Capitalization rules

In English, a capital letter is used for the first word of a sentence and for all proper nouns (words that name a specific person, place, organization, or thing).

In some cases, capitalization is also required for the first word in a quotation and the first word after a colon.

Capitalization rules
  • Capitalize
  • Don’t capitalize
PeopleNames (and words derived from them); nationalities; titles when used as part of a name

  • the works of Aristotle
  • a Freudian psychoanalyst
  • the Brazilian actor
  • the campaign of Senator Sanders
Occupations; titles when not used as part of a name

  • the magazine’s managing editor
  • an elderly professor
  • the left-wing senator
PlacesNames of specific continents, countries, states, cities, regions, monuments and landmarks

  • South America
  • the West Coast of the US
  • the Eiffel Tower
  • the River Thames
Directions and general areas

  • head north
  • the west of the city
  • the longest river in the world
TimesDays of the week and months of the year; historical eras and named events; holidays

  • a Monday in July
  • the Middle Ages
  • the Napoleonic Wars
  • Christmas Day
Centuries, decades, seasons

  • an eighteenth-century painting
  • the fashion of the fifties
  • a summer vacation
Other
  • Organizations, companies and brand names
  • Religions and deities
  • Planets
  • Languages
  • Animal and plant species
  • Elements
  • Minerals
  • Theories and models
  • Medical conditions

Recognizing proper nouns

A proper noun is the specific name of a person, place, organization, or thing. All proper nouns (as well as adjectives derived from them) should be capitalized.

Michelle Obama, the former first lady, was raised in Chicago and is a graduate of Harvard Law School.

A common noun, on the other hand, refers to a general, non-specific category or entity. Common nouns are not normally capitalized (unless they are the first word of a sentence or part of a title).

Monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy are forms of government classified according to which people have the authority to rule.

There are no proper nouns in the example above. Words like democracygovernment and authority refer to general concepts and categories rather than specific names.

Common nouns often become proper nouns when used to name a specific entity:

Common nounProper noun
The nations of the worldThe United Nations
The local churchThe Catholic Church
A conservative viewpointThe Conservative Party
A vast canyonThe Grand Canyon
An application for business schoolColumbia Business School

Times and events

Specific periods and named events in history are proper nouns and thus capitalized. Centuries, however, stay in lowercase.

  • The Middle Ages were dismissed as backward by Renaissance thinkers.
  • The Paleozoic Era began 541 million years ago.
  • The Great Depression affected virtually every country in the world.
  • Impressionism was a pivotal artistic development in the nineteenth century.

Days of the week (e.g. Wednesday), months of the year (e.g. August), and holidays and festivals (e.g. Christmas, Ramadan) are capitalized. However, the four seasons are common nouns and therefore not capitalized unless they appear as part of a proper noun.

  • I plan on visiting New York in the summer.
  • I plan on attending the Summer Olympics next year.

Directions and regions

North, east, south, and west are not capitalized when they refer to a direction or general area. This also applies to derivative adjectives and adverbs:

  • I live five miles north of London.
  • Warm, westerly winds passed through the city.
  • The fire affected only the northern region of the forest.

However, capitalization is required for these words when they are part of a proper name or when they refer to a distinct region.

  • The North Pole has a wider variety of animal life than the South Pole.
  • The scope of the book is limited to the history of Western civilization.
  • Cameroon’s East Region borders the Central African Republic.

Whether a geographical area is named as a distinct region can vary between countries.

  • They took a road trip down the West Coast of the United States.
  • We took a road trip up the west coast of Scotland.

If you’re unsure whether to capitalize the name of an area or region, check a dictionary or consult academic sources for common usage.

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Theories, models and disciplines

In academic writing, some types of nouns are often incorrectly capitalized. The table below shows academic terms that should not be capitalized. Note, though, that proper nouns within these terms are still capitalized as usual.

TypeExamples
Theoriesstring theory, psychoanalytic theory, Einstein’s theory of relativity
Modelsfive-factor model of personality, Bohr atomic model
Disciplines and subjectssociology, economics, French, Japanese
Schools of thoughtrationalism, German idealism

However, note that the names of existing tests, inventories and questionnaires should be capitalized.

  • Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory
  • UWIST Mood Adjective Checklist

Capitalization within quotations

When the quote forms a complete sentence, capitalize the first word.

John asked, “Are these library books overdue?”

When the quote is a fragment incorporated into your own sentence, the first word is not capitalized.

She referred to him as “a plague sore.”

Capitalization after a colon

When a colon introduces a list or any phrase that is not a complete sentence, do not capitalize the first word (unless it is a proper noun).

She filled the picnic basket with a variety of snacks: cookies, bread, dips, and fruits.

When a colon introduces a complete sentence, capitalization rules vary between style guides. According to APA style, the first word after the colon should be capitalized.

She had been up all night studying: She was determined to get the top grade in the class.

But according to Chicago style, the first word following the colon should be capitalized only if there is more than one complete explanatory sentence following the colon.

She had been up all night studying: she was determined to get the top grade in the class.

She had been up all night studying: She was determined to get the top grade in the class. It would guarantee her the prestigious scholarship.

Capitalizing titles

The capitalization rules for the titles of books, articles, movies, art, and other works vary slightly between style guides. But in general, the following rules apply across major style guides, including APA, MLA, and Chicago.

I prefer The Taming of the Shrew over Romeo and Juliet.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is the last in a trilogy.

Capitalizing headings in papers

When writing a paper or thesis, you have two options for capitalizing the headings of chapters and sections. You can use title case for all headings, as in the examples above.

3.1 Emerging Coffee Markets in North America

Alternatively, you can choose to use sentence case, which means you only capitalize the first word and proper nouns, as in a normal sentence.

3.1 Emerging coffee markets in North America

Some style guides have specific requirements for capitalizing headings (see, for example, how to format APA headings and subheadings). Whichever approach you choose, make sure to be consistent: all headings at the same level should take the same capitalization style.

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Amy Luo

Amy has a master’s degree in History of Art and has been working as a freelance writer and editor since 2014. She is passionate about helping people communicate clearly and effectively.

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