What Are Proper Nouns, and How Do I Use Them?

A proper noun is a specific (i.e., not generic) name for a particular person, place, or thing. Proper nouns are always capitalized in English, no matter where they fall in a sentence. Because they endow nouns with a specific name, they are also sometimes called proper names.

Every noun can be classified as either common or proper. A common noun is the generic name for one item in a class or group.

palace

girl

book

A proper noun, on the other hand, names a noun precisely.

Buckingham Palace

Cynthia

War and Peace

The distinction between common and proper nouns is usually quite easy to make, but it can occasionally be more difficult to intuit. When we speak, it makes no difference whether a noun is proper or common because it does not impact syntax. When we write, however, we need to know which nouns are proper because we need to know where to place capital letters.

You Too Can Prevent Capital Abuse

Capitalization overuse is the most prevalent type of spelling error there is. Psychologically, it is difficult to resist using capitals to emphasize what we think is important in a sentence. Marketing professionals capitalize liberally to Grab Your Attention And Sell You Things, but this is a bad habit you should avoid in your writing.

Carefully capitalizing only proper nouns will enhance the readability of your writing—after all, your readers have spent years of their lives being educated in English conventions. Extra capital letters seem like “speed bumps” on their course through your paragraphs.

Here are a few examples of common and proper nouns that are often capitalized incorrectly.

Mom or mom? Nouns Indicating a Family Relationship

The nouns we use to talk about our families cause a lot of trouble. The rule of thumb is, when you use a word like mom, dad, or aunt, capitalize it only if the word is being used exactly as you would a name, as if you were addressing the person directly. If the word is not being used as a name, it is not capitalized—although that has nothing to do with the word’s importance.

Please ask Mom if she would like steak for dinner.

Is your mom coming over for dinner?

Even if the speaker of the last sentence is acquainted with your mom and is thinking of that mom specifically, mom is not being used as a proper name, so it is not capitalized.

Adam asked his Uncle if he could stay for dinner.

Adam asked his uncle if he could stay for dinner.

Are Directions Capitalized?

The directions of the compass are not capitalized unless they are used as part of the proper name of a region.

The trail continued west all the way to the coastline.

What time is it on the West Coast?

Capitalizing Seasons

Because we capitalize the days of the week and the months of the year, people sometimes capitalize the seasons spring, summer, fall (or autumn), and winter by extension. However, they should only be capitalized when they are used as a part of a proper name.

Will you be visiting New York in the Spring?

Will you be visiting New York in the spring?

I am thinking of attending the Spring Social this year.

Jobs and Other Titles

It is just plain hard to resist capitalizing job titles, but once again, unless they are used in the act of naming someone, do not capitalize them.

Please allow me to introduce you to our managing director, Bob Smith.

Today Julie had an interview with Managing Director Bob Smith.

No matter how important you deem the job a person does, resist the urge to capitalize his or her title if it does not name him or her.

The next time I visit Rome, I’m going to drop in on the pope.

I can’t wait to meet Pope Francis when I am in Rome.

Should Brand Names Be Capitalized?

When brand names come into common use to describe a whole class of items, it is easy to forget to capitalize them. Brand names, however, are proper names.

He asked his mother to hand him a tissue.

Could you pass me the Kleenex?

Should Eponyms Be Capitalized?

That said, some nouns that are named for a person or region—eponyms—become so commonly used that it is no longer considered necessary to capitalize them. The sandwich, for example, was named for John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich.

The professor always packed a sandwich for office hours.

There are many more instances when you may have to decide whether a noun is common or proper to determine whether it is capitalized. (You may wish to read our articles on countries, nationalities, and languages or periods and events, for example.) When in doubt, do what all the best writers do: look it up.

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