3 Types of Capitalization Errors in Styling Quotations

By Mark Nichol

Confusion sometimes ensues when writers are deciding whether a quotation merits capitalization. Here are three ways capitalization errors can result.

1. As someone once told me, “successful companies have multiple founding moments.”

Occasionally, a writer will not capitalize the first word of a complete quoted statement preceded by an attribution, perhaps because of the assumption that the quotation, as part of a larger sentence, is not grammatically complete. However, despite the preceding attribution, the quotation is a complete sentence: “As someone once told me, ‘Successful companies have multiple founding moments.’”

2. The company released a support document addressing this issue and suggested that, “Moving the camera slightly to change the position at which the bright light is entering the lens should minimize or eliminate the effect.”

The original quotation, as a stand-alone statement, is a complete sentence and should therefore be capitalized. But when it is incorporated grammatically into a larger sentence, it loses its self-sufficiency, and moving is not capitalized (and the comma preceding it is an error): “The company released a support document addressing this issue and suggested that ‘moving the camera slightly to change the position at which the bright light is entering the lens should minimize or eliminate the effect.’”

3. When you say there’s a special place in hell if you don’t support women, Smith says, “Is it only powerful women?”

In this case, the question “Is it only powerful women?” is being combined with a paraphrase to form a new, more extensive question, though the two clauses are separated by an attribution. But because “is it only powerful women?” has been demoted from a sentence to a clause, the first word of that word string is not capitalized: “When you say there’s a special place in hell if you don’t support women, Smith says, ‘is it only powerful women?’”

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3 Responses to “3 Types of Capitalization Errors in Styling Quotations”

  • venqax

    Ouch. That is rather complex what with that clause-sentence, complete-but-got-demoted thingy.

    The 2 capitalization errors I confront most often are the College Major, as in, “At the University of Wheedle I majored in Chemistry with a minor in History.” “All Social Science majors are housed in Montey Hall.” And second, Random capitalization, which is surprisingly common in supposedly college-level writing:

    “The two Men were equally matched when it came to strategic skill.”
    “Mt. Vernon remained his Home for his entire adult life.”
    “Police officers handle similar cases in the City Limits.”

  • Stephanie

    All of those are excellent points, venqax.

    Mr. Nichol, the base information you shared here is excellent. IMO, though, the example used for #3 wasn’t the best choice. I don’t want you to think I’m being critical and/or judgmental. My basis for this opinion is my own personal experiences as a writer. One of a writer’s most important responsibilities is making sure the information provided is clear to your audience.

    The given example:
    (a) When you say there’s a special place in hell if you don’t support women, Smith says, “Is it only powerful women?” (incorrect) vs
    (b) “When you say there’s a special place in hell if you don’t support women, Smith says, ‘is it only powerful women?’” (correct)

    Unanswered questions:
    1) The article’s topic here is the correct usage of capitalization within quotes, relative to their content and context. The example provided does address the capitalization of “is” within the demoted clause following the attribution. However, example ‘b’ also converted said clause into a quote within a quote. The punctuation indicates the attribution is actually part of the larger quote. You do not provide an explanation for the reasoning behind restructuring the sentence.

    2) Example ‘a’ appears to be the author’s personal words or a paraphrase, with the quote from Smith being used to support the author’s position.

    3) Both examples are unclear about their message.
    – Interpretation 1 – The “powerful women” subgroup addressed in Smith’s statement is the only one being referred to as “women” in the first clause, thus rendering the importance of the presence or lack of support for all other women to be irrelevant.
    – Interpretation 2 – The “powerful women” subgroup is the first “you” in the first clause, thus making the full statement to show the importance of ALL women supporting ALL women.
    – Interpretation 3 – The “powerful women” subgroup is the second “you” in the first clause, thus addressing the importance of all women supporting one another’s
    – Interpretation 4 – Both references to “you” in the first clause represent the “powerful women” subgroup, thus they are referring to the consequences they will face for not supporting all women?

    Thanks for taking a moment review my feedback!

  • thebluebird11

    We have the same problems in medical documentation. First there is the issue of specialty or department. So, “The patient was seen by the cardiologist” (or Cardiologist). In general, we do not capitalize the specialist. OTOH, “The patient was seen by Cardiology.” This form is preferred by some but incorrect according to others. From the perspective of someone who actually has to read/review charts, capitalization is helpful because when you’re skimming a document looking for something specific, a capital letter stands out. If I’m reviewing a chart to see which consultants were involved with the patient, it’s much easier and faster to get the info when these are capitalized. We used to capitalize Emergency Room, Operating Room, etc, for the same reason; we were looking for the patient “trail” in the hospital. These are no longer capitalized. In the case of majoring in History vs majoring in history, I personally would prefer a capital letter. When you talk about the history of the bra or the biology of the frog, I would not capitalize the word history. But as specific subjects, my preference would be to capitalize. However, if forced by an employer or style guide to do the opposite, of course would go with that.

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