Guidelines for Using Capital Letters

Rules for Capitalization in English

capital letters
Capitalizing means writing only the first letter of a word with a capital letter, not the whole word. In some forms of writing--especially in emails--using ALL CAPS (as on these road signs) is the equivalent of shouting. (Dimitri Otis/Getty Images)

The basic guidelines for using capital letters in English appear simple enough:

But things become tricky once we get down to the details. That's when even the most exhaustive style guides (such as the AP Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style) occasionally disagree.

In addition, there may be regional disagreements. As Pam Peters has observed, "British writers and editors are more inclined to use capital letters where Americans would dispense with them" (The Cambridge Guide to English Usage).

So don't regard these "rules" as the final word. If your organization has a house-style guide, stay in house. And if you run across a word or phrase not covered by these guidelines, consult a dictionary.

One final note: in these guidelines capitalize means to use upper case for the first letter of a word.


Guidelines for Using Capital Letters

  1. Capitalize the first word in a sentence.
    Your mother is in here with us, Karras. Would you like to leave a message?
    (Linda Blair as Regan in The Exorcist, 1973)
    Likewise, capitalize the first word of a quotation if it's a complete sentence: Jorge said, "The game is over." But don't capitalize the first word if the quotation is not a complete sentence: Jorge said that the game was "all but over" by the seventh inning.
  1. Capitalize the pronoun I.
    I'm sorry, but I don't want to be an emperor.
    (Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, 1940)
  2. Capitalize the names and nicknames of particular persons and characters.
    Elvis, Ginny Weasley, my sister Vicki, Florence Nightingale, Barack Obama, the Simpson family, the Pritchetts, Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta
    As a general rule, also capitalize the names of cultural movements, schools, and styles if those names are derived from proper nouns: Aristotelian, Reaganomics.
  1. Capitalize titles that come before the names of particular persons and characters.
    Mayor Augustus Maywho, Doctor Sanjay Gupta, Professor Minerva McGonagall, Lady Bracknell, Queen Elizabeth II, President Obama, Captain Jack Sparrow, Aunt Bee
    Although the titles of business executives aren't usually capitalized (the chairman of BP), in-house publications may choose to use capitals. In most cases, don't capitalize a title that appears after a name (Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York City) or that stands alone (a doctor, the mayor). Also see Capitalization.
  2. Capitalize the names of specific places (planets, countries, counties, cities, seas, streets, and so on), both real and fictional.
    Mars, Canberra, London, Monroe County, Yorkshire, the Midwest, Canada, the Ohio River, Narnia, Rosecrans Avenue, Knighton Road, the village of Little Whinging, Chicago's South Side, the English Midlands, the Twin Cities (for Minneapolis–Saint Paul)
    Capitalize common nouns--such as road, river, and republic--only when they're part of the full name of a place. Don't capitalize these common nouns when they stand alone in follow-up references. Also, when two or more geographical names are linked in a single expression, the usual practice is to put the generic part of the names in lower case: the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. As a general rule, capitalize regions (the Eastern Shore, the Left Bank, the West End), but don't capitalize compass points (north, southeast) if they simply indicate direction or location. Don't capitalize sun and moon.
  1. Capitalize the names of particular nationalities, languages, ethnic groups, and religions.
    Filipino people, African-American, a native Newfoundlander, the Welsh language, Na'vi, Judaism, Buddhism, Quantum Presbyterians
    Don't capitalize the names of academic subjects (algebra, art, history) unless they are languages (English, Spanish, French) or part of a department name (Department of Languages and Literature). As a general rule, don't capitalize the names of religious services and rites (baptism, bar mitzvah).
  2. Capitalize the names of deities and holy books.
    God, Krishna, Allah, Jehovah, the Qur'an, the Bible
    Also capitalize the names of books of the Bible: Genesis, Psalms.
  3. Capitalize the names of particular businesses, buildings, schools, and organizations.
    Google, General Motors, Westminster Abbey, Trump World Tower, Beauxbatons Academy of Magic, the Salvation Army, Oxfam International, the Girl Scouts, the League of Women Voters
    Likewise, capitalize the official names of rooms and offices: the Oval Office, the Situation Room.
  1. Capitalize the formal names of government units, agencies, and divisions.
    White House, House of Representatives, House of Commons, Supreme Court, Department of Education, Georgia Department of Natural Resources
  2. Capitalize the formal names of acts, treaties, and government programs.
    Declaration of Independence, the Act of Union, the Marshall Plan, the Treaty of Versailles
  3. Capitalize the official titles of armies, navies, and other military and police units.
    Army National Guard, the Royal Australian Air Force, the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police
  4. Capitalize the names of wars and major battles.
    Second World War, Spanish Civil War, the Norman Conquest, the Gulf War
  5. Capitalize the names of particular historical periods, events, and documents.
    VE Day, the Great Depression, the Troubles (Northern Ireland), the Middle Ages, Magna Carta, the Treaty of Versailles
    However, names of events that occurred at different times in different places are generally not capitalized: the recession, gold rush, secession movements.
  6. Capitalize legally protected brand names and trademarks.
    Xbox 360, Kit Kat, Coca Cola, Adidas, Range Rover, Kleenex, Cadbury Fingers
    The obvious exceptions are trademarks that begin with a lowercase letter: eBay, iPhone, iPad. Also, don't capitalize a brand name that has been transformed into a common noun through popular usage: aspirin, thermos, escalator. (For further guidance on this last point, see generification and genericide.)
  7. Capitalize the names of days, months, holidays, and special days of observation.
    Wednesday, June, Christmas, Veterans Day (U.S.), Anzac Day (Australia and New Zealand), Mother's Day, Boxing Day (Britain and Canada)
    But don't capitalize the seasons: winter, spring, summer, fall (autumn).
  8. Capitalize the principal words in the titles and subtitles of books, movies, plays, magazines, journals, TV shows, video games, musical compositions, and pieces of art.
    War and Peace, The Sixty-Second Motivator, Avatar, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Entertainment Weekly, Journal of Organic Chemistry, Arrested Development, Grand Theft Auto IV, Rhapsody in Blue, The Starry Night
    If a title contains words joined by a hyphen, both words are usually capitalized. Articles, conjunctions, and short prepositions are usually not capitalized unless they begin the title. For more specific guidelines (with examples of both sentence case and title case), see Which Words in a Title Should Be Capitalized?
  1. Capitalize the names of awards, prizes, and scholarships.
    Rotary Youth Leadership Awards, the Nobel Prizes, the Academy Award (and the Oscar), National Merit Scholarship
  2. Capitalize each letter in an acronym or initialism.
    For exceptions, check your favorite style guide or dictionary.