Most of the words we capitalize in English are what we call proper nouns. They're the names of specific, unique things like Mount Fuji, Idaho, or your friend David. Meanwhile, when you're talking about a common thing of which there are many - like mountains or states - you don't need a capital letter. That’s the simplest explanation of when to capitalize words in English.
Of course, most grammar rules are not this simple. So, let's review some of the most important rules of capitalization. You should always capitalize the following.
1. The First Letter in a Sentence
It's important to always capitalize the first letter of a sentence. This is perhaps the easiest and most straightforward of the capitalization rules, as there are virtually no exceptions or other complications. If it's the first word in a sentence, capitalize it.
2. The First Word in Quotations
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 doesn't require capitalization. Here are some examples:
- Capitalized: The waiter said, "My manager will be here shortly," but he never came.
- Not capitalized: The waiter told us that his manager would "be here shortly," but he never came.
- Capitalized: Ernest Hemingway famously said, "The way to learn whether a person is trustworthy is to trust him."
- Not capitalized: Hemingway said the way to learn if someone is "trustworthy" is "to trust him."
But Not After Colons and Semicolons
Unlike words after quotation marks, words after a colon don’t need to be capitalized. Colons are often used before the introduction of a list. In this case, they're usually not introducing a complete sentence and, as such, shouldn't be capitalized. For example:
- Here's her favorite reading material: books, magazines, and travel guides.
- Consider packing the following items: bug spray, sunscreen, shampoo, and chapstick.
Similarly, you generally don't capitalize after a semicolon. Even though a semicolon can be used to separate two independent clauses, they're considered a part of the same sentence. For example:
- Dad has always been a strict disciplinarian; however, he made an exception this time.
- Joey wants to go to the park; I told him I need to finish my work first.
3. Titles of People
This one may seem obvious, but it’s not as easy as it looks. Of course, you capitalize the first letter of a person's first, middle, and last names (John Quincy Adams), but you also capitalize suffixes (like Jr., the Great, or Princess of Power) and titles.
Titles can be as simple as Mr., Mrs. or Dr., but they also apply to situations in which you address a person by his or her position as though it were part of their name. For example:
- Capitalized: I’m writing my report on President Abraham Lincoln.
- Not capitalized: During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was the president of the United States.
- Capitalized: While I was an intern, I shadowed Senior Marketing Director Sam Jones for a day.
- Not capitalized: Sam Jones is the most productive marketing director in the department.
Capitalize people's titles if they come before the person's name or are used instead of the person's real name. For example, the Honorable Judge Eugene Crane may be called "Judge Crane" or simply "Judge." Always capitalize his title, "Judge." Be sure to capitalize titles if used in direct address too, such as, "Will my dog be okay, Doctor?"
4. Days, Months, and Holidays
When you look at a calendar, almost every word is capitalized. That’s because you should always capitalize days of the week and months of the year (even when they’re abbreviated). Additionally, holidays are also capitalized whenever you write them. Some examples include:
- Fourth of July
- Yom Kippur
But Not Seasons
Even though we capitalize days, months, and holidays, not every word falls in this. We don't need to capitalize "winter," "spring," "summer," or "fall" (or “autumn”) unless it's part of a title or proper noun.
5. The Pronoun "I"
It's only necessary to capitalize other pronouns when they begin a sentence. However, the pronoun "I" is always capitalized, no matter where it falls in a line. For example:
- I don't know about you, but I would wait for it to go on sale.
- He said that we can go home, but I’d wait to hear from the manager.
- Sandra and I are going to the movies later tonight.
6. Proper Nouns
Specific people, places, or things will generally be capitalized. It's what differentiates proper nouns from common nouns. For example, a common noun would be tower, while a proper noun would be the Eiffel Tower. Categories of proper nouns include:
- Names of mountains, mountain ranges, hills, and volcanoes (e.g., Mt. Olympus and Mount Vesuvius)
- Cities and countries (e.g., Austin and Argentina)
- Names of bodies of water, including rivers, lakes, oceans, seas, streams, and creeks (e.g., Mississippi River and Muscogee Creek)
- Names of buildings, monuments, bridges, and tunnels (e.g., the Statue of Liberty and Holland Tunnel)
- Street names (e.g., Manhattan Avenue and Oxford Street)
- Schools, colleges, and universities (e.g., Harvard University and Boston College)
- Political divisions, including continents, regions, states, counties, and towns (e.g., North America and the Wayne County)
- Nationalities and languages (e.g., French and English)
7. Closing a Letter
When we sign off on letters, we generally close with a valediction like "Sincerely" or "Yours truly." The first word in these farewell words or complimentary closes should be capitalized, just like the beginning of a sentence. For example:
Wishing you all the best,
If you'd like to include your title after your name, that must be capitalized too. For example:
Marie Kittelstad, Professor Emeritus
The signature is only one important component in a letter. For the full picture, here's How to Write a Letter.
8. Book and Movie Titles
Books, movies, poems, and other creative works often require capitalization. If you have a future as a blogger, you might choose to capitalize headers in your articles. There are two primary ways to draft headers in an online article.
You can use title case, where you capitalize:
- the first word
- the last word
Meanwhile, you generally don't want to capitalize:
- articles (a, an, the)
- conjunctions (for, and, but, so)
- prepositions with three or fewer words (in, on, at)
The first letter of a work of art is always capitalized, even if it's an article, preposition or conjunction. The last word of these titles always receives a capital too. For example:
- The Glass Menagerie
- A Few Good Men
- Of Mice and Men
- Fools Rush In
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
- Spider-Man: Far From Home
- Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
Here's the low-down on all the rules for capitalization in titles. You can also opt for sentence case, where you capitalize the first word of your header and write the rest as a sentence (but without the terminal punctuation, or period).
Remembering the Rules
Are you a fan of mnemonic devices? They're phrases that help people remember key information. Take a look at these sentences to help you remember each category:
- For quick jogs, drive (if people can’t tell).
- Find quiet justice down in postal codes today.
- “Fire quails!” Josh demanded, icing poor cold toads.
The first letter of each word stands for a category:
- F - First letter in a sentence
- Q - Quotations
- J - Job Titles
- D - Days, months, and years
- I - Pronoun “I”
- P - Proper nouns
- C - Closing a letter
- T - Titles of books and movies
Can you think of more ways to remember these eight categories?
Correct Your Capitalization
No matter what you write, there will be moments when you'll have to decide whether or not to capitalize a word. You can do it! It only takes a little bit of practice and, the more you read and write, the more these rules will stick.
Once you feel like a capitalization pro, check out these special cases for capitalization. Ever heard of capitonyms? They're the snowflakes of the English language that change meaning when you capitalize them. Have fun out there!