Grammar Rules: Capitalization

grammar rules capitalization

Grammar rules for capitalization.

Proper capitalization is one of the cornerstones of good grammar, yet many people fling capital letters around carelessly.

Not every word deserves to be capitalized. It’s an honor that must be warranted, and in writing, capitalization is reserved only for special words.

Most of the grammar rules are explicit about which words should be capitalized. However, there are some cases (like title case) in which the rules are vague. 

Capitalization of Titles

There are several contexts in which we can examine capitalization. When writing a title (of a blog post, for example), almost all the words in the title are capitalized. This is called title case.

Title case is used for titles of books, articles, songs, albums, television shows, magazines, movies…you get the idea.

Capitalization isn’t normally applied to every word in a title. Smaller words, such as a, an, and the are not capitalized. Some writers only capitalize words that are longer than three letters. Others stretch it to four.

There is an exception to the rule of using lowercase for short words in a title: Words that are important should remain capitalized, even if they are shorter than three or four letters. For example, the word run is only three letters, but if it appeared in a title, it would be capitalized, because it would be the verb (or action) within the title: “Would You Run for Office?” Similarly, important nouns (subjects of objects of a title), such as me, would retain capitalization: Marley and Me.

There’s no fixed grammar rule for which words aren’t capitalized in a title, although they tend to be smaller and less significant words; you should check your style guide for specific guidelines to ensure that your capitalization in consistent.

Capitalization of Acronyms

Every letter in an acronym should be capitalized, regardless of whether the words those letters represent start with capital letters:

  • The acronym for Writing Forward would be WF.
  • WYSIWYG is an acronym that stands for what you see is what you get. Although the words in the original phrase aren’t capitalized, every letter in the acronym is capitalized.
  • Most people use acronyms heavily in text messaging and online messaging. In common usage, these acronyms are rarely capitalized: omg, btw, nsfw. However, if you were using these acronyms in a more formal capacity, they would be entirely capitalized: OMG, BTW, NSFW.

First Word of a Sentence

As I’m sure you know, grammar rules state that the first word in a sentence is always capitalized.

Capitalization of Proper Nouns

To keep things simple here today, we’ll refer to a noun as a person, place, or thing. You need not worry about the other parts of speech because only nouns are eligible for perennial capitalization.

There are two types of nouns that matter in terms of capitalization: proper nouns and common nouns. Proper nouns are the names of specific people, places, and things. Common nouns are all the other, nonspecific people, places, and things.

When considering whether to capitalize, ask whether the noun in question is specific. This will tell you if it’s a proper noun, which should be capitalized, or a common noun, which remains in all lowercase letters.

Proper Noun Capitalization Example

The word country is not specific. It could be any country. Even if you’re talking about the country in which you live, which is a specific country, the word itself could indicate any number of nations. So keep it lowercase because it’s a common noun.

Conversely, Chile is a specific country. You can tell because Chile is the name of a particular land in which people reside. When you discuss the people of that land, you won’t capitalize the word people. However, if you’re talking about Chileans, you definitely capitalize because Chileans are a very specific people, from a very specific country, Chile.

Hopefully that makes sense. If not, keep reading because I’m about to confuse you even more.

Capitalization of Web and Internet

Have you ever noticed the word Internet capitalized? How about the word Web? The linguistic jury is still out on these newfangled technology terms, but generally speaking, the Internet is one great big, specific place. The Web is just another word for that same place.

Wait — what about websites? Do they get capitalized? Only if you’re referring to the name of an actual site, like Writing Forward.

Capitalization of Web and Internet is not a hard and fast grammar rule. Lots of people write these words in all lowercase letters. If you’re not sure about whether to capitalize these words, check your style guide.

Common Capitalization Errors

Folks often think that capitalization should be applied to any word that’s deemed important. Here’s an example:

We sent the Product to the local Market in our last shipment. Have the Sales Force check to see if our Widgets are properly packaged.

It’s not uncommon, especially in business writing, to see nouns that are crucial to a company’s enterprise capitalized. This is technically incorrect but could be considered colloquial usage of a sort. Unless it’s mandated by a company style guide, avoid it.

