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Capital letters are not really an aspect of punctuation, but it is c
onvenient to deal
with them here. The rules for using them are mostly very simple.
(a) The first word of a sentence, or of a fragment, begins with a capital letter:
(b) The names of the days of the week, and of the months of the year, are
written with a capital letter:
- The bumbling wizard Rincewind is Pratchett's most popular character.
- Will anyone now alive live to see a colony on the moon? Probably not.
- Distressingly few pupils can locate Iraq or Japan on a map of the
However, the names of seasons are not written with a capital:
- Next Sunday France will hold a general election.
- Mozart was born on 27 January, 1756.
- Football practice takes place on Wednesdays and Fridays.
Do not write *"... in the Summer".
- Like cricket, baseball is played in the summer.
(c) The names of languages are always written with a capital letter. Be careful
about this; it's a very common mistake.
Note, however, that names of disciplines and school subjects are not
capitalized unless they happen to be the names of languages:
- Juliet speaks English, French, Italian and Portuguese.
- I need to work on my Spanish irregular verbs.
- Among the major languages of India are Hindi, Gujarati and Tamil.
- These days, few students study Latin and Greek.
(d) Words that express a connection with a particular place must be capitalized
when they have their literal meanings. So, for example, French must be
capitalized when it means `having to do with France':
- I'm doing A-levels in history, geography and English.
- Newton made important contributions to physics and mathematics.
- She is studying French literature.
(The word Mancunian means `from Manchester'.)
- The result of the French election is still in doubt.
- The American and Russian negotiators are close to agreement.
- There are no mountains in the Dutch landscape.
- She has a dry Mancunian sense of humour.
However, it is not necessary to capitalize these words when they occur
as parts of fixed phrases and don't express any direct connection with the
Why the difference? Well, a danish pastry is merely a particular sort of pastry;
it doesn't have to come from Denmark. Likewise, french windows are merely a
particular kind of window, and russian dressing is just a particular variety of
salad dressing. Even in these cases, you can capitalize these words if you want
to, as long as you are consistent about it. But notice how convenient it can be to make the difference:
- Please buy some danish pastries.
- In warm weather, we keep our french windows open.
- I prefer russian dressing on my salad.
In the first example, french windows just refers to a kind of window; in
second, French windows refers specifically to windows in France.
- In warm weather, we keep our french windows open.
- After nightfall, French windows are always shuttered.
(e) In the same vein, words that identify nationalities or ethnic groups must be
(An aside: some ethnic labels which were formerly widely used are now
regarded by many people as offensive and have been replaced by other labels.
Thus, careful writers use Black, not Negro; native American, not Indian or red
Indian; native Australian, not Aborigine. You are advised to
- The Basques and the Catalans spent decades struggling for autonomy.
- The Serbs and the Croats have become bitter enemies.
- Norway's most popular singer is a Sami from Lapland.
(f) Formerly, the words black and white, when applied to human beings, were
never capitalized. Nowadays, however, many people prefer to capitalize them
because they regard these words as ethnic labels comparable to Chinese or
You may capitalize these words or not, as you prefer, but be consistent.
- The Rodney King case infuriated many Black Americans.
(g) Proper names are always capitalized. A proper name is a name or a title that
refers to an individual person, an individual place, an individual institution or an
individual event. Here are some examples:
Observe the difference between the next two examples:
- The study of language was revolutionized by Noam Chomsky.
- The Golden Gate Bridge towers above San Francisco Bay.
- There will be a debate between Professor Lacey and Doctor Davis.
- The Queen will address the House of Commons today.
- Many people mistakenly believe that Mexico is in South America.
- My friend Julie is training for the Winter Olympics.
- Next week President Clinton will be meeting Chancellor Kohl.
In the first, the title the President is capitalized because it is a title referring to a
specific person; in the second, there is no capital, because the word president
does not refer to anyone in particular. (Compare We have asked for a meeting
with President Wilson and *I would like to be President Wilson of a big
company.) The same difference is made with some other words: we write the
Government and Parliament when we are referring to a particular government or
a particular parliament, but we write government and parliament when we are
using the words generically. And note also the following example:
- We have asked for a meeting with the President.
- I would like to be the president of a big company.
Here Saint Joseph is a name, but patron saint is not and gets no capital.
- The patron saint of carpenters is Saint Joseph.
There is a slight problem with the names of hazily defined geographical
regions. We usually write the Middle East and Southeast Asia, because these
regions are now regarded as having a distinctive identity, but we write central
Europe and southeast London, because these regions are not thought of as
having the same kind of identity. Note, too, the difference between South
Africa (the name of a particular country) and southern Africa (a vaguely defined
region). All I can suggest here is that you read a good newspaper and keep
your eyes open.
Observe that certain surnames of foreign origin contain little words that
are often not capitalized, such as de, du, da, von and van. Thus we write
Leonardo da Vinci, Ludwig van Beethoven, General von Moltke
and Simone de
Beauvoir. On the other hand, we write Daphne Du Maurier and Dick Van
Dyke, because those are the forms preferred by the owners of the names.
When in doubt, check the spelling in a good reference book.
A few people eccentrically prefer to write their names with no capital
letters at all, such as the poet e. e. cummings and the singer k. d. lang. These
strange usages should be respected.
(h) The names of distinctive historical periods are capitalized:
(i) The names of festivals and holy days are capitalized:
- London was a prosperous city during the Middle Ages.
- Britain was the first country to profit from the Industrial Revolution.
- The Greeks were already in Greece during the Bronze Age.
(j) Many religious terms are capitalized, including the names of religions and of
their followers, the names or titles of divine beings, the titles of certain
important figures, the names of important events and the names of sacred
- We have long breaks at Christmas and Easter.
