Capitalization: Special Cases

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.

Mother talking on the phone about Father. Mother talking on the phone about Father.
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Using Capitonyms

Capitonyms are very special cases in English capitalization. These are words that change meaning, and sometimes pronunciation, when you capitalize the first letter.

Here are a few capitonym examples to illustrate how they work:

  • 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 disease of uncontrolled cell multiplication.
  • The Asian nation of China produces a fair amount of china, or porcelain dishware.
  • The Christian period of renunciation preceding Easter called Lent, is completely different from lent, the past tense of the verb lend.
  • The most common language in the world, Mandarin, 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.
  • The third month of the year, March, is not the same as a march, or organized walk.
  • The capitalized 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.
  • Turkey, the Eurasian nation, has nothing in common with turkey, the delicious American bird.

As mentioned, sometimes capitonyms are pronounced differently:

  • The eighth month of August [aw-guhst] isn’t necessarily august [aw-guhst], or worthy of reverence.
  • Mobile [mo-beel], the port city in Alabama, sounds very different from mobile [mo-buhl], or able to move.
  • The Polish [poh-lish] people or language should not be confused with making something shine with polish [pol-ish].

When to Capitalize Directions

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. Even the scientific term for the lights "aurora borealis" isn't capitalized.
  • 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.
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When Historical Terms Get Capitals

Historical terms can be confounding to capitalize. When writing about historical eras or 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.
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Capitalizing Family and Personal Titles

Family, 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. So "aunt" would be capitalized whether you said "I invited Aunt Marie over" or "I invited my Aunt Marie over" because both times the word "aunt" precedes the person's name. If you were to say "I invited my aunt over" the word "aunt" would not be capitalized as it's a generic term.

It may sound tricky, but take a look at another example. When a 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 more examples of when and how to capitalize people's titles:

  • “Would you tell Mom I’ll be late for dinner?” is a different question than, “Would you tell my mom I’ll be late for dinner?” The first replaces your mother’s name; the second refers to her indirectly.
  • “Kentucky Fried Chicken was invented by Colonel Sanders. The colonel opened his first restaurant in 1930.” If a title precedes a name, it’s always capitalized. If not, it’s a generic term and doesn’t require a capital.
  • Like more formal titles, personal titles like “Mister” and “Miss” are capitalized when they occur alongside a name. This rule applies even in abbreviated forms like “Mr.” and “Ms.,” as in, “You can find Ms. Smith in the parlor.” When used as a general term, however - “Excuse me, miss, is this your car?” - it takes the lower case.
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An Exception to Every Rule

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?

If so, capitalize. If not, don’t. For further help, check out our articles on Rules for Capitalization in Titles and Capitalization of Seasons. Happy writing!