Capitalization Cheat Sheet

If you happened to be writing English sentences in the seventeenth century, it was acceptable to capitalize at whim. Fie, wycked Time, how ye have changed the Rules! It’s no longer acceptable to capitalize when it feels right. The following rules address some common points of confusion.

1. Capitalize proper nouns, including historic documents, organizations, brand names, and the names of special events.

the Declaration of Independence; the US Constitution (but constitutional); the Bible (but biblical); Congress (but congressional); the Electoral College; the American Center for Law and Justice; the Titanic; the Acela; the World Series (but the finals); his Mac.

2. Capitalize the first word of a quoted sentence, but not the first word of a quoted word or phrase.

Professor Snape said to his students, “Today we are going to learn about bezoars.”
Professor Snape said that we would learn about “bezoars” today, whatever that means.
 

3. Capitalize the names of geographical regions. Do not capitalize compass directions.

John headed south.
John headed to the South.
John’s family lived in the southeast section of a city in the Southeast.

4. Don’t capitalize seasons or academic terms.

John went to college at the beginning of the fall term.
He stayed there all winter.
Come spring semester, he headed south, towards his home.

5. Don’t capitalize academic degrees in your personal statement unless the degree directly precedes or follows a name. Do capitalize the full name of a degree (“Bachelor of Arts”) on your resume. Do capitalize abbreviations of a degree.

John Landenwald, Master of Political Science, at your service.
Well, no, Senator, technically I didn’t finish my master’s degree.
In fact, I still have to complete a bachelor of arts in criminal justice.
I expect to earn my BA in no time.

Note: I’m following The Chicago Manual of Style. The Associated Press Stylebook (AP) recommends capitalizing the full names of degrees (“Bachelor of Arts,” “Master of Political Science”) whether or not they are next to a name. AP agrees with Chicago that you should lowercase “bachelor’s degree,” “master’s,” etc.

Whichever style you choose, stay consistent.

6. Capitalize specific academic courses. Don’t capitalize general areas of study or the name of your major unless that area of study is the name of a language.

I have flunked History 101, yet I plan to continue to study history.
I shall major in neither literature nor physics, but English.

7. Don’t capitalize family relationships, unless the relationship precedes a name or is used in place of a name.

He told me to call my father.
Hello, Father. I was told to call. Put Mom on the phone.
Will Aunt Junie-Pie be at home?
What about the cousins? I am particularly anxious to see Cousin Elias.

8. Don’t capitalize job titles, unless the title precedes a name or is used in place of name.

I have a meeting with a senator in the Midwest.
I have a meeting with Senator Harkin, as well as the governors and lieutenant governors.

I heard the senator is unpleasant.
Oh, hello, Senator. I didn’t see you!

9. Don’t capitalize “federal” or “state” unless they are part of an organization’s full name.

Senator, the Federal Communications Commission has enacted many new federal regulations.
I would like to be a member of the State Committee on College Retention, but not the state committee that has to do with graduate school.

10. Capitalize races, ethnic groups, nationalities, and languages, but not “white,” “black,” or “brown.”

Caucasian (but white); African American (but black); Inuit; East Indian; Latino; Hispanic.

11. Do not capitalize “heaven,” “hell,” “devil,” or “satanic.”

12. Capitalize the names of movements and schools derived from proper nouns; lowercase those that are not. Unfortunately, there are some exceptions: “Cynic,” “Scholasticism” and “New Criticism,” for example, are capitalized when used as movements. Look a term up in Merriam-Webster if you're not sure.

romanticism; Keynesian economics; cubism; Cynicism.

13. Do not capitalize diseases and other medical terms unless a proper noun is part of the name or the disease is an acronym.

tuberculosis; Reye's syndrome; AIDS; bird flu; Asperger’s syndrome.

Capitalize “Internet” and “World Wide Web” but not “web” or “website.”

14. Don’t capitalize for emphasis.

“You’re a liar and your pants are on fire!” screamed Al Pacino.
“You’re a liar and your pants are on FIRE!” screamed Al Pacino.

Final Word

In some instances, as with “bachelor of arts,” you can choose whether or not to capitalize. The important thing is to be consistent.

In addition to The Chicago Manual of Style and the AP Stylebook, this lesson has drawn on GrammarBook.com.

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