Some people may tell you that there are far more than just ten rules of capitalization in English, and with everything that you have to remember, that may be true. Others may say that there are only three rules, and they are also correct. The truth is that depending on how you organize them, the rules of capitalization may be many or few, but in either case, you still have to know what the rules entail. This article will help you remember it all.
Most of the things we capitalize in English are what we call proper nouns. They are the names of specific, unique things. For example, maybe you live in a white house, but you don’t live in the White House (unless, of course, you are the president). In the first case, ‘house’ is just a regular noun. There are millions of houses, even white ones, all over the world, but they don’t have special names. However, the president of the United States lives in a specific house that is named the White House. It’s the only house with that name. It is also a white house because it’s a house that is white.
So, when you are talking about a common thing of which there are many, like a mountain, a state or a street, don’t use a capital letter for those words. If, however, you are talking about one specific mountain (Mt. Fuji), state (Idaho) or street (Atlantic Ave.) that has a name, and if you are using that name, use a capital letter for every word in the name except for the word ‘and,’ articles (a, an, the) and prepositions (of, on, for, in, to, with, etc.).
What kinds of things do you need to capitalize? Here are the rules:
1. Names 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."
2. Names of mountains, mountain ranges, hills and volcanoes
Again, we’re talking about specific places. The word ‘hill’ is not a proper noun, but Gellert 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).
3. 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 Eerie, the Indian Ocean and the Dead Sea.
4. Names of buildings, monuments, bridges and tunnels
5. Street names
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).
6. Schools, colleges and universities
Harvard University, Wilkesboro Elementary School, Cape Fear Community College
7. 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.
8. 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 Post, The 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 comes in the middle of the title, it is not capitalized.
9. 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:
10. The pronoun I
It’s only necessary to capitalize other pronouns when they begin a sentence, but ‘I’ is always capitalized.
How can you possibly remember all these rules? Well, first of all, you should ask yourself three questions:
And if you want to remember all the specific categories, try memorizing one of the following sentences.
The first letter of each word stands for a category:
And there you have it. Whether you think of English as having ten rules of capitalization, thirty, or just three, You should now be able to remember them all.