M2: Using Capital Letters


  1. Recognize standard capitalization conventions.
  2. Utilize capitalization in proper situations.

With the advent of new social networking structures, such as text messaging, IM (instant messaging), and Facebook, the reliance on traditional standard capital letters has been relaxed in informal settings. The use of capital letters required additional efforts for people using only a couple of fingers or thumbs for typing words, and this laxity of capitalization became more commonplace.

Rather quickly, the use of abbreviations and lack of capital letters became fashionable—almost like a status symbol indicating a person’s social networking awareness. Despite the common exclusion of capital letters in personal situations, capital letters are still the proper choice in professional and academic settings. If you are someone who writes far more often on a cell phone than on a computer, you are likely to benefit from a brush up on capitalization rules for those occasions when you are composing more official documents.

Proper Nouns, Trade Names, I, and O

Some words are capitalized whenever they are used. The following video from Khan Academy explains the difference between common and proper nouns:

“Common and Proper Nouns.” Published by Khan Academy.

Proper nouns, trade names, the pronoun “I,” and “O” when used as an interjection make up this category of words.

Proper nouns include names of specific persons, places, or things. Words that are typically common nouns can become proper nouns when they are used as part of a name.


Proper Nouns

  • Mike Smith
  • Mrs. Fenora
  • Judge Halloway
  • Slick (used as a name)
  • President Abraham Lincoln
  • Mom (used as a name)
  • Methodist
  • Kelly

Common Nouns (Not Proper)

  • girl
  • teacher
  • mom (my mom)
  • friend
  • judge
  • president


Proper Nouns

  • Florida
  • Disney World
  • Tampa
  • Africa
  • Stockton High School
  • Winnie’s Grocery Store
  • 1432 W. Cherry Ave.
  • Museum of Modern Art
  • Atlantic Ocean

Common Nouns (Not Proper)

  • state
  • city
  • street
  • park
  • town
  • store
  • kitchen
  • museum


Proper Nouns

  • Washington Monument (a monument)
  • Great Wall of China (a landmark)
  • Chico (a dog)
  • USS California (a ship)
  • US History 101 (a course)
  • University of Arizona (a university)
  • Renaissance (an era)
  • Bible (a book)
  • Tuesday (a day)
  • April (a month)
  • Albuquerque High School (the name of a specific school)

Common Nouns (Not Proper)

  • boat
  • newspaper
  • dog
  • house
  • book
  • history
  • university
  • century
  • high school (not a specific school)

Trade Names

Trade names include names of specific companies and products.

Proper Nouns

  • Kellogg’s
  • Panasonic
  • Starbucks
  • BlackBerry
  • Chevrolet
  • Land’s End

Common Nouns (Not Proper)

  • cereal
  • television
  • doll
  • phone
  • car
  • company

I and O

The letters “I” and “O” each represent words that are always capitalized.

  • I (as a proper noun): If you have time, I will go with you.
  • O (as a vocative in direct address): O you who are about to enter here, beware!

First Word in a Sentence

Capitalizing the first word in a sentence appears fairly straightforward at first glance. But there are actually some variations you should keep in mind.

Key Words in Titles and Subtitles

In titles and subtitles, capitalize key words, including first words, last words, nouns, verbs, pronouns, adverbs, and adjectives. Do not capitalize articles, conjunctions, or prepositions unless they are in the initial position (either at the beginning of the entire title or at the beginning of the phrase after a colon if there is one).


Capitalize abbreviations of proper nouns, such as the following:

  • School names: UNL, ISU, U of I
  • Government agencies: USDA, CIA, FBI
  • Countries and states: USA, NY, TX
  • Organizations: BSA, AFS
  • Corporations: IBM, AT&T
  • Television and radio stations: NBC, CBS, WLS

Bulleted Items

If the items in a bulleted list are sentences, capitalize the first word of each item, as follows:

Semester exam schedule:

  • Semester exams for M-W-F classes will be given on December 12.
  • Semester exams for T-Th classes will be given on December 13.
  • Semester exams for once-a-week classes will be given as arranged by the professor.

If the items are not sentences and are not continuations of a sentence stem, capitalize the first word of each item, as follows:

Semester exam schedule:

  • Classes held on M-W-F: December 12
  • Classes held on T-Th: December 13
  • Classes held once-a-week: As arranged by instructor

If the items are continuations of a sentence stem, do not capitalize the first word unless it happens to be a proper noun.

Semester exams will be held on

  • December 12 for M-W-F classes,
  • December 13 for T-Th classes,
  • A date arranged by the professors for once-a-week classes.

Common Misuse of Capital Letters

Avoid the unnecessary use of capital letters. As a rule, you can avoid capitalization errors by adhering to the rules for capitalization. But the following “don’t capitalize” suggestions can help you to avoid making some common mistakes.

  • Capitalize names of holidays and months but not seasons:
    • winter, spring, summer, fall
  • Do not capitalize words such as “mom” and “dad” when they are used to talk about someone as opposed to when used as a name:
    • Capitalize: “What did you say, Mom?”
    • Don’t capitalize: “My mom and dad came with me.”
  • Do not capitalize words that are often used as part of a name when they are used in other ways:
    • “My family tree includes a general, a US president, and a princess.”
  • Only capitalize direction words that designate a specific location:
    • Capitalize: “I live out West.”
    • Don’t capitalize: “I live west of Nebraska.”
  • You can choose to capitalize a word for emphasis, but avoid overusing this technique since it will lessen the effect.
  • Entire words and sentences written in capital letters are hard to read. Also, in online situations, this type of typing is referred to as shouting. So except in very rare situations, avoid typing in all capitals.


Adapted from Chapter 19 “Mechanics” in Writer’s Handbook v 1.0 used according to Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

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