Common grammar mistakes and how to avoid them: capitalisation

Common grammar mistakes and how to avoid them: capitalisation

Confused by capital letters? Relieve your word-based woes with our capitalisation guide

Capitalisation can be a tricky grammar topic to get your head around. It’s rarely discussed in detail, there are lots of conflicting rules, and… How much does it even matter?

In this guide to capitalisation, we’ll be breaking down the dos, the don’ts, and the cases where the answer is: sometimes.

Whether you’re a copywriter looking to brush up on your grammar knowledge, an aspiring proofreader, or just looking to develop your writing skills, we’ll do our best to answer some of the key questions around capital letters.

What you need to know about capitalisation

It’s easy to forget that some words need to be capitalised. It’s also easy to accidentally capitalise words when they don’t need to be. Check that you have capitalised:

  • The first word of every sentence
  • The pronoun ‘I’
  • Names and other proper nouns (e.g. countries, cities, companies, religions, days, months, holidays, languages, nationalities, street names, names of groups or institutions, mountains, bodies of water, time periods and events)
  • The first word of a quote if it is a complete sentence

E.g. Sally said, “Like it or not, I’m going to the library after school.”

  • The first word after a colon if it is followed by one complete sentence or more
  • Acronyms and initials
  • Closing a letter (e.g. Yours truly)

You do not need to capitalise:

  • The first word of a quote if it is not a complete sentence

E.g. Sally said that she was “going to the library” after school but I don’t believe her.

  • The first word after a colon if there are just a few words after the colon
  • Words that are often mistaken for proper nouns (e.g. seasons)
  • Centuries (e.g. the eighteenth century)
  • Words after common nouns

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Proper adjectives

From reading the above, you’ll have noticed that capitalisation mostly just concerns whether something is a proper noun. However, there are also things called proper adjectives. These describe proper nouns.

Some examples include:

a) Adjectives derived from names (Shakespearean, Elizabethan

b) Adjectives based on place names (Bristolian, British)

c) Adjectives from religions (Islamic, Buddhist)

Note: if you don’t need to capitalise a prefix or hyphen if using them with your proper adjective e.g. pre-Shakespearean or British-born. Only capitalise the word derived from a proper noun. Of course, you will need to capitalise prefixed words if you are using them to start a sentence.

You should also keep in mind that some words might appear to be a proper adjective, but really they have lost their connection with the proper noun and don’t need to be capitalised. For example, if you’re describing someone or an event as titanic or spartan, you probably don’t need to capitalise. For example, only if the person you’re describing really is from Sparta do you need to use a capital — they are Spartan.

To capitalise or not to capitalise?

Sometimes capitalisation is a little more ambiguous than the examples above. For example, do you think the words ‘mum’ or ‘son’  need capitalisation? The answer depends on how you’re using each term. When you’re using these words as a form of address, capitalise them. When you’re not, don’t.

For example, both of the following are correct:

  1. What are you doing, Mum?
  2. My son is coming to the football game.

Can you spot why?

Capitalising titles

It can also be tricky to work out the capitalisation rules for titles. This is because there are no universal rules for this — guidance varies between styles. Generally, it’s a safe bet to capitalise the first word, plus all nouns, proper nouns, verbs, and adjectives. You don’t need to capitalise articles, conjunctions or prepositions. If you are writing an essay or guide that must adhere to particular stylistic requirements, double-check your titles guidelines — the rules might be different for you!

Capital content from Zipcopi 

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