User:EncycloPetey/English proper nouns

Summary: Linguists recognize a special subset of nouns called "proper nouns". These nouns have certain characteristics, properties, and patterns of usage which set them apart from "common nouns" in many languages. This appendix discusses both the general properties of all proper nouns and the particular characteristics of English proper nouns.

Characteristics edit

Practical characteristics edit

A proper noun is first of all a kind of noun. Like other nouns, a proper noun may label a person, place, or thing, and may label a concrete object or an abstraction. Most proper nouns refer to a specific person (e.g. Julius Caesar), a specific place (e.g. Istanbul), a specific institution or organization (e.g. the Red Cross), or a specific event (e.g. the Renaissance).

In English, there are a few typical characteristics which permit proper nouns to be recognized. A proper noun typically:

  1. ...has its initial letter capitalized.
  2. not used in the plural.
  3. not preceded by adjectives, articles, numerals, demonstratives, or other modifiers.

Although each of these is a typical feature of proper nouns, none of them apply universally. Not only do each of these typical characteristics have important exceptions (discussed later in this appendix), but also none of these features are exclusive to proper nouns. For example, although proper nouns are usually capitalized, a few of them are not, and many common nouns are also capitalized.

What makes a noun "proper"? edit

A philosophical consideration of proper nouns finds three properties. Being philosophical, these properties are abstract and are not as easily applied or demonstrated as practical characteristics of use may be. Nevertheless, each of these three properties distinguishes a proper noun from a common noun, and taken together they provide a theoretical basis for determining which kind of noun a word is. Unlike the practical characteristics, these three philosophical properties may be applied to other languages, where the conventions of capitalization and grammar differ from those used in English.

Uniqueness of referent edit

First among the properties of a proper noun is that the referent, the entity that the word identifies or denotes, is unique.

Common nouns identify an object as belonging to a class of similar objects. Thus, the referent of a common noun is not unique. Proper nouns identify a specific thing, one that is unique. The definition will exclude the possibility that another referent may exist, whether real, fictitious, or even hypothetical. The referent of a proper noun is by definition unique.

"The disinction, therefore, between general names, and individual or singular names, is fundamental; and may be considered as the first grand division of names.

    A general name is familiarly defined, a name which is capable of bring truly affirmed, in the same sense, of each of an indefinite number of things. An individual or singular name is a name which is only capable of being truly affirmed, in the same sense, of one thing."

John Stuart Mill, 1843. A System of Logic; Book I, ch ii, § 3.

This does not mean that every noun applied to a unique item is de facto a proper noun. When the telephone was invented, there was only one such device in existence. However, telephone was still a common noun because the definition of a telephone did not exclude the possibility that others might exist at some point. The word "telephone" identifies a class of similar items rather than a unique entity.

The word Albanian (when referring to the language) is a unique entity, and is therefore a proper noun. On the other hand, Albanian (when referring to a person from Albania) is a common noun, since the person so labelled belongs to a class of similarly identified individuals. It is therefore possible for the same word to function as a proper noun in one sense, but as a common noun in a different sense.

Specificity of label edit

Second among the properties of a proper noun, and closely tied to the first, is the specificity of the label.

  • serve as a proper name of a specific entity (p328)
  • label for unique item; moniker

This property arises from the way in which proper nouns are used to distinguish one particular item from all other similar ones.

Besides persons, countries also, cities, rivers, mountains, and other the like distinctions of place have usually found peculiar names, and that for the same reason ; they being such as men have often an occasion to mark particularly, and, as it were, set before others in their discourses with them. And I doubt not but, if we had reason to mention particular Horses as often as we have to mention particular Men, we should have proper Names for the one, as familiar as for the other, and Bucephalus would be a Word as much in use as Alexander. And therefore we see that, amongst jockeys, horses have their proper names to be known and distinguished by, as commonly as their servants : because, amongst them, there is often occasion to mention this or that particular horse when he is out of sight.
John Locke, 1689. An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding; Book III, ch iii, § 5.

In short, the need to identify individual persons has led to the widespread use of proper nouns, such as Alexander, to name people. But while Bucephalus (the horse of Alexander the Great) was gifted with a relatively well-known proper name, most such names of horses are unknown outside of those who care for them, ride them, or otherwise have a need to identify one horse from among the others.

Linguists include two additional aspects: definiteness and referentiality. (Finegan 202-205) Proper nouns are definite, meaning that a speaker may "assume that the listener can identify the referent." A listener will understand that the label applies to a particular entity, and can determine which entity is meant. Proper nouns are also referential, meaning that it applies to a particular entity and not to anything else. These two aspects are independent of each other, and it is possible for certain kinds of words to be only definite or only referential.

Does not impart connotation or attributes edit


  • Do not carry meaning other than as a label for a specific object (signify a subject only, and not an attribute or connotation)
  • Do not translate
Thus, man is capable of being truly affirmed of John, Peter, George, and other persons without asignable limits: and it is affirmed of all of them in the same sense; for the word man expresses certain qualities, and when we predicate it of those persons, we assert that they all possess those qualities. But John is only capable of being truly affirmed of one single person, at least in the same sense. For although there are many persons who bear that name, it is not conferred upon them to indicate any qualities, or anything which belongs to them in common; and cannot be said to be affirmed of them in any sense at all, consequently not in the same sense.
John Stuart Mill, 1843. A System of Logic; Book I, ch ii, § 3.
Proper names are not connotative: they denote the individuals who are called by them; but they do not indicate or imply any attributes as belonging to those individuals. ... When we predicate of anything its proper name; when we say, pointing to a man, this is Brown or Smith, or pointing to a city, that is York, we do not, merely by so doing, convey to the hearer any information about them, except that those are their names.
John Stuart Mill, 1843. A System of Logic; Book I, ch ii, § 5.
I. v. 2. 
  • ...proper names have strictly no meaning; they are mere marks for individual objects.

