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Proper noun

Proper noun

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A proper noun or proper name is a noun
In linguistics, a noun is a member of a large, open lexical category whose members can occur as the main word in the subject of a clause, the object of a verb, or the object of a preposition .Lexical categories are defined in terms of how their members combine with other kinds of...

 representing a unique entity (such as London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...

, Jupiter
Jupiter is the fifth planet from the Sun and the largest planet within the Solar System. It is a gas giant with mass one-thousandth that of the Sun but is two and a half times the mass of all the other planets in our Solar System combined. Jupiter is classified as a gas giant along with Saturn,...

, John Hunter
John Hunter (surgeon)
John Hunter FRS was a Scottish surgeon regarded as one of the most distinguished scientists and surgeons of his day. He was an early advocate of careful observation and scientific method in medicine. The Hunterian Society of London was named in his honour...

, or Toyota), as distinguished from a common noun, which represents a class of entities (or nonunique instance[s] of that class)—for example, city, planet, person or corporation). In English, proper nouns are not normally preceded by an article
Article (grammar)
An article is a word that combines with a noun to indicate the type of reference being made by the noun. Articles specify the grammatical definiteness of the noun, in some languages extending to volume or numerical scope. The articles in the English language are the and a/an, and some...

 or other limiting modifier (such as any or some), and are used to denote a particular person, place, or object without regard to any descriptive meaning the word or phrase may have (for example, a town called "Newtown" may be, but does not necessarily have to be, a new [recently built] town).

Which nouns are considered proper names depends on language. For example, names of days and months are considered proper names in English, but not in Spanish, French, Swedish or Finnish, where they are not capitalized.


In English and most other languages that use the Latin alphabet
Latin alphabet
The Latin alphabet, also called the Roman alphabet, is the most recognized alphabet used in the world today. It evolved from a western variety of the Greek alphabet called the Cumaean alphabet, which was adopted and modified by the Etruscans who ruled early Rome...

, proper nouns are usually capitalized
Capitalization is writing a word with its first letter as a majuscule and the remaining letters in minuscules . This of course only applies to those writing systems which have a case distinction...

. Languages differ in whether most elements of multiword proper nouns are capitalized (e.g., American English House of Representatives) or only the initial element (e.g., Slovenian Državni zbor 'National Assembly'). In German
German language
German is a West Germanic language, related to and classified alongside English and Dutch. With an estimated 90 – 98 million native speakers, German is one of the world's major languages and is the most widely-spoken first language in the European Union....

, both proper and common nouns are capitalized. In past centuries, orthographic
The orthography of a language specifies a standardized way of using a specific writing system to write the language. Where more than one writing system is used for a language, for example Kurdish, Uyghur, Serbian or Inuktitut, there can be more than one orthography...

 practices in English, including noun capitalization, varied widely, with less standardization 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. For example, the end (but not the beginning) of the United States Declaration of Independence (1776) and all of the Constitution
United States Constitution
The Constitution of the United States is the supreme law of the United States of America. It is the framework for the organization of the United States government and for the relationship of the federal government with the states, citizens, and all people within the United States.The first three...

 (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
Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution
The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution officially abolished and continues to prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. It was passed by the Senate on April 8, 1864, passed by the House on January 31, 1865, and adopted on December 6, 1865. On...

 (1865) only capitalizes proper nouns. Today English orthography has been standardized to the point that capitalizing common nouns is considered formally incorrect outside of sentence-initial or title case contexts. Although informal writing often dismisses formal orthographic standards (by mutual consent of the communicators), an epistemological stance of orthographic "right and wrong" governs formal writing.

