Capitalizing Words: Proper vs. Common Nouns

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  • Nancy Tuten

    2 December 2019

    Capitalizing Words: Proper vs. Common Nouns

    The rules governing the capitalization of words in sentences (as opposed to capitalizing words in titles or headings or capitalizing people’s titles or positions) seem simple at first glance: we capitalize proper nouns, and we lowercase common nouns. But because distinguishing between proper and common usage is often difficult, many writers tend to capitalize words and phrases that should, in fact, be lower-cased.

    Can you distinguish between common and proper nouns and adjectives in the following sentences? Are the right words capitalized? (Answers and explanations are scattered throughout the discussion that follows.)

    1. Many residents of New York City are relieved that property values along the East River have been increasing over the past decade.
    2. Because a strong wind was blowing through the Cedar trees in the backyard, our Dachshund, named Cutie Pie, refused to go outside this morning.
    3. Business-oriented Web sites often feature an FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) page.
    4. The town’s chamber of commerce purchased holiday lighting and appointed a planning committee to decide which streets were to be decorated.
    5. A local newspaper reported that a University in northern South Carolina has announced a hiring freeze, but we do not know for certain if the article was referring to Balzac University or the University of the Cultural Arts.

    The Bottom Line

    • A proper noun or adjective is a proper name—it designates a particular person, place, or thing. In sentence 1 above, we capitalize New York City and East River because they are proper nouns. Both are geographical place names.
    • A common noun or adjective, in contrast, is a generic label—it designates a general type of person, place, or thing. In the following two sentences, we capitalize neither east nor river because these words are being used in their generic senses (in the first, they are used as nouns; in the second, as adjectives):
      • “The barge was traveling toward the east, away from the mouth of the river.”
      • “The east wind was wafting across the river basin.”

    In sentence 2 of the opening exercise, neither cedar nor dachshund should be capitalized. Even though nouns such as dachshundsoft-coated wheaten terrierdaffodilmarigoldjack-in-the-pulpittiger beetlealfalfa blotch leaf minerrobinscarlet tanagermagnolia, and cedar are the names of very specific kinds of dogs, flowers, insects, and so forth, they are common nouns.

    There are occasions, of course, when proper nouns become part of a generic reference, as in these examples:  “the Irish setter,” “the black-eyed Susan,” or “an Atlantic white cedar.”

    Using Reference Works

    In general, a writer’s best resource on the issue of capitalization is the dictionary. Both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and The American Heritage Dictionary, for example, used to claim that we capitalize the word Web when (as in sentence 3 of the opening exercise) it is used as shorthand for the proper name World Wide Web.

    Now, as both of these references predicted years ago, web and website have become common nouns and should thus be lower-cased.

    In some instances, however, reference works do not agree with regard to proper names and capitalization, particularly with adjectives.

    For example, one dictionary might prefer “Roman numerals,” “Arabic numerals,” and “French dressing” but advocate also for “french fry,” “brussels sprouts,” and “venetian blinds.”

    Another dictionary or style guide may differ in these choices altogether, reminding us why it is important for businesses, agencies, and even individuals to choose a reputable reference work, consult it regularly, and use it consistently. (Professional organizations and businesses often have their own customized in-house style guides.)

    Organizations, Groups, and Other Entities

    To refer to “the town’s chamber of commerce,” as we do in sentence 4 of the opening exercise, is to use a generic label. On the other hand, to refer to “the Buckville Chamber of Commerce” is to call the organization by its individual name, its proper name.

    Likewise, to say “the Ravenwood Historical Society” is to use the official name of the particular organization. To say “the historical society in the Ravenwood community” is to speak of the society in the generic sense. The former is capitalized; the latter, lowercased.

    We capitalize key words in the formal names of specific entities because they are proper nouns. (See our article “Capitalizing Words in Titles” to learn more about why all the words in these proper nouns aren’t capitalized.):

    • the Society for the Advancement of Grammatically Correct E-Mail Communications
    • the Grand Strand Area Transportation Council
    • the Chrysler Corporation
    • the Consortium for Language Learning
    • the Los Angeles School for the Deaf
    • the National Assistive Technology Advisory Board

    To grasp the distinction here, we need only to think about whether we are referring to a specific, named person, place, or thing or using a generic description. Formal names such as those above are quite different from nonspecific labels: “the steering committee,” “the regional advisory committee,” “the consortium,” “the county school for the deaf,” “the assistive technology advisory board,” “the planning committee,” “the subcommittee,” the word school in “Sunday school,” and so on.

