The general definition of a proper noun is that it belongs to a grammatically distinct class of nouns which characteristically function as the head of noun phrases serving as proper names. A prototypical proper name is the institutionalized name of some specific person, place, organization, etc. – institutionalized by some formal act of naming and/or registration. It is necessary to distinguish between proper nouns and proper names for two reasons:
a) Although a proper name may have the form of a proper noun, as in the case of John or London, it need not have. Thus The Open University is a proper name but not a proper noun: what distinguishes it from, say, the older university is precisely that it is the official name of a particular institution
b) Proper nouns do not always function as the head of noun phrases serving as a proper names. Thus in They weren’t talking about the same Jones the proper noun Jones is head of the noun phrase the same Jones but this is clearly not a proper name. Similarity in He likes to think of himself as another Einstein, The Smiths are coming round tonight, etc.
At the language-particular level, the property distinguishing central proper nouns from common nouns in English is that they can form a definite singular count noun phrase on their own, without a determiner. In John was falling, for example, John has the same kind of interpretation as an noun phrase of the form the + common noun. Central proper nouns do not enter into construction with the unless it carries nuclear stress (Are you referring to “the Attlee?) or is accompanied by another dependant (He’s not the Jon I meant). More peripheral to the proper noun class are examples such as Rhine, Hague, Himalayas, father. Names of rivers and mountain ranges do take the, as in the Rhine, the Himalayas: the heads here differ from common nouns in that the definite article is more or less obligatory and non-contrastive: any other use (as perhaps in This river is hardly another Rhine) will be very clearly derivative from their use as the head of a proper name. Kinship terms like father resemble central proper nouns in being able to stand alone as a definite singular count noun phrase (Father is in the garden) but differ in combining freely with the (he father was much smaller than the son): their somewhat marginal status reflects the fact that they do not serve as proper names in the sense given above.
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Morphology - proper nouns
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