You might need to indicate the suitcase that you’ve mislaid, but not that you got it from the Uncle Tim for Christmas.

It may be that distinctions between common and proper nouns are wired deeply in our cognitive processes, as there is some evidence to suggest each type is managed differently by the brain.

Examples of proper nouns

 Common noun  Proper noun
 Car  Volvo, Ferrari, BMW
 Mountain  Snowdon, Kilimanjaro
 Ocean  The Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean
 Band  Pixies, Nirvana, The Velvet Underground
 County  Yorkshire, Kent, Norfolk
 City  Manchester, Cologne, Seoul
 Actor  Charlton Heston, Penélope Cruz