As Lauren planned the final semester of her master’s degree program, she asked herself an age-old question: Should I do a paper, or a project?
At first consideration, the rules about when to capitalize, or when to use a capital letter to begin a word, seem elementary: capitalize a letter when starting a sentence. But as you begin to write, questions arise: Do I capitalize a question when I ask it mid-sentence? What about after a colon, a semicolon, a dash, or inside a quotation mark–do I capitalize those words?
For the most part, we capitalize the important terms in our sentences, making special terms, phrases, and clauses stand out like the Eiffel Tower amidst the rest of the sentence. To get a stronger idea of the basic rules and conventions for capitalization, keep reading.
Rules and Conventions for Capitalization
1. Capitalize the first word of a sentence
This includes the first word of a document and the first word after a sentence-ending punctuation mark.
- Correct: Have you checked out downtown? It’s beautiful this time of year.
- Correct: Save the date! We’re getting married on June 23rd.
- Correct: You can see my family over there. That little guy eating his booger, that’s my brother.
2. Capitalize proper nouns
Proper nouns, explained in more detail in The Proper Nouns Guide, express a specific noun’s name or title, rather than referring to the noun in a general sense. Proper nouns always get capitalized and include the following:
- titles of productions (movies, books, plays, songs, etc.)
- specific dates, months, days, and people
- Correct: My friend Terry and I plan to see the musical Hamilton on Tuesday.
- Correct: Last December, my mother and father traveled to India.
When titles like mom, grandpa, and positions like professor or general serve as names, they get capitalized.
- Correct: Hey Grandpa, check out this handstand!
- Also correct: We’re heading over to my grandpa’s house. You should come!
- Correct: I hope you enjoyed my project, Professor.
- Also correct: My history professor really knows her stuff.
Other proper nouns that get capitalized:
- religious figures (God, Buddha, Allah, etc.)
- days of the week (Saturday)
- directions that are names (I live in the South), not compass directions (travel south)
- religions as adjectives or nouns (Muslim, Jewish, Hindhu, Toaist)
- peoples’ titles, not occupations (General Amos; the general, Amos)
- nicknames (my dog Buddy, my friend Stinky)
3. Don’t capitalize after a colon (in most cases)
Use the lower case to begin the first word after a colon, as long as the colon is not followed by an independent clause or proper noun.
- Correct: I enjoy nature for three main reasons: the quiet, the color, and the smell of the air.
- Correct: After a year of intense studying and many agonizing hours, it came down to this: the final exam.
- Incorrect: My professor told me to always consider one thing: The power of a good night’s sleep. (Since a phrase follows the colon, it should begin with a lower-case letter.)
If an independent clause or proper noun follows the colon, it should begin with a capital letter.
- Correct: This morning, we received inspiring news: Cynthia would be moving back to our home state!
- Correct: I decided to live in the country for one main reason: The open air brings me to life.
- Incorrect: Last Thanksgiving, you gave me a helpful piece of advice: nothing seals a negative fate more than learned helplessness. (After a colon, the independent clause should be capitalized.)
4. Do not capitalize after a semicolon unless the word is a proper noun
The first word after a semicolon should not be capitalized unless it’s a proper noun. Unlike after a colon, even independent clauses do not get capitalized after a semicolon.
- Correct: We love taking our kids to the beach; they play there for hours, with no screens in sight.
- Correct: I’ve never broken a bone; it must be all that milk I drank as a kid.
5. Capitalize the first word of a quotation (as long as it’s a complete sentence)
The first word in quotation marks gets capitalized if the quotation is a complete sentence, even if the complete-sentence quotation falls within a larger sentence.
- Correct: As my grandma always said, “The best way to solve a problem is to not let it happen in the first place.”
- Correct: That reminds me of one of my favorite quotations, from Carl Jung: “Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakens.”
Capitalize the first word after a quotation only if it begins a new sentence.
- Correct: I always agreed with Aretha Franklin’s idea that “Every birthday is a gift,” and I remember it every year on that day.
- Correct: One of Amy Tan’s character’s said, “I hid my deepest feelings so well I forgot where I placed them.” This experience of emotional suppression reminds me of my own.
If the quotation is a single word, phrase, or partial-sentence embedded within a larger sentence, do not use a capital to begin it.
- Correct: Our friends used to always refer to me and Diana as “two peas in a pod.”
- Correct: Disneyland has become known as the “happiest place on earth,” a title that I agree with.
6. Capitalize the first word in bullet point items (depending on the punctuation preceding the list)
In cases where a complete sentence precedes the bulleted list, listed items should get capitalized, regardless of their length.
Here are my tips for writing a good paragraph.
- Have a clear topic sentence.
- Make sure each sentence builds on the one before it.
- Keep the paragraph centered around a singular focus.
When the list is preceded by a colon, an ellipsis (…), or a sentence without ending punctuation, the choice to capitalize or not becomes more of a stylistic choice, based around the length of the bulleted items. Usually, if the bulleted item is three words or less, it remains uncapitalized. If longer than three words, capitalize it. Cap the bulleted item with a period if it’s a complete sentence.
My favorite foods:
- ice cream
- cream of wheat
- pancakes with maple syrup
Check out the following strategies for succeeding in English 101:
- Incorporate consistency into your study routine.
- Do at least thirty minutes of reading every night.
- Download a dictionary app on your phone, to look up unfamiliar words.
7. In titles (of publications, productions, texts, etc.), capitalize all words except for conjunctions and articles
When writing something’s title, including published items but also artist titles, brand-name devices and the like, capitalize all the important words. This includes the title’s first word, last word, and all other words aside from conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) and articles (the, a/an).
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
- The Lord of the Rings
- The Woman in the Dunes
8. Capitalize direct questions asked mid-sentence, even without quotation marks
Asking a question that’s not a quotation, within a larger sentence, only occurs in unique stylistic situations. However, in this case, the mid-sentence direct question should be capitalized.
- Correct: As he wandered the desert, he wondered Will I ever escape and make it back home?
- Correct: Many humans before me have asked the question How can I leave the world better than I found it?
9. Do not capitalize the before proper nouns
When referring to proper nouns that begin with the, capitalize the proper noun itself while leaving the preceding the uncapitalized.
- Correct: I can’t wait to see the Eagles in concert.
- Correct: Haven’t you traveled to the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland?
Since nine rules about capitalization can be a lot to remember at once, the general rule of thumb is this: If it’s a complete sentence or an independent clause, it usually gets capitalized. Additionally, if it’s a specific pronoun, title, or name, it gets capitalized. In most other cases, the word does not get capitalized. We usually capitalize certain words, phrases, or clauses in order to emphasize them, so you can use your own stylistic judgment to make certain decisions about when to capitalize words. If you ever feel stuck on the fence, return back to this guide at any time. Enjoy the process, and write on.