Capitalization is a very important concept in standard grammar in the written form of the English language. Watch this video lesson to learn what capitalization is and when to use it.
(Video available on March 2016)
What Is Capitalization?
There are many rules you must follow when writing in the English language. These rules generally fall under the category of grammar. One of the most important concepts in grammar deals with capitalization.
When you first learn the alphabet, you learn the lowercase form of each letter, as well as the capital form. Capitalization, then, is using the capital form of the first letter in a word, while all the other letters in the word remain lowercase. There are four main rules of capitalization you will learn in this lesson. First, let’s discuss why capitalization is important.
All the rules in standard grammar serve some sort of purpose that always relates to conveying a clear meaning. Capitalization’s purpose is to help show the reader the importance of different words. For example, let’s look at how capitalization can show importance with some nouns. Remember, a noun is a person, place or thing.
Look at these two phrases: ‘The White House’ and ‘the white house.’ Because the first phrase is capitalized, you as the reader know it is more important. Capitalized, it refers to the house the President of the United States lives in; lowercase, it refers to any house that is white. In this example, you can see how capitalization shows the reader the clear meaning of the words. Now that you know what capitalization is and its purpose, let’s look at the rules for capitalization.
The first rule requires you to capitalize all proper nouns. Proper nouns are nouns that represent a specific person, place or thing. The opposite is a common noun, which includes all words for the general name of the person, place or thing.
For example, look at this sentence: ‘I plan on going to a university.’ The word ‘university’ is a common noun. University does not refer to any specific school, just any higher learning facility. On the other hand, look at this sentence: ‘I plan on going to Harvard University.’ Now university is a proper noun, since it points to a specific school.
‘The White House’ example we looked at earlier also follows this rule. When you capitalize this phrase, you are referring to the specific house the president lives in, not any house painted white. Some other proper nouns include political divisions, such as states and countries, or historical movements. Names of these words are considered proper nouns. Examples of historical movements include the Reformation or Renaissance because each is a significant period in history.
In addition, when a common noun is made into a proper noun, note that all parts of the name are capitalized. In the ‘Harvard University’ example, ‘Harvard’ is not the only word capitalized, ‘university’ is as well, since it is now a part of the name of that specific school. This rule can also be seen every day on the roads you travel to and from school or work. ‘Main Street,’ ‘Pennsylvania Avenue’ or ‘Route 182’ all have capitalized common nouns because they are now part of the name of the proper noun.
Beyond proper nouns, the second rule for capitalization involves titles. All titles of songs, books, magazines, movies, etc. need to be capitalized. In these titles, you must be sure to only capitalize the main nouns and not the smaller words. For example, look at the title of the book The Cat in the Hat. The words ‘cat’ and ‘hat’ are the main nouns in the title and so are capitalized, but the smaller words ‘in’ and ‘the’ are not.
Note that the first word is also ‘the;’ why is it capitalized while the second one is not? The first word of every title is always capitalized no matter if it is a main noun or not. Here is another example in the title of the novel A Tale of Two Cities. The word ‘of’ is not capitalized, but ‘a’ is because it is the first word in the title.
First Word in a Sentence
The next rule states to always capitalize the first word in every sentence. Sentences help to break up a writer’s thoughts and help the reader to follow along. Each sentence needs to have a complete thought or the reader will get confused. Having an end mark, like a period, indicates to the reader that the idea is completed. Along with that, capitalizing the first word of the next sentence indicates to the reader a new thought is beginning.
The Pronoun ‘I’
A last rule for capitalization involves the pronoun ‘I.’ In writing, ‘I’ should always be capitalized. As a pronoun, ‘I’ takes the place of the speaker’s name, and since names are always capitalized, ‘I’ should be, as well. It does not matter where in the sentence it falls. It is important to note, however, that other pronouns are not capitalized. ‘He’ and ‘she’ also take the place of a person’s name, but these words are not capitalized unless they fall under one of the other rules.
To summarize, capitalization occurs when the first letter of a word is in capital form, while the other letters remain lowercase. Capitalization is important in writing to show readers the importance of specific words and to indicate change in meanings.
The first rule is to always capitalize proper nouns, which are the names of specific nouns. For example, the word ‘university’ is not capitalized, but if you name a specific one, like Harvard University, both words in the name are capitalized.
The second rule states to capitalize words in the title. All main nouns in any title, be it a book, song, movie or magazine, needs to be capitalized. Remember, though, that the smaller words in a title should not be capitalized unless it is the first word in the title. For example, The Cat in the Hat has the main nouns ‘cat’ and ‘hat’ capitalized. In addition, the first word, ‘the,’ is capitalized, but ‘in’ and the second ‘the’ are lowercase.
The third rule states to always capitalize the first word in any sentence. This helps to indicate the beginning and end of sentences, which show when the writer’s ideas are changing.
The final rule states that the pronoun ‘I’ should always be capitalized, regardless of where it lands in the sentence. Remember, though, that other pronouns are not capitalized unless they fall under a different rule. If you are sure to follow these rules for capitalization, then your writing will be sure to convey a clear meaning or message.