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Written by Jincy Kornhauser at Pearson Tutor Services

Often we have a hard time figuring out whether to capitalize a word. Many of us give up trying and just capitalize when in doubt. This tendency results in papers cluttered with inappropriate—and often inconsistent—capitalizations. Learning when and when not to capitalize is well worth doing.

First, just because a word is important (think “courage,” “honor”, “law,” etc.), either in general or to your particular thesis, this doesn’t mean it should necessarily be capitalized. Capitalization is a matter of convention, not an indication of relative significance. If, for example, your essay explores a career in criminal justice or the academic requirements for nurse practitioners, “criminal justice” and “nurse practitioner” are very significant terms, but they’re not capitalized. In other words, common sense isn’t going to show you whether a word should be capitalized. You have to look to the rules.

Always capitalize the following:

  • The first word of a sentence, including a quoted sentence (even if the quote appears within a sentence, as in I said, “If I had wanted it well-done, I would have ordered it that way.”)
  • The pronoun I
  • Days of the week and months of the year
  • Names, including initials, of people, like Herman U. Tix, and trade-name products, like Clorox.
  • Titles which precede names, like Dr. and Mrs.
  • Holiday names, like Thanksgiving
  • The first word and all nouns in a salutation, such as Dear Mrs. Wembly
  • The first word in the complimentary closing of a letter, such as Sincerely, or Yours truly
  • Family relationship names, like Cousin Edwin and Great-Uncle Troy (but not nouns of address, like sweetie and auntie).
  • Names of organizations, like the United Nations (or UN), United States of America, etc. (Note that small words—prepositions and articles--are not capitalized.)
  • Names of languages, countries, continents, nationalities, cities, geographical locations, etc. (Amazon River, Germany, Africa, San Francisco) (Note: “white” and “black,” when referring to race, are not capitalized.)
  • Adjectives formed from these, like German, Ukrainian, Indo-European, Persian, etc.
  • Names of religions and deities, like Presbyterian and Shiva
  • Titles of novels, poems, works of art, articles, laws, etc., like Great Expectations and Catcher In the Rye (Note: APA format requires that only the first word of a book or article title be capitalized.)

As you can see, there are a lot of rules! Rather than attempt to memorize the list, simply keep it handy as you write; consult it whenever you’re not sure whether you should capitalize or not. Eventually, with experience, you’ll learn the rules by heart. Your spell/grammar checker may help too, but don’t rely on it alone. After running the checker, always proofread again, using the rules above to make sure the checker’s suggested capitalization is correct.

Finally, in case you’re tempted to just give up and capitalize everything (many emailers and web-posters take this route), don’t. NOTHING IS MUCH MORE ANNOYING THAN HAVING TO READ ALL-CAP TEXT. Take the time to do it right.

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Writing Tip #11: Passive voices in the night

When you receive your papers back from grammar checker software, do they contain many passive voice admonitions? I, like many other writers, am guilty of using passive voice. The problem is that I like the way the passive voice sounds! The other problem is that it is inappropriate for most academic writing.

Don’t despair; passive voice has its place in other forms of writing. Active voice is the opposite of passive and what we need to be considered effective scholarly writers. In active voice, the subject is executing the action. In passive voice, the subject is incurring the action by the verb. The subject is said to be passive in this case.

So, by writing in passive voice, we are not giving the subject its due! Instead of writing: “The iPod was crushed by the truck’s tires.” write: “The truck crushed the iPod.” Save the drama for your creative writing class or journal!

Happy Halloween!

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Starting today, there is a new feature within WriteCheck -- users can now print ETS® e-rater® feedback from WriteCheck reports.

In August 2011, WriteCheck announced the addition of the ETS® e-rater® grammar checking functionality to help students improve their writing. Now students can take the feedback they receive from ETS® and print it out as a convenient resource to use for finishing their papers.

WriteCheck is continually improving its reports to make it easier to identify areas where students may need to provide proper citation or fix grammar errors. Should you have any suggestions for us, please let us know.

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