Common noun vs. proper noun: Capitalization and usage

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Common noun - proper nounCommon noun vs. proper noun is a common mistake in writing.

Here’s the rule: Proper nouns are the names of particular individuals, countries, businesses, and titles: Bob Smith, the United States of America, Macy’s, the Queen of England. Common nouns are all the rest: dirt, gold, democracy, education, cars, cats, and cucumbers.

Sometimes people like to place a random capital on a common noun just because it’s important in a sentence. Make sure the word you capitalize is a proper noun.

Dear Sir, I am a Business major from a highly rated University. I seek a job at your Company.

The rule is clear: only use a capital for actual titles, and names. A proper noun is the name of the department, the formal degree, and the specific university.

Dear Sir, I graduated from Yale University with a Bachelor of Business degree. I am applying to General Electric Company to gain valuable experience in the field of public utilities.

Capitalize a proper noun but not a common noun

Most of the time it’s pretty easy to tell. But there are some tricky areas.

  • Use a capital when a theory or movement is based on an individual’s name: Freudianism, Darwinism.
  • Use a capital for names of religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam.
  • Use a capital for the formal name of a scientific theory: Theory of Evolution (evolution); Global Warming Theory (global warming).
  • Use a capital for the genus when using a scientific name of a species: Homo sapiens; Canis familiaris
  • Use a capital for a brand name of a pharmaceutical, but use the lower case for the generic name: Advil (ibuprofen)
  • Use a capital for a formal group of some kind: the Impressionists, the Romantics
  • Use a capital for regions of the country, but not for directions: the West (west)
  • Use a capital for recognized specific periods, but not for informal periods: the Renaissance, the Paleolithic Era (the last century).