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Capitalization: Proper vs. Common Nouns and Adjectives

The rules governing capitalization in sentences—as opposed to titles or headings—seem simple at first glance: we capitalize proper nouns and adjectives, and we lowercase common nouns and adjectives. But because distinguishing between proper and common usage is often difficult, many writers tend to capitalize words and phrases that should, in fact, be lowercased.

Can you distinguish between common and proper nouns and adjectives in the following sentences? Are the right words capitalized? (Explanations are scattered throughout the discussion that follows.)

  1. Many residents of New York City are relieved that property values along the East River have been increasing over the past decade.

  2. Because a strong wind was blowing through the Cedar trees in the backyard, our Dachshund, Cutie Pie, refused to go outside this morning.

  3. Business-oriented Web sites often feature an FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) page.

  4. The town’s Chamber of Commerce purchased holiday lighting and appointed a planning committee to decide which streets were to be decorated.

  5. A local newspaper reported that a University in northern South Carolina has announced a hiring freeze, but we do not know for certain if the article was referring to Balzac University or the University of the Cultural Arts.

The Bottom Line

  • A proper noun or adjective is a proper name—it designates a particular person, place, or thing. In sentence 1 above, we capitalize "New York City" and "East River" because they are proper nouns. Both are geographical place names.

  • A common noun or adjective, in contrast, is a generic label—it designates a general type of person, place, or thing. In the following two sentences, we capitalize neither "east" nor "river" because these words are being used in their generic senses (in the first, they are used as nouns; in the second, as adjectives): "The barge was traveling toward the east, away from the mouth of the river." "The east wind was wafting across the river basin." In sentence 2 of the opening exercise, neither "cedar" nor "dachshund" should be capitalized. Even though nouns such as dachshund, soft-coated wheaten terrier, daffodil, marigold, jack-in-the-pulpit, tiger beetle, alfalfa blotch leafminer, robin, scarlet tanager, magnolia, and cedar are the names of very specific kinds of dogs, flowers, insects, and so forth, they are common nouns. Only when we speak of "my dachshund, Cutie Pie," "the Irish setter," "the black-eyed Susan," or "an Atlantic white cedar" are we using phrases that contain proper nouns and adjectives.

Using Reference Works

In general, a writer’s best resource on the issue of capitalization is the dictionary. Both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), for example, explain that we capitalize the word Web when—as in sentence 3 of the opening exercise—it is shorthand for the proper name World Wide Web (although both of these reference works point out the likelihood that Web will eventually become a common noun and thus be lowercased).

In some instances, however, reference works do not agree with one another with regard to proper names and capitalization—particularly with regard to their adjectival forms. For example, Webster’s prefers "Roman numerals," "Arabic numerals," "French dressing" (but "french fry"), and "Swiss cheese," while The Chicago Manual of Style (University of Chicago Press, 15th ed.) favors lowercasing these same phrases and many other such forms (see section 8.65 of Chicago for a full explanation and more examples). Interestingly, Webster’s does agree with Chicago in its preference for "brussels sprouts" and "venetian blinds." These differences once again remind us why it is important to choose a reputable reference work, consult it regularly, and use it consistently.

Organizations, Groups, and Other Entities

To refer to "the town’s chamber of commerce," as we do in sentence 4 of the opening exercise, is to use a generic label. On the other hand, to refer to "the Buckville Chamber of Commerce" is to call the organization by its individual name, its pr oper name. Likewise, to say "the Ravenwood Historical Society" is to use the official name of the particular organization. To say "the historical society in the Ravenwood community" is to speak of the society in the generic sense. The former is capitalized; the latter, lowercased.

We capitalize the formal names of specific entities because they are proper nouns:

  • the Society for the Advancement of Grammatically Correct E-Mail Communications
  • the Grand Strand Area Transportation Council
  • the Chrysler Corporation
  • the Consortium for Language Learning
  • the Los Angeles School for the Deaf
  • the National Assistive Technology Advisory Board

To grasp the distinction here, we need only to think about whether we are referring to a specific, named person, place, or thing or whether we are using a generic description. Formal names such as those above are quite different from nonspecific labels: "the steering committee," "the regional advisory committee," "the consortium," "the county school for the deaf," "the assistive technology advisory board," "the planning committee," "the subcommittee," the word school in "Sunday school," and so on. In sentence 5 of the opening exercise, the first instance of the word university is not capitalized because it is used as a common noun—that is, in its generic sense. The second two occurrences of the word in sentence 5, however, are part of proper nouns and are appropriately capitalized.

