Proper Nouns

posted in: Categories, Teaching Strategies | 0

When I ask students to define a noun, they will quickly tell me, “It’s a person, place or thing.” At the very least they need to add on ‘or idea’.

I would rather that they use the definition: A noun is a naming word. It is something you can see, touch, hear, taste, smell or think about. If is something you think about it, it is an abstract noun – love, anger, beauty.

Similarly, students usually have little difficulty telling me that a proper noun is the specific names of people, things and places. In written work, proper nouns can easily be identified because they begin with a capital letter.

The difficulty arises when students need to identify proper nouns when they are doing the writing.

One strategy that I use to help my students identify common nouns is to see if it makes sense to place ‘the’ in front of the word.

I saw the window.
The complaint was unfair.

Placing ‘the’ in front of ‘window’ and ‘complaint’ makes sense, so they are most likely common nouns.

I saw the quick.
The sang is here.

Placing ‘the’ in front of these ‘quick’ and ‘sang’ doesn’t make sense, so they are not likely to be common nouns.

Obviously, this is not 100% accurate because there are many words in English that can be used in different parts of speech.

I saw the watch.
I watch television.

In the first sentence, watch is being used as a noun, but in the second sentence it’s being used as a verb. Therefore, context is very important. However, determining if you can place ‘the’ in front of a word is a good starting point for many students who are struggling to identify common nouns.

This idea can then be extended to proper nouns. Most proper nouns ‘stand on their own’.

I went to Australia. I gave it to Jane.
I went to the Australia. I gave it to the Jane.

We wouldn’t say ‘the Australia’ or ‘the Jane’, so Australia and Jane are proper nouns.

It can also be difficult for students to know whether or not to capitalise words that can be both common nouns and proper nouns (e.g., mum, dad, aunty, uncle). One strategy is for them to replace the word with an actual name and see if the sentence still makes sense.

My mum wouldn’t let me go.
My Debbie wouldn’t let me go.

The second sentence using the name doesn’t make sense, so mum does not need to be capitalised in the first sentence as it is being used as a common noun.

I gave it to Mum.
I gave it to Debbie.

The second sentence using the name does make sense, so Mum needs to be capitalised because we are using it as a proper noun.

This is also true of nouns that act as titles. Substituting a name for the word president doesn’t make sense in the first sentence pair, but does in the second sentence pair. Therefore, in the second sentence pair ‘president’ is being used as a proper noun and needs to begin with a capital letter.

I gave it to the president. I gave it to the Richard.
I gave it to President Nixon. I gave it to Richard Nixon.

Just be aware that:

  • The names of some countries, organisations and proper nouns referred to in the pluralised form are proceeded by ‘the’ (e.g., the United States of America, the Association for the Blind, the Blue Mountains, the Kempins).
  • Common nouns used as part of the name of a specific place are capitalised (e.g., We live in South Perth versus we live in the south). At times, these are also proceeded by ‘the’ (e.g., I swam in the Swan River.
  • Adjectives derived from proper nouns are also capitalised – usually these relate to a nationality, language, ethnic or religious group (e.g., Australian, Jewish).

Aarts, B. (2011). Oxford modern English grammar. Oxford University Press.