Definitions

Capitalization rules

Capitalization

[kap-i-tl-uh-zey-shuhn]

Capitalization (or capitalisation — see spelling differences) is writing a word with its first letter as a majuscule (upper case letter) and the remaining letters in minuscules (lower case letters), in those writing systems which have a case distinction. The term is also used more broadly to refer to any aspect of using upper and lower case letters.

Different language orthographies have different conventions for the use of capitalization. The systematic use of capitalized and uncapitalized words in running text is called "mixed case". Conventions for the capitalization of titles vary among languages and different style guides.

Capitalized words contrast with words in all caps. Mixed case text may also be written in capitals and small caps.

In some representations of certain writing systems, the notion of the "first letter" is subtle: for example, the Croatian digraph 'lj' is considered as a single orthographic letter, and has a representation as a single Unicode character, but as a capitalized initial, it is written 'Lj', while in an all-caps text, it is written 'LJ'. The 'Lj' form is called title case.

What to capitalize

Capitalization custom varies with language. The full rules of capitalization for English are complicated. The rules have also changed over time, generally to capitalize fewer terms. To the modern reader, an 18th century document seems to use initial capitals excessively. It is an important function of English style guides to describe the complete current rules, although there is some variation from one guide to another.

Owing to the essentially arbitrary nature of orthographic classification and the existence of variant authorities and local house styles, questionable capitalization of words is not uncommon, even in respected newspapers and magazines. Most publishers properly require consistency, at least within the same document, in applying a specified standard.

Pronouns

  • In English, the nominative form of the singular first-person pronoun, "I", is capitalized, along with all its contractions (I'll, I'm, etc).
  • Many European languages capitalize nouns and pronouns used to refer to God: hallowed be Thy name. Some English authors capitalize any word referring to God: the Lamb, the Almighty; some capitalize "Thy Name".
  • Some languages capitalize the formal second-person pronoun. German Sie, the formal second person singular or plural pronoun, is capitalized along with all its declensions (Ihre, Ihres, etc.), but the third person feminine singular and third person plural pronouns are not. The informal pronoun Du (and its derivatives, such as Dein) may also be capitalized if desired when used as an address during a letter. Italian also capitalizes its formal pronouns, Lei and Loro, and their cases (even within words, eg arrivederLa "good bye", formal). This is occasionally likewise done for the Dutch U. In Spanish, the abbreviation of the pronoun usted, Ud. or Vd., is usually written with a capital. Similarly, in Russian the formal second-person pronoun Вы with its cases Ваш, Вашего etc. is capitalized (usually in personal correspondence).
  • In Danish, the plural second-person pronoun, I, is capitalized, but its other forms jer and jeres are not. This distinguishes it from the preposition i ("in").
  • In formally written Polish, Czech and Slovak, most notably in letters and e-mails, all pronouns referring to the addressee are capitalized. This includes not only Ty (thou) and all its declensions (Twój, Ciebie etc.), but also any plural pronouns encompassing the addressee, such as Wy (you), including declensions. This principle extends to nouns used in formal third person (when used to address the letter addressee), such as Pan (sir) and Pani (madame) .

Places and geographic terms

The capitalization of geographic terms in English text generally depends on whether the author perceives the term as a proper noun, in which case it is capitalized, or as a combination of an established proper noun with a normal adjective or noun, in which case the latter are not capitalized. There are no universally agreed lists of which English geographic terms are considered proper nouns. The following are examples of rules that some British and U.S. publishers have established in style guides for their authors:

  • In general, the first letter is capitalized for well-defined places (Central Asia)
  • This general rule also applies to zones of the Earth’s surface (North Temperate Zone, the Equator)
  • In general, do not capitalize the points of the compass (north China, southeast London) or any adjectives (western Arizona, central New Mexico, upper Yangtze, lower Rio Grande)
  • Capitalize generic geographic terms that are part of a proper noun (Atlantic Ocean, Mt. Muztagata)
  • Do not capitalize a generic term that follows a capitalized generic term (Yangtze River valley)
  • Use lower case for plurals (Gobi and Taklamakan deserts)
  • Only capitalize ‘the’ if it is part of the formal place name (The Bahamas and The Gambia vs. the Netherlands and the Philippines)
  • If you are unclear about the capitalization of a specific place-name, then do a search on Google Scholar, but beware of titles and section headings, where some publishers use different rules of capitalization (see below). The general consensus may not necessarily follow your publisher's house style, but it will help give a clue as to the most customary capitalization.
  • With scientific writing, keep in mind that the goal of your writing is to clearly express your science. The reason for paying close attention to proper capitalization is not merely for the sake of conforming to some arbitrary set of rules. One specific reason to conform to the accepted capitalization norms is that it will give readers a more precise idea of your collecting area.

