At a time when the speed and ease of texting breeds some shortcuts, it's easy to see why many people encounter an occasional brain cramp over the rules of capitalization. In formal writing, careless use of capitalization can impede and stall comprehension. And, depending on who reads your work, the misuse of trade names that ought to be capitalized can trigger an angry letter from the slighted company. Fortunately, there aren't that many rules of capitalization to keep track of, and they're fairly straightforward at that.
Capitalize the first word in a sentence. Also capitalize the first word in a sentence within a sentence, such as: “We couldn't believe he blurted out, 'What time are we going to eat, anyway?'” Most often, it's customary to capitalize the first letter of a sentence following a colon, such as, “He was very specific about it: Bring a change of clothing or stay home.” Similarly, the first word of each line within a poem is usually capitalized. If you're quoting a poem in a paper, however, be sure to follow the writer's original capitalization style.
Capitalize proper nouns (specific people, places and things), and do not capitalize common nouns. For example, you should capitalize the name Tom Hanks, but not “actor,” the common noun. Likewise, you should capitalize Lithuania and lowercase “country,” and capitalize Soldier Field and lowercase “stadium.”
Capitalize other proper nouns, including days of the week, months, and holidays (“Tuesday,” “May” and “Christmas”); major historical events (“Great Depression”); businesses and organizations (“Demand Media”); aircraft, ships, spacecraft and trains (“Titanic”); religions and religious terms (“Catholicism” and the “Bible”); ethnic groups (“British”); trade names (“McDonald's”); academic institutions (“Illinois State University”); and geographic regions (“the West”).
Capitalize a title used before a proper name but not after it. For example, it's “President Barack Obama” but “Barack Obama, the president” and “Professor Kate Windsor” but “Kate Windsor, an English professor.”
Capitalize the titles of articles, books, essays, films, paintings, plays, poems, songs but not the articles, propositions and conjunctions within them, unless they are the first word in a title. For example, it's “Chasing a Dream” but “A Dream Fulfilled.”
House style, or the conventions that govern a particular business or organization (the "house"), will almost always trump traditional rules of capitalization. For example, you wouldn't ordinarily capitalize “department,” as in “English department.” But the house style of a university may dictate that you do so.
- The Scott, Foresman Handbook for Writers; Maxine Hairston and John Ruszkiewicz
- The New St. Martin’s Handbook; Andrea Lunsford and Robert Connors
- Step by Step Writing; Randy Devillez; 1992.
- The Prentice Hall Guide to Basic Writing; Emil Roy and Sandra Roy
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