Updated on November 18, 2016
Do you know when to use capital letters? Are you SURE?
Capital letters seem simple enough to understand, yet they’re misused all the time. Get on the case with this guide to the dos and don’ts of capping up
Photograph by Tom Eversley
Rogue capital letters are almost as distressing as rogue apostrophes, and both have me reaching for the smelling salts whenever I see them, which is a lot.
And yet it all seems simple enough – capital letters are used at the start of sentences, and for the first letter of proper nouns and titles, right? And yet… what exactly do we mean by a proper noun? Is a title the same as a headline? What about job titles, then? And where do the BBC, Unesco, and easyJet (sic and urrrgghhh) fit into all this? Capital letters are, in fact, a punctuation minefield but it’s one I’m willing to traverse in the name of written elegance. To which I aspire. So here are the instances in which a capital letter is required…
At the start of sentences, direct quotations and direct questions
As in: You know this already, obviously. But occasionally the question, “Do direct questions require a capital letter at the start?” comes up. To which I reply, “Why yes, yes they do.”
For the initial letters of proper nouns…
Now this is a murky business, so bear with me. These words definitely need capitals: people’s names; the names of organisations; days of the week and months of the year; feast days; places and street names; well known landmarks; specific ranks (ie, Captain Mainwaring), races (Aztecs, Aboriginals); historical periods, wars, ministries and treaties.
So far so good. But some proper nouns require a bit of context before we know whether or not they need a capital. For instance, are we talking about a prime minister, or the Prime Minister? The British Army or an army of men? Somerset County Council or the local council? In other words, are we referring to a specific person or institution – in which case we do them the courtesy of capitalising them – or to a person or group in general (in which case they must languish in their lower case shame)?
Furthermore! We would write about the land to the west of the mountains, but life in the West; to April and May but spring and summer; and to New Year’s Day but a happy new year.
Most lists of proper nouns would also include trade names. However, things have become complicated in recent times as companies have started to ride roughshod, frankly, over common convention. For instance: BeneFit, Bumble and bumble, BlackBerry, QinetiQ (whaaat???). It’s utterly reckless – where will it end? Will people start christening their children jOhN or maRY? And it’s all very well on a logo, but how should you go about writing those words in normal text? Sometimes even the brands themselves aren’t sure – despite its lowercase logo (ebay), Ebay has variously referred to itself as Ebay or eBay over the years (although it now seems to have settled on the latter). One well known magazine refuses to indulge such typographical wantonness and merely writes everything with a capital letter at the start (so Youtube, CK One). But even they have given in to iPhone and iPad (because Iphone? Ipad?), effectively following The Economist Style Guide’s suggestion: “If in doubt use lower case unless it looks absurd.” So I guess we will just have to get used to it, sigh.
Here’s another dilemma: what do you do about brand names that have become so well known as to be considered generic? Hoover, Biro, Jacuzzi, Post-it and Jet Ski should all take a capital, strictly speaking, but it does look weird. Unfortunately the companies that own them – protected trademarks as they are – do sometimes get rather cross about it, so the safe thing to do is use the actual generic term instead: vacuum cleaner, ballpoint pen, hot tub, sticky note and, erm, stand-up personal watercraft…
…and the adjectives derived from them… sometimes
It follows that sweets from Turkey would be Turkish delight, and ham from Parma would be Parma ham. We also have Victorian Britain, Afghan hounds, Shetland ponies, Chesire cheese, Caesarean sections and Gothic architecture. But, over time, even these get eroded – so we also have french windows, roman numerals, spaghetti bolognese and indian summers. But these are not all hard and fast rules – again, it goes back to what looks right.
When we refer to a specific person by their title, the initial letter should be capitalised: Mr, Mrs, Dr, Lord, Lady, etc, as well as President Obama, Lord Chief Justice Thomas, and Chancellor Merkel. But job titles in general do not take capitals. You wouldn’t write, “Mr Jones is a Teacher at the local school,” so neither would you write that, “Susie Bond is the Managing Director of a local company,” even if it sounds like an important job and there is only one person in that position. (Talking of teachers, school subjects are not capped up, either, apart from English, French, etc.)
For the titles of books, plays, films, albums, etc
The convention is that the “little” words remain lower case: “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”; “The Old Man and the Sea”; “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”; “Raiders of the Lost Ark”.
Headlines are not the same thing as titles. Headlines in newspapers, magazines and other publications (or their digital equivalents) do not need initial capitals – unless they are tabloids, in which case EVERYTHING IS CAPPED UP BECAUSE THEY ARE SHOUTING AT YOU.
Abbreviations and acronyms… sometimes
This is another pit of punctuation contention – who knew that capital letters could be so darned controversial? Here’s the problem… while the BBC obviously needs to be all caps (no dots necessary between letters, by the way), there is less agreement about, say, Nasa, Unesco and Bafta. While those names are certainly acronyms, a lot of publications suggest that, if an acronym is pronounced as a word (the strict definition of an acronym) rather than a string of letters, it makes sense to write it with an initial cap and the rest lower case. (Many words, such as laser and radar*, were originally acronyms but have now become accepted as words in themselves.) And I would agree, because capital letters do look somewhat shouty – except that this usually goes against what the organisations themselves prefer, and also leads to problems with names such as NICE (the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence), which really would be confusing written as Nice. So going for caps is perhaps the safest bet – but neither is wrong, as long as you are consistent.
There is a growing tendency to give all nouns initial capitals, especially in advertisements (“We will clean your Windows, Gutters, Driveways, Paths, Railings and Doors”), and this is a horrible thing that must be resisted at all costs. The internet is not helping, with its endless headings, sub heads, cross heads and captions – all of which are fighting to be seen and read, and which are often given capitals to – I guess – make them stand out. But capital letters are not pretty to look at, and a page that’s littered with them is jarring rather than inviting. So, despite my tendency to use them for emphasis, like THIS, I’m fighting back. Please join me!
*”light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation” and “radio detection and ranging”, fact fans