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When To Use Capital Letters

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Some English capitalization rules are rigid, but others are a matter of style. We’ll go over the most common “capitalization” guidelines.

White text over red background that reads "capitalization rules."
Every sentence must begin with a capital letter.
  • Capitalization is when certain letters are written in uppercase instead of lowercase.
    • Mrs. Johnson states that our homework assignments are due every week on Friday.
  • There are several rules to keep in mind when deciding when to use capital letters.

The rules of capitalization in English may seem pretty direct. For example, most people know to capitalize the first letter of every sentence and the personal pronoun “I.” There are some gray areas, though. Should sentences after colons begin with a capital letter, too? How about titles and headlines? We’ll answer these questions and go over some basic guidelines for capitalization.

1. “Capitalizing” the First Word of a Sentence

This one is first because it’s the most common and straightforward rule: The first letter of a sentence must always be capitalized. A capital letter shows the reader that a new sentence has begun, the same way a period shows that a sentence has ended.

Yesterday I visited my grandma. We went to the mall, the movies, and then dinner. Afterwards, I dropped her back off at home. It was truly a great time.

Direct quotes within a sentence should also be capitalized:

She was so excited, I remember her saying, “This is the most fun I’ve had in a long time.”

However, if the quote is a phrase or sentence fragment, then it does not need to be capitalized.

I told her “not to worry,” because I’d be coming to visit more often now that we live in the same state.

2. “Capitalizing” Proper Nouns

Proper nouns are always capitalized. These are words that identify individual or unique nouns, unlike common nouns (which identify general or nonspecific nouns). Proper nouns include names of people, places, events, companies, and organizations.

Josiah and I visited Disney World. We took pictures with Mickey Mouse, Pluto, and Donald Duck. On the last day, when we met with Samuel and Jason and went to Animal Kingdom, Josiah accidentally spilled a Pepsi drink all over me.

How about titles like uncle, mom, and grandpa? When they immediately precede a proper name, then the first letters of those words should be capitalized. When they’re used in place of a personal name, they should also start with a capital letter.

I was surprised to see Uncle John at my graduation.
Uh-oh! Wait until Mom sees this.

However, if these titles are preceded by a possessive pronoun, noun, or article, if they follow a personal name, or if they don’t refer to a specific person, then they do not need to be capitalized.

My dad will not be happy that no other fathers helped with the fundraising event.

Because specific days, months, and holidays are proper nouns, they also have to be capitalized.

Every Friday during the month of November, my mom goes shopping for Christmas gifts.

Keep in mind that proper adjectives should be capitalized, too.

Bonus Tip

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3. “Capitalizing” Titles in Names

An additional, identifying name or title, like Dr. Strange or Mr. Bean, are always capitalized.

Professor Acosta had a guest speaker for today’s lecture.
President Joe Biden was nominated by the Democratic Party.
Mrs. Davis is a favorite among the students.

4. “Capitalizing” Titles and Headlines

Capitalizing titles differs depending on the style guide. However, the most common rule is this: Nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs should be capitalized. Prepositions, articles, and conjunctions should be left in lowercase (unless they are the first word).

The Chronicles of Narnia

5. What About “Capitalizing” After Colons?

Should sentences after colons be capitalized as well? This is another rule that depends on style. Most of the time, words after colons are not capitalized. Some exceptions are if (one or more) complete sentences or a proper noun is found right after the colon.

Johanna said there are two reasons she prefers to work from home: One, she can concentrate more. And two, she can be with her pets.

All of these guidelines are important. But the two capitalization rules you must always adhere to is capitalizing the first word in a sentence and proper nouns. Capitalization rules of titles and after colons vary, so always make sure to ask for a style guide if you’re unsure what to do.

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