Upper case: East Asia, South-East Asia, Central Asia, Central America, North Korea, South Africa, the North Atlantic, the Middle East, The Arctic, The Hague, The Gambia

Lower case: the Philippines, central Europe, western China, southern Beijing, western Mongolia, eastern Africa, northern North Korea, the central Gobi, the lower Yangtze River.

Nouns

  • In German, all nouns and noun-like words are capitalized. This was also the practice in Danish before a spelling reform in 1948. It was also done in 18th century English (as with Gulliver's Travels and most of the original 1787 United States Constitution). Luxembourgish, a close relative of German and one of the three official languages of Luxembourg, also still uses capitalization of nouns to this day.
  • In nearly all European languages, single-word proper nouns (including personal names) are capitalized, e.g., France, Moses. Multiple-word proper nouns usually follow rules like the traditional English rules for publication titles (see below), e.g., Robert the Bruce.
    • Where placenames are preceded by the definite article, this is usually lowercased, as in the Sudan, the Philippines.
      • Sometimes the article is integral to the name, and so capitalized, as in Den Haag, Le Havre. However, in French this does not occur for contractions du and au, as in "Je viens du Havre" ["I come from Le Havre"].
    • A few English names may be written with two lowercase f's: ffrench, ffoulkes, etc. This ff fossilizes an older misreading of a blackletter uppercase F.
    • Some individuals choose not to use capitals with their names, such as k.d. lang or bell hooks. E. E. Cummings, whose name is often spelt without capitals, did not spell his name so; the usage derives from the typography used on the cover of one of his books.
    • Most brand names and trademarks are capitalized (e.g., Coca-Cola, Pepsi) although some have chosen to deviate from standard rules (e.g., easyJet, id Software, eBay, iPod) to be distinctive. When capitals occur within a word, it is sometimes referred to as CamelCase.
  • In English, the names of days of the week, months and languages are capitalized, as are demonyms like Englishman, Arab. In other languages, practice varies.
  • Capitalization is always used for most names of taxa used in scientific classification of living things, except for species-level taxa or below. Example: Homo sapiens sapiens.
  • A more controversial practice followed by various authors is the capitalization of common names of some animal and plant species. As a general rule, names are with lower case, unless they are part of an official list of names, in which case they have become proper nouns and are capitalized. Names referring to more than one species (e.g., horse or cat) are always with lowercase. This is most common for birds and fishes. Botanists generally reject the practice of capitalizing the common names of plants, though individual words of plant names may be capitalized by another rule (e.g., Italian stone pine). See the discussion of official common names under common name for an explanation.
  • Common nouns may be capitalized when used as names for the entire class of such things, e.g. what a piece of work is Man. French often capitalizes such nouns as l'État (the state) and l'Église (the church) when not referring to specific ones.
  • The names of gods are capitalized, including Allah, Vishnu, and God. The word god is generally not capitalized if it is used to refer to the generic idea of a deity, nor is it capitalized when it refers to multiple gods, e.g., Roman gods. There may be some confusion because the Judeo-Christian god is rarely referred to by a specific name, but simply as God (see Writing divine names). Other names for the Judeo-Christian god, such as Elohim, Yahweh and Lord, are also capitalized.
  • While acronyms have historically been written in all-caps, modern usage is moving towards capitalization in some cases (as well as proper nouns like Unesco).
  • In life stance orthography, in order to distinguish life stances from general -isms. For instance, Humanism (life stance) is distinguished from humanism.

Adjectives

  • In English, adjectives derived from proper nouns (except the names of characters in fictional works) usually retain their capitalization – e.g. a Christian church, Canadian whisky, a Shakespearean sonnet, but not a quixotic mission, malapropism, holmesian nor pecksniffian. Where the original capital is no longer at the beginning of the word, usage varies: anti-Christian, but Presocratic or Pre-Socratic or presocratic (not preSocratic).
  • Such adjectives do not receive capitals in German (sokratisch, präsokratisch), French (socratique, présocratique), Swedish (sokratisk, försokratisk) or Polish (sokratejski, presokratejski). In German, if the adjective becomes a noun by using an article or numeral in front of it (das Bunte (the colorful), eine Schöne (a beautiful)), it is capitalized like any other noun. The same applies to verbs (das Laufen (the running), ein Spazierengehen (one / a walking)).
  • Adjectives referring to nationality or ethnicity are not capitalized in French, even though nouns are: un navire canadien, a Canadian ship; un Canadien, a Canadian. Both nouns and adjectives are capitalized in English.

