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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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