Capitalization in English
History of English capitalization
Old English did not have a distinction between uppercase and lowercase, and at best had embossed or decorated letters indicating sections. Middle English capitalization in manuscripts remained haphazard, and was often done for visual aesthetics more than grammar; in poetry, the first letter of each line of verse is often capitalized. With the development of the printing press in Europe and England capitalization of initial letters and proper nouns became more regularized, perhaps partly to distinguish new sentences in a time where punctuation remained sparse and irregularly used. The plays of Shakespeare show capitalization both of new lines and sentences, proper nouns, and some significant common nouns and verbs.
With the influence of continental printing practices after the English Restoration in 1688 printing began to favor more and more capitalization of nouns following German typography. The first lines of the U.S. Constitution of 1787 show major capitalization of most nouns: "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." But by the end of the 18th century with the growth of prescriptive dictionaries and style manuals for English usage, the practice faded in Britain so that by the beginning of the 19th century common nouns were only occasionally capitalized, such as in advertisements. Yet the style lasted as late as the Civil War era in the United States, as some of Emily Dickinson's poems still capitalize many common nouns.
When to capitalize
Capital letters are used:
- at the beginning of a sentence. This in printing is known as sentence case, where the first letter of the sentence is capitalized, and all others are lower case with the exception of proper nouns. In printing normal sentence case may be substituted by UPPER CASE or "all caps" (all letters are capitalized), and Title Case (where the first letter of each word is capitalized). Capitals are usually not used after a colon, although they are in some citation systems such as APA style when beginning an independent clause.
- with some nouns and adjectives, usually if a noun indicates a proper noun.
- pronoun "I". One theory for this unusual usage is that in early printing lowercase i was confused with words using i as a past participle marker or first letter.
- personal and place names: "John", "Mr. Smith", "Amsterdam", "Europe", "Mount Everest", "the Ganges", however not necessary when describing fictional names or places.
- compass directions when referring to geographical regions: "Western Canada", "I was raised in the South", but not for points on a compass: "London is west of Berlin".
- national and regional adjectives: "an American" (noun), "an American man" (adjective).
- religions: "a Catholic church" (adjective), but not "a catholic gesture" in the sense of "universal."
- deities and personifications: "God", "Fame".
- reverential pronouns: "His, Him" when referring to God or Christ, though in modern practice this is less common.
- days and months: "Monday", "January", but not seasons such as "autumn".
- brand names: "Toyota", "Nike", "Coca-Cola", unless the brand itself is purposely not capitalized: "iPhone", "eBay".
- royal titles: "King George III" but "kings and queens of England", but only sometimes 'sir' or 'madam'.
- planets and other celestial bodies: "Jupiter", "the Crab Nebula"; and "the Earth", "the Sun", or "the Moon" should be capitalized according to the International Astronomical Union based on its manual of style, but English being English others may take a different view and may do differently.
- words which change their meaning between capitalized and uncapitalized usage, such as "liberal" and "Liberal", are called capitonyms: Compare "A man of liberal tastes" and "The leader of the Liberal Party" (as with "catholic" above).
- in legal documents, where the full name of an individual or body is later referred to in short form, in order to avoid ambiguity: "John C. Smith (Plaintiff)", "Exxon-Mobil Corporation (the Company)".
Capitalization of multi-word place names, institutions, and titles of works
English usage is not consistent, but generally prepositions and articles are not capitalized: "the Forest of Dean", "Gone with the Wind", "University of Southampton". With some publications "The" forms part of the title: "reading The Times". For a more detailed explanation see Capitalization § Titles.
Capitalization of acronyms and initialisms
Generally acronyms and initialisms are capitalized, e.g., "NASA" or "SOS." Sometimes a minor word such as a preposition is not within the acronym, such as "WoW" for "World of Warcraft". In British English, only the initial letter of an acronym is capitalized if the acronym is read as a word, e.g., "Unesco."
- Millward, C. M. (1989). A Biography of the English Language. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. p. 225.
- "LUNA: Folger First Folio Image Collection". luna.folger.edu. Retrieved 2018-04-26.
- Baltzell, George W. "Constitution of the United States - We the People". constitutionus.com. Retrieved 2018-04-26.
- "The rise and fall of capital letters". Grammarphobia. 2014-10-15. Retrieved 2018-04-27.
- Mallett, Margaret (2012). The Primary English Encyclopedia: The Heart of the Curriculum (4th ed.). Routledge. p. 51. ISBN 978-0-415-58952-9 – via Google Books.
But are the rules for capitalisation in English clear cut? In his detailed account, Tom McArthur (1992) comments that while some people prefer to capitalise the first letter of the first word of a phrase following a colon others keep to lower case.
- Hand, L. R. "Simple Capitalisation Guide". www.learnenglish.de. Retrieved 2018-09-28.
- L. Sue Baugh Essentials of English Grammar: A Practical Guide to the Mastery of English (9780844258218) Second Edition 1994 p59 "Religious Names and Terms: The names of all religions, denominations, and local groups are capitalized."
- Government Printing Office Style Manual, sect 3.21, 3.22
- English Grammar For Dummies® Lesley J. Ward, Geraldine Woods - 2010 Capitalizing the deity - Words referring to God require a special capitalization rule.
- Franklincovey, Stephen R. Covey Style Guide: For Business and Technical Communication - Page 317 2012 "Capitalize the first letter of titles when they immediately precede personal names, but do not capitalize the first letter when ... 3: Titles used in a general sense are not capitalized: a U.S. representative a king a prime minister an ambassador"
- Homer L. Hall, Logan H. Aimone -High School Journalism 2008" 11. Capitalize King and Queen when used before a name. Otherwise, do not capitalize."
- Servais, Erin (2013-02-18). "When to capitalize "sir" and "madam"". Grammar Party. Retrieved 2018-09-28.
- The New Law Journal: 142 1992 "Mr. Justice Rose has never got out of the habit of reading The Times since he was at Oxford and obtained it at a special ... "I finish the day by reading The Times, usually in bed."
- Plush, Hazel. Revealed: The 21 new Unesco World Heritage sites for 2016, The Telegraph. 19 July 2016; retrieved 27 August 2016.