Submitted by Thảo on May 3, 2011

Common vs. Commonplace

What is the difference between “common” and “commonplace”? In which situation can I replace “common” by “commonplace”?


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I realize this thread is old, however, people are still questioning the difference between "commonplace" and "common" and even "Common place"

I tend to agree with Regina grammaticae's view on this, although she goes into a variant definition of common, the vulgar one and the shared among a group one.

Original question, part 1: "What is the difference between commonplace and common"

Common seems to be agreed upon. Common means something that is typical, without distinction. It can also mean something that is shared by a group (hence the word communal), and it can have a negative connotation meaning something is boring, lackluster, or uninteresting (consider the word "commoner").
"It was common to find dirty socks on the teenager's floor"

Commonplace is almost synonymous with common, but it adds a little more. Commonplace can, in all circumstances that I can think of, be used/replaced with common if you're using the definition of common that means typical or usual. Commonplace cannot be used with the other definitions of common. Arguably, some might use commonplace with the same negative connotation as they use common, but it would sound odd, in which case using common would be acceptable. Commonplace adds more to the general theme of a scenario than common, based on the etymology of the word. This is not a strict hard rule. It does not answer when you can or cannot use commonplace/common, but it offers when you could or couldn't use it.

In our example of the dirty socks, to say "Finding dirty socks on the floor was commonplace" conveys to the reader a sense that things of a dirty nature were usually found. Using "common" here conveys to the reader that specifically dirty socks are usually found. Again, this is not a hard rule, but it gives us the opportunity to add some specificity to the idea we are trying to express.

Check out the etymology of commonplace, from Greek meaning "General Theme" and Latin meaning "Common to the place/location".

Anyway, feedback is welcome, and I'm humble enough to admit my own thoughts on this may not be 100% accurate.

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Hmm, I respectfully disagree, Kyle. I would say it's just the opposite; I can't think of any situation in regular conversation where a person can't use "common" as a replacement for "commonplace.” (Although I’m not clear on the distinction between spelling “commonplace” as one word or two. Also, according to the dictionary, there is an archaic meaning for “commonplace” that indicates a passage in a book used for reference.)

On the other hand, one cannot substitute "commonplace" for "common" when meaning something used or held jointly by more than one person. "The apartment building has a common garden" (used jointly by the tenants.) "Commonplace" in this sentence would suggest that the garden was unremarkable or lackluster. Likewise, "the two friends had common interests." Their interest could be in the Russian folk dances of the 18th Century, not a commonplace hobby.

Also, "common" can have the sense of being vulgar or coarse, as in, "All the people in the restaurant had their elbows on the table. It was so common!" If one were to substitute the word "commonplace" there, the sentence would imply that was an ordinary habit (perhaps of foreign culture, say.)

To me, the words are fully interchangeable for all the other senses. In addition to the more negative connotations of hackneyed or trite, “commonplace” shares the meaning of being prevalent, ordinary or ubiquitous. “While one rarely sees horses-drawn carriages in a big metropolis, in Central Park they are a commonplace sight.” Of course, one might argue that hackneys are hackneyed.

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Commonplace = overused and nothing unusual

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I think Aleksandra might be referring to the fact that "commonplace" (one word) has the meaning "ordinary" with the connotation "trite," "overused," and "uninteresting." Something makes me think that "common place" (two words) became a synonym for "common" by analogy. I can't think of any situation in which you can't use "common place" as a replacement for "common," but I prefer the concision and precision of "common."

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Although, there is considerable overlap of meaning, there is the difference. "Common" is word that predominantly means that something has no special distinction or quality, that it is average, ordinary and usual. "Commonplace" can add to "common" some kind of negative value judgement, like that something is dull and unexciting or repeated too often.

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