By 'denote' I mean they are used specifically to denote objects, in almost all times they are used, for example most proper nouns like 'James' or 'Lithuania' or 'Paris'.

Many common nouns are generic words like 'dog' or 'person' which don't seem to act as denoting in sentences. For example 'a dog' describes a real entity but 'dog' does not necessarily denote anything in this sentence.

To what extent can we see common nouns as denoting anything specific? Is there any ontological ideas they could see as denoting, for example classes or types? Is a common noun like 'dog' simply a word used to describe an element of a type or is it denoting it in some way? Is 'dogs' a type or class that any group can be an element of?

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    Common nouns denote specifically all the time. "The man was seen entering the room" denotes a specific man and a specific room. And the article isn't relevant. "A man was seen entering a room on the third floor" also denotes a specific man and a specific room. The only difference is that the speaker is not assuming the listener knows which man and which room. Jan 23, 2023 at 16:32
  • 'the man', 'a man' etc are noun phrases with a common noun, I'm interested if the single words themselves denote something like a type or class or if they simply are used to describe elments of that type or class.
    – Confused
    Jan 23, 2023 at 16:42
  • Didn't I just answer that? In the examples I gave, the noun phrases "a man", "the man", etc. denote. Jan 23, 2023 at 17:41
  • They denote abstract objects, for those whose metaphysics includes them. For nominalists, they are just collective labels (nomina), "simply words used to describe", or, perhaps, concepts (mental constructs), to which the words attach.
    – Conifold
    Jan 23, 2023 at 18:46
  • @DavidGudeman yeah, you explained how they work in terms of noun phrases, and everything you said is entirely true, I'm asking just about 'man' in certain contexts, sorry If I wasn't clear.
    – Confused
    Jan 23, 2023 at 19:44

1 Answer 1


What you mean by "denote" is not what is typically meant by "denote".

Common words are said to denote sets of individuals, e.g. "dog" denotes the set of all individual dogs in the given situation.

What you seem to be interested in is whether common nouns ever denote single individuals. The answer is that no, typically not. They do that sometimes when combined with determiners. "the" can be described as denoting a function which extracts the only element of a singleton set. So if e.g. "dog" denotes in the current context the set {Snowy}, then "the dog" denotes the dog Snowy.

Edit: An edge case may be nouns that can be used both as common and as proper nouns, such as "earth": "Earth is a beautiful planet" (referring to the individual by name) vs "We use resources equivalent to two earths" (using it as a countable noun). Though in that case one would probably say that these are actually two words with different grammatical and semantic properties, just like "run" exists as a noun and as a verb.

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