In the time of Charlemagne, some monk thought it would be a good idea to invent lower case letters. As a result, we no longer have to look at solid walls of capital letters when we read. Alas, we have had to wonder how and when to use capital letters ever since. Here are some basic capitalization rules.
Always capitalize the first word of a sentence
This rule seems fairly straightforward, but nothing really is. A recent Associated Press article noted the death of the author bell hooks. She chose not to capitalize her name. The first sentence began with her name, and so, of course, with a lower-case letter.
Some corporations, eBay, for example, choose to capitalize the second letter of their name. So you’ll often see that form at the beginning of a sentence. Some style guides, however, insist on beginning sentences with “EBay”or “Ebay.”
Capitalize proper nouns
A noun is the name of something, usually a class of entities such as object, idea, person, country, mountain, etc. A proper noun is the name of a specific person, place, or entity. German capitalizes all nouns. English capitalizes only proper nouns.
A person’s name
This rule to capitalize a person’s name ought to be straightforward, except, of course, that bell hooks, e. e. cummings, and perhaps others have not capitalized theirs.
In some Christian circles, people prefer not to capitalize Satan’s name. After all, they don’t want to honor him. Many Christians also capitalize all pronouns that refer to Jesus as a form of honoring him.
But starting a name with a capital letter has nothing to do with honoring anyone. It is a long-accepted convention of writing. Uncapitalized names or capitalized pronouns in the middle of a sentence simply make the sentence harder to read. And following long-accepted conventions is simply a matter of writers exercising good manners to their readers.
Some writers, by the way, capitalize all kinds of words in the middle of a sentence for emphasis or something. It looks like an explosion in a print shop.
We know some people by nicknames—Babe Ruth, for example. Some entertainers use stage names—Eminem, for example. Capitalize them the same way you’d capitalize their given names.
The pronoun I
So why do capitalization rules tell us to capitalize the first-person singular pronoun “I”? After all, the French don’t capitalize je; the Germans don’t capitalize ich, and so on.
English is the only language that uses a single letter for that pronoun. And “i” is the smallest letter in the alphabet. Used alone in lowercase, it looks out of place. It’s easy to read right past it, then have to go back to figure out what the whole sentence means.
The earliest English printers used a capital I mostly for looks. It makes it easier for readers to notice it’s even there.
“I” forms several contractions. Capitalize them, too: I’m, I’ve, etc.
Again, capitalizing the first-person singular pronoun doesn’t mean English-speaking people are more egotistical than other people. It has nothing to do with thinking one pronoun is more important than others. It’s a matter of printers and writers exercising good manners to their readers.
A person’s title
When used as a title, otherwise uncapitalized words are capitalized—and often abbreviated. Your doctor might be Dr. Clancy. Also capitalize Mr. and Mrs. Jones, Miss Smith, or perhaps Ms Smith. Sometimes, in the case of Ms, people will put a period after it, but it doesn’t abbreviate anything. A woman I worked for gave me a long lecture on why she didn’t want to see that period.
Joe Biden used to be a senator from Delaware and was known as Senator (or Sen.) Biden. Now, he’s President Biden. There is a convention to capitalize President when referring to the President of the United States, but not to the president of a corporation.
Don’t capitalize mom, dad, or other such words unless they’re used as a form of address. I can say that my dad taught at a university. Take away “my” from that sentence, and I’d have to write that Dad taught at a university.
In general, don’t capitalize family words such as father or mother. But if a man named Jim happens to be a Catholic or Episcopal priest, he’s Father Jim. The same goes for Mother Theresa, Brother Lawrence, or Sister Maria.
Political divisions, ethnic groups, languages, and adjectives derived from them
Capitalize the name of a country, state, province, city, town, etc. I needn’t list examples. There are no exceptions.
The name of a language often comes from the name of a country where it is spoken. Not always. German is derived from Germany. But Saudi Arabia is too new a country to be the source of the word “Arabic”. Some languages do not follow the name of a country: Latin, Urdu, Swahili, etc. Capitalize them all.
And adjectives derived from a country name don’t necessarily refer to languages. There used to be a country called Yugoslavia. There was never a language called Yugoslavian. That word (capitalized, of course) refers to its people, culture, political institutions, history, etc.
And here in the United States, we refer to some people as Iowans, Chicagoans, New Yorkers, etc.
Ethnic names such as Hispanic and Asian are also capitalized. What about black and white? I have said earlier that conventions of capitalization are matters of good manners to readers. In the case of black and white, it’s obvious from the context whether they refer to a color or ethnicity. It is not my practice to capitalize them.
