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Using Common Nouns and Proper Nouns Correctly with Articles

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Is It Common to be Proper or Proper to be Common?

This is not an etiquette lesson. It is an English lesson on something that sometimes gets a little confusing. We are all familiar with nouns but sometimes the distinction between common and proper nouns becomes difficult. Hopefully, this brief explanation will help you solve your doubts. Using common nouns and proper nouns correctly with articles will then become a walk in the park.

Difference between Common Nouns and Proper Nouns

As a child I am sure all of us have played the game ‘Name Place Animal Thing’. Let me refresh your memories. We were given an alphabet and we had to come up with the name of a place, an animal and a thing starting with the alphabet as well as the name of a person. This game can be applied to learn something a little more mature, to be precise to know the difference between common nouns and proper nouns.

A common noun is the general noun which does not name any specific thing or person.
A proper noun is used to indicate a specific thing or person or place.

So let us play. Suppose the letter is ‘F’.

NAME PLACE ANIMAL THING
Fatima (Proper Noun) Finland (Proper Noun) frog (Common Noun) fan (Common Noun)

Now it’s your turn! The letter is ‘T’

NAME PLACE ANIMAL THING
Tanisha (Proper Noun) Tamil Nadu (Proper Noun) tiger (Common Noun) table (Common Noun)

Nouns which are used for things, animals, ideas etc. are taken to be common nouns. Common nouns do not begin with a capital letter unless they are being used to start a sentence.

The names given to places and persons are proper nouns. Proper nouns always begin with a capital letter.

The proper nouns always have a common noun equivalent. The common nouns do not always have a proper noun equivalent. We know that ‘Finland’ is the name of a place. Here, ‘place’ is the common noun equivalent for Finland. The common noun ‘fan’ does not have any specific name.

NOTE:

Is ‘mango’ a common noun or a proper noun? It is a common noun. Because even though ‘mango’ is a specific type of fruit, it is a class of fruits and not just one specific fruit.

Nouns and Articles

Now that we have learnt the difference between common nouns and proper nouns, we need to learn how to use articles with the two.

  • When we want to specify a unique object among a class of objects, we always use the definite article ‘the’. Here, though the nouns are common nouns, the use of the article ‘the’ ensures that they denote specific things.

E.g. The sun is the source of all light.
E.g. The minister arrived late.

  • ‘The’ can also be used when talking about the whole class. It can be used with singular or plural nouns, but both mean the same thing.

E.g. The penguins live near the South Pole.
E.g. The tiger is a ferocious animal.

  • ‘The’ can sometimes be used before proper nouns. Here are the rules that govern when to use ‘the’ before a proper noun, and when not to.

(A) Buildings may or may not take ‘the’. It depends on how it is commonly used.
E.g. The White House, The Eiffel Tower, The Taj Mahal, Buckingham Palace, Sydney Opera House

(B) Newspapers, but not magazines.
E.g. The Hindustan Times, Outlook Magazine

(C) Plural Names.
E.g. The Khannas, The Maldives

(D) Any establishment or institution whose name includes the common noun equivalent.
E.g. The Indian Constitution, The British Broadcasting Corporation, The Aam Aadmi Party

(E) Rivers, Canals, Seas and Oceans, but not lakes.
E.g. The Suez Canal, The Pacific Ocean, The Ganges, Lake Baikal

(F) Mountain Ranges, but not specific hills or peaks.
E.g. The Himalayas, Mount Everest

(G) States or regions that were created by unification of several smaller parts.
E.g. The Balkans, The Tundra

(H) Countries with the word ‘United’ or ‘Republic’ in their names.
E.g. The United States of America, The Democratic Republic of China
 

  • You cannot use ‘the’ before names of people, educational institutions or books, except names of Holy Books.

E.g. Akbar was a great Mughal emperor.
E.g. I study at St. Xavier’s College.
E.g. I read Pride and Prejudice just last week.
E.g. Mother says I must read the Gita everyday.

  • You cannot use ‘the’ before names where an apostrophe has been used, or where the proper noun ends with an ‘s’.

E.g. Harrods Department Store, Jimmy’s Kitchens

  • Uncountable nouns do not take an article. If an uncountable noun is used to talk about something specific, then articles are used. Note the difference:

E.g. Air is essential for life.
E.gThe air in Delhi is polluted.

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