    In sentence 5 of the opening exercise, the first instance of the word university is not capitalized because it is used as a common noun, in its generic sense. The second two occurrences of the word in sentence 5, however, are part of proper nouns and are appropriately capitalized.

    The following lists may help clarify the distinction between proper and common nouns and adjectives:

    PROPER NOUNCOMMON NOUN
    Ohio Universitya university in Ohio, an Ohio university
    Aiken High Schoola high school in Aiken, one of Aiken’s high schools
    Stamford Charter Schoola charter school in Stamford
    Wabash Countythe county of Wabash, Wabash and Blackford counties
    the Barnard College Board of Trusteesthe board of trustees of Barnard College
    Regional Education Centers Committeethe regional education center advisory boards
    the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Americathe Lutheran church in Wabash
    the Battle of Kings Mountainthe battle fought on Kings Mountain, the Kings Mountain battle
    the Eastern Hemisphere, Eastern Rumeliathe eastern bluebird, eastern Ohio, eastern Europe
    New York Statethe state of New York
    the Junior League Spring Fling, the Spring 2020 semesterthe spring semester
    the Winter Snowman Runthe winter clearance sale
    the Bachelor of Artsa bachelor’s degree, a bachelor’s in music
    the Master of Artsa master of arts degree, a master’s degree in education

    Acronym vs. Initialism

    The term acronym refers to a type of abbreviation formed from the initial letters or the major parts of a compound term and pronounced as a single word; examples include CENTCOM (United States Central Command), DHEC (Department of Health and Environmental Control), HAZMAT (hazardous material), NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

    Another type of abbreviation very commonly called an acronym is more strictly an initialism: an abbreviation formed from the initial letters of a compound term and pronounced as a series of letters—CDC (Centers for Disease Control), FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), OMB (Office of Management and Budget), and so on.

    Many writers are under the false impression that all the words represented by the letters in an initialism (or acronym) should be capitalized simply because the acronym itself is rendered in capital letters.

    Of course, the letters in some acronyms certainly do stand for proper names: NBA would be rendered as “National Basketball Association,” GM as “General Motors,” MSC as “Montessori School of Columbia,” and so on.

    But many acronyms do not stand for proper nouns and should not be capitalized in their written-out forms.

    The acronym ATM, for example, is “automatic teller machine,” DVD is “digital versatile discs,” CD is “certificate of deposit” or “compact disc,” PI is “private investigator,” APB is “all-points bulletin,” UHF is “ultra-high frequency,” and so on.

    Likewise, in sentence 3 in the opening exercise, the phrase “frequently asked questions” in the write-out for the acronym FAQ should not be capitalized.

    And one final note: it is also true that even some acronyms themselves are not capitalized: mph (“miles per hour”), rpm (“revolutions per minute”), and cc (“cubic centimeter”), for example. When in doubt, consult a reputable dictionary.

    Test Yourself

    Which lower-cased words in the following sentences need to be capitalized? Which capitalized words should be lower-cased?

    1. Cleveland Davis has been appointed Chairperson of the Grand Strand Area Transportation Council.
    2. A revised School District dress code will be implemented with the start of a new academic year.
    3. The Department hopes to hire a new Administrative Assistant in January and an Assistant Professor of English to start teaching in the Fall semester.
    4. During September, the State Department of Education conducted eight Regional Workshops for School Counselors.
    5. Each November, employees are asked to make decisions about their Benefits Plan in consultation with Jane Doe, the Director of the company’s Employee Benefits Program.

    Answers

    1. Cleveland Davis has been appointed chairperson of the Grand Strand Area Transportation Council.
    2. A revised school district dress code will be implemented with the start of a new academic year.
    3. The department hopes to hire a new administrative assistant in January and an assistant professor of English to start teaching in the fall semester.
    4. During September, the State Department of Education conducted eight regional workshops for school counselors.
    5. Each November, employees are asked to make decisions about their benefits plan in consultation with Jane Doe, the director of the employee benefits program. [All of these boldfaced words are used in their generic sense. If we had written, instead, “in consultation with Director Jane Doe,” her title would correctly be capitalized. And if we had referred to the actual title of her office, as in “Director Jane Doe of the Office of Personnel Benefits,” then those words should be capitalized as well.]

    ©2009 Get It Write. Revised 2019.