By Word Genius
The rules of capitalization have changed over time — Old English didn’t even have lowercase and capital letters. Emily Dickinson capitalized random words in her poems to give them emphasis. Even the preamble to the Constitution capitalizes common nouns such as “People,” “Order,” “Union,” “Justice,” and “Tranquility.” Modern capitalization rules are much more restrictive, but also have tons of weird exceptions. Here are eight capitalization rules you should know.
The only pronoun that ever gets capitalized mid-sentence is “I.” Perhaps because a tiny lowercase “i” would look a bit sad by itself, but other short pronouns — he, she, it, or we — stay lowercase, unless at the beginning of a sentence.
The exception to this rule? When talking about God. Some writers will capitalize pronouns — or any words — that refer to God. This is called “reverential capitalization.” There is no hard and fast rule about this type of capitalization. While many religious texts do it, several significant style guides advise against it.
Traveling the world can be fun, and luckily, the capitalization rules are pretty easy on the road. Place names are proper nouns, and they should always be capitalized. Sounds pretty simple.
But there is an exception to this rule. Some items and adjectives are inspired by places and regions but no longer depend on the original proper noun for their meaning. Then, the word isn’t capitalized.
That’s why you eat a plate of “french fries,” live the unconventional life of a “bohemian” artist, dine on “fine china,” and snack on “buffalo wings.”
Families can be tricky — so can capitalizing names within the family. Always capitalize the titles of relatives when the title is replacing the proper name.
- I’m telling Mom!
- We’re going to the park with Uncle Don.
- Next summer, Grandma is coming to visit.
If referring to the relative — not directly addressing them — then their familial designation should be lowercase. Typically, there will be an article or possessive pronoun in front of the title.
- My cousin loves cotton candy.
- Grace asked her father if she could go to the mall.
- You’re the kind of brother who always keeps an eye on his siblings.
Honors and awards are nice, especially when they come with fancy titles—and even fancier rules of capitalization. Typically, titles that come before names are capitalized.
You could invite “Judge Wilson” to the gala. But you could also invite “a local judge, Jessica Wilson,” to the gala. “Doctor Thompson” is an excellent doctor, and “Professor Grant” is a history professor at the local college.
In some settings, people will want their titles capitalized at all times. For example, Joe Smith is the “Executive Director,” and Jane Johnson is the “Chairperson.” This capitalization is technically incorrect, but probably not worth fighting about with someone higher in rank at your organization.
Regions or Directions
It’s hard enough to get where you need to go without worrying about capitalizing along the way. When talking about a region, the word should always be capitalized. The same goes if it’s a group of people from that area.
- We’re taking a trip to the South of France.
- I put ranch dressing on everything—I’m a Midwesterner.
- Georgia and Alabama are Southern states.
But when describing directions on a compass, those should be lowercase. The same is true if a directional word is part of a description.
- The map says to drive west for 20 miles.
- The northern lights are so beautiful.
- The weather forecast says warm southern winds are coming.
Days of the Weeks, Months and Seasons
Time is a funny thing, and it has even funnier capitalization rules. While the days of the week and months of the year are considered proper nouns that should be capitalized, the seasons of the year aren’t. To be fair, we don’t capitalize every period of time (like morning, afternoon, or night), so, it makes sense that seasons don’t make the cut either.
You can enjoy a warm “summer” day at the end of June. Or watch the snowfall on a “Tuesday” in the middle of the “winter.” Or even rake leaves in “September” during “autumn,” your favorite season.
Periods in History
Depending on what dictionary or style guide you are referencing, there may be conflicting information about capitalizing the names of ages in history, time periods, and centuries.
- Artists created masterpieces during the Renaissance.
- Jazz music emerged during the Roaring Twenties.
- My dining room furniture is from the colonial period.
All of these could be correct. The most important thing is to pick a style and keep it consistent. Don’t refer to “ancient Greece” in one paragraph and “Ancient Greece” in the next.
The names of centuries should never be capitalized. These periods are always written in lowercase as the “17th century” or the “ninth century” — unless at the beginning of a sentence, or part of a proper noun name, such as the Nineteenth-Century Teacup Appreciation Association.
Racial or Ethnic Groups
In 2020, the Associated Press announced that it would capitalize the word “Black” when referring to people who identify as such in a racial, ethnic, or cultural sense. The same goes for other racial and ethnic identifiers, such as Latinx, Asian, Native American, or Indigenous. When discussing the color black — as in black cats, black beans, and black licorice — lowercase would still be correct.