I’m not sure what the Reason is, but there is a disturbing Trend appearing in some of the Writing Today. Maybe we have many Writers who speak German, because the Trend is that People are capitalizing Things that shouldn’t be Capitalized -- as I did in this Paragraph. That Trend, coupled with a Request in an earlier Comment sparked the Idea for a Tutorial on Capitalization.
This is going to be somewhat convoluted because there are a lot of different things to discuss and many different sources that disagree on some of them.
Once again, I drew on different dictionaries, style guides, and Web sites to assemble this information. I’ll start off with those things about which there are no arguments (or only minor differences).
Here’s a table of contents so you can find things easier.
Cities, Commonwealths, Continents, Counties, Countries, Districts, Parishes, States, Towns, and Townships
Weekdays, Months, Seasons, and Holidays
Titles of Works
Then the Legal Gunk
* * *
Anyone who knows me will understand why I’m leading off with this section. When talking about any member(s) of the United States Marine Corps, the words Marine, Marines, Corps, Leatherneck, and Devil Dog are always capitalized. I don’t care what your style guide says, those words are always capitalized -- ask any Marine.
Might as well cover the other services. Capitalize the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard when referring to them by name as well as individual units.
Examples would be the Army, U.S. Navy, British Royal Marines, March Air Force Base, the French Foreign Legion, 7th Regiment, or 2nd Division.
How far down the hierarchy you capitalize is rather up in the air. Divisions, regiments, battalions and companies are nearly always capitalized. Below that, capitalization depends on the usage. The 1st fire team, second squad, third platoon, A Company, Second Battalion, First Regiment is probably correct. It’s a safe bet that most people will not notice (or care) if you write the First Fire Team, Second Rifle Squad, Third Platoon, Able Company, Second Battalion, of the First Regiment.
If you’re writing something about the 1st Fire Team, you’re on safe ground, but if you then mention the fire team from that other platoon of some other company that belongs to some battalion of whatever regiment, you’re also doing it correctly. When you have a word or phrase that may or may not be capitalized, the decision should be based on what many guides call restrictive usage.
There will be places in this chapter where I’ll mention that the restrictive value of some term determines whether it should be capitalized. Let’s get that out of the way now. If we’re talking about the army of some country, that’s not restrictive and not capitalized. Although the Argentinean Army would be capitalized because it is restricted to one country, the South American armies would not be capitalized because South America is not a country and doesn’t have an army. In a like manner, if we’re talking about isolated army units in Argentina or isolated Argentinean army units, they don’t rate a capital.
You would not capitalize the British naval forces because it is too broad a reference, although you would capitalize the fact that British Navy units took part in an exercise.
Keeping with the military sample, you might be talking about a specific First Regiment and that regiment might have been the first regiment to go into combat, but only that first usage would be capitalized.
The personal pronoun “I” is always capitalized. Other personal pronouns (we, you, he, she, it, they) are not.
The first letter of any sentence is always capitalized. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a complete sentence or not.
He turned and asked Sue what was wrong.
He turned and...
There is one place where it might appear that is not the case, but it is. That’s in dialogue when you are continuing a sentence. The second part of the dialogue is a continuation of the first and is not capitalized.
“I told you to get out of here,” Sue said, “unless you don’t want to go.”
I discussed this in the chapter on dialogue but I’ll include it here because it fits in with this topic. You will occasionally see an ellipsis at the beginning of a sentence. Most style guides say you shouldn’t do it but, if you decide to do it, here’s the proper format.
She said, “But, Sam, what should I do if...” It took her a few seconds to finish her thought.
“…if the worst should happen.”
Note that there is no space between the ellipsis and the first word and the first word is not capitalized.
Do not capitalize a quoted phrase.
The professor said that we should “study chapter three tonight.”
In normal dialogue, you put in a “said” or other tag, then a comma, then the dialogue. But, what if you have just a single word for the dialogue surrounded by actions? There are two thoughts on that.
Sam nodded at the boss, said, “Hi,” and went on his way.
Sam nodded at the boss, said hi, and went on his way.
The first sample is grammatically correct, but the second could be used in some cases. It would depend on the overall impression you’re trying to create. If you’ve developed Sam’s character as a formal type, then use the first one. If your Sam is informal, flippant, or disrespectful, use the second one.
Another case might be a situation where your character doesn’t say something.
Sam didn’t actually say, “Hi,” but did nod.
Sam didn’t actually say hi, but did nod.
Sam didn’t actually say hi, but did nod.
You can’t use the first one because Sam didn’t say anything. The second is the most common but the third is grammatically the most acceptable. Which should you use? I’d use the second.
