3.2 Nouns and Capitalization


This section of Ch. 3 will cover the following topics:

  • a noun’s job
  • common and proper nouns
  • capitalization rules

The simplest words in English are ; they are easy to understand and found everywhere. To understand how English is structured, start by understanding what nouns do and how to find them in sentences.

What Is a Noun?

A noun is a word that names people, places, things, or ideas.

Remember that “part of speech” is what job a word is doing in a sentence. Naming is a noun’s job. For example, all of the following words are nouns because they name someone or something:

rabbit, tangerine, paper clip, Mars, democracy, student, Alaska

Most nouns are things you can see (like a mouse or the sun), but nouns can also name ideas that can’t be seen (like democracy or faith).

Proper Nouns

There are two types of nouns: proper and common. Proper nouns name specific people, places, things, or ideas. For example:

  • people: Shakespeare, Jean
  • places: Paris, Gresham, the South
  • things: Kleenex, Geology 101, Oreos
  • ideas: Impressionism, Buddhism

Proper nouns can be more than one word, but they still name one thing. For example:

  • people: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Bill Gates, Billie Eilish
  • places: New York City, Republic of Ireland
  • things: House of Representatives, MacBook Pro
  • ideas: Harlem Renaissance, New Deal

The following types of words are usually proper nouns:

  • deities, religions, religious followers, sacred books (Allah, Catholic, Protestants, the Torah)
  • family relationship when used as a name (Mom, Grandpa Lenz)
  • nationalities, languages, races, tribes (Italian, Japanese, African American, Apache)
  • educational institutions, departments, specific courses (Mt. Hood Community College, Humanities Department, Writing 115)
  • government departments, organizations, political parties (Army Corps of Engineers, Doctors Without Borders, Democratic Party)
  • historical movements, periods, events, documents (Black Lives Matter, the Renaissance, March Madness, Declaration of Independence)
  • trade names (Apple, Xerox, Newman’s Own)
  • months, holidays, days of the week–but not seasons (July, Yom Kippur, Friday, but not winter)


    Proper nouns are always capitalized.

    Common nouns are never capitalized, unless they are the first word of a sentence.

  • titles when used as part of a person’s name–but not when used alone (Governor Brown, but not the governor of Oregon)
  • titles of books, movies, CDs (The Hunger Games, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Back to Black)

Common Nouns

Common nouns name general people, places, things, or ideas. For example:

  • people: students, aunt, dog
  • places: river, country, home
  • things: aquarium, car, hamburger, rose
  • ideas: democracy, love, happiness, religion, work

Common nouns, like proper nouns, can be more than one word, but they still name one thing. For example:

  • people: homeless person, state representative
  • places: high school, swimming pool
  • things: printer cartridge, washing machine
  • ideas: gay pride, public speaking

Nouns of more than one word are called compound nouns. The two words together have a meaning that is different from the two separate words. For example, a “state” is one thing, a “representative” is another, and a “state representative” has a third, slightly different meaning. Sometimes compound nouns are written as one word (“greenhouse”) or hyphenated (“mother-in-law”). Check a dictionary to be sure.

Changing Jobs

Some words can be a proper noun in one sentence but a common noun in another. For example:

  • My sister Fern prefers ferns to flowers. (“Fern” is a proper noun because it is a specific person’s name, but “ferns” is a common noun because it names a general type of plant. Remember that proper nouns are capitalized, but common nouns are not.)
  • My mother said she was tired, but Dad was ready to go. (“mother” is a common noun here because it names the relationship, but “Dad” is what we call him, so it’s a proper noun.)
  • When Obama was President, he actually called the president of my garden club. (“President” is only capitalized when it refers to the President of the United States, not when it refers to someone like “president of my garden club.”)

Graphic Materials

In Ch. 3 and Ch. 4, you’ll find links to cartoon videos. They are an easy way to review the information you just studied. Click on the icon below to view a video about nouns:

Exercise 1

In your notebook, copy the following sentences. Circle all the nouns, putting “np” above the proper nouns and “nc” above the common nouns. (Remember: Sometimes a noun can be more than one word.)

  1. Royalty in England enjoy playing polo and cricket.
  2. Although raised a Catholic, my sister converted to Islam.
  3. Dad bought three gifts for Mom: a toaster, a blender, and a bathrobe.
  4. My favorite writer is Jane Austen, but Maxine Hong Kingston is also wonderful.
  5. College will ensure my future.
  6. My telephone has indicators for different types of messages.
  7. Astrology is fun.  My sign is Aquarius.
  8. The wind last night shook the house.


In college assignments and business documents, using capitalization correctly sends the message that you care about the ideas you are conveying. Knowing what to capitalize is not difficult: there are only a few rules.

Proper nouns are always capitalized.  That is how we differentiate them from common nouns. The following table will give you a sense of the differences:

common noun Proper Noun
museum The Art Institute of Chicago
theater Apollo Theater
country Malaysia
uncle Uncle Javier
doctor Dr. Jackson
book Pride and Prejudice
college Smith College
war the Spanish-American War
historical event The Renaissance

The pronoun “I” is always capitalized. For example: It’s time I settled down and found a job.

The first word in every sentence is capitalized. For example: Peaches taste best when they are cold. Also, the first word in a sentence-length quotation is capitalized.  For example: The college president asked, “What can we do for our students?”

And finally, the first, last, and main words in a title are capitalized.  For example: I found a copy of Darwin’s book The Origin of Species at a yard sale.

The challenge is not understanding when to capitalize.  It’s remembering to do it.

Exercise 2

Copy the following paragraphs into your notebook, correcting the capitalization.

david grann’s the lost City of Z mimics the snake-like winding of the amazon River. The three distinct Stories that are introduced are like twists in the River. First, the Author describes his own journey to the amazon in the present day, which is contrasted by an account of percy fawcett’s voyage in 1925 and a depiction of James Lynch’s expedition in 1996. Where does the river lead these explorers? the answer is one that both the Author and the reader are hungry to discover.

The first lines of the preface pull the reader in immediately because we know the author, david grann, is lost in the amazon. It is a compelling beginning not only because it’s thrilling but also because this is a true account of grann’s experience. grann has dropped the reader smack in the middle of his conflict by admitting the recklessness of his decision to come to this place.

the suspense is further perpetuated by his unnerving observation that he always considered himself A Neutral Witness, never getting personally involved in his stories, a notion that is swiftly contradicted in the opening pages, as the reader can clearly perceive that he is in a dire predicament–and frighteningly involved.


  • A noun names a person, place, thing or idea.
  • There are two types of nouns: proper and common.
  • The following words are capitalized:
    • proper nouns
    • the pronoun “I”
    • the first word in every sentence
    • the first word in a sentence-length quote
    • the first, last and main words in a title


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