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Capitalization of Proper and Common Nouns

Summary

  • 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.

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.

Proper nouns

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.

Common nouns

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.

We hope that this editing tip will help you to master capitalization in your writing. If you have any comments or questions, please email us at [email protected]. We wish you the best!

Tags Writing a manuscript Language editing Editing tips Capitalization Grammar

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About the Author: Christine Zosche