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A proper noun is a noun that in its primary application refers to a unique entity, such as London, Jupiter, Sarah, or Microsoft, as distinguished from a common noun, which usually refers to a class of entities (city, planet, person, corporation), or non-unique instances of a certain class (a city, another planet, these persons, our corporation). Some proper nouns occur in plural form (optionally or exclusively), and then they refer to groups of entities considered as unique (the Hendersons, the Everglades, the Azores, the Pleiades). Proper nouns can also occur in secondary applications, for example modifying nouns (the Mozart experience; his Azores adventure), or in the role of common nouns (he's no Pavarotti; a few would-be Napoleons). The detailed definition of the term is problematic and to an extent governed by convention.
A distinction is normally made in current linguistics between proper nouns and proper names. By this strict distinction, because the term noun is used for a class of single words (tree, beauty), only single-word proper names are proper nouns: Peter and Africa are both proper names and proper nouns; but Peter the Great and South Africa, while they are proper names, are not proper nouns. The term common name is not much used to contrast with proper name, but some linguists have used the term for that purpose. Sometimes proper names are called simply names; but that term is often used more broadly. Words derived from proper names are sometimes called proper adjectives (or proper adverbs, and so on), but not in mainstream linguistic theory. Not every noun or noun phrase that refers to a unique entity is a proper name. Blackness and chastity are common nouns, even if blackness and chastity are considered unique abstract entities.
Few proper names have only one possible referent: there are many places named New Haven; Jupiter may refer to a planet, a god, a ship, or a symphony; at least one person has been named Mata Hari, but so have a horse, a song, and three films; there are towns and people named Toyota, as well as the company.
In English, proper names in their primary application cannot normally be modified by an article or other determiner (such as any or another), although some may be taken to include the article the, as in the Netherlands, the Roaring Forties, or the Rolling Stones. A proper name may appear to refer by having a descriptive meaning, even though it does not (the Rolling Stones are not stones and do not roll; a woman named Rose is not a flower). Or if it had once been descriptive (and then perhaps not even a proper name at all), it may no longer be so (a location previously referred to as "the new town" may now have the proper name Newtown, though it is no longer new, and is now a city rather than a town).
In English and many other languages, proper names and words derived from them are associated with capitalization; but the details are complex, and vary from language to language (French lundi, Canada, canadien; English Monday, Canada, Canadian).
The study of proper names is sometimes called onomastics or onomatology; for a survey of detailed and pragmatic issues in naming see Name. Rigorous analysis of the semantics of proper names is a matter for philosophy of language; see Proper name (philosophy).
Current linguistics makes a distinction between proper nouns and proper names; but this distinction is not universally observed, and sometimes it is observed but not rigorously. When the distinction is made, proper nouns are limited to single words only (possibly with the), while proper names include all proper nouns (in their primary applications) as well as noun phrases such as United Kingdom, North Carolina, Royal Air Force, and the White House. United Kingdom, for example, is a proper name with the common noun kingdom as its head, and North Carolina is headed by the proper noun Carolina. Especially as titles of works, but also as nicknames and the like, some proper names contain no noun and are not formed as noun phrases (the film Being There; Hi De Ho as a nickname for Cab Calloway and as the title of a film about him).
Though the term common name is not much used in this context, it would mean a noun (or a noun phrase) that is not a proper name (Swiss cheese, and the common noun bluebird, are both common names in this sense). Sometimes proper names are called simply names; but that term is often used more broadly (as in "chair is the name for something we sit on").
Common nouns are frequently used as components of proper names. Some examples are agency, boulevard, city, day, and edition. In such cases the common noun may determine the kind of entity, and a modifier determines the unique entity itself. For example:
Proper nouns, and all proper names, differ from common nouns grammatically. They may take titles, such as Mr Harris or Senator Harris. Otherwise, they normally only take modifiers that add emotive coloring, such as old Mrs Fletcher, poor Charles, or historic York; in a formal style, this may include the (the inimitable Henry Higgins). They may also take the in the manner of common nouns in order to establish the context in which they are unique: the young Mr Hamilton (not the old one), the Dr Brown I know; or as proper nouns to define an aspect of the referent: the young Einstein (Einstein when he was young). The indefinite article a may similarly be used to establish a new referent: the column was written by a [or one] Mary Price. If the is inherent, however, as in The Hague, it cannot be dropped. Similarly, proper names based on noun phrases differ grammatically from common noun phrases. They are fixed expressions, and cannot be modified internally: beautiful King's College is acceptable, but not *King's famous College.
As with proper nouns, so with proper names more generally: they may only be unique within the appropriate context. For instance, India has a ministry of home affairs (a common-noun phrase) called the Ministry of Home Affairs (its proper name). Within the context of India, this identifies a unique organization. However, other countries may also have ministries of home affairs called "the Ministry of Home Affairs", but each refers to a unique object, so each is a proper name. Similarly, "Beach Road" is a unique road, though other towns may have their own roads named "Beach Road" as well. This is simply a matter of the pragmatics of naming, and of whether a naming convention provides identifiers that are unique; and this depends on the scope given by context.
