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19.2 Using Capital Letters

Learning Objectives

  1. Recognize standard capitalization conventions.
  2. Utilize capitalization in proper situations.

With the advent of new social networkingA method of meeting and talking with people online. structures, such as text messaging, IM (instant messaging), and Facebook, the reliance on traditional standard capital letters has been relaxed in informal settings. This laxity got its start as a means of expediency since the use of capital letters required additional efforts for people using only a couple of fingers or thumbs for typing words. Rather quickly, the use of abbreviations and lack of capital letters became fashionable—almost like a status symbol indicating a person’s social networking awareness. Despite this now common exclusion of capital letters in personal situations, capital letters are still the proper choice in professional and academic settings. If you are someone who writes far more often on a cell phone than on a computer, you are likely to benefit from a brush up on capitalization rules for those occasions when you are composing more official documents.

Proper Nouns, Trade Names, I, and O

Some words are capitalized whenever they are used. Proper nouns, trade names, the pronoun “I,” and “O” when used as an interjection make up this category of words.

Proper nounsA word that names a specific, not a general, person, place, or thing (e.g., Clyde Smith, Eisenhower Middle School, Wednesday). include names of specific persons, places, or things. Words that are typically common nounsA word that names a general, not a specific, person, place, or thing (e.g., queen, house, plate). can become proper nouns when they are used as part of a name.


Proper Nouns

  • Mike Smith
  • Mrs. Fenora
  • Judge Halloway
  • Slick (used as a name)
  • President Abraham Lincoln
  • Mom (used as a name)
  • Methodist
  • Kelly

Common Nouns (Not Proper)

  • girl
  • teacher
  • mom (my mom)
  • friend
  • judge
  • president


Proper Nouns

  • Florida
  • Disney World
  • Tampa
  • Africa
  • Stockton High School
  • Winnie’s Grocery Store
  • 1432 W. Cherry Ave.
  • Museum of Modern Art
  • Atlantic Ocean

Common Nouns (Not Proper)

  • state
  • city
  • street
  • park
  • town
  • store
  • kitchen
  • museum


Proper Nouns

  • Washington Monument (a monument)
  • Great Wall of China (a landmark)
  • Chico (a dog)
  • USS California (a ship)
  • US History 101 (a course)
  • University of Arizona (a university)
  • Renaissance (an era)
  • Bible (a book)
  • Tuesday (a day)
  • April (a month)

Common Nouns (Not Proper)

  • boat
  • newspaper
  • dog
  • house
  • book
  • history
  • university
  • century

Trade Names

Trade names include names of specific companies and products.

Proper Nouns

  • Kellogg’s
  • Panasonic
  • Starbucks
  • BlackBerry
  • Chevrolet
  • Land’s End

Common Nouns (Not Proper)

  • cereal
  • television
  • doll
  • phone
  • car
  • company

I and O

The letters “I” and “O” each represent words that are always capitalized.

  • I (as a proper noun): If you have time, I will go with you.
  • O (as a vocative in direct address): O you who are about to enter here, beware!

First Word in a Sentence

Capitalizing the first word in a sentence appears fairly straightforward at first glance. But there are actually some variations you should keep in mind.

Capitalize the first word of a standard, simple sentence. We usually start mowing our lawn in March.
Capitalize the first word in a sentence of dialogue. Beth said, “Please help me lift this box.”
Do not capitalize the first word of dialogue that continues after the speaker’s name when the sentence has not yet ended. “Please,” Beth said, “help me lift this box.”
Capitalize the first word in a quoted sentence when it is written in dialogue formation. Ellery Jones noted, “Online education is here to stay.”
Do not capitalize the first word in quoted text when it is imbedded in an existing sentence. Ellery Jones agrees that online education is “here to stay.”
Do not capitalize the first word of a sentence that follows a colon, unless the colon introduces two or more sentences. Sports carry a lot of weight at our school: the football program is the only program that is funded at 100 percent each year.
Capitalize stand-alone sentences within parentheses. Order your binders ahead of time. (You’ll need one for each course.)
Do not capitalize sentences within parentheses if they are included as part of another sentence. Order your binders ahead of time (one for each course).
Capitalize the first word of continuation questions. Are you attending on the eighth? The ninth? The tenth?
Do not capitalize the first letter of a noncapitalized proper noun even if it falls at the beginning of a sentence. (Generally try not to place such words at the beginning of sentences.)

iPhones took the market by storm.


