Proper noun

Proper noun

A proper noun or proper name is a noun representing a unique entity (such as London, Jupiter, John Hunter, or Toyota), as distinguished from a common noun, which represents a class of entities (or nonunique instance[s] of that class)—for example, city, planet, person or corporation).[1] In English, proper nouns are not normally preceded by an article or other limiting modifier (such as any or some), and are used to denote a particular person, place, or object without regard to any descriptive meaning the word or phrase may have[2] (for example, a town called "Newtown" may be, but does not necessarily have to be, a new [recently built] town).

Which nouns are considered proper names depends on language. For example, names of days and months are considered proper names in English, but not in Spanish, French, Swedish or Finnish, where they are not capitalized.



In English and most other languages that use the Latin alphabet, proper nouns are usually capitalized. Languages differ in whether most elements of multiword proper nouns are capitalized (e.g., American English House of Representatives) or only the initial element (e.g., Slovenian Državni zbor 'National Assembly'). In German, both proper and common nouns are capitalized. In past centuries, orthographic practices in English, including noun capitalization, varied widely, with less standardization than today. Documents from the 18th century show some writers capitalizing all nouns and others capitalizing certain nouns based on varying ideas of their importance in the discussion. For example, the end (but not the beginning) of the Declaration of Independence (1776) and all of the Constitution (1787) show nearly all nouns capitalized, the Bill of Rights (1789) capitalizes a few common nouns but not most of them, and the Thirteenth Constitutional Amendment (1865) only capitalizes proper nouns. Today English orthography has been standardized to the point that capitalizing common nouns is considered formally incorrect outside of sentence-initial or title case contexts. Although informal writing often dismisses formal orthographic standards (by mutual consent of the communicators), an epistemological stance of orthographic "right and wrong" governs formal writing.

Today the meaning of proper noun capitalization is uniqueness within an implicit context, that is, it provides a name to an instance of a general type when the instance is unique within an implicit context. Most often the implicit context is "the whole world" or "the universe"; thus London, Jupiter, John Hunter, and Toyota are effortlessly understood as being cosmically unique; they derive their proper-noun status (and thus their capitalization) from that fact, and those properties are unequivocal (no one could argue with them). But in instances where a context shift is possible, and the context shift causes a shift from uniqueness to nonuniqueness, the capitalization or lowercasing decision may become a matter of perspective, as discussed below (see especially the examples under "Specific designators"). Sometimes the same word can function as both a common noun and a proper noun, depending on context. Two variants of this principle can be distinguished, although the distinction is blurred by real-world use of the labels to refer to instances of both types. They have no universally agreed names (that is, no standardized metalanguage), but the names "capitonym"[3] and "specific designator"[4] have some currency.

Specific designators

There are many words that are generally common nouns but that can easily "serve temporary proper noun duty" (or "contextual proper noun duty"). Some examples are agency, avenue, boulevard, box, building, bureau, case, chapter, city, class, college, day, edition, floor, grade, group, hospital, level, office, page, paragraph, part, phase, road, school, stage, step, street, type, university, week. The temporary proper noun duty occurs when the common noun is paired with a number or other word to create a name for a specific instance of an abstraction (that is, a specific case of a general type). It is then referred to as a "specific designator". For example:

