Intensive Purposes: Proper Nouns

writing editing essay

writing editing essay

A noun is a person, place, thing, or idea. Easy, right?

Then why do so many people get nouns wrong!? Particularly — proper nouns.

Proper nouns are specific people, places, things, or ideas. I didn’t just go to a university, I went to the University of Pittsburgh. It seems like a simple distinction, but you’d be surprised at how many people either slip up, or just don’t know the difference. The main culprit? Family members, and not in the way that you may think.

Sure, everyone’s got some family member on Facebook who never seems to get her grammar right, but I’m talking about “names” of family members that tend to give people a hard time distinguishing between words that need capitalized and those that don’t. My aunt is a great lady, for instance, and we always hang around in the kitchen at holidays, manning the wine, stealing chicken nuggets, and wondering from what planet her daughters came from. However, “aunt” doesn’t get capitalized unless I’m specifically saying “Aunt Patti” — a goof that many seem to make.

Unless you’re saying “Uncle Dave” or “Aunt Carmen”, these titles don’t get capitalized, just like “biology” (the general topic) doesn’t get capitalized unless you’re actually talking about The Very Particular Class Named “Biology”. Give your proper nouns some special treatment.

A play on the misquoted phrase “for all intents and purposes”, Intensive Purposes tackles one grammar rule or English language tip — from proper punctuation to misused phrases — in an easy-to-understand mini-lesson. 

  • Kay

    I think my biggest confusion come from ‘mom’ and ‘dad’. Are those ever capitalized? I always wonder since they are both generic terms AND can refer to specific people, depending on the context. I know they aren’t a ‘name’ per say, but they are generally what you would call the person you’re saying it to (vs. Aunt Kathy which clearly has a name in it). Is there a proper way of capitalization for mom and dad?

    • I usually write it like this:
      – If I’m talking about my mom and my dad, I write the words without capitalization.
      – But if I’m just adressing them as Mom and Dad, I capitalize the first letter.

      “It was my mom’s birthday and Dad wanted to give her a present, so we drove to the local bookshop to buy Mom something she might like to read.”

      But it’s my personal preference, though. I don’t know the grammatical rules. Hehe

    • I second Dara on this. If I’m referring to my own mom and dad or addressing them directly I’ll capitalize the first letter. But if I’m just talking about my mom in general as opposed to your own mom, I keep it lowercase.

      So, “I asked my mom where the cat was,” but “I wasn’t sure what Mom wanted for her birthday this year.” If that makes sense 🙂

  • Haha I love this. Though proper nouns are certainly an annoyance when misused, double negatives are by far my biggest pet peeve. Ick!

    • Double negatives! Yes, ick!

  • I know that I am totally guilty of this, but what can I say, my english teachers in middle/high school weren’t the best. In high school I spent more time diagraming sentences (WHY?!) then I did learning anything else.

    • Ugh, sentence diagramming. I remember doing them, and while I didn’t hate them, I also didn’t see why they were important. I don’t think I ever learned any grammar or had any linguistic epiphanies that way. Really, I don’t think I understood real grammar until I learned a foreign language.

  • I have been seeing this in my student’s writing so often lately! You explained this so well I might just have to use this as a resource!

    • Aw, thank you! That means a lot! There’s not always a clear cut answer, even though this “grammar byte” is often thought of as being a basic one. Another I’ve seen is capitalizing job titles vs. not in a research paper (like, if you’re talking about mechanical engineers in general, or the specific title/posting at X Company of a Mechanical Engineer – so much confusion!)