Columns > Published on May 9th, 2013

Put a Cap on It: Learning the Rules of Capitalization

Are you an OverCapitalizer?

Do you capitalize every noun, every possible title, and every word that might be important? If so, you are an OverCapitalizer! You are not Alone in your Desire to make Every Word seem Important: I read at least 3-5 documents and emails each day that are riddled with haphazard capitalization.  People tend to write the way they think, and sometimes, when they think something is important or noteworthy, they capitalize it. In fact, I’d say, most people over-capitalize because they just aren’t sure. Let’s get the rules straight once and for all.

Capitalize the first word of a sentence.

This is pretty basic. In the English language, the first word of a sentence is capitalized. Accordingly, it is called sentence-style capitalization. The rules are as you would expect: capitalize the first word of a sentence.

Zombies love to eat brains.

Capitalize proper nouns (the names of people, places, and things).

Again, you probably know this one. Proper nouns, or names, are capitalized in the English language. Conversely, regular nouns are not capitalized. So Taylor is capitalized, but woman is not. Colorado is capitalized, but state is not. Congress is capitalized, but government is not.

Additionally, regular nouns that appear as part of a name of a person, place, or thing are also capitalized. So both words in the name Doctor Phil are capitalized, but just the word doctor is not capitalized. Grand Canyon is capitalized, but just canyon is not. US Supreme Court is capitalized, but just court is not.

Occasionally, some regular nouns may be capitalized when they refer to a specific person, place, or thing. For example, the word president is not capitalized and President Obama is. However, in some cases, typically a news story or press release, if the word is replacing the proper noun AND it's clear that it's only meant to refer to President Obama, it may be appropriate to capitalize the word President. For example:

After the press conference, the President took a phone call from the president of Russia.

However, when used in the generic sense either as nouns, adjectives, or verbs, proper nouns and words derived from proper nouns are not capitalized. For instance,

Brussels is a city, and brussels sprouts is a food named for that city, but not necessarily from there. Ditto for french fries, swiss cheese, manila envelopes, venetian blinds, roman numerals, scotch whiskey, pasteurize, italicize, bohemian, herculean, quixotic, etc.

(Be careful, the autocorrect on your word processor will likely try to capitalize some of these.)

Capitalize proper adjectives.

Adjectives formed from proper nouns such as Chicago and Darwin are also capitalized:

Your average Chicagoan is not used to such warm temperatures in February.

The Darwinian theory of evolution is always a hot issue.

Capitalize compass directions.

North, Northeast, Northwest, South, Southeast, Southwest, East, and West are capitalized when they refer to a specific location. For example:

The Northwest is known for wet climates and snow-peaked volcanoes.

My family is mostly from the East.

However, when they are just used as directions or as adjectives, they are not capitalized. For example:

My house is on the east side of the river.

I am unaccustomed to the southeastern humidity.

Capitalize days of the week, months, holidays, and historical events or time periods.

The words day, month, and holiday are not capitalized, but Monday, May, and Easter are. For example:

The fourth Thursday of every November is Thanksgiving.

The words history, event, movement, era, etc. are not capitalized, but the Renaissance, the Civil War, the Romantic Period, and the Dark Ages are capitalized. Note that the is NOT capitalized. It’s the Civil War, not The Civil War.

Capitalize race, ethnicity, nationality, languages, religion, and political and social affiliations.

The words whites and blacks take lowercase when used in the generic sense, but Caucasian and African American are capitalized. However, sometimes these terms can be contentious, so the words White and Black can be capitalized when used to refer to race in a specific way.

Republican and Democrat are capitalized, as are Catholic and Muslim. German and Japanese are capitalized, as are Hebrew and Arabic.

These words are also capitalized when they are used as adjectives; however, the nouns that they modify are usually not. For example: English manor  and Catholic monastery. When talking about the specific Republican Party, however, you will capitalize both because the word party is part of the proper noun that makes up their name. Generically, though, it would be Republican party.

Capitalize relationships ONLY when they precede or replace proper nouns.

The words aunt, uncle, grandma, grandpa, etc. are not capitalized unless they appear before the proper noun: Aunt Jane, Uncle Albert, Grandma Judy, Grandpa Joe.

You may capitalize these relationship words when they replace the proper noun. For instance:

Please don’t tell Grandpa we are out of jelly beans.

When Mom finds out you ate them all, she’s going to be mad.

However, if you use the words my, the, our, etc. preceding it, you wouldn’t capitalize it because you don’t use those words before a proper noun. So,

Please don’t tell my grandpa we are out of jelly beans.

When our mom finds out you ate them all, she’s going to be mad.

Capitalize professional titles only when they precede the proper noun, but don’t capitalize professions or corporate and organizational titles.

It may seem obvious to capitalize Doctor Smith, President Obama, and Senator Clinton, however, you would not capitalize the titles if they appear any way but preceding the proper noun. Thus it would be: Ted Smith, doctor of optometry; Barack Obama, president of the USA;  and Hilary Clinton, senator of New York.

Now, I often see this at work and in other professional settings:

 Mary is the Project Manager on this job.

Frank is the Director of Human Resources at USK Industries.

According to the Chicago Manual of Style, which tends to prefer the “down” style of capitalization (meaning, not capitalizing unless absolutely necessary), corporate/job/organizational titles need not be capitalized.

Mary is the project manager on this job.

Frank is the director of human resources at USK Industries.

Similarly, descriptive titles are also not capitalized. For example:

The reporter interviewed historian Bob Flanders and engineer Sally Takas.

Capitalize the titles and subtitles of works.

The tiles of books, movies, songs, etc. All words in a title should be capitalized except articles a, an, the; the word to; and connecting words such as from, for, of, and, and in that are under five letters UNLESS they appear at the beginning or the end of the title, or when beginning a subtitle and appearing just after a colon. If the noun or verb is under five letters, it is usually capitalized. Here are some examples:

  • A Diamond Is Forever
  • Under the Dome
  • An Affair to Remember
  • Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
  • An End to Live For

When in doubt, look it up

I tend to follow the Chicago Manual of Style because it works well for most types of writing—business, marketing, everyday communication, creative prose, magazine writing, etc.—but some style guides may vary in their rules on capitalization. Scientific writing, for instance, may have much different rules, so be aware who you are writing for. The rules above, however, are generally acceptable in most English speaking environments, so get to know them and join the fight against the OverCapitalizers!

About the author

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer for an engineering firm and volunteers on the planning committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education.

She holds a degree in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. In the English graduate program at Penn State, she taught college composition courses and hosted a poetry club for a group of high school writers.

While living in Seattle, Taylor started and taught a free writing class called Writer’s Cramp (see the website). She has also taught middle school Language Arts & Spanish, tutored college students, and mentored at several Seattle writing establishments such as Richard Hugo House. She’s presented on panels at Associated Writing Programs Conference and the Pennsylvania College English Conference and led writing groups in New York, Pennsylvania, and Colorado for writers of all ages & abilities. She loves to read, write, teach & debate the Oxford Comma with anyone who will stand still long enough.

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