Capitalization Rules

Capitalization is the writing of a word with its first letter in uppercase and the remaining letters in lowercase. Experienced writers are stingy with capitals. It is best not to use them if there is any doubt.

Rule 1. Capitalize the first word of a document and the first word after a period.

Rule 2. Capitalize proper nouns—and adjectives derived from proper nouns.

Examples:
the Golden Gate Bridge
the Grand Canyon
a Russian song
a Shakespearean sonnet
a Freudian slip

With the passage of time, some words originally derived from proper nouns have taken on a life, and authority, of their own and no longer require capitalization.

Examples:
herculean (from the ancient-Greek hero Hercules)
quixotic (from the hero of the classic novel Don Quixote)
draconian (from ancient-Athenian lawgiver Draco)

The main function of capitals is to focus attention on particular elements within any group of people, places, or things. We can speak of a lake in the middle of the country, or we can be more specific and say Lake Michigan, which distinguishes it from every other lake on earth.

Capitalization Reference List

  • Brand names
  • Companies
  • Days of the week and months of the year
  • Governmental matters
    Congress (but congressional), the U.S. Constitution (but constitutional), the Electoral College, Department of Agriculture. Note: Many authorities do not capitalize federal or state unless it is part of the official title: State Water Resources Control Board, but state water board; Federal Communications Commission, but federal regulations.
  • Historical episodes and eras
    the Inquisition, the American Revolutionary War, the Great Depression
  • Holidays
  • Institutions
    Oxford College, the Juilliard School of Music
  • Manmade structures
    the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower, the Titanic
  • Manmade territories
    Berlin, Montana, Cook County
  • Natural and manmade landmarks
    Mount Everest, the Hoover Dam
  • Nicknames and epithets
    Andrew "Old Hickory" Jackson; Babe Ruth, the Sultan of Swat
  • Organizations
    American Center for Law and Justice, Norwegian Ministry of the Environment
  • Planets
    Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, but policies vary on capitalizing earth, and it is usually not capitalized unless it is being discussed specifically as a planet: We learned that Earth travels through space at 66,700 miles per hour.
  • Races, nationalities, and tribes
    Eskimo, Navajo, East Indian, Caucasian, African American (Note: white and black in reference to race are lowercase)
  • Religions and names of deities
    Note: Capitalize the Bible (but biblical). Do not capitalize heaven, hell, the devil, satanic.
  • Special occasions
    the Olympic Games, the Cannes Film Festival
  • Streets and roads

Lowercase Reference List

Here is a list of categories not capitalized unless an item contains a proper noun or proper adjective (or, sometimes, a trademark). In such cases, only the proper noun or adjective is capitalized.

  • Animals
    antelope, black bear, Bengal tiger, yellow-bellied sapsucker, German shepherd
  • Elements
    Always lowercase, even when the name is derived from a proper noun: einsteinium, nobelium, californium
  • Foods
    Lowercase except for brand names, proper nouns and adjectives, or custom-named recipes: Tabasco sauce, Russian dressing, pepper crusted bluefin tuna, Mandy's Bluefin Surprise
  • Heavenly bodies besides planets
    Never capitalize the moon or the sun.
  • Medical conditions
    Epstein-Barr syndrome, tuberculosis, Parkinson's disease
  • Minerals
  • Plants, vegetables, and fruits
    poinsettia, Douglas fir, Jerusalem artichoke, organic celery, Golden Delicious apples
  • Seasons and seasonal data
    spring, summertime, the winter solstice, the autumnal equinox, daylight saving time

Rule 3. A thorny aspect of capitalization: where does it stop? When does the Iraq war become the Iraq War? Why is the legendary Hope Diamond not the Hope diamond? Everyone writes New York City, so why does the Associated Press Stylebook recommend New York state? There aren't always easy formulas or logical explanations. Research with reference books and search engines is the best strategy.

In the case of brand names, companies are of little help, because they capitalize any word that applies to their merchandise. Domino's Pizza or Domino's pizza? Is it Ivory Soap or Ivory soap, a Hilton Hotel or a Hilton hotel? Most writers don't capitalize common nouns that simply describe the products (pizza, soap, hotel), but it's not always easy to determine where a brand name ends. There is Time magazine but also the New York Times Magazine. No one would argue with Coca-Cola or Pepsi Cola, but a case could be made for Royal Crown cola.

If a trademark starts with a lowercase word or letter (e.g., eBay, iPhone), many authorities advise capitalizing it to begin a sentence.

Example: EBay opened strong in trading today.

Rule 4. Capitalize titles when they are used before names, unless the title is followed by a comma. Do not capitalize the title if it is used after a name or instead of a name.

Examples:
The president will address Congress.
Chairman of the Board William Bly will preside at the conference.
The chairman of the board, William Bly, will preside.
The senators from Iowa and Ohio are expected to attend.
Also expected to attend are Senators Buzz James and Eddie Twain.
The governors, lieutenant governors, and attorneys general called for a special task force.
Governor Fortinbrass, Lieutenant Governor Poppins, and Attorney General Dalloway will attend.

NOTE

Out of respect, some writers and publishers choose to capitalize the highest ranks in government, royalty, religion, etc.

Examples:
The President arrived.
The Queen spoke.
The Pope decreed.

