When should you capitalize words?

Cover Page of
The Mayfield Handbook of Technical & Scientific Writing

Although there are many specialized rules for capitalizing
letters, the following four are the most common.

  1. Capitalize the first words of sentences, including sentences cited in quotations:
  2. The QA engineer has been quoted as saying, “The main source
    of connector failure found in the analysis is seal deformation
    caused by pressures in excess of 1000 psig.”

  3. Capitalize proper names, including any particular person, object, place, project, institution, river, vessel, genus, culture, ethnic group, or formal job title:
    • Project Athena Operation Empty Space
      National Aeronautics and Space Administration
      the aircraft carrier Kittyhawk Asian-American
      the White Nile Mars
      the University of California at Santa Cruz Air Force One
      Dean for Undergraduate Education Director of Operations
  4. Unless you are following a documentation style that specifies otherwise, capitalize titles of books, periodicals, published and unpublished reports, articles, and document sections:
    1. A Handbook of Chemical Processes
    2. Journal of the American Chemical Society
    3. A Report to the President on the Explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger
      [published report]
    4. “Report of the O-Ring Seal Design Team” [unpublished report]
    5. Benefits of Caloric Restriction [section of an article]
  5. Capitalize references to specific figures, tables, chapters, sections, equations:
    • Chapter Two
    • Equation 36
    • Figure 10-3
    • Appendix C

Rules for Capitalizing Multiple-Word Titles and Proper Names

Unless you are following a documentation style that specifies otherwise, observe the following
rules for capitalizing multiple word titles and proper nouns.

  • Capitalize all nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and subordinating conjunctions.
  • Capitalize any word, regardless of the part of speech, if it is the first or last word of the title or subtitle or a proper name or if it follows a punctuation mark indicating a break in the title.
  • Do not capitalize articles, coordinating conjunctions, prepositions, and the word to in infinitives unless they appear as the first or last word of a title or subtitle.
    1. The Making of the Atomic Bomb
    2. “Learning to Write Compact C++ Code”

General Guidelines for Capitalizing Scientific Terms

Each discipline has its own specific conventions for determining which terms should be
capitalized. In general, scientific writing tends to minimize capitalized nouns. The following list
summarizes some widely observed practices.

  • Capitalize and put in italics the phylum, class, order, family, and genus of plants and animals. Do not capitalize the species.
    • Homo sapiens
    • Esox lucius
  • Capitalize the names of geological eras, periods, epochs, and series but do not capitalize the word indicating the amount of time:
    1. Jurassic period
    2. Cenozoic era
  • Capitalize astronomical terms such as the names of galaxies, constellations, stars, planets and their satellites, and asteroids. However, the terms earth, sun, and moon are often not capitalized unless they appear in a sentence that refers to other astronomical bodies.
    • The sun is an ordinary star.
    • Venus and Earth differ significantly
      in the composition of their atmospheres.
  • Do not capitalize medical terms except for any part of a term consisting of a proper noun:
    1. infectious mononucleosis
    2. brachial plexus
    3. Parkinson's disease
  • Do not capitalize physical laws, theorems, principles, or constants except for attached proper names:
    • special theory of relativity
    • Boyle's law
    • the third law of thermodynamics
    • Avogadro's number

When Should You Capitalize Words? ## Capitalization ##

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What Words Should You Capitalize in Your Online Course?

What words do you need to capitalize in an online course? You don’t need to be a grammar nerd to know what to capitalize – but you should have a list of capitalization rules to reference so you know what words to capitalize consistently for a more professional-looking online course.

  • When Should You Capitalize Words?
  • Bad grammar in an online course is distracting and disrespectful.
  • At least that’s what one online student told us last week when we asked about his expectations in an online course.
  • But you don’t have to know every grammar rule to be a good course author – you just have to know the basics (and you need an eye for consistency).
  • This week, we’re talking about capitalization in an online course (the easiest way to make your copy look professional when you do it right).

What words should you capitalize in your online course? Even if you’re not sure if a word needs to be capitalized, if you capitalize it consistently, that’s half the battle.

Some people find it easier to follow a style guide when determining what words to capitalize, but there are some general capitalization rules you can follow to keep things looking polished in your course.

Use the list below to help you remember what words to capitalize correctly and consistently in your online course.

