What Are Common Nouns?

Everyday People, Places, and Things

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In English grammar, a common noun names any person, place, thing, or idea. In other words, it's a noun that is not the name of any particular person, place, thing, or idea. A common noun is one or all of the members of a class, which can be preceded by a definite article, such as "the" or "this," or an indefinite article, such as "a" or "an."

Common nouns can be subdivided into countable or uncountable, depending on the function of the noun itself, as well as abstract, meaning intangible, or concrete, meaning physically capable of being touched, tasted, seen, smelled, or heard.

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

Common Noun vs. Promer Noun

As noted, a common noun is a noun that's not the name of any particular person, place, or thing, such as singer, river, and tablet. A proper noun, meanwhile, is a noun that refers to a specific person, place, or thing, such as Lady Gaga, Monongahela River, and iPad.

Most proper nouns are singular, and—with a few exceptions (iPad)—they're usually written with initial capital letters. When proper nouns are used generically, as in "keeping up with the Joneses," or "a Xerox of my term paper," they become, in a sense, common. A proper noun is a noun belonging to the class of words used as names for specific or unique individuals, events, or places, and may include real or fictional characters and settings.

Unlike common nouns, which make up the vast majority of nouns in English, most proper nouns like Fred, New York, Mars, and Coca-Cola, begin with a capital letter.

They may also be referred to as proper names for their function of naming specific things.

Proper nouns are not typically preceded by articles or other determiners, but there are numerous exceptions such as "The Bronx" or "The Fourth of July." Most proper nouns are singular, but again, there are exceptions as in "The United States" and, as noted, "The Joneses."

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, every place, and everything are not unique; rather, all nouns are quite common indeed.

Types of Common Nouns

There are several types of common nouns it's important to be aware of:

Countable and uncountable: Countable nouns are individual objects, people, or places, which can be counted. These nouns are considered content words meaning they provide the people, things, or ideas about which you speak. Examples are books, Italians, pictures, stations, or women. Uncountable nouns, by contrast, are materials, concepts, or information, which are not individual objects and cannot be counted, such as information, water, understanding, wood, or cheese.

Collective: A collective noun is a noun—such as team, committee, jury, squad, orchestra, crowd, audience, or family—that refers to a group of individuals. It is also known as a group noun.

Concrete: A concrete noun is a noun, such as chicken or egg, that names a material or tangible objects or phenomenon—something recognizable through the senses.

Abstract: An abstract noun is a noun or noun phrase that names an idea, event, quality, or concept—for example, courage, freedom, progress, love, patience, excellence, or friendship. An abstract noun names something that can't be physically touched.

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Are Common Nouns?" ThoughtCo, May. 21, 2018, thoughtco.com/what-is-common-noun-grammar-1689878. Nordquist, Richard. (2018, May 21). 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 May 24, 2018).