Capitalization Rules for English Grammar: An Essential Guide

If you've ever typed "when do you capitalize" into a search engine, you could probably use a refresher course in standard English capitalization. While many rules in English writing conventions are a little confusing, capitalization rules are quite easy to remember. Keep reading to learn when to capitalize a word — and when capitalizing isn't grammatically correct.

capitalization rule of capitalizing first word in sentence capitalization rule of capitalizing first word in sentence
Advertisement

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.

Proper Nouns and Adjectives

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 (Mount Olympus, Mount Vesuvius)
  • Cities, countries and continents (Austin, Argentina, Europe)
  • Names of bodies of water, including rivers, lakes, oceans, seas, streams, and creeks (Mississippi River, Muscogee Creek)
  • Names of buildings, monuments, bridges, and tunnels (the Statue of Liberty, the Holland Tunnel, the Lincoln Memorial)
  • Street names (Manhattan Avenue, Oxford Street, Park Drive)
  • Schools, colleges and universities (Harvard University, Boston College, University of Wisconsin)
  • Nationalities and languages (French, English, Japanese)
  • Companies and trademarks (McDonald's, Toyota, Mattel)
  • Time periods and events (the Renaissance, the Revolutionary War, the Industrial Revolution)
  • Gods and religious texts (the Bible, the Quran, Brahma)
  • Names of groups and institutions (Republican Party, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Department of Motor Vehicles)

Proper nouns become proper adjectives when they describe nouns. Examples of proper adjectives include:

  • Adjectives based on place names (Irish, Californian, Canadian)
  • Adjectives derived from names (Shakespearean, Orwellian, Darwinian)
  • Adjectives from religions (Islamic, Buddhist, Christian)

You can form proper adjectives from nearly every proper noun. Note that you wouldn't capitalize any prefixes (such as "pre-Shakespearean" or "post-Orwellian") or hyphenated words (such as "Irish-born" or "Christian-minded").

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 sentence.

  • 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.

Book and Movie Titles

Books, movies, poems, and other creative works often require capitalization for their titles. It depends on the style guide you're using, but generally, you capitalize the following words in a title:

  • the first word
  • adjectives
  • nouns
  • verbs
  • the last word

Meanwhile, you generally don't want to capitalize:

Examples of Book and Movie Title Capitalization

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.

  • 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
Advertisement

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."

Titles of People

Not only do 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.

Capitalize people's titles if they come before the person's name or are used instead of the person's real name.

  • 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.

The same goes for family titles, such as "Uncle Joe" or "Grandma Janet." However, if you're not using the title as a name, you wouldn't capitalize it.

  • Capitalized: Aunt Olive always makes the best pies.
  • Not Capitalized: My aunt always makes the best pies.
  • Capitalized: Did you ask Mom about the party plans?
  • Not capitalized: I asked my mom about what she's bringing to the party.
Advertisement

Acronyms, Initialisms and Initials

Acronyms, where the first letter of each word comes together in a new word, are always capitalized. Examples include:

  • NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration)
  • FIFA (Federación International de Fútbol Asociación)
  • DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education)

They're often pronounced as a single word, but you wouldn't spell them "Nasa" or "Fifa." It's the same rule for initialisms in which you pronounce each letter, such as:

  • USA (United States of America)
  • CIA (Central Intelligence Agency
  • AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization)

Finally, you always capitalize initials when a person goes by the first letter of each of their names. Famous examples include:

  • JFK (John Fitzgerald Kennedy)
  • MLK (Martin Luther King, Jr.)
  • FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt)

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.

  • Monday
  • Saturday
  • January
  • December
  • Christmas
  • Hanukkah
  • Ramadan
  • Easter
  • Fourth of July
  • Yom Kippur
  • Thanksgiving

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,
Sarah Smith

If you'd like to include your title after your name, that must be capitalized too.

Yours truly,
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.

Advertisement

When Not to Capitalize

There are a few specific instances that tend to confuse people when it comes to capitalization. Take a look at these general rules for when you should skip that capital letter.

Don't Capitalize After Colons, Semicolons and Commas

Unlike words after quotation marks, words after a colon don’t need to be capitalized (unless, of course, it's a proper noun). Colons are often used before the introduction of a list. Similarly, you generally don't capitalize after a semicolon. And because a comma doesn't end the sentence, you don't need to capitalize the word after it, either.

Don't Capitalize Common Nouns

There's a difference between Washington Middle School and middle school — one is a proper noun, one is a common noun. Words like middle school or elementary school are common if you're not talking about a specific school, so they are not capitalized. This rule also applies to nouns that follow proper adjectives, such as "Apple computer" and "Honda sedan."

Don't Capitalize Seasons

Even though we capitalize days, months and holidays, not every word related to a calendar falls under this capitalization rule. We don't capitalize the four seasons of winter, spring, summer, or fall (or autumn) unless it's part of a title or proper noun.

Don't Capitalize Directions

If you're telling someone to go in a certain direction, you don't need to capitalize that direction. There are specific direction capitalization rules about when you should capitalize east, west, north, and south, but if you're describing the direction, you won't capitalize it.

Advertisement

Don't Capitalize Majors or Academic Subjects

Whether you're majoring in political science or mechanical engineering, you don't need to capitalize the first letter of your academic focus. The same goes for a subject that you're studying, such as math or language arts. The only exception for capitalizing subjects is if the subject is the name of a class, such as British Literature or Algebra II.

Don't Capitalize Birthdays or Anniversaries

Your birthday, anniversary and other special occasions are momentous days, but that doesn't mean they should be capitalized. If you're wishing someone a "Happy birthday," you don't need to capitalize "birthday." (Of course, if you're spelling it in all capital letters on a banner or cake, go capitalization crazy!)

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. 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!