In the English language, a noun will often serve as a subject or object within a sentence. Sometimes a noun is one word; other times, it can be two or more words. Merriam-Webster explains, “A noun is a word that refers to a thing (book), a person (Betty Crocker), an animal (cat), a place (Omaha), a quality (softness), an idea (justice), or an action (yodeling).” This part of speech can be divided into two major categories—proper nouns and common nouns.
A proper noun starts with a capital letter, no matter where it appears within a sentence. It refers to a specific person, place, thing, idea, action, quality, or animal. The titles of books, movies, and awards are usually proper nouns, as well. In contrast, a common noun refers to a class or category of people, places, things, etc. You’ll notice that common nouns are written with all lowercase letters, unless they appear as the first word in a sentence.
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We write most job titles as common nouns. Since they refer to a category, rather than a particular person, they’re written with a lowercase letter. For example, “plumber,” “director of marketing,” and “clerk” all refer to a general job title that could belong to a number of different people. On the other hand, “King of Spain” or “Milton English Literature Fellow” should be capitalized, as they refer to one-of-a-kind positions. You should also capitalize any title that precedes a name, such as “Doctor Collier” or “Pastor Jones.” In those cases, you should consider the combined title and last name as a proper noun.
Abstract nouns—such as justice, charity, or freedom—are important words, but they do not qualify as proper nouns in modern writing. Instead, they should be written with lowercase letters, just like other common nouns. As an exception to this rule, some poets write abstract nouns with capital letters. For instance, they might address “Justice” as if she’s a character. When writers personify abstract qualities, or they write about the ideal version of Beauty, Truth, or Friendship, they may treat an abstract noun as a proper noun.
What Are Some Examples of Proper Nouns?
Now, let’s look at the common nouns listed above and see what we’d need to do in order to make them proper nouns.
Replace dog with Snoopy.
Replace weekday with Sunday.
Replace manor with Kensington Manor.
Replace egg with “Jessica’s Famous Omelet.”
Replace tutor with Professor Philips.
Replace shoes with Air Jordans.
Replace cooking with Laurel County Bake-Off.
Replace movie with “The Great Escape.”
Replace idea with Patent #10176.
Replace homeland with the United Kingdom.
By making each noun more specific, we’ve transformed these general terms into proper nouns.
Identifying Proper Nouns
In the sentence from Merriam-Webster quoted at the beginning of this article, you can see examples of both common and proper nouns.
“A noun is a word that refers to a thing (book), a person (Betty Crocker), an animal (cat), a place (Omaha), a quality (softness), an idea (justice), or an action (yodeling).”
Of the examples provided in the sentence above, can you guess which ones are proper nouns?
It’s easy to identify proper nouns within a sentence because you can see that they’re capitalized. In the example sentence, proper nouns include “Betty Crocker” and “Omaha.”
Now, what if the word comes first in the sentence? If that’s the case, you’ll need to use the context to determine whether you’re looking at a proper noun or a common noun.
Cats have nine lives.
“Cats” received poor reviews from critics.
When the word “cats” is used to describe the category of animal, it’s a common noun; in contrast, when it is used as title, “Cats” is a proper noun. So, the first example uses “cats” as a common noun, and the second uses “Cats” as a proper noun.
I’m an award-winning playwright with a penchant for wordplay. After earning a perfect score on the Writing SAT, I worked my way through Brown University by moonlighting as a Kaplan Test Prep tutor. I received a BA with honors in Literary Arts (Playwriting)—which gave me the opportunity to study under Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel. In my previous roles as new media producer with Rosetta Stone, director of marketing for global ventures with The Juilliard School, and vice president of digital strategy with Up & Coming Media, I helped develop the voice for international brands. From my home office in Maui, Hawaii, I currently work on freelance and ghostwriting projects.