If you've written in English, you probably know to capitalize words at the beginning of a sentence, and always to capitalize the pronoun "I" and the first letter of names. But did you know that there are also special cases for capitalization, some of which surprise even expert writers? Read on for detailed explanations on when and why to capitalize in unusual circumstances.
Capitonyms are the special snowflakes of English capitalization. These are words that change meaning when you capitalize the first letter.
Here are a few capitonym examples to illustrate how they work:
August, the eighth month, isn't necessarily august, or worthy of reverence.
A Bohemian, someone from the regions of the Czech Republic historically called Bohemia, need not be bohemian, or socially unconventional.
It's important not to confuse Cancer, the constellation and zodiac sign, with cancer, the tragic disease of uncontrolled cell multiplication.
China, the Asian nation, produces a fair amount of china, or porcelain dishware.
Lent, or the Christian period of renunciation preceding Easter, is completely different from lent, the past tense of the verb lend.
Mandarin, the most common language in the world, takes its name from mandarin, or scholar-official of the Imperial Chinese government, but only the language needs the capital letter. The tasty mandarin orange also takes the lower case.
March, the third month of the year, is not the same as a march, or organized walk.
Mercury could be the first planet in the solar system or the messenger god of ancient Rome, but mercury is always the toxic liquid metal at number 80 of the periodic table.
Sometimes capitonyms are pronounced differently too: Mobile, the port city in Alabama, sounds very different from mobile, or able to move.
Directions are another special case for capitalization. At first glance, "We traveled North, South, East and West!" seems like an appropriate use of capitalization.
In truth, directions only need to be capitalized when they're proper nouns. The reason directions are so often capitalized is that they're frequently used in the names for specific things or places. For example, "we drove across the South" is correct if the author is using "the South" as a name for the southern part of the United States. By contrast, "we drove south" doesn't require a capital letter.
Some other common examples include:
In the sentence, "We traveled south to North Dakota," south is a general direction, while North Dakota is a formal name.
"Northern Hemisphere" is capitalized; it refers to a specific place. "The northern lights" aren't, because they don't refer to one particular location.
As far as capitalization is concerned, "the western coast of California" isn't the same thing as "the West Coast." "The western coast" takes lower case because it's a general geographic term. By contrast, "the West Coast" is the proper name for a particular place and culture, and so it requires capitalization.
Historical terms can be confounding to capitalize. When writing about historical issues, the line between formal names and general terms often blurs. However, the same general rule applies: only a specific name referring to a specific thing, differentiating it from every other thing, requires a capital letter.
Especially in older sources, the word "ancient" is sometimes capitalized in phrases like "ancient Greece," "ancient Rome" and "the ancient world." However, for most modern writers, all those phrases should take a lower-case letter. Only formal titles, such as "Seven Wonders of the Ancient World," require capitalization.
Sometimes identical terms can take on a capital letter or a lower-case letter depending on context. Again, the rule is specificity. Take the "Industrial Revolution." Capitalized, it refers specifically to the growth of manufacturing that took place during the 18th and 19th century in Europe and America. In the lower case, "industrial revolution" can refer to any historic change in production, whether it's silkworms in China five thousand years ago or oil in the Middle East in the 1970s.
Terms for certain periods of time also have particular capitalization rules. As a rule, centuries don't get capital letters. Phrases like "the sixth century" or "19th century values" take the lower case. By contrast, names for specific periods, like "the Roaring Twenties" or "the Internet Age" are capitalized according to the rules for titles.
Personal and official titles are another case where specificity is everything. A title gets capitalized when it's part of someone's name, even if that name is used in a casual context. If it doesn't refer to a particular person or name, it takes the lower case.
It may sound tricky, but think of it like this. When the sentence says "President Trump was in his office in Washington," there's only one person it could possibly be. The title of President is part of the subject's name, and takes a capital letter just as a name does. In a sentence like "the president of our bank was in his office in Washington," rather than standing in for a name, it refers to a position that could be occupied by anyone.
Here a few examples of when and how to capitalize job and personal titles:
As always, English has a rule for every situation and an exception (or ten) to every rule. That said, ask the following three questions when deciding if you should capitalize:
Does this refer to a single, unique instance of something, as opposed to a general category?
Is this a name, or taking the place of a name?
Is the meaning limited to just one subject?