Here’s correct capitalization of our example:

We sent the product to the local market in our last shipment. Have the sales force check to see if our widgets are properly packaged.

Now, in a rewrite of the example, some of the words will be again capitalized, but only if they are changed to proper nouns (names or titles of things and people).

We sent the Widgetbusters (TM) to WidgetMart in our last shipment. Have Bob, Sales Manager, check to see if our widgets are properly packaged.

What about Capitalization for Job Titles?

Ah, this one’s tricky. Job titles are only capitalized when used as part of a specific person’s title:

  • Have you ever met a president?
  • Did you vote for president?
  • Do you want to become the president?
  • Nice to meet you, Mr. President.
  • I read a book about President Lincoln.

Again, this has to do with specificity. “The president” or “a president” could be any president, even if in using the phrase, it’s obvious by context who you mean. However “Mr. President” or “President Lincoln” are specific individuals, and they call for capitalization.

Grammar Rules!

Do you have any questions about grammar rules regarding capitalization? Any additional tips to add? Leave a comment!

10 Core Practices for Better Writing

About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.


69 Responses to “Grammar Rules: Capitalization”

  1. Dan says:

    Hi, I’ve got a question about something I didn’t see directly addressed in your post. I guess it’s pretty much the same thing you discussed in the section on job titles, but applied to places and things.

    If I mention a proper noun (e.g. Mount Sinai Hospital, or Economic Stimulus Project), and then refer to it later in the form of a common noun (the hospital, the project), should that be capitalised or not?

    Thanks in advance for your guidance on this.

    • Hi Dan. When you refer to anything as a common noun, you will not capitalize it. This is similar to referring to “the president” versus “President Lincoln” – you only capitalize when it’s used as part of a proper noun.

  2. Jane Shackleton says:


    I have a title Action Learning System, which obviously whenever referred to in the document is all capitalised, however when only part of it is referred to in a sentence do I still capitalise that one word? I.e. Learning or System?
    Thanks for your help.

    • Jane, I think it’s okay to capitalize shortened versions of the name of your product, i.e. Learning or System. however, for the purpose of building brand-name recognition, I think it’s best to use the full name, capitalized. Also, once you name it as a system, it would be correct to refer to “the system” or “this system” using lowercase. In many cases, however, particularly in sales and marketing copy, key words are always capitalized. This is usually more a matter of style (choice) than grammar. I would either use the full name or an abbreviation (ALS).

  3. Jane Shackleton says:

    Hi Melissa

    Thanks so much for your speedy reply. It’s such a difficult one, and I don’t think I’ve come across it before, so thanks so much for your help.
    Definitely a website I’m adding to my Favourites (correct capital???)

    • Looks like you’re using British spelling (favourites) rather than American (favorites). I think the same rules apply here – you can refer to “favorites” in a general sense or you can refer specifically to the “Favorites” menu on your browser. Personally, I’d go with lowercase, but it’s a style issue, so you get to choose.

  4. Kelvin Kao says:

    Sometimes I have problems with whether to capitalize “the” when it’s ambiguous whether it’s followed by a proper noun or the beginning of a proper noun.
    For example, “I live in the United States of America” versus “Dwayne Johnson is known as The Rock”. In those two cases, it’s obvious to me whether I should capitalize “the” or not, but in some cases, I am not so sure. I guess it has more to do with whether “the” is included into the pronoun or not than with the actual grammar.

    • Kelvin, you’ve raised an excellent question, one I’ve wondered about more than once, so I checked The Chicago Manual of Style. It looks to me like you’ve got it right with “the United States of America.” I went through over fifty pages on capitalization and the is never capitalized when it precedes a name or title. For example, we would write: the Army, the Buddha, the Prince of Whales, etc. If you pick up a style guide, you’ll be able to look up specific terms when you run into this question again.

  5. Ryan @ IQ test says:

    My grammar is terrible. Thank you so much for this post.

  6. Dave says:

    Guilty of the first point. I always capitalize every word in a blog post title. Bad habits are easy to fall in to and I guess I should think a little more about it.

