Sometimes the simple things are the ones we overlook, especially when we’re editing. Capitalization seems elementary probably because we learned the rules in elementary school. Until I became a copy editor I didn’t realize there were so many rules. I’m here to tell you there’s more to it than capitalizing the first letter of a sentence.
Hopefully, you saved grammar edits for last. It really is a waste of time to edit for grammar errors until the last pass. One of the things you’ll want to check during this final pass are your capitals. Is it Mother or mother? Captain or captain? It can be either depending on context. If you’re not sure, circle or highlight the word so you can be sure to go back and check.
For the record, I’m not going to go over every rule. The rules could fill an entire book on their own. I’m going to touch on a few basics, ones I think you’re likely to encounter.
The purpose of capitalization: To emphasize important words, people, places, things, etc.
If only it were that simple. Wait for it, it gets more complicated.
First Word of a Sentence
This is the easiest rule. If a word follows a period, it should probably be capitalized. I’m really not going to go into any more depth than that.
You’re rolling your eyes at me. This isn’t hard.
Rule number one: don’t forget your characters’ names. Forgetting to capitalize your characters’ names is like forgetting to put your name on your final exam. This an easy point, people!
Capitalize the following names:
- brand names; Coca-Cola
- company names; Walmart
- nicknames and epithets; The Kingslayer
- names of races and nationalities; French Canadian
- names of religions and the deities: God
- names of streets, roads, cities, countries, oceans (if it’s labeled on a map, it’s probably capitalized. e.g., the Mediterranean Sea)
Names NOT to Capitalize
- names of animals; DO capitalize their names (e.g., Mr. Fluffy); however, do not capitalize cat, dog, etc. Except Alaskan huskey and German shepherd.
- food; the exception being brand names and so forth (e.g., tuna, chips, Ranch dressing)
- sun and moon. Even though we capitalize Mars, Jupiter, and Earth, for whatever reason, we don’t view the sun and moon to be important enough to capitalize–though we would die if either of them implodes. This is why it’s important to check the rules. Just because something is important doesn’t mean it will be capitalized.
- seasons; spring summer, fall, winter
- names that don’t actually affiliate with the word they are derived from (e.g., swiss cheese and American cheese are both made in America)
Think of a proper noun as being a more specific version of a noun–or the fancy version.
Mnemonic device: a proper noun is a noun with a fancy top hat.
Examples noun; proper noun
the canyon; the Grand Canyon
the ship; the Titanic
lake; Lake Michigan
Rule of Thumb: With time, sometimes words from a proper noun no longer require capitalization.
Example: draconian (you probably don’t know what this is referring to. Me neither. Probably why it is no longer capitalized)
Rule of Thumb: Don’t capitalize “the” when it comes before a proper noun; however, because rules are not consistent, sometimes it is in special cases.
I think this is one of the trickiest rules. For instance, you capitalize titles when they are used before names, but not after a name, or instead of a name, or if a comma comes after the title. See what I mean. How’s that for a brain twister.That might be a little bit of an exaggeration . . . maybe a tad.
The president; President Clinton; Clinton, president of the United States
I called Mom; I called my mom; I called, Mom
General Grant; the general
King Arthur; king of the Britains
Exception: When used in direct address: Thank you, Mr. President; I will obey your orders, General
- days of the week
- months of the year
- holidays; Halloween (the best holiday ever)
- historical events and periods; the Ice Age; the Boston Tea Party
- terms of respect; (e.g., Your Excellency, His Majesty, Madam, Your Honor
Capitalization with Punctuation
Punctuation: everyone’s favorite thing. Did you know capitalization is sometimes dependent on punctuation.
It is a common misconception that the word after a colon is always capitalized. The first word after a colon is not always capitalized. It isn’t if the colon is used within the sentence. It is when it is a proper noun or if the colon introduces two or more sentences or a speech or dialogue.
This is one a lot of people forget. Generally capitalize all elements the hyphens connect unless a coordinating conjunction, preposition, or article (e.g., Sugar-and-Spice).
Don’t worry about memorizing all of these rules. As you edit, keep a handy style guide nearby. I use the one and only Chicago Manual of Style. Do you know how many times I referenced it just for this post? There are also a lot of helpful resources online like Grammar Girl.
That’s it for now. Thanks for reading.