I am Leonard L. Maxwell Jr. Note that all of them, including the initial and abbreviation, are capitalized.
My best friend is Thaddeus van Cortland and that’s how he writes his name. However, if I don’t use his first name, I refer to him as Van Cortland.
I found a disclaimer in two references that said usage in British and American names called for the Van to be capitalized in all cases. However you have to know the personal preference of the individual.
In business and scientific writing, you will frequently use bulleted lists. Capitalization depends on following the rules for parallel construction. There are two basic types of bulleted lists: topics and sentences. Sentence lists are easiest because they are introduced by a sentence and each of the items is a sentence.
There is some topic that introduces the remainder.
• This is the first item.
• Then we have this item.
• There is this final item.
Note that, because each entry is a sentence, each one starts with a capital and ends with a period.
The topic list provides some problems. It usually starts with an introduction that ends in a colon and then the individual items are just words or phrases. If you think of it as a paragraph, it might be this.
Now we have a topic: one thing, second thing, and last thing.
The problem comes with the punctuation involved in putting this into a bulleted list. The most common is this.
Now we have a topic:
• one thing
• second thing
• last thing
Note that, because it’s all one paragraph and the bullets replace the commas there are no capitals and no punctuation. Some corporate style guides call for a period at the end of the final bullet, but most do not. Some corporate style guides also call for a comma at the end of all but the last line. How do you do it? If you have a corporate style guide: follow it. If not, use the format above. It might not always be right, but it will rarely be wrong.
Everyone agreed with this one. The points north, south, east, west, and their combinations such as northeast, southwest, and so forth, are not capitalized when you are using them as directions.
Go north two miles to the I10 and then turn west.
He lives in the southeast corner of the town.
Capitalize the compass point if it refers to a geographical part of a country, state, or area.
She lives in the North Bay.
I’m going back East for my vacation.
I spent many happy days in the South.
I want to visit the South Pole.
I spent time in Southeast Asia.
We’re in the Western Hemisphere.
I have a personal disagreement with the style guides on one point. I live in SoCal, meaning Southern California. Most of the sources said it’s southern California, but I live in Southern California and, if you want to argue the point, come to SoCal and find me!
Cities, Commonwealths, Continents, Counties, Countries, Districts, Parishes, States, Towns, and Townships
Capitalize the names of all those things.
I live in San Bernardino, California.
California is located in North America.
California is not part of France or Europe.
The name of my city is San Bernardino, so if I’m talking about the city of San Bernardino, “city” is not capitalized. If I lived in Center City, then “city” would be capitalized, unless I said that I lived in the city of Center City. The same thing applies to counties. San Bernardino is part of San Bernardino County. However, if I’m talking about the county of San Bernardino, no capital.
It would be the same thing if I were talking about the city of New York or New York City being in the state of New York or in New York State.
When you discuss political divisions, they are capitalized.
I lived in the French Republic for a while, but did manage to visit the United Kingdom.
Languages are capitalized: I have studied German, French, and Bulgarian.
Bridges, buildings, churches, monuments, parks, schools, squares, statues, thoroughfares, and towers are capitalized when used with a name.
When you’re standing beside the Brooklyn Bridge you point at the bridge, kinda like pointing at the Sears Tower and saying something about that tower over there.
There’s a dividing line somewhere when it comes to courts and I’m not sure what it is. Specific courts are capitalized: If you’re talking about the Supreme Court (referring to SCOTUS), or a specific State Court of Appeals, or the Ninth Circuit Court -- they get capitalized. If you’re writing about a divorce court, traffic court, or magistrate’s court -- they don’t.
The terms government, nation, province, republic, and state cause a lot of trouble because of that restrictive usage rule. Most of the sources tell you to capitalize those when they are used with a name or as a synonym for a name. Okay, used with a name is no problem.
We write about the Province of Ontario or Her Majesty’s Government. It’s also no problem to know that if we talk of a provincial park in Ontario there’s no capital. I’ve already talked about state as in New York State and the state of New York and it follows that talking about a state prison doesn’t get a capital unless you mention Attica State Prison by name.
We can also write about a state’s legislation without worrying about the capital, but what if we’re writing about the state of Kansas and are discussing specific (restrictive) State legislation? Yep, capitalized.
You can talk about a nation that stands by its citizens and not capitalize it, but if you’re discussing the country of Zimbabwe and say that the Nation stands by its citizens, then it gets capitalized.
I ran into a lot of disagreement with the term “government.” There was a generic agreement that “government” should be capitalized when referring to a specific country’s government. If we talk about the government of Canada it doesn’t get capitalized, but if we say the Canadian Government, it does.
