Is it a person, place, or thing? Oh my! In this article, we’re talking about what proper nouns are, when to capitalize them, and how to use them in sentences.
What Is a Proper Noun?
A proper noun is the name of a specific person, place, or thing. For example, names of groups or organizations, countries, cities, brands, people, pets, and months are proper nouns. When using proper nouns in writing, you should always capitalize them:
The great wall of china is the longest wall in the world.
The Great Wall of China is the longest wall in the world.
Proper Nouns vs. Common Nouns
Common nouns are not specific. They don’t have official names or titles. So, dog, house, person, teacher, and food are common nouns. As a result, you shouldn’t capitalize them in sentences.
In the examples below, the common nouns dog and park aren’t capitalized, but when we talk about a specific dog, Max, or a specific park or place, like Seven Hills on Brown Avenue, we should capitalize it since it’s a proper noun:
My dog, Max, loves to go to the park on Saturdays.
Which park do you go to?
We like the Seven Hills park on Brown Avenue.
Plural Proper Nouns
Some proper nouns are plural and should be spelled accordingly. While these plural proper nouns begin with an article (the), you only capitalize the article if it’s the first word in the sentence:
The Himalayas are some of the greatest mountains in the world.
The United States and Canada share the Great Lakes.
The Appalachian Mountains span an area from Maine to Georgia.
If you go to the Galápagos Islands, you’ll see tortoises that are over 100 years old.
There are other times when we make proper nouns plural, such as when we refer to an entire family. Notice that we use the before the family name, but that word is not capitalized unless it’s the first word in the sentence:
We live next to the Smiths. They are great neighbors.
I noticed that the Browns have not mowed their lawn this week.
The Andersons are moving next month.
Proper Nouns with Articles
As you can see, some proper nouns begin with articles. To write these proper nouns correctly, you should always use articles. Here are a few more examples:
The United States
The Rocky Mountains
The Atlantic Ocean (all oceans should use the before the name)
The United Nations
The People’s Republic of China
Please note that the should be capitalized only when it’s the first word in a sentence. If it’s in the middle of the sentence, don’t capitalize it. If you’re unsure whether a proper noun should use the, consult a dictionary.
When to Capitalize Common Nouns
You can capitalize common nouns that designate roles (usually within a family) when you use the roles as names:
Find this useful?
Subscribe to our newsletter and get writing tips from our editors straight to your inbox.
When is Dad coming to dinner?
I haven’t seen Uncle Joe in a long time.
When can I see Grandma?
Isn’t your mother a nurse?
My brother plays lacrosse.
My sister isn’t coming, so we can go now.
Notice that when you have to specify the family role, for example, my sister or your mother, you shouldn’t capitalize it. You’d capitalize the family role name only if it stands alone in the sentence.
When an adjective is based on a proper noun, you should capitalize it. This occurs most commonly when we’re talking about the place something is from:
I love the Russian doll you bought me for Christmas.
You have the most beautiful Turkish rug I’ve ever seen.
My family is Puerto Rican.
I’d love to see a Shakespeare play.
This building is famous for its Elizabethan architecture.
Capitalizing directions can be tricky. For example, when referring to cardinal directions (north, south, west, and east), you should treat them as common nouns (i.e., don’t capitalize them):
Are we going east or west?
The Pacific Crest Trail runs north to south.
However, when you’re referring to a specific place or region or stating a direction in a political or cultural sense, you should use capitals:
Do you prefer the East Coast or the West Coast?
The Buddha and Confucius are thought of as the greatest philosophers from the East.
You should not capitalize the names of seasons (spring, summer, fall, and winter) unless they’re the first word in a sentence or part of a proper name:
The fall, when the leaves change color, is my favorite time of the year.
Winter is my least favorite season.
I’ll be going to the Spring Fling dance this weekend.
Are you coming to the Fall Retreat this year?
You should capitalize titles, such as religious, political, or professional titles, only when you’re using them with the name of the person who holds the title:
The pope will make an appearance.
Did you hear what the prime minister said on the news?
The prime minister of Australia is Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.
The head of the Catholic Church is Pope Francis.
Proper nouns can seem quite confusing because you need to keep track of so many. When in doubt, check a dictionary to see if a word should be capitalized, made plural, or preceded by an article.