    • Actually, I don’t think it’s technically wrong to do that. From what I’ve read, title capitalization is a style issue, but the convention is definitely toward keeping short words lowercase. Personally, I sort of eye it and go partially on what looks aesthetically pleasing.

  7. Doughbury says:

    Thanks for the article, as I enjoy brushing up on grammar skills. I do have two questions though: Do you capitalize the first letter after a colon? Also, is the subject line of an e-mail considered a title? Thanks for your time.

    • Good question about the email subject line! In most cases, issues surrounding new media and modern technology haven’t been settled among grammarians. However, I definitely consider an email subject line a title, and I use title case in all subject lines. I also use title case for subheadings in my blog posts.

      Here’s what Chicago says about capitalizing after a colon:

      “When a colon is used within a sentence…the first word following the colon is lowercased unless it is a proper name. When a colon introduces two or more sentences…or when it introduces a speech in dialogue or an extract…the first word following it is capitalized.”

      Basically, if the text that follows the colon is a complete sentence, it gets capitalized.

      Hope that helps. You guys are asking some excellent questions about capitalization!

  8. J.D. Meier says:

    Beautiful walkthrough and examples.

    I especially like how you juxtaposed common scenarios and their corresponding traps.

  9. t. sterling says:

    Wasn’t sure if I had a question, but turns out I do. Although I think you may have somewhat possibly answered it, but I had been curious about certain words in titles, like “the”, “of”, and, well, “and”. I thought in some occasions I saw these words capitalized in their titles (of course not when they are the beginning or end of said title). Some examples I thought would be movie titles such as “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” or “Men in Black”. I would think the “the” in “the Sundance Kid” would be capitalized… just because. And for a long time I debated with myself whether or not “in” in “Men in Black” should be capitalized, since they are also know as MIB. I think within the movie, my question is answered since Kay has business cards that clearly read “MiB” on them. (Men in Black is one of my all-time favorite movies, I know it by heart.) Anyway, I said all that to ask if titling in such a way is proper or is it more of a style?

    I managed to escape this on titling my blog posts since I choose to keep the entire title in lowercase. Sometimes I do this because a post might be a line from a song or quote from a movie.

    And regarding when to capitalize “president” …I’ve always been confused by that. So thanks for that, I think some of the newspapers I’ve read must have it wrong since I’ve frequently seen “the President did such and things and blah”.

    What would it be like to be grammarian? What do their offices look like? How much do they get paid? I’m not really looking for answers to those questions… just some thoughts typed out loud.

    • For the most part, it’s a style issue (in other words, it will depend on which style guide you use). However, if you’re talking about a title, you capitalize the first word if it’s the or a. For Butch and MIB, I don’t think the and in are capitalized (even with MIB; when you write out the full title, in is lowercase:

      Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
      Men in Black (MIB)

      While IMDB is not a grammar resource, it’s a good place to go to see how the industry is treating capitalization. Or just look at the movie poster or DVD cover. I would use that as the official way to capitalize.

      • Shayne says:

        Back in the day, many moons ago, I was taught that all the words in a title were capitalised, and then I was taught that only the more ‘important’ ones were but I’m not going to get too hung up on that. My pet peeve is headings not titles. EVERYBODY these days seems to treat headings like titles by capitalising(?) every word, or the main words or, if in doubt, every letter of every word. The question at the end of the rant is; is this trend correct or is it another example of the ignorant perpetuating the mistakes of the ignorant? Or is it an American thing that people elsewhere have just adopted without even being aware of it, the way they do with pronunciation?

        • I believe this is more of a style than grammar issue. I use the Chicago Manual of Style and within it, the headings are indeed capitalized (some are in all caps). It seems to me that titles and headings are close cousins, so it makes sense to capitalize them.

  10. rick@rickety says:

    “As I’m sure you know, the first word in a sentence is always capitalized.”

    Suppose some one’s username is “rickety” in lower-case, and you don’t know their real name. Do I write a sentence like this:

    “Melissa Donovan is a fine writer. rickety is not so hot.”

    Sounds like a silly question but I come across similar examples occasionally.

