common noun (grammar)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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

Definition

In English grammar, a common noun is a noun that's not the name of any particular person, place, or thing. A common noun represents one or all of the members of a class, and it can be preceded by the definite article (the). Contrast with proper noun.

As a general rule, a common noun does not begin with a capital letter unless it appears at the start of a sentence.

Common nouns can be subdivided into count nouns and mass nouns.

Semantically, common nouns can be classified as abstract nouns and concrete nouns.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations:

  • "You have brains in your head.
    You have feet in your shoes.
    You can steer yourself
    any direction you choose.
    You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
    And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go."
    (Dr. Seuss, Oh! The Places You’ll Go! Random House, 1990)
     
  • "Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open."
    (Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by J.K. Rowling, 2000)
     
  • "Often it does seem a pity that Noah and his party did not miss the boat."
    (Attributed to Mark Twain)
     
  • "America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy."
    (John Updike, "How to Love America and Leave It at the Same Time," 1980)
     
  • "Depression is another word that's sort of like ground zero, in that sometimes it's a proper noun and sometimes it's a common noun. If you're talking about a general economic depression, then it's lowercased; but if you're talking about the Great Depression, then you are referring to a specific historical period, so it's capitalized."
    (Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. Henry Holt, 2008)
     
  • "Canada is a country whose main exports are hockey players and cold fronts. Our main imports are baseball players and acid rain."
    (Attributed to Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau)
     
  • Dr. Gregory House: Dr. House, I don't think we've met.
    Dr. Jaime Conway: Dr. Jamie Conway, I've heard your name.
    Dr. Gregory House: Most people have. It's also a noun.
    (Hugh Laurie and Rob Benedict, "Living the Dream." House M.D., 2008)
     
  • "I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam; I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me."
    (Woody Allen)
     
  • "Europeans, like some Americans, drive on the right side of the road, except in England, where they drive on both sides of the road; Italy, where they drive on the sidewalk; and France, where if necessary they will follow you right into the hotel lobby."
    (Dave Barry, Dave Barry's Only Travel Guide You'll Ever Need.  Fawcett, 1991)
     
  • Modifiers and Common Nouns
    "Common nouns can be modified by a variety of other parts of speech and types of phrase, including articles, demonstratives, possessives, adjectives, prepositional phrases, and relative clauses. The examples below show some of the possibilities:
     
    • these two short planks
    • Frank's tubby red-haired wife
    • a bath with Rosie
    • a tune that anyone can whistle
    In each of these examples, the [italicized] common noun acts as the head of a noun phrase."
    (James R. Hurford, Grammar. Cambridge University Press, 1994)

     
  • How Common Nouns Can Become Proper Nouns
    "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)
     
  • How Proper Nouns Can Become Common Nouns
    "It is possible . . . for proper nouns to lose their capital letter and come into the language as ordinary words. This process gives rise to a surprising number of new words. For example, trade names have given us filofax, playdough, velcro and walkman, to name just a few that have recently entered the language. Place names can also become common nouns. For example, the word jeans has its origin in the town of Genoa, where a type of heavy fabric (resembling denim) was once made; denim itself derives from Nîmes, the name of a city in southern France (originally serge de Nîmes 'serge [cloth] of Nîmes'). When personal names convert to ordinary nouns, their behaviour is no different from that of other common nouns."
    (Kersti Börjars and Kate Burridge, Introducing English Grammar, 2nd ed. Hodder, 2010)