The following lists may help clarify the distinction between proper and common nouns and adjectives:

PROPER NOUN OR ADJECTIVE USAGE

Ohio University
Aiken High School
Stamford Charter School
Wabash County
the Barnard College Board of Trustees
Regional Education Centers Committee
the American Evangelical Lutheran Church
the Battle of Kings Mountain
the Eastern Hemisphere, Eastern Rumelia
Washington State, New York State
the Junior League Spring Fling
the Winter Snowman Run
the Bachelor of Arts
the Master of Arts

COMMON NOUN OR ADJECTIVE USAGE

a university in Ohio, an Ohio university
a high school in Aiken, one of Aiken's high schools
a charter school in Stamford
the county of Wabash, Wabash and Blackford counties
the board of trustees of Barnard College
the regional education center advisory boards
the Lutheran church in Wabash
the battle fought on Kings Mountain, the Kings Mountain battle
the eastern bluebird, eastern Ohio, eastern Europe
the state of Washington, the state of New York
the spring semester
the winter clearance sale
a bachelor's degree, a bachelor's in music
a master of arts degree, a master's degree in education

Acronyms

The term "acronym," in its strictest usage, refers to a type of abbreviation formed from the initial letters or the major parts of a compound term and pronounced as a single word—for example, CENTCOM (United States Central Command), DHEC (Department of Health and Environmental Control), HAZMAT (hazardous material), NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

Another type of abbreviation very commonly called an acronym is more strictly an "initialism": an abbreviation formed from the initial letters of a compound term and pronounced as a series of letters—CDC (Centers for Disease Control), FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), OMB (Office of Management and Budget), and so on.

Many writers are under the false impression that all the words represented by the letters in initialisms—or acronyms—should be capitalized simply because the acronym itself is rendered in capital letters. That is, they wrongly believe that simply because a particular phrase is commonly represented by an acronym, the phrase itself is a proper name and therefore must be capitalized.

The fact is, of course, that the letters in some acronyms certainly do stand for proper names: NBA would be rendered as "National Basketball Association," GM as "General Motors," MSC as "Montessori School of Columbia," and so on. However, it is also a fact that many acronyms do not stand for proper nouns and thus are never to be capitalized in their written-out forms. The acronym ATM, for example, is rendered as "automatic teller machine," CD as "compact disc" or "certificate of deposit," PI as "private investigator," APB as "all-points bulletin," UHF as "ultra-high frequency," and so on. Likewise, in sentence 3 in the opening exercise, the phrase "frequently asked questions" in the write-out for the acronym FAQ should not be capitalized.

And one final note: it is also true that even some acronyms themselves are not capitalized: mph ("miles per hour"), rpm ("revolutions per minute"), and cc ("cubic centimeter"), for example.

Test Yourself

Which lowercased words in the following sentences need to be capitalized? Which capitalized words should be lowercased?

  1. Cleveland Davis has been appointed Chairperson of the Grand Strand Area Transportation Council.

  2. A revised School District dress code will be implemented with the start of a new academic year.

  3. The Department hopes to hire a new Administrative Assistant in January and an Assistant Professor of English to start teaching in the Fall semester.

  4. During September, the State Department of Education conducted eight Regional Workshops for K㪤 School Counselors.

  5. Each November, employees are asked to make decisions about their Benefits Plan in consultation with Jane Doe, the Director of the company’s Employee Benefits Program.

Answers

  1. Cleveland Davis has been appointed chairperson of the Grand Strand Area Transportation Council.

  2. A revised school district dress code will be implemented with the start of a new academic year.

  3. The department hopes to hire a new administrative assistant in January and an assistant professor of English to start teaching in the fall semester.

  4. During September, the State Department of Education conducted eight regional workshops for K㪤 school counselors.

  5. Each November, employees are asked to make decisions about their benefits plan in consultation with Jane Doe, the director of the employee benefits program. [All of these boldfaced words are used in their generic sense. If we had written, instead, “in consultation with Director Jane Doe,” her title would correctly be capitalized. And if we had referred to the actual title of her office, as in “Director Jane Doe of the Office of Personnel Benefits,” then those words should be capitalized as well.]

Copyright 2009 Get It Write

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