3.1 Nouns and Capitalization


This section covers the following topics:

  • understanding the system of “parts of speech”
  • a noun’s job
  • common and proper nouns
  • capitalization rules

There are two ways to be a more correct writer:

If you read lots of books as a child and continued to read over the years, chances are your writing is already correct.  Why?  Because your brain absorbed the structures and systems we call “standard English usage” as you read.  You may not be able to recite the rules, but you use them correctly when you write.

If that didn’t happen, you probably struggle with writing to some extent.  But it is never too late!  Reading as an adult will automatically help you write more correctly.  In the meantime, you can learn to avoid common mistakes by studying grammar.

Why does writing correctly matter?  Well, writing correctly is part of how students are graded in every class that involves writing (and that is most classes).  But writing correctly is also important after college.  Stop now and read the essay I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar.  Here’s Why by Karl Wiens.

Writers who want to write more correctly need to study grammar so they can consciously make correct choices.  Does it take work?  Yes.  But like every challenge in life, this one won’t get better until you deal with it.  The information in this chapter will get you closer to the kind of writing you want to be able to do.

The “8 Parts of Speech”

“Parts of speech” is the system we use to explain how to build sentences–which word goes where, why, and in what form.

Even if you struggle with writing, your brain already has a pretty good grasp of how this system works.  For example, you know there is something wrong with this sentence:

I love dog my.

If I asked you to explain the problem, I doubt you would say, “The possessive pronoun ‘my’ is being used as an adjective here, to show who owns the dog, and in English, adjectives usually come before the noun they modify.”  But you’ve heard enough correct examples that your brain automatically sees the problem.  The sentence should be:  I love my dog.

Can you spot the more subtle errors in the following sentences?

  • The two best things about the party was the music and the food.  (Error: subject/verb agreement. The verb “was” does not agree with the subject “things.”  It should be “were.”)
  • Natalie found a sparkly girl’s bracelet on the sidewalk.  (Error: misplaced modifier.  It’s not a sparkly girl, it’s a sparkly bracelet.)
  • When John’s dog came back, he was so happy.  (Error: unclear pronoun reference.  Who was happy?  The dog or John?)

The label “part of speech” refers to what job a word is doing in a sentence.  There are eight parts of speech in English.  In other words, there are eight possible jobs.  Here is a list, with brief job descriptions:

  1. noun: names a person, place, thing, or idea
  2. pronoun: used in place of a noun to avoid repetition
  3. adjective: modifies a noun or pronoun
  4. verb: shows action, links subjects with words that describe them, or helps other verbs do those things
  5. adverb: modifies verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs
  6. preposition: shows the position of something or someone in space and time
  7. conjunction: connects words, phrases, or clauses
  8. interjection: shows surprise or emotion

In Ch. 3, we will study these eight parts of speech, one at a time and in depth.

What Is a Noun?

The simplest words in English are nouns; 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.

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.  All of the following words are nouns because they name someone or something:

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

Most nouns are things you can see (like a mouse or the sun), but nouns can also name ideas  (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: Buddhism, Reconstruction

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, Green 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

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: civil rights, 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 thing, 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

Sometimes 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.)
  • 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 the “president of my garden club.”)


Cartoon videos are an easy way to review the information you studied.

Exercise 1 — Identify the Nouns Instructions

  • Identify which words are nouns.
  • Remember that a noun can be proper or common and also can sometimes be more than one word.
  • For example:  The fox jumped over the sleeping German Shepherd, then ran silently away.
    • The word “fox” is a common noun and one word.  “German Shepherd” is a proper noun made up of two words.

Exercise 1 Activity


Knowing what to capitalize is not difficult: there are only a few rules.

Why are rules of capitalization in a chapter about nouns?  Because one of the main ways capital letters are used is to differentiate between proper and common nouns.

Proper nouns are always capitalized.  Common nouns are not capitalized.  The following table illustrates 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 Spanish-American War
historical event Renaissance

Besides proper nouns, there are just a few other capitalization rules:

  • The pronoun “I” is always capitalized:  It’s time I settled down and found a job.
  • The first word in every sentence is capitalizedPeaches taste best when they are cold.
  • The first word in a sentence-length quotation is capitalized:  The college president asked, “What can we do for our students?”
  • The first, last, and main words in a title are capitalized:  I found a copy of Darwin’s book The Origin of Species at a yard sale.

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

Exercise 2 Capitalization Errors — Instructions

  • Identify the capitalization errors.
  • The words you select will be highlighted.
  • Use the Check button to check you work.

Exercise 2 Activity


  • Understanding parts of speech is the first step in understanding how writing works.
  • A noun names a person, place, thing, or idea.
  • Nouns are either proper or common.
  • Always capitalize the following:
    • 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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