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Capital or small?

  • March 12, 2012
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Rules for capitalization vary by country, language and word usage. Simple rules for capitalizing proper nouns and writing the pronoun “I” in capital letters are helpful, but they don’t provide clear answers for every situation. Here are a few tips that are useful for determining when all capital letters should be used or when the first character needs to be written in capital letter form.

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Capitalize Proper Nouns
The names of people, places, corporations, countries, languages, organizations, events and items of importance are proper nouns. This means they need to be capitalized every time they are used. Here are a few examples.
Booker T. Washington Elementary School
Federal Bureau of Investigation
The George Washington Bridge
The World Wildlife Fund
The Rocky Mountains
New York, New York
The United States
The Rotary Club
Aunt Suzy
Cape Cod

When organizations are referred to indirectly, they do not need to be capitalized. For example, “John is an officer with the New York Police Department, the largest municipal police department in the United States.”

Formal Titles and Family Names
Titles should only be capitalized when they precede the individual’s name. For example, “Michael is visiting Grandma Mercer this weekend,” or “We are pleased to introduce President Obama.” Capitalization is not necessary when the title is stated after the name. For example, “The conference will be led by Bill Gates, the chairman of Microsoft.”

Capitalizing Directions
Directions are especially tricky because sometimes they need to be capitalized, and sometimes they don’t. Use initial caps when using the directions to designate a geographic area but not when referring to the cardinal directions. Here are two examples: “The storm is moving north at 17 miles per hour,” and “Growing up in a military family, Hunter spent many years in the Far East.”

Capitalize Days, Months and Holidays but Not Seasons
Days of the week and months should always be capitalized. Holidays and events, such as Independence Day, should be capitalized as well. However, the seasons do not need to be capitalized. For example, “Carol is going to Vail, Colorado, this winter.”

Quotes and Titles
When forming direct quotes placed inside formal quotation marks, the first letter of the quote should always be capitalized. If citing the title of a book, movie or song, capitalize the initial character, but write all articles and short prepositions in lowercase letters. “Jenny said ‘Dances with Wolves’ is her favorite Kevin Costner movie,” or “John Steinbeck’s famous novella ‘Of Mice and Men’ illustrates how difficult life was during the Great Depression.”

Abbreviations and Specific Names
Abbreviations and acronyms based on proper nouns should be written in all capital letters. In most cases, derivative words do not need to be capitalized. This applies to terms based on a professional’s surname that are used in a general sense today. Here are a few examples.

NBC is also known as the National Broadcasting Company.
Characters written in italics are a form of roman typography.
Louis Pasteur invented the process of pasteurization.
The Penicillium fungus is used to make penicillin.
Virginia Rometty is IBM’s first female CEO.
Carl Jung created Jungian psychology.

These tips should cover most situations. If there is any doubt about capitalization rules, try consulting a dictionary to determine the proper usage. If you have encountered any tricky capitalization questions, let us know by posting a comment below.

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