- President George Bush
- Statue of Liberty
- New York Times
- “Pride and Prejudice.”
These are proper nouns. They each name one individual thing.
Common nouns name things in general. They do not start with a capital letter:
- the president
A good example of the dividing line between common and proper nouns – and which words get a capital letter and which do not – is the word “Internet”. Some write it as “Internet”, others as “internet”.
Which one is right comes down to how you think of the Internet. If you think of it as one among many other computer networks, then you write “Internet”. But if you think of it as something general, like the sea or the air, then you write “internet”.
Another interesting case is God. To someone who believes in only one God, like Muslims and Christians, “God” is both a common noun and a proper noun at the same time: the word names something of which there is only one!
These also start with capital letters:
- Trade names: Valium, Colgate, PlayStation, Coke
- Periods in history: the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Black Death
- Political parties: Labour, Democrats, Chinese Communist Party
- Words made out of proper nouns: Marxism, Platonism, Buddhism, Americanization
So, “communist” is written with a capital when naming a political party – the “Chinese Communist Party” – but in lower-case otherwise: “The communists took over Poland.”
Sometimes there is no hard and fast rule. For example, people who are part white and part black in South Africa are called “Coloureds”. But when blacks in America were called that in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was written “coloreds”. Today most American magazines write “blacks”, but some write “Blacks”.
If in doubt look the word up in a good dictionary. Or, as I sometimes do, search The Economist on the Internet to see what it does.
Sometimes there is more than one name or spelling or way to capitalize a name. For example:
- NATO and Nato
- Hezbollah and Hizbullah
- Burma and Myanmar
- Bombay and Mumbai
How do you choose?
- Use the form of the name that exists in the dictionary that you follow.
- If your dictionary does not have it, then write the name just as those whom it represents would write it in English. There is often a website where this can be found out.
Why not just follow second rule alone? Because it favours unfamiliar forms (that often change) over more familiar, established ones. Your aim in writing is not to be right, but to be understood. Following the dictionary form will help you to be understood.