- During Ramadan, one may not eat before sundown.
- The feast of Purim is an occasion for merrymaking.
- Our church observes the Sabbath very strictly.
- The children greatly enjoy Hallowe'en.
Note, however, that the word god is not capitalized when it refers to a pagan
- An atheist is a person who does not believe in God.
- The principal religions of Japan are Shinto and Buddhism.
- The Indian cricket team includes Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Parsees.
- The Lord is my shepherd.
- The Prophet was born in Mecca.
- The Last Supper took place on the night before the Crucifixion.
- The Old Testament begins with Genesis.
(k) In the title or name of a book, a play, a poem, a film, a magazine, a
newspaper or a piece of music, a capital letter is used for the first word and for
every significant word (that is, a little word like the, of, and or in is not
capitalized unless it is the first word):
- Poseidon was the Greek god of the sea.
Important note: The policy just described is the one most widely used in
English-speaking world. There is, however, a second policy, preferred by
many people. In this second policy, we capitalize only the first word of a title
and any words which intrinsically require capitals for independent reasons.
Using the second policy, my examples would look like this:
- I was terrified by The Silence of the Lambs.
- The Round Tower was written by Catherine Cookson.
- Bach's most famous organ piece is the Toccata and Fugue in D
- I don't usually like Cher, but I do enjoy The Shoop Shoop Song.
You may use whichever policy you prefer, so long as you are consistent about
it. You may find, however, that your tutor or your editor insists upon one or
the other. The second policy is particularly common (though not universal) in
academic circles, and is usual among librarians; elsewhere, the first policy is
almost always preferred.
- I was terrified by The silence of the lambs.
- The round tower was written by Catherine Cookson.
- Bach's most famous organ piece is the Toccata and fugue in D
- I don't usually like Cher, but I do enjoy The shoop shoop song.
(l) The first word of a direct quotation, repeating someone else's exact words,
is always capitalized if the quotation is a complete sentence:
But there is no capital letter if the quotation is not a complete sentence:
- Thomas Edison famously observed "Genius is one per cent inspiration
and ninety-nine per cent perspiration."
(m) The brand names of manufacturers and their products are capitalized:
- The Minister described the latest unemployment figures as
Note: There is a problem with brand names which have become so successful
that they are used in ordinary speech as generic labels for classes of products.
The manufacturers of Kleenex and Sellotape are exasperated to find people
using kleenex and sellotape as ordinary words for facial tissues or sticky tape of
any kind, and some such manufacturers may actually take legal action against
this practice. If you are writing for publication, you need to be careful about
this, and it is best to capitalize such words if you use them. However, when
brand names are converted into verbs, no capital letter is used: we write She
was hoovering the carpet and I need to xerox this report, even though the
manufacturers of Hoover vacuum cleaners and Xerox photocopiers don
like this practice, either.
- Maxine has bought a second-hand Ford Escort.
- Almost everybody owns a Sony Walkman.
(n) Roman numerals are usually capitalized:
The only common exception is that small Roman numerals are used to number
the pages of the front matter in books; look at almost any book.
- It is no easy task to multiply LIX by XXIV using Roman numerals.
- King Alfonso XIII handed over power to General Primo de Rivera.
(o) The pronoun I is always capitalized:
It is possible to write an entire word or phrase in capital letters in order
to emphasize it:
- She thought I'd borrowed her keys, but I hadn't.
On the whole, though, it is preferable to express emphasis, not with capital
letters, but with italics.
It is not necessary to capitalize a word merely because there is only one
thing it can possibly refer to:
- There is ABSOLUTELY NO EVIDENCE to support this conjecture.
Here the words equator, north pole and universe need no capitals, because they
aren't strictly proper names. Some people choose to capitalize them anyway;
this is not wrong, but it's not recommended.
- The equator runs through the middle of Brazil.
- Admiral Peary was the first person to fly over the north pole.
- The universe is thought to be about 15 billion years old.
Capital letters are also used in writing certain
abbreviations and related
types of words, including the abbreviated names of organizations and
companies, and in letter
writing and in the headings of essays.
There is one other rather rare use of capital letters which is worth
explaining if only to prevent you from doing it by mistake when you don't
mean to. This to poke fun at something. Here is an example:
Here the writer is making fun of the common tendency to see historical events
in simple-minded terms as either good or bad. Another example:
- The French Revolution was a Good Thing at first, but Napoleon's rise
to power was a Bad Thing.
The writer is clearly being sarcastic: all those unusual capital letters demonstrate
that he considers rock music to be worthless trash.
- Many people claim that rock music is Serious Art, deserving of Serious
This stylistic device is only appropriate in writing which is intended to
be humorous, or at least light-hearted; it is quite out of place in formal writing.
The use of unnecessary capital letters when you're trying to be serious
can quickly make your prose look idiotic, rather like those content-free books
that fill the shelves of the "New Age" section in bookshops:
You get the idea. Don't use a capital letter unless you're sure you know why
- Your Eidetic Soul is linked by its Crystal Cord to the Seventh Circle of
the Astral Plane, from where the Immanent Essence is
transmitted to your Eidetic Aura,...
Summary of Capital Letters:
- the first word of a sentence or fragment
- the name of a day or a month
- the name of a language
- a word expressing a connection with a place
- the name of a nationality or an ethnic group
- a proper name
- the name of a historical period
- the name of a holiday
- a significant religious term
- the first word, and each significant word, of a title
- the first word of a direct quotation which is a
- a brand name
- a Roman numeral
- the pronoun I
Copyright © Larry Trask, 1997