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Capitalisation

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Capitalisation

As our name is often the very first word we learn to write, capitalising the first letter becomes intuitive. However, this is not the only case in which capital letters are used: the first letter of a sentence, titles, proper nouns, and so on, must always be capitalised. Many people still make mistakes with capitalisation in their writing; proofreading is a great way to avoid these grammatical errors, however, it is also important to familiarise yourself with the common grammatical rules.

Let's have a look at why capital letters are important in English and how we should use them in our writing.

Capitalisation Definition

Letter capitalisation is the way in which we replace lowercase letters with capital (uppercase) letters in a standardised way.

Uppercase and Lowercase Letters

Capital letters look like this: “A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y and Z”. These are also referred to as 'uppercase letters'.

While lower case letters look like this: “a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, q, r, s, t, u, v, w, x, y and z”

Capitalisation Rules

There are several rules for how we place capital letters in writing, for example, the following must always be capitalised:

  • The first letter of a sentence
  • The first letter of a name or title
  • The pronoun 'I'
  • The first letter of a proper noun
  • The first letter of speech

Let's look at when we should use capital letters in more detail along with some examples.

The first letter of a sentence:

You should always use a capital letter when beginning a new piece of writing or starting a new sentence.

The following introduction to JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit (1937) shows the interaction between new sentences, full stops and capital letters. Each sentence ends with a full stop and the new sentence starts with a capital letter.

In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

Capitalization, Hobbit Houses, StudySmarterTitles a capitalised. For example, 'The Hobbit'. (Pixabay)

The first letter of a name or title:

A person's name has capital letters for the first letters. This would include their surname and titles such as Mr, Mrs, Sir or Madam.

In the example below, even though the capitalised word 'Gollum' is in the middle of a sentence, it must be capitalised as it is the name of a person and therefore a proper noun.

'What have I got in my pocket?' he said aloud. He was talking to himself but Gollum thought it was a riddle and he was frightfully upset.

(JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit, 1937 )

The pronoun 'I' :

Unlike other personal pronouns like 'he', 'we', 'they', 'she' or 'it', the pronoun 'I' is always capitalised.

In this quote from Samwise Gamgee, we can see that the pronoun 'I' is capitalised:

I made a promise, Mr Frodo. A promise.

(JRR Tolkien, The Lord of The Rings, 1955)

The first letter of a proper noun:

Proper nouns are names given to describe specific, people, things, or places.

The first letter of proper nouns is always capitalised. Some examples of proper nouns could be the names of countries, cities, nationalities, languages, religions, political parties, time periods, days, months or events.

The cities and regions in Middle Earth, such as 'Gondor' and 'Rohan', are capitalised.

Similarly, the names of different species in Middle Earth, such as 'Hobbit', 'Orc', or 'Ents', are capitalised as they are also proper nouns.

The first letter of speech:

When a person or character speaks, the first letter of the first word in the direct speech must be capitalised. For example:

‘How bright your garden looks!’ said Gandalf. ‘Yes,’ said Bilbo. ‘I am very fond indeed of it, and of all the dear old Shire; but I think I need a holiday.’

(JRR Tolkien, The Lord of The Rings, 1955)

In the above quote, we can see that the first letter in each speech bracket is a capital letter.

Capitalisation rules for titles:

Most words in a title require capitalisation such as the first word, nouns, verbs and adjectives. Unless they are used as the first word in the title, conjunctions, articles, and prepositions are not capitalised.

The titles of JRR Tolkien's novels, set around Middle Earth, are The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and The Silmarillion.

In abbreviations:

Typically, acronyms (abbreviations formed from the first letters of other words that can be put together to form a new word) are written in capital letters so that they can be distinguished from ordinary words.

The word 'saga' and the abbreviation 'SAGA' (Sexual And Gender Acceptance) can be differentiated due to their different capitalisation.

Similarly, initialisms will capitalise the first letters of the words involved. Unlike acronyms, initialisms cannot be pronounced as words.

FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation)

People's titles are also often abbreviated. If a title is abbreviated, the first letter will be capitalised.

  • 'Doctor' becomes 'Dr' and 'Mister' becomes 'Mr'.
  • 'Bachelor of Science' becomes 'B.S' and 'Doctor of Philosophy' becomes 'PhD'.