In languages that use alphabetic scripts and that distinguish lower and upper case, there is usually an association between proper names and capitalization. (A prominent exception is German, in which all nouns are capitalized.) The details are complex, and vary sharply from language to language: for proper names, as for several other kinds of words and phrases. For example, expressions for days of the week and months of the year are capitalized in English, but not in Spanish, French, Swedish, or Finnish, though they may be understood as proper names in all of these. Languages differ in whether most elements of multiword proper names are capitalized (American English has House of Representatives, in which lexical words are capitalized) or only the initial element (as in Slovenian Državni zbor, "National Assembly"). In Czech, multiword settlement names are capitalized throughout, but non-settlement names are only capitalized in the initial element, though with many exceptions.
In most alphabetic languages brand names and other commercial terms that are nouns or noun phrases are capitalized whether or not they count as proper names. Not all brand names are proper names, and not all proper names are brand names.
In non-alphabetic scripts proper names are sometimes marked by other means. In Egyptian hieroglyphs, parts of a royal name were enclosed in a cartouche: an oval with a horizontal line at one end. In Chinese script, a proper name mark (a kind of underline) has sometimes been used to indicate a proper name. In the standard Pinyin system of romanization for Mandarin Chinese, capitalization is used to mark proper names, with some complexities because of different Chinese classifications of nominal types, and even different notions of such broad categories as word and phrase.
European alphabetic scripts only developed a distinction between upper case and lower case in medieval times (see Letter case); so in the alphabetic scripts of ancient Greek and Latin proper names were not systematically marked. They are marked with modern capitalization, however, in many modern editions of ancient texts. Sanskrit and other languages written in the Devanagari script, along with many other languages using alphabetic or syllabic scripts, do not distinguish upper and lower case and do not mark proper names systematically.
In English, it is the norm for recognized proper names to be capitalized. The few clear exceptions include summer and winter (contrast April and Easter). It is often indeterminate both whether an item qualifies as a proper name and whether it should be capitalized: "the Cuban missile crisis" is often capitalized ("the Cuban Missile Crisis") and often not, regardless of its syntactic status or its function in discourse. Most style guides give decisive recommendations on capitalization; but not all of them dwell on the indeterminate matter of proper names.
Words or phrases that are neither proper nouns nor derived from proper nouns are often capitalized in present-day English: Dr, Baptist, Congregationalism, His and He in reference to the deity (or "the Deity"). For some such words, capitalization is optional or dependent on context: northerner or Northerner; aboriginal trees but Aboriginal land rights in Australia. When the comes at the start of a proper name, as in the White House, it is not normally capitalized unless it is a formal part of a title (of a book, film, or other artistic creation, as in The Keys to the Kingdom). Nouns and noun phrases that are not proper may be uniformly capitalized to indicate that they are definitive and regimented in their application (compare brand names, discussed earlier). For example, Mountain Bluebird does not identify a unique individual, and it is not a proper name but a so-called common name (somewhat misleadingly, because this is not intended as a contrast with the term proper name). Such capitalization indicates that the term is a conventional designation for exactly that species (Sialia currucoides), not for just any bluebird that happens to live in the mountains.
Words or phrases derived from proper names are generally capitalized, even when they are not themselves proper names. For example, Londoner is capitalized because it derives from the proper name London, but it is not itself a proper name (it can be limited: the Londoner, some Londoners). Similarly, African, Africanize, and Africanism are not proper names, but are capitalized because Africa is a proper name. Adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and derived common nouns that are capitalized (Swiss in Swiss cheese; Anglicize; Calvinistically; Petrarchism) are sometimes loosely called proper adjectives (and so on), but not in mainstream linguistics. Which of these items are capitalized may be merely conventional. Abrahamic, Buddhist, Hollywoodize, Freudianism, and Reagonomics are capitalized; quixotic, bowdlerize, mesmerism, and pasteurization are not; aeolian, and alpinism may be capitalized or not.
Some words have one meaning when capitalized and another when not. Sometimes the capitalized variant is then a proper noun (the Moon; dedicated to God; Smith's apprentice) and the other variant is not (the third moon of Saturn; a Greek god; the smith's apprentice). Sometimes neither is a proper noun (a swede in the soup; a Swede who came to see me). Such words that vary according to case are sometimes called capitonyms.
In past centuries, orthographic practices in English varied widely. Capitalization was much less standardized 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. There are examples among United States historical documents: the end (but not the beginning) of the Declaration of Independence (1776) and all of the Constitution (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 (1865) only capitalizes proper nouns. Current English orthography has been standardized to the point that most capitalizing of common nouns is considered incorrect.
Proper nouns may be used as common nouns, as members of a unique class of common nouns. For example, the corporation Toyota builds vehicles which are colloquially called Toyotas; the fact that the latter is a common noun can be seen in how it can be modified: a Toyota, my Toyota, many Toyotas. Such uses typically arise through ellipsis or metonymy: a car made by Toyota → a Toyota car → a Toyota. Similarly with nationalities and members of religions: America and Christ are proper nouns, American and Christian are not, but retain the capitalization of the proper nouns they are based on. In many languages, such derivations lose the capitalization.