Proper noun: understanding the complexities

Nouns probably form the most important part of speech in English, and they are obviously the largest word class. As children, we were taught that a noun is the name of any person, animal, place or thing—that’s right—but it’s more than that.

A noun is simply the particular person, place, thing or concept an expression talks about. An expression can have a noun, two or more.

We’ll explain this part of speech systematically, so let’s look at the first type which is apparently the most complicated.

Proper noun

A proper noun is the name of a specific person, place or thing, distinct from the group where it belongs, and usually starts with a capital letter, e.g. Nigeria (country); Jupiter (planet); King Solomon (king/ruler).

However, the word king cannot start with a capital letter if not used with a specific name, simply because it is a common noun.

Other examples of proper nouns are:

Personal names: Idris, Kimberly, Chinua Achebe.

Titles: Ooni of Ife, Queen of England, Doctor Chidi.

Nationalities: Jamaican, Kenyan.

Languages and ethnic groups: Hausa, Xhosa.

Days of the week: Monday, Friday.

Months: February, November.

Public holidays and festivals: Independence Day, Halloween.

Geographical places: Mount Everest, Niger River.

Books: The Old Man and the Sea, Ake: The Years of Childhood

Music: One Love, Skelewu.

Religions: Christianity/Christian, Buddhism/Buddhist.

Historical events: World War II, Biafran War.

Brand names: Globacom, LG.

Planets: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter (see why earth is different below)

Note: Capitalize nouns, verbs and adjectives when writing names of books, paintings, films, etc.


However, there are some nouns that can function as both proper and common nouns, depending on their usage.

School subjects: physics, maths, etc. are only proper nouns when used as particular subjects.

  1. I’m not good at maths.
  2. He teaches Chemistry 102.

Relatives: terms used for relatives such as uncle, aunt and grandmother can only function as proper noun when used as titles.

  1. The book was reviewed by Uncle Ben.
  2. We’ll visit Grandmother Nancy next week.
  3. His aunt got the first gift after two weeks.

Directions: east, west, north and south should only be capitalized when they name definite regions, not as compass points.

  1. He’s from the Middle East.
  2. The soldiers walked towards the west after defeating their enemies.

Seasons: fall, winter, spring, etc. are not proper nouns, so don’t capitalize them unless they are used as specific names.

  1. He said this summer would be a great time to get married.
  2. The Winter Olympics will be awesome.

Currencies: yen, naira, euro, dollar, pound, franc, peso, etc. should be written in small letters.

Earth: Do not capitalize earth when you refer to the soil or ground, as idioms (what on earth, down to earth, etc.) or generally as a noun. In sentences such as ‘I wish you peace on earth’ and ‘Every single person on the surface of the earth is unique’ are treated as using the word generally. However, it is a proper noun when mentioned specifically as a planet (e.g. Earth, Mars and Jupiter are farther to the sun than Mercury and Venus).

Also read: Compound nouns: understanding the basics

Also read: Nouns types: getting the tricky parts right

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