Capital Letters

Capital letters are not really an aspect of punctuation, but it is convenient to deal with them here. The rules for using them are mostly very simple.

(a) The first word of a sentence, or of a fragment, begins with a capital letter:

The bumbling wizard Rincewind is Pratchett's most popular character.
Will anyone now alive live to see a colony on the moon? Probably not.
Distressingly few pupils can locate Iraq or Japan on a map of the world.

(b) The names of the days of the week, and of the months of the year, are written with a capital letter:

Next Sunday France will hold a general election.
Mozart was born on 27 January, 1756.
Football practice takes place on Wednesdays and Fridays.

However, the names of seasons are not written with a capital:

Like cricket, baseball is played in the summer.

Do not write *"... in the Summer".

(c) The names of languages are always written with a capital letter. Be careful about this; it's a very common mistake.

Juliet speaks English, French, Italian and Portuguese.
I need to work on my Spanish irregular verbs.
Among the major languages of India are Hindi, Gujarati and Tamil.
These days, few students study Latin and Greek.

Note, however, that names of disciplines and school subjects are not capitalized unless they happen to be the names of languages:

I'm doing A-levels in history, geography and English.
Newton made important contributions to physics and mathematics.
She is studying French literature.

(d) Words that express a connection with a particular place must be capitalized when they have their literal meanings. So, for example, French must be capitalized when it means `having to do with France':

The result of the French election is still in doubt.
The American and Russian negotiators are close to agreement.
There are no mountains in the Dutch landscape.
She has a dry Mancunian sense of humour.

(The word Mancunian means `from Manchester'.)

However, it is not necessary to capitalize these words when they occur as parts of fixed phrases and don't express any direct connection with the relevant places:

Please buy some danish pastries.
In warm weather, we keep our french windows open.
I prefer russian dressing on my salad.

Why the difference? Well, a danish pastry is merely a particular sort of pastry; it doesn't have to come from Denmark. Likewise, french windows are merely a particular kind of window, and russian dressing is just a particular variety of salad dressing. Even in these cases, you can capitalize these words if you want to, as long as you are consistent about it. But notice how convenient it can be to make the difference:

In warm weather, we keep our french windows open.
After nightfall, French windows are always shuttered.

In the first example, french windows just refers to a kind of window; in the second, French windows refers specifically to windows in France.

(e) In the same vein, words that identify nationalities or ethnic groups must be capitalized:

The Basques and the Catalans spent decades struggling for autonomy.
The Serbs and the Croats have become bitter enemies.
Norway's most popular singer is a Sami from Lapland.

(An aside: some ethnic labels which were formerly widely used are now regarded by many people as offensive and have been replaced by other labels. Thus, careful writers use Black, not Negro; native American, not Indian or red Indian; native Australian, not Aborigine. You are advised to follow suit.)

(f) Formerly, the words black and white, when applied to human beings, were never capitalized. Nowadays, however, many people prefer to capitalize them because they regard these words as ethnic labels comparable to Chinese or Indian:

The Rodney King case infuriated many Black Americans.

You may capitalize these words or not, as you prefer, but be consistent.

(g) Proper names are always capitalized. A proper name is a name or a title that refers to an individual person, an individual place, an individual institution or an individual event. Here are some examples:

The study of language was revolutionized by Noam Chomsky.
The Golden Gate Bridge towers above San Francisco Bay.
There will be a debate between Professor Lacey and Doctor Davis.
The Queen will address the House of Commons today.
Many people mistakenly believe that Mexico is in South America.
My friend Julie is training for the Winter Olympics.
Next week President Clinton will be meeting Chancellor Kohl.

Observe the difference between the next two examples:

We have asked for a meeting with the President.
I would like to be the president of a big company.

In the first, the title the President is capitalized because it is a title referring to a specific person; in the second, there is no capital, because the word president does not refer to anyone in particular. (Compare We have asked for a meeting with President Wilson and *I would like to be President Wilson of a big company.) The same difference is made with some other words: we write the Government and Parliament when we are referring to a particular government or a particular parliament, but we write government and parliament when we are using the words generically. And note also the following example:

The patron saint of carpenters is Saint Joseph.

Here Saint Joseph is a name, but patron saint is not and gets no capital.

There is a slight problem with the names of hazily defined geographical regions. We usually write the Middle East and Southeast Asia, because these regions are now regarded as having a distinctive identity, but we write central Europe and southeast London, because these regions are not thought of as having the same kind of identity. Note, too, the difference between South Africa (the name of a particular country) and southern Africa (a vaguely defined region). All I can suggest here is that you read a good newspaper and keep your eyes open.

Observe that certain surnames of foreign origin contain little words that are often not capitalized, such as de, du, da, von and van. Thus we write Leonardo da Vinci, Ludwig van Beethoven, General von Moltke and Simone de Beauvoir. On the other hand, we write Daphne Du Maurier and Dick Van Dyke, because those are the forms preferred by the owners of the names. When in doubt, check the spelling in a good reference book.

A few people eccentrically prefer to write their names with no capital letters at all, such as the poet e. e. cummings and the singer k. d. lang. These strange usages should be respected.

(h) The names of distinctive historical periods are capitalized:

London was a prosperous city during the Middle Ages.
Britain was the first country to profit from the Industrial Revolution.
The Greeks were already in Greece during the Bronze Age.

(i) The names of festivals and holy days are capitalized:

We have long breaks at Christmas and Easter.
During Ramadan, one may not eat before sundown.
The feast of Purim is an occasion for merrymaking.
Our church observes the Sabbath very strictly.
The children greatly enjoy Hallowe'en.

