Are you making these capitalization mistakes?

Are you making these capitalization mistakes?

Those of us who are passionate about grammar have our personal pet peeves, an everyday error that sends you into a red-pen rage whenever you encounter it. For some, it’s the serial comma or the rampant misuse of the word “literally”. For others, the bugbear is “their”, “they’re” and “there”, or “which” and “that”.

If you’ve ever been tempted to take a permanent marker to the “Ten Items or Less” sign at the grocery store checkout, then I know you’ll feel my pain when I confess that capitalization mistakes drive me crazy.

We all know that the first word in a sentence gets capitalized, but after that, the rules of proper capitalization become more difficult – and more likely to be thrown out the window. Here are 10 dos and don’ts for proper capitalization:

Yes, Please Capitalize…

  • Proper nouns. Specific people, places, and things should be treated with respect. (Marie Curie, Mount Rushmore, Harry Potter)
  • Brand names like Kleenex and Dumpster.
  • A person’s title if it comes before their name or is used in place of their name. (“Please welcome Mayor Wilkins” and “I love you, Mommy”)
  • The first letters of words in a title, even if they’re articles or prepositions. (For Whom the Bell Tolls, Of Mice and Men)
  • The first word of a direct quote that is a complete sentence. (Maryanne said, “Please pass me the teapot.”)
  • The first letter of a complete sentence after a colon. (My students often ask me: Is there life on other planets?)
  • Time zones when referring to them by their full title (Eastern Standard Time, Greenwich Mean Time). When you’re talking about the “Eastern time zone”, however, only the region is capitalized. Or you can just use the initials (ET, GMT) to make life easier.

And Don’t Capitalize…

  • Articles, conjunctions, or prepositions with fewer than three letters in titles, email subject lines, article headlines, blog post titles, etc. Different style guides disagree about other rules, but this is a safe bet. (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, 7 Secrets of the Pharaohs)
  • Common nouns for emphasis. This includes fields of study, such as agriculture or archaeology, and key concepts like “data architecture” or “brand identity.”
  • A person’s title when used generically or when it comes after a person’s name. (“The mayor proposed budget cuts” and “Richard Wilkins, mayor of Sunnydale”)
  • The names of seasons or directions. (spring, winter, east, west) The exception to this rule is when a direction is used to refer to a specific region of a country. (They make the best biscuits in the South. It’s bloody cold in the North.)

And the number one capitalization mistake I encounter?

Failure to capitalize the word “is” in a title, headline, or email subject line.

“Is” is the present tense form of “to be”, and it may be short but it’s a verb nonetheless – and verbs get capitalized in titles. I can only assume that poor, neglected “is” gets lumped in with articles and prepositions. As Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty points out, “[T]hey are just verbs. There’s nothing special about them, so when a style book says to capitalize all the verbs, the writers usually presume you’ll know that includes the verbs ‘is’ and ‘was’.”

When in doubt, refer to your preferred style guide. At Grammarly, we tend to side with The Chicago Manual of Style, but you may prefer another guide.

The most important factor is being consistent, because English is a living language that changes to reflect the way people use it every day. And there may come a time when using language the wrong way is so common that it actually becomes right.

Until that day, please remember to capitalize correctly. The editors, proofreaders, and English teachers of the world will thank you.

Post by Allison VanNest

A self-proclaimed word nerd, Allison VanNest works with Grammarly to help perfect written English. Connect with Allie, the Grammarly team, and nearly 5 million Grammarly Facebook fans at www.facebook.com/grammarly.

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  1. Great summary, Allison. Our tendency is to capitalize too much because it makes whatever we’re writing about look more important. A.A. Milne made fun of this in the original Winnie the Pooh books where he’d write about the Forest or Christopher Robinson’s Big Boots. So must have been a problem back then as well.

    • Joss Rowlands says:

      As I recall from history lessons at school, the Victorians were notorious for capitalising (spelt the English way) everything, although I’m no longer certain if they started the trend. And their reason seems to have been the same as ours – making things seem more important than they really are.

