Episode 239: September 9, 2010
by Mignon Fogarty
Today's topic is capitalizing tricky nouns like Ground Zero, Internet, and Earth.
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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.”
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.]
Another word that's sort of like “ground zero,” in that sometimes it's a proper noun and sometimes it's a common noun, is “depression.” If you're talking about a general economic depression, then it's lowercase, but if you're talking about the Great Depression, then you are referring to a specific historical period, so it's capitalized (6).
Planets and heavenly bodies can be tricky. Take the word “earth,” for example. First, when you are using the word “earth” to refer just to dirt, it's lowercase, of course, but when you're talking about our planet, it becomes tricky because there isn't what I consider a strong rule. All the other planet names like Mars and Jupiter are always capitalized because they're names of specific places, but for some reason, most people treat “earth” differently and don't capitalize it.
Sometimes you'll see "earth" capitalized when it's listed with all the other planet names or when it's referred to in an astronomical way. For example, it will likely be capitalized in a sentence about space travel like, “We plan to leave Earth in January and arrive at Mars in October,” but it is likely to be lowercase in a sentence where it is used more generically, like, “I'm wishing for peace on earth and goodwill to men.”
So the word “earth” is an exception to the rule that something is always a proper noun and capitalized if it names one specific place. I hate exceptions, but it's good to know about them.
Since many planets have moons and suns, the words “sun” and “moon” are also almost always lowercase, but like “earth,” you may see them capitalized when they're used in an astronomical sense to repeatedly refer to a specific sun or moon.
History of English Capitalization
I took German in high school, and one of the first things I noticed is that all the nouns are capitalized. Whether they are common nouns or proper nouns, they all get capitalized in German. And I also noticed that some of the kids in my class got confused and started capitalizing all their nouns in English too.
So that's something to guard against if you're studying German. Remember that in English, proper nouns are the only nouns that get capitalized.
Actually, there was a period roughly between 1600 and 1800 when it was trendy to capitalize all nouns in English (7), so if you're reading something written during that time, like the U.S. Constitution, you can also get confused.
And here's a bonus tip from my e-mail newsletter. What about nicknames? Should Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino capitalize his nickname? He should, and he does. In fact, he made sure to note that his nickname should be capitalized when he spelled it while ordering a pizza.
All nicknames are capitalized because they are treated just like names, which makes them proper nouns.
If you'd like to get an extra tip like that every week, sign up for my free e-mail newsletter.
Should “Tweet” Be Capitalized?
1. Garner's Modern English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2003, p. 392.
2. Saffire, W. The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time. Simon and Schuster: New York. 2004.
3. Walsh.B. The Elephants of Style. McGraw-Hill: New York. 2004, p. 40.
4. “Style Update.” Copy Talk. The Canadian Press. April 2003, NO. 177.
5. “Ground Zero,” Yahoo Style Guide. http://styleguide.yahoo.com/word-list/g/ground-zero-ground-zero (accessed September 6, 2010).
6. CliffsNotes.com. Proper Nouns. http://j.mp/bvDKkE (accessed September 9, 2010).
7. Dollinger, S. “What the Capitalization of early Nouns in Canadian English may tell us about 'colonial lag' theory: methods and problems.” Views, 12(1), 2003, p. 24-44. http://j.mp/aXwyWW
A discussion about the history of capitalization