I hope that you enjoy it, it is very informative.
– Kevin, teacher at L.V. Studio.
It’s great to be back, albeit a little later than I would prefer. It has been a fabulously busy few weeks at Intrepid English with several new students, lots of new translating work and some proof-reading, too.
I have also been lucky enough to attend several events recently, including a fantastic seminar at Aston University in Birmingham and the LUXEXPO in Luxembourg. I am a big fan of Luxembourg and I really enjoyed being part of the UK Trade and Investment’s delegation of business owners who travelled there for three days in June. If you haven’t been to the city before, I would heartily recommend that you put it on your list of European cities to visit. On top of all that, I have been finalising the plans for our wedding in Portugal in August. It’s all very exciting!
Now, this month’s blog is about a topic that I have been asked about a lot recently: capitalisation. It seems that the rules regarding this area of grammar are a little unclear for many people. It is especially difficult for learners whose native language has a capital letter at the beginning of every noun. I was recently told by one student that he had spent many years learning to capitalise every noun in his native language of German, only to find out that he had to start from the beginning again when learning the rules in English. Sorry!
It seems that capital letters have been going ‘out of fashion’ in recent years. This opinion is influenced greatly by the Internet and the laziness of its multitude of users who have decided that spelling, punctuation and recognisable words should be a thing of the past. I can’t imagine how this attitude would benefit those who subscribe to it when applying for a job or conversing with anyone above the age of 20. As I have said on many occasions, English grammar can be a difficult and complex subject and many will never master it completely, but as long as your writing is understandable and easy to read, that’s all you need to be concerned with.
So, when should we use a capital letter in English? Well, it’s not as difficult as you might think. There are several things to keep in mind, but when you have mastered these few rules, it’s just a case of practice makes perfect.
In the printing industry, the term ‘sentence case’ (or ‘sentence-style capitalization’ in American English) refers to sentences starting with an upper-case letter followed by lower-case letters with the exception of proper nouns. This is in contrast to ‘UPPER CASE’, where all the letters are capitalised or ‘Title Case’, in which the first letter of each word is capitalised (with a few exceptions; see Tip 3).
This is not an exhaustive list, but it will go some way to helping you understand when to use the upper case and when to lose it.
As a quick reference, here is a list of words which should be capitalised:
Place names: London, Northern Ireland, New York, Africa
Personal names: Mike, Barack Obama, Roger Rabbit
National and regional adjectives: a Canadian housewife, a Dutch boy
Languages: Russian, Swedish
Churches and religions: Buddhism, St Mary’s church, a Jewish family
Days and months: Monday, November
Brand or company names: Intrepid English, Fair Trade
Royal titles: Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Harry
Jobs: President François Hollande (but not job descriptions eg. the president of France)
Acronyms: S.O.S, NATO
Honorifics and styles of nobility: Her Majesty, His Holiness
Planets: Jupiter, Saturn
Deities and personifications: Allah, God (only when referring to the Judeo-Christian deity)
Tip 1 In British English we follow the colon with a capital letter if the clause following the colon is a new sentence or if the colon introduces two or more complete sentences. In American usage, they do not. After non-final punctuation such as a semicolon or dash, we do not capitalise the first letter, even if it is a separate sentence. See my blog on colons and semicolons for more information.
Tip 2 You should always have a capital letter at the beginning of a sentence. This includes the first sentence in a letter or email, following the salutation. That might seem obvious to some, but in many eastern-European countries, letters and emails are started with a lower-case letter.
Your emails should not begin like this:
Dear Mr Johnson,
regarding your email of 24th June…
They should begin more like this:
Thank you for your email regarding…
This does not apply if the first word in your sentence begins with a letter which is always left uncapitalised (such as ‘iPhone’ or ‘eBay’). I would recommend that you rephrase the sentence so that the word is in a different position.
Tip 3 Titles of books, films, songs and games, etc. have the following rules when adhering to British English guidelines: Capitalise the first word of the title, and all words within the title except articles (a/an/the), prepositions (to/on/for etc) andconjunctions (but/and/or etc).
This is an area that many grammarians can’t seem to agree on. If you are planning to write professionally, I would recommend checking the prescribed writing style of the publication for which you are writing.
Tip 4 Don’t use capitalisation for emphasis. That includes capitalising the first letter of any word within the phrase you wish to emphasise. If the wording alone cannot emphasise the point sufficiently, use italics.
Incorrect: The HUGE snake slithered past her feet.
Incorrect: He grabbed her hand and said “Don’t Move Until I Get Back.”
Tip 5 For section and table headings, use sentence case (capitalise the first word only, unless a word is a proper noun or would normally be capitalised).
Tip 6 It is not necessary to capitalise the word ‘the’ unless it is at the beginning of a sentence or it is part of a name which is usually capitalised. This applies to names of corporations and other entities, and some idiomatic expressions. For example, the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister, but The Hague.
Tip 7 If an adjective originates from a proper noun, it should be capitalised, e.g the Spanish people
. However, when a term is no longer connected to its namesake or no longer refers to any specific individual; these are not proper names and should be lower cased: jack in the pulpit, round-robin, teddy bear, cheddar cheese etc. For more information, see my blog post on compound adjectives
Tip 8 Points of the compass (east, southwest, etc.), and their derived forms (southern etc.) should only be capitalised when they are part of a proper name, such as the North Pole or West Ham. The North, The East, The South and The West are considered proper nouns, so these words can be capitalised.
Capital letters are used if the place has attained proper-name status, such as Western Europe or North Korea. Otherwise it is not. If unsure, and you are unable to look it up, assume that it hasn’t attained proper-name status and write the word in lower case.
Tip 9 Seasons are not capitalised: “I love to go swimming in summer.”
Tip 10 The names of family members should be capitalised when they replace a name:
“Last year Grandma sent me a lovely birthday present”
But not when the word follows a possessive:
“Her grandma walks a mile a day to the bus stop.”
That concludes this basic list of tips for capitalisation. This covers ten of the basic rules which cause confusion for many learners of English and native speakers alike. If you are interested in finding out more, please follow the ‘credits’ links at the bottom of this blog post.
Before I go, I must mention one more thing to watch out for regarding capitalisation in English: Capitonyms are words which change in meaning if they are capitalised. An example of this is the word ‘china’. The lower-case word refers to crockery such as plates, cups and saucers. Its upper-cased counterpart refers to the country.
Some common noun capitonyms include:
comet = is a celestial object made of icy and dust
Comet = a chain of electrical shops in Britain and a washing powder in America
march = a piece of music composed to accompany marching or the act of marching itself
March = the third month of the year
burgundy = a deep red colour or a type of red wine
Burgundy = the French region that produces the wine
cancer = a deadly disease
Cancer = a constellation of starts or the astrological sign
polish = a product used to create a shiny surface
Polish = someone or something originating from Poland
turkey = the poultry or the meat derived from it
Turkey = a country
liberal = a person if liberal views
Liberal = a member of the Liberal political party
As always, if you have any questions regarding this or any of my blog posts, or you would like to request a topic for next month’s Real English blog, please feel free to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
or leave a comment below.
I wish you all a wonderful July. Until next month, goodbye!
|Intrepid English and the UKTI delegation in Luxembourg