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For WebCT Users in Writing Classes:
capital iconThe "caps" icon (usually immediately before a word) indicates either that the following word ought to be capitalized (for one of the reasons listed here) or, if it is already capitalized, that it shouldn't be. A capitalized word that ought to be in lower-case is usually trying to appear more important than it really is.

Capitalize this!

    majuscule
  1. The first word of every sentence.
  2. The first-person singular pronoun, I.
  3. The first, last, and important words in a title. (The concept "important words" usually does not include articles, short prepositions (which means you might want to capitalize "towards" or "between," say), the "to" of an infinitive, and coordinating conjunctions. This is not true in APA Reference lists (where we capitalize only the first word), nor is it necessarily true for titles in other languages. Also, on book jackets, aesthetic considerations will sometimes override the rules.)
  4. Proper nouns
    • Specific persons and things: George W. Bush, the White House, General Motors Corporation.
    • Specific geographical locations: Hartford, Connecticut, Africa, Forest Park Zoo, Lake Erie, the Northeast, the Southend. However, we do not capitalize compass directions or locations that aren't being used as names: the north side of the city; we're leaving the Northwest and heading south this winter. When we combine proper nouns, we capitalize attributive words when they precede place-names, as in Lakes Erie and Ontario, but the opposite happens when the order is reversed: the Appalachian and Adirondack mountains. When a term is used descriptively, as opposed to being an actual part of a proper noun, do not capitalize it, as in "The California deserts do not get as hot as the Sahara Desert."
    • Names of celestial bodies: Mars, Saturn, the Milky Way. Do not, howver, capitalize earth, moon, sun, except when those names appear in a context in which other (capitalized) celestial bodies are mentioned. "I like it here on earth," but "It is further from Earth to Mars than it is from Mercury to the Sun.
    • Names of newspapers and journals. Do not, however, capitalize the word the, even when it is part of the newspaper's title: the Hartford Courant.
    • Days of the week, months, holidays. Do not, however, capitalize the names of seasons (spring, summer, fall, autumn, winter). "Next winter, we're traveling south; by spring, we'll be back up north."
    • Historical events: World War I, the Renaissance, the Crusades.
    • Races, nationalities, languages: Swedes, Swedish, African American, Jewish, French, Native American. (Most writers do not capitalize whites, blacks.)
    • Names of religions and religious terms: God, Christ, Allah, Buddha, Christianity, Christians, Judaism, Jews, Islam, Muslims.
    • Names of courses: Economics, Biology 101. (However, we would write: "I'm taking courses in biology and earth science this summer.")
    • Brand names: Tide, Maytag, Chevrolet.
  5. Names of relationships only when they are a part of or a substitute for a person's name. (Often this means that when there is a modifier, such as a possessive pronoun, in front of such a word, we do not capitalize it.)
    • Let's go visit Grandmother today. Let's go visit my grandmother today.
    • I remember Uncle Arthur. I remember my Uncle Arthur. My uncle is unforgettable.
    This also means that we don't normally capitalize the name of a "vocative" or term of endearment:
    • Can you get the paper for me, hon?
    • Drop the gun, sweetie. I didn't mean it.

 

Capitalizing People's Titles
and the Names of Political Entities

One of the most frequently asked questions about capitalization is whether or not to capitalize people's job titles or the names of political or quasi-political entities. Most writing manuals nowadays seem to align themselves with the tendency in journalistic circles: less is better. When a title appears ABC as part of a person's name, usually before the name, it is capitalized: Professor Farbman (or Professor of Physics Herschel Farbman), Mayor Perez, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. On the other hand, when the title appears after the name, it is not capitalized: Herschel Farbman, professor of history; Eddie Perez, mayor of the city of Hartford; Juan Carlos, king of Spain. Although we don't capitalize "professor of history" after the individual's name, we would capitalize department and program names when they are used in full*: "He worked in the Department of Behavioral Sciences before he started to teach physics." (We do not capitalize majors or academic disciplines unless they refer to a language, ethnic group, or geographical entity: Roundbottom is an economics major, but he loves his courses in French and East European studies.)

The capitalization of words that refer to institutions or governmental agencies, etc. can well depend on who is doing the writing and where or from what perspective. For instance, if I were writing for the city of Hartford, doing work on its charter or preparing an in-house document on appropriate office decor, I could capitalize the word City in order to distinguish between this city and other cities. "The City has a long tradition of individual freedom in selecting wallpapers." If I were writing for the College of Wooster's public relations staff, I could write about the College's new policy on course withdrawal. On the other hand, if I were writing for a newspaper outside these institutions, I would not capitalize those words. "The city has revamped its entire system of government." "The college has changed its policy many times."

We don't capitalize words such as city, state, federal, national, etc. when those words are used as modifiers "There are federal regulations about the relationship of city and state governments. Even as nouns, these words do not need to be capitalized: "The city of New York is in the state of New York" (but it's New York City). Commonly accepted designations for geographical areas can be capitalized: the Near East, the American South, the North End (of Hartford), Boston's Back Bay, the Wild West. Directions are not capitalized unless they become part of the more or less official title of a geographical entity: "He moved from south Texas to South Africa."

Capitalization in E-Mail

For some reason, some writers feel that e-mail should duplicate the look and feel of ancient telegraph messages, and their capitals go the way of the windmill or they go to the opposite extreme and capitalize EVERYTHING. That's nonsense. Proper and restrained capitalization simply makes things easier to read (unless something is capitalized in error, and then it slows things down). Without the little tails and leaders we get in a nice mixture of upper- and lower-case text, words lose their familiar touch and feel. Text written in ALL CAPS is extremely difficult to read and some people regard it as unseemly and rude, like SHOUTING at someone close at hand. Restrain your use of ALL CAPS in e-mail to solitary words that need further emphasis (or, better yet, use italics or underlining for that purpose, if your e-mail client provides for that treatment).

Words Associated with the Internet

There is considerable debate, still, about how to capitalize words associated with the Internet. Most dictionaries are capitalizing Internet, Web, and associated words such as World Wide Web (usually shortened to Web), Web page, Web site, etc., but the publications of some corporations, such as Microsoft, seem to be leaning away from such capitalization. The Yale Style Manual recommends capitalization. The words e-mail and online are not capitalized. The Guide to Grammar and Writing is a monument to inconsistency on this issue.

The most important guiding principle in all such matters is consistency within a document and consistency within an office or institution. Probably the most thorough and most often relied upon guide to capitalization is the Chicago Manual of Style, but the Gregg Reference Manual is also highly recommended.

*We acknowledge a debt to "A Guide to Wesleyan Style," a publication of the Office of Publications of Wesleyan University.


Sentence Sense For additional help with using capital letters, see Chapter 6 of Sentence Sense: A Writer's Guide.

QuizQuiz on Capitalization