Capitalization Study Guide for the English Basics
Capitalization Rules for Writing
Capitalization refers to the use of capital (upper case) letters at the beginning of certain words. Correct capitalization is important because it shows a certain level of education and understanding. If you don’t follow the rules of capitalization correctly, your writing may be unclear, childish-looking, and unprofessional, causing people to question your intelligence or your credibility, or both.
The rules for capitalization can get a little bit tricky. Some capitalization guidelines might contradict the other, as various rules may exist in one specific aspect, depending on the writing/editing style guide being used. For example, the Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style have opposing rules for capitalizing long prepositions (outside, between, etc.) in titles of publications—and all styles have exceptions to every rule. No matter which style you follow, the key is consistency. Here, we provide some generally accepted rules and tips that should help you remember when and what to capitalize.
Beginning of Sentences
Capital letters always start a new sentence. For example:
The dog ran across the lawn.
We visited our dad at work.
Although she was tired, Alyssa made dinner at home.
Capital letters are also used when starting a new sentence within a quote. For example:
Lauren shouted to her mother, “Can you please bring me a towel?”
Ed thought to himself, “Maybe I will ride my bike tomorrow,” but quickly changed his mind.
“Please pick up your socks,” my father scolded.
Capital letters are not used, however, if the quoted text is not a complete sentence or if it is just a phrase or term. For example:
- The movie critic claimed the film was “all fluff” and “not an Oscar-contender.”
A proper noun names a specific one-of-a-kind entity, such as a person or a place. It is an exact individual name as opposed to a reference to something general (or a common noun). Examples of proper nouns include India, Broadway, Elena, the Pacific Ocean, and Pepsi. Proper nouns are always capitalized, no matter where they are located in a sentence. For example:
Sara wondered where Muscle Beach was located.
Indianapolis is the capital of Indiana.
Do you know where Michael is?
For more information on proper nouns, please see our Parts of Speech study guide.
Capitalization in book, poem, movie, song, or other publication titles can be tricky. Most of the words in titles are capitalized. So, capitalize every word of a title unless it falls under one of these exceptions:
Do not capitalize articles (a, an, the) unless they are the first word in the title.
Do not capitalize coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, nor, so, yet) unless they are the first word in the title.
Do not capitalize short prepositions (less than four letters, such as by, on, in, up, of, etc.) unless they are the first or last word in the title.
All other words in the title should probably be capitalized and you should always capitalize the first and last words in the title.
Nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and adverbs should always be capitalized in titles. Verbs (or action words) should be capitalized as well, and these include Is and Are.
Fame Is the Spur
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
Here are some examples of properly capitalized titles (note that all first and last words are capitalized, but none of the articles are unless it starts the title):
Beauty and the Beast
How to Change a Tire
Somewhere Over the Rainbow
The Fastest Way to the Top
The Pronoun \(I\)
The pronoun \(I\) is always capitalized when you use it. Why? It just is. It is the only pronoun in the English language that is always capitalized regardless of its place in a sentence. All other pronouns are capitalized only if they begin a sentence. For example:
I went to the store.
He asked whether I was going to the movie, but I declined the invitation, and he understood.
If you need a way to remember this, tell yourself, “When \(I\) is all by itself, it gets scared around all of those longer words, so it pumps itself up by being a capital every time it’s alone.”
Events and Periods of Time
Specific events or periods of time should always be capitalized. They are considered proper nouns (specific names for one-of-a-kind things). So one would capitalize World War II, the Civil War (notice we didn’t capitalize the article “the”), the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Great Depression. One would not capitalize century numbers like the eighteenth century. Art periods also fall into the category of needing capitalization. Here are some examples:
“We learned about the Egyptian pharaoh King Tut who ruled during Egypt’s New Empire Period.”
“Mary discovered that her grandfather served in World War I.”
“The fifteenth century was a time of great exploration by the Europeans.”
“We studied the social and cultural changes of the Roaring Twenties.”
“The sixteen hundreds were a time of cultural reawakening in Europe.”
“Pablo Picasso is one of my favorite artists of Cubism.”
Acronyms are abbreviations formed by using the first letter of each word in a title or phrase. For example, NASA is an acronym for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. SCUBA is an acronym for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus. Note that whether the original phrase or title is a proper noun, as in the case of NASA, or uses common nouns, as in the case of SCUBA, the acronym uses all capital letters.
The capitalization of religious terms is generally done out of respect for a certain religion. One should capitalize religious figures and holy books, whether one is of that religious faith or not. Names of religions should be capitalized (they are proper nouns, after all), so capitalize Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, for example. One should also capitalize references to people who practice a particular religion: Jew, Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist. Religious texts are capitalized: Torah, Bible, Koran, and Tripitaka. Proper names of religious organizations or churches should also be capitalized: Fifth Street Baptist Church, Our Lady of Angels Church, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Temple Beth Israel, Great Mosque of Mecca, and so on. You would not, however, capitalize the words church or temple in isolation.
If something can be found on a calendar, it should probably be capitalized. Calendar terms include:
Days of the week (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday)
Months of the year (January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November, and December)
Major holidays (Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Kwanzaa, Christmas, Passover, Ramadan, etc.)
Cities, Countries, and Nationalities
Because they are proper nouns, the names of cities, counties, states/provinces, and countries are capitalized. The names of people from those countries are also capitalized. Consider these examples:
“Dana is from Bournemouth, Dorset, England.”
“Can you find Uzbekistan on a map?”
“I visited Chicago last weekend.”
“Did you know that California is the biggest strawberry-producing state in the country?”
“The detention center was slated to be built in Riverside County.”
“Raul is Spanish.”
“The immigrant changed his nationality and became Australian.”
“The Chinese have the largest population.”
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