Capitalization rules can be difficult to understand, and they change depending on whether a word is in a sentence or in a title. Thankfully, there are style guides that make it easy to determine what to do. The first thing to know is that there are three main schools of writing that have different capitalization rules for different types of words. While the styles do agree on many rules, there are a few things that vary.
The three major writing styles are AP Style, Chicago style, and MLA style. Deciding what style to use depends on personal preference or the type of assignment. Journalism, for example, typically uses AP Style, while academic papers and business writing is often MLA or Chicago. Once the writer has determined what writing style to use, the capitalization rules are easier to follow.
Capitalization Rules for Sentences
When it comes to capitalization rules in general, there are some elements that all style guides contain. Here are the main rules:
1. Always Capitalize the First Word of Every Sentence:
- The author has finished writing his book.
- People are happy in the summer.
- Cars always look amazing after John washes them.
2. Always Capitalize Proper Nouns and Names
Proper nouns and names of people, places, religions, nationalities, time periods with formal names (for example, the Iron Age), months, and days, but not seasons, should always be capitalized.
- The author, Charles Dickens, has finished writing his book.
This example contains a name, Charles Dickens, which should be capitalized.
- The author, Charles Dickens, has finished writing his book about his travels to London during the Victorian era.
This example adds the name of a place, London, and a time period, the Victorian era, which are capitalized. If Victorian era is replaced with a month or day, you would need to capitalize those words.
- The British author, Charles Dickens, has finished writing his book about his travels to London to visit a Catholic church.
This example adds the nationality, British, and the religion, Catholic, both of which are capitalized.
3. Capitalize the First Word After a Full Quote:
- Sarah happily said, “We are going to visit Paris in October.” She is a world traveler.
In this example, the full quote has introduced a new sentence, so the word “She” is capitalized.
4. Do Not Capitalize Partial Quotes:
Unlike the above, partial quotes, like when the writer is quoting just a few words, the first word should not be capitalized, unless it is a name or proper noun. There are always exceptions, so it’s important to refer to style guides if there are any unique situations.
- Sarah happily said she and her friend were “going to visit Paris in October,” so we booked our flights to join them.
5. Do Not Capitalize The First Word After a Colon:
Colons do not start new sentences, so the first word should not be capitalized, unless, of course, it is a name or proper noun.
- Caroline needed a few things from the grocery store: milk, bread, and eggs.
In this case, “milk, bread, and eggs” should not be capitalized.
- Caroline has three favorite authors: Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Harper Lee.
In this sentence, the words after the colon are names, so they are capitalized.
Capitalization Rules for Titles
Where things can be confusing is when determining the capitalization rules of words in titles. As with words in a sentence, there are some rules that all writing styles agree on.
1. Always Capitalize the First and Last Words:
The easiest to remember is that the first and last words of a title should always be capitalized no matter what.
- We are Going Home.
2. Always Capitalize Nouns, Pronouns, Verbs, Adjectives, Adverbs, and Subordinating Conjunctions:
- We are Going Home Because of the Weather.
3. Do Not Capitalize Articles, Coordinating Conjunctions, or Short Prepositions:
The rules for words that are not capitalized are straightforward. These include articles (a, an, the), coordinating conjunctions, and prepositions that are less than five letters. If any of the words in the title are the aforementioned types, they should not be capitalized. The rule about prepositions less than five letters can be confusing, but just remember that all words that are five letters or longer should be capitalized regardless of the type of word. This changes, however, in Chicago style, which says that all prepositions regardless of the word length should not be capitalized. If Chicago style is the style being used, be sure to note this rule.
- We are Going Home on a Train Because of the Weather.
The word “on” is a preposition that is less than five letters, so it is not capitalized. However, if the title read, “We are Going Home Above a Train Because of the Weather,” the preposition “above” is five letters, so it is capitalized.
Exceptions to the Rules
While these are the general rules, there are some conditions in which the capitalization rules change. Where things change depends on the content of the title.
Always Capitalize Important Words:
All words that are important to the content should be capitalized regardless of the type of word. This means that even if the words fall under the “do not capitalize” rules, they should be capitalized if they are important to the sentence.
- Writing and Reading for Relaxation
In this Title, the content suggests that the article will review how both writing and reading can be done for the purpose of relaxation. If the title is “Writing And Reading for Relaxation,” this suggests that both writing and reading, not one or the other, promotes relaxation. The capitalization of the word “and” goes against the typical rule for prepositions, therefore telling the reader that “and” is a keyword in the title.
While the above relates to all writing styles, there are some differences when more complex titles come into play. For example, when there is additional punctuation in the title, like colons and hyphenated words, the capitalization rules will vary based on what style of writing is being used. When using a more complex title, it’s smart to check the style guide or handbook for the specific style of writing. These are special cases though that are not very common, so it’s safest and easiest to just stick with the capitalization rules above.