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.