Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Basics: Capitalization

All writers should have a thorough understanding of basic writing rules. Depending on the style of writing you are working with, you may be able to break some of these rules some of the time. However, if you are going to choose to break some established rules, you must have a good reason for doing so. With that being said, this article is an overview of the rules for capitalization.

Proper capitalization is an important part of writing. It helps your reader to understand your writing more clearly. When writing professionally, you don't get to follow the same rules as you might when sending text messages, emails to friends, or twitter messages where the rules can be a little more lax. Knowing when to capitalize will make your writing look better and easier to read. In addition, it will also help you make a good impression on your reader, something which you will want to do all of the time.

All of these rules are universally accepted within English language usage. However, some of these rules have variances depending on the citation style of writing being employed. Those exceptions will be noted here. I would advise you to check an authoritative guide for the particular citation style you will be using to verify the specifics regarding capitalization for such exceptions.

For the examples below, I will list the rule, and then I will provide an example. In each example, I will use bold text to demonstrate the specific words to which the rule applies.

All of the names I am using in these examples are fictitious; any resemblance to real people is unintended.

Always capitalize the first letter of a sentence. The first letter of this sentence is capitalized.
In English, the pronoun "I" is always capitalized. Wherever I go, the sun is shining on me.
All proper nouns should be capitalized. This includes the first letter of each part of a person's name, names of specific locations, and abbreviations used in the names of specific locations. I am going to meet John Smith for lunch.

He lives on Milk Street in Denver, Colorado.

This is quite a distance from Mount Everest.

It is also nowhere near Chauncy Rd.
In English, days of the week and months are considered proper nouns, and should thus be capitalized. I am going to the store on Sunday afternoon.

In the United States of America, the fourth of July is celebrated as a national holiday commemorating Independence Day, the day when the colonists declared their freedom from the British.
If a location is commonly known by an abbreviation where one letter represents one word of that abbreviation, all letters in the abbreviation are capitalized. The U.S.A. won the gold medal in the high jump event.

Dubai is the capital of the U.A.E.
However, if it is not a location with a specific name, there is no need to capitalize it. I decided to go to the lake for a swim.
If an organization or agency name is abbreviated, the abbreviated name should have all major words capitalized. Generally speaking, minor words are not included in such abbreviations. The E.P.A. is an agency in the United States which has the job of regulating, maintaining, and protecting the natural environment from human interference or destruction.

The I.M.F. and the World Bank lend out money to developing nations to help bolster their economies.
In the U.S.A., two letter state abbreviations have both letters capitalized. Also, there is no period to represent that it is an abbreviation. The same is true for Canadian provinces, although some Canadian provinces use three letter abbreviations. (Please let me know if this rule applies in some similar manner with places in other parts of the world.) Anchorage, AK is the capital of the largest state in the U.S.A. as measured by square mileage.
If an abbreviation is for a title of a person, the abbreviation is capitalized. If there are multiple parts in the abbreviation, the first letter of each abbreviated part is capitalized. For multiple abbreviations, separate the abbreviations with commas and capitalize each abbreviation. Mr. Harris and Mrs. Jones were going to meet up with Dr. Ericson and Peter Klein, Esq. for lunch.

Paula Townsend, M.D., Ph.D., is a knowledgeable and intelligent person.
In general, corporate names, copyrighted works, and trademarked items should have all parts of their names capitalized. I like to eat Oreo cookies.
My favorite drink is Coca Cola, even though everybody I know just calls it Coke.
However, certain specific items may have been named for marketing purposes which, as a result, may not follow standard capitalization rules. Apple Computer, Inc. released the iMac, the iPhone, the iPod, and the iPad with great fanfare.
Titles of works of art, whether written or visual, must have the first word and all subsequent major words in the title capitalized. (While this is generally the case, this is one of those rules where different citation styles will result in different capitalization rules. If you are required to write following a particular writing citation style for academics, research, or publication, consult your citation style guide for the specific rules you should follow. Otherwise, this rule will be good enough for your usage.) Have you read the book "Where the Red Fern Grows"?

One of Van Gogh's most famous paintings is entitled "Starry Starry Night".
When somebody is speaking, the first letter of the first word of the sentence they are speaking is capitalized. Jonas said, "This is the best restaurant I have eaten at in a long time."
However, sometimes it is desirable to break up what a person says to make it easier for the reader to understand or to provide for a visual pause in the thought process. In that case, do not capitalize the second part of what the person says if it is a continuation of the first part. "It wasn't like that," Jack said, "at least not until my father died."
On the other hand, if it is a completely separate thought, treat each part as separate sentences. In that case, each sentence should be capitalized. "I am going to the store," Samantha said. "Would you like me to pick anything up for you?"
In some rare situations when two people are talking to each other or relating a story to a third person, the conversation should be a guide for where to capitalize, particularly if one person is finishing a sentence which another person has begun. Gloria and Stephanie couldn't hold back their excitement.
Gloria said, "Did you see that airplane? It was as big as, as big as"
"an elephant," Stephanie finished. "You should have seen it!"
When describing what a person is saying or what the person said, do not capitalize what was said if it was said indirectly within the context of the events being described. I was walking on the sidewalk yesterday when a man came up to me and told me about the construction on the left hand side of the road.
When separating two main clauses with a semicolon instead of a period, the second main clause should not begin with a capital letter unless it begins with a proper noun. (For a review of clauses, see my earlier blog article, The Basics: Parts of a Sentence.) A few years ago, the restaurant had long lines of people waiting to be seated; now, nearly all of the seats are empty.
In more lengthy documents, it is often the case that entire section headings are capitalized. Chart or table headings may also be capitalized to provide a visually clearer understanding of the data being presented. In some style guides, this is a strict rule, but in most cases, it is a stylistic choice of individual authors which is frequently employed. RULES FOR PROPER CAPITALIZATION

While I believe this list is fairly exhaustive, it is possible that I may have left out some specific rules for capitalization. If you think I have, please let me know and I will consider adding them.

©2013 Glenn Alperin

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