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Capitalization Rules: When to Use Capital Letters According to the Standard English Grammar Rules

Capitalization is so important for proper spelling because it’s how we differentiate names and places from the rest of the words out there. But it’s even more than that.

Improper capitalization makes you look unprofessional, can skew the entire meaning of a sentence, and is just plain sloppy.

Let’s review the rules of capitalization to help you remember how they should be applied so that your writing is clear, concise and understandable.

The Rules of Capitalization

Rules-of-Capitalization

As surprising as it is, the elementary lesson of capitalization usage is often the most elusive. Basic errors in capitalization create confusing sentences and make the writing appear incomplete.

What Are the Rules of Capitalization?

  • Capitalize the first letter in every sentence.
  • Capitalize initial letters of proper nouns.
  • Capitalize the pronoun I.

But, there are many rules governing the use of capitalization, and we are going to review the most widely accepted rules below.

Using Capitals for First Words

The most widely used and recognized rule of capital letters is to capitalize the first word of a sentence. This practice serves as a visual clue to the reader, making certain words stand out more prominently on a page.

Capital letters signal the start of a new idea in a sentence.

First Word Rule #1: Sentences

Capitalize the first word in declarative, interrogative, imperative and exclamatory sentences.

For example:

  • Sarah visited the beach while on vacation.
  • Did you pick up the groceries?
  • Put that book away.
  • I can’t believe I was awarded the scholarship!

First Word Rule #2: Sentences

Capitalize the first word in interjections and incomplete sentences.

For example:

  • Darn! Wow!
  • When? How?

First Word Rule #3: Sentences

Capitalize the first word of a complete sentence following a colon. If a list or dependent clause or phrase follows a colon, it is not a complete sentence and, therefore, no capital letter is used.

For example:

  • Consider a note about this rule: It is sometimes more acceptable to use a semicolon instead of a colon if the following sentence is a complete sentence (see what I did there?).

First Word Rule #4: Quotations

Capitalize the first word in a quotation if the quotation itself is a complete sentence.

For example:

  • I always loved the picture Muir paints with his words when he wrote, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”

First Word Rule #5: Poetry

Capitalize the first word in each line of most poetry even if the line does not begin a new sentence.

For example:

  • Water falling
  • I watched it stream
  • Gently down to earth

First Word Rule #6: I and O

Capitalize the pronoun I and the interjection O throughout a sentence.

For example:

  • She wasn’t sure when the paper was due, but I knew it had to be done before Friday.
  • O, how they marveled at nature’s masterpiece, as the warm hues painted the sky with a breathtaking display of crimson and gold.

Using Capitals for Proper Nouns

Proper nouns are nouns that name a specific person, place or thing. They must be capitalized to indicate their importance to a sentence properly.

Proper Noun Rule #1: Names

Capitalize all proper nouns, including each part of a person’s name.

The given, middle and surname (last name) of a person must be capitalized, as do initials.

For example:

  • Sanna L. Hamilton
  • Lisa O’Hera
  • Michael St. John

Capitalization beginning with la, le, de, Mac, van, von or D’ may vary depending on the family spelling and the name’s preferred capitalization style.

For example:

  • De Ville vs. de Ville

Proper Noun Rule #2: Animals

Capitalize the proper names of animals.

For example:

  • Hazel Fuzzy Butt
  • Ginger the Wonder Dog
  • Wrigley the Weasel

Proper Noun Rule #3: Geography

Capitalized geographical names.

Street names, towns, cities, counties, states, provinces, countries, continents, valleys, mountains, rivers and oceans are all capitalized. If it can be found on a map, capitalize it.

For example:

  • South America
  • Galapagos Islands
  • Boston
  • Lea County

Compass points are only capitalized if they are referring to a specific location.

For example:

  • We were driving southwest on the highway.
  • We were driving through the South to reach our destination on the East Coast.

Proper Noun Rule #4: Places

Capitalize the names of monuments, buildings, and meeting rooms or classrooms.

For example:

  • Lincoln Memorial
  • Joe Louis Arena
  • Room 212

Proper Noun Rule #5: Events and Periods of Time

Capitalize the names of specific events, such as historic periods, events, documents, days and months, holidays, and special events.

For example:

  • Middle Ages
  • Civil War
  • Homestead Act
  • Saturday
  • June
  • Memorial Day
  • Christmas
  • Belmont Stakes

Proper Noun Rule #6: Seasons

Do not capitalize the seasons.