    • That’s a good question, Rick. I would say that if one adheres to the rules of proper grammar, a proper noun would be capitalized, whether it’s at the beginning of a sentence or not. Since the name of any person is a proper noun, it should simply be capitalized.

      But that’s not much fun, is it? Creative writers have been bending the rules for many years, and that includes how capitalization and proper nouns are treated. Take e.e. cummings, for example. He often depicted his entire name in lowercase letters. I’ve seen some examples in which a publication opted to capitalize Mr. Cummings’ name and others where they leave it lowercase (I’m guessing out of respect). So, my second answer is that it’s up to the publication or editor.

  11. Mel says:

    I have a question. Suppose you are writing about sectors that a business is involved in. Such as xyz Investments is involved in diverse sectors such as food and beverages, leisure, transportation and tourism. Would it be capitalised, as technically this is the name of an industry?

    Also say a bank provides services such as commercial and private banking, asset management, islamic finance, brokerage, financial market services, leasing and property managemenent. Would this be capitalised? I have seen it written both ways on the web. Technically these are names of services so my gut feeling is to capitalise but am just not sure!


    • Mel, this deals with business writing, not creative writing. Businesses should use a style guide, either an established one or one that has been created for their industry or company. Generally, the lists you’ve asked about would not be capitalized, but in business writing, the styles are slightly different.

      • Kari says:

        I have the same question regarding business specific services and processes (specifically for the insurance industry). I really appreciate your information that this is a business style issue and not a grammatical one. Where would I be able to find a business style guide? When searching for this I have only come across references such as the MLA handbook.

        • If the company or industry in question doesn’t have its own style guide, I would suggest using the Chicago Manual of Style. Many other style guides are based on that one. Another option would be the AP style guide, which is widely used in journalism.

  12. Lauren @ Pure Text says:

    Additional Tip: When preceded by “my,” the words “mom” and “dad” are not capitalized. They’re usually only capitalized when used as a substitute for the person’s name; for example, “Hey, Mom.”

  13. Lauren @ Pure Text says:

    Hello, I’d also like to add that it’s not just all smaller words that aren’t capitalized. It’s the smaller prepositions, the articles (the, an, a), and the conjunctions. But “is” and “be” and “are,” which are quite small, are supposed to be capitalized (though often incorrectly left lowercase) because these words are verbs.

    Sorry, I’m an editor; I’m passionate about grammar. :3

  14. Bill Polm says:

    I may have missed it, but how about after a semicolon. Capital or not.

  15. Great article. I”m still left with a question. Do I capitalize the name of fish? Mummichog is the one at the moment. I think not, like cat. I wouldn’t capitalize cat. So pending a different answer from you, I’m not capitalizing it!

    • We don’t capitalize words like cat or fish (or humans or people for that matter). However, we would capitalize their personal names (Mittens and Bubbles, for example). We don’t capitalize words like tabby or salmon (which are types of cats and fish). However, if a proper noun is included (as in Siamese cat or German shepherd dog), we keep it capitalized. I don’t think you would capitalize mummichog unless it’s also a proper noun or the personal name of a fish (like your name is Catherine).

  16. Ian MacDonald says:

    Do you capitalize the first word after a quote i.g., “I wouldn’t like that very much.” Replied the lovely young lady. And is this the correct use of “i.g.,.

    • Hi Ian,

      This is actually not a quote; it’s dialogue. When the dialogue tag (he said / she said) comes after the dialogue, we put a comma at the end of the dialogue (not a period) and we do not capitalize the dialogue tag: “That’s interesting,” she said. Here is how your example should look:

      “I wouldn’t like that very much,” replied the lovely young lady.

      There is no i.g. that I’m aware of but perhaps you mean e.g. It’s a latin abbreviation meaning for example.

      Questions like yours are always welcome here; I’m more than happy to help if I can. But I also recommend getting a few writing resources so that you can look up questions like these when they arise. I first learned how to format dialogue by simply reading a lot of fiction. Good luck to you!

  17. theresa says:

    hi! I was wondering, if I were referring to a large estate that is NOT the White House, and I wanted to say ‘north wing’, would that be capatalized? For example:

    While on the tour of the large estate, Gary opened the wooden door and ushered me in. “This is the north wing,” he said.