  • Mary lives on the third floor of the main building. (common noun senses throughout)
  • Mary lives on Floor 3 of the Main Building. (same information content but recast cognitively as proper names. The capitalization shows that 'Main Building' is the name of the building, not just a description of it. There is no etic difference except the cognitive one of the specificity that the capitalization imbues. It establishes an implicit sense that "within our commonly understood context [the building complex that we are standing in], the main building being referenced is the only main building. It is a unique object [as far as our context is concerned].)
  • My bookmark takes me to the main page of the English Wikipedia.
  • What is the proper name of that page?
  • It is the Main Page.
  • Sanjay lives on the beach road. [the road that runs along the beach]
  • Sanjay lives on Beach Road. [the specific road that is named with the capitalized proper name "Beach Road". It is a unique instance of a road in the world, although its proper name is unique only within our province. Our neighboring province also has a road named Beach Road.]
  • In 1947, the U.S. established the Central Intelligence Agency.
  • In 1947, the U.S. established a central intelligence agency to coordinate its various foreign intelligence efforts. It was named the Central Intelligence Agency.
  • India has a ministry of home affairs. It is called the Ministry of Home Affairs. (Within the context of India, it is the only ministry of home affairs, so you can name it by capitalizing the common noun. Within the context of planet Earth, it is a unique organization, but capitalizing the common noun is not a viable way to arrive at a unique proper name for it, because other countries also may use that same name for their unique organization. Another way to say the same idea is that within India's namespace, the naming convention provides sufficient uniqueness of the identifier, but within planet Earth's namespace, it does not. In physical reality, every country's interior ministry is a cosmically unique object. It is simply a matter of naming, and of whether a naming convention provides identifiers that are unique, which depends on the scope of context.)
  • The university has a college of arts and sciences.
  • The University of San Diego has a college of arts and sciences, which is called the College of Arts and Sciences.
  • The university has a school of medicine.
  • The University of Hawaii at Manoa has a school of medicine, which is called the John A. Burns School of Medicine.
  • This northwestern university has a school of medicine.
  • The Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine is headquartered in Chicago.
  • The 16th robotic probe to land on the planet was assigned to study the planet's north pole, and the 17th probe was assigned to its south pole. (common noun senses throughout)
  • When Probe 17 overflew the South Pole, it passed directly over the place where Captain Scott's expedition ended. (In this hypothetical sentence, it is the Earth's south pole that is being referenced, and its proper name is the South Pole.)

Because the orthographic classification has room for various implicit cognitive frames, it is somewhat arbitrary, which is to say, individuals can make different choices without either one being "wrong", and they cannot easily describe to each other their differing frames, because of the implicitness. However, readers dislike seeing juxtaposed capitalization differences, that is, inconsistencies. Therefore, most publishers attempt to codify consistent handling of the framing using style guides. For example, the Associated Press's AP Stylebook[5] uses a dictionary format, and in many of its entries it offers guidance to AP journalists and editors on how to consistently implement the AP's preferred logic regarding the times when common and proper senses intersect. For example, when the Federal Bureau of Investigation is first mentioned, "Bureau" is capitalized because it is serving as a specific designator, that is, it is a common noun "serving contextual proper noun duty". However, subsequent mentions, such as "the bureau announced …", are lowercased, because the word is being used in its common noun sense.[5] The same logic applies to the word ocean. AP says, "ocean: The five, from the largest to the smallest: Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean, Antarctic Ocean, Arctic Ocean. Lowercase ocean standing alone or in plural uses: the ocean, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans."[5] The American Medical Association's AMA Manual of Style, 10th edition[4] similarly gives guidance to its users. For example, it is AMA style not to capitalize words such as level or case or stage even when they are serving specific-designator duty (for example, "In case 5, the patient was found to have stage IIIA disease").[4]

Capitonym or specific designator?

A capitonym is a word that changes its meaning (and sometimes pronunciation) when it is capitalized. It is a type of homonym. The capitalized version's meaning sometimes may be a special case of the lowercase version's meaning, or it may be eponymously related to it. The nature of capitonyms and specific designators is often related: in both cases, a word root's common and proper senses may be logically related to each other. A few words can be viewed as either capitonyms or specific designators; the evaluation is subjective. For example:

  • The common noun moon denotes any natural planet-like satellite of a planet, whereas the proper noun Moon references a specific moon, that is, the Earth's moon. Dictionaries descriptively reflect that the latter sense is "often" capitalized (by which they imply "often [or usually] capitalized in educated writers' published writing".[6][7]
  • The same status described above for moon/Moon also describes sun/Sun.[6][7]
  • The common noun god denotes any deity from any religion, whereas the proper noun God references a specific monotheistic God. Dictionaries descriptively reflect that the latter sense is capitalized (by which they imply "[almost] always in educated writers' published writing").[6][7]
  • The common noun crown metonymically became Crown in referring to specific monarchs. Throughout human history, there have been various Crowns and various united kingdoms, but today the words Crown and United Kingdom often/usually have a specific reference that is known around the world (that is, relating to Britain).

The unifying theme of these subjective capitonym/specific designator fence-riders is that they are not just special cases, but very special cases, in terms of shifting from common to proper, that is, from many instances to one unique instance. In addition, in the cases of the celestial bodies, it is clear which sense came first: the proper sense. When language first developed, to the extent that humans knew their context, the Sun and the Moon were cosmically unique objects. As humans' context widened, their newfound need for common nouns to name the general type was supplied by retronymy, in which the most logical way to create a common noun was to use the same word but broaden its senses.

