Common Nouns

What Are Common Nouns?

A common noun is the generic name for a person, place, or thing, e.g., boy, town, lake, bridge.

Common nouns contrast with proper nouns, which are the given names (or titles) we give to things, e.g., Peter, New York, Lake Superior, London Bridge.

Common nouns are written with lowercase letters (unless they start a sentence), and proper nouns are written with uppercase letters.

Table of Contents

  • Examples of Common Nouns and Proper Nouns
  • "Find the Common Noun" Test
  • Real-Life Examples of Common Nouns
  • Categories of Common Noun
  • Video Lesson
  • Why Common Nouns Are Important
  • Test Time!
common nouns and proper nouns

Examples of Common Nouns and Proper Nouns

The difference between common nouns and proper nouns becomes obvious when they're listed side by side.
Common Noun
(written with lowercase letters)
Proper Noun
(written using capital letters)
carFord Focus
lakeLake Baikal
materialHarris Tweed
oceanThe Atlantic Ocean
restaurantBurger King
soldierCorporal Jones
teaEarl Grey
All nouns can be categorized as either a common noun or a proper noun. This entry is about common nouns, but it is worth learning about common nouns and proper nouns at the same time.

"Find the Common Noun" Test

Can You Identify Common Nouns?

Real-Life Examples of Common Nouns

In the following examples, the common nouns are in bold and the proper nouns are shaded:
  • 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.)

Categories of Common Noun

Every common noun can be categorized as at least one of following types of noun:
Noun TypeDescriptionExamples
An Abstract NounAbstract nouns are things you cannot see or touch hate, happiness, determination
A Collective NounCollective nouns describe groups jury, team, school
A Compound NounCompound nouns are nouns made up of more than one word paperclip, court-martial, sister-in-law
A Concrete NounConcrete nouns are things you can see or touch table, cup, rain
A Countable NounCountable nouns are ones with a singular and plural form. They are things you can count. pen (pens), wall (walls), animal (animals)
A Non-countable Noun (Mass Nouns)Non-countable nouns are things you cannot count air, music, oxygen
A Gender-specific NounGender-specific nouns are things which are definitely male or female vixen, waitress, actress
Verbal NounVerbal nouns represent actions writing, dancing, thinking).
(Verbal nouns have no verb-like qualities.)
Gerund Gerunds represent actions 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.)
Read more about the different types of nouns.

Video Lesson

Here is a video summarizing the difference between common nouns and proper nouns: video lesson

Are you a visual learner? Do you prefer video to text? Here is a list of all our grammar videos.

Why Common Nouns Are Important

Here are five noteworthy points related to common nouns and lowercase letters:

(Point 1) 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.
  • We value our Clients' opinions. wrong cross
  • Lisa, Vampires are make-believe, like elves, gremlins, and Eskimos. wrong cross (Homer Simpson)
  • (Vampires is wrong. Eskimos is correct.)
  • We live in an age when Pizza gets to your home before the Police. wrong cross

(Point 2) 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. correct tick
  • I booked a ticket for the Rhine Summer Ball last autumn. correct tick
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.

(Point 3) 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 cross
  • To get to West Ham, go north then west. correct tick
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 The East as opposed to 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 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 is the term?
  • What would your readers expect?
  • How does each version look aesthetically when written?
If you're still unsure after all that thinking about it, go for the non-capitalized version (e.g., north Wales and central Europe). You'll have fewer pedants on your case.

(Point 4) Write the Sun and the 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 name of our moon) is a proper noun. That's why it has a capital letter.)
  • Are all suns as hot as The Sun? correct tick
  • (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. correct tick
  • (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?

(Point 5) 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 tick
  • The Commanding Officer thought he'd never be a commanding officer. correct tick
  • I know my Dad is looking down on us. He's not dead – just very condescending. correct tick(Comedian Jack Whitehall)
  • (Terms like mum/mom/mam and dad are given capital letters when they refer to a specific parent.)

Key Points

author logo

This page was written by Craig Shrives.