#1 The First Letter of Every Module or Lesson Title

Making title capitalization & case conversion easy. Automatically capitalize your titles & email subjects. Use Title Case, AP, APA, Chicago, MLA style, UPPERCASE to lowercase, & more

Title Capitalization Rules by Style

Chicago Style is one of the most used and respected headline capitalization methods used in journalism. The rules are fairly standard for title case:

  1. Capitalize the first and the last word.
  2. Capitalize nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and subordinate conjunctions.
  3. Lowercase articles (a, an, the), coordinating conjunctions, and prepositions.
  4. Lowercase the ‘to’ in an infinitive (I want to play guitar).
See also:  What makes storms like hurricane harvey so strong?

See Chicago Manual of Style Guide

Making sure you have the right capitalization for APA headings is crucial for scholarly articles. The following rules apply to APA headline capitalization and title capitalization:

  1. Capitalize the first word of the title/heading and of any subtitle/subheading
  2. Capitalize all major words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and pronouns) in the title/heading, including the second part of hyphenated major words (e.g., Self-Report not Self-report)
  3. Capitalize all words of four letters or more.

Making sure you have the right capitalization for MLA headings is crucial for scholarly articles. The following rules apply to MLA headings:

  1. Capitalize the first word of the title/heading and of any subtitle/subheading
  2. Capitalize all major words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and pronouns) in the title/heading, including the second part of hyphenated major words (e.g., Self-Report not Self-report)
  3. Capitalize all words of four letters or more.

AP style capitalization is mainly used by writers for the Associated Press but is also used widely throughout journalism. The capitalization rules are as follows:

  1. Capitalize words with three or more letters.
  2. Capitalize the first and the last word.
  3. Capitalize nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and subordinate conjunctions.
  4. Lowercase articles (a, an, the), coordinating conjunctions, and prepositions.
  5. Lowercase the ‘to’ in an infinitive (I want to play guitar).

NY Times style capitalization is mainly used by writers for the NY Times but is also used widely throughout journalism. The capitalization rules are as follows:

  1. Capitalize major words, e.g. nouns, pronouns, verbs.
  2. Capitalize the first and the last word.
  3. Capitalize nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and subordinate conjunctions.
  4. Lowercase articles (a, an, the), coordinating conjunctions, and prepositions.

Wikipedia editors must follow certain capitalization rules for any posts to Wikipedia. The capitalization rules are as follows:

  1. Capitalize major words, e.g. nouns, pronouns, verbs.
  2. Capitalize the first and the last word.
  3. Capitalize nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and subordinate conjunctions.
  4. Lowercase indefinite and definite articles (a, an, the), coordinating conjunctions, and prepositions.
  5. Prepositions that contain five letters or more.
  6. The word “to” in infinitives.

See Wikipedia Style Guide

Popular Capitalization FAQs

When Should You Capitalize Words?

In today's episode, we’ll talk about capitalization—its overuse and its misuse in the business world.

Let’s talk about why capitalization of some words is a capital idea, and why uppercasing other words could be considered a capital offense.

Meaning Is Key

One reason capitalization matters is that a word’s meaning can change depending on whether it's uppercase or lowercase.

“See those three domiciles over there? Well, I live in the white house.” That’s quite different from, “I live in the White House [capital W, capital H.” That White House is where the president lives.

In English, we capitalize words that are proper nouns—that is, they describe a specific thing or entity. They could be a title, a name, or a specific place such as the president's residence: [THE White House].

We lowercase words that are considered common nouns—that is, they can be used to describe many things, such as any one of the multitude of white-colored houses in the world.

(As an aside, I'll note that in German all nouns and certain pronouns get uppercased; now there's a gratuitous “Das Kapital” reference just waiting to be made. And so I made one.)

Pages

Here’s When To Capitalize Words

There are a few specific cases where words should be capitalized. They’re easy to remember. In English, capital letters are most commonly used at the start of a sentence, for the pronoun I, and for proper nouns.

The First Word of a Sentence

You should always capitalize the first letter of the first word in a sentence, no matter what the word is. Take, for example, the following sentences: “The weather was beautiful. It was sunny all day.” Even though the and it aren’t proper nouns, they’re capitalized here because they’re the first words in their sentences.

The Pronoun I

Pronouns are words that replace nouns. I, you, and me are all examples of pronouns. While you and me are usually lowercase, the pronoun I should always be capitalized, regardless of where it appears in a sentence.

For example, in A Beautiful Mind, Sylvia Nasar writes, “What I got back was an envelope on which my address was written in different-colored crayons.” Here, the pronoun I is correctly capitalized even though it isn’t at the beginning of the sentence.

Proper Nouns

A proper noun is the special noun or name used for a specific person, place, company, or other thing. Proper nouns should always be capitalized.

People’s names are proper nouns, and therefore should be capitalized. The first letter of someone’s first, middle, and last name is always capitalized, as in John William Smith.

