A proper noun is a noun that in its primary application refers to a unique entity, such as London, Jupiter, Sarah, or Microsoft, as distinguished from a common noun, which usually refers to a class of entities (city, planet, person, corporation), or non-unique instances of a specific class (a city, another planet, these persons, our corporation). Some proper nouns occur in plural form (optionally or exclusively), and then they refer to groups of entities considered as unique (the Hendersons, the Everglades, the Azores, the Pleiades). Proper nouns can also occur in secondary applications, for example modifying nouns (the Mozart experience; his Azores adventure), or in the role of common nouns (he's no Pavarotti; a few would-be Napoleons). The detailed definition of the term is problematic and to an extent governed by convention.
A distinction is normally made in current linguistics between proper nouns and proper names. By this strict distinction, because the term noun is used for a class of single words (tree, beauty), only single-word proper names are proper nouns: Peter and Africa are both proper names and proper nouns; but Peter the Great and South Africa, while they are proper names, are not proper nouns. The term common name is not much used to contrast with proper name, but some linguists have used the term for that purpose. Sometimes proper names are called simply names; but that term is often used more broadly. Words derived from proper names are sometimes called proper adjectives (or proper adverbs, and so on), but not in mainstream linguistic theory. Not every noun or noun phrase that refers to a unique entity is a proper name. Blackness and chastity are common nouns, even if blackness and chastity are considered unique abstract entities.
Few proper names have only one possible referent: there are many places named New Haven; Jupiter may refer to a planet, a god, a ship, or a symphony; at least one person has been named Mata Hari, but so have a horse, a song, and three films; there are towns and people named Toyota, as well as the company.
In English, proper names in their primary application cannot normally be modified by an article or other determiner (such as any or another), although some may be taken to include the article the, as in the Netherlands, the Roaring Forties, or the Rolling Stones. A proper name may appear to refer by having a descriptive meaning, even though it does not (the Rolling Stones are not stones and do not roll; a woman named Rose is not a flower). Or if it had once been descriptive (and then perhaps not even a proper name at all), it may no longer be so (a location previously referred to as "the new town" may now have the proper name Newtown, though it is no longer new, and is now a city rather than a town).
In English and many other languages, proper names and words derived from them are associated with capitalization; but the details are complex, and vary from language to language (French lundi, Canada, canadien; English Monday, Canada, Canadian).
Common and proper nouns
In linguistics proper nouns, common nouns and mass nouns are three distinct subclasses of nouns. Common nouns refer to a class of individual entities, whereas proper nouns name a unique referent, and mass nouns refer to non-individual referents. In English syntax they can fulfill the same functions, but proper nouns behave different in that, like mass nouns, they cannot take the determiners "the" or "a" - this is a consequence of the fact that since they denote a unique referent they cannot be indefinite, and they do not have a plural form except in special cases where they are used as common nouns.
Acquisition and cognition
There is evidence that language learners learn and store proper nouns differently from common nouns, and that neurolinguistic disorders such as aphasia affect them differentially. For example Japanese language learners, whose language does not distinguish overtly between common and proper nouns, two year old children distinguished between common and proper noun depending on the type of referent, and their preexisting knowledge of the type of referent. When the referent was an animal or person they assumed the noun used to refer to them to be a proper noun. Similarly in English children employ different strategies depending on the type of referent, but also rely on syntactic cues, such as the presence or absence of the determiner "the" to differentiate between common and proper nouns when first learned.
Current linguistics makes a distinction between proper nouns and proper names; but this distinction is not universally observed, and sometimes it is observed but not rigorously. When the distinction is made, proper nouns are limited to single words only (possibly with the), while proper names include all proper nouns (in their primary applications) as well as noun phrases such as United Kingdom, North Carolina, Royal Air Force, and the White House. United Kingdom, for example, is a proper name with the common noun kingdom as its head, and North Carolina is headed by the proper noun Carolina. Especially as titles of works, but also as nicknames and the like, some proper names contain no noun and are not formed as noun phrases (the film Being There; Hi De Ho as a nickname for Cab Calloway and as the title of a film about him).
Though the term common name is not much used in this context, it would mean a noun (or a noun phrase) that is not a proper name (Swiss cheese, and the common noun bluebird, are both common names in this sense). Sometimes proper names are called simply names; but that term is often used more broadly (as in "chair is the name for something we sit on").
Common nouns are frequently used as components of proper names. Some examples are agency, boulevard, city, day, and edition. In such cases the common noun may determine the kind of entity, and a modifier determines the unique entity itself. For example:
- The 16th robotic probe to land on the planet was assigned to study the north pole, and the 17th probe the 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 sentence, Probe 17 is the proper name of a vessel, and South Pole is a proper name referring to Earth's south pole]
- Sanjay lives on the beach road.
