While a majority of our writing these days might consist of blog posts, work emails, or hastily-typed tweets, that doesn’t mean that basic grammar and punctuation rules just go out the window.
In order to effectively express your ideas in writing, you must be committed to learning and sticking to basic grammar rules, including those for capitalization.
While most rules affect both oral and written communication, one area that only affects the written form is capitalization: Should you capitalize the seasons? What about holidays? Do you capitalize after a colon?
Find the answers to these questions and more in the list below.
Skip the trap of making grammar errors for the world to see by reviewing these capitalization rules:
1. Do capitalize proper nouns.
Let’s review proper and common nouns briefly to avoid confusion.
Nouns refer to people, places, or things. They can be “proper” or “common.” Common nouns are the general names, while proper nouns are the names for specific people, places, or things.
Look at the proper noun examples for the common nouns given below:
|Common Nouns||Proper Nouns|
|city||New York City|
|canned lunch meat||Spam|
|building||Empire State Building|
Don’t capitalize common nouns.
Correct: the town of Sleepy Hollow
Wrong: the Town of Sleepy Hollow
Correct: The baby boy went to sleep.
Wrong: The Baby Boy went to sleep.
2. Do capitalize forms of address.
Some common nouns are used as a form of address. For example, the words mother, father, aunt, and uncle are all common nouns.
But when you use them to refer specifically to one person, such as in conjunction with another name or as a standalone, capitalize them, as shown below:
- “What were you thinking, Mother?” Jane asked.
- The frail Aunt Pitty fell into a swoon at the sight of the soldier’s wounds.
- The boy cried, “It’s not my fault, Dad! He hit me first!”
- Tell me, Sir, how did you find our house?
Don’t capitalize forms of address when they are used as common nouns.
In contrast, in the examples below, they are used as common nouns; therefore do not capitalize them:
My mother does her laundry every Saturday morning.
She told her aunt everything that happened at the party.
Patricia hugged her dad with all her might; she never wanted to let him go again.
3. Do always capitalize the pronoun “I”.
Pronouns are words used to replace a noun in a sentence. The pronoun “I” is always capitalized no matter which part of the sentence it appears.
- I couldn’t help telling him off right away; I just hate it when someone lies.
- On that moonlit night, Jeff and I went for a walk in the woods.
Don’t capitalize the pronoun “me.”
The pronoun “me” is never capitalized, unless it’s used as a proper noun or as part of a title, such as:
- I liked the movie Me, Myself, and Irene
- Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
4. Do capitalize the first word in a sentence.
Capitalize every word that starts any sentence. See the following examples:
- The coronavirus pandemic has taken the world by storm.
- Airline companies have implemented stricter security measures since 9/11.
5. Do capitalize the first word in a quoted sentence.
A sentence inside quotation marks is still a sentence; apply the same rule and capitalize the first word.
- “Did he tell you where we went last night?” she asked anxiously. “He said he would tell you right away.”
- The soldier said, “Not me, Sir, I would never speak rudely to a lady.”
- “Our frontliners have done a tremendously good job, and I also sincerely appreciate the heartfelt generosity of everyone in donating their resources to keep us steady during this crisis.”
- “It is with deepest regret that we mourn the passing of our dear friend and colleague, Elizabeth Brown.”
Don’t capitalize the first word of a thought fragment inside quotes.
- Captain Johnson looked into Helena’s eyes, the “dark, brooding look” he had often joked about coming over them now.
Don’t capitalize a continuing fragment of thought split by dialogue tags.
- “The music,” she said, looking up demurely, “makes me want to dance.”
- “Come here, boy,” Bert coaxed, “and I’ll get that thorn out of your paw.”
Don’t capitalize dialogue tags, even when the quote ends in a period, exclamation mark, or question mark.
- “Let’s get going,” he said.
- “You’re crazy!” her boyfriend exclaimed.
- “How did you find the turkey?” the worried housekeeper asked.
6. Do capitalize the first word after an ellipsis if it starts a new grammatical sentence.
When a new complete thought starts after an ellipsis, capitalize the first word.
- “I didn’t think it mattered… Never mind, it’s done now.”
- The rain came in torrents, washing the town clean, wiping out all the filth and chaos… It was as if everything was made new.
Don’t capitalize the first word that follows an ellipsis as a continuation of a thought.
- Well… that makes sense, I guess.
- The dog padded over excitedly, but suddenly, he stopped, eyes narrowing, nose sniffing… something seemed amiss.
7. Do capitalize after a colon only when the thought forms a complete sentence.
- The army found the abandoned enemy camp easily: It was strewn with equipment and food scraps, just as their comrades told them.
Note: Different style guides have slightly different preferences when it comes to capitalization after colons.
For example, The Chicago Manual of Style believes you should capitalize the first word after a colon only if the colon introduces two explanatory sentences.
Don’t capitalize after a colon when the word continues a fragment of thought or introduces a list.
- The army found the abandoned enemy camp in a mess: food scraps, broken equipment, hastily torn down tents.
8. Do capitalize months, days, and holidays.
- September, April, June, and November have 30 days. All other months have 31.
- Their foster baby turned 2 last December.
- The boy kept all his Halloween candy safely stashed under his bed to keep it from his younger brother.
- You don’t have anywhere to go for Thanksgiving? Come over to our place, then.
Don’t capitalize the seasons.
- Anne Shirley loves spring most of all.
9. Do capitalize most words in titles, awards, and job designations.
In book titles, capitalize all nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. You can leave prepositions and conjunctions in lowercase, unless they occur as the first word.
- Of Mice and Men
- Romeo and Juliet
For awards, capitalize them when they are proper nouns. The same rule applies: capitalize all nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Keep prepositions and conjunctions in lowercase. See the examples below:
- the Nobel Prize for Literature
- the Oscars
- the Caldecott Medal for Best Picture Book
Don’t capitalize general award terms.
Correct: He won the grand prize in Masterchef Junior.
Incorrect: He won the Grand Prize in Masterchef Junior.
Correct: Eric Liddell brought home the Olympic gold medal for track.
Incorrect: Eric Liddell brought home the Olympic Gold Medal for Track.
10. Do capitalize the first word in every new line of poetry.
Traditionally, poems follow the same capitalization rules as in prose, with the exception of each line starting with a capitalized letter.
Some modern writers opt for non-capitalization, but the generally-accepted way is still to capitalize every new line.
See this example from “The Lamb” by William Blake:
Little Lamb who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
Little Lamb who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Don’t capitalize the 1st word in the 2nd or 3rd lines of a haiku if it is made up of a fragment of a thought.
A haiku often uses fragments of thought instead of complete sentences. When you keep the second and third lines in lowercase, it gives the reader the heads-up that they’re not reading a normal sentence.
Take, for example, this haiku entitled “Autumn Moonlight” by Matsuo Basho:
a worm digs silently
into the chestnut.
Why Is Capitalization Important?
Knowing how to capitalize words correctly will go a long way in making your writing professional and more trustworthy. Whenever you’re uncertain, make the extra effort to confirm the rules.
Some grammar rules are straightforward; others may vary depending on whether you abide by the Chicago Manual of Style or the Associated Press. Should you find contradictions, choose which style you want and stick to it for everything you write.
Are there any capitalization rules that still confuse you? Let us know in the comments below!