Grammar Rules: 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 of 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 use a capitalization rule for only those words longer than three letters. Others stretch it to four.
There’s no fixed grammar rule for which words aren’t capitalized in a title, although they tend to be the smaller and more insignificant words; you should check your style guide for specific guidelines.
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 actually 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. A website can be any number of pages online. Think of it like a city in Chile, which is similar to a website on the Web or Internet.
Capitalization of Web and Internet is not a hard and fast grammar rule. Lots of people write these words in all lowercase letters. Do note, however, that when these terms are used as adjectives (also known as modifiers or descriptive words), they should never be capitalized:
I was accessing the Internet from an internet café.
The first occurrence of “Internet” uses capitalization because it refers to the (specific) Internet. But an internet café is a type of café and in this example, internet is used as an adjective rather than as a proper noun, and is therefore not capitalized.
Again, capitalizing Web and Internet is optional.
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 absolutely incorrect. 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 into proper nouns – names or titles of things and people.
We sent the Widgetbusters (TM) to WidgetMart in our last shipment. Have our 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.
- He once saw President Obama in a restaurant.
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 Obama” are specific individuals and they call for capitalization.
Do you have any questions about grammar rules regarding capitalization? Any additional tips to add? Leave a comment!