Today the meaning of proper noun capitalization is uniqueness within an implicit context, that is, it provides a name to an instance of a general type when the instance is unique within an implicit context. Most often the implicit context is "the whole world" or "the universe"; thus London, Jupiter, John Hunter, and Toyota are effortlessly understood as being cosmically
Cosmology is the discipline that deals with the nature of the Universe as a whole. Cosmologists seek to understand the origin, evolution, structure, and ultimate fate of the Universe at large, as well as the natural laws that keep it in order...

 unique; they derive their proper-noun status (and thus their capitalization) from that fact, and those properties are unequivocal (no one could argue with them). But in instances where a context shift is possible, and the context shift causes a shift from uniqueness to nonuniqueness, the capitalization or lowercasing decision may become a matter of perspective, as discussed below (see especially the examples under "Specific designators"). Sometimes the same word can function as both a common noun and a proper noun, depending on context. Two variants of this principle can be distinguished, although the distinction is blurred by real-world use of the labels to refer to instances of both types. They have no universally agreed names (that is, no standardized metalanguage
Broadly, any metalanguage is language or symbols used when language itself is being discussed or examined. In logic and linguistics, a metalanguage is a language used to make statements about statements in another language...

), but the names "capitonym" and "specific designator" have some currency.

Specific designators

There are many words that are generally common nouns but that can easily "serve temporary proper noun duty" (or "contextual proper noun duty"). Some examples are agency, avenue, boulevard, box, building, bureau, case, chapter, city, class, college, day, edition, floor, grade, group, hospital, level, office, page, paragraph, part, phase, road, school, stage, step, street, type, university, week. The temporary proper noun duty occurs when the common noun is paired with a number or other word to create a name for a specific instance of an abstraction (that is, a specific case of a general type). It is then referred to as a "specific designator". For example:
  • Mary lives on the third floor of the main building. (common noun senses throughout)
  • Mary lives on Floor 3 of the Main Building. (same information content but recast cognitively as proper names. The capitalization shows that 'Main Building' is the name of the building, not just a description of it. There is no etic difference except the cognitive one of the specificity that the capitalization imbues. It establishes an implicit sense that "within our commonly understood context [the building complex that we are standing in], the main building being referenced is the only main building. It is a unique object [as far as our context is concerned].)

  • He wants to play chess, but I want to play Monopoly. (Although both are names of games, Monopoly is a unique product owned by Hasbro, while chess can be freely produced by anyone, with no owner or known originator.)

  • My bookmark takes me to the main page of the English Wikipedia.
  • What is the proper name of that page?
  • It is the Main Page.

  • Sanjay lives on the beach road. [the road that runs along the beach]
  • Sanjay lives on Beach Road. [the specific road that is named with the capitalized proper name "Beach Road". It is a unique instance of a road in the world, although its proper name is unique only within our province. Our neighboring province also has a road named Beach Road.]

  • In 1947, the U.S. established the Central Intelligence Agency.
  • In 1947, the U.S. established a central intelligence agency to coordinate its various foreign intelligence efforts. It was named the Central Intelligence Agency.

  • India has a ministry of home affairs. It is called the Ministry of Home Affairs. (Within the context of India, it is the only ministry of home affairs, so you can name it by capitalizing the common noun. Within the context of planet Earth, it is a unique organization, but capitalizing the common noun is not a viable way to arrive at a unique proper name for it, because other countries also may use that same name for their unique organization. Another way to say the same idea is that within India's namespace
    In general, a namespace is a container that provides context for the identifiers it holds, and allows the disambiguation of homonym identifiers residing in different namespaces....

    , the naming convention provides sufficient uniqueness of the identifier, but within planet Earth's namespace, it does not. In physical reality, every country's interior ministry is a cosmically unique object. It is simply a matter of naming, and of whether a naming convention provides identifiers that are unique, which depends on the scope of context.)

  • The university has a college of arts and sciences.
  • The University of San Diego has a college of arts and sciences, which is called the College of Arts and Sciences.
  • The university has a school of medicine.
  • The University of Hawaii at Manoa has a school of medicine, which is called the John A. Burns School of Medicine.
  • This northwestern university has a school of medicine.
  • The Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine is headquartered in Chicago.

  • The 16th robotic probe to land on the planet was assigned to study the planet's north pole, and the 17th probe was assigned to its 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 hypothetical sentence, it is the Earth's south pole that is being referenced, and its proper name is the South Pole.)