Other proper nouns include countries, cities, and sometimes regions, such as Bulgaria, Paris, and the American South. Geographic features that have names should also be capitalized, as in Mt. Kilimanjaro and the Pacific Ocean.

Landmarks and monuments also start their proper names with capital letters, such as the Empire State Building and the Golden Gate Bridge. Street names are always capitalized, too (e.g. Main Street).

The names of companies and organizations should also be capitalized, such as Nike and Stanford University. There are some exceptions: Sometimes a company may choose not to use a capital letter at the beginning of its name or product as a stylistic choice. Examples include eBay and the iPhone.

See also:  Why do we ‘drive home’ but ‘drive to work’?

Titles

Capitalization in English

For capitalization guidelines on Wikipedia, see Wikipedia:Manual of Style (capital letters).
Use of a capital letter at the head of a word
The capital letter “A” in the Latin alphabet followed by its lower case equivalent.

Capitalization or capitalisation in English grammar is the use of a capital letter at the head of a word. English usage varies from capitalization in other languages.

History of English capitalization

Capitalization in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (Ellesmere Manuscript, about 1400)

Old English did not have a distinction between uppercase and lowercase, and at best had embossed or decorated letters indicating sections. Middle English capitalization in manuscripts remained haphazard, and was often done for visual aesthetics more than grammar; in poetry, the first letter of each line of verse is often capitalized. With the development of the printing press in Europe and England capitalization of initial letters and proper nouns became more regularized,[1] perhaps partly to distinguish new sentences in a time where punctuation remained sparse and irregularly used. The plays of Shakespeare show capitalization both of new lines and sentences, proper nouns, and some significant common nouns and verbs.[2]

Capitalization in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (Bodleian First Folio)

With the influence of continental printing practices after the English Restoration in 1688 printing began to favor more and more capitalization of nouns following German typography. The first lines of the U.S.

Constitution of 1787 show major capitalization of most nouns: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”[3] But by the end of the 18th century with the growth of prescriptive dictionaries and style manuals for English usage, the practice faded in Britain so that by the beginning of the 19th century common nouns were only occasionally capitalized, such as in advertisements. Yet the style lasted as late as the Civil War era in the United States, as some of Emily Dickinson's poems still capitalize many common nouns.[4]

When to capitalize

Capital letters are used:

  1. at the beginning of a sentence. This in printing is known as sentence case, where the first letter of the sentence is capitalized, and all others are lower case with the exception of proper nouns. In printing normal sentence case may be substituted by UPPER CASE or “all caps” (all letters are capitalized), and Title Case (where the first letter of each word is capitalized). Capitals are sometimes used and sometimes not used after a colon,[5] although they are used in some citation systems such as APA style when beginning an independent clause.
  2. with some nouns and adjectives, usually if a noun indicates a proper noun.[6][7]
    • pronoun “I”. One theory for this unusual usage is that in early printing lowercase i was confused with words using i as a past participle marker or first letter.
    • personal and place names: “John”, “Mr. Smith”, “Amsterdam”, “Europe”, “Mount Everest”, “the Ganges”.
    • compass directions when referring to geographical regions: “Western Canada”, “I was raised in the South”, but not for points on a compass: “London is west of Berlin”.[8]
    • national and regional adjectives: “an American” (noun), “an American man” (adjective).
    • religions: “an Anglican curate”, “a Catholic church” (adjective), but not “a catholic gesture” in the sense of “universal.”
    • the Supreme Being, deities and personifications: “God”, “Providence”, “Fame”.[9][10][11]
    • reverential pronouns: “His, Him” when referring to God or Christ[12][13]
    • days and months: “Monday”, “January”, but not seasons such as “autumn”.
    • brand names: “Toyota”, “Nike”, “Coca-Cola”, unless the brand itself is purposely not capitalized or unusually capitalized: “iPhone”, “eBay”.
    • royal titles: “King George III” but “kings and queens of England”,[14][15] but only sometimes 'sir' or 'madam'.[16]

Capitalization Rules in English | A Quick Guide & Examples

In English, a capital letter is used for the first word of a sentence and for all proper nouns (words that name a specific person, place, organization, or thing).

In some cases, capitalization is also required for the first word in a quotation and the first word after a colon.