The iPhone took the market by storm.

Defer to the capitalization used in poetry or in other sources. (In some cases, the poem will not capitalize the first word of each line.)

I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest

Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast…

from “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer

Key Words in Titles and Subtitles

In titles and subtitles, capitalize key words, including first words, last words, nouns, verbs, pronouns, adverbs, and adjectives. Do not capitalize articles, conjunctions, or prepositions unless they are in the initial position (either at the beginning of the entire title or at the beginning of the phrase after a colon if there is one). Look at the Figure 19.1 and consider why each word is capitalized or not.

Figure 19.1


Capitalize abbreviations of proper nouns, such as the following:

  • Schools: UNL, ISU, U of I
  • Government agencies: USDA, CIA, FBI
  • Countries and states: USA, NY, TX
  • Organizations: BSA, AFS
  • Corporations: IBM, AT&T
  • Television and radio stations: NBC, CBS, WLS

Bulleted Items

If the items in a bulleted list are sentences, capitalize the first word of each item, as follows:

Semester exam schedule:

  • Semester exams for M-W-F classes will be given on December 12.
  • Semester exams for T-Th classes will be given on December 13.
  • Semester exams for once-a-week classes will be given as arranged by the professor.

If the items are not sentences and are not continuations of a sentence stem, capitalize the first word of each item, as follows:

Semester exam schedule:

  • Classes held on M-W-F: December 12
  • Classes held on T-Th: December 13
  • Classes held once-a-week: As arranged by instructor

If the items are continuations of a sentence stem, do not capitalize the first word unless it happens to be a proper noun.

Semester exams will be held on

  • December 12 for M-W-F classes,
  • December 13 for T-Th classes,
  • a date arranged by the professors for once-a-week classes.

Common Misuse of Capital Letters

Avoid the unnecessary use of capital letters. As a rule, you can avoid capitalization errors by adhering to the rules for capitalization. But the following “don’t capitalize” suggestions can help you to avoid making some common mistakes.

  • Capitalize names of holidays and months but not seasons:

    winter, spring, summer, fall

  • Do not capitalize words such as “mom” and “dad” when they are used to talk about someone as opposed to when used as a name:

    Capitalize: “What did you say, Mom?”

    Don’t capitalize: “My mom and dad came with me.”

  • Do not capitalize words that are often used as part of a name when they are used in other ways:

    “My family tree includes a general, a US president, and a princess.”

  • Only capitalize direction words that designate a specific location:

    Capitalize: “I live out West.”

    Don’t capitalize: “I live west of Nebraska.”

  • You can choose to capitalize a word for emphasis, but avoid overusing this technique since it will lessen the effect.
  • Entire words and sentences written in capital letters are hard to read. Also, in online situations, this type of typing is referred to as shouting. So except in very rare situations, avoid typing in all capitals.

Key Takeaways

  • Capitalize proper nouns, trade names, the word “I,” and the interjection “O.”
  • Capitalize the first word in a sentence and key words in titles and subtitles.
  • Capitalize abbreviations of proper nouns and the first word of items in a bulleted list.


  1. Write a (short) short story that uses five capitalization rules in this section. Use a color-coded key and word highlighting to identify where the capitalization rules are satisfied.
  2. Make a copy of a page from a textbook. Assign each capital letter on the page to one of the capitalization rules by placing a letter from a through f (representing Section 2.1 through Section 2.6) next to each capital letter. Make sure to use a color of ink that will stand out. Circle any missing or misused capitalization.