Capitalizing Proper Nouns

Should you capitalize the word Internet? Web? Earth? Find out why (or why not).

Mignon Fogarty
5-minute read
Episode #239


Today's topic is capitalizing tricky nouns like Ground Zero, Internet, and Earth.

Proper Nouns

When you're trying to decide whether to capitalize a noun, you have to figure out whether it's a proper noun or a common noun because proper nouns are capitalized and common nouns aren't. If you remember the Saturday morning cartoon Schoolhouse Rock!, you'll remember that a noun is a person, place, or thing.

But proper nouns name specific people, places, or things. Names like Juan, Sarah, and Ji Soo are capitalized because they're proper nouns that name specific people. On the other hand, words like “boy” and “girl” aren't capitalized because they're common nouns that don't refer to any one individual person or item.

Proper nouns are capitalized and common nouns are not.

So names are easy, but what about other words that seem as if they could go either way?

Internet, Web, and Website

Is the Internet one specific place or is it a collection of things? Most language experts including the Associated Press and the editors of the Chicago Manual of Style and the Yahoo Style Guide, believe the Internet is one big specific network that people visit, so they recommend capitalizing the word “Internet.”

On the other hand, the Web is populated by many different websites, so "website" is not capitalized. It is a generic term that can be used to describe many different locations. 

“Internet” is a proper noun because it refers to something specific, whereas “website” is a common noun because it can be used to refer to many different places on the Internet.

Other descriptive compound words that include “web,” such as “webcam,” “webinar,” and “webmaster,” are also lowercase.

Sometimes it's harder for everyone to agree though. Take the word “Web.” The World Wide Web is made up of all the files that are accessible on the Internet by using the HTTP protocol. It is not the same thing as the Internet.  The Yahoo Style Guide and the Associated Press recommend capitalizing “Web” when it stands alone, but in the new 16th edition update, the Chicago Manual of Style editors changed their minds and started allowing “web” to be lowercase.

When major style guides disagree, you have to make up your own mind and simply be consistent. I prefer to continue capitalizing “Web.”

[UPDATE: April 2, 2016. The Associated Press just announced a style change. For AP writers, internet and web will no longer be capitalized. Read about it here.]

Ground Zero

Since we're coming up on September 11, I was thinking about Ground Zero, and I realized that sometimes I see the words "ground zero" capitalized and sometimes I don't. Back in 2001, it seemed as if the name Ground Zero got assigned to the site of the World Trade Center in New York almost immediately.

Traditionally, "ground zero" means the site of a nuclear explosion, and sometimes it is used to refer to the site of a more general explosion or an area where rapid change has taken place. In those general instances, ground zero would be a common noun and wouldn't be capitalized.

On the other hand, although there are a few dissenters, most notably the New York Times, most people agree that Ground Zero is the name of the specific site of the former World Trade Center, and therefore it's a proper noun that needs to be capitalized when it is used in that way (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

[UPDATE, August 21, 2012: Although I stand by my rationale for wanting to capitalize "ground zero," English isn't always rational. Today, both the Associated Press and the New York Times  recommend keeping "ground zero" lowercase. Lowercase appears to be the widespread norm.]


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.

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