What Are Proper Nouns And How Do You Use Them?

As you probably know, a noun is a word that refers to a person, place, thing, or idea. In English, there are many different types of nouns that we use to describe all of the people and things around us. When we want to refer to a specific person or thing, we use a type of noun known as a proper noun. You have more than likely used many proper nouns in your life even if you didn’t know what they were called. As you’ll soon learn, proper nouns are a special type of noun, so we should give them the attention they deserve and learn a bit more about them.

What is a proper noun?

A proper noun is a noun that is used to denote a particular person, place, or thing. What do we mean by this? Take a second to think about a city. You will probably picture a generic place with tall buildings, busy traffic, and crowded streets. The noun city is not a proper noun as it is generic and could refer to many different places. Now, try to picture New York City, Paris, London, or Beijing. This time, you probably imagine very specific landmarks, sights, and destinations. These nouns are all proper nouns because they refer to specific places that can only be found in one exact location on Earth.

A special rule that applies to proper nouns is that they are always capitalized regardless of where they appear in a sentence. For example, in the example Tomorrow is Cassandra’s birthdayCassandra is a proper noun that refers to a specific person and is capitalized. It is very important to be able to identify proper nouns because incorrect capitalization is one of the most common grammar mistakes. To help avoid making these mistakes, let’s look closer at examples of proper nouns.

Proper noun examples

We use proper nouns to refer to a variety of different stuff. Let’s explore some of the many different things we can use proper nouns to refer to.

People and animals 

The names of specific people and animals are proper nouns. This applies to both real and fictional people and animals. For example, the names Marie Curie and Mickey Mouse are both proper nouns.

This seems simple enough but capitalization can often be tricky when using proper nouns. With names, titles are only capitalized when used with the name of a specific person. For example, in the sentence The pirates were led by Captain Cutlass, the name of the captain is correctly capitalized. However, the sentence The pirates drank grog with their Captain has incorrect capitalization as captain is not a proper noun.

When referring to names and titles of specific people and animals, articles and other unimportant words are also not capitalized. You can see this in proper nouns such as John the Baptist or Duke Richard of York. 

Places

The names of specific places are also proper nouns. For example, the words Florida and British Columbia are proper nouns while the words state and province are not. As was the case with names, don’t capitalize articles or unimportant words in names of places: you swim in the (not The) Pacific Ocean and visit the United States of (not Of) America.

Things

Proper nouns can also refer to things. It can be tricky to figure out which things in particular are proper nouns. Remember, proper nouns refer to specific, unique things. So, nouns like Jupiter (a specific planet), Friday (a specific day of the week), and Christianity (a specific religion) are proper nouns. Titles and names of creative works are also proper nouns. For example, Horn Players is a proper noun when referring to the painting by artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

However, seasons and cardinal directions are not proper nouns and so are not capitalized unless part of a name. For example, the words summer and north are not proper nouns in the sentence I drove 500 miles north during the summer but they are capitalized when used in names as in the sentence I drove to North Dakota for the Summer of Fun Festival. 

Be grammar-ready throughout the year with this deeper explanation on when seasons should and should not be capitalized.

A rare exception to the capitalization rule of proper nouns is when referring to the names of brands or trademarked products that begin with a lowercase letter. For example, it is correct to refer to the Apple company’s brand of tablets as iPads.

List of proper nouns

Listed below are a variety of proper nouns. Give special attention to how these nouns are capitalized.

 

  • Captain Jack Sparrow, Helen of Troy, Dr. Feelgood, Blondie, King Richard the Lionheart, Muhammad Ali, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
  • New York City, South America, Missouri River, Sahara Desert, Trinidad and Tobago
  • January, Christmas, Department of Defense, Star Wars, Gone with the Wind, Atlas Shrugged, All Along the Watchtower

The difference between proper and common nouns

While proper nouns refer to specific people, places, and things, common nouns are used to refer to generic things. Common nouns are not capitalized and are used to broadly refer to undefined people, places, and things. Here are some examples showing how proper and common nouns are used differently in sentences:

 

  • Abraham Lincoln (proper noun) was the president (common noun) of the United States of America (proper noun).
  • The Lion King (proper noun) is my favorite movie (common noun) made by Disney (proper noun).
  • We ate dinner (common noun) with the queen (common noun).
  • We ate dinner (common noun) with Queen Elizabeth II (proper noun).

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No matter what kind of noun you have, spruce it up with an adjective! Learn about the different types of adjectives here.