Back To The Basics: Capitalization

Texting and tweeting just might be ruining our knowledge of writing mechanics. For writers, this is a serious issue. Editors and agents want “clean” query letters and book proposals, but our ability to produce that kind of copy is being undermined by the everyday habits of informal communication.

Thus, it’s a good idea to do a basics refresher from time to time.

Today we’ll take a look at capitalization. As opposed to punctuation, few questions come up about what and how to capitalize, yet I am beginning to see more and more capitalization mistakes in my reading.

The basic capitalization rules can be summarized by two statements:

    (1) Capitalize proper names and the personal pronoun I (which is the equivalent of the name of the speaker)
    (2) Capitalize beginnings of sentences and lines of poetry.

So far so good. Now for the but-what-about‘s–what about a person’s title, what about directions, what about seasons, what about … You get the idea.

Let’s take a few of these that seem to give the most trouble.

Capitalize a person’s title when it is used as part of his or her name. Consequently, President Obama, Dr. Tragan, Queen Elizabeth, but the senator, a professor, his pastor.

Capitalize parts of the world when they are incorporated with a name. Consequently, West Coast, the Plains Indians, the Colorado River, but the bay, an inlet, our lake.

In addresses, the abbreviations of states (or provinces) are in all caps: CA, AK, MI, IL.

Words derived from proper nouns and used as a literal reference to that name are capitalized. Consequently, American bald eagle, Christian church, Republican candidate, but biblical proportions, swiss cheese, roman numeral.

Time periods are capitalized only when they are part of a name. Consequently, the Roaring Twenties, the Middle Ages, the First Dynasty, but the twenty-first century, the colonial period, the information age.

Note, seasons of the year are not specific names of a particular time period. Hence, fall, winter, spring, summer.

In the same way, a.m. and p.m. are not the names of a particular time. However, when those designations are used without the period, they are printed in small caps.

Academic subjects are capitalized only when they are derived from or form a name. Consequently, English, Philosophy 101, Beginning Archaeology, but psychology, arithmetic, social studies.

One more. Abbreviations standing for names are capitalized. Consequently, J.R.R. Tolkien, DMV, and UPS, but rpm and mpg.

Hopefully a pattern has emerged which should help the writer decide on his own whether to capitalize or not to capitalize: If the word in question is a name or part of a name, it is capitalized.

So what questions do you have about capitalization?



Filed under Capitalization

4 responses to “Back To The Basics: Capitalization

  1. Oddly enough, Teresa, as I went through my archives, I realized I’d never done a post specifically on capitalization, so I think this was overdue. Review is good for all of us, I think. 😀


  2. “Texting and tweeting just might be ruining our knowledge of writing mechanics. For writers, this is a serious issue.”

    Might I add, for teachers, too.

    A seventh grade “core” (Language Arts and Social Studies) told me she was going to accept student writing with “tweet” conventions, opining that as long as I knew what the student was expressing, the convention didn’t matter.

    In one of the few dictatorial acts I commanded as District Curriculum Director, I said: “No you won’t.”

  3. Dave, I’m so stunned, I hardly know what to say–a teacher who wanted to accept “tweet conventions”? That’s outrageous! As if there is something standardized that could even be considered widely understood. How would those students apply for college some day or later on, for a job? “bcuz i luv putors ill do good as a tech”?

    Good for you for putting an end to such misguided thinking. May those students in your district rise up one day and thank you for your stand.


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