What Is a Common Noun? | Definition & Examples

A common noun is a noun that describes a type of person, thing, or place or that names a concept. Common nouns are not capitalised unless they appear at the start of a sentence, unlike proper nouns, which are always capitalised.

Common nouns include the names of different jobs, plants and animals, geographical features, ideas, objects, and many other things. They can be concrete nouns or abstract nouns.

Examples: Common nouns in a sentence
The cat climbed the tree in an attempt to catch a bird.

Inequality is a major problem in many societies.

The farmer said his name was Tom.

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Common nouns vs proper nouns

Common nouns are defined by contrast with proper nouns. That means that all nouns are either common or proper (though the same noun can be both, in different contexts).

  • Common nouns are general: they usually name classes of things, people, and places rather than specific things, people, and places. They are only capitalised at the start of a sentence, and they can be modified by articles, determiners, and adjectives.
  • Proper nouns are the names of specific individuals, things, places, companies, etc. They are always capitalised and typically not modified by articles, determiners, or adjectives.
Examples: Common and proper nouns
My grandmother’s name is Delilah.

Bill Gates is the co-founder of Microsoft.

World War II was the largest military conflict in history.

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Common nouns that can become proper nouns

Common nouns can often become proper (i.e., gain capitalisation) when they are used as a name, or as part of a name.

For example, nouns designating family roles, such as ‘dad’, are common in most cases. But when they’re used directly as a name, without any articles or other determiners, they become proper and gain capitalisation.

Examples: Capitalisation of family roles
My dad always told me to be more self-confident.

Thanks, Grandma!

In a similar way, nouns that act as titles (e.g., ‘president’, ‘archbishop’, ‘professor’) are capitalised only when they’re used as part of the name of someone holding that title.

Examples: Capitalisation of jobs and titles
The current president of the United States is President Biden.

The current archbishop of Canterbury is Archbishop Justin Welby.

The cardinal directions (north, east, south, west) are common nouns in most cases. But they become proper when used with a cultural or political meaning or in the name of a specific location.

Examples: Capitalisation of cardinal directions
We’re heading to the west on the highway.

There is no longer a country called East Germany.

Countries categorised as part of the Global South are often still in the process of industrialising.

Note
Common nouns representing important concepts are sometimes capitalised in a literary context to emphasise their importance (e.g., ‘Nature’, ‘Truth’).

Conversely, proper nouns sometimes become so general in their meaning that they turn into common nouns. For example, ‘thermos’ was originally a brand name, and therefore capitalised, but is now used more generally to refer to any vacuum flask.

Academic concepts are usually common nouns

One common mistake is to assume that concepts, theories, models, and frameworks are proper nouns, and therefore capitalise them. In fact, they are usually common nouns, although they may include proper nouns (or proper adjectives), which should be capitalised.

Examples: Concepts, theories, models and frameworks
The scientific study of mind and behaviour is called psychology. It’s often confused with psychiatry.

The Akaike information criterion evaluates how well a model fits the data it was generated from.

A revolution in scientific thought was initiated by Einstein’s theory of relativity.

In the late 18th century, German idealism responded to ideas from the dominant schools of thought at the time, rationalism and empiricism.

Note
This is a general guideline, not a universal rule some similar terms are usually capitalised (e.g., ‘Romanticism’, ‘Type II error‘). If you’re not sure whether to capitalise a specific term, it’s a good idea to check how it’s done in other published texts from your field.

Frequently asked questions about common nouns

What’s the difference between common and proper nouns?

Common nouns are words for types of things, people, and places, such as ‘dog’, ‘professor’, and ‘city’. They are not capitalised and are typically used in combination with articles and other determiners.

Proper nouns are words for specific things, people, and places, such as ‘Max’, ‘Dr Prakash’, and ‘London’. They are always capitalised and usually aren’t combined with articles and other determiners.

Are seasons capitalised?

The names of seasons (e.g., ‘spring’) are treated as common nouns in English and therefore not capitalised. People often assume they are proper nouns, but this is an error.

The names of days and months, however, are capitalised since they’re treated as proper nouns in English (e.g., ‘Wednesday’, ‘January’).

Are academic concepts capitalised?

No, as a general rule, academic concepts, disciplines, theories, models, etc. are treated as common nouns, not proper nouns, and therefore not capitalised. For example, ‘five-factor model of personality’ or ‘analytic philosophy’.

However, proper nouns that appear within the name of an academic concept (such as the name of the inventor) are capitalised as usual. For example, ‘Darwin’s theory of evolution’ or ‘Student’s t table‘.

Sources for this article

We strongly encourage students to use sources in their work. You can cite our article (APA Style) or take a deep dive into the articles below.

This Scribbr article

Caulfield, J. (2023, February 28). What Is a Common Noun? | Definition & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved 11 June 2024, from https://www.scribbr.co.uk/nouns/common-noun/

Sources

Aarts, B. (2011). Oxford modern English grammar. Oxford University Press.

Butterfield, J. (Ed.). (2015). Fowler’s dictionary of modern English usage (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.

Garner, B. A. (2016). Garner’s modern English usage (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.

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Jack Caulfield

Jack is a Brit based in Amsterdam, with an MA in comparative literature. He writes for Scribbr about his specialist topics: grammar, linguistics, citations, and plagiarism. In his spare time, he reads a lot of books.