When you ask most people the difference between common nouns and proper nouns they mostly can only tell you that proper nouns start with a capital letter.

But this has problems:

  • Capital letters and writing systems as a whole are recent inventions added on to language, which is ancient and naturally ocurring.
  • Many if not most writing systems do not have a distinction between upper and lower case.
  • Even among languages which use a dual case writing system, not all capitalize words the same way:
    • German capitalizes all nouns.
    • Most romance languages at least do not capitalize the names of days of the week or months or the year whereas English does.

So is there a solid cross-linguistic concept of "proper nouns" within the discipline of linguistics, and if so how is it defined? Ie what criteria would an actual linguist use to decide whether a noun is common or proper?

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    This is a great question. You could also state it as "Is 'proper noun' a category in every language?" Even in English, there are other rules about how we treat proper nouns besides capitalization; you can't pronounce capitalization. For example, in English the use of the definite article with proper nouns is lexically determined. Commented Mar 1, 2012 at 19:29
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    @MarkBeadles: Yes we discussed this question in the chat room when I asked it and I realized it may well be worth asking an even more basic question about proper nouns like you propose. But first I'll see what happens here... Commented Mar 1, 2012 at 19:49
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    @MarkBeadles Yeah I agree with Mark Beadles, good question but it would be better if it referred to languages rather than linguistics. It's odd to ask if there's a 'concept of "proper nouns" ' within linguistics. Rather, languages may have a category of "proper noun", which can be described by linguistics. Commented Mar 1, 2012 at 21:28
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    @GastonÜmlaut: I don't think it's odd, unless you already know the answer I suppose, but if that's the case I can assure you most people don't seem to know the answer. For instance would it be wrong to say "There is a concept of verb in linguistics"? Obviously we all know that English has a concept of proper nouns, but is this concept linguistic or not is what I want to know. Commented Mar 2, 2012 at 11:43
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    Sorry, probably just me being overly picky, but it sounds like it's saying that linguistics starts with the idea of 'proper noun' and looks for it in languages. That would be getting it backwards, linguistics examines each language to find the categories that are evident in that language. In trying to construct theories of the human language faculty linguists might try to come to a generalisation about the category, but this is always based in what happens in actual languages (or ought to be).[continued...] Commented Mar 2, 2012 at 12:04

4 Answers 4


Usually it is argued that proper nouns have an extension ("the class of things to which it is correctly applied", Lyons 1977) but, unlike common nouns, they lack an intension ("the set of essential properties which determines the applicability of the term", Lyons 1977). In other words, the extension of Dublin is a singleton (or there might be more elements in that set, if there is more than one Dublin). However, Dublin has no intension at all - there is no property of "Dublin-ness" that all Dublins would share.

Or another example. There are lots of people called John. However, there is no property that, by virtue of having it, qualifies you to be John. There is no "John-ness". You are named John ad hoc.

An apple, on the other hand, can be described as "the round firm fruit, typically having crisp white flesh and green, yellow, or red skin" (from OED). All apples share certain properties (round, firm, fruit, having skin etc.).

Willy van Langendonck (2007) argues that a proper name has the following characteristics:

  1. It denotes a unique entity at the level of established linguistic convention to make it psychosocially salient within a given basic level category [pragmatic].

  2. The meaning of the name, if any, does not (or not any longer) determine its denotation [semantic]. - see my examples above

  3. Its ability to appear in such close appositional constructions as the poet Burns, Fido the dog, the River Thames, or the City a/London [syntactic].

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    This is good stuff but I would argue it's in the domain of semantics or perhaps even philosophy, where I think I first read about it, rather than linguistics. For instance I doubt that the NLP field of named entity recognition could make use of this aspect. Commented Apr 17, 2012 at 8:14
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    @hippietrail, I was rather surprised to see that the NLP field is supposedly more "linguisticky" than (linguistic) semantics.
    – Alex B.
    Commented Apr 17, 2012 at 16:22
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    I might even ask a more specific question about NER for proper nouns to find if it's indeed the case like I assume, especially for languages other than English. The Wikipedia article doesn't get very technical. Commented Apr 17, 2012 at 19:12
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    @JoeZ Still proper, I think, given there's no intension (as per OP's answer). Suppose you're talking about two cities called York, and you say "the Yorks have been friendly to each other"; it's still a proper noun. But if you say "the votes of the Juanitas have swayed the election", where by "Juanita" you mean "female Hispanic and I'm a racist"; or, as a Brazilian TV newscaster is reported to have said, "our target audience are Homer Simpsons", by which he meant "dumb middle-class men" (or, conversely, "Einsteins", etc.), then you've rhetorically converted the proper noun into a common one. Commented Jul 31, 2017 at 9:31
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    @Matan.see if melissa's reply to Joe's comment clarifies your doubt. I believe Alex's point was that In the examples you give the ordinarily-proper nouns, "Dublin" and "[Insert_Friend_Name]", have been converted to common nouns -- because of them being spoken of "as a thing", as you noted. That is, being a proper noun or not isn't an intrinsic property of a word, but depends on how the word is being used. At least that's what I believe Alex' point is; I'm not aware whether or why it's commonly agreed in linguistics that proper noun classification is governed by usage. Commented Feb 1, 2020 at 20:03

I would agree with Alex B.'s quotation of Willy van Langendonck (2007) if your looking for a cross-linguistic criteria. I haven't come across any other.

