Capitalizing initial letters of sentences and proper nouns

According to some college surveys, nearly 50% of student papers contain capitalization mistakes (shawnee.edu) and “unnecessary or missing capitalization” appears as error # 8 in the Top Twenty list. (Errors of capitalization did not occur on the original 1986 study “Twenty Most Common Errors.”)

It’s no wonder that errors of this sort have increased to the point they are appearing in these studies and surveys. Except for a few basic rules, the rules of capitalization may vary, not only in individual style guides, but also in different languages.

In addition, there has been an increase in more informal, or what is sometimes called casual text, writing in the mediums of text messaging, email, social networking, or instant messaging in which people use lowercase and not any capitals.

Traditional rules for capitalizing words are ones that have to be learned through memorization, repeated use, or consulting a resource like a dictionary or writing handbook. As with punctuation marks and other mechanics, the use of capital letters is a practice in written (and printed) rather than in spoken English.

This is true even with the pronoun I, which is one of the three consistent rules of capitalization:

  1. capitalize the pronoun I
  2. capitalize the first letter of every sentence
  3. capitalize the initial letter of proper nouns

Rule #1 is self-explanatory, notwithstanding the preponderance of i in the casual writing mentioned above.

A capital letter at the beginning of a sentence, expressed in rule #2, is one of the markers of an independent clause, as we defined in an earlier post on punctuating compound sentences. The capital letter indicates the beginning of the sentence, just as a period or other mark of closing punctuation signals the end.

One of the capitalization errors identified in student writing had to do with names, or proper nouns, addressed in the rule #3. A proper noun names a specific item, which could be a person (Robert), a building (the Empire State Building), a city (New York City), a state (New York State), a country (Italy), and so on.

With the example New York State, however, we encounter one of those varying practices mentioned above. Depending on which style you follow, the name of the Empire State will be written as New York State (Gregg Reference Manual) or as New York state (Associated Press Stylebook).

Because the names of days, months, and holidays are proper nouns, they are capitalized, but seasons are not: Friday, May, Memorial Day, but spring or summer.

Proper adjectives are words made from proper nouns and are also capitalized. If we take the name of a country, such as the proper noun Italy (from the example above), the proper adjective is Italian. A common mistake is NOT capitalizing the proper adjective in the popular fast food, French fries even though the food did not originate in the country of France. (I have increasingly seen the name written without the capital: french fries, so this practice may be changing also.)

Note: Using Capitalization for Emphasis

Finally, some writers use all capital letters (all caps) in a word or phrase to show emphasis. Such practice is generally discouraged. Not only is such text harder to read, but it can be perceived as “screaming” or “shouting,” especially in electronic communications. To emphasize a word or phrase, the preferred format is to use italics.

There are many other capitalization rules and examples, but rather than trying to memorize them all, you might do better to understand the concepts behind capitalization and to have a reference or handbook to check for unusual or unfamiliar cases. 

(Resources: Shawnee.edu; Top Twenty; English 3200; The Everyday Writer)

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