• 2-minute read
  • 22nd October 2015

Proper vs. Common Nouns: When to Capitalize

Most people get confused about which nouns need capitalizing. Why on earth do we use a capital letter for “Paris,” but not for “love”? The answer lies in the difference between proper and common nouns.

Proper Nouns

Most people understand that nouns are naming words. However, the reason why some nouns are capitalized and others aren’t is because the capitalized words are one-of-a-kind entities, like specific people, cities or landmarks.

We call these proper nouns. So we capitalize “Paris” because it is the name of a particular city and “Eiffel Tower” because it is a particular building. Some other proper nouns include “Queen Elizabeth” and “Coca Cola.”

Common Nouns

These are words used to refer to something generic. For instance, while we might capitalize “Mickey Mouse” as the name of a particular cartoon character, if we were talking about a furry rodent living in our basement, we would use a lower case “m” when we said “that darned mouse in the basement.”

Common nouns can be used for people, places, things and ideas, but all of these will be one among a whole class of entities or a general concept. So we talk about “bloggers,” “mountains” and “cheese,” all with lower case letters.

Proper vs. Common Nouns

To show you the difference, here is a table of common nouns with proper noun equivalents:

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Common NounProper Noun
authorJ. K. Rowling
filmThe 39 Steps
mountainMount Everest
cityNew York
buildingSears Tower

In all of these cases, the common noun refers to the general concept, whereas the proper noun refers to one particular instance.

Historical Usage

Confusingly, you will find some common nouns capitalized in classic books and poems. This poem by Emily Dickinson is a great case in point:

“Faith” is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see—
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.

Here, the common nouns “gentlemen,” “microscopes” and “emergency” are all capitalized. Today they wouldn’t be.

The reason that a lot of old literature has randomly capitalized common nouns is because, before the twentieth century, the rules of written English were not fixed and there was a fashion for indiscriminately capitalizing any nouns felt to be important! Unfortunately, this is no longer the case, so make sure you capitalize correctly!

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