Grammar Rules

Common Noun

At some point, everyone has the same question: What is a common noun? Here, we’ll take a look at common nouns and provide some common noun examples so you can easily recognize common nouns when you see them. Don’t worry, this will be painless.

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What is a Common Noun

noun is a word that names a person, animal, place, thing, or idea. All nouns can be further classified as a proper or common noun. Common nouns are words used to name general items rather than specific ones. Go into your living room. What do you see? A lamp, chair, couch, TV, window, painting, pillow, candle – all of these items are named using common nouns. Common nouns are everywhere, and you use them all the time, even if you don’t realize it. Wherever you go, you’ll find at least one common noun. Street, closet, bathroom, school, mall, gas station, living room; all of these places are things, and thus they are common nouns.

What is the difference between common and proper nouns?

When we look at the two main types of noun – proper and common – we can differentiate between the two by saying that a common noun is a general way of classifying something, and a proper noun is a specific way of classifying something, So, for example, the word dog is a common noun; but if your dog was called Fido, the word Fido is a proper noun:
  • Dog = common noun
  • Dog’s name (Fido, in this case) = proper noun
More examples of the difference between common and proper nouns:
  • My favorite newspaper (common noun) is the Washington Post (proper noun).
  • Her husband (common noun) is called Frank (proper noun).
  • The award-winning Babe Ruth (proper noun) is the greatest baseball player (common noun) in history.
You may have noticed from the examples that common nouns are not usually capitalized, unless they begin a sentence, whereas proper nouns are normally capitalized. You will also notice that both types of nouns can be more than a single word.

When to use common nouns?

We use common nouns to denote a class of objects or a concept. Consider the word star, as in the stars we see in the sky. Star is used as a common noun, used to denote the class of objects that we view in the night sky, i.e. the luminescent bodies that are spread across the universe, twinkling overhead. The Sun, however, is a proper noun, used to describe the specific star that is at the center of our solar system. So, anything that is a thing can be generally classified as a common noun: Professions: lawyer, doctor, teacher, nurse, politician, football player. People: People in general are named using common nouns, though their official titles in certain cases or given names are proper nouns. When we refer to people using common nouns, we use words like teacher, clerk, police officer, preacher, delivery driver, boyfriend, girlfriend, grandma, cousin, and barista. For example, when talking about your mother, mother is a common noun.
  • My mother is an actress.
  • Barbara’s mother was the best cook in the city.
But when speaking to your mother, or using mother as her name, mother is used as a proper noun.
  • Mother, can you bake your brownies for the party?”
  • I asked Mother Thompson to join us at dinner.
Objects: car, newspaper, boat, potato chip, shoe, house, table, sword. However, common nouns can also be more abstract concepts, not things but ideas, emotions and experiences, for example: Abstract ideas: Culture, love, democracy, time, hatred, peace, war, empathy, anger, laughter.  

How to recognize a common noun?

Considering what we have laid out above, it should be pretty easy to recognize a common noun. However, there are some cases when it can be tricky. Consider these sentences:
  • Queen Elizabeth II welcomed President Donald Trump to Buckingham Palace.
  • Donald Trump visited many queens and palaces during his tenure as the president of the United States.
In the first sentence, Queen Elizabeth II, President Trump and Buckingham Palace are proper nouns. They are specific titles for a specific person. In the second sentence, queens, palaces and president are common nouns. Queens and palaces refer to queens and palaces in general, and president refers to the job title and not the specific person. We mentioned earlier that job titles and general titles fall under the category of common nouns – attorney, actor, comedian, truck driver, sergeant, officer, secretary. However, if these become specific titles referring to a specific person, they sometimes become proper nouns as in  the examples above. Normally, this means the words are capitalized when placed directly in front of that person’s name:
  • Attorney General William Barr was appointed by President
But look how we can use the same words with common nouns:
  • Each US president must appoint an attorney general while in office.
So, you can recognize the common noun by the fact it is not capitalized. But remember that common nouns can also be identified because they are referring to non-specific things or classifications. The takeaway is this: common nouns are general names and unless they are part of a title like Postmaster General or begin a sentence, they’re not usually capitalized.


Common Noun Examples

The following common noun examples will help you to recognize common nouns. In the sentences that follow, common noun examples are italicized. Notice that the examples providing proper nouns name specific versions of the same type of person, animal, place, thing, or idea.
  1. Common Noun: You broke my favorite mug. Proper Noun: I can’t believe you broke my Snoopy mug.
  2. Common Noun: I really want a new pair of jeans. Proper Noun: I really want to buy a new pair of Levis.
  3. Common Noun: I wish I could remember the name of that painter. Proper Noun: I really love art by Van Gogh.
  4. Common Noun: They’re all waiting for us at the restaurant. Proper Noun: Everyone else is at Bill’s Burgers.
  5. Common Noun: I really want to live in the city Proper Noun: Of all the places I’ve lived, Denver was best.
  6. Common Noun: Let’s go to watch a live game at the stadium. Proper Noun: Let’s try to get good seats at Wrigley Field