All-caps for emphasis:

When a writer wishes to emphasise certain words, they may occasionally use all caps. However, this isn't a recommended format within formal writing as it may be perceived as childish, aggressive (like shouting), or excessive.

Warning signs use capital letters to draw attention to the central message, whether it is “WARNING” or “DO NOT ENTER”.

Capitalization. STOP sign. StudySmarterWarning signs use capital letters to attract attention (Pixabay)

Why is Letter Capitalization Important?

Capital letters are important signposts for readers. The purpose of capital letters include:

  • Making it clear when a sentence starts.
  • Identifying important keywords in titles.
  • Signalling respect towards people's names and titles.
  • To signal proper nouns

The incorrect usage of capital letters will make a formal or non-fiction piece of writing stand out, and not in a good way! Poor orthography (spelling, punctuation and letter capitalisation) can indicate that little effort and attention has been put into the work, thus undermining its credibility.

What Confusions Can There Be With Letter Capitalisation?

One mistake that people make in their writing is placing capital letters where they don't belong. In this section, we will clarify how you can avoid this.

Capital letters and colons

One common mistake is to put a capital letter after a colon, however, this is incorrect.

Correct: 'The witch's recipe had some peculiar ingredients: liver, bile and sharks to name a few'

Incorrect: 'The witch's recipe had some peculiar ingredients: Liver, bile and sharks to name a few”.

Latin abbreviations

There is often a great deal of confusion when it comes to capitalising Latin abbreviations. Some Latin abbreviations, such as the following, are not capitalised:

  • 'e.g.' is the abbreviation of exempli gratia ('for example')
  • 'i.e.' is the abbreviation of id est ('that is')
  • 'etc.' is the abbreviation of et cetera ('and others')
  • 'a.m.' is the abbreviation of ante meridiem ('before midday')

However, others are capitalised as the Latinate meaning has been overwritten, such as in the following cases:

  • 'PS' is an abbreviation of post scriptum, meaning 'after what has been written', but is now commonly understood as the abbreviation of 'postscript'.
  • 'RIP' is an abbreviation of requiescat in pace, meaning 'may he/she/it/they rest in peace', but is now commonly understood as the abbreviation of 'rest in peace'.

Why might someone ignore capitalisation rules?

The rules around letter capitalisation have been actively disregarded by several fiction writers to emphasize various points or communicate alternative meanings.

Why do you think an author might disregard capitalisation in their text?

Mark Z. Danielewski's debut novel House of Leaves (2000) places capital letters in a seemingly sporadic manner in a series of written letters between characters in the appendices. These capital letters reveal an ulterior message encoded in the writing, which allows another layer to be added to the narration.

EE Cummings often disregarded conventions around capitalisation and other grammatical formations, in order to utterly deconstruct the traditional forms of poetry and make his own unique. The following poem, for example:

N

OthI

n

g can

s

UrPas

s

the m

y

SteR

y

of

s

tilLnes

s ”

(Posthumous poem 42, 1963)

By deconstructing word boundaries and transgressing capitalisation rules, the poem presents hurdles that force the reader to focus more on the words and explore the mystery for themselves.

The writer bell hooks (or Gloria Jean Watkins) disregarded the grammatical rules around capital letters in her pen-name. The purpose of this was to draw greater emphasis and attention to the work, rather than herself.

Letter Capitalization - Key Takeaways

  • Letter capitalisation is the way in which lowercase letters are replaced with uppercase letters in a conventionalised way.
  • Capital letters are used in the first letter of a sentence, a name/title, a proper noun, quoted speech. They are also used in titles, acronyms, abbreviations, and for emphasis.
  • Capital letters shouldn't be placed after colons.
  • Poor use of capitalisation can undermine a piece of writing.

Frequently Asked Questions about Capitalisation

Letter capitalisation is the way in which lowercase letters are replaced with uppercase letters in a conventionalised way.

Capitalisation is the use of capital letters. We use capital letters at the start of sentences, in proper nouns and names (e.g. Jack), for the first letter of direct speech (e.g. "Hello"), for most words in titles (e.g. The Lord of the Rings), in abbreviations (e.g. TTYL) and for emphasis (e.g. WHAT?).

