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Rules and Guidelines for Capitalization

When building your writing style, it is important to consider every aspect of it—grammar, punctuation, semantics, etc. Here we will look at a specific area, capitalization. We will see how to appropriately capitalize a word: where to use capital letters and where not to.

Basic Rules of Capitalization

1. Capitalize the first word in a sentence. This is a general rule known to all people. We always begin a sentence with a capital letter.

2. Capitalize the pronoun, ‘I’: We always capitalize the pronoun, ‘I’. Always. It doesn’t matter where this word comes, but capitalize it.

Jack and I were scolded by boss.

3. Capitalize proper nouns: Proper nouns include the names of people, countries, states, companies, brands, buildings, geographical features, rivers, mountains, etc. For instance:

George and Hopkins became friends when they were working for Microsoft, New York. They once went to Egypt with their families, and visited the Nile.

4. Always capitalize the names of publications: All words in the name should be capitalized except prepositions and articles. For example:

Macbeth is my favorite Shakespearean play.
I read The Firm by Grisham at least thrice.
God of Small Things is a Booker-prize-winning novel.
Jim subscribes to the New York Times. (No need to capitalize ‘the’.)

5. Begin quoted sentences with capitals: In fiction and non-fiction, we use quotes to put down dialogs. In this, always begin the quoted dialog with a capital letter. Here is more on using quotes. Example:

John said, “When I found him, he was quite unable to move.”

6. Capitalize months and days of the week: Always begin months and days of the week in capital letters. Example:

Joe will be free the second Friday of March.

7. Capitalize the names of courses: When your course has a specific name (not the name of the subject), capitalize it. This is almost similar to the proper name rule above.

Tim is taking a computer science course, Computer Science 101.

8. Capitalize the part that follows a colon appropriately: This rule differs according to the situation. Here is the complete guidelines of using colons. That link will have more information on proper capitalization after colons.

9. Capitalize historical events properly: When referring to historical events, capitalize all words appropriately. For instance:

Philip was involved in World War II.

10. Capitalize the nationalities of people. For instance:

The French have a peculiar way of driving.

11. Appropriately capitalize anything divine: This is a rule under dispute. Some writers prefer capitalizing the words associated with God, while others care not to. It perhaps depends on whether you are a believer or not. (I capitalize since I am a devout.)

Krishna, Allah, and Jesus are one; Thy Holy Name is gratification to all.

That’s all about the basic rules of capitalization. However, there are certain things we capitalize, not belonging to the list above. Here are the general stylistic guidelines for using appropriate capitalization.

Style Guidelines

1. When we refer to the technologies, we capitalize the words.

Microsoft’s Object Linking and Embedding technology is a great way to build dynamic documents.

2. Capitalize specific words: The words like ‘Internet’, ‘World Wide Web’ and others associated with them are always capitalized.

Jim works on the Internet for the last three years.

3. Properly capitalize terms showing your relationships: When you describe a person as a relationship, it is appropriate to capitalize the words, as in:

Jim comes next week with Aunt Sarah.

Here the word ‘Aunt Sarah’ is almost a proper noun. In situations, where we just use a descriptive text to the person, we do not capitalize the word. As in:

Jim comes next week with Sarah, his aunt.

4. Properly capitalize when referring to the names of important government bodies:

Tom works for the Internal Revenue Service.
The National Security Agency is somewhat covert in its operations.


5. Properly capitalize the designation of top officials: Here the rule similar to the relationship capitalization above applies. For instance:

The senators are meeting President Obama today.

But:

George W Bush, the president of the US, is meeting Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Improper capitalization

While it’s good to capitalize according to the above rules, there are certain occasions in which capitalization is improper. Here are some of such instances.

When in electronic mail, Internet Relay Chat, and social networking communities, it is inappropriate to capitalize all letters of a word anywhere. This practice is known as shouting and some people take offense at it. So, avoid capitalizing entire word in electronic communications.

It is not proper to capitalize any letter in the URL (the address of a website), a user name, or an email address. This is, however, a technological style guideline.

However, you can use capital letters profusely in your passwords!

Conclusion

Appropriateness in writing is determined by various aspects, and capitalization is one amongst. Read guidelines on all aspects of writing for building your proper style.

Copyright © Lenin Nair 2008

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