• 3-minute read
  • 24th July 2015

Proper and Common Nouns

One of the trickiest things to master in academic writing is grammar. It’s important to know the difference as, when business reports or applying for jobs, using correct grammar will ensure that you come across as professional.

To help with this, we’ve prepared this guide on the difference between ‘proper’ and ‘common’ nouns!

Common Nouns

Most people know that nouns are naming words. The word ‘cat’, for instance, is a noun commonly applied to the fuzzy creatures which are often kept as pets and go ‘miaow’. Yet not everyone will know that ‘cat’ is also a common noun.

The word ‘cat’ is a common noun because it designates a class of entities (e.g. all cats) or a generic example from such a class (e.g. a cat) rather than a unique cat (such as Tom from the Tom & Jerry cartoons).

Common nouns can include things, people, places and even ideas, so there are common nouns for everything from cats and toast to dancers and existentialism (all of these, in fact, are common nouns). Essentially, if a noun can be applied to more than one entity or class of entities, it is a common noun.

Proper Nouns

Proper nouns, by comparison, refer to unique entities. So ‘Tom’ from Tom & Jerry is a proper noun referring to Tom the cat and ‘Jerry’ is a proper noun referring to Jerry the mouse. Unlike common nouns, these words only name one thing, so we couldn’t use the word ‘Jerry’ to refer to mice in general or a non-cartoon mouse spotted in a dodgy restaurant.

Proper nouns are still naming words, but they name specific things or people. So ‘Germany’ is the proper noun for referring to the central European country, while ‘Earth’ is the proper noun for the third planet from the Sun (and ‘Sun’ is the proper noun for the star around which the Earth orbits).

You’ll notice that all of these words begin with a capital letter. This is how we distinguish proper nouns from common nouns. It is also worth noting that all proper nouns will have a common noun equivalent (in the same way that ‘cat’ is a common noun which could be applied to Tom the cat from Tom & Jerry). However, not all common nouns will have a proper noun equivalent (e.g. happiness).

Common vs. Proper Nouns

The best way to illustrate the difference between common and proper nouns is to use a few examples. On the left are generic common nouns, while on the right are a few examples of their proper noun equivalents:

Common Noun

Proper Noun


Kanye West


The Hobbit






Sydney Opera House

If you have found this post helpful, make sure to check out the rest of the grammatical tips in our academic blog.

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