10 capitalization rules every writer should know

From the very basic rules to the very commonly broken ones in corporate America.

If you were standing outside my office door, you would hear a loud banging noise. That’s my head banging on my desk out of sheer frustration. The reason? Capitalization.

I have documents to edit that are filled with words that shouldn’t be capitalized—such as “federal,” “state,” “statutes,” “deadlines,” “laws”—but are uppercase. I have documents to edit that are filled with words that should be capitalized—such as “West Texas” and “Supreme Court”—but are not.

So to keep the head banging to a minimum, let’s go through the rules of capitalization.

1. Capitalize the first word in a sentence.

This is the most basic rule of capitalization.

2. Capitalize the pronoun “I.”

Another basic one, but in today’s text-message driven world, it bears mentioning.

3. Capitalize proper nouns: the names of specific people, places, organizations, and sometimes things.

For instance, “Austin, Texas,” “Patrick O’Brian,” “Ragan Communications,” “Supreme Court.”

This seems to be the rule that trips up many people because they don’t know whether a word is a proper noun. But as the AP Stylebook points out:

“Capitalize nouns that constitute the unique identification for a specific person, place, or thing: John, Mary, America, Boston, England. Some words, such as the examples given, are always proper nouns. Some common nouns receive proper noun status when they are used as the name of a particular entity: General Electric, Gulf Oil.”

There are also derivatives of proper nouns. Capitalize words that are derived from a proper noun and still depend on it for their meaning, such as “American,” “French,” and “Shakespearean.”

But lower case words that are derived from proper nouns that no longer depend on it for their meaning: “french fries,” “pasteurize,” “darwinian.”

4. Capitalize family relationships when used as proper nouns.

Capitalize “Uncle John,” and “Grandma Jesse,” but leave it lower case when it’s not referring to a person’s name. For instance, “We visit my cousin every Christmas.”

5. Capitalize titles that appear before names, but not after names.

This is perhaps the greatest capitalization crime in corporate America. Remember, it’s “President of Writing Advice Laura Brockway” or “Laura Brockway, president of writing advice,” not the other way around.

6. Capitalize directions that are names; North, South, East, and West when used as sections of the country, but not as compass directions.

So capitalize “The Pacific Northwest” and “Central Texas,” but not “We drove west for two hours.”

7. Capitalize the days of the week, the months of the year, and holidays, but not the seasons used generally.

However, seasons are capitalized when used as a proper title. Some examples:

• “I will attend that conference in the fall.”
• “I have registered for three classes for Spring Semester 2013.”
• “We celebrate Valentine’s Day in July.”

8. Capitalize members of national, political, racial, social, civic, and athletic groups.

For instance, “Texas Longhorns,” “Libertarians,” “Chinese.”

9. Capitalize periods and events, but not century numbers.

So that would be “Victorian Era” and “Great Depression,” and “first century.”

10. Capitalize trademarks.

Examples would be “Subaru,” “Coca-Cola,” “Apple.”

Remember to follow the sage advice of “The AP Stylebook”: “In general, avoid unnecessary capitals. Use a capital letter only if you can justify it by one of the principles listed here.” And when in doubt about a word that doesn’t fit under any of these rules, check the dictionary.

Ragan.com readers, any other capitalization rules you would like to share?

Laura Hale Brockway is a medical writer and editor from Austin, Texas. She is also the author of the writing/editing/random thoughts blog, impertinentremarks.com.

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