What Is a Proper Adjective?

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You are probably familiar with the distinction between common and proper nouns. Common nouns name general people, places, and things (pirate, island, ship) and proper nouns name particular, unique people, places, and things and are capitalized (Jack Sparrow, Treasure Island, the Black Pearl). But did you know that adjectives can be proper too?

Academic linguists don’t recognize the label, but a proper adjective is an adjective derived from a proper noun, and is therefore capitalized like a proper noun. For example:

  • the Canadian government
  • English muffins
  • Shakespearean stanza
  • Jeffersonian ideals
  • Idaho potatoes
  • Broadway production

Some formerly proper adjectives become common over time as the use becomes broad and the connection to the original proper name grows more distant. The adjective quixotic, for example, was once capitalized because it derived from the fictional character, Don Quixote. That connection is no longer obvious to modern readers, and the word entered the lexicon as a common adjective.

The same is true for french fries, though there is some disagreement about that. Depending on the dictionary or style book you consult, food items with place names are sometimes capitalized and sometimes not: french fries, irish coffee, swiss cheese. The Chicago Manual of Style recommends keeping such adjectives lowercase because the connection to the place is no longer literal. Other sources recommend keeping the capitalization with some and not others: Swiss cheese, Irish coffee, but french fries.

The bad news is that authorities disagree about these things. The good news is that you can’t really be wrong. The important part is to be consistent. Personally, I like the Chicago recommendation. It’s the most consistent.

Common Adjectives That Were Once Proper
  • bourbon whiskey (French Bourbon dynasty)
  • venetian blinds (Italian city of Venice)
  • teddy bear (Teddy Roosevelt)
  • quixotic (Don Quixote)
  • caesarean (Julius Caesar)
  • chauvinistic (legendary French solider, Nicolas Chauvin)
  • draconian (Ancient Greek legislator, Draco)
  • epicurean (Greek philosopher Epicurus)
  • erotic (Greek god, Eros)
  • gargantuan (fictional character Gargantua)
  • martial (Roman god, Mars)
  • narcissistic (Narcissus, of Greek mythology)
  • sadistic (Marquis de Sade)
  • satanic (Satan)
  • tantalizing (Tantalus, of Greek mythology)
  • thespian (Ancient Greek actor)

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About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

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