Borderline cases edit

  • Days of the week
  • Festivals and Holidays
  • Nobel Prize (see Tea Room)
  • null set
  • universe (inconsistent caps), multiverse - see Gribbin & Hawking
  • wines
  • games

A word about "proper names" edit

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language distinguishes between a proper noun and a proper name. One key point of distinction is that a proper noun is always a single word, and is always proper, such as: Mohammad, England, or Neptune. In contrast, a proper name may either be such a proper noun or a collocation of any nouns, adjectives, or other words assembled to function as a name, such as: John Milton, South Africa, or the Hundred Years' War. Such proper names thus behave more like phrases than words. However, this distinction is of more value to the linguist than the average user of a dictionary, so this distinction between proper noun and proper name is not made on Wiktionary. Here, proper names are treated together with their single-word counterparts as entries under the combined heading of proper nouns.

Capitalization edit

Standard modern practice edit

  • Caps traditionally distinguish a common form from a proper noun

Note that Earth and Moon are proper nouns. To make a reference to our planet, grammars I used in school advised capitalizing it, as it is a proper noun. There are of course common nouns earth and moon as well, but these lower case labels do not apply uniquely to our planet or its satellite. There are many cases of this in astronomy, such as the Bull (Taurus) versus the common noun bull.

That’s because the Moon is the name of our moon. Moon is its name (proper noun), moon is what it is (common noun)

  • Was a time when habit was to capitalize all (or most?) nouns (as in German)
    Example (First Folio? Socialism?)
  • Still done occasionally to emphasize key words, but often with irony (CMS 7.50)
  • Still done in titles of works (name of the work)

Capitalized common nouns edit

Being capitalized does not make a noun proper Usually derive from a proper noun OR acronym OR initialism OR scientific genus name (properly names the group, not the members)

  • Albanian (V-ball talk page)
  • Frenchman
  • Turk
  • Buddhist
  • Muslim

"Proper adjectives" - capitalized (CMS 8.64), but often lowercase when non-literal (CMS 8.65)

  • CD
  • DVD
  • UFO
  • WC
  • NATO (is a proper noun)
  • Academic marks
  • Names of courses in a curriculum (Mathematics, Modern Philosophy)
  • Tyrannosaurus
  • Titles of persons used in conjunction with or in place of the name (Saint Boniface, the Pope, the Dalai Lama?, the President, the Queen, Grandpa)
  • Trademarks (Kleenex, Xerox, Pinto)
  • Titles of works (as mentioned above)
  • Act, scene, chapter, book?
  • For emphasis

Lowercase proper nouns edit

  • Names of card games
  • Styles of music
  • Optional for modern historical events and periods (baby boom, gold rush) CMS 8.81

OK, so what about poker? bridge? whist? I've had a conversation with someone about this before, but I can't remember who it was. Obviously, the word poker is not usually capitalized, however, it is the name of a card game. It is also clearly not descriptive. I can find examples of it capitalized. In fact, the copy I have of Hoyle's consistently capitalizes the word "Poker", even though I note that the citations given in the OED do not. Is poker a proper noun?

Recently, some proper nouns no longer begin with a capital letter or place the capital letter in a position other than initial.

  • ee cummings
  • iPod, eBay

Grammar edit

Possessives of proper nouns edit

Proper nouns used as common nouns edit

As noted in OED, s.v. "proper" I, 2, b:

  • The same proper name may be borne by many persons in different families or generations, or by several places in different countries or localities; but it does not connote any qualities common to and distinctive of the persons or things which it denotes. A proper name may however receive a connotation from the qualities of an individual so named, an may be used as a common noun, as a Hercules, a Cæsar (Kaiser, Czar), a Calvary, an atlas.

Plurals of proper nouns edit

Use of articles, modifiers, and determiners edit

Use of the definite article edit

Use of the indefinite article edit

Use with modifiers and determiners edit

References edit

  • The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003)
  • Edward Finegan, Language: Its Structure and Use, 2nd ed. (Orlando: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1994)
  • Rodney Huddleston & Geoffrey K. Pullum, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)
  • Paul R. Kroeger, Analyzing Grammar: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005)
  • John Locke, An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding (1689)
  • John Stuart Mill, A System of Logic (1843)
  • The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary

Assorted unincorporated notes edit

Here’s a quote from Moderna Gramática Portuguesa. It might be of interest for your research:
“Substantivo comum é o que se aplica a um ou mais objetos particulares que reúnem características inerentes a dada classe: homem, mesa, livro, cachorro, lua, sol, fevereiro, segunda-feira, papa.
“Os cinco últimos exemplos patenteiam que há substantivos comuns que são nomes individualizados, não como os nomes próprios, mas pelo contexto extralinguístico e pelo nosso saber que nos diz que, no contexto “natural” nosso só há uma lua, um sol, um mês fevereiro, e um só dia da semana segunda-feira, e, no contexto “cultural”, só há um papa. Se forem escritos com maiúscula, deve-se o fato à pura convenção ortográfica, e não porque são nomes próprios.”
“Common noun is what applies to one or more specific objects that contain inherent characteristics of a given class: man, table, book, dog, moon, sun, February, Monday, pope.
“The last five examples show that there are common nouns which are names individualised by, unlike proper nouns, extralinguistic context and by what our knowledge tells us, in the “natural” context there is only one Moon, one Sun, one month of February and only one weekday Monday, and, in the “cultural” context, there is only one pope. If they are to be written with upper case, that is only due to orthographic convention, and not because they are proper nouns.”
Ungoliant (Falai) 18:15, 5 January 2013 (UTC)