1. What is Capitalization?
In writing, capitalization is the use of capital letters as a type of punctuation. When we say that something is “capitalized,” it means that the first letter of the word or words is a capital (i.e. capital A versus lowercase a). Capitalization’s real goal is to point out and separate specific, individual things from general things, which helps us identify them in a sentence. So, we use capitalization to mark the beginning of a sentence and to identify all types of proper nouns, names, and titles.
Since a capital letter starts every sentence, you know that every sentence uses capitalization at least once!
2. Examples of Capitalization
Here are some examples of capitalization in a sentence. You’ll see that it’s important in many situations:
- To Begin a sentence:
- My friends are great.
- For emphasis:
- “SLOW DOWN!” yelled the man as the car sped by.
- For Proper Nouns:
- Last summer I visited London, England.
3. Types of Capitalization
There are a few ways that we use capitalization, like to begin a sentence, or for proper nouns, titles, and emphasis. So, overall, a good rule to follow is that the name or title of ANYTHING specific—from people, to books, to places, to things—should be capitalized.
a. To Begin a Sentence
The first rule of capitalization is easy—we always begin a sentence with a capital letter! That’s how you know where a sentence begins. Capitalize the start of a sentence whether it’s a single letter, like this:
- I visited Paris last year.
- A year ago I visited Paris.
Or, if it’s the first letter of a word, like this:
- Last spring, I visited Paris.
- Before long, I had fallen in love with the city.
b. Proper Nouns
A proper noun is a person, place, thing or idea with a specific, unique name. We always capitalize proper nouns, because they represent one single thing—for instance, the Empire State Building is one specific building, not just a building in general. So, capitalization gives us a way to make that distinction.
Here’s a list of rules about the capitalization of proper nouns that you use every day:
- When we use I to identify ourselves in writing, it is always capital.
- We always capitalize the first, middle, and last names of people, like: Jane Ann Smith and Jimmy Michael Brown, for example.
- Capitalize official titles for people, like: President Barack Obama, Dr. Robinson, Mr. and Mrs. Jones, and Professor Smith.
- Capitalize the names of places, including countries, cities, buildings, roads, and landmarks, like: Europe; London, England; Buckingham Palace; Abbey Road; etc.
- Capitalize the names of natural landmarks and specific geographic locations, from oceans to mountains to islands, like: the Great Lakes, the Nile River, the Atlantic Ocean, the Himalayas, and the Sahara Desert.
- Capitalize the names of stores and brand name things, like: Abercrombie & Fitch, Nike shoes, Oreo cookies, and Pepsi cola, to name a few.
- Always capitalize the days of the week and months of the year.
It’s crucial to remember to capitalize the titles of books, movies, TV shows, essays, and any other piece of work, literature, art, and so on. Here are some examples:
- Every Thursday I watch the series The Walking Dead.
- I wrote an essay called “How to Survive the Zombie Apocalypse.”
- I just read the book Pride, Prejudice and Zombies.
- My favorite movie is Night of the Living Dead.
d. Capitalization For Emphasis
Sometimes we use capitalization to highlight an important word, phrase, or even full sentence, like you see on many signs:
- DO NOT ENTER
- BEWARE OF DOG
Capitalizing all of the letters in these phrases makes them stronger and more urgent. These are all important messages, and capitalization emphasizes that.
e. Capitalization in Dialogue
Capitalization can also be a particularly useful technique for dialogue. It can add fear, volume, intensity, urgency, excitement—pretty much any strong feeling that needs to be emphasized. Here are a few examples:
- “DON’T OPEN THAT DOOR, JANE!” yelled Jimmy.
- Seeing the other car approaching, I screamed “WATCH OUT!”
- “Ugh, I just HATE broccoli!” said Sam.
You can see that adding capitalization really makes some of the words in the dialogue stand out. When you’re reading, seeing capitalized words gives you the feeling that the person or character is shouting, or like the signs, that the words are really important and meaningful. At the same time, it’s important not to overuse capitalization in dialogue, otherwise it loses its strength.
4. How to Avoid Mistakes
Capitalization is definitely one of the easiest types of punctuation to use, so long as you know what it’s for. By now you can recognize the true purpose of capitalization—to identify individual people and things. That said, here are some rules to follow and things to avoid:
a. When it comes to names, don’t use capital letters for general and common things. For example:
Fast Food Restaurants usually sell Hamburgers. INCORRECT
I am going to the City this weekend. INCORRECT
A “fast food restaurant” is just a general type of restaurant, and a hamburger is a common food; so, we don’t need to capitalize them. Likewise, “the city” could be any city. But, if we are talking about specific things, we need capitals:
McDonalds is a fast food restaurant that sells a hamburger called the Big Mac. Correct!
I am going to New York City this weekend. Correct!
Remember, capitalization is for specific things.
b. Don’t capitalize “the” unless it is an official part of a title (or the first word of a sentence):
Last summer I visited the Empire State Building Correct!
Last summer I visited The Empire State Building INCORRECT
The little girl’s favorite book is The Giving Tree. Correct!
the little girl’s favorite book is the Giving Tree. INCORRECT
c. When using the name of a place, all of the words in the name need to be capitalized, not just the first word:
- I can’t wait to visit Niagara Falls.
- Have you ever been to Yellowstone National Park?
- You can see the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
d. When creating a title or heading for something, it isn’t necessary to capitalize small words like a, to, the, or, and, but, on, in, and is, for example (unless it’s the first word). You only need to capitalize the important, meaningful words, which you can see from these book titles:
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
- Catcher in the Rye
- To Kill a Mockingbird
- James and the Giant Peach
e. Finally, don’t forget—if it’s a name or a title, capitalize it!