Capitalization of Proper and Common Nouns
- Basic capitalization rules are simple in English, but there are tricky conventions to consider.
- Proper nouns refer to a specific person, place, or thing and are always capitalized.
- Common nouns refer to a general concept or thing and are only capitalized at the beginning of a sentence.
Updated on August 25, 2014
Mastering the correct use of capitalization in English may seem straightforward, but the concept can prove tricky in specific situations. When deciding whether to capitalize a word or phrase, it's important to make a clear distinction between common nouns and adjectives and proper nouns and adjectives.
A proper noun names a specific person, place, or thing, while a proper adjective modifies a specific person, place, or thing. Proper nouns and proper adjectives are capitalized. These include the following:
- The names and titles of people, entities, or groups (“President Washington,” “George Washington,” “Mr. Washington,” “the Supreme Court,” “the New York Chamber of Commerce”)
- The names of specific mountains, mountain ranges, bodies of water, and geographical landmarks (“Mount Everest,” “the Andes Mountains,” “the Atlantic Ocean”)
- The names of buildings and monuments (“the Statue of Liberty,” “the Golden Gate Bridge”)
- Street names (“Fifth Avenue”)
- The names of schools, colleges, and universities (“Harvard University,” “the University of Pennsylvania”)
- Continents, regions, countries, states, provinces, counties, cities, and towns (“South America,” “Hunan Province,” “the Pacific Northwest”)
- Titles of books, magazines, movies, newspapers, articles, songs, plays, and works of art. Only the first word and important words of a title are capitalized. Prepositions (of, on, for, in, to, with, etc.) and articles (a, an, the) are not capitalized unless they are the first word of a title (“A Tale of Two Cities,” “Of Mice and Men,” “The New York Times”). Some exceptions exist; please consult the guidelines of your intended publication for its specific guidelines regarding the capitalization of titles.
A common noun names a generic type of person, place, or thing, while a common adjective modifies a generic type of person, place, or thing. Common nouns and common adjectives are not capitalized. Examples include the following:
- “The president made a speech.” In this case, the term “president” is not used as a proper title, so it is not capitalized.
- “The Rocky and Appalachian mountain ranges.” In this case, the term “mountain ranges” is used as a descriptive common phrase, so it is not capitalized. In contrast, the term “Mountains” in “the Rocky and Appalachian Mountains” is capitalized because it is used as part of a proper name.
- “Rainfall plagued the northern region of England.” In this case, “northern” is used as a directional common adjective, and not as a proper name, so it is not capitalized. Similarly, in the sentence, “rainfall plagued the north,” the term “north” is not capitalized because it is used as a compass direction, and not as a proper name.
Of course, when capitalization proves difficult, it is always advisable to look up any word or phrase in a scholarly source to verify the convention used for its capitalization.
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