English Corner – The Rules of Capitalization

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

  1. 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.”

  1. 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).

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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).

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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 PostThe 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.

  1. 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.
  1. 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!

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English Corner – Gerunds

In order to facilitate your grammar studies, it’s important to not overlook certain topics that are integral to boosting your knowledge of English grammar. ‘Gerunds’ is one of those key topics to really get a handle on and master because it will come up again and again in both your speaking and writing. While not the most complex topic, being able to understand the rules behind gerunds and memorizing them will put you ahead of other learners. ‘Gerunds’ is a topic that needs to be put into use over and over in order to be used proficiently.

The main thing to keep in mind with gerunds is not to overcomplicate what they are and what they are used for. Gerunds are simple verbs that end in –ing and that never changes regardless of which tense they are used in. –Ing can be added to verbs that are used in the present, past, and future tenses. Gerunds can also be utilized at the beginning, middle, and ending of sentences. These verbs + -ing are extremely versatile in their usage and it’s important to be aware of where they can be placed within sentences.

The key thing to keep in mind with a gerund word is that it used more like a noun than a verb or an adjective. Most students don’t remember that a verb that ends in –ing can also function as a present participle which is different than a gerund. Gerunds are not the same as present participles and the main difference between them is quite easy to remember. Gerunds are primarily used as more of a noun than a verb or adjective whereas present participles function more as exact verbs. Here are a few examples below as to how ‘gerunds’ are used as nouns in a regular sentence:

  1. I like dancing on a Saturday night.
  2. Playing video games is really fun.
  3. Singing in the rain is an underrated activity.

Gerunds have to be thought of nouns in verb form essentially. If you notice from the above examples, ‘gerund’ words can be used as the subject or object of a sentence. They can be placed at the beginning of the sentence to become the main subject or they can be the object of the sentence when the gerund comes after the main subject and the main verb as well.

While gerunds can mainly function as nouns, they can also be used as adjectives when they are right next to each other in the sentence structure.

  1. It was a night of ceaseless partying that went until the morning light.
  2. The careful building of the Statue of Liberty was a great French achievement.

It is important to note that you can often use gerunds after many different kinds of prepositions during a normal sentence. Gerunds often act as a substitute for noun words that you could be used right after prepositions. If you’re only using the base verb without the gerund (-ing), it won’t be grammatically correct. Here are a few examples of how to use the gerund after a few different prepositions:

  1. I will make breakfast before going into work today.
  2. Please do wash your hands after making dinner for our guests.
  3. We are used to driving on the right here in the United States.

It’s important to keep in mind that the gerund immediately follows each preposition directly after the preposition word is used in the sentence. There are dozens of prepositions used in the English language so it is important to keep in mind when to use the gerund after any kind of preposition comes up in a sentence.

Lastly, ‘gerunds’ can be used in a passive voice kind of sentence under multiple circumstances. In these kinds of cases, the gerund word would often come at the end of the sentence to reflect the action taking place. Here are a few examples of how you can use gerunds in a passive voice kind of sentence:

  1. I have three pairs of pants that need washing.
  2. The water cooler at my workplace needs replenishing.
  3. Your shirts are outside the house on the clothesline drying.

Please note that in sentences #1 and #2 from my examples that the main verb ‘need’ is used right before each gerund word. Without the main verb of ‘need’, it becomes much more difficult to express the action that is occurring at the end of the sentence.

Whatever use you find for the gerund, remember that the gerund comes up very often in both spoken and written English. You can use the gerund for multiple purposes including for nouns, adjectives, prepositions, passive voice, etc. The key thing to take away is that gerunds are very flexible in terms of their placement within a sentence. They can also be combined with various parts of speech to make your writing flow better and have more details. While gerunds are easy to form with ‘verb + -ing’, using them within the right context and in the right format is something that requires patience, practice, and repetition.