Capitalization rules

In English, a capital letter should always be used for the first word of a sentence and for all proper nouns. A proper noun is the specific name of a person, place, organization, or thing.

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

Unlike proper nouns, common nouns refer to general, non-specific categories or entities. 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.

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

Main types of proper nouns

Type of proper nounExamples
Names of people and titlesCharlotte Bronte, Mr. Smith, Aristotle
Names of places (e.g. cities, countries, geographical locations)Paris, Canada, South America, the Himalayas, the River Thames
Nouns and adjectives related to place names (e.g. nationalities, languages)Canadian, South American, New Yorker, French
Specific names given to individual things (e.g. monuments, brand names)the Eiffel Tower, the Rosetta Stone, Kleenex
Names of organizations, companies and religionsthe United Nations, the Catholic Church, Greenpeace, Google

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.
  • His family immigrated to the United States during World War II.
  • The Great Depression affected virtually every country in the world.
  • Impressionism was a pivotal artistic development in the nineteenth century.

Days of the week, months of the year, and holidays and festivals are capitalized.

  • Wednesday
  • August
  • Christmas
  • Ramadan

The four seasons are classified as common nouns and therefore do not require capitalization, 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.

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Directions and regions

North, east, south, and west are not capitalized when they refer to a direction or region in general. This also applies to derivative adjectives and adverbs like northern and westerly.

  • 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 counts 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.

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. Proper nouns within these terms retain their capitalization.

TypeExample
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

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, Chicago, and MLA.

  • Capitalize the first word
  • Capitalize the last word
  • Capitalize all nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, and subordinating conjunctions
  • Use lowercase for articles, prepositions, and coordinating conjunctions

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 History of Coffee Drinking

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

3.2 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.

Capitalization within quotations

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

John asked, “Are these library books overdue?”

When the quote is an incomplete sentence, the first word is not capitalized.

She referred to him as “a plague sore.”

Capitalization after a colon

When the colon introduces an incomplete sentence, do not capitalize the first word after a colon unless it is a proper noun.

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

When the 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.

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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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