proper noun (grammar)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

proper nouns
These are all proper nouns because they name a specific person (Oprah Winfrey, Severus Snape), place (Nile, Mayberry, Wall Street), or pet (Snoopy). (Getty Images)

Definition

In English grammar, a proper noun is a noun belonging to the class of words used as names for specific or unique individuals, events, or places (real or fictional). Also called a proper name. Contrast with common noun

Most proper nouns (for example, Fred, New York, Mars, Coca Cola) begin with a capital letter. Proper nouns are not typically preceded by articles or other determiners, but there are numerous exceptions (the Bronx, the Fourth of July, the Great Depression).

Most proper nouns are singular, but again there are exceptions (the United Nations, the Philippines, the Joneses). 

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

 

Examples and Observations

  • "'Where's Papa going with that ax?' said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

    "'Out to the hoghouse,' replied Mrs. Arable. 'Some pigs were born last night.'"
    (E.B. White, Charlotte's Web. Harper, 1952)
     
  • "On a late spring Saturday, after our chores (nothing like those in Stamps) were done, Bailey and I were going out, he to play baseball and I to the library. Mr. Freeman said to me, after Bailey had gone downstairs, 'Ritie, go get some milk for the house.'"
    (Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Random House, 1969)
     
  • "I've got something for the girls of Savannah, and all of America, and all the world, and we're going to start it tonight."
    (Juliette G. Low, founder of the Girl Scouts of America, 1912)
     
  • "The Empire State Building is the twentieth-century New York building. The Chrysler Building might be glitzier, Lever House might be a purer example of modernism, and two of the city's most banal buildings might be taller. But for the true heartbeat of a New Yorker, it's the Empire State Building."
    (John Tauranac, The Empire State Building: The Making of a Landmark. Cornell University Press, 2014)
     
  • "It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside."
    (Sherlock Holmes in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches," 1892)
     
  • "The Salvation Army invaded the streets of East London in 1865, bombarding these working-class neighborhoods with brass bands and flamboyant preachers."
    (Pamela J. Walker, "A Chaste and Fervid Eloquence." Women Preachers and Prophets Through Two Millennia of Christianity, ed. by Beverly Mayne Kienzle and Pamela J. Walker. 
    University of California Press, 1998)
     
  • "The New York Yankees came into existence in 1903 and shared the Polo Grounds as tenants of the New York Giants. In 1920, the Yankees acquired Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox."
    (Harvey Frommer, New York City Baseball: The Golden Age, 1947–1957. Atheneum, 1985)
     
  • "The sinking of the Titanic was not the worst maritime disaster in history. That dubious honour belongs to the German liner Wilhelm Gustloff, which was sunk by a Russian submarine in January 1945, while evacuating civilians and troops from East Prussia."
    (Nic Compton, Titanic on Trial. Bloomsbury, 2012)
     
  • "You are Omaticaya now. You may make your bow from the wood of Hometree. And you may choose a woman. We have many fine women. Ninat is the best singer."
    (Neytiri in Avatar, 2009)

     
  • How Common Nouns Can Become Proper Nouns
    "A proper noun may consist of more than one word. A proper noun and a common noun often combine to form the complete name of something—Allegheny River, Bellevue Hospital—and in such formations, both the proper noun and the common noun are capitalized. After the full name of something has been stated in a piece of writing, however, subsequent references can be shortened to the common noun, which will no longer be capitalized: the river, the hospital."
    (Gary Lutz and Diane Stevenson, The Writer's Digest Grammar Desk Reference. F&W, 2005)
     
  • Unique Reference
    "From a linguistic perspective, it makes more sense to say that a proper noun is a noun that has unique reference. It is this that distinguishes them from common nouns, which do not have unique reference (that is why they are common nouns). By way of illustration, consider the following sentence; notice that it contains three nouns, one proper noun, and two common nouns:
    (23) Seoul is one of the largest cities on the planet.
    What distinguishes Seoul, as a proper noun, from the two common nouns, cities and planet? The answer is unique reference. While there are many thousands of cities in the world, and the universe contains more planets than we can possibly know, on the planet we inhabit there is only one city to which the noun can be appropriately applied. This is not always the case. In fact, very few proper nouns have absolutely unique reference in the way that Seoul does. More often, a proper noun has unique reference only within particular, much more limited context. For example, in the United Kingdom there is only one city called Lincoln. Thus, in the context of a discussion about Britain this proper noun has unique reference. However, in the USA there are several towns and cities with this name. As a result, speakers will often have to specify which Lincoln they have in mind by appending the name of the relevant state: 'Lincoln, Nebraska,' 'Lincoln, Michigan,' et cetera."
    (Martin J. Endley, Linguistic Perspectives on English Grammar. Information Age, 2010)

     
  • The Lighter Side of Proper Nouns
    "So . . .
    be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray
    or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O'Shea,
    you're off to Great Places!
    Today is your day!
    Your mountain is waiting.
    So . . . get on your way!"
    (Dr. Seuss, Oh! The Places You’ll Go! Random House, 1990)