Capitalization tips every writer should remember

Many people uppercase the first letter of a word to provide emphasis—or because they don’t know any better. Here are some guidelines on when to hit the shift key.

In kindergarten we learned to capitalize our first names. It’s a proper noun, our teachers said, so it gets a big letter. The same went for our last names, street addresses, holidays, or the beginning of a sentence, no matter how short.

At some point in the next several decades of our life, we forgot the rules. (Or, at least, a majority of the population forgot.) People began capitalizing words at random. Verbs, insignificant nouns, even pronouns got the big-letter treatment.

For whatever reason, these words have been crowned, throwing all caution to the proper linguistic wind.

No one thinks to hire a copy editor.

The rules

Titles’ main words are capitalized.

I’m going to read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” one of my favorite books.

Only proper nouns get the big-guy treatment. This means names, holidays, and the first word of a complete sentence.

Jan Brady lives on Groovy Lane in Hippyville, Fla. She has a brother named Peter, with whom she likes to celebrate Arbor Day. They also enjoy eating applesauce on Tuesdays.

Common nouns should be lowercase; commercial businesses are the biggest offenders of this error.

Jan hates it when menus read “Pizza” when they should read “pizza.” (Me, too, Jan. Me, too.)

Home of the $15 oil change. Oil changes for only $15. Or as a standalone, oil change.

Job titles are capitalized only in a formal setting, and when the title reads before the name.

President Obama, or Obama, president

This also works one for proper titles; if you are a teacher, chances are your formal position name isn’t “Teacher Smith.” If it is, color me corrected.

Acronyms (NASA or SCUBA) warrant all caps; abbreviations (vs. or Tues.) do not.

Possible causes for mistakes

  • handwriting, which can often mix capital and lowercase letters, regardless of intention
  • Microsoft Word software, which automatically capitalizes the first word after a period, which does not always indicate the end of a sentence. For ex., that one right there.
  • foreign languages, many of which capitalize all nouns
  • stubbornness and/or lack of linguistic knowledge
  • sticky caps lock keys

Whatever the excuse, let’s revert to correct capitalization; your shift key has more than earned its vacation.

Bethaney Wallace is a freelance writer and editor, and half owner of The Social Robot. A version of this article originally appeared on Business 2 Community.


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