Where we have a problem is when “government” is used as a modifier. Your character can be on official Government business if you have already established that (s)he is a member of a government organization.
Here’s another restrictive thing. Consider that you’re writing a political treatise and you make two statements in two different paragraphs. The first is non-restrictive and the second is.
The government should not interfere in the citizens’ lives.
The US is no different and the Government should not interfere in the citizens’ lives.
The same rules apply to administration, cabinet, and federal.
Many people considered the Reagan Administration to be good. There were other administrations what were graded differently.
The President’s Cabinet met for two hours today. Many Cabinet members stayed for an additional hour or so.
He works for the Federal Government and ensures that Federal regulations are enforced.
However if you’re talking about the government in general, you might say that someone enforces federal regulations and the rules of various cabinet departments without capitalizing them.
Weekdays, Months, Seasons, and Holidays
Weekdays and months are always capitalized and seasons are not.
The last Monday of February is still part of winter.
An exception to this is when a season is used as part of a name. In that case, you need to decide how restrictive the name is. You might refer to the Spring 2010 semester and capitalize it. However, if you’re just talking about the spring semester, no capital.
Holidays are capitalized. Christmas, Thanksgiving Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween, and New Year’s Day. If you substitute something, that gets capitalized as well: Xmas, Turkey Day, or T-giving.
In the scientific community, you capitalize the various ages such as: the Pleistocene Epoch in the Quaternary Period in the Cenozoic Era of the Phanerozoic Eon.
In historical references, the same rules apply. It’s the Ice Age, the Crusades, the Elizabethan Era, the Great Depression, and World War II.
Also, you might mention that some document was written in the eighteenth century, but neither “eighteenth” nor “century” is capitalized.
Note, also, that if we’re talking about the religious Crusades of the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries, it gets capitalized as do the individual Crusaders who took part. If we’re talking about a crusade to raise money for the local library, then those crusaders don’t rate a capital.
Celestial bodies are capitalized. Whether you’re talking about the Horsehead Nebula, Uranus (love the name of that planet), or even Pluto (even though he’s no longer a planet).
Earth, moon, and sun are typically not capitalized unless used in connection with another celestial body.
I’ve been on the earth 63 years and seen the sun and moon every one of those years.
It is half as far from Earth to Mars as it is from Earth to the Sun.
Keep in mind that the reason for that rule is that the earth, moon, and sun all have Latin names. If you refer to them as Terra, Luna, or Sol, then those names are always capitalized.
Flags of all nations are capitalized. Again, the restrictive thing. I write about the Marine Corps Battle Color and it’s capitalized. Using the name of any flag such as Old Glory, the Maple Leaf, the Star-Spangled Banner, or the Union Jack, they are capitalized.
The following geographical terms are typically capitalized when coupled with a proper name.
Basin, bay, bayou, bend, branch, butte, camp (military), canal, cape, channel, cove, crater, creek, current, desert, falls, flat(s), fort, gap, glacier, gulch, harbor, head, hill, hollow, inlet, island, isle, lake, mesa, mount, mountain, narrows, oasis, ocean, park, pass, passage, peninsula, plateau, point, pond, port, range (mountain), reef, ridge, river, run, sea, shoal, sound, strait, valley.
Examples would be the Bay of Biscay, Camp Pendleton, Hilton Head, the Great Barrier Reef, and the Mississippi River. You would not capitalize that bay down the coast from that military camp that has some reef at the mouth of some river.
Capitalize organization names when referring to them as a whole. You can talk about the Elks, the Shriners, the American Medical Association, and the Republican Party.
That last brings up an argument that is ongoing. It is the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, but when you’re writing about individual republicans or democrats, no capital; same thing when writing about an individual party. The argument comes into play when you’re writing about a party in a specific (restrictive) comment. You might write that the Democrats are doing something and that the Party agrees with it, but other democrats and party members of different parties disagree.
Everyone knows that I’m now talking about something about which I have no knowledge so I’ll just combine information from several different sources.
At one time, the first word of every line was capitalized.
Over time, it became common to capitalize the first word of a line only if it was the start of a sentence. This implies that the previous line ended in some kind of punctuation mark that indicated an end of the sentence. But…
Poets started writing with no punctuation, which resulted in only the first word of the first line being capitalized.
Today you’ll see poems written with no caps or punctuation and it’s considered acceptable.
This is one of the reasons for my dislike of poetry. There are no rules and, no matter what you write, someone will ooh and aah and tell you how creative you are.
Ever since people started using e-mail as the normal form of communication, they’ve taken a very relaxed attitude regarding how they write. I regularly see e-mails with not a single capital in them and others that are ALL CAPS. What it boils down to is that there are two ways to write an e-mail. (Note that e-mail is hyphenated and not capitalized.)