Incidentally, there are languages that do distinguish proper and common nouns apart from orthography. A case in point are the Philippine languages. In Tagalog, the determiner used is different if the noun is common or proper. For example:

  • sapatos ni Imelda (Imelda's shoes).
  • sapatos ng babae (woman's shoes).

  • Si Imelda ang kasama ng ng presidente (Imelda is the one with the President).

  • Ang babae ang kasama ng presidente (The woman is the one with the President).

This applies for the nominative, genitive and oblique cases.

  • Re: your first paragraph, are there other criteria which specifically apply in English? Commented Feb 1, 2020 at 20:10
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    I can see two types of proper nouns: (1) those referring to persons, animals, objects and places, and (2) those referring to dates, events and other abstract entities. I think the most salient feature of proper nouns of the first type is that they can be used vocatively (directly address its referent literally or figuratively). Normally, there is an open class of nouns distinct from common nouns which fulfills this, such as names like John, Mary etc. Depending on use, membership in this class nearly always indicate that it is a proper noun. Commented Feb 2, 2020 at 0:24
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    A common noun can also be used vocatively and uses initial capital letter, but only if used this way. Examples include kinship terms and professions, like Mother, Doctor, etc. These are not prototypical proper nouns. Commented Feb 2, 2020 at 0:24

This is a good observation and a good question, and the comments below it make a valid point, as well.

In short, I would say that there is no such thing as a solid cross-linguistic concept of 'proper nouns' -- or at least, none commonly accepted and adhered to. My own experience is that the term is primarily used to refer to what you could call prototypical proper nouns (Coca-Cola, Berlin, John Brown &c.), and rarely to not so clear cases.

I suppose there might have been more than one attempt at a proper definition, but neither has gained enough following to be even known of by the majority of linguists. Here a long and passionate rant is in order on the attitude towards properly defined terms in linguistics, but instead I'll just say that you might not be able to even find a single term which every linguist understands the same way for every language. You will, however, have no difficulty finding a linguist who can't give a proper and cross-linguistically solid definition for virtually any term he or she's used while talking to you.

Basing a definition on language-specific spelling is obviously not a great idea, although in some cases it might be the best we have. 'Whatever's written between spaces' remains the best definition of word I know.

If you were to create a definition of your own, I suppose you should try to capture the common and distinctive features of the prototypical cases. You should not, however, get your hopes up about how many linguists will memorize it and adhere to it. It's a hopeless bunch in this regard.

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    'Whatever's written between spaces' certainly doesn't work for most languages since only the minority are written, but even of those which are written it's insufficient for at least Chinese, Japanese, Khmer, Thai, and Vietnamese that I know of. Vietnamese puts spaces at most syllable boundaries rather than word boundaries and all of the others certainly have words but don't write spaces between them. And that's not even getting into all the problems with other languages where clitics or adfixes may or may not be written with spaces or joined to the... um... "words" \-: Commented Mar 3, 2012 at 16:43
  • @hippietrail You're absolutely right. If you know a better definition, I will be happy to learn (not a shade of sarcasm intended).
    – kamil-s
    Commented Mar 3, 2012 at 18:10
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    Of course Kamil (-: You don't know how long I've wanted to post the question "What is a word?" here (-: Commented Mar 3, 2012 at 18:11
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    This is really what the more formal side of linguistics is about, trying to create models/characterisations of the language faculty that are able to give rise to all of the language-specific structures. So while there's no perfect cross-linguistic definition of (eg) 'proper noun', we can try to figure out what it is in human cognition that underlies all of the language-specific 'proper noun' categories. To illustrate with biology, there's no cross-species definition of 'toe'; rather, there are principles of biomechanics, adaptation, etc. that underlie species-particular 'toes'. Commented Mar 16, 2012 at 4:30
  • @kamil-s There are plenty of better language-specific definitions of "word" (phonology of initials vs. medials; accent/stress restrictions; units of inflection; units of vowel harmony, etc). There seems to be no good cross-linguistic definition of "word"; but then again, spaces aren't a cross-linguistic definition either. Given that spaces are not the best definition intra-linguistically, and they're useless cross-linguistically, there's no reason to rely on them. Commented Jul 31, 2017 at 9:40
  1. Proper nouns in one languages can not be translated in other languages
  2. A Proper noun denotes 'instance and a common noun denotes 'class'
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    The word "universe" usually refers to one specific instance, the one we live in. But it's still not considered a proper noun. Commented Jan 25, 2013 at 6:16
  • Some uses of it do coin it as a proper noun; however it's not common from what I know.
    – Joe Z.
    Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 16:00

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