- [the road that runs along the beach]
- Sanjay lives on Beach Road.
- [as a proper name, Beach Road may have nothing to do with the beach; it may be any distance from the waterfront]
- My university has a school of medicine.
- [no indication of the name of the university or its medical school]
- The John A. Burns School of Medicine is located at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Proper nouns, and all proper names, differ from common nouns grammatically. They may take titles, such as Mr Harris or Senator Harris. Otherwise, they normally only take modifiers that add emotive coloring, such as old Mrs Fletcher, poor Charles, or historic York; in a formal style, this may include the (the inimitable Henry Higgins). They may also take the in the manner of common nouns in order to establish the context in which they are unique: the young Mr Hamilton (not the old one), the Dr Brown I know; or as proper nouns to define an aspect of the referent: the young Einstein (Einstein when he was young). The indefinite article a may similarly be used to establish a new referent: the column was written by a [or one] Mary Price. If the is inherent, however, as in The Hague, it cannot be dropped. Similarly, proper names based on noun phrases differ grammatically from common noun phrases. They are fixed expressions, and cannot be modified internally: beautiful King's College is acceptable, but not *King's famous College.
As with proper nouns, so with proper names more generally: they may only be unique within the appropriate context. For instance, India has a ministry of home affairs (a common-noun phrase) called the Ministry of Home Affairs (its proper name). Within the context of India, this identifies a unique organization. However, other countries may also have ministries of home affairs called "the Ministry of Home Affairs", but each refers to a unique object, so each is a proper name. Similarly, "Beach Road" is a unique road, though other towns may have their own roads named "Beach Road" as well. This is simply a matter of the pragmatics of naming, and of whether a naming convention provides identifiers that are unique; and this depends on the scope given by context.
In languages that use alphabetic scripts and that distinguish lower and upper case, there is usually an association between proper names and capitalization. (A prominent exception is German, in which all nouns are capitalized.) The details are complex, and vary sharply from language to language: for proper names, as for several other kinds of words and phrases. For example, expressions for days of the week and months of the year are capitalized in English, but not in Spanish, French, Swedish, or Finnish, though they may be understood as proper names in all of these. Languages differ in whether most elements of multiword proper names are capitalized (American English has House of Representatives, in which lexical words are capitalized) or only the initial element (as in Slovenian Državni zbor, "National Assembly"). In Czech, multiword settlement names are capitalized throughout, but non-settlement names are only capitalized in the initial element, though with many exceptions.
In English, it is the norm for recognized proper names to be capitalized. The few clear exceptions include summer and winter (contrast April and Easter). It is often indeterminate both whether an item qualifies as a proper name and whether it should be capitalized: "the Cuban missile crisis" is often capitalized ("Cuban Missile Crisis") and often not, regardless of its syntactic status or its function in discourse. Most style guides give decisive recommendations on capitalization; but not all of them dwell on the indeterminate matter of proper names.
Words or phrases that are neither proper nouns nor derived from proper nouns are often capitalized in present-day English: Dr, Baptist, Congregationalism, His and He in reference to the deity (or "the Deity"). For some such words, capitalization is optional or dependent on context: northerner or Northerner; aboriginal trees but Aboriginal land rights in Australia. When the comes at the start of a proper name, as in the White House, it is not normally capitalized unless it is a formal part of a title (of a book, film, or other artistic creation, as in The Keys to the Kingdom). Nouns and noun phrases that are not proper may be uniformly capitalized to indicate that they are definitive and regimented in their application (compare brand names, discussed earlier). For example, Mountain Bluebird does not identify a unique individual, and it is not a proper name but a so-called common name (somewhat misleadingly, because this is not intended as a contrast with the term proper name). Such capitalization indicates that the term is a conventional designation for exactly that species (Sialia currucoides), not for just any bluebird that happens to live in the mountains.
Words or phrases derived from proper names are generally capitalized, even when they are not themselves proper names. For example, Londoner is capitalized because it derives from the proper name London, but it is not itself a proper name (it can be limited: the Londoner, some Londoners). Similarly, African, Africanize, and Africanism are not proper names, but are capitalized because Africa is a proper name. Adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and derived common nouns that are capitalized (Swiss in Swiss cheese; Anglicize; Calvinistically; Petrarchism) are sometimes loosely called proper adjectives (and so on), but not in mainstream linguistics. Which of these items are capitalized may be merely conventional. Abrahamic, Buddhist, Hollywoodize, Freudianism, and Reagonomics are capitalized; quixotic, bowdlerize, mesmerism, and pasteurization are not; aeolian, and alpinism may be capitalized or not.
