What Are Common Nouns?

Everyday People, Places, and Things

common nouns
Examples of common nouns in English. (Getty Images)

In English grammar, a common noun is a noun that's not the name of any particular person, place, or thing, representing one or all of the members of a class, which can be preceded by the definite article "the."

Common nouns can further be subdivided into count and mass noun categories, depending on the function of the noun itself. Semantically, nouns can also be classified as either abstract, meaning intangible, or concrete, meaning physically capable of being touched, tasted, seen, smelt, or heard.

In contrast with a proper noun, common nouns do not begin with a capital letter unless it appears at the start of a sentence. 

Modifiers for Common Nouns

Other words, phrases, and parts of speech can be used in conjunction with common nouns to slightly alter their base meaning, with nouns acting as the head of one of these so-called noun phrases.

James R. Hurford explains in his 1994 Cambridge University Press release "Grammar," that these parts of speech and types of phrases include "articles, demonstratives, possessives, adjectives, prepositional phrases, and relative clauses." In each use, the noun phrase serves the speaker or writer by conveying a more precise understanding of the common noun used. 

Take for instance the phrase "two short planks sit on a log." In this sentence, the word planks acts as the common noun and head of the noun phrase and the words "two" and "short" act as adjectives to describe that noun; in "a bath with Rosie," the noun bath is quantified with the prepositional phrase to entail who else is taking a bath.

How Proper Nouns Become Common and Vice-Versa

Through colloquial use and cultural adaptation, especially to marketing and innovation, common nouns can become proper nouns and so, too, can proper nouns become common. 

Oftentimes, a proper noun is combined with a common noun to form the complete name of a person, place or thing — for example, the phrase "Colorado River" contains both a common noun, river, and a proper one, Colorado, but the word "River" in this case becomes proper by its association with a specific body of water known as the Colorado River.

Conversely, items that may have started as goods or products of marketing agencies can sometimes slip into the common vernacular. For instance, the popular kids' toy playdough is a proper name only when referring to the product itself, but has been adapted as a means of describing molding clay of any variety.

Still, some people don't value the idea of making any noun proper at all. Take the famed poet e. e. cummings who refuses to spell even his own name with capital letters. All of his writing does away with capitalization because, to him, everyone and every place and everything is not unique, rather all nouns are quite common indeed.

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Are Common Nouns?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 28, 2017, thoughtco.com/what-is-common-noun-grammar-1689878. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, April 28). What Are Common Nouns? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-common-noun-grammar-1689878 Nordquist, Richard. "What Are Common Nouns?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-common-noun-grammar-1689878 (accessed March 22, 2018).