Rules for Capitalization
The rules for when to capitalize are numerous. Below you’ll find the basics. If you come across a situation I haven’t covered, please be so kind as to tell me in the comments; I’ll be happy to include more rules if they will be helpful.
Note: Be aware that when we say capitalize, we mean “capitalize the first letter of.” It’s therefore redundant to say, “Capitalize the first letter of the word.” To indicate that all the letters of a word are made capital, we would say it is written “in all capitals” or “in all caps” for short.
The First Word of a Sentence
Always capitalize the first word of a sentence:
Nobody likes smog.
Capitalize the first word of a quotation if it begins a complete sentence. If, however, the quoted words are only part of a sentence, you should not capitalize:
Capitalize: Mary Walters said, “This generation lives in a cocoon of intolerance.”
Don’t Capitalize: Mary Walters said that this generation lives in a “cocoon of intolerance.”
Don’t capitalize the continuation of a quoted sentence that has been interrupted:
“I told you,” Martha insisted, “that I would sweep the kitchen.”
I and O
Always capitalize the pronoun I and the interjection O:
I said I would write soon and I did.
O, my beloved hamster, you are so furry.
It’s not necessary to capitalize the interjection oh, unless it starts a sentence or stands alone as a sentence.
Capitalize: Oh, now I understand!
Capitalize: Oh! The party is on the roof!
Don’t Capitalize: But, oh, her memory lingers.
Nouns that name particular people, places, and things are called proper nouns and should be capitalized. Common nouns, naming general people, places, and things, should not be capitalized.
Common (Don’t Capitalize)
|friend, doctor, singer, athlete||Bubba, Dr. Winchester, Lady Gaga, Tiger Woods|
|city, state, lake, street, mountain, country, hotel, stadium, museum||Saskatchewan, Texas, Lake Pitney, Walnut Avenue, Mount McKinley, India, The Ritz-Carleton, Veteran’s Stadium, The Louvre|
|building, school, ketchup||Empire State Building, Clover Hill High School, Heinz Ketchup|
Capitalize adjectives formed from proper nouns, but don’t capitalize the articles that introduce them (a, an, the):
- the Mexican restaurant
- a Latin accent
- an Earth-friendly factory
Sometimes words become so common that they are no longer associated with the proper noun. These words are not capitalized. That’s why we don’t capitalize french fries.
Titles of books, articles, magazines, poems, songs, movies, and other published works are capitalized according to simple rules:
1) Capitalize the first letter of the first and last word, including subtitles.
2) Capitalize all words other than articles, short prepositions*, and conjunctions.
- “The Lottery”
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream
- The Mayor of Casterbridge
- “Rock Around the Clock”
- Albert Einstein: In Search of Relativity
*Authorities differ on prepositions in titles. Some capitalize prepositions of five or more letters. The AP capitalizes if they have four or more. The MLA doesn’t capitalize any mid-title prepositions regardless of length. We’ll leave this decision up to you.
Don’t Capitalize for Emphasis
In formal writing, avoid using all capitals to emphasize a word or phrase in your writing.
Wrong: Then I noticed he had pulled the WRONG TOOTH!
Right: Then I noticed he had pulled the wrong tooth!
Don’t Capitalize Randomly
Don’t capitalize random or arbitrary letters or words. Some students, when handwriting, like to make certain letters capital all the time. In formal writing, always follow capitalization rules.
I saw my cousiN yesterDay at the Bakery.
Capitalize the days of the week and months of the year
Do not capitalize the names of the seasons.
Do not capitalize geographical directions unless referring to a known region.
- the South
- the Midwest
Capitalize titles when used before a name or for titles of great importance.
Not Capitalized: the secretary, professor, general, president, chairman , delegate
Capitalized: Secretary Smith, Professor Carr, General Lee, President of the United States, the Pope
Capitalize terms denoting family relationship when used before a name or in place of a name:
Not Capitalized: Peter is my favorite uncle. My dad can beat up your dad.
Capitalized: I can’t wait to see Uncle Peter. I’m telling Dad about this.
Do not capitalize terms denoting academic years.
Do not capitalize names of academic subjects except for languages and when giving the title of a specific course.
- Economics 101
Races, Religions, and Groups
Capitalize names of specific racial, religious and other groupings of people:
- African American
Capitalize the words Bible, Scripture, and the titles of other sacred works, but not the adjectives biblical or scriptural.
- I am trying to read through the Bible this year.
- I wonder what the Koran has to say about it.
- He made several biblical references.
Pronouns Referring to God
Although customary in some religious settings, it is not standard usage to capitalize pronouns referring to God:
When I pray to God, I feel like he is listening.
The Lord is seated on his throne.
Texting and Social Media
It is common in informal contexts like text messaging and social media posting to skip capitals altogether. This is often fine – as long as you remember your audience and the context of your communication. Some adults, educators, or business people may prefer that even informal communications follow capitalization conventions.
Keep in mind that public forums like social media sites can be viewed by anyone. It is increasingly common, for example, for college admissions officers and employers to view the social media pages of applicants. When you post online, remember that your audience may be broader than you intend. Be careful how you present yourself.
If anything needs clarification, or if you have a question about capitalization not answered above, please leave a comment below!