Capital letters are not really an aspect of punctuation, but it is c onvenient to deal with them here. The rules for using them are mostly very simple. (a) The first word of a sentence, or of a fragment, begins with a capital letter:
- The bumbling wizard Rincewind is Pratchett's most popular character.
- Will anyone now alive live to see a colony on the moon? Probably not.
- Distressingly few pupils can locate Iraq or Japan on a map of the world.
- Next Sunday France will hold a general election.
- Mozart was born on 27 January, 1756.
- Football practice takes place on Wednesdays and Fridays.
- Like cricket, baseball is played in the summer.
(c) The names of languages are always written with a capital letter. Be careful about this; it's a very common mistake.
- Juliet speaks English, French, Italian and Portuguese.
- I need to work on my Spanish irregular verbs.
- Among the major languages of India are Hindi, Gujarati and Tamil.
- These days, few students study Latin and Greek.
- I'm doing A-levels in history, geography and English.
- Newton made important contributions to physics and mathematics.
- She is studying French literature.
- The result of the French election is still in doubt.
- The American and Russian negotiators are close to agreement.
- There are no mountains in the Dutch landscape.
- She has a dry Mancunian sense of humour.
However, it is not necessary to capitalize these words when they occur as parts of fixed phrases and don't express any direct connection with the relevant places:
- Please buy some danish pastries.
- In warm weather, we keep our french windows open.
- I prefer russian dressing on my salad.
- In warm weather, we keep our french windows open.
- After nightfall, French windows are always shuttered.
(e) In the same vein, words that identify nationalities or ethnic groups must be capitalized:
- The Basques and the Catalans spent decades struggling for autonomy.
- The Serbs and the Croats have become bitter enemies.
- Norway's most popular singer is a Sami from Lapland.
(f) Formerly, the words black and white, when applied to human beings, were never capitalized. Nowadays, however, many people prefer to capitalize them because they regard these words as ethnic labels comparable to Chinese or Indian:
- The Rodney King case infuriated many Black Americans.
(g) Proper names are always capitalized. A proper name is a name or a title that refers to an individual person, an individual place, an individual institution or an individual event. Here are some examples:
- The study of language was revolutionized by Noam Chomsky.
- The Golden Gate Bridge towers above San Francisco Bay.
- There will be a debate between Professor Lacey and Doctor Davis.
- The Queen will address the House of Commons today.
- Many people mistakenly believe that Mexico is in South America.
- My friend Julie is training for the Winter Olympics.
- Next week President Clinton will be meeting Chancellor Kohl.
- We have asked for a meeting with the President.
- I would like to be the president of a big company.
- The patron saint of carpenters is Saint Joseph.
There is a slight problem with the names of hazily defined geographical regions. We usually write the Middle East and Southeast Asia, because these regions are now regarded as having a distinctive identity, but we write central Europe and southeast London, because these regions are not thought of as having the same kind of identity. Note, too, the difference between South Africa (the name of a particular country) and southern Africa (a vaguely defined region). All I can suggest here is that you read a good newspaper and keep your eyes open. Observe that certain surnames of foreign origin contain little words that are often not capitalized, such as de, du, da, von and van. Thus we write Leonardo da Vinci, Ludwig van Beethoven, General von Moltke and Simone de Beauvoir. On the other hand, we write Daphne Du Maurier and Dick Van Dyke, because those are the forms preferred by the owners of the names. When in doubt, check the spelling in a good reference book. A few people eccentrically prefer to write their names with no capital letters at all, such as the poet e. e. cummings and the singer k. d. lang. These strange usages should be respected. (h) The names of distinctive historical periods are capitalized:
- London was a prosperous city during the Middle Ages.
- Britain was the first country to profit from the Industrial Revolution.
- The Greeks were already in Greece during the Bronze Age.
- We have long breaks at Christmas and Easter.
- During Ramadan, one may not eat before sundown.
- The feast of Purim is an occasion for merrymaking.
- Our church observes the Sabbath very strictly.
- The children greatly enjoy Hallowe'en.
- An atheist is a person who does not believe in God.
- The principal religions of Japan are Shinto and Buddhism.
- The Indian cricket team includes Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Parsees.
- The Lord is my shepherd.
- The Prophet was born in Mecca.
- The Last Supper took place on the night before the Crucifixion.
- The Old Testament begins with Genesis.
- Poseidon was the Greek god of the sea.
- I was terrified by The Silence of the Lambs.
- The Round Tower was written by Catherine Cookson.
- Bach's most famous organ piece is the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.
- I don't usually like Cher, but I do enjoy The Shoop Shoop Song.
- I was terrified by The silence of the lambs.
- The round tower was written by Catherine Cookson.
- Bach's most famous organ piece is the Toccata and fugue in D minor.
- I don't usually like Cher, but I do enjoy The shoop shoop song.
(l) The first word of a direct quotation, repeating someone else's exact words, is always capitalized if the quotation is a complete sentence:
- Thomas Edison famously observed "Genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration."
- The Minister described the latest unemployment figures as "disappointing".
- Maxine has bought a second-hand Ford Escort.
- Almost everybody owns a Sony Walkman.
(n) Roman numerals are usually capitalized:
- It is no easy task to multiply LIX by XXIV using Roman numerals.
- King Alfonso XIII handed over power to General Primo de Rivera.
(o) The pronoun I is always capitalized:
- She thought I'd borrowed her keys, but I hadn't.
- There is ABSOLUTELY NO EVIDENCE to support this conjecture.
- The equator runs through the middle of Brazil.
- Admiral Peary was the first person to fly over the north pole.
- The universe is thought to be about 15 billion years old.
Capital letters are also used in writing certain abbreviations and related types of words, including the abbreviated names of organizations and companies, and in letter writing and in the headings of essays. There is one other rather rare use of capital letters which is worth explaining if only to prevent you from doing it by mistake when you don't mean to. This to poke fun at something. Here is an example:
- The French Revolution was a Good Thing at first, but Napoleon's rise to power was a Bad Thing.
- Many people claim that rock music is Serious Art, deserving of Serious Critical Attention.
This stylistic device is only appropriate in writing which is intended to be humorous, or at least light-hearted; it is quite out of place in formal writing. The use of unnecessary capital letters when you're trying to be serious can quickly make your prose look idiotic, rather like those content-free books that fill the shelves of the "New Age" section in bookshops:
- Your Eidetic Soul is linked by its Crystal Cord to the Seventh Circle of the Astral Plane, from where the Immanent Essence is transmitted to your Eidetic Aura,...
Summary of Capital Letters:
- the first word of a sentence or fragment
- the name of a day or a month
- the name of a language
- a word expressing a connection with a place
- the name of a nationality or an ethnic group
- a proper name
- the name of a historical period
- the name of a holiday
- a significant religious term
- the first word, and each significant word, of a title
- the first word of a direct quotation which is a sentence
- a brand name
- a Roman numeral
- the pronoun I
Copyright © Larry Trask, 1997