Some style guides require capitalization of both black and white. Some insist on capitalizing black but not white. I find that extremely rude, to readers, writers, and most of the public.
Religions, sacred writings, and names of deities
Great world religions include Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. Some have various divisions,.Capitalize Methodist, Protestant, Catholic, Sunni, Zen, etc.
A person who practices Judaism is a Jew. A person who practices Islam is a Muslim. Capitalize such words.
Christianity, Judaism, and Islam recognize only one God. In the first two, his name is God. In Islam, it’s Allah. The word god is not capitalized unless it refers to the Christian or Jewish God. But capitalize the names of gods or goddesses in polytheistic religions: Shiva, Athena, Venus. Baal, etc.
Institutions, corporations, and organizations
Yale University, the Olympic Games, General Motors, and Black Lives Matter are all proper names. In the case of Black Lives Matter, capitalize it when referring to the organization of that name, but not the slogan black lives matter.
I have already mentioned eBay and other exceptions to the general capitalization rules. The correct form of any corporate or organization name is whatever form it uses.
Government, as always, throws some exceptions at us. Capitalize Congress but not congressional, the Constitution of the United States but not constitutional. Capitalize words such as federal or state only if they are part of a name: Capitalize Federal Bureau of Investigation, but not federal laws.
Natural and manmade structures
We assign names to mountains, rivers, lakes, etc. Note that as common nouns, these words are not capitalized. But capitalize Pike’s Peak, the Ohio River, or Lake Tahoe. I came across the world’s shortest river in Oregon. It’s only a quarter of a mile long, but it’s called the River D. Capitalized.
In general, capitalize the names of planets and their moons, stars, comets, etc. And so Mars has the moons Deimos and Phobos. Betelgeuse is one of the stars in the constellation Orion.
But don’t capitalize sun or moon when they refer to our own sun or moon. Also, capitalize “earth” only when it’s used as the planet’s name. The third planet from the sun is Earth. The surface of the earth is mostly water.
Times and seasons
Capitalize days of the week and months of the year, but don’t capitalize spring, summer, fall, autumn, or winter. Inconsistent? English is inconsistent. Why should capitalizing rules be an exception?
But on the church calendar, seasons such as Advent and Lent are capitalized.
We live in the twenty-first century. Don’t capitalize centuries. But do capitalize important events and eras, such as the Middle Ages, the Second War, the Gay Nineties, the Great Depression, etc.
Titles, headings, etc.
Titles of books, periodicals, or articles usually appear with each significant word capitalized. That is, don’t capitalize articles, conjunctions, or prepositions unless they’re the first word.
- The Chicago Manual of Style, not The Chicago Manual Of Style
- Mutiny on the Bounty, not Mutiny On The Bounty
- ‘Twas the Night before Christmas, not ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas
I say usually.
The first time I saw a magazine article with only the first word of the title capitalized, it looked like a mistake. Now, printing titles that way has become common.
And then I became a cataloging librarian. According to cataloging rules, only the first word of a title is capitalized in a cataloging record, no matter what it looks like on a title page.
This post has several headings within it. I do not capitalize any but the first word except for proper nouns. Other publications use “title case” for headings.
Titles in “sentence case” work well in bibliographies and footnotes, but within the body of an article, only “title case” will clearly indicate that it’s a title.
Other capitalization rules
The colon is a troublesome punctuation mark. Sometimes it introduces a list. Don’t capitalize the word after the colon in that case. But sometimes it introduces a complete sentence or two. In that case, begin the new sentence with a capital letter.
Actually, style guides differ on that last point. The Chicago Manual of Style doesn’t require capitalization for one complete explanatory sentence after a colon. If there’s more than one, however, it requires capitalization of all of them.
If a direct quotation has an introduction such as “he said,” capitalize the first word of the quotation. But don’t capitalize a partial quotation within a sentence: She always complained about drivers who have the “manners of a bunch of baboons.”
I have said that adjectives derived from names of countries, etc. are capitalized. When it comes to personal names, the rule is not so clear cut. Some have turned into adjectives. Others have become nouns or verbs.
Refer to a Mae West (a kind of life jacket), a Freudian slip, or Murphy’s law. But some personal names have passed into general language and are no longer capitalized: leotard, boycott, lynch, herculean, quixotic, or draconian, for example.
For the most part, rules of capitalization are pretty straightforward. The English language presents a few traps for the unwary, however. And if you’re writing for publication, you will need to follow its preferred style manual.