Unlike many languages, English doesn’t capitalise the initial letter of simple nouns; this includes the names of plants, birds, trees, animals as well as everyday items such as table chair, pen etc. Thus we have a rose, a daffodil, a pansy, sparrow, robin, oak, apple, elm, tiger, grass, cat, dog, and so on. If, however, we give the dog a proper name to call him to heel (get down, Shep) that proper name is a pronoun, and would be written with an initial capital letter. Likewise with plants. Be it fuschia, daisy or rose, it will be recognised by its variety, its flower, and thus given a proper name, as in Peace, Yellow Beauty, Gardener’s Delight.
Take my name. I am Kit with a capital K, the name I answer to, a pronoun, and in English, all pronouns are initial capitalised. Kit written with a lower case k (kit) would turn me into an piece of clothing or item of equipment, or a shortened kitten, and thus a noun, and I don’t like being a noun, I much prefer being a pro.
Food, drink, drugs and medicine are nouns too, as in bread, cheese, beer, shepherd’s pie, whisky, a bottle of merlot, champagne, aspirin, etc. All generic items, but, if you refer to a specific brand, the brand name is a pronoun and so should be written with an initial cap letter: Coors beer, a bottle of Lanson, I’ll have a double Courvoisier, please! After which, I might need a couple of Aspro for my headache.
If a food product’s name includes a place name, often the name of town it originated from, i.e. Stilton, that place name would be an initial cap too: Melton Mowbray pie, Rocquefort, Edam. Cheddar cheese is slightly different, as the “cheddar” part refers to the process used in making the cheese, known as cheddaring, and not the famous gorge in Somerset (although in some dim and distance past it was first produced there), as a consequence cheddar is lower case.
All this talk of food has made me hungry, so let’s move on.
People’s occupations are nouns and thus lowercase: doctor, nurse, lawyer, detective, secretary, writer, but would be capitalised if referring to a person by a title: Doctor Smith, Nurse Jones. The same is true for the services. We have the army and the navy, the police force, the fire brigade, but each would have an initial capital if writing the Royal Navy, the British Army. We write about the king and queen, and their son, the prince, but would use initial capitals if we are referring to a particular individual: the King of Spain, the Queen of Sheba, Prince Charming and Sleeping Beauty.
We might want to write that the archbishop gave a thought provoking sermon, or that the doctor wrote out a prescription, but we would write the Archbishop of Canterbury or Doctor Hyde if we want to specify and clarify which archbishop or doctor we meant; e.g. the actor John Thaw played a police detective in the TV programme Morse and had a sidekick called Sergeant Lewis.
Note that in English we do not capitalise the word “the” except in a few instances (start of a sentence aside); hence we write the Queen (particularly when referring to Queen Elizabeth II); the Rose and Crown, as in a pub name; the city of Liverpool, but we would put Liverpool City if talking about the football club because that is the actual name of the club. Out of interest, London is often written simply as “the City” (with a cap C). This is because, as we all know, London is the capital city of England and thus “the City” would always refer to London.
The names of houses, boats, trains, cars are all pronouns, and in most cases the word “the” would not take an initial cap T unless it forms part of the whole name, as in The Spirit of St Louis, The Forge (but the forge where horses are shod is by its nature a noun and so neither would have a cap letter). The same is true for the titles of books/poems/songs – if the word “the” actually forms part of the title, as in The Old Curiosity Shop, then the capitalised form should be used. Of course, in these instances if you keep to lower case “the” you will hardly find the grammar police or Morse knocking on your door, so please don’t get stressed or lose sleep over which to use. If in doubt, leave it out, or in this case, leave it lowercase.
The topic of capitalisation which forms most queries is that of family members: mother, father, mum, mummy dad, brother, sister, grandmother, uncle, and so forth. These are all simple nouns and would not carry an initial cap unless the word starts a sentence. However, these nouns turn into pronouns in the case of dialogue, but only in direct speech and thus would be written with an initial capital. Let’s use mother/mum as our example.
You always call your mother “Mum” when speaking directly to her (unless you’re a modernist and use her given name), but if you are talking about her to another person (whether in dialogue or narrative) other than to your siblings, mum is a noun. As a simple guide, if mum is preceded by the words my, his, her, your, or their, then always mum is lower case m. This is true for all other family members.
A child would be the only person to call his/her parents Mum and Dad, because that is what the child knows them as and calls them, just as a child would call his brother by his brother’s given name, e.g. David. Anyone outside of that family unit would not be entitled to call the parents Mum and Dad (pronouns). To everyone else, the parent takes the noun form of mum or dad. Likewise for aunt and uncle: Mary and Fred are the aunt and uncle of David, but David would call them Aunt Mary and Uncle Fred.
“Can I have some more please, Mum?” – direct – pronoun
“I was talking to Mum, and she said I could.” – direct – pronoun
“I was talking to my dad, and he said I could.” – indirect – noun
“My mum said Auntie Mary didn’t like it.” – indirect (my mum) – noun; direct (Auntie Mary) – pronoun
“I was going to ask your uncle first.” – indirect – noun
David said his aunt and uncle were going to have some more. – non dialogue -indirect – noun
I hope this has gone some way to clarify the often perceived complications of capitalisation. Don’t worry, I shan’t be testing you on this, but I will be happy to your answer questions.