Core Grammar #9: Capitalization

The Big Letters

Fortunately for us,

Capital letters show up in four places:

  1. the first word of a new sentence,
  2. proper nouns,
  3. the first person singular pronoun "I", and
  4. the major words of a title.

Capitals are not for emphasis

We do not use capitalization to show how we would say something loudly or for any other kind of emphasis. If you want to do something like that, use italics. Follow the rules and be consistent. Do not write like this:

At my house, we have a Dog, three cats, two fish, and a Gerbil.

1. First word of a sentence

Every sentence begins with a capital letter. That is simple enough, but there are a couple of complications: If an independent clause follows a colon (the way this one does) it also begins with a capital letter, and if a sentence (or two or three) appears within quotation marks or parentheses, the first letter is also capitalized.

John said, "I love you. Let's get married."

Help from the computer—sort of:

Microsoft Word is quite good at capitalizing the first letter that follows an end punctuation (period, question mark, or exclamation mark), but it doesn't understand the colon rule, nor does it often pick up the first word in a quotation.

Trouble spot #1:

If you have not figured out how to use the computer yet and you are hitting the return/enter key at the end of each line, the computer thinks each line is a new paragraph and it will capitalize the first letter. Fix this by learning how to type on a computer.

Trouble spot #2:

The computer figures out that something is a new sentence by looking at spacing. It assumes that a word with an end punctuation tight against it (period, question mark, exclamation point) followed by a space is the end of a sentence. If you type like this:

This is the end of the sentence. this is the beginning of a new one.

The computer will probably correct it:

This is the end of the sentence. This is the beginning of a new one.

If you put that space and period in the wrong place, you look like you have never seen printed English, and the computer will not capitalize the beginning of the sentence for you:

This is the end of the sentence .this is the beginning of a new one.

Trouble spot #3:

The grammar checker will force a capital letter after the period of an abbreviation—and the only to fix it is to go back and fix it after you type it. (Abbreviations, by the way, are losing their periods.)

You want to write this: That comment from a new Ph.D. candidate in history is familiar.
The grammar checker forces this change, but it is wrong: That comment from a new Ph.D. Candidate in history is familiar.

2. Proper nouns

The word proper comes from Latin, and means "one's own, special." Common nouns are the names of general groups of things. Proper nouns (the ones we capitalize) are particular to individuals, so we get:

Common nounProper noun
boy, girlHarry, Hermione
schoolHogwarts, Ashland University
cityLondon, Cleveland
automobileToyota, Chevrolet

Some proper nouns are unique, and the computer is good at picking these up and capitalizing the first letter if you forget: England, Robert. Other proper nouns are made up of common nouns (National Football League), and the computer misses those entirely. If you type "united states of america," the computer only capitalizes the last word for you—which is wrong. (Our country is the United States of America—capitals on the first letter of every word except of.)

Trouble spot:

Names of school courses are not usually proper nouns. The exceptions are the languages (which would be proper nouns whether they are courses or simply names of the languages themselves). Here is how you should discuss your academic schedule:

This semester I am taking physics, history, English, art appreciation, and Spanish.

3. First person singular pronoun

Few rules are more simple: When you refer to yourself as "I", the letter gets capitalized. Fortunately, Microsoft Word's grammar checker always gets this one right, and often makes the change automatically.

4. Major words of a title

The first word, last word, and all the major words of a title are capitalized (not words like of or the). The grammar checker will never find these for you, but you can use "change case" to get a title almost right. Highlight the title and choose "Change Case" (shift + F3), then specify "Title Case." The first letter of everything you highlighted will change to a capital.

Title formatting, the biggest secret in education

As long as we're on the topic of titles, I'll mention a standard practice which has been around for at least fifty years and yet is somehow known to only 5% of my students: what to do with titles of things.

More information:

The way I mark things:

I'm an old printer, so I usually use printer's proofreading marks for capitalization.


The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by Ashland University.
Revised 8/10/17 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: callen@ashland.edu.