All style guides agree that text in e-mail should follow the rules for capitalization in general writing.
People are going to continue to consider it a less formal style and do whatever they want.
There is still some debate regarding capitalization of words associated with the Internet. Currently, the majority of guides say that Internet, World Wide Web, Web, Web site, and Web page should be capitalized as shown.
Microsoft and a few other corporations seem to be getting away from that practice. We’ll see what happens to the standards over the next few years.
If Sue says, “I’m stuck in econ this semester,” then “econ” is not capitalized. If, however, Sue says, “I have to take Econ 2,” then it gets capitalized because it is a restrictive name of a particular course.
General courses such as algebra, math, and history are not capitalized.
We go back to whether the title is restrictive or not. We can write about President Obama being the President of the United States, but we can also write about other presidents without capitalizing that word. When we write about the president, no capital, but if we are speaking to him we would say, “No, Mr. President.”
Executives of companies are treated the same. The chairman of Microsoft is Bill Gates and if you’re writing about Chairman Bill Gates in some regard the “chairman” is capitalized. Although it sounds presumptuous, if you were speaking to him it would probably be correct to address him as Mr. Chairman. The same holds true with government officials.
Robert Gates is the Secretary of Defense and that would be written as Secretary Gates in a news release. You could also refer to the secretary of any department without capitalizing it. If you were speaking to him you would, properly, address him as Mr. Secretary.
Here’s that restrictive thing. If you are writing about the secretary of defense, that’s the way you write it because you aren’t writing about a specific secretary. If, however, you are in the middle of a paragraph discussing Mr. Gates, then you would properly write that the Secretary made such and such a comment.
Religion is one of those things that causes many arguments -- not just in belief systems, but how to write about it. I know someone who is an agnostic and, to show his belief, refuses to capitalize anything dealing with the Lord. That, of course, is a writer’s prerogative and one way that we, as writers, can influence our readers.
My belief is that, whether you’re an atheist or a firm believer in some higher power, you should follow the conventions of writing and capitalize the names of religions and religious followers: Buddhism, Buddhist, Christianity, Christian, Druze, Shinto, Hindu, Hinduism, Judaism, Jews, Islam, Muslims, Yarsan, Yazdanism, or Yazidi.
Regardless of the belief, the higher power is always capitalized. Adi, Almighty, Buddha, Christ, Father, God, God the Father, Holy Spirit, Holy Trinity, Huitzilopochtli, Jesus, Lord, Lord of Hosts, Melek Taus, Messiah, Quetzalcoatl, Redeemer, Savior, Shiva, Son of Man, the Trinity, the Virgin Mary, and Zeus.
Give the Devil his due and capitalize all his various names as well. Adversary, Beelzebub (meaning Satan), Devil, Evil One, Father of Lies, Lucifer, Prince of Darkness, and Satan.
Capitalize all names for the Bible, Torah, Qur’an, Koran, and any other holy books.
Also capitalize the scriptures and rites: Word of God, Old Testament, New Testament, the Gospels, the Ten Commandments, the Gospel of Mark, the King James Version, the Good News Bible, the Lord’s Supper, the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Catechism.
If you talk about a sacrament, it’s not capitalized unless you mention the specific rite such as Communion or Baptism. Oh, that restrictive thing: I was baptized in 1952 and that’s not capitalized because I wasn’t talking about Baptism as a sacrament or the Sacrament of Baptism.
Here’s one of those weird arguments dealing with dialogue. Which is correct in each of these?
Sue panted, “Oh, God.”
- or -
Sue panted, “Oh, god.”
Sue screamed, “What kind of God-awful thought is that?”
- or -
Sue screamed, “What kind of god-awful thought is that?”
The right answer is how you want your reader to interpret it. If you want your reader to interpret her speech as being a conversation with or reference to God, then capitalize it. If you want your reader to see the god in the sentence as a non-specific deity, then use lower case.
There are some disagreements regarding this subject. First the elements about which there were no arguments.
When used with a proper name, the title is capitalized.
I never met my Great-Grandfather Ralph.
My Aunt Sue is really cool.
But, Uncle Sam told me to do it.
I told Cousin Frank it wouldn’t work.
If the title is preceded by a modifier, do not capitalize it.
My second cousin is a jerk.
I gave my Aunt Sally a present, but not my other aunt.
My mother has agreed to babysit tonight.
When used as a noun of address, it is capitalized.
Sue said, “I’m sure I can do that, Father.”
I said, “Good morning, Grandma.”
Sue answered, “Yes, Uncle, I took care of it.”