Translation decisions

The common meaning of the word or words constituting a proper noun may be unrelated to the object to which the proper noun refers. For example, someone might be named Tiger Smith despite being neither a tiger nor a smith. For this reason, proper nouns are usually not translated between languages, although they may be transliterated. For example, the German surname Römer becomes Romer or Roemer in English. However, the transcription of place names and the names of monarchs, popes, and non-contemporary authors is common and sometimes universal. For instance, the Portuguese word Lisboa becomes Lisbon in English; the English London becomes Londres in French, Portuguese and Spanish; and the Greek Ἁριστοτέλης (Aristotelēs) becomes Aristotle in English.

Pluralized use or use with indefinite or partitive modifiers

Some proper nouns can be used in ways that modify their meaning to name a unique class of common nouns. For example, Toyota is the corporation with the name Toyota, but it builds many Toyotas each year (plural usage); each buyer is the driver of a Toyota (indefinite article usage); many Toyotas are sold each year; and some Toyotas are newer than others (partitive usage). Such usage is often prescriptively limited to colloquial or informal-writing registers, although linguistically it is just as "correct" as any formal-register usage. It involves a certain amount of natural cognitive and lingual ellipsis or metonymy (a Toyota car → a Toyota; Toyota cars → Toyotas).


  1. ^ Lester, Mark; Larry Beason (2005). The McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage. McGraw-Hill. p. 4. ISBN 0-07-144133-6. 
  2. ^ "What is a proper noun?". LinguaLinks Library, Version 5.0. SIL International. 5 January 2004. Retrieved 2010-09-07. 
  3. ^ Steeves, Jon, Online Dictionary of Language Terminology, 
  4. ^ a b c Iverson, Cheryl (editor) (2007), AMA Manual of Style (10 ed.), Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780195176339 , section 10.4: Designators.
  5. ^ a b c Associated Press (2007), The Associated Press Stylebook (42 ed.), New York, NY, USA: Basic Books, ISBN 978-0-465-00489-8 
  6. ^ a b c Houghton Mifflin (2000), The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed ed.), Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 978-0-395-82517-4 
  7. ^ a b c Merriam-Webster (1993), Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (10th ed ed.), Springfield, Massachusetts, USA: Merriam-Webster, ISBN 978-0877797074 

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  • Proper noun — Proper Prop er, a. [OE. propre, F. propre, fr. L. proprius. Cf. {Appropriate}.] [1913 Webster] 1. Belonging to one; one s own; individual. His proper good [i. e., his own possessions]. Chaucer. My proper son. Shak. [1913 Webster] Now learn the… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • proper noun — noun a noun that denotes a particular thing; usually capitalized • Syn: ↑proper name • Ant: ↑common noun • Hypernyms: ↑noun * * * noun, pl ⋯ nouns [count] : a word or group of words (such as “No …   Useful english dictionary

  • proper noun — proper nouns also proper name N COUNT A proper noun is the name of a particular person, place, organization, or thing. Proper nouns begin with a capital letter. Examples are Margaret , London , and the United Nations . Compare common noun …   English dictionary

  • proper noun — noun count a noun that names a particular person, place, or thing and begins with a CAPITAL letter. Jane, Africa, and New Year are proper nouns. ─ compare COMMON NOUN …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • proper noun — also .proper name especially BrE n a noun such as James , New York , or China that is the name of one particular thing and is written with a ↑capital letter →↑noun …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • proper noun — (also proper name) ► NOUN ▪ a name for an individual person, place, or organization, having an initial capital letter …   English terms dictionary

  • proper noun — see noun …   Modern English usage

  • proper noun — UK / US noun [countable] Word forms proper noun : singular proper noun plural proper nouns linguistics a noun that names a particular person, place, or thing and begins with a capital letter. Jane , Africa , and New Year are proper nouns. • See:… …   English dictionary

  • proper noun — noun A noun denoting a particular person, place, organization, ship, animal, event, or other individual entity. Examples: Mike, United Nations …   Wiktionary

  • proper noun — noun Date: circa 1890 a noun that designates a particular being or thing, does not take a limiting modifier, and is usually capitalized in English called also proper name …   New Collegiate Dictionary

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