Capitalization Study Guide
The words of the world want to make sentences.
GASTON BACHELARD (1884–1962)
In addition to words that are capitalized at the beginning of sentences, we capitalize other words for very specific reasons. In this lesson, you will learn when and why these "other words" are capitalized.
As you have already learned, the first word of a sentence is always capitalized. This provides a visual clue for the reader that a new sentence is beginning, especially when several sentences are grouped together, as in a paragraph.
The first word of a direct quotation (a person's exact spoken words) is also capitalized:
"Really, I'm so tired I could sleep standing up," moaned Frank.
The only time we don't capitalize the first word of a direct quotation is when the quotation is continued after an interrupter (such as she said or he replied):
"I told you," Frank's mom scolded, "not to stay up so late last night!"
Proper nouns must also be capitalized. Unlike common names—general names for people, places, or things, like person, city, store, school, holiday—proper nouns are very specific—Avril Lavigne, Los Angeles, Wal-Mart, Sonora High School, Memorial Day—and require capitalization to recognize their importance.
Sometimes when we name a person, we need to include a title (Mr., Rev., Dr.), abbreviations that follow their name (Jr., Sr., Esq., Ph.D.), and initials, for example, Mr. Andrew G. Milling, Jr., or Dr. Nathan A. Mahanirananda, M.D. As you can see, all three of these items are capitalized.
Be careful about nouns that can act as either common or proper nouns. For instance, when used alone, the word president is a common noun:
The president was an excellent debater and public speaker.
However, when a specific president is named, the title must be capitalized:
President Bush is the forty-third president of the United States.
This rule also applies to family member names as well, except when they follow a possessive noun (Robin's, Harold's, Marian's) or a possessive pronoun (my, her, his, our, its, their):
Robin's mother is older than mine.
My dad is taller than me. Mom and Grandma aren't.
North, south, east, and west (the cardinal directions) and the seasons (spring, summer, fall, and winter) are not capitalized (except, of course, as the first word in a sentence). When a specific section of the country, like the Northeast, is being referred to, or the seasons become part of the title or name of something like Fall Festival, Winter Ball, or Spring Fling, the words are capitalized.
Proper adjectives must be capitalized. A proper adjective is a proper noun acting like an adjective, giving us more information about the person, place, or thing being described. For example, March winds, Italian bread, and French toast.
Finally, when writing a title, remember that the first word, all personal pronouns (I, you, he, she, it, they, them, we, us), all verbs, and all key words in the title are capitalized. Articles (a, an, and the), conjunctions (such as so, for, and, but, nor, or, yet), and prepositions of any length (such as to, under, beyond) are not capitalized, however (unless, of course, they are the first word in the title).
A practice exercise for this concept can be found at Capitalization Practice Exercise.
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