Others

Other uses of capitalization include:

  • In most modern European languages, the first word in a sentence is capitalized, as is the first word in any quoted sentence.
    • The first word of a sentence is not capitalised in most modern editions of Ancient Greek and, to a lesser extent, Latin texts. However, the distinction between lower and upper case was not introduced before the Middle Ages; in Antiquity only the capital forms of letters were known.
    • For some terms a capital as first letter is avoided by avoiding their use at the beginning of a sentence, or by writing it in lowercase even at the beginning of a sentence. E.g., pH looks unfamiliar written PH, and m and M may even have different meanings, milli and mega.
    • In Dutch, ’t, d’, or ’s in names or sayings are never capitalized, even at the start of sentences (e. g.: "'s Avonds eet ik graag vis," "In the evenings I like having fish." (See Compound names below.)
  • Most English honorifics and titles of persons, e.g. Doctor Watson, Mrs Jones, His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh.
    • This does not apply where the words are not titles; e.g. Watson is a doctor, Philip is a duke.
  • Traditionally, the first word of each line in a piece of verse, e.g.:
      Meanwhile the winged Heralds, by command
    Of sovereign power, with awful ceremony
    And trumpet's sound, throughout the host proclaim
    A solemn council forthwith to be held
    At Pandemonium, the high capital
    Of Satan and his peers. […]
    (Milton, Paradise Lost I:752–756)
  • The English vocative particle O, an archaic form of address, e.g. Thou, O king, art a king of kings. However, lowercase "o" is also seen in this context.

In English, there even are few words whose meaning (and sometimes pronunciation) varies with capitalization. See: List of case sensitive English words.Capitalization is important for names or proper nouns.

How to capitalize

Headings and publication titles

In English-language publications, varying conventions are used for capitalizing words in publication titles and headlines, including chapter and section headings. The rules differ substantially between individual house styles. The main examples are (from most to least capitals used):

Example Rule
THE VITAMINS ARE IN MY FRESH CALIFORNIA RAISINS all-uppercase letters
The Vitamins Are In My Fresh California Raisins capitalization of all words, regardless of the part of speech
The Vitamins Are in My Fresh California Raisins capitalization of all words, except for internal articles, prepositions and conjunctions
The Vitamins are in My Fresh California Raisins capitalization of all words, except for internal articles, prepositions, conjunctions and forms of to be
The Vitamins are in my Fresh California Raisins capitalization of all words, except for internal closed-class words
The Vitamins are in my fresh California Raisins capitalization of all nouns
The vitamins are in my fresh California raisins sentence-style capitalization (sentence case), only the first word and proper nouns are capitalized
the vitamins are in my fresh California raisins capitalization of proper nouns only
the vitamins are in my fresh california raisins all-lowercase letters

Among U.S. publishers, it is a common typographic practice to capitalize additional words in titles. This is an old form of emphasis, similar to the more modern practice of using a larger or boldface font for titles. Most capitalize all words except for internal closed-class words, or internal articles, prepositions and conjunctions. Some capitalize longer prepositions such as "between", but not shorter ones. Some capitalize only nouns, others capitalize all words. This family of typographic conventions is known as title case.

The convention followed by many British publishers (including scientific publishers, like Nature, magazines, like The Economist and New Scientist, and newspapers, like The Guardian and The Times) is the same used in other languages (e.g. French), namely to use sentence-style capitalization in titles and headlines, where capitalization follows the same rules that apply for sentences. This convention is sometimes called sentence case where a term is desired to clarify that title case shall not be applied. It is also widely used in the U.S., especially in bibliographic references and library catalogues. Examples of global publishers whose English-language house styles prescribe sentence-case titles and headings include the International Organization for Standardization and Manual of Style.

Sentence case versus title case

Advantages for using "sentence case" instead of "title case" in English-language house styles include:

  • Sentence case preserves information about proper nouns (e.g., "A Nice Woman" – is she nice or from Nice?).
  • Sentence case avoids complicated additional rules in style guides regarding which exact form of title case is desired.
  • Title case can cause confusion with case-sensitive scientific notation, such as
    • variables (n-ary, N-ary, or N-Ary vectors?),
    • unit symbols (“Precision Voltage Measurements Up To 30 MV” – millivolt or megavolt?).
  • While it is relatively easy for computers to convert sentence case into some forms of title case, the converse is extremely difficult, as it would (at least) require an algorithm for recognizing proper nouns. This has made sentence case preferable for bibliographic databases. (BibTeX is a prominent counter-example of software that tries to automatically convert title case into sentence case, but satisfactory results require substantial manual intervention.)

An advantage of "title case" can be that, with this convention, each title or heading is already capitalized like a proper noun and therefore easily usable and recognizable as the name of a publication or section, although this works only well for short titles. When quoting sentence-case titles, some form of delimiters or emphasis (e.g., quotation marks, italics, hyperlink) may have to be added to achieve the same effect.

