Angela’s ABCs Capital letters

A Guide to Using Capital Letters

To use or not to use, that is the question

The basic rule nowadays is: the fewer capitals, the better. Things have changed considerably over the years, even since I was at school, when we sprinkled capitals gaily throughout our work. Now, it’s thought that too many capitals break up the text on a page and make it more difficult to read.

Some words always have capitals:

Proper nouns (Proper nouns name specific entities while their opposite, common nouns, name a general class of entities and take lower case.)

The names of people are proper nouns.

The names of towns, streets, rivers, oceans, counties, countries, companies, institutions, churches, places and languages are all proper nouns, so are days of the week, months of the year and festivals.  Here are some examples:

Days of the week: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc.

Months of the year: January, February, March, etc.

Holidays and Festivals: Christmas, New Year’s Day, Hanukkah, Easter. If New Year refers to the festival, it is capitalised as in: ‘Happy New Year’, or: ‘We had a great New Year party’; but not if it refers to a time period: ‘I intend to drink less in the new year to come’, ‘We hope the new year brings you better health.’

Geographical areas: London, Europe, Spain, Yorkshire, Auckland, the Arctic, the River Thames

Planets: names of moons, stars or planets such as Jupiter or Ganymede. Our planet is the Earth, our moon is the Moon, and our star is the Sun, but otherwise earth, moon and sun are common nouns: ‘Did the earth move for you?’ and ‘I met her many moons ago.’

People and pets: Lucy, Mrs Kate Meredith, Dr Tom Caldin, Bootsie

Books, newspapers, magazines: Wuthering Heights, New Herald Tribune, Woman’s Weekly

Companies and organisations: Google, Amnesty International, Goldman Sachs

Religious terms: Christian, Methodist, Hindu, God, Allah

Places, buildings: Abel Tasman National Park, Kensington Gardens, Empire State Building

Titles: President Obama, King George, Queen Elizabeth, Judge Judy, Professor Brown. But these are not capitalised when they have a general meaning.  For example: ‘The criminal appeared before the judge.’ or ‘He has been made a professor.’

Languages/nationalities/ethnic groups: English, French, Italian, Maori, Inuit

Brand names: Microsoft, Apple, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Nike

But don’t use capitals for:

The seasons: summer, winter, autumn, spring

Compass points: north, south, east, west, unless they are part of a place name: ‘Drive east from London until you come to East Anglia.’  ‘He was proud of his northern heritage and visited the North Island as often as possible.’ ‘She was determined to drive to South Africa from her home in south Asia.’

Grey areas:

When a country, region or person’s name appears as a noun or part of a well-known phrase: In some cases, it is accepted that the noun has lost contact with its origin and should be lower case, for example, cardigan (named after James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, a British Army Major General who led the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War), wellington boots (worn and popularised by Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington) and cheddar cheese. Some maintain that, by analogy, we should write: danish pastries, french windows, yorkshire pudding, while others argue for the retention of the capital: Danish pastries, French windows, Yorkshire pudding (The Manchester Guardian changed from Yorkshire pudding to yorkshire pudding,  possibly to annoy people in Yorkshire, more than 50 years ago).

Job titles: The trend is for the use of lower case, for example, David Cameron, the British prime minister, is due to meet Barack Obama this afternoon. Aviva’s chief executive, Andrew Moss, has resigned because of shareholder pressure. But many would argue that Prime Minister and Chief Executive should be capitalised in these examples.  In business writing, there is a strong tendency to use capital letters for job titles: Monica Pearson, Financial Director; Stuart Jensen, Office Manager; as well as for departmental titles: Claims Department, Translation Services. If you’re writing for a business or a company, you need to find out what their house style is.

Relatives: mum, dad, aunt, grandma. If you’re addressing a person and saying ‘Hello, Mum, how are you today?’ a capital is appropriate because you’re using it as her name. But if you say ‘I don’t think my mum will be able to come’, lower case is suitable because you’re using it in a generic way as a common noun.

4 Comments on “Angela’s ABCs Capital letters

  1. What a lot of essential info under one beguiling little heading! Not bad for an ex-pat in (temporary) exile in the old country…or should that be the Old Country?

  2. I love that Bootsie made it into Angela’s ABCs! Any chance you could give some tips on when it is appropriate to use a hyphen. I scatter them throughout my writing willy nilly and I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t. Any hints on correct usage (if there are any!) would be very welcome.

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