by Catherine Rayburn-Trobaugh: President, Word Branch Media
Capitalization: I’ve battled this demon for years, and I can’t say that I have won. Students, relatives, and friends still stare in disbelief when I tell them that there are actual rules to capitalization. One student even accused all English teachers of making it up as we went along. Hmmmm . . . Many people believe that capitalization denotes importance while, in our age of text-messaging, others see it as an unnecessary inconvenience.
There are rules to capitalization, and like most other grammar and usage issues, the rules are common sense. The confusion comes in that no one really explained it to us. Capitalization is merely a signal of several different items: proper names, titles, beginning of sentences, the pronoun, “I.” When we talk about capitalization, we can use the phrase upper case for capital letters and lower case for small letters. And when we say that something is upper case, we generally mean the first letter of the word not the entire word.
Proper names are the names of people and specific places as well as titles used before the name. So Bill, the name, is capitalized, while the bill that you receive in the mail is not. Central City High School is capitalized, but my high school is in Central City is not. Notice that Central City is still upper case because it is a proper name, but if I were talking about a city, no proper name, it is lower case. Counties and languages are also considered proper names. Brand names are capitalized because they are like proper names. Quaker Oatmeal, for example, is upper case, but “I eat oatmeal for breakfast” is not. Titles are capitalized when used with a person’s name. It becomes a part of the proper names. For example, Doctor Ruiz is capitalized, while “I have an appointment with the doctor” isn’t. Perhaps more confusing is the capitalization of kinship titles like mom, uncle, cousin. If you use the title in place of a name, like “Mom went to visit Grandma” then use the upper case. If you would say, “My mom went to visit my grandma” then use lower case. And easy way to remember is that if you can replace the person’s name with the title, then use upper case. My mother’s name is Mary, so I might say, “Mom (Mary) went to the doctor’s office,” but I wouldn’t say, “My Mom (Mary) went to the doctor’s office.”
I had a student a number of years ago who never capitalized “I” in his writing. I explained to him that the personal pronoun was always capitalized, and he replied that he didn’t think he was important enough to capitalize it. How sad. But self-esteem aside, always capitalize I; there are no exceptions to this one.
Capitalization in titles of books, articles, poems, songs, etc. usually confuse my students; although, there are very few rules. Remember that the first letter of each word in a title is capitalized unless it is an article (small connecting words like “and,” “the,” “but,” etc.), but capitalize the article if it is the first word in the title or sub-title. The first letter of the first word of all sentences is also upper case.
I told you that there are common sense reasons for these rules, so let me explain. According to Lynn Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, most grammar and usage rules came from the standardization of the English language. The first group of people to find the written version of English particularly useful was actors. Many of the standards of punctuation, capitalization, and apostrophe use came from the need to make clear in a script who was doing what in a concise manner. Once you understand the rules and where they came from, it begins to make sense. I promise.
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