Because the orthographic
The orthography of a language specifies a standardized way of using a specific writing system to write the language. Where more than one writing system is used for a language, for example Kurdish, Uyghur, Serbian or Inuktitut, there can be more than one orthography...

 classification has room for various implicit cognitive frames, it is somewhat arbitrary, which is to say, individuals can make different choices without either one being "wrong", and they cannot easily describe to each other their differing frames, because of the implicitness. However, readers dislike seeing juxtaposed capitalization differences, that is, inconsistencies. Therefore, most publishers attempt to codify consistent handling of the framing using style guide
Style guide
A style guide or style manual is a set of standards for the writing and design of documents, either for general use or for a specific publication, organization or field...

s. For example, the Associated Press's AP Stylebook uses a dictionary format, and in many of its entries it offers guidance to AP journalists and editors on how to consistently implement the AP's preferred logic regarding the times when common and proper senses intersect. For example, when the Federal Bureau of Investigation is first mentioned, "Bureau" is capitalized because it is serving as a specific designator, that is, it is a common noun "serving contextual proper noun duty". However, subsequent mentions, such as "the bureau announced …", are lowercased, because the word is being used in its common noun sense. The same logic applies to the word ocean. AP says, "ocean: The five, from the largest to the smallest: Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean, Antarctic Ocean, Arctic Ocean. Lowercase ocean standing alone or in plural uses: the ocean, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans." The American Medical Association
American Medical Association
The American Medical Association , founded in 1847 and incorporated in 1897, is the largest association of medical doctors and medical students in the United States.-Scope and operations:...

's AMA Manual of Style, 10th edition similarly gives guidance to its users. For example, it is AMA style not to capitalize words such as level or case or stage even when they are serving specific-designator duty (for example, "In case 5, the patient was found to have stage IIIA disease").

Capitonym or specific designator?

A capitonym
A capitonym is a word that changes its meaning when it is capitalized, and usually applies to capitalization due to proper nouns or eponyms. It is a portmanteau of the word capital with the suffix -onym. A capitonym is a form of homograph and – when the two forms are pronounced differently – also...

 is a word that changes its meaning (and sometimes pronunciation) when it is capitalized. It is a type of homonym
In linguistics, a homonym is, in the strict sense, one of a group of words that often but not necessarily share the same spelling and the same pronunciation but have different meanings...

. The capitalized version's meaning sometimes may be a special case of the lowercase version's meaning, or it may be eponym
An eponym is the name of a person or thing, whether real or fictitious, after which a particular place, tribe, era, discovery, or other item is named or thought to be named...

ously related to it. The nature of capitonyms and specific designators is often related: in both cases, a word root's common and proper senses may be logically related to each other. A few words can be viewed as either capitonyms or specific designators; the evaluation is subjective. For example:
  • The common noun moon denotes any natural planet-like satellite of a planet, whereas the proper noun Moon references a specific moon, that is, the Earth's moon. Dictionaries descriptively reflect that the latter sense is "often" capitalized (by which they imply "often [or usually] capitalized in educated writers' published writing".
  • The same status described above for moon/Moon also describes sun/Sun.
  • The common noun god denotes any deity from any religion, whereas the proper noun God references a specific monotheistic
    Monotheism is the belief in the existence of one and only one god. Monotheism is characteristic of the Baha'i Faith, Christianity, Druzism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Samaritanism, Sikhism and Zoroastrianism.While they profess the existence of only one deity, monotheistic religions may still...

    God is the English name given to a singular being in theistic and deistic religions who is either the sole deity in monotheism, or a single deity in polytheism....

    . Dictionaries descriptively reflect that the latter sense is capitalized (by which they imply "[almost] always in educated writers' published writing").
  • The common noun crown metonymically
    Metonymy is a figure of speech used in rhetoric in which a thing or concept is not called by its own name, but by the name of something intimately associated with that thing or concept...

     became Crown in referring to specific monarchs. Throughout human history, there have been various Crowns and various united kingdoms, but today the words Crown and United Kingdom often/usually have a specific reference that is known around the world (that is, relating to Britain).