Many American writers believe this to be a wrongheaded policy in a country where, theoretically, all humans are perceived as equal.

Rule 5. Titles are not the same as occupations. Do not capitalize occupations before full names.

Examples:
director Steven Spielberg
owner Helen Smith
coach Biff Sykes

Sometimes the line between title and occupation gets blurred. One example is general manager: is it a title or an occupation? Opinions differ. Same with professor: the Associated Press Stylebook considers professor a job description rather than a title, and recommends using lowercase even before the full name: professor Robert Ames.

Rule 6a. Capitalize a formal title when it is used as a direct address.

Example: Will you take my temperature, Doctor?

Rule 6b. Capitalize relatives' family names (kinship names) when they immediately precede a personal name, or when they are used alone in place of a personal name.

Examples:
I found out that Mom is here.
You look good, Grandpa.
Andy and Opie loved Aunt Bee's apple pies.

However, these monikers are not capitalized with possessive nouns or pronouns, when they follow the personal name, or when they are not referencing a specific person.

Examples:
My mom is here.
Joe's grandpa looks well.
The James brothers were notorious robbers.
There's not one mother I know who would allow that.

Rule 6c. Capitalize nicknames in all cases.

Examples:
Meet my brothers, Junior and Scooter.
I just met two guys named Junior and Scooter.

Rule 7. Capitalize specific geographical regions. Do not capitalize points of the compass.

Examples:
We had three relatives visit from the West.
Go west three blocks and then turn left.
We left Florida and drove north.
We live in the Southeast.
We live in the southeast section of town.
Most of the West Coast is rainy this time of year.
(referring to the United States)
The west coast of Scotland is rainy this time of year.

Some areas have come to be capitalized for their fame or notoriety:

Examples:
I'm from New York's Upper West Side.
I'm from the South Side of Chicago.
You live in Northern California; he lives in Southern California.

Rule 8. In general, do not capitalize the word the before proper nouns.

Examples:
I'm reading the London Times.
They're fans of the Grateful Dead.

In special cases, if the word the is an inseparable part of something's official title, it may be capitalized.

Example: We visited The Hague.

Rule 9. Do not capitalize city, town, county, etc., if it comes before the proper name.

Examples:
the city of New York
New York City
the county of Marin
Marin County

Rule 10. Always capitalize the first word in a complete quotation, even midsentence.

Example: Bill said, "That job we started last April is done."

Rule 11. For emphasis, writers sometimes capitalize a midsentence independent clause or question.

Examples:
One of her cardinal rules was, Never betray a friend.
It made me wonder, What is mankind's destiny?

Rule 12. Capitalize the names of specific course titles, but not general academic subjects.

Examples:
I must take history and Algebra 101.
He has a double major in European economics and philosophy.

Rule 13. Capitalize art movements.

Example: I like Surrealism, but I never understood Abstract Expressionism.

Rule 14. Do not capitalize the first item in a list that follows a colon.

Example: Bring the following: paper, a pencil, and a snack.

For more on capitalization after a colon, go to "Colons," Rules 1, 3, and 4.

Rule 15. Do not capitalize "the national anthem."

Rule 16a. Composition titles: which words should be capitalized in titles of books, plays, films, songs, poems, essays, chapters, etc.? This is a vexing matter, and policies vary. The usual advice is to capitalize only the "important" words. But this isn't really very helpful. Aren't all words in a title important?

The following rules for capitalizing composition titles are universal.

  • Capitalize the title's first and last word.
  • Capitalize verbs, including all forms of the verb to be (is, are, was, etc.).
  • Capitalize all pronouns, including it, he, who, that, etc.
  • Capitalize not.
  • Do not capitalize a, an, or the unless it is first or last in the title.
  • Do not capitalize the word and, or, or nor unless it is first or last in the title.
  • Do not capitalize the word to, with or without an infinitive, unless it is first or last in the title.

Otherwise, styles, methods, and opinions vary. Small words such as or, as, if, and but are capped by some, but lowercased by others.

The major bone of contention is prepositions. The Associated Press Stylebook recommends capitalizing all prepositions of more than three letters (e.g., With, About, Across). Others advise lowercase until a preposition reaches five or more letters. Still others say not to capitalize any preposition, even big words like regarding or underneath.

Hyphenated words in a title also present problems. There are no set rules. Some writers, editors, and publishers choose not to capitalize words following hyphens unless they are proper nouns or proper adjectives (Ex-Marine but Ex-husband). Others capitalize any word that would otherwise be capped in titles (Prize-Winning, Up-to-Date).

Rule 16b. Many books have subtitles. When including these, put a colon after the work's title and follow the same rules of composition capitalization for the subtitle.

Example: The King's English: A Guide to Modern Usage

Note that A is capitalized because it is the first word of the subtitle.

Suppose you are reviewing a book whose title on the cover is in capital letters: THE STUFF OF THOUGHT. Beneath, in smaller capital letters, is the subtitle, LANGUAGE AS A WINDOW INTO HUMAN NATURE. All sides would agree that the main title should be written, The Stuff of Thought. But depending on which capitalization policy you choose, the subtitle might be any of the following:

Language As a Window Into Human Nature
Language as a Window Into Human Nature
Language As a Window into Human Nature
Language as a Window into Human Nature

Capitalizing composition titles is fraught with gray areas. Pick a policy and be consistent.