Not Sure When to Use Capitalization?

Our editors explain when to use capital letters

A sign reading "Workmen leaving their Work before the Whistle Blows, will be fined 2/6 for the first offence, and if repeated will be Discharged." There are a number of unnecessary words capitalized.
Not following capitalization rules or over
using capital letters can make your
document look unprofessional.

When asked, most of us would likely say we've got a handle on capitalizing words in English. After all, when you were six and you named your dog Mr. Flufflepants, there was no question in your mind as to what parts of the name needed to be capitalized, right?

However, it's important to know that, with regard to professional or academic writing, capitalization in English entails quite a bit more than simply knowing to begin names and titles with capital letters.

Some capitalization rules

Though there are numerous rules associated with capitalization, our editors highlight a few of the most common ones they encounter in academic and ESL writing.

Capitalization rule #1

Capitalize the first word in quotations, provided the quoted material is a complete sentence.

For example:

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "The only way to have a friend is to be one."

Capitalization rule #2

Use capitals for proper nouns. In other words, capitalize the names of people, specific places, and things.

For example:

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.

OR

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.

OR

The word "state", while not normally capitalized, would be written with a capital if it is in the name of an organization, such as The State Board of Education.

Capitalization rule #3

Capitalize 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:

Sincerely,

Vicky Marquez, President

OR

Ms. Vicky Marquez

OR

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.

Capitalization rule #4

Capitalize directions only when they refer to specific regions.

For example:

My favorite place in the world is Northern Ontario.

Do not capitalize "north," "south," "east," and "west" when giving directions:

Drive six blocks north, and then turn right.

Capitalization rule #5

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, nor, to name a few) should not be capitalized unless they are the first or last words 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.)

OR

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.1)

Capitalization rule #6

The first word of a salutation should be capitalized, as well as the first word of a closing. For example:

Dear Billy,

OR

Regards,

John Smith

Capitalization rule #7

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!

Capitalization rule #8

Capitalize when two or more sentences follow a colon.

For example:

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.

OR

There is a way to remember test information: study a lot the night before your big midterm!

Don't let capitalization drive you crazy!

These are just a few of the common capitalization rules to get you started. Always remember that, when in doubt, you can submit your paper to our English editing services for expert advice. To learn more about capitalization, check out our superior grammar training program, GrammarCamp.


1Exceptions to the "small words" rule do exist! Short verb forms such as is, are, and be must always be capitalized within titles, regardless of their location.

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