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When to Use Capitals
For most of us, capitalization seems to be one of the more intuitive areas of grammar. You likely covered all the basics in elementary school, like always capitalizing proper nouns and the first word of a sentence.
However, if you're looking to master academic or professional writing, there's plenty more to learn about the mechanics of capitalization. To ensure that you're always following capitalization rules to a T, you'll want to consult the appropriate style guides.
Key Capitalization Rules
Though there are numerous rules associated with capitalization, here are some of the most common ones our editors encounter in academic and ESL writing.
- Capitalization Rules for Quotations
- How to Capitalize Partial Quotes
- How to Capitalize Proper Nouns
- How to Capitalize Job Titles
- How to Capitalize Directions
- How to Capitalize Book Titles, Movies, and Publications
- How to Capitalize Salutations and Closings
- How to Capitalize Words Derived from Proper Nouns
- Capitalization Rules for Colons
- How to Capitalize Events, Days, and Months
- How to Capitalize Seasons
- How to Capitalize the Beginning of a Sentence
- How to Capitalize Nationalities and Languages
Always capitalize the first word in quotations, provided the quoted material is a complete sentence.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "The only way to have a friend is to be one."
Partial quotations are incomplete quotes in which part of the saying was removed. The first word of a partial quote is never capitalized unless it appears at the start of a sentence.
To properly denote a fragment of a larger quote, use an ellipsis wherever you omitted the original material. For example:
"...as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex."—Henry David Thoreau
"I got a lot of support from my parents... They didn't tell me I was being stupid; they told me I was being funny."—Jim Carrey
Use capitals for proper nouns. In other words, capitalize the names of people, specific places, and things.
We don't capitalize the word "bridge" unless it starts a sentence, but we must capitalize Brooklyn Bridge because it is the name of a specific bridge.
The word "country" would not normally be capitalized, but we would have to write China with a capital "C" because it is the name of a specific country.
The word "state," while not normally capitalized, would be written with a capital if it was in the name of an organization, such as The State Board of Education.
You should capitalize job titles when they are on the signature line of a letter, when the title comes immediately before a name, or when the title replaces the use of a name (i.e., a title used as a direct address).
Here are some examples:
Vicky Marquez, President
President Vicky Marquez
Hello, Senator. It's nice to see you again.
Do not capitalize titles when they are not used as a direct address to a person. For example:
The senator will be in town today to inspect the building of the railway.
Capitalize directions only when they refer to specific regions.
My favorite place in the world is Northern Ontario.
Do not capitalize "north," "south," "east," or "west" when giving directions:
Drive six blocks north, and then turn right.
All large words in the titles of movies, books, and other publications should be capitalized, while all small words (a, an, the, but, and, if, as, or, and nor, to name a few) should not be capitalized unless they are the first or last word in the title:
A Life Less Ordinary (The word "A" would not normally be capitalized, but because it is the first word in the title, we must capitalize it.)
War of the Worlds (The words "of" and "the" are not capitalized because they are small and are not at the beginning or end of the title, though exceptions to the "small words" rule do exist.)
The first word of a salutation should be capitalized, as well as the first word of a closing. For example:
Be sure to capitalize words derived from proper nouns. For example:
I like English, but math is my favorite subject. ("English" is capitalized because it is derived from the proper noun England, while "math" is not capitalized because it is not derived from a proper noun.)
Specific course titles should, however, be capitalized. For example:
I don't know what I'm going to do. I have to take Math 101 next year and it looks hard!
Capitalize when two or more sentences follow a colon.
We have set this restriction: Do your chores before watching television. That includes washing the dishes.
Do not capitalize after a colon if you are writing a list, or if there is only one sentence following the colon:
There are many metals hidden away within the earth's crust: gold, zinc, and lead are just a few examples.
There is a way to remember test information: study a lot the night before your big midterm!
The days and months of the year are considered proper nouns. They should be capitalized in all cases. For example:
I have a dentist appointment on Wednesday, March 18.
Historical events follow the same rule, according to MLA, APA and the Chicago Manual of Style. Specific occurrences like the Boston Tea Party and World War II must always be capitalized. However, if you're referring to a generic event that doesn't go by an official name, stick to lowercase. For example:
Did you get the invitation to the baby shower?
Generally speaking, the four seasons should always remain lowercase. For example:
She went to the mall to buy a new winter coat.
I can't wait to hit the beach this summer.
As stated by all the prominent style guides, seasons should only be capitalized when used at the beginning of a sentence or in reference to a specific event. For example:
Fall is only two weeks away.
My friends and I had a blast during Spring Break 2018.
The beginning of a sentence in English should always be capitalized, according to MLA, APA, and the Chicago Manual of Style. This is true regardless of whether the sentence starts with a proper or improper noun. Here are some examples:
Bobby surprised his girlfriend with a bouquet of flowers.
It's supposed to rain tomorrow night.
Raucous fans gathered at the football stadium.
APA, MLA, and the Chicago Manual of Style agree that all nationalities and languages should be capitalized at all times. Languages and nationalities are classified as proper nouns in English, which means they should never be left lowercase under any circumstances. Examples include:
She comes from an Italian family.
I studied Japanese in college.
At first glance, all the rules of capitalization might look like a foreign language that you need to learn. It's not quite as tricky as it seems, though.
Once you get the hang of these key guidelines, you'll be incorporating them effortlessly into your own writing. And, of course, you can always refer back to this page whenever you feel that you need a quick refresher.
If you're still unclear on the do's and don'ts of capitalization rules, getting a professional proofread can give you the confidence boost you need.
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