      And yes, great summary Allison – thank you!

    • I’m totally with you both. I see false importance used all over the place these days, and it’s starting to trend in the entrepreneurial/business realm as well. Unfortunately, using capitals where they don’t belong actually tends to make the person look a little silly versus making the word itself look more authoritative.

      But I’m all for Christopher and his Big Boots. 🙂

  2. The first letters of words in a title, even if they’re articles or prepositions. (For Whom the Bell Tolls, Of Mice and Men)

    By that reasoning, the should be capitalised, should it not? Just sayin’.

    • “The should be capitalized”…. who, what, where? I’m sure I can answer this question, but help a gal out – which “should” are you referring to, Cedric?

      • I think Cedric was trying to say “the” should be capitalized — not that the “should” should be capitalized. He’s saying that if “the first letters of words in a title should be capitalized,” as the article says, then the book title should read “For Whom The Bell Tolls” not “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” And he makes a good point.

        But the “the” in that book title should NOT be capitalized. The problem is the wording in the article. It should have said, “The first letter of the first word in an article should be capitalized,” NOT “First letters of words in a title should be capitalized.” Good catch, Cedric.

  3. Be glad you’re not writing in German. As you can see here:

    http://www.faz.net

    all nouns are capitalized, even in the middle of a sentence. Also German likes to create new words by joining existing words to create one very long word. That makes hyphenation much more common and drives typographers crazy.

    Mark Twain poked fun at German in “The Awful German Language.”

    https://www.cs.utah.edu/~gback/awfgrmlg.html

    Here is a sample:

    “There are ten parts of speech, and they are all troublesome. An average sentence, in a German newspaper, is a sublime and impressive curiosity; it occupies a quarter of a column; it contains all the ten parts of speech — not in regular order, but mixed; it is built mainly of compound words constructed by the writer on the spot, and not to be found in any dictionary — six or seven words compacted into one, without joint or seam — that is, without hyphens; it treats of fourteen or fifteen different subjects, each inclosed in a parenthesis of its own, with here and there extra parentheses which reinclose three or four of the minor parentheses, making pens within pens: finally, all the parentheses and reparentheses are massed together between a couple of king-parentheses, one of which is placed in the first line of the majestic sentence and the other in the middle of the last line of it — after which comes the VERB, and you find out for the first time what the man has been talking about; and after the verb — merely by way of ornament, as far as I can make out — the writer shovels in ‘haben sind gewesen gehabt haben geworden sein,’ or words to that effect, and the monument is finished.”

    German is much closer to the Indo-European language on which English is also based. We’re most fortunately that over centuries ours has been greatly simplified. Those who’d like to know how that happened can listen to the excellent “The History of the English Language Podcast” :

    http://historyofenglishpodcast.com

  4. Great points, but when you lump “the serial comma” in with grammar mistakes, that’s unfair to the comma. According to The Chicago Manual of Style, which you say is your standard, the serial comma should always be used. That’s the comma that precedes a conjunction in a series (usually the third comma). So “John, Carie, and Rick” is correct, while “John, Carie and Rick” is not. (For non-word-nerds, The Chicago is the “grammar bible” used by book publishers.)

    In the newspaper industry, the serial comma is correctly left out, because that industry’s style guide is different. Newspapers follow the rules in The Associated Press Manual of Style, not the rules in The Chicago Manual of Style used by book publishers. Essentially, the serial comma is correct when used in books and incorrect when used in newspapers.

    Somehow the public has developed the impression that the third comma in a series is never to be used at all, which is patently false. I’m a book editor (with a grammar blog of my own). I use the third comma in a series all the time. When I was a newspaper editor, I left it out. It’s all determined by the policy of the style book that governs your industry.

    The rules of English are not as set in stone as we tend to think. While most of them are uniform throughout the language, a surprising number of rules vary with the style book. So go light on people using the serial comma. They are not in the wrong, unless they are publishing a newspaper. For the general public, the third comma in a series can be used or left out — it’s just a matter of preference.

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