Nouns are words that name a person, place, thing, or idea.

Person: If it’s a specific name, like Joe, Jane, or Sparky, the name is capitalized. However, if the noun is general such as a boy, girl, doctor or lawyer, then the nouns are not capitalized. It can become a bit complicated when referring to parents or close relatives. If you are talking about your mother, the name is not capitalized. But if you are talking “to” your mother or father, the name is capitalized. So in writing dialogue, your subject might say, “Hi, Mom. What’s for dinner?” But if your subject is talking to a friend about their mom, then the noun is not capitalized. “Yeah, my mom always insists on cooking spinach at least once a week. Yuck!”

The same thing is true of offices like senator, president, king, or pope. You may refer to “the pope” or “the president” in lowercase, but capitalize it when it is used as the title of the person, such as Queen Elizabeth or when you address them, as in Mr. President. However, in “American president Barack Obama” or “British prime minister David Cameron” the offices are lowercase because in the context they refer to the person’s office and are not part of his title.

Place: If the name of a place is specific, such as the name of a city or state, then the noun should be capitalized. If the noun is general such as state, city, bird, parent, etc. then the noun is not capitalized.

Seems pretty cut and dry, right?

Sometimes though it gets a bit tricky. For instance, if the word state follows a specific state, such as Washington State, then state is often capitalized. But state would not be capitalized if one were to write, “What state do you live in?”  The big clue here is if the word state comes before the specific name, such as the state of California, or after the state name, as in California State.

Thing: If it’s a specific thing like a Rolls-Royce or a Chevrolet pickup, it is capitalized. General automobiles, such as a car or a jeep, are not capitalized.

Idea: This is a bit more nebulous. For instance, the word good is often not capitalized if one is talking about something that is good, such as a good book. If one is talking about a “Greater Good” as an idea, then the word is capitalized.

Capitalization can be confusing in some instances. If in doubt, it’s a great idea to keep a dictionary handy or use an online dictionary such as