Common Nouns, Proper Nouns, and Capital Letters

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Capital Letters for Proper Nouns

Use a capital letter for a proper noun. A proper noun is the personal name or title given to something. For example:
  • New York
  • Lucky
  • Pacific Ocean
  • Uncle George
  • Sears Tower
Do not use a capital letter for a common noun. A common noun is the word for something. It's the word you'd find in a dictionary. For example:
  • city
  • cat
  • ocean
  • uncle
  • tower
Capitalize a common noun when it starts a sentence.

proper nouns, common nouns, and capital letters

More about Capital Letters for Proper Nouns (Given Names)

Use capital letters for the names given to people, places, planets, days of the week, honorifics (e.g., Sergeant Smith, Uncle Fred, Doctor Jones), months, holidays, departments, clubs, companies, institutions, bridges, buildings, monuments, parks, ships, hotels, streets, historical events, and documents. These are known as proper nouns. Proper nouns are often personal names or titles.

More about Lowercase Letters for Common Nouns (Words for Things)

Do not use a capital letter for a common noun, unless it starts a sentence. A common noun is the word we use for something, e.g., "dog," "ship," "auntie." It is the word that appears in the dictionary.

The Difference between Proper Nouns and Common Nouns

The difference between proper nouns and common nouns is best explained with a table showing them side by side:
Common NounProper Noun
dogRover
shipTitanic
cityNew York
auntieAuntie Sally
captainCaptain Jones
doctorDoctor Smith

Video Summarizing Common and Proper Nouns

Here is a video summarizing the difference between common nouns and proper nouns:


Examples Showing When to Use Capital Letters

Each of these examples features a proper noun (shown in bold) and a common noun.
  • The next lake the party visited was Lake Michigan.
  • (The word "lake" is a common noun. It is the word for an in-land water feature. "Lake Michigan" is a proper noun. It is the name of the lake.)
  • The Church in London is not actually a church but a public house.
  • ("The Church" is a proper noun. The word "church" is a common noun.)
  • It was a rewarding day, and I intend to visit here again on Armistice Day next year.
  • (The word "day" is a common noun. "Armistice Day" is a proper noun.)
  • Please ask Sergeant Allan or the other sergeant to arrange the patrol for tomorrow.
  • ("Sergeant Allan" is a proper noun. The word "sergeant" is a common noun.)

Stick to the Rules!

Do not be tempted to give a word a capital letter just because it is an important word in your sentence.
  • Place your order using the form in our latest Brochure.
  • We value our Clients' opinions.
  • I'm having the best day of my life, and I owe it all to not going to Church! (Homer Simpson)
  • Lisa, Vampires are make-believe, like elves, gremlins, and Eskimos. (Homer Simpson)
  • (The word "Vampires" is wrong. The word "Eskimos" is correct.)
  • We live in an age when Pizza gets to your home before the Police.

Quirks in Business Writing

In business writing particularly, many writers consider it good practice (usually for politeness) to capitalize common nouns, such as "Department" and "Director."
  • The manager of your finance department confirmed the booking on 15 August.
  • The Manager of your Finance Department confirmed the booking on 15 August.
Both of these examples are correct because the finance department might be called the Finance Department.

Read more about nouns that bridge the gap between common nouns and proper nouns (see Issue 1).

Look at these examples:
  • The director will cast the final vote.
  • The Director will cast the final vote.
  • The Director will cast the final Vote.
  • (The word "director" could be considered a common noun or a proper noun. The word "vote" can't. It must be lowercase.)
Ready for the Test?
Here is a confirmatory test for this lesson.

This test can also be:
  • Edited (i.e., you can delete questions and play with the order of the questions).
  • Printed to create a handout.
  • Sent electronically to friends or students.

See Also

What are nouns? The different types of nouns Ms., Miss., or Mrs.? Capital letters in advertisements Capital letters and the points of the compass Capital letters with the four seasons Capital letters with moons, stars and planets Capital letters start sentences What is title case? Test on using capital letters