Common and Proper Nouns

Distinguishing between proper nouns and common nouns is important in English. Every time you encounter a noun – desk, girl, Obama, apple, Apple – you need to consider whether it’s common or proper. These two categories of noun are treated differently, so it’s important to be able to tell the difference.

Common nouns describe a class of noun, rather than one particular individual. Most of the nouns you encounter are common nouns, e.g. restaurant, city, woman, company.

Proper nouns describe one individual noun within a category, e.g. Burger King, Seoul, Hillary Clinton, Samsung.

Why do we need to know this? There are two important rules relating to common and proper nouns:

  1. Proper nouns have capital letters at the start of the word. Common nouns do not.
  2. Common nouns usually need an article (a/an/the) when they are singular. Proper nouns do not.

Office WorkerHong Kong

Look at the first picture. Where are the people? You can say, “They are in a cafe.” Cafe is a common noun, so we need an article, but no capital letter. Alternatively, we can use the proper noun, Paris Baguette. “They are in Paris Baguette.” Notice both words in the proper noun are capitalised, and there is no a, an, or the.

How about the lady in the second picture? If somebody asks where she works, you can use a common noun, e.g. “She works for a big company.” (Notice that adjectives go between the article and the noun.) Alternatively, you can use a proper noun: “She works for Samsung.”

Lastly, let’s look at the third picture. Where was it taken? We can either use a common noun with an article, “It was taken in a city,” or we can use a proper noun without an article, “It was taken in Hong Kong.”

Common and proper nouns

As always, there are many exceptions to English grammatical rules. In this instance, the two most common exceptions are:

  1. Official (long) names of countries are proper nouns but have the before them, e.g. “The Republic of Korea.”
  2. Sometimes we omit the common noun, which makes the sentence sound incorrect, e.g. “Yesterday, I bought a Samsung.” This looks wrong because we have an article before a proper noun, but it’s actually quite common. The complete sentence is “Yesterday, I bought a Samsung television,” with Samsung acting as an adjective, and television as the (common) noun. Sometimes we get lazy, though, and miss out the common noun when a proper noun is used as an adjective.

Are the following sentences correct or incorrect? Write your answers below, and for the incorrect answers, explain why. Good luck!

  1. There was a book on the table.
  2. Have you been to the China?
  3. I want to buy the many shoes.
  4. Japan is in Asia.
  5. Spain has a king.
  6. When I was in England, I saw the queen Elizabeth.

To read this article in Korean, click here.

Grammar Bytes is another excellent website that has more information on common and proper nouns.

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