Other conventions

Book titles are often emphasized on cover and title pages through the use of all-uppercase letters. Both British and U.S. publishers use this convention.

In creative typography, such as music record covers and other artistic material, all styles are commonly encountered, including all-lowercase letters.

Related notes

  • One of the very few British style guides that do actually mention a form of title case is R.M. Ritter's "Oxford Manual of Style" (2002), which suggests capitalising "the first word and all nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs, but generally not articles, conjunctions and short prepositions".
  • TfL nowadays seem to use mixed upper/lower case when referring to London Underground line names on all literature, maps, signs and even labels on some trains. For example, the Circle line is always listed as Circle line, not Circle Line. However this does not extend to National Rail services (e.g. the North London Line).

Compound names

  • In German, the particle "von" (meaning "of", ) in a surname (e.g. Alexander von Humboldt) is not capitalized (unless it is the first letter of a sentence).
  • In Dutch, all particles like "van", or "de", or "der", or "ter" in a surname are always capitalized unless a given name or initial precedes it. With compound particles like "van der" only the first one is capitalised. However, articles are capitalized in Belgium, except when introducing a title of nobility or when use of the lower case has been granted to some noble family). Thus in Dutch, in a sentence about the location of Van Gogh's most productive period:
    • "Zijn beste werken maakt Vincent van Gogh in Frankrijk ." would be, without the given name Vincent
    • "Zijn beste werken maakt Van Gogh in Frankrijk ."
  • In Dutch, ’t, d’, or ’s in names or sayings are never capitalized, even at the start of sentences. They are short for the articles het and de (or the old possessive form des). Capitalization (e.g. at the start of a sentence) applies to the next word. Examples: ’s Gravenhage (from des Graven Hage), d’Eendracht (from de Eendracht), ’t Theehuis (from het Theehuis).
  • In English, practice varies when the name starts with a particle with a meaning such as "from" or "the" or "son of".
    • Some of these particles (Mac, Mc, M, O) are always capitalized; others (L’, Van) are usually capitalized; still others often are not (d’, de, di, von). The compound particle de La is usually written with the 'L' capitalized but not the 'd'.
    • The remaining part of such a name, following the particle, is always capitalized if it is set off with a space as a separate word, or if the particle was not capitalized. It is normally capitalized if the particle is Mc, M, or O. In other cases (including Mac), there is no set rule.

Accents

In most languages which use diacritics, these are treated the same way in uppercase whether the text is capitalized or all-uppercase. They may be always preserved (as in German) or always omitted (as is the rule in Scots Gaelic) or often omitted (as in French and Spanish). Some attribute this to the fact that diacritics on capital letters were not available earlier on typewriters, and it is now becoming more common to capitalise them in French and Spanish (in Spanish the rule is to preserve them).

  • However, in the polytonic orthography used for Greek prior to 1982, accents were omitted in all-uppercase words, but kept as part of an uppercase initial (written before rather than above the letter). The latter situation is provided for by title-case characters in Unicode. When Greek is written with the present day monotonic orthography, where only the acute accent is used, the same rule is applied. The accent is omitted in all-uppercase words but it is kept as part of an uppercase initial (written before the letter rather than above it).

Digraphs and ligatures

Some languages treat certain digraphs as letters. In general, where one such is formed as a ligature, the corresponding uppercase form is used in capitalization; where it is written as two separate characters, only the first will be capitalized. Thus Oedipus or Œdipus are both correct, but OEdipus is not. Examples with ligature include Ærøskøbing in Danish, where Æ/æ is a letter rather than a merely typographic ligature; with separate characters include Llanelli in Welsh, where Ll is a single letter; and Ffrangeg in Welsh where Ff is equivalent to English F (whereas Welsh F corresponds to English V).

  • An exception is the Dutch letter IJ. Originally a ligature (ij/IJ), both components are capitalized even though they are now usually printed separately, as in IJsselmeer. A less-used practice is the letter Y as an alternative to the ligature, e.g. Ysselmeer. This is still used in cursive writing and in inscriptions.
  • A converse exception exists in the Croatian alphabet, where digraph letters (, Lj, Nj) have mixed-case forms even when written as ligatures. With typewriters and computers, these "title-case" forms have become less common than 2-character equivalents; nevertheless they can be represented as single title-case characters in Unicode (Dž, Lj, Nj).

Initial mutation

In languages where inflected forms of a word may have extra letters at the start, the capitalized letter may be the initial of the root form rather of than the inflected form. For example, Slievenamon is in Irish written Sliabh na mBan ("women's mountain", where mBan derives from Bean, "woman"), even though the B is in fact mute in the derived form.

See also

References

External links

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