(j) Many religious terms are capitalized, including the names of religions and of their followers, the names or titles of divine beings, the titles of certain important figures, the names of important events and the names of sacred books:

An atheist is a person who does not believe in God.
The principal religions of Japan are Shinto and Buddhism.
The Indian cricket team includes Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Parsees.
The Lord is my shepherd.
The Prophet was born in Mecca.
The Last Supper took place on the night before the Crucifixion.
The Old Testament begins with Genesis.

Note, however, that the word god is not capitalized when it refers to a pagan deity:

Poseidon was the Greek god of the sea.

(k) In the title or name of a book, a play, a poem, a film, a magazine, a newspaper or a piece of music, a capital letter is used for the first word and for every significant word (that is, a little word like the, of, and or in is not capitalized unless it is the first word):

I was terrified by The Silence of the Lambs.
The Round Tower was written by Catherine Cookson.
Bach's most famous organ piece is the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.
I don't usually like Cher, but I do enjoy The Shoop Shoop Song.

Important note: The policy just described is the one most widely used in the English-speaking world. There is, however, a second policy, preferred by many people. In this second policy, we capitalize only the first word of a title and any words which intrinsically require capitals for independent reasons. Using the second policy, my examples would look like this:

I was terrified by The silence of the lambs.
The round tower was written by Catherine Cookson.
Bach's most famous organ piece is the Toccata and fugue in D minor.
I don't usually like Cher, but I do enjoy The shoop shoop song.

You may use whichever policy you prefer, so long as you are consistent about it. You may find, however, that your tutor or your editor insists upon one or the other. The second policy is particularly common (though not universal) in academic circles, and is usual among librarians; elsewhere, the first policy is almost always preferred.

(l) The first word of a direct quotation, repeating someone else's exact words, is always capitalized if the quotation is a complete sentence:

Thomas Edison famously observed "Genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration."

But there is no capital letter if the quotation is not a complete sentence:

The Minister described the latest unemployment figures as "disappointing".

(m) The brand names of manufacturers and their products are capitalized:

Maxine has bought a second-hand Ford Escort.
Almost everybody owns a Sony Walkman.

Note: There is a problem with brand names which have become so successful that they are used in ordinary speech as generic labels for classes of products. The manufacturers of Kleenex and Sellotape are exasperated to find people using kleenex and sellotape as ordinary words for facial tissues or sticky tape of any kind, and some such manufacturers may actually take legal action against this practice. If you are writing for publication, you need to be careful about this, and it is best to capitalize such words if you use them. However, when brand names are converted into verbs, no capital letter is used: we write She was hoovering the carpet and I need to xerox this report, even though the manufacturers of Hoover vacuum cleaners and Xerox photocopiers don 't much like this practice, either.

(n) Roman numerals are usually capitalized:

It is no easy task to multiply LIX by XXIV using Roman numerals.
King Alfonso XIII handed over power to General Primo de Rivera.

The only common exception is that small Roman numerals are used to number the pages of the front matter in books; look at almost any book.

(o) The pronoun I is always capitalized:

She thought I'd borrowed her keys, but I hadn't.

It is possible to write an entire word or phrase in capital letters in order to emphasize it:

There is ABSOLUTELY NO EVIDENCE to support this conjecture.

On the whole, though, it is preferable to express emphasis, not with capital letters, but with italics. It is not necessary to capitalize a word merely because there is only one thing it can possibly refer to:

The equator runs through the middle of Brazil.
Admiral Peary was the first person to fly over the north pole.
The universe is thought to be about 15 billion years old.

Here the words equator, north pole and universe need no capitals, because they aren't strictly proper names. Some people choose to capitalize them anyway; this is not wrong, but it's not recommended.

Capital letters are also used in writing certain abbreviations and related types of words, including the abbreviated names of organizations and companies, and in letter writing and in the headings of essays.

There is one other rather rare use of capital letters which is worth explaining if only to prevent you from doing it by mistake when you don't mean to. This to poke fun at something. Here is an example:

The French Revolution was a Good Thing at first, but Napoleon's rise to power was a Bad Thing.

Here the writer is making fun of the common tendency to see historical events in simple-minded terms as either good or bad. Another example:

Many people claim that rock music is Serious Art, deserving of Serious Critical Attention.

The writer is clearly being sarcastic: all those unusual capital letters demonstrate that he considers rock music to be worthless trash.

This stylistic device is only appropriate in writing which is intended to be humorous, or at least light-hearted; it is quite out of place in formal writing.

The use of unnecessary capital letters when you're trying to be serious can quickly make your prose look idiotic, rather like those content-free books that fill the shelves of the "New Age" section in bookshops:

Your Eidetic Soul is linked by its Crystal Cord to the Seventh Circle of the Astral Plane, from where the Immanent Essence is transmitted to your Eidetic Aura,...

You get the idea. Don't use a capital letter unless you're sure you know why it's there.

Summary of Capital Letters:


  • the first word of a sentence or fragment
  • the name of a day or a month
  • the name of a language
  • a word expressing a connection with a place
  • the name of a nationality or an ethnic group
  • a proper name
  • the name of a historical period
  • the name of a holiday
  • a significant religious term
  • the first word, and each significant word, of a title
  • the first word of a direct quotation which is a sentence
  • a brand name
  • a Roman numeral
  • the pronoun I

Copyright © Larry Trask, 1997

Maintained by the Department of Informatics, University of Sussex