Making sense of capitalisation: week 4 - capitalising common nouns
A common noun is the generic name for a person, place or thing in a class or group. For example, boy, city and cat are common nouns, whereas James, Sheffield and Felix are the proper nouns that name the specific person, place or thing.
A common noun is not capitalised unless it begins a sentence or appears in a title, unlike proper nouns which are always capitalised.
It's usually fairly obvious if a specific person, place or thing is being named, yet, many writers wrongly capitalise common nouns. Understanding the difference between a common noun and a proper noun will help you know when to capitalise and when not to.
So, time for a quick quiz! Can you tell which of these examples are common nouns and which are proper nouns?
1) Never stroke a tiger, it will eat you for breakfast.
2) "The name's Tigger! T-I-double-guh-ER!"
3) Who was the first president of the United States?
4) A girl came to see you earlier.
5) I'm learning to fly an aeroplane.
6) I'm learning to fly a Spitfire.
Here's a clue: the common nouns are NOT capitalised.
Example number 3 is a good one because the word president could be a common noun or a proper noun, depending on whether it is naming a specific president.
"According to a recent survey, President Abraham Lincoln is the highest ranking US president of all time."
In this example, president is used as both a common noun and a proper noun. Can you tell the difference? It is first used as a proper noun (where it refers to a specific person), and later it is used as a common noun (where it refers to a non-specific person).
I hope this article has made things clearer for you. If you are still feeling baffled, consider having your writing proofread by a professional like me.
Also in this series...
Over the coming weeks, we'll discuss all you need to know about capitalisation.
Week 1: the three case systems
Week 2: the rules of capitalisation
Week 3: capitalising proper nouns
Week 4: capitalising common nouns
Week 5: academic texts (headings, bullets, lists and quotations)
Week 6: common mistakes