How to avoid this capital offence

A quick, simple guide to using capital letters correctly

Lee Dickinson, chief editor

By Lee Dickinson chief editor

This blog is Important.

But, if you’re like me, that random capital letter on “Important” means, no matter how vital the writing is, I’m unlikely to read it.

Errant capitalisation is one of the main ways a good writer can make themselves look bad. There are so many more mistakes that have the same effect but, with arbitrary capping, the nature of the error makes it Stand Out.

The problem, usually, is the random nature of the approach, as if the writer can’t decide so has flicked a coin. Sometimes, it’s even worse because the coin appears to have been flicked repeatedly for the same words. Haphazard capitals are bad enough, but you’re giving readers/employers/examiners/literary agents one more reason to sigh or stop reading if you pair them with inconsistency.

Most of us have been hesitant over capitals, but there are some simple guidelines to help remove most of the doubt. Along with the ones many know—such as capital letters for proper nouns (which means an organization, thing, place or person), brand names, days, months and at the start of sentences—common practice is to also use them for:

  • ethnic groups and nationalities
  • historical periods
  • languages
  • the names of festivals or holidays
  • I, the pronoun
  • Roman numerals
  • the first word of direct-quotation sentences

Almost as important as what’s covered by those rules is what’s not. Emphasis isn’t there, for example, so capitals should never be used to Underline Perceived Importance.

Titles are often wrongly given capital letters, seemingly out of respect or to prevent offence. That’s sensible if your egotistical, trigger-happy boss likes being called the ‘Managing Director’ but, otherwise, the likes of queen of England and prime minister should only take a leading capital if they’re being used as a name, before a name or in forms of address. So you might have said to Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, ‘You were the prime minister, but your title still only gets a capital letter if it comes before your name or if I’m addressing you, Prime Minister.’

Despite being important, Disraeli’s government would also be lower case, along with the university where he was rector, unless it’s being used as a proper noun so given its full title: the University of Glasgow.

The subjects at the university, such as neuroscience, would also be lower case.

Seasons, points of the compass, elements, animals, the sun and moon (but not planets), medical conditions, plants and the national anthem should also be downcased.

Advice can vary on capitalization if you’re using a style guide, so it’s best to check and, above all, be consistent.

© Lee Dickinson, 2022

This article’s writer, Lee Dickinson, is an advanced professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and chief editor at bookediting.co.uk. You can read his blog here.