For example:

  • We could tell spring was on the way due to the warm breeze.

Proper Noun Rule #7: Organizations, Nationalities, Languages

Capitalize the names of various organizations, businesses, government bodies, political parties, nationalities and languages.

For example:

  • Debate Club
  • United Farm Workers
  • University of Michigan
  • BioCorps, Inc.
  • Department of Defense
  • Republicans, Libertarians
  • American, Brazilian, Hispanic, Italian
  • English, Spanish, Portuguese

Proper Noun Rule #8: Religion

Capitalize references to religions, deities, religious figures, holy books and religious sculptures.

For example:

  • God
  • Allah
  • Lord
  • Holy Spirit
  • Bible
  • Torah
  • Islam
  • Buddhism
  • Prophets

Do not capitalize the words god or goddess when referring to mythological deities, but do capitalize their proper names.

For example:

  • Our studies on Greek and Roman gods and goddesses were very interesting.

Proper Noun Rule #9: Awards

Capitalize the names of awards. Do not capitalize the word “the” preceding the award name.

Example:

  • The Nobel Peace Prize
  • The Bressani Award
  • An Emmy Award 

Using Capitals With Adjectives 

Adjectives aren’t normally capitalized but there are exceptions. Here are the most important ones to follow. 

Proper Adjective Rule #1

Proper adjectives are proper nouns used as an adjective or are formed from a proper noun.

Capitalize most proper adjectives.

For example:

  • American people
  • French government
  • Gothic style

Proper adjectives used in popular expressions are not capitalized.

“In my homemade french fries recipe, the secret is to soak the potatoes in salted water for an hour prior to cooking.”

Here, “french” is a proper adjective derived from “France,” but when it’s used in a common expression “french fries,” it’s not capitalized.

Do not capitalize if used as a general reference.

For example:

  • The reports required the approval of a higher official, such as a major.

Title Rule #2: People

Capitalize titles of government officials when they are followed by a proper name or used in direct address.

For example:

  • Senator Davis met with the people before elections began.
  • Will you be meeting us at a specific time, Senator?

Do not capitalize if used as a general reference.

For example:

  • It would be nice if all senators were willing to meet with their constituents.

Title Rule #3: People

Capitalize titles of certain high government officials if they refer to the incumbent even when the titles are not followed by proper name or used in direct address.

For example:

  • The President traveled to the hurricane affected areas.
  • The King of England was sworn in recently.
  • The trail will be taken on by the Supreme Court.

Title Rule #4: People

Capitalize the important words in the compound titles, but not prefixes and suffixes added to the title.

For example:

  • ex-Senator Smith
  • Lieutenant Governor

Other Points to Remember

In modern writing, there are simultaneous trends toward and away from capitalization. The trend in informal writing and much journalistic writing is away from it. Meanwhile, there is an unfortunate trend in business, corporate and marketing writing to capitalize words for emphasis or to give words a little extra heft.

But if you use instant messaging, text messaging, email or social networking, you’ve probably noticed that many people don’t capitalize at all in these mediums.

Regardless of what writers do in business and marketing (where trying to enforce good writing is a lost cause), the best rule of thumb for capitalization is to err on the side of minimalism. 

Follow the rules listed above, avoid capitalizing common nouns just because other people do, avoid capitalization for emphasis (that’s what italicization is for), and never use all caps (LIKE THIS). Beyond those guidelines, here are a few other points:

  1. Different publications have different standards for capitalizing titles and headings. Use what looks best to you.
  2. Complete sentences within sentences should be capitalized. This includes quoted sentences (e.g., She said, “How are you?”) and complete sentences following colons (e.g. One thing’s for sure: You’ll get your money’s worth).
  3. In abbreviations, capitalize letters that stand for capitalized words (e.g., USMC for United States Marine Corp, BoA for Bank of America).
  4. Some great 19th-century poets had a habit of capitalizing abstract and personified nouns such as Nature and Love, but that doesn’t make it a good idea in general.

Let’s Review

There are many instances in which you will use capitalization, but all mainly follow the three common rules: capitalize the first letter of every sentence, the initial letter of proper nouns, and the pronoun “I”.

If you can remember this, then it is easier to apply them to the scenarios in which a capital letter is required. 

Use the above guidelines for capitalization to answer any questions you may have and help make corrections to your own writing.