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Capitalization Confusion

capitalizationYou learn basic rules of capitalization in grammar school, but this subject is far more complex than most people realize. Deciding when to capitalize can leave any fiction or non-fiction writer struggling with prose, and it helps to refer to a straight-forward guide.

Although I do not claim to go through all of the capitalization rules in this article, you will find most of them here.

First Words

The first rule is the most basic: Capitalize the first word in all sentences. This is obvious to most people, but I don’t want you to forget and have your manuscript rejected on this fact alone. 🙂 You should also capitalize the first word in a quoted sentence, regardless of where it falls.

Example: The store was closed for the evening. He said, “Why don’t you come back tomorrow.”

Nouns

Proper nouns are always capitalized, such as Henry and Terry, and you should always capitalize the pronoun I. You should also capitalize honorifics when they precede an actual person’s name. When it comes to familial titles, capitalize only if they precede the family member’s name.

Example: Mrs. DuPree gave Leland and I a box of chocolates and sent us to Dr. Faust’s house to bribe him.

Example 2: Uncle Foster told me I should apologize to my aunt.

Prepositions

In most cases, prepositions are not capitalized in formal writing, except when they fall at the beginning of the title. You will also find that style guidelines will address prepositions with different rules. When you encounter conflict, follow the directions given by the publication.

Example: After the Fourth of July party, my teacher read excerpts from A Wrinkle in Time.

Colons

One of the areas where I see major capitalization mistakes is in colon usage. A colon (:) that is followed my two complete sentences should be capitalized, while a colon followed my just one sentence or a list should not.

Example 1: I can’t wait to visit Disneyland: The rides and the crowds are just what I need right now. Who cares if I can’t afford it?

Example 2: I can’t wait to visit Disneyland: the rides and the crowds are just what I need right now.

Example 3: I can’t wait to visit Disneyland: the rides, crowds and food.

Directions

This aspect of capitalization can get confusing, so bear with me. If you are giving directions to someone, you wouldn’t capitalize the directions in which you’d like them to go. However, you would capitalize the direction if you were referring to a specific area or locale. On the other hand, do not capitalize directions if they refer to a general area.

Example 1: This weekend, I’m visiting the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Then, next weekend, I’m hitting South Boston.

Example 2: Go south on Wilshire until you reach the light at Dominion, then turn east.

Example 3: I’m thinking of buying a house in eastern Los Angeles.

Government

Many writers find that they need to reference aspects of the government, and confusing the titles therein can get confusing. When you’re talking about a specific government agency (whether local, state or federal), you should always capitalize. Similarly, capitalize titles of government agents so long as their actual names are used. If no names are given, the titles should not be capitalized. Also, make sure to capitalize all abbreviations and acronyms.

Example 1: The federal government is going to convict Allen Peabody of murder in the second degree.

Example 2: Special Agent Tom Holtz of the Federal Bureau of Investigation ordered the other FBI agents to stand down.

Religion

This is largely a matter of respect, rather than proper grammar, but it is a good idea to capitalize religions and deities. The only exception is if you are referring to non-specific plural deities, in which case you do not have to capitalize.

Example: Christians believe in the one and true God, while Pagans prefer to worship a pantheon of gods and goddesses.

Still Confused?

If you come to a capitalization issue you don’t understand, or if you have some doubt, put modern technology to work for you. Simply Google (which is capitalized, by the way) the word or phrase, and see how it is used in official documents on the Internet. This is a great way to vet out suppositions in the world of grammar.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Susan permalink
    April 12, 2013 10:30 am

    How to you write, on a formal invitation, about a wedding that occurs on the Fourth of July, 2013? Thank you. Is it, Thursday, the fourth of July, two thousand
    and thirteen?

    • May 14, 2017 10:06 pm

      You are all sorts of genius dobttinhagbsleeve job and how lucky to have a scarf in sucha splendidly matching print. I'm am swooning over the print on the towelling cape. Your bag is perfect for summer and the beach.

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