The unifying theme of these subjective capitonym/specific designator fence-riders is that they are not just special cases, but very special cases, in terms of shifting from common to proper, that is, from many instances to one unique instance. In addition, in the cases of the celestial bodies, it is clear which sense came first: the proper sense. When language first developed, to the extent that humans knew their context, the Sun and the Moon were cosmically unique objects. As humans' context widened, their newfound need for common nouns to name the general type was supplied by retronym
A retronym is a type of neologism that provides a new name for an object or concept to differentiate the original form or version of it from a more recent form or version. The original name is most often augmented with an adjective to account for later developments of the object or concept itself...

y, in which the most logical way to create a common noun was to use the same word but broaden its senses.

Translation decisions

The common meaning of the word or words constituting a proper noun may be unrelated to the object to which the proper noun refers. For example, someone might be named Tiger Smith despite being neither a tiger
The tiger is the largest cat species, reaching a total body length of up to and weighing up to . Their most recognizable feature is a pattern of dark vertical stripes on reddish-orange fur with lighter underparts...

 nor a smith
Smith (metalwork)
A metalsmith, often shortened to smith, is a person involved in making metal objects. In contemporary use a metalsmith is a person who uses metal as a material, uses traditional metalsmithing techniques , whose work thematically relates to the practice or history of the practice, or who engages in...

. For this reason, proper nouns are usually not translated between languages, although they may be transliterated
Transliteration is a subset of the science of hermeneutics. It is a form of translation, and is the practice of converting a text from one script into another...

. For example, the German surname Römer becomes Romer or Roemer in English. However, the transcription of place names and the names of monarch
A monarch is the person who heads a monarchy. This is a form of government in which a state or polity is ruled or controlled by an individual who typically inherits the throne by birth and occasionally rules for life or until abdication...

s, pope
The Pope is the Bishop of Rome, a position that makes him the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church . In the Catholic Church, the Pope is regarded as the successor of Saint Peter, the Apostle...

s, and non-contemporary author
An author is broadly defined as "the person who originates or gives existence to anything" and that authorship determines responsibility for what is created. Narrowly defined, an author is the originator of any written work.-Legal significance:...

s is common and sometimes universal. For instance, the Portuguese
Portuguese language
Portuguese is a Romance language that arose in the medieval Kingdom of Galicia, nowadays Galicia and Northern Portugal. The southern part of the Kingdom of Galicia became independent as the County of Portugal in 1095...

 word Lisboa becomes Lisbon
Lisbon is the capital city and largest city of Portugal with a population of 545,245 within its administrative limits on a land area of . The urban area of Lisbon extends beyond the administrative city limits with a population of 3 million on an area of , making it the 9th most populous urban...

 in English; the English London becomes Londres in French, Portuguese and Spanish; and the Greek
Ancient Greek
Ancient Greek is the stage of the Greek language in the periods spanning the times c. 9th–6th centuries BC, , c. 5th–4th centuries BC , and the c. 3rd century BC – 6th century AD of ancient Greece and the ancient world; being predated in the 2nd millennium BC by Mycenaean Greek...

 Ἀριστοτέλης (Aristotelēs) becomes Aristotle
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

 in English.

Pluralized use or use with indefinite or partitive modifiers

Some proper nouns can be used in ways that modify their meaning to name a unique class of common nouns. For example, Toyota is the corporation with the name Toyota, but it builds many Toyotas each year (plural usage); each buyer is the driver of a Toyota (indefinite article usage); many Toyotas are sold each year; and some Toyotas are newer than others (partitive usage). Such usage is often prescriptively
Linguistic prescription
In linguistics, prescription denotes normative practices on such aspects of language use as spelling, grammar, pronunciation, and syntax. It includes judgments on what usages are socially proper and politically correct...

 limited to colloquial
A colloquialism is a word or phrase that is common in everyday, unconstrained conversation rather than in formal speech, academic writing, or paralinguistics. Dictionaries often display colloquial words and phrases with the abbreviation colloq. as an identifier...

 or informal-writing registers
Register (sociolinguistics)
In linguistics, a register is a variety of a language used for a particular purpose or in a particular social setting. For example, when speaking in a formal setting an English speaker may be more likely to adhere more closely to prescribed grammar, pronounce words ending in -ing with a velar nasal...

, although linguistically it is just as "correct" as any formal-register usage. It involves a certain amount of natural cognitive and lingual ellipsis or metonymy (a Toyota car → a Toyota; Toyota cars → Toyotas).