Capitalization

Introduction

Capitalization adds some order and clarity to your writing. Even though people often drop capitals in texts and tweets, proper capitalization will make your writing look more professional.

First Word

Capitalize the first word of each sentence:

We watched the children playing on the beach.

The tennis ball doesn’t bounce much.

This including quotations that are full sentences:

She said, “Watch out! The oven is on.”

Proper Nouns

Capitalize all proper nouns. A proper noun, as you might recall, is a specific person, place, or thing:

Mary and Sam visited the cathedral in Albi.

In 1608, Samuel de Champlain founded the city of Quebec.

Note that some parts of foreign names are not capitalized (the de in Samuel de Champlain).

Proper Adjectives

Capitalize words derived from proper nouns:

Portuguese (from Portugal)

Freudian (from Freud)

Cubist (from Cubism)

There is one major exception: the word biblical (from Bible) is not capitalized.

Historical Periods

Adjectives derived from historical time periods often cause problems. Take the word Romantic. If you are talking about the Romantic period in literature (roughly 1789-1832), it makes sense to use a capital (though you will also see it without). If you are talking about Valentine’s Day, a capital is not necessary.

Even trickier are modern and modernist (related to Modernism), and by extension postmodern. These are often not capitalized, even when they refer specifically to something from the modernist period. The reason is that they are so often used in a more generic sense that they’ve become common adjectives.

A lot then depends on the conventions of the field you’re working in. For that reason, everyone should write medieval, whereas you will come across both Renaissance and renaissance as adjective forms. In fact, the latter is mandatory for more distant derivatives, such as when we speak of a renaissance man, someone who has a broad skillset.

So take the time to become familiar with your field, think about how generic the reference is, and, above all, be consistent.

God

Treat the God of monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as a proper noun:

I believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

On the other hand, if you’re talking about a specific deity from a pantheon of gods, use lowercase form:

When it rained, their god was said to be spitting.

Venus was the goddess of love.

You have more freedom when it comes to pronouns derived from God. It used to be more common to capitalize such pronouns out of respect:

God cares for all His creatures.

This is optional, however, even within some religious circles.

Titles

If a title precedes a name it is usually capitalized:

Doctor Hagen gave me a clean bill of health.

Turkish President Erdogan accused European leaders of fascism.

However, when titles are by themselves they are only capitalized if they are of very important people (e.g., a President or Pope):

The doctor gave me a clean bill of health.

The Turkish President accused European leaders of fascism.

It’s up to you to determine what constitutes high rank, but generally only political and religious leaders receive special treatment. In addition, even these special titles are not usually capitalized in the plural:

Recent popes have taken a more liberal attitude.

Relationship Words

Words that describe relationships should be capitalized only if they come right before the name or take the place of the name:

Aunt Hilda sang horribly out of tune.

We all hoped Mother would enjoy her birthday.

In all other cases relationship words do not need capitals:

Her father was late as usual.

Titles of Creative Works

If you add a title to an essay, poem, sculpture, or any sort of creative work, it’s customary to capitalize important words:

Hypotaxis and Parataxis in John Donne’s “No Man is an Island” Passage (essay title)

Blind Man Sitting at the Corner of the Round Table (sculpture)

For more information about how to determine which words deserve capitalization, see our page on titles in the section on MLA guidelines.

No Capitals

Finally, let’s review some instances when capitals are not necessary.

Seasons

The seasons of the year (winter, spring, summer, fall) are not capitalized.

Subjects of Study

While the title of a specific course is capitalized (e.g., Economics 101), general references to an area of study are not:

She was taking an accounting course.

The exception is language courses, since languages are always capitalized:

I love my French course.

Directions

The directions of the compass are not capitalized:

If you head south, you will come to the main highway.

However, if a direction is used as a place name you can capitalize it:

They are moving to the Pacific Northwest.

The East is a much weaker conference.

Some Brand Names

Whereas most brand names are capitalized (like Proper Nouns), some brands have become common words in the language:

Could you pass me a kleenex?

He drives the zamboni.

Conclusion

The English language has fairly precise rules for capitalization, but every so often you’ll have to make a tough choice. Hopefully this page will make that choice an informed one.

Exercises



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