Capitalization rules

People

Places

Times

Other

Names (and words derived from them); nationalities; titles when used as part of a name

  • the works of Aristotle
  • a Freudian psychoanalyst
  • the Brazilian actor
  • the campaign of Senator Sanders
Occupations; titles when not used as part of a name

  • the magazine’s managing editor
  • an elderly professor
  • the left-wing senator
Names of specific continents, countries, states, cities, regions, monuments and landmarks

  • South America
  • the West Coast of the US
  • the Eiffel Tower
  • the River Thames
Directions and general areas

  • head north
  • the west of the city
  • the longest river in the world
Days of the week and months of the year; historical eras and named events; holidays

  • a Monday in July
  • the Middle Ages
  • the Napoleonic Wars
  • Christmas Day
Centuries, decades, seasons

  • an eighteenth-century painting
  • the fashion of the fifties
  • a summer vacation
  • Organizations, companies and brand names
  • Religions and deities
  • Planets
  • Languages
  • Animal and plant species
  • Elements
  • Minerals
  • Theories and models
  • Medical conditions

Recognizing proper nouns

A proper noun is the specific name of a person, place, organization, or thing. All proper nouns (as well as adjectives derived from them) should be capitalized.

Michelle Obama, the former first lady, was raised in Chicago and is a graduate of Harvard Law School.

A common noun, on the other hand, refers to a general, non-specific category or entity. Common nouns are not normally capitalized (unless they are the first word of a sentence or part of a title).

Monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy are forms of government classified according to which people have the authority to rule.

Capitalizing Words: Proper vs Common

The rules governing the capitalization of words in sentences (as opposed to capitalizing words in titles or headings or capitalizing people’s titles or positions) seem simple at first glance: we capitalize proper nouns, and we lowercase common nouns. But because distinguishing between proper and common usage is often difficult, many writers tend to capitalize words and phrases that should, in fact, be lower-cased.

Can you distinguish between common and proper nouns and adjectives in the following sentences? Are the right words capitalized? (Answers and explanations are scattered throughout the discussion that follows.)

  1. Many residents of New York City are relieved that property values along the East River have been increasing over the past decade.
  2. Because a strong wind was blowing through the Cedar trees in the backyard, our Dachshund, named Cutie Pie, refused to go outside this morning.
  3. Business-oriented Web sites often feature an FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) page.
  4. The town’s chamber of commerce purchased holiday lighting and appointed a planning committee to decide which streets were to be decorated.
  5. A local newspaper reported that a University in northern South Carolina has announced a hiring freeze, but we do not know for certain if the article was referring to Balzac University or the University of the Cultural Arts.

The Bottom Line

  • A proper noun or adjective is a proper name—it designates a particular person, place, or thing. In sentence 1 above, we capitalize New York City and East River because they are proper nouns. Both are geographical place names.
  • A common noun or adjective, in contrast, is a generic label—it designates a general type of person, place, or thing. In the following two sentences, we capitalize neither east nor river because these words are being used in their generic senses (in the first, they are used as nouns; in the second, as adjectives):
    • “The barge was traveling toward the east, away from the mouth of the river.”
    • “The east wind was wafting across the river basin.”

In sentence 2 of the opening exercise, neither cedar nor dachshund should be capitalized.

Even though nouns such as dachshundsoft-coated wheaten terrierdaffodilmarigoldjack-in-the-pulpittiger beetlealfalfa blotch leaf minerrobinscarlet tanagermagnolia, and cedar are the names of very specific kinds of dogs, flowers, insects, and so forth, they are common nouns.

There are occasions, of course, when proper nouns become part of a generic reference, as in these examples:  “the Irish setter,” “the black-eyed Susan,” or “an Atlantic white cedar.”

Using Reference Works

In general, a writer’s best resource on the issue of capitalization is the dictionary. Both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and The American Heritage Dictionary, for example, used to claim that we capitalize the word Web when (as in sentence 3 of the opening exercise) it is used as shorthand for the proper name World Wide Web.

  • Now, as both of these references predicted years ago, web and website have become common nouns and should thus be lower-cased.
  • In some instances, however, reference works do not agree with regard to proper names and capitalization, particularly with adjectives.
  • For example, one dictionary might prefer “Roman numerals,” “Arabic numerals,” and “French dressing” but advocate also for “french fry,” “brussels sprouts,” and “venetian blinds.”

Another dictionary or style guide may differ in these choices altogether, reminding us why it is important for businesses, agencies, and even individuals to choose a reputable reference work, consult it regularly, and use it consistently. (Professional organizations and businesses often have their own customized in-house style guides.)

Organizations, Groups, and Other Entities

To refer to “the town’s chamber of commerce,” as we do in sentence 4 of the opening exercise, is to use a generic label. On the other hand, to refer to “the Buckville Chamber of Commerce” is to call the organization by its individual name, its proper name.

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