The adjective 'common' has two basic meanings according to Oxford:

  1. Occurring, found, or done often; prevalent: ‘common misspellings’

  2. Shared by, coming from, or done by two or more people, groups, or things: ‘the two republics' common border’

What is the exact meaning of the adjective 'common' in the grammar term 'common noun'?

Does the adjective 'common' mean 'found often' or 'shared'?

FYI, 'common noun' is defined in Oxford as follows:

A noun denoting a class of objects or a concept as opposed to a particular individual. Often contrasted with proper noun

  • Try English Language & Usage for this question Nov 22, 2017 at 12:23
  • @jknappen But you're not supposed to post the same question over there.
    – JK2
    Nov 22, 2017 at 15:26
  • Really, the answer is "not proper". Anything that behaves like a noun and doesn't refer to something or someone with a proper name is a common noun. The distinction is intended to be binary; linguists like binary distinctions because that way you only have to define one side.
    – jlawler
    Nov 23, 2017 at 18:49
  • 1
    Your question contains the answer in the quote from Oxford: "denoting a class of objects or a concept as opposed to a particular individual" Nov 30, 2017 at 20:03

1 Answer 1


I agree that this is a question better posed elsewhere, but a quick answer in point form:

  • Note that "noun" and "name" are to be considered synonymous here, as a result of Latinate languages' influence on this terminology, e.g. French whose word nom refers to both.

  • The term "proper name" has existed since at least the 13th century.

  • At that time, "proper" had more of the original Latinate meaning: that which is one's own, that which belongs to one, or is natural to, inherently characteristic of one.

  • At that time, "common" too had more of the original Latinate meaning: what is shared or owned by the community, by more than one person; hence what is not proper to any one thing.

  • A proper noun is thus a noun that belongs to some particular entity, and a common noun is one that does not belong to some particular entity.

  • You're not alone in your curiosity! The modern (Lewis's "dangerous") senses of these words has made the grammar terms technical since at least 1850, when they were the subject of jokes:

    If "city" is a common noun, "Philadelphia" is an uncommon noun! And if "Philadelphia" is a proper noun, "city" is an improper noun!

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