The last two examples had some disagreements. I found a couple references that showed Mom and Dad as being different from other family members. Mother, Mom, Mama, Ma, Father, Dad, Papa, and Pa were capitalized in their examples, but not grandma or uncle. Because that opinion was in the minority, I recommend you stick with the conventions shown in the examples.
The final discussion deals with endearments. There are two thoughts on it.
One thought is that you should use terms of endearment the same as a family title.
My honey was waiting for me when I got home and I said, “Hi, Honey, how was your day?”
Then my dear wife said, “Pass the salt please, Dear.”
The second thought is that endearments are not capitalized.
Can you buy some milk on the way home, hon?
Don’t do that, sweetie, you know how much it hurts.
Which one is right? Dunno. I’m going to continue to use the first method and you’re welcome to take your pick.
Titles of Works
All the style guides agree that you capitalize the first word as well as nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs. Further, most agree that you do not capitalize articles (a, an, the), coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, nor), and prepositions.
That last one is where we have some disagreement. Most guides say to not capitalize short prepositions, but don’t define short other than saying short is less than three or four letters. Not a lot of help in that. I think I’m consistent in using four letters as the cut-off. A preposition of five or more letters gets capitalized.
Note: There was only one source that said something that seems logical. It said “...but do not capitalize minor words like articles, and prepositions, and coordinating conjunctions (and, or, the, in) with the only exception if one of these minor words come first or last in the title.” That makes perfect sense if you think of a song such as “The Saints Go Marching In.”
These rules apply to:
I read Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.
Magazines and Newspapers
The March edition of the Magazine of the Stars had an article, “Homes of the Stars.”
For local news you should read the San Bernardino Sun/Telegram.
I’m rather partial to the third part, Return of the King.
PBS has an interesting program called Jerusalem: Center of the World.
Titian, Portrait of a Man, long believed to be Ludovico Ariosto.
I had the chance to see Titian’s painting Assumption of the Virgin.
I think Brad Paisley’s “I’m Still a Guy” is great.
One of the first English language operas was The Siege of Rhodes by Sir William Davenant in 1656.
I don’t know why, but I’ve always enjoyed Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.
I read it in the Declaration of Independence.
I had to write a review of the American Psychiatric Association’s Annual Report for 2009.
Trademarked stuff presents a problem. Over the years people said they were going to Xerox something meaning they were going to photocopy it. Because of that the name “Xerox” lost its protection as a trademark, however, it’s still capitalized. Other things haven’t fared so well.
When you step up to the bar and ask for a rum and coke are you asking for coke (meaning any cola) or Coke (meaning Coca-Cola)?
Here’s one of those trivia intrusions. For I don’t know how many years it was common to walk into a restaurant and ask for a coke. At the time, it was legal for the restaurant to give you whatever cola brand they had: RC, Coke, Pepsi, or any generic brand. I think it was in the ‘70s that Coke sued one of the major restaurants and won. After that, if you walked in and asked for a coke, the server had to tell you that they didn’t have Coke, but had Pepsi or whatever else it was.
We regularly order french fries but a lot of linguistic purists say it should be French fries because of the country’s name. I don’t typically pay attention to purists -- your choice.
When our nose is running, we grab a Kleenex unless we’re talking about a generic product, in which case we shouldn’t use the trademarked name but refer to a tissue.
You might have a Freudian slip when discussing the ABC news program that talked about pasteurization procedures used in preparing frozen Swiss cheese products and, in it, they italicized the name.
Then the Legal Gunk
Any time you reference a trademarked (registered or not) product, you have to worry about the legalities of doing so. Every advertising reference you see for Coke, Coca-Cola, or Kleenex includes the ® insignia. Even though Pepsi and Pepsi-Cola are registered trademarks, most advertising does not show any ® or ™ indication. If you research RC, RC Cola, or Royal Crown Cola, you won’t find either the ® or ™ indicators.
Which means what? I asked a friend who’s a lawyer and he recommended that we not use any trademarked name in our writing. If your character goes into a bar and asks for a rum and coke, use lower case rather than saying (s)he asks for a rum and Coke®. Instead of having someone reach for a Kleenex®, have him/her reach for a tissue.
Reality check. We see trademarked products used in writing all the time and the odds that the Coca-Cola Company is going to sue you for not using the proper symbol are pretty slim. However, I e-mailed several different companies about this to see what their corporate guidelines are. After six months, not a single one has responded. I would take that to mean that they don’t really care.
We’ve Come to the End of len maxwell’s Chapter on Capitalization.
As always, I’ll mention that this is not meant to be the final word on any of the topics I’ve discussed and, if you have a favorite style guide -- use it!