I've tried to find out classification of English nouns. Common nouns have a number of types, such as countable, uncountable and collective. Everything's clear here, but I am confused by Proper Nouns.

Some sources say that proper nouns (e.g the name John - There are five Johnes here) can be countable, can be uncountable and even has plural tantum form (e.g. Alpes), but on the other hand there are sources saying that countable/uncountable and collective rules are applicable only to common nouns.

Do the proper nouns have the same set of rules as common nouns (except indefinite article) or it is just an informal usage of it?

  • 1
    As a note, the plural of "John" is "Johns" - no e.
    – Catija
    Apr 5, 2016 at 19:11

2 Answers 2


Generally a proper noun uniquely identifies one person or thing. As such, different rules apply: it does not require an article, and cannot form a plural.

Cheese is uncountable, but we use the word cheeses. We are actually implicitly referring to muliple types of cheese, so it's not really a number of cheese- it's number of types of cheese.

In the same way, it is possible to make sentences that look like they have plurals of proper nouns, but really they are just a number of instances of something that bears that name. The thing that it is really plural- the instances- is implied. Here are some examples:

The Philippines -> the Philippine islands

Greeks -> Greek people

Johns -> people called John

You can also add an article:

a Safeway -> a Safeway Supermarket

an American - an American person

the Smiths -> family of people called Smith

the Appalachians -> the Appalachian mountains

Some people call these proper adjectives, but descriptions of what counts as a proper adjective, and how it can be used, vary a lot.

These is just one country that takes the definite article but isn't a plural of something else- the Gambia.

  • Thank you for clarification, but i did not find answer to my main question - is such usage only allowed in informal way? Can i say "the Smiths" in official conversation, or should i use only "Smith family"? Apr 5, 2016 at 21:11
  • "The Smiths" is in effect a contracted form of the Smith Family", so it's definitely informal. There are no hard and fast rules- see this link about a dinilar issue. english.stackexchange.com/questions/16203/…
    – JavaLatte
    Apr 5, 2016 at 21:24

Proper nouns are generally noncount but you can say

There are five Johns in the room.

Also political entities such as the U.S. Virgin Islands can be count, too, when used as geographical entities as in

The U.S. Virgin Islands are among the top tourist destinations.

as you see a definite article is used with such pluralized geographical names.

See here for more information.

  • 'There are five Johns in the room' looks suspiciously like an example where the use v mention distinction is necessary. We'd not say 'Can you send me a John' but 'Can you send me one of the Johns' (though admittedly I've just removed the italics and apostrophe-s I started with). I'd say countness here doesn't correspond to the usual concept. Sep 25, 2020 at 18:53

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