Rules for English Language Capitalization

Knowing when to capitalize a word and when to leave it lowercased can be tricky because there are many different rules about when to use capital letters. Here are brief explanations about general capitalization rules to help you figure out when you need a capital letter.

First word of a sentence – The first word of a sentence is always capitalized.

First word following a colon if the second phrase is a complete sentence – If the words following a colon make a complete sentence, capitalize the first letter after the colon. If a list follows but cannot be considered a complete sentence, do not capitalize it.

First word in each line of most poetry – In most poems, the first letter of each new line is capitalized. This is sometimes not done for artistic reasons. When quoting poetry, use the capitalization used by the poet.

First word in a quotation – The first word in a quotation is always capitalized, even when the quote begins in the middle of a sentence. Sarah said, “We need to go to the new library.”

The Pronoun “I” – The pronoun “I” is always capitalized, as in, “I went to the store.”

Proper nouns – Proper nouns are tricky, because it can be difficult to tell when a noun is actually proper. Here are some rules about specific types of proper nouns:

  • Names – First and last names are always capitalized: Billy Walker, Susan Myers
  • Relationships – Terms for relationships are only capitalized if they are used as part of someone’s name: “Aunt Alice called me,” versus “My aunt, Alice, called me.”
  • Titles – Much like relationships, titles are only capitalized if they are used as part of a name: “Coach Wilson was right,” versus “The coach was right.”
    • Prefixes and Suffixes – Prefixes and suffixes added to titles are not capitalized: “ex-Governor Johnson”
  • Direct address – Words used for relationships and titles that would normally be lowercased are capitalized when they are used to directly address someone: “But I want to play, Coach,” versus “The coach told me I couldn’t play.”
  • Places – The proper names of places are always capitalized, such as New York City or France. If words like “city” are not used as part of the title, they are not capitalized: the city of New York.
    • Geographical Formations – You would not normally capitalize geographical formations, but when they are part of the title of a specific formation you do: “the mountains” versus “Rocky Mountains;” “the ocean” versus “the Atlantic Ocean”
    • Streets – The word “street” is not normally capitalized, but it is when it is part of the name of a street: “the street” versus “Baker Street”
  • Specific deities – Don’t capitalize the word “god” or “gods” when they don’t refer to specific deities. Do capitalize the names of deities from any belief system, or the term “God” in reference to the deity of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. For example, “Zeus is a Greek god.” “God helped the Israelites escape from Egypt.”
  • Dates – Days of the week, months, and years are capitalized: Wednesday, July.
    • Holidays – Capitalize the names of specific holidays: Easter, Halloween
    • Seasons as titles – Capitalize the name of seasons when using them as specific names: Spring 2014. Do not capitalize seasons when used generally: “I love autumn.”
  • Countries, nationalities, and specific languages – The names of countries, nationalities and specific languages are always capitalized.
  • Periods and Events – The names of periods and events are always capitalized when use specifically: Foothills Fall Festival versus fall festival; Baroque Period; Seventeenth Century
  • Groups – The specific names of groups, including but not limited to national, political, racial, civic, and athletic are capitalized: House of Representatives, Chamber of Commerce, New England Patriots
  • Trademarks – The trademarked names of companies and products are always capitalized, such as Coca-Cola or Apple. If a product or company is self-styled with a lowercased first letter, you do not capitalize it: iPhone, eBay. Some scholars do suggest capitalizing these forms if they are used at the beginning of a sentence: “IPhones are very popular.”

Most adjective forms of proper nouns – Capitalize adjective forms of proper nouns: a French song, a Shakespearean play, except for words that have lost their connection to the proper noun over time, like quixotic, which comes from the novel, Don Quixote.

Salutations and closings in letters – Capitalize the first word in a salutation or closing in a letter: “Dear friend;” “With love”

Initials, Acronyms – Capitalize the letters of initials and acronyms: CIA, BBC, Elizabeth A. Green

Planets – The names of planets are capitalized. Earth, sun, and moon are not required to be capitalized, but it is recommended to capitalize for consistency when other celestial bodies will be capitalized in the same text.

Tricky Elements:

The President, The Queen, and The Pope – These titles do not have to be capitalized, but some writers do so in order to display respect. The decision to capitalize these terms is not common in the United States, but is in some other locations.

Composition titles – Book, movie, art, play, essay, chapter, and poem titles are capitalized, but only certain words. Here are the rules:

  • Capitalize the first and last word of a title
  • Capitalize all verbs (Goes, Is, May)
  • Capitalize all pronouns (We, It, She)
  • Capitalize “Not”
  • Don’t capitalize “a,” “an,” “the” unless they are the first or last word
  • Do not capitalize conjunctions unless they are first or last (and, but, for)
  • Do not capitalize the word “to” unless it is first or last.
  • Capitalize subtitles as if they are titles

When in doubt, do not capitalize a word unless it is used in direct address or as a name or title.