Good use of capitalisation signposts things to the reader (e.g. sentence beginnings, speech beginnings, abbreviations, names and proper nouns), however, bad use of capitalisation undermines a piece of writing.

The first letter of proper nouns is always capitalised. Some examples of proper nouns could be the names of countries, cities, nationalities, languages, religions, political parties, time periods, days, months or events.

Titles such as Mr, Mrs, Sir, and Madam all begin with a capital letter. This is because they are part of a person's name. 

Final Capitalisation Quiz

Question

What is letter capitalisation

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Answer

Letter capitalisation is the conventionalised way in which lowercase letters are replaced with uppercase letters. 

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Question

True or false: proper nouns capitalised.

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Answer

True

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Question

How are capital letters used in a sentence?


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Answer

The first letter of the first word in a sentence is capitalised.

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Question

How are capital letters used in a person’s title and name?

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Answer

The first letter of titles (ie: Mr, Mrs, Miss) are capitalised, as are the first letters of surnames and names. 

Show question

Question

What are proper nouns?


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Answer

Proper nouns are words that describe specific things, places or people. These could include countries, cities, nationalities, religions, political parties, time periods, days, months or events.

Show question

Question

Capital letters are also called:

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Answer

Uppercase letters

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Question

How are capital letters used in a proper noun?


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Answer

They are placed at the beginning of the proper noun.

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Question

How are capital letters used in titles?


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Answer

The first word, nouns, verbs and adjectives are all capitalised in a title, rest are not.

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Question

How are capital letters used in abbreviations?


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Answer

Acronyms and initialisms (types of abbreviations) have all-capitalised letters. 

Show question

Question

What is a common mistake people make with colons and capital letters?

Show answer

Answer

We do not put a capital letter after a colon.

Show question

Question

What confusions can there be in abbreviations?

Show answer

Answer

Abbreviations that aren’t acronyms or initialisms are NOT always capitalised. Usually Latin abbreviations, such as e.g. and i.e. are not capitalised (unless the meaning has shifted over time).

Show question

Question

Why might someone choose to not use capital letters?


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Answer

A lack of capital letters allows a writer to deconstruct traditional forms. An increase, or seeming randomness, in capital letters may create a sense of unease or allow writers to create an ulterior message.

Show question

Question

What is an acronym?


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Answer

An acronym is a pronounceable word (whether real or not), formed from the first letters of other words to form an abbreviation e.g. NASA, FBI.

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Question

What is the difference between an initialism and an acronym?


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Answer

Initialisms cannot be pronounced properly, and must have each letter of the abbreviation pronounced instead. For example, the acronym NASA can be pronounced as a word, despite not being one, while FDA cannot be.

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Question

Why might someone use all caps in a sentence?

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Answer

For emphasis and exaggeration.

Show question

Question

A, B, C are capital letters. True or false?

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Answer

True

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Question

Are x, y, z capital (uppercase) letters or lowercase letters?

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Answer

Lowercase letters

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Question

Why might a road sign use capital letters?

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Answer

To draw attention to the sign

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Question

For which of the following are capital letters NOT used:

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Answer

The first letter of verbs

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Question

What are the proper nouns in the following sentence? 

‘Tara went to Scotland to see Patrick’

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Answer

Tara, Scotland, and Patrick are the proper nouns as they are the names of things.

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Question

How would we capitalise the title ‘snow white and the seven dwarfs’.

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Answer

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

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Question

Which of the following statements are true?

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Answer

Capitalisation makes it clear where a sentence starts

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Question

Latin abbreviations such as e.g. and etc. are capitalised (E.g. and Etc.). True or false?

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Answer

False

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Question

If the title of a person is abbreviated (e.g. doctor to Dr) then the first letter will be capitalised. True or false?

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Answer

True

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Question

What are the capitalisation errors in the following sentence? mr white had bought himself a yorkshire terrier in september but it preferred mrs white straight away.

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Answer

The sentence should be: Mr White had bought himself a Yorkshire Terrier in September but it preferred Mrs White straight away. Here the proper nouns are capitalised (e.g. Mr White/September/Yorkshire Terrier) and the first letter of the sentence is capitalised.

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