Some words have one meaning when capitalized and another when not. Sometimes the capitalized variant is then a proper noun (the Moon; dedicated to God; Smith's apprentice) and the other variant is not (the third moon of Saturn; a Greek god; the smith's apprentice). Sometimes neither is a proper noun (a swede in the soup; a Swede who came to see me). Such words that vary according to case are sometimes called capitonyms.
In past centuries, orthographic practices in English varied widely. Capitalization was much less standardized 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. There are examples among United States historical documents: 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. Current English orthography has been standardized to the point that most capitalizing of common nouns is considered incorrect.
In most alphabetic languages brand names and other commercial terms that are nouns or noun phrases are capitalized whether or not they count as proper names. Not all brand names are proper names, and not all proper names are brand names.
- Microsoft is a proper name, referring to a specific company. English does not allow these phrases, unless Microsoft is treated, by a non-standard secondary application, in the role of a common noun: *"Microsofts"; *"the Microsoft"; *"another Microsoft".
- Chevrolet is similarly a proper name referring to a specific company. But unlike Microsoft, it is also used in the role of a common noun to refer to products of the named company: "He drove a Chevrolet" (a particular vehicle); "The Chevrolets of the 1960s" (classes of vehicles). In these uses, Chevrolet does not function as a proper name.
- Corvette (referring to a car produced by the company Chevrolet) is not a proper name: it can be pluralized (French and English Corvettes); and it can take a definite article or other determiner or modifier: "the Corvette", "la Corvette"; "my Corvette", "ma Corvette"; "another new Corvette", "une autre nouvelle Corvette". Similarly, Chevrolet Corvette is not a proper name: "We owned three Chevrolet Corvettes."
Alternative marking of proper names
In non-alphabetic scripts proper names are sometimes marked by other means. In Egyptian hieroglyphs, parts of a royal name were enclosed in a cartouche: an oval with a horizontal line at one end. In Chinese script, a proper name mark (a kind of underline) has sometimes been used to indicate a proper name. In the standard Pinyin system of romanization for Mandarin Chinese, capitalization is used to mark proper names, with some complexities because of different Chinese classifications of nominal types, and even different notions of such broad categories as word and phrase.
European alphabetic scripts only developed a distinction between upper case and lower case in medieval times so in the alphabetic scripts of ancient Greek and Latin proper names were not systematically marked. They are marked with modern capitalization, however, in many modern editions of ancient texts. Sanskrit and other languages written in the Devanagari script, along with many other languages using alphabetic or syllabic scripts, do not distinguish upper and lower case and do not mark proper names systematically.
- Lester and Beason (2005), p. 4; Anderson (2007), pp. 3–5.
- Valentine et al. (1996), pp. 2–5; Anderson (2007), p. 3.
- Imai, M. and Haryu, E. (2001), Learning Proper Nouns and Common Nouns without Clues from Syntax. Child Development, 72: 787–802. doi: 10.1111/1467-8624.00315
- Katz, N., Baker, E., & Macnamara, J. (1974). What's in a name? A study of how children learn common and proper names. Child development, 469-473.
- The distinction is recognized in the OED entry "proper, adj., n., and adv." The relevant lemmas within the entry: "proper noun n. Grammar a noun that designates an individual person, place, organization, animal, ship, etc., and is usually written with an initial capital letter; cf. proper name n. ..."; "proper name n. ... a name, consisting of a proper noun or noun phrase including a proper noun, that designates an individual person, place, organization, tame animal, ship, etc., and is usually written with an initial capital letter. ...". See also Aarts (2011), pp. 42, 57; and Huddleston and Pullum (2002), pp. 515–522. Huddleston and Pullum's Cambridge Grammar of the English Grammar (see References) is the major application of current linguistic theory to English grammar. Its acceptance is high among academic linguists. Burridge (2002) reviews it as "one of the most superb works of academic scholarship ever to appear on the English linguistics scene", and points out that the editors "are leading authorities in this field; so too are their thirteen co-authors" (p. 63). She finds in this grammar "much more in the way of syntactic argumentation than normally appears in a grammar book", and concludes that it offers "the most outstanding account of present-day English grammar that is available" (p. 64). Huddleston and Pullum consistently apply the accepted modern distinction between nouns as a class of single words and noun phrases (NPs) as a class of larger structural elements, typically with nouns as their head (Chapter 5, "Nouns and noun phrases", pp. 326–328 et passim). In a subsection (20.1) of Chapter 5, headed "The distinction between proper names and proper nouns", the authors write: "In their primary use proper names normally refer to the particular entities that they name: in this use they have the syntactic status of NPs. ...Proper nouns, by contrast, are word-level units belonging to the category noun. ... Proper nouns are nouns which are specialised to the function of heading proper names" (p. 516). The distinction is maintained throughout the subsequent analysis.
