Site Meter


Copyright 2009-2010 by
Mary Brotherton
All Rights Reserved

Inside my Brain

email me

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Even professional writers can become confused about when to capitalize certain words. 

If you can remember that an upper case word is like an upperclassman, half your troubles should disappear. Just like upperclassmen are the big men on campus, upper case letters are the big letters in the alphabet – the capitals.

You know all sentences start with upper case letters; however other words often require capitalization. The knowledgeable writer knows which ones, and how to avoid over-capitalization.

If you struggle to remember if a word is a proper noun or a common noun, you aren't alone. One way to determine is to see if you can substitute another word for it without changing the meaning of the sentence. Look at the examples here:

Aunt Jane is a proper lady and her sons, John and Jason, are gentlemen.
The names of the lady and her sons are capitalized because you cannot substitute another word to describe these specific people. You can change lady to woman, female or person and you can change sons to boys, young men, guys or males but it will not describe this exact family.

The Brooklyn Bridge is a specific bridge in New York. You could write about one of the oldest cable-stayed or suspension bridges in the United States or the bridge that connects Manhattan to Brooklyn by spanning the East River, but nothing compares to the proper noun, the official name, that is the Brooklyn Bridge.

A book about butterflies will only capitalize the scientific name or common name of the butterflies, but will not capitalize the word butterfly. However, a book about psychological therapies will capitalize a treatment known as the Butterfly Hug, because it it the proper name of a specific treatment.
The Declaration of Independence is a document of such great importance it's considered a proper noun but most documents are not. Their titles, though, are most often capitalized according to specific styles and it's vital to know which style guide your publisher or agent prefers. If you aren't ready for that, or plan to self-publish, I recommend the Chicago Manual of Style for most applications.

Notice these specific examples:
I need your help, Dad, so I can grow up and become a dad.
I missed Uncle Bob's birthday party because my other uncle needed me.
You should have joined me at Governor Wayne's rally instead of going to Mario's rally for governor.
Did you see what those girls did to raise money for Girl Scouts?
Boy! Those boys look like they had fun.

Capitalize directions that are names, such as North, South, East, and West when used as sections of the country but not when they are used as compass directions.
I moved to the Southeast. My home is only a few miles south of Charleston.
My son moved east but he's still in the West.
I get so confused. Is Russia considered a part of the East or the West?
I wonder what it was like to be in Berlin when the wall came down and people who had lived in the East were suddenly able to be reunited with their families in the West.

Capitalize seasons if they are part of a title, but not if they are used as generic descriptions of seasons of the year.
I've always found it strange that the Fall Classes start in the summer.
Did you notice that new designer's Winter Collection, last fall?

Do not capitalize century unless it is part of a title.
Century 21 Real Estate was established long before the twenty-first century.

Capitalize specific eras:
Industrial Revolution
Victorian Era
Age of Enlightenment
But NOT ancient Greece or imperial Rome
Capitalize the first word of a complete sentence following a colon, but not sentence fragments.
We didn't mind that you arrived late: You brought your banjo.
We didn't care that he arrived late: no contribution.
This month's topic is: capitalization
This month's topic is: Some writers struggle with capitalization.

One of the things that confuses many writers is how some adjectives that are derived from proper nouns no longer require capitalization, yet others do.
For example, we must capitalize a Russian meal, a Freudian slip and a Shakespearean play but we do not capitalize quixotic dreams, draconian measures or herculean efforts. We capitalize the Bible but not biblical. Do not capitalize heaven, hell, the devil, satanic or angels. However, you do capitalize Heavenly Hash, because it is a proper noun, the name of a specific ice cream. Capitalize Hell, Jamaica and Lucifer, which is the name for a specific demon as is Satan. Don't capitalize the angel Gabriel, but do use uppercase for Angel Gabriel. The use of the word "the" is usually a hint that the next word is a common noun. Archangel Michael is correct, because it begins a sentence and archangel is a title, like Captain Jones or Mr. Brown.

Unless the name of food is a brand name such as Oreo or Coca-Cola, you do not capitalize it. This gets tricky when you know you would not capitalize a tuna sandwich, but you must capitalize Capt. Hiram's Ahi Sampler.

Speaking of Captain Hiram, let's talk about military titles.
If preceded by the word "the" do not capitalize them. Military titles are only capitalized when used with a name or to describe some specific event.
The military ball was a hit.
The 2016 Military Ball raised money for orphans.
On Tuesday, Captain Bill Murray showed his ship to guest captains from all over the world.
Last week, my sergeant broke his leg so this week, Sergeant Frakes has taken over.

Typically, do not capitalize other titles unless they precede a name, but some writers and publishers capitalize the highest ranking officials in government, religions and royalty. It helps to know the particular publisher's style preferences.

My suggestion is to remain consistent. If you start out capitalizing the President or the Pope, don't lowercase those words in subsequent uses in the same story. If the first time you write about Uncle Jon's Smoked Brisket, you capitalize it to demonstrate that it is something extraordinary, do not refer to it later without the capitalization. You can, of course refer to it as a roast later, but once a recipe has been properly named, be sure to keep it proper throughout.

When in doubt, look it up. Many good resources are in your library or online, but if you get confused, email me.  I can probably answer your question at no charge.

If you want to discuss how I can help take your writing project to the next level, email me.