    Thank you.

    • The rule to remember is that we only capitalize proper nouns, which you can also think of as official names for something. Here, “north wing” is not the official name; rather, it’s a description of a location (within a building). In this context, it would not be capitalized.

  18. Sam says:

    If the name of a restaurant is “melvin’s,” and it is not capitalized on it’s sign and menu, etc. Would you capitalize it when you are writing about it?

    • I think that’s a judgement call and you can go either way. I would probably capitalize it, depending on what I’m writing. With proper nouns like iPad, most people are familiar with the spelling and the construct makes it obvious that’s how it’s spelled. With a word like “melvin’s,” you risk your audience thinking the error is yours. You might also do some research to see if they capitalize their name on other official documents. They may have used lowercase on the sign and menu for style but they may capitalize it on letterhead, business cards, etc. Check the phone book!

  19. James says:

    That was a great read. My question is about Murphy’s Law. Since it isn’t public law, which are capitalized, should the word law in Murphy’s Law be capitalized?

    • It doesn’t matter how official or public a proper noun is, we would still capitalize it. If nothing else, Murphy’s Law would probably qualify as a title. Yes, it should definitely be capitalized.

  20. Russ Phillips says:

    How about capitlaization of coined nicknames? Now, going by your guideline, I’d say yes, because they are standing in for a SPECIFIC person’s proper name.

    A husband addresses his wife, “When does the movie start, Sweetheart?”

    She replies, “Nine-thirty, Honey.”

    But what if it’s off-beat, or even derisive?

    “Hey, Big Nose, where are you going?”

    “You look wonderful tonight, Baby Lamb Cheeks.”

    My wife is a technical writer and editor, and she claims she sees referrals such as “honey” and “sweetheart” BOTH WAYS (capped and not), even when directly addressing the person. I say any directly addressed coined nickname is capped.

    “What do you say there, Grammar Sage?”

    • I have to go with your wife on this one. I have seen it done both ways, and I say it’s the author’s call. I think it depends on your personal style and what you think looks good on the page. Personally, I would use lowercase in most of these instances since they are terms of endearment. However, if one character uses a term of endearment as a nickname for another character, I would capitalize it.

      Pass the carrots, honey. <-- a general term of endearment applied to many people. You just keep getting cuter and cuter, Freckles. <-- a special nickname for someone. Hope that helps.

      • Gary Fearon says:

        Seems like any time you’re addressing an individual, you would capitalize it because it’s a substitute for their name. Only in instances where you don’t know their name does the more generic lowercase treatment feel appropriate (such as a waitress saying, “Here you go, hon.”) Since endearments like “love”, “honey” and “sugar” are also common words, it’s safest not to compromise clarity. (“Would you pass me that, sugar?”)

        Thanks for a great site, Melissa!

  21. Dave says:

    Hi Melissa

    Some really useful things in this blog. I was wondering about the use of capitals to refer to an industry. Would it be mining or Mining? Oil and Gas or oil and gas?

    Also, would specific duties or actions in that industry be capitalised? Would it be Payroll or payroll? Would it be Management Accounting or management accounting? Commercial Contracts or commercial contracts? Would they have Commercial focus or commercial focus?

    Likewise, if you are talking about a significant project should this be ‘multi billion dollar infrastructure project’ or ‘multi billion dollar Infrastructure Project?’

    I assume titles would be in capitals: Accountant and Contracts Specialist. Is this right?

    Thank you so much for your help!

    • The rule is that only proper nouns get capitalized. It gets tricky when we ask whether the name of an industry is considered a proper noun (it’s not). Words like mining and phrases like oil and gas are not capitalized. They are not names but words to label items, just like a desk is a four-legged table that we use as a workspace — mining is an activity wherein we dig for resources and profit.

      Specific duties are also not capitalized. If we capitalized words like payroll, we’d have to capitalize every activity under the sun. For example:

      My assistant is doing the Payroll. (incorrect)
      The kids are playing a Game. (incorrect)

      However, if the word or phrase is referring to the name of a specific department within a specific company, it would be capitalized:

      Send those time cards to Payroll.