- Chalker (1992), p. 813.
- Greenbaum (1996), p. 97. The author distinguishes the two terms (including in separate index entries), but elsewhere in the text he conflates them. This conflation runs counter to the accepted definition of noun as denoting a class of single words, as opposed to phrases as higher-level elements of clauses and sentences—a definition that he himself gives (on p. 627, for example).
- Huddleston and Pullum (2002), p. 516. The authors give as an example the proper name New Zealand, which includes the proper noun Zealand as its head.
- Jespersen (1965), pp. 66, 70.
- Quirk et al. (1985), pp. 288ff.
- Huddleston and Pullum, pp. 1758–1759.
- Such guides include AMA Manual of Style (2007) and Associated Press Stylebook (2007). The major US guide is Chicago Manual of Style; the major British one is New Hart's Rules. According to all of these, proper names are generally capitalized; but some apparent exceptions are made, and many nouns and noun phrases that are not presented as proper names include capitalization. For example, Scientific Style and Format: The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers (8th edition, 2014) does not appeal to proper names in discussion of trademarks ("Aspirin", for applicable countries; 9.7.7) or biological taxa ("The Liliaceae are very diverse"; 126.96.36.199), except to mention that component proper nouns are capitalized normally ("Capitalize other parts of a virus name only if they are proper nouns: ... Sandfly fever Naples virus"; 188.8.131.52). The guides vary in their recommendations. Valentine et al. (1996) cite dictionaries and grammars in an effort to settle the scope of the term proper name, but decide (against the majority) not to include expressions for days of the week or months of the year. They cite as evidence the fact that French does not capitalize these.
- Dunn and Alderfer, p. 354
- Quinn, p. 106: "This list [... a check-list, from the American Ornithologists' Union] makes sure that each capitalized common name corresponds to one and only one scientific name and each scientific name corresponds to one and only capitalized common name."
- Or perhaps some mutual homonyms, depending on the theoretical status accorded to "word".
- This term is scarcely used in linguistic theory, and does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary.
- Except of course when the capitalization is simply a matter of text styling, as at the start of a sentence or in titles and other headings.
- Huddleston and Pullum (2002), pp. 521–522.
- Huddleston and Pullum (2002), pp. 522, 1758. The authors use Cortina (manufactured by the company Ford) as an example of a "tradename but not a proper name" (p. 522).
- Collier and Manley (1998), p. 20.
- Binyong and Felley (1990), pp. 138–190.
- Po-Ching and Rimmington (2006), pp. 10–13. The authors distinguish proper nouns, common nouns, abstract nouns, material nouns, and collective nouns.
- Packard (2000), pp. 106–109.
- Aarts, Bas (2011). Oxford Modern English Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- AMA Manual of Style (2007; 10th ed.). Iverson, Cheryl (ed.). Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-517633-9.
- Anderson, John M. (2007). The Grammar of Proper Names. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Associated Press Stylebook (2007; 42 ed.). The Associated Press. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-465-00489-8.
- Binyong, Yin and Felley, Mary (1990). Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and Orthography. Beijing: Sinolingua.
- Burridge, Kate (2002). "New Standards in a Glorious Grammar: Review of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum (eds)". Australian Book Review, No. 246, November. pp. 62–63.
- Chalker, Sylvia (1992). "Proper noun". In Tom McArthur (ed.). The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Collier, Mark and Manley, Bill (1998). How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Dunn, Jon L., Alderfer, Jonathan (2006). National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. National Geographic Books.
- Greenbaum, Sidney (1996). The Oxford English Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Huddleston, Rodney and Pullum, Geoffrey (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Jespersen, Otto (1965). The Philosophy of Grammar. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Lester, Mark and Beason, Larry (2005). The McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage. New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-07-144133-6.
- Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (1993; 10th ed.). Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam-Webster. ISBN 978-0-87779-707-4.
- Online Dictionary of Language Terminology [ODTL]. Steeves, Jon (ed.). http://www.odlt.org.
- Packard, Jerome L. (2000). The Morphology of Chinese: A Linguistic and Cognitive Approach. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Po-Ching, Yip and Rimmington, Don (2006; 2nd ed.). Chinese: An Essential Grammar. Oxford: Taylor & Francis (Routledge).
- Quinn, Charles (2005). A Nature Guide to the Southwest Tahoe Basin. Charles Quinn (publisher).
- Quirk, Randolph et al.(eds.) (1985). A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. London: Longman.
- The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (2000; 4th ed.). Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 978-0-395-82517-4.
- Valentine, Tim, Brennen, Tim, and Brédart, Serge (1996). The Cognitive Psychology of Proper Names: On the Importance of Being Ernest. Oxford: Routledge.