Making sense of capitalisation: week 2 - the rules of capitalisation
Updated: Aug 19, 2020
In last week's article, I gave you a quick run-down on the three case systems, so, now you understand the very basic idea, let me lay out the rules of capitalisation for you.
You don't have to remember all of them, but this simple set of rules should really help you out when you're asking yourself, "should I capitalise this?" Bookmark this page and come back to it whenever you're unsure.
1) Proper nouns
A proper noun is the specific (not generic) name given to a particular person, place or thing.
I think we all know this, but people's names should always be capitalised, as should their title, e.g. Miss Kat Taylor. This also applies to days of the week, months of the year (but not seasons), place names, etc.
It gets a bit more complicated when it comes to 'things'. For example, the word 'bridge' is the non-generic name for a thing. It becomes specific when it is the name of a particular bridge, for example, London Bridge, Forth Bridge, etc.
The same goes for wall. It isn't capitalised until it becomes the name of a specific wall like Great Wall of China. China is also capitalised because it is the name of a specific country, but the word country would not be capitalised because it is a generic name for a thing.
Similarly, department should not be capitalised because it's non-specific, but when it becomes a specific department, like Department for Work and Pensions, then it should be capitalised. This also applies to the names of specific departments within a company (Mary is the head of the Corporate Accounts department) but not general department names (Oh, my friend Mary works in corporate accounts, too).
2) Job titles
Capitalise job titles when they come immediately before a person's name (Doctor John Smith), or when the title is used to directly address a person (Good afternoon, President, I love your moustache). Titles should also be capitalised when they are being used in an email or letter signature.
Titles should NOT be capitalised when they are not addressing someone directly (I will be having tea with the queen later) or are not referring to a specific named person (is there a doctor in the house?).
The first word of a greeting (salutation) should be capitalised, as well as the first word of the signoff or closing (valediction):
Thank you for reading my email.
(Notice that only the K is capitalised in 'Kind regards' and not the r. This also applies to other closes like 'Best wishes', 'Yours sincereley' and so on.)
4) Names of relationships
This one catches many of my clients out. Capitalise relationship names (mum, dad, sister, brother, auntie, uncle, etc) ONLY when they take the place of a person's name.
"I'll go and ask Mum." In this example you are using Mum in place of your mum's actual name. Try replacing Mum with your cat's name, "I'll go and ask Tiddles". You use the capital T because Tiddles is your cat's name.
"I'll go and ask my mum." In this example your are referring to mum in the relationship role, not as a replacement for her name. Try it again with your cat. "I'll go and ask my cat." You wouldn't say, "I'll go and ask my Cat", would you. You might, however, say, "I'll go and ask my cat, Tiddles."
4) Words derived from proper nouns
Words derived from proper nouns should be capitalised. In the sentence, "I speak English", you would capitalise the E because English is derived from the word England, which is a proper noun. However, in the sentence, "I always loved science lessons at school" the s should not be capitalised because the word science as a subject doesn't come from a proper noun.
To add to the confusion, if the word science was part of a specific course title (I studied Animal and Plant Sciences at university) then it should be capitalised (you'd only capitalise university if you were using the university's name, for example University of Sheffield).
5) Names of books and films
The names of books, films and other publications use title case, which, as you'll remember from last week, means that all words apart from prepositions and conjunctions (of, and, or, the, etc - unless they are the first or last word in the title) are capitalised.
The Return of Superman
Marley & Me
The points of the compass (north, south, east, west) do not need to be capitalised when giving directions (head south down High Street), but they should be when referring to a specific region (I love visiting family in North Wales).
Acronyms that are spelled out should not be capitalised, unless they abbreviate the specific name for something. For example, LOL stands for laugh out loud, not Laugh Out Loud, and IT stands for information technology, whereas DVLA stands for Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency which is its official name.
8) After a colon
This is an important one, particularly in academic writing.
If you are writing a list, or if there is only one sentence following the colon, do not capitalise. However, if there are more than two sentences after the colon, then you should capitalise.
I need a few things from the shops while you're there: eggs, milk, bread and butter.
The best way to wash your hands: with soap and water.
Mum has one rule: I must put my own clothes away. That includes folding them.
Capitalise the first word in a quote, as long as it's a full sentence.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King said, "Kill your darlings."
Where a quotation or piece of dialogue is broken up, you should only capitalise the first word of any complete sentence within the quote, not each quote. For example:
"I think," said Jeremy as he looked at the children, "you've splashed in quite enough puddles for one day." He gasped, "Dear me! Your clothes are filthy; your mothers will kill me!"
10) Bullet points
Bullet points and their introductions should be written in sentence case, so only capitalise the first word in a bullet point, not every word (a mistake often made in marketing materials).
My proofreading service includes:
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Where things don't make sense or are unclear, I will query these with you and help you to rewrite them in a more succinct way
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I hope this article has made things clearer for you. If you are still feeling baffled, consider having your writing proofread by a professional like me.
Also in this series...
Over the coming weeks, we'll discuss all you need to know about capitalisation.
Week 5: academic texts (headings, bullets, lists and quotations)
Week 6: common mistakes