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What Is a Common Noun?

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  • Written By: Dan Harkins
  • Edited By: Kaci Lane Hindman
  • Last Modified Date: 28 November 2016
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The common noun simply identifies a person, place or thing in a common, general way without the need for capitalization. By contrast, proper nouns are used to identify a specific person, place or thing and usually do require a capital firs letter. For example, when referring to any "zoo" a common noun is used, but when referring to the "San Diego Zoo" a proper noun is used instead.

The chief distinguishing factor when identifying common nouns is how they describe something, someplace or someone. The common nouns "singer" or "president" become proper and capitalized when used more specifically as "Madonna" or "Barack Obama." A generic term like "dresser" is common as well until a brand name, such as "Broyhill®" is added.

Typically preceded by an article, such as "a," "an," "the," "this" or "that," a common noun can describe one person, place or thing as well as several at once. When a common noun has a grouping effect, it is called a collective noun. For example, this sentence shows a common noun that is also a collective noun: "The team won the game."

When a common noun is made up of more than one word, it is called a compound noun. "The fireman arrived at the house" uses a common compound noun. Other examples are "policeman," "chalkboard," and common nouns that can be two words, such as "ice cream" or "space station." These also are referred to as noun phrases.

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The key distinction is that common nouns are generalized terms and proper nouns are specific. The capitalization aids the reader in making that distinction. Common nouns will not be capitalized unless they appear at the start of a sentence or as part of a title.

Common nouns also can be abstract or concrete, countable and uncountable. Abstract uses are needed to describe ideas or feelings, such as hatred or love. Concrete nouns that describe a seen-and-heard person or thing can be proper or common. "Paul needed to think of a better word," and "The student needed to think of a better word" both use concrete nouns, but the former sentence uses a proper form while the latter uses the common form. When grouped together, these nouns can either be countable or uncountable. In other words, common nouns like "student," "beans" and "chair" are quantifiable, but common nouns like "soil," "sunlight" and even "disgust" are considered uncountable because they cannot be accurately measured in total.

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jcraig
Post 4

@TreeMan - I think that learning compound words in any language would be kind of difficult. Most of the time, it seems like the real meaning is similar to the literal translation, but some words can be kind of a stretch. I can only speak for English, but it seems like there are lots of examples that would be very confusing if you tried to translate the literally.

The first word that I can think of like this is "suitcase." If you translated it literally, a suitcase is kind of a case for a suit, but I don't think someone from a foreign country who understood both of the words separately would inherently understand the meaning.

Even the example

from the article - fireman - could be very confusing. Yes, it is a man that deals with fire, but I think if I heard something similar in another language my immediate thought would either be that it's someone who starts fires or is actually on fire. That's not even considering the words whose literal meaning is not really anything close to the real meaning, such as "backdrop" or "kidnap."
TreeMan
Post 3

@JimmyT - Interesting. I have never heard of that rule for "earth." I would disagree with its usage, though. If you switch the first sentence to say "I love living on Neptune," Neptune would be capitalized, so why not capitalize Earth in the same instance?

As far as remembering which words to capitalize, it gets really easy in some languages. In German, for example, every noun gets capitalized regardless of whether it is a proper noun or not. That being said, nouns can still be proper or common and that can affect verb and adjective choices sometimes.

Germans are also big fans of compound nouns. I have no idea how many actual common words in German are compound, but

they have to far outnumber English words. Just the word "desk" in German is Schreibtisch which translates to "writing table." Although it's not nearly the longest, my favorite compound word is Umweltverschmutzung which literally means "dirtying of the world" (or pollution in English).
JimmyT
Post 2

@Izzy78 - Speaking of the Bible (or is it bible?), God/god is a word that causes a lot of problems. I think the rule in that case is that if you're talking about a general god like just did in this sentence, you don't need to capitalize it. If you're using it to talk about a specific deity, though, it should be capitalized. If you're talking about the Christian figure, you would capitalize God just like you would Buddha or Allah.

I have heard different rules for capitalizing "earth," though. I have heard the rule you have stated, and that is typically the one I go with. The alternative, though, is to only capitalize the word when it is used with other celestial bodies. Possible examples would be "I love living on earth" and "I think Earth and Neptune are the most beautiful planets."

Izzy78
Post 1

I thought this was a very good explanation of all the various versions of nouns. I don't typically have a problem with identifying common and proper nouns except for a few cases that I always have to look up when I use them.

For example, I always have to stop and think about whether I need to capitalize the words "earth" and "bible." Basically, the rule is that if you are talking about the planet itself, it should be capitalized. If you are only talking about soil, it is not a proper noun. At the same time, if you're talking about a general book that has a lot of information, for example, you might call it a bible. You

might say you need to reference your gardening bible. With a specific religious book, though, I think it should always be capitalized, because it is the title.

I am sure that I have run across several other examples that have made me stop and think.

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