Capitalization Rules For Life, Part 1 of 3

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Capitalization seems like a pretty basic subject, right? WRONG! As an editor, I see violation after violation of very basic principles of capitalization that we all learned in grade school…or at least, should have learned.

There are rules to capitalization. The basic ones – the ones I find need little explanation are these:

Always capitalize the first word of any sentence.

Always capitalize “I” and its contractions (e.g., “I’ll”).

Always capitalize names of people.

Always capitalize names of cities, states and countries.

Always capitalize proper nouns (e.g., Central Intelligence Agency, Eiffel Tower).

Always capitalize days of the week, months and the names of holidays.

Some capitalization rules are not quite so clear, however. Those rules encompass the “sometimes” or “it depends” rule, which will be the focus of our lessons in this series.

Our first lesson looks at family relationships: mother, father, sister, brother, aunt and uncle. This is one rule where I often see confusion. If we are talking about my mother, his aunt or our grandparents, we do not capitalize. However, if we are using the word as a name, then we do. Note the differences in the following examples:

My mother told me to sit down.

“I love you, Mamma,” said the little girl.

My aunt, Cecilia, washed the dishes at the old water pump.

I asked Aunt Cecilia to fetch me some water from the old water pump.

Shirley’s grandma died last week.

We both love Grandma Smith. – or – “I love you, Grandma!”

Another, though minor source of confusion is when to capitalize seasons or points of the compass. For the most part, the answer is “seldom.” However, there are exceptions. First, when we personify a season, such as spring, we then capitalize it: When Spring opens her gentle hands, she brings forth the greenness of new life. Second, when referring to directions, north, south, east and west aren’t capitalized; however, if we refer to them as regions, then we do: When the South seceded from the United States, I lived in the Northeast at the time.

Another easy rule to forget is which words to capitalize in the title of a book, heading or movie. The proper answer is all of them except the conjunctions (and, but, or) and short prepositions (in, on, for). However, there is an exception to the exception. For example, in the title of this article, I only capitalized the first word. Because it’s my article title and that’s how I prefer it. However, if I were referring to this (or anyone’s) article title in another article or book, I would cite it as “Capitalization Rules for Life, Part 1 of 3.”

Job titles, school subjects and departments create a lot of confusion among writers. There are rules within the rules in this area. Job titles are generally kept in lower case:

I am applying for the administrative assistant position.

John Smith is the finance director.

John Smith, the finance director, came to our luncheon.

The president has arrived. He is the president of the United States.


John Smith, Finance Director, held a press conference on Earth Day.

We waited for President Obama to arrive at the White House.

The principal of our school is Principal Davidson.

We saw Mayor Crotty walking downtown.

Always capitalize language courses and departments: I took English through the English department. Generic classes are not capitalized, but course titles are:

I’m taking history and psychology next year.

I’m taking History of Religion and Psychology 101 next year.

Seems relatively straight-forward when seen through the lens of examples, yes? Well, I feel obliged to throw you a curve ball at this point. There is not a firm consensus as to school or university departments.

My bible of English grammar, Webster’s New World English Grammar Handbook (2ed.), is silent on that subject. The Chicago Manual of Style recommends capitalizing: Department of English. The APA is ambiguous: capitalize department names “if they refer to a specific department within a specific university.” So, we capitalize Department of English, University of Florida, but do we capitalize “the sociology department?” The University of Colorado states: “Capitalize only the complete and official names of colleges, schools, divisions, departments…” and goes on to demonstrate that lower case is used in the following example:

Mary Moore of engineering has been promoted to associate professor.

Faculty members from the geography, anthropology, and ethnic studies departments are cooperating on this project.

My thoughts are that if “department” precedes the subject and “of” is used (i.e., Department of Chemistry), it constitutes an “official title” and if not, it remains lower case: English department, psychology department, etc.

The second part of our series will address capitalization with colons and dialogue, while Part 3 will discuss some odds and ends of capitalization.

To view other articles of interest, visit the author’s blog.

write by morales

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