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 for those words.
Of course, most grammar rules are not this cut and dry. So, let's review some of the most important rules of capitalization. They'll provide a nice foundation for much of your future writing.
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.
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:
The waiter said, "My manager will be here shortly," but he never came.
Ernest Hemingway famously said, "The way to learn whether a person is trustworthy is to trust him."
The waiter told us that his manager would "be here shortly," but he never came.
Hemingway said the way to learn if someone is "trustworthy" is "to trust him."
For more on that, here's How to Use Quotation Marks.
This one may seem obvious, but there's also a catch. 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 wherein you address a person by his or her position as though it were part of their name.
For example, when we talk about President Abraham Lincoln, we're using his role as though it were a title, not a job description. However, we wouldn't capitalize the word president if it wasn't being used as a title. For example: "During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was the president of the United States."
When capitalizing general job titles, look at the position of the job title relative to the person's name. This will help you know if it should be capitalized or not.
As we saw above, you should capitalize the title when it comes immediately before someone's name. For example, "While I was an intern, I got to shadow Senior Marketing Director Sam Jones for a day."
You don't capitalize the job title if it is separated from the name, such as by a comma or the word "the." For example, "Dr. Rogers was the cardiac surgeon on call."
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, such as, "Will my dog be okay, Doctor?"
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.
Proper nouns, by definition, need to be capitalized. It's what differentiates them from common nouns. So, a common noun would be tower. But a proper noun would be the Eiffel Tower. Specific people, places, or things will generally be capitalized. Here are more examples:
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)
Days, months, and holidays (e.g., Monday, May, and Christmas)
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)
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 close 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.
Books, movies, poems, and other creative works often require capitalization. If you have a future as a blogger, you might choose to capitalize the 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:
The first letter of a work of art is always capitalized, even if it's an article, preposition or conjunction. For example, consider The Glass Menagerie, A Few Good Men, and Of Mice and Men. The last word of these titles always receives a capital too (like Fools Rush In). Articles, conjunctions, and prepositions of four characters or more may also be capitalized (e.g., One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Spider-Man: Far From Home).
Here's the low-down on all the Rules for Capitalization in Titles of Articles.
On the other hand, you can opt for sentence case instead. In this instance, you'll only capitalize the first word of your header and write the rest as a sentence (but without the terminal punctuation, or period).
A place where words are commonly capitalized and (generally) shouldn't be capitalized is after a colon. 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.
Don't stress too much about colons. We break down the five most important rules of colon usage here.
Dad has always been a strict disciplinarian; however, he made an exception this time.
Remember how we capitalize days, months, and holidays? That remains true. However, don't let seasons fall into the same category. We don't need to capitalize "winter," "spring," "summer," or "fall" unless it's part of a title.
How can you possibly remember all these rules? Are you a fan of mnemonic devices? They're phrases that help people remember key information. Take a look at this sentence to help you remember each category:
For Bob Barker, the price is sometimes wrong, Mom says.
The first letter of each word stands for a category:
F - First letter in a sentence
B - Buildings (and other man-made structures)
B - Borders (of regions, states, countries, etc.)
T - Titles
P - People
I - I
S - Schools
W - Water
M - Mountains
S - Streets
Alternatively, you can remember this sentence. It features the same initial letters, just not in the same order:
Susan Sarandon bought my wife fancy toilet paper in Boston.
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. Every heard of capitonyms? They're the snowflakes of the English language that change meaning when you capitalize them. Have fun out there!