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To Capitalize or Not to Capitalize

It is an eye-sore when too many words are capitalized without being warranted.

The rules of capitalization are taught in elementary school itself. We need to use capital letters to indicate the start of a new sentence and to indicate a proper noun — which means we use it to begin a sentence inside the double quotes; we use it for names of people, titles, places, countries, languages, nationalities and historical events (Second World War). The pronoun ‘I’ is always capitalized.

I always thought using capital letters was the easiest chapter in English Grammar. I was wrong. Too often, people capitalize words which should not/need not be capitalized. This can be very distracting to the reader.

A few points to remember:

1. When in doubt, do not capitalize.

2.  When department names are used unofficially, there is no need to use a capital letter. Common nouns and various shortened forms of official names are not capitalized. Use lower case for the words “committee” or “council” when they stand alone. Only when these words occur as the formal names of groups and committees should you capitalize them. Examples would be National Council for Hotel Management and MS Swaminathan Research Foundation.

3.  Capitalize the months, not the seasons. This winter was very cold. When personified, season names function as proper nouns and should be capitalized: In March, Spring shows her joyous moods.

4.  Historical periods and events, names of religions and gods, and holy books are capitalized. The Vedic Period, Great Depression, First War of Indian Independence are some examples. Capitalize Bible when referring to it specifically, but do not capitalize Bible when using it in a generic way; for example, Thompson’s recent book is the bible on nanotechnology.

4.  Capitalize the salutation and the closing address: Dear Ms.Lucy; Sincerely yours.

5. Capitalize North, South, East, and West when used as sections of the country, but not as compass directions:

   1. We lived in North India for twenty years.
   2. My office is in the south of Bangalore. It is in South Bangalore.

6. When used generically, words such as president, king, and emperor are in lower case. Unless the name of the president follows the designation, ‘president’ can be in lower case. It is right to say ‘president of the United States’, but you must capitalize the president in ‘President Obama’. When a person has a very long title, put the title after the name to avoid too much capitalization.

1.    De Gaulle was a French president and Hitler was a German military commander.  Three prime ministers attended the conference.
2.    All senators are expected to attend.
3.    We expect that Senator So-and-So would attend the meeting positively.
4.    She worked as an assistant to Chief Minister Karunanidhi.
5.    He interviewed Karunanidhi, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu.

Of course, your organization may insist on capitalizing the designation even when it succeeds the names. Whatever the style requirement, be consistent in the usage throughout the document.

7.  When a title appears in an address format as opposed to running text, the title can be capitalized even if it appears after the name. Example:  Aroon Purie, Editor-in-Chief

8.  Observe the difference in capitalizing ‘city’ in the following sentences:

I live in the city of New York. My sister lives in New York City.

9.  It is correct to write, “Dr. Simon went to Washington.” or “Will we go to London, Doctor?” However, if ‘doctor’ is not used as a title, it should not be capitalized. “George is a doctor from Australia.”

10.   Similarly, “Mom” and “Dad” should be capitalized when using them as proper names or addressing them directly by these names. Otherwise, use lowercase as in “My mom and dad went on vacation. Here is the present I bought for Mother“.

11.  Do not capitalize ‘god’ when using non-specifically.

She prayed to Lord Vishnu. The gods were not pleased with him.

12. Words Associated with the Internet: It was once common to capitalize Internet, Web (or World Wide Web), and associated words such as Web page, Web site, etc., but many organizations have moved away from such capitalizations. The words e-mail and online are not capitalized.

Read also:

Common Rules For Comma Usage

Hilarious Tale of Misplaced Modifiers

Subject-Verb Agreement

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16 Responses to “To Capitalize or Not to Capitalize”
  • Mr Ghaz
    April 19th, 2009 at 1:52 am

    Great work! Nicely done. very interesting article about writings/ words..must read..I Liked it..Well done and thnx for sharing

  • Gone.
    April 19th, 2009 at 2:54 am

    Very useful advice and article.

  • Louie Jerome
    April 19th, 2009 at 4:03 am

    Useful article. I was taught, like you, that on proper names, or the first letter of a sentence was capitalized. However, I notice capital letters all over the place, or even the absence of them all together.

  • Karen Gross
    April 19th, 2009 at 11:00 am

    I find the absence of capital letters more distracting, especially the pronoun I.

  • Daisy Peasblossom
    April 19th, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    Aw, shucks! You mean we can’t go all Victorian and Capitolize Every Important Word in the sentence? or emulate e.e. cummings and dispense with capitolizing all together? (hehe!) Actually, this is a very good article, well-written with good advice. It is a good idea to know the rules and understand how to use them before you break them.

  • monica55
    April 19th, 2009 at 9:29 pm

    Thanks again Uma for an extremely useful writing lesson. I was taught that way too, so I totally agree with you.

  • Eunice Tan
    April 19th, 2009 at 9:59 pm

    Helpful, Uma. Thanks

  • OhSugar
    April 20th, 2009 at 11:17 am

    Very nice. This article is filled with very helpful information. Thank you for sharing it..

  • Guy Hogan
    April 20th, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    Grammar is so important. Poor grammar takes away from the pleasure of reading.

  • manya
    April 20th, 2009 at 10:10 pm

    Uma, this is a very good, well researched and very well documented article. Keep up the good work.


  • Ron
    May 5th, 2009 at 9:00 pm

    rules Rules rUleS…..

    a good accurate article, but following rules is stifling, and being stifled destroys creativity.
    And by the Way…. Mom is not a word, it is an American abomination…. the rest of the English speaking world knows it is Mum.

  • Uma Shankari
    May 5th, 2009 at 9:28 pm

    Ron, thanks for the info on mom/mum. Following rules may be stifling to the writer ( which can be overcome through practice), but not following them can be distracting/irritating to a discerning reader.

  • Ron
    May 6th, 2009 at 12:03 am

    Uma, I hope you didn’t misunderstand what I said, I think your article was good, accurate and very helpful.
    Certainly good information which is worthwhile following more times than not…. and as a discerning reader myself I agree with you that writers who are loose cannons failing to follow rules can be distracting and irritating…. yet isn’t that sometimes what it’s all about ?
    I read to FEEL…. I write to help others to feel…. and feeling distracted, irritated or whatever is sometimes a good thing in the context of the story being read at the time, and if breaking perfectly good rules helps to achieve that, surely it’s the right thing to do.
    Respectfully, Ron

  • CutestPrincess
    May 9th, 2009 at 10:21 am

    Very well written have honestly made an effort…

  • Muhammad Sohaib Roomi
    February 7th, 2010 at 1:40 am

    I like IT ;)

  • Winston
    January 14th, 2011 at 4:26 pm

    I found this via a Google search, trying to find someone who shares my confusion on why Indian employees in our company capitalize so many words that should not be capitalized. This is not meant to be derogatory, I have seen an honest trend in working closely with our team for a few years. It seems that capitalizing a word is meant to give it emphasis, such as bolding would, even though that goes against the very simplest english grammatical rules. I just tell myself that if I ever had to learn Hindi to do my job, I would likely confuse and annoy everyone around me. :)

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