Common Nouns

Common Nouns

A common noun is the word for something, e.g., boy, cat, lake, bridge.

Everything we can see or talk about is represented by a word that names it. That word is called a noun. Most nouns are common nouns.

A common noun contrasts with a proper noun, which is the name (or title) we give to something, e.g., Peter, Lucky, Lake Superior, London Bridge.

Easy Examples of Common Nouns

  • girl, dog, field, dancer, bush, haircut, oyster, hate, gangster, sword, bravery
  • (Common nouns are written with lowercase letters.)

Real-Life Examples of Common Nouns

All nouns can be categorized into one of two groups: common nouns and proper nouns. This entry is about common nouns, but it is worth learning about common nouns and proper nouns at the same time.
Common Nouns (starting with lowercase letters)Proper Nouns (starting with capital letters)
carFord Focus
lakeLake Baikal
materialHarris Tweed
oceanThe Atlantic Ocean
restaurantBurger King
soldierCorporal Jones
teaEarl Grey
In the following examples, the common nouns are underlined and the proper nouns are in bold:
  • I've been in a lot of castles, and they're pretty gloomy. However, I love Windsor Castle. (Author Tracie Peterson)
  • With members all around the globe, the Flat Earth Society believes the Earth is flat and horizontally infinite.
  • (Globe is a common noun, but Earth isn't. Earth is the name of our planet.)
  • Turkeys aren't from Turkey, but there are lots of turkeys in Turkey.
  • (A common noun is written with a lowercase letter unless it starts a sentence.)
Every common noun can be further categorized as at least one of following types of common noun:
  • An Abstract Noun. Abstract nouns are things you cannot see or touch (e.g., hate, happiness, determination).
  • A Collective Noun. Collective nouns denote groups (e.g., jury, team, school).
  • A Compound Noun. Compound nouns are nouns made up of more than one word (e.g., paperclip, court-martial, sister-in-law).
  • A Concrete Noun. Concrete nouns are things you can see or touch (e.g., table, cup, rain).
  • A Countable Noun. Countable nouns are ones with a singular and plural form. They are things you can count. (e.g., pen (pens), wall (walls), animal (animals)).
  • A Non-Countable Noun (Mass Nouns) . Non-countable nouns are things you cannot count (e.g., air, music, oxygen).
  • A Gender-specific Noun. Gender-specific nouns are things which are definitely male or female (e.g., vixen, waitress, actress).
  • Verbal Noun. Verbal nouns represent actions (e.g., writing, dancing, thinking). (Verbal nouns have no verb-like qualities.)
  • Gerund. Gerunds represent actions (e.g., writing, dancing, thinking). (Gerunds contrast with verbal nouns because they can have verb-like qualities; e.g., they can be modified by adverbs and take an object.)

Why Should I Care about Common Nouns?

A common noun is not written with a capital letter unless it starts a sentence. Do not be tempted to give a word a capital letter just because it's an important word in your sentence. In the following four examples, the words in bold are common nouns and should have lowercase letters.
  • Place your order using the form in our latest Brochure. [wrong]
  • We value our Clients' opinions. [wrong]
  • Lisa, Vampires are make-believe, like elves, gremlins, and Eskimos. (Homer Simpson)
  • (Vampires is wrong. Eskimos is correct.)
  • We live in an age when Pizza gets to your home before the Police. [wrong]
Here are some issues related to common nouns and lowercase letters:

(Issue 1) Write the seasons with lowercase letters.

The seasons are not written with capital letters unless they form part of a name.
  • This winter, I will spend a week at Winter Mountain River.
  • I booked a ticket for the Rhine Summer Ball last autumn.
Using a capital letter for a season is an understandable mistake given the days of the week (e.g., Monday, Tuesday) and months (e.g., January, February) are written with capitals. But, it's still a mistake.

(Issue 2) Write the points of the compass with lowercase letters.

Do not use a capital letter for north, south, east or west (i.e., the points of the compass) unless the word forms part of a name.
  • Take ten paces East and then dig. [wrong]
  • To get to West Ham, go north then west. [correct]
Be aware though that geographical areas with names like The North, The South East, and The North West are proper nouns and written with capital letters.
  • I live in The East.
  • (There is a lot of leniency on whether to capitalize The. Few would argue that the region is called East as opposed to The East, but, for many, the capital T looks too unwieldy. There is more on this subject in the entry on definite articles.)
This issue can get a little more complicated. For example, should you write North Wales or north Wales? What about Central Europe and central Europe? Some would argue that as north Wales and central Europe are not recognized areas (they're certainly not well defined), then these terms are not single titles (demanding all capital letters) but adjectives with titles (demanding lowercase adjectives). An easy solution is to find a decent reference book about the area you're writing about and see what it says. If you can't do that, then you have several factors to consider: how well the area is defined (consider South Africa (well defined) and southern Africa (not well defined)), how common the term is, what your readers might expect and even the aesthetics of your term when it's written. If you're still unsure after all that thinking about it, go for the non-capitalized version (e.g., north Walesand central Europe).

(Issue 3) Write Sun and Moon with capital letters

Our moon is called The Moon, and our sun is called The Sun. Therefore, the words to denote our moon and our sun can be either proper nouns or common nouns depending on context.
  • The moon orbiting Earth is called The Moon.
  • (Here, the first moon is a common noun, but The Moon (the name of our moon) is a proper noun. That's why it has a capital letter.)
  • Are all suns as hot as The Sun?
  • (Here, suns is a common noun, but The Sun (the name of our sun) is a proper noun. That's why it has a capital letter.)
  • The largest moon orbiting Jupiter is Ganymede.
  • (If you lived on Jupiter, you wouldn't have to worry about this because none of their moons is called The Moon. That's about the only benefit of living on Jupiter, I should imagine.)
This might help. Imagine you had a dog called Dog. It's the same issue.
  • I'm going to take the dog for a walk. Where is Dog's lead?

(Issue 4) Write terms like Director and Claims Department with capital letters if they refer to specific people or departments

With job titles and the names of departments particularly, it's sometimes unclear whether a term is a common noun or a proper noun. What's a company's claims department called? The Claims Department, I'd guess. So, it can be a common noun or a proper noun depending on context.

Treat such terms as proper nouns (i.e., treat them like titles and give them capital letters) when they refer to specific people or offices, otherwise use lowercase letters.
  • The President is my favourite president. [correct]
  • The Commanding Officer thought he'd never be a commanding officer. [correct]
  • I know my Dad is looking down on us. Hes not dead just very condescending. (Comedian Jack Whitehall)
  • (Terms like mum/mom/mam and dad are given capital letters when they refer to a specific parent.)

Key Points

  • Don't give a word a capital letter just because it's an important word in your sentence.
  • The seasons and the points of the compass are written with lowercase letters (unless they're part of a name, i.e., part of a proper noun).
  • Our sun and moon are called The Sun and The Moon, which complicates things. This'll help (most of the time): If they're preceded by the word the, give them a capital letter.
  • With terms like Mum, Director, and Finance Department, use capital letters when they refer to specific people or offices.
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