Understanding the rules of capitalization is a key part of taking your English grammar understanding to a very advanced level. If you are able to know when, where, and how to capitalize letters and words correctly, you will definitely be ahead of most other English learners.
Some people may tell you that there are far more than just the main ten rules of capitalization in English, which may in fact be true. Other folks may say that there are only three rules of capitalization, and they may also be correct. However, The truth is that, depending on how you organize the rules, the rules of capitalization may be many or few based on how narrow or broad your definition of these rules are.
Most of the things we capitalize in English are what we refer to as ‘proper nouns.’ They are the names of specific and unique things.
- If you are talking about one specific mountain (Mt. Fuji), state (Idaho) or street (Atlantic Avenue), use a capital letter for every word in the name.
- However, when you are talking about a common thing of which there are many of them- like a mountain, a state or a street – you don’t have to use a capital letter for those words.
It’s important to remember as well that Capital letters are not used for articles (a, an, the) or for prepositions (of, on, for, in, to, with, etc.).
The Ten Main Rules
- Names or titles of people
This one may seem obvious, but there’s also a catch. Of course, you capitalize the first letters of a person’s first, middle and last names (John Quincy Adams), but you also capitalize suffixes (Jr., the Great, Princess of Power, etc.) and titles.
Titles can be as simple as Mr., Mrs. or Dr., but they also apply to situations wherein you address a person by his or her position as though it’s their first name. For example, when we talk about President Lincoln, we are using his role as though it were a part of his name. We don’t always capitalize the word president. Indeed, we could say, “During the Civil War, President Lincoln was the president of the United States.”
Another way to look at capitalizing job titles is to look at the position of the job title in the sentence in reference to the person’s name.
- You should capitalize the title when it comes immediately before or after someone’s name.
- You don’t have to capitalize the job title if it comes after the word “the.”
For example: “Dr. Rogers was the Cardiac Surgeon.” “The cardiac surgeon allowed me to come into the room and observe the patient.”
- Names of mountains, mountain ranges, hills and volcanoes
Again, we’re talking about specific places. The word ‘hill’ is not a proper noun, but Bunker Hill is because it’s the name of one specific hill. Use a capital letter to begin each word in the name of a mountain (Mt. Olympus), mountain range (the Appalachians), hill (San Juan Hill) or volcano (Mt. Vesuvius).
- Names of bodies of water (rivers, lakes, oceans, seas, streams and creeks)
From here, it gets pretty easy. The same rules that apply to mountain names also apply to water names. A river is just a river, but the Mississippi River is a proper noun and must be capitalized, just like Lake Erie, the Indian Ocean and the Dead Sea.
- Names of buildings, monuments, bridges and tunnels
Man-made structures also often have names. The White House, The Eiffel Tower, The Statue of Liberty, The Golden Gate Bridge and The Lincoln Tunnel are a few good examples.
- Street names
It’s necessary to capitalize both the actual name part of the name (Capital) and the road part of the name (Boulevard); both are necessary for forming the entire name of the street (Capital Boulevard).
- Schools, colleges and universities
All of the words in the name of the educational institution should be capitalized. For example, Harvard University, Wilkesboro Elementary School, Cape Fear Community College.
- Political divisions (continents, regions, countries, states, counties, cities and towns)
As is the case with regions of a country, the divisions may not always be political, but you get the idea. When you refer to New England, the Midwest, the Pacific Northwest or the South as a region (as opposed to a compass direction), you capitalize it. Also, continents (South America), countries (Belgium), states (Wisconsin), counties (Prince William County), cities (London) and towns (Lizard Lick) get capitalized.
- Titles of books, movies, magazines, newspapers, articles, songs, plays and works of art
This one’s a little tricky when ‘and,’ articles or prepositions are involved. If ‘the’ is the first word in the given name of a work, it must be capitalized (The Washington Post, The Glass Menagerie). If ‘a’ or ‘an’ is the first word, it too is capitalized (A Few Good Men), and if a preposition leads the way, you guessed it: Capitalized (Of Mice and Men). However, if any of these words come in the middle of the title, it is not capitalized.
- The first letter in a sentence
The last two rules are easy. Always capitalize the first letter of a sentence. If the sentence is a quotation within a larger sentence, capitalize it, but only if it’s a complete sentence. If it’s merely a phrase that fits neatly into the larger sentence, it does not require capitalization. Study the following two examples for clarification:
- The waiter said, “My manager will be here shortly,” but he never came.
- The waiter told us that his manager would “be here shortly,” but he never came.
- The pronoun ‘I’
It’s only necessary to capitalize other pronouns when they begin a sentence, but ‘I’ is always capitalized.
Remembering the Rules
How can you possibly remember all these rules? Well, first of all, you should ask yourself three questions:
- Is this the first letter in a sentence? If the answer is yes, capitalize.
- Is this the pronoun I? If yes, capitalize.
- Am I using a name that someone gave to this thing or person? If yes, capitalize.
And if you want to remember all the specific categories, try memorizing one of the following sentences.
- “For Bob Barker, the price is wrong sometimes,” Adam says.
- Susan Sarandon bought my wife fancy toilet paper in Boston.
The first letter of each word stands for a category:
- F– First letter in a sentence
- B– Buildings (and other man-made structures)
- B– Borders (of regions, states, countries, etc.)
- T– Titles
- P– People
- I– I
- S– Schools
- W– Water
- M– Mountains
- S– Streets
Other Examples of Capitalization
First Word of a Sentence
The cat is sleeping in my bedroom.
Where did I put that book?
Hey! It’s great to see you! How have you been?
Names and Personal Pronouns
My favorite author is Jonathan Franzen.
Tom and Diane met at Jill’s house.
Have you met my dog, Barry?
The First Word of a Full Quote
Mario asked, “What is everyone doing this weekend?”
Stacy answered, “My sister and I are going to the theme park.”
Days, Months, and Holidays
I hate Mondays!
Harry’s birthday is in July.
Oh no! I forgot about Mother’s Day!
Words in Formal Titles
Lord of Rings is better than A Song of Ice and Fire.
The first movie of the series is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Cities, Countries, Nationalities, and Languages
English is made up of many languages, including Latin, German, and French.
My mother is Italian, and my father is German.
The capital of Ethiopia is Addis Ababa.
Time Periods and Events
Most of the World War I veterans have now passed away.
In the Middle Ages, poor hygiene was partly responsible for the spreading of the black death.
High school history students often enjoy studying the social changes that took place during the Roaring Twenties in the United States.
In this article, it is not just the ten main rules of capitalization that we have to be aware of. There are many other additional rules where you can use capitalization on a consistent basis. The examples shown above should help you, the reader, to understand when and where these words can be capitalized and to notice a pattern in terms of how these rules can be applied.
Overall, capitalization is a very tricky topic to fully master but if you know the rules and you know when not to capitalize at all just for definite / indefinite articles along with prepositions, you will be well on your way to having a handle on this advanced grammar topic. It’s important to not be overwhelmed by all of the rules out there including the additional ones that were highlighted here. Starting off with the ten main rules of capitalization is a sufficient enough starting point to focus on. With Capitalization, you do not want to bite off more than you can chew and while the ‘additional rules’ of this grammar topic are important, it’s best to focus on the main rules such as geographic features, names of people / titles, the first letter in any sentence, etc. Good luck!