      Job titles are capitalized but only when used in official or specific context:

      I’d like to hire an accountant. (generic)
      I used to be a Contracts Specialist. (official/specific)

      Hope that helps.

  22. Donna Dallman says:

    I am writing a novel, and I show my characters thoughts in italics. My question is, do I capitalize the first word of the ‘thought’.
    For instance, if I write:
    Sandy thought, (in italics) Was this planned or random?
    MS Word corrects me if I capitalize it, but I learned somewhere that I was suppose to.
    Can you clear this up for me?

    • Yes, I would capitalize it. In fact, I would treat the thoughts just like dialogue, except there would be italics and no quotation marks. I think you’ve got it right. Pay no attention to Word’s poor editing skills.

      Sandy thought, Was this planned or random?

      You may find that you don’t always need the dialogue tags, however:

      Was this planned or random?

      That might work in context, if it’s clear which character the focus is on. Good luck with your novel!

  23. juniorEditor says:

    I am trying to edit a book written by a friend. Should he use capitals when referring to specific persons by their titles in dialog? For example, “I will help you with that in a moment, Sheriff? or “Robert called you into his office, Agent.”

    Are these considered job descriptions? I think they should be capitalized since they refer to a specific person.

    • In the example you gave, Sheriff would be capitalized. Agent sounds odd to me. Keep in mind, some titles are used when referring directly to someone: Mr. President, Commander, General (most military ranks), etc. However, most job titles are not used in this manner. For example, we wouldn’t say, “Good morning, CEO” or “Do you have that report I requested, Admin?” I believe the title Agent is usually paired with the person’s last name: “Robert called you into his office, Agent Smith.”

      Having said all that, in the context you presented, yes, Agent would be capitalized because it’s used in place of the person’s name.

      • juniorEditor says:

        Thank you. The book revolves around a FBI agent, and people refer to him as such. I am glad that I am on the right track.

  24. samantha says:


    I am a little confused.When someone communicates casually with a friend and they begin with “i” rather than “I”, they are saying loud and clear they do not know the basics of grammar. This can become the message.

    Where do we go from here is the question. The only place I know for sure we will not go is backward. Where do you think it all goes from here?

    • I love your questions because it sounds like you’re asking what the future will bring. It’s fun to imagine all the possibilities, but there’s no way to know for sure. Back in Shakespeare’s time, I doubt they could have imagined that in a few hundred years, kids would be running around saying “dude” and “wazzup.”

  25. ebsewi says:

    Above the word “folks” is reference, and it got me wondering: Should “folks” be capitalized when used in address form? Example: Which is correct below?

    One emails one’s team, which is a specific group of people:

    Okay, Folks, send me your time sheets by tomorrow, mid-day.


    Okay, folks, send me your time sheets by tomorrow, mid-day.

    Granted, the knowledge that I am addressing specific folks, versus folks may may stumble across my edict, may be mine alone, and/or it may also reside with the readers.

    Thanks for any advice.

    • If you use “folks” in the salutation, it would be capitalized:

      Hi Folks,

      If you use it within the body, it should not be capitalized:

      Okay folks, send me your sheets…

      In the second example, it used the same way “people” or “team” would be used. These are not proper nouns.

  26. Brandi says:

    Do you capitalize the word Economy?

  27. Heather says:

    What about club names, ie, pep club, beta club?

  28. Canton says:

    When a sentence begins with a word in which the first letter is not normally capitalized, do you capitalize it? I am thinking of words like mRNA, iPhone, cDNA, eBay, etc.

    • Hi Canton. This is a question of style, so you should check a style guide for a specific answer. One approach is to rewrite the sentence so that it doesn’t start with one of these words. Otherwise, I would say keep the first letter lowercase.

  29. Don says:

    When addressing and guest on an invitation should the “G” be capiatized?

  30. Sarah Mitte says:

    I am editing a book that discusses a system that was developed by another author. Do I capitalize the steps and the sections in the system? The author capitalized everything, so I just want to double-check.

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