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Capitalization

For capitalization in English, there are three main rules on which everyone can agree:

  1. Capitalize the first letter in every sentence.
  2. Capitalize initial letters of proper nouns.
  3. Capitalize the pronoun I.

Beyond these three uses, there is much disagreement over when to capitalize. Every major publication and publisher has its own standards, and many writers have their own preferences (which are generally overridden by in-house rules during publication).

In modern writing, there are simultaneous trends toward and away from capitalization. The trend in informal writing and much journalistic writing is away from it. Meanwhile, there is an unfortunate trend in business, corporate, and marketing writing to capitalize words for emphasis or to give words a little extra heft. But if you use instant messaging, text messaging, email, or social networking, you’ve probably noticed that many people don’t capitalize at all in these mediums.


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Regardless of what writers do in business and marketing (where trying to enforce good writing is a lost cause), the best rule of thumb for capitalization is to err on the side of minimalism. Follow the three rules listed above, avoid capitalizing common nouns just because other people do, avoid capitalization for emphasis (that’s what italicization is for), and never use all caps (LIKE THIS). Beyond those guidelines, here are a few other points:

  1. Different publications have different standards for capitalizing titles and headings. Use what looks best to you.
  2. Complete sentences within sentences should be capitalized. This includes quoted sentences (e.g., She said, “How are you?”) and complete sentences following colons (e.g. One thing’s for sure: You’ll get your money’s worth).
  3. In abbreviations, capitalize letters that stand for capitalized words (e.g., USMC for United States Marine CorpBoA for Bank of America).
  4. Some great 19th-century poets had a habit of capitalizing abstract and personified nouns such as Nature and Love, but that doesn’t make it a good idea in general.

See also

Comments

  1. “complete sentences following colons” is an error in itself, use a semicolon.

  2. daniel decline says:

    USMC stands for United States Marine Corps

  3. Speaking of the Marines, there was a trend (may still be) in the Army to capitalize “soldier” wherever it is used, to show respect for soldiers. I don’t get how showing disrespect to capitalization rules shows respect to soldiers (and obviously I’m not following that cornball Army rule). Not sure if the other services do that.

    • Matthew House says:

      Idk about “Soldier” vs “soldier,” because there is no rank known as “soldier,” but in the Air Force (AF) there are times where you capitalize “airman.” For example, when referring to multiple AF personnel; an unnamed AF personnel regardless of rank/status; or the specific ranks of Airman Basic, Airman, Airman First Class, or Senior Airman; one should use a capital “A.” When referring to an airman (or airmen) within the first four ranks (named above) and the airman’s name and specific rank is not specified, use the lower case “a.”
      It can get confusing.
      Just an FYI a year later haha.

    • Matthew House says:

      Idk about “Soldier” vs “soldier,” because there is no rank known as “soldier,” but in the Air Force (AF) there are times where you capitalize “airman.” For example, when referring to multiple AF personnel; an unnamed AF personnel regardless of rank/status; or the specific ranks of Airman Basic, Airman, Airman First Class, or Senior Airman; one should use a capital “A.” When referring to an airman (or airmen) within the first four ranks (named above) and the airman’s name and specific rank is not specified, use the lower case “a.”
      It can get confusing.
      Just an FYI a year later haha.

  4. when do you capitalize the word “state”?

  5. Beatrix Kamoen says:

    When should you capitalize the word “national”?

  6. GoatGuy says:

    HUGE Pet Peeve … somewhere in Britain, at the BBC (I believe), a coder was asked to write an automatic spelling-and-capitalization correction algorithm, that would be applied to ALL text squirted out from their websites.

    A fine idea.With a truly terrible virus-like consequence.

    Unesco. What’s that? UNESCO, I understand. Varna. What’s that? VARNA, I don’t know about either, but at least it doesn’t look like a word.

    We don’t spell USA as Usa, do we? Oh, the British spell-bot doesn’t either. It respects a few commonly held all-caps acronyms. Thing is, it doesn’t respect very many at all.

    The virus like component of this … is that with cut-and-paste plagiarism (or “reporting” or “referencing”), once mangled always mangled. It is NASA, not Nasa. Because it remains the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, folks.

    I would like to suggest to you that we together try to fight this. I’ve written to the Beeb, to no avail. No admission, no response. I’ve written to the NYTimes, with no response. I’ve written postage-stamped letters. No response.

    – – – – –

    It does occur to me though that the respelling of acronyms as pronounceable words is also indicative of a general trend in English embracing just such. I’m almost OK with NASA becoming Nasa, but not really in the end. I’m way less tolerant of Unesco, until such time as the body formally renames itself as Unesco. Perhaps this makes me a stick-in-the-mud.

    But really? The whole point of having an all-caps spelling rule for acronyms is to set apart the acronym’s sequence-of-glyphs to remind the reader that it stands for something bigger and distinctly related. DARPA means Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (or something like that, I’m too lazy to look it up), Darpa? Even my cone-headed spell-bot puts red undersquigs on the wrongly-capitalized representation. Not the Beeb, tho’. It just about always has it as Darpa.

    Enough.Stand up for acronyms being all-caps!English is hard enough as it is. Let’s not introduce intentional spelling errors!

    GoatGuy

  7. AssassinLV says:

    Well, quite often I capitalize the most important words (e.g: “That was a good idea, But the Execution was far from perfect” (and in fact – quite often I use “comma” to make a reader pause before to continue reading my post (even if it were not required by grammar rules.))), or the words that goes with quoted sarcasm (eg: “He is Very “smart”.”), or when I want to give an accent for word(/s) (e.g: “He’s very Very “smart”.” (2nd “very” is pronounced heavier then the 1st one))

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