English capitalization rules require that certain words, like proper nouns and the first word in a sentence, start with a capital letter. Although that seems simple, some words are capitalized only in certain situations, and some words seem like they should be capitalized but are not—how can you tell which is which?
In this guide, we explain how to capitalize when writing and cover all the English capitalization rules. We also share a list of what words need to be capitalized and provide a few capitalization examples. But first let’s talk a little about capitalization in general.
English capitalization rules: When to capitalize
Knowing which types of words to capitalize is the most important part of learning English capitalization rules. Basically, there are three types of words you capitalize in English:
- the pronoun I
- the first word in a sentence or line of a letter (e.g., Sincerely)
- proper nouns
That last one, proper nouns, is where a lot of the confusion comes from. Some words, like the name Albert Einstein, are always capitalized; however, others are capitalized only in certain situations and are lowercased in others. For example, directions like north and west are normally lowercased but are capitalized when they’re used as part of a geographic name, like the West Coast.
Let’s take a closer look at what words need to be capitalized and when.
What words need to be capitalized?
Both the first and last names of a person are capitalized. Likewise, middle names, nicknames, and suffixes like Jr. are also capitalized.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
Historical names that include descriptive words often follow the rules for title capitalization: Prominent words are capitalized, but small words like the or of are not.
Ivan the Terrible
Maria of Aragon
Capitalization in titles is where a lot of capitalization errors come from. The title of any piece of work—books, movies, songs, poems, podcast episodes, comic-book issues, etc.—requires capitalization, but only certain words in the title are capitalized.
What words need to be capitalized in titles? For starters, the first word in a title is always capitalized. Nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs all need to be capitalized in titles as well.
Small words like articles and prepositions are generally lowercased, unless they’re the first word in a title. However, some style guides have their own preferences, so double-check if you have any doubts.
The Catcher in the Rye
Of Mice and Men
If you’re using the name of a place, capitalize it. This applies to everything from tiny Deer Creek to the massive planet Jupiter.
New York City
Keep in mind that if you are not using the name of a place but the general word to describe it, you do not capitalize that word.
The Grand Canyon is a good canyon, but I wouldn’t call it “grand.”
Countries, nationalities, and languages
In English, countries, nationalities, and languages are capitalized. Country names fall under the category of places, but by extension the names of the people who live there and the adjective form of their culture are also capitalized. This includes languages.
a team of Haitians
Institutions (companies, brands, agencies, etc.)
The names of companies, brands, agencies, and other large groups like hospitals are also proper nouns. Some small words like prepositions may still be lowercased in such names.
Bank of China
If you’re referring to a department by its proper name, you can capitalize it. However, if you’re referring to a general department, keep it lowercased.
“She works in the Psychology Department.”
“I didn’t even know our school had a psychology department.”
Capitalize periods and events when referring to them by their specific name but not when you’re using them as general terms. If a period of time is named after a proper noun, capitalize the proper noun. The word for the period is sometimes capitalized, as in the examples below, but other times it is lowercased, as in the Victorian age.
Islamic Golden Age
Generally, you do not capitalize the names of centuries because they are too broad.
the twentieth century
Days, months, and holidays
In English days and months are capitalized because they are proper nouns.
the first Sunday in April
When words like day or month are used generally, they are not capitalized. However, if they are part of a holiday name, they count as a proper noun and are capitalized.
What day is Father’s Day?
Initials and acronyms
Initials and acronyms combine the first letters of multiple words to make a new word. Typically, these use all capital letters.
WHO (World Health Organization)
UFO (Unidentified Flying Object)
However, some acronyms are used so often, they become separate words and use lowercase letters instead. For example, the word scuba started as an acronym for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus—now it’s a common word on its own, so it’s spelled in lowercase letters.
Words that are sometimes capitalized
The capitalization of family titles is a confusing topic. Family titles like mom or uncle can be either proper nouns or common nouns. In short, capitalize them when they’re used as proper nouns but lowercase them when they’re used as common nouns.
I have to ask my dad.
Can I go to the movies, Dad?
When family titles are used as common nouns, there is usually an article (the, a, an) or a possessive noun (my, your, our, etc.) in front of them. If you see an article or a possessive noun, it means keep the family title lowercase.
My uncle hates when I call him Uncle Joe because it makes him feel old.
Beginnings of quotations
Another confusing topic is capitalization in quotes. The most important thing to know is whether the quote is a complete sentence or a sentence fragment. If the quote is a complete sentence, it starts with a capital letter, even if it begins in the middle of the sentence.
Marie Antoinette never actually said, “Let them eat cake.”
If the quote is a sentence fragment, do not capitalize it. This is most common when you’re quoting only a specific word or phrase instead of a long passage.
The substitute teacher called our class “goonish and unruly.”
After a colon
Capitalization after colons depends on what the colon is used for. If a colon is used to introduce a list, do not use capitalization.
Here’s what we need at the grocery store: blueberries, strawberries, and whipped cream.
If the colon is used to introduce an independent clause, capitalization is optional. However, different style guides have different preferences, so double-check with whatever format you’re using.
There are plenty of reasons to plant a garden: First and foremost, it’s a lot of fun.
When to capitalize seasons
Are seasons capitalized? In general, the seasons—spring, summer, autumn (fall), and winter—are not capitalized. They use lowercase just like other common nouns.
Last winter and spring were so bad, this summer has to be better.
However, often seasons are used in titles, especially in fashion. In this case, they are part of a proper noun, and so they are capitalized.
Hermès’s Fall 2022 collection was even better than Prada’s Spring 2021 collection.
When to capitalize job titles
Just like the seasons, job titles, positions, or honorifics are sometimes capitalized and sometimes lowercased. When these titles are used as part of a proper name, they are capitalized; when they refer to the general job or position, they are lowercased.
The next president may be from a different region than President Mujica.
Likewise, honorifics like Mr. and Ms. are capitalized when used before a name.
English capitalization rules FAQs
What are the English capitalization rules?
The English capitalization rules require that the first letter of certain words is capitalized. Specifically, the pronoun I, the first word of a sentence, and proper nouns like names are capitalized.
What words need to be capitalized?
Some proper nouns can also be common nouns, so it’s difficult to know how to capitalize them. Generally, always capitalize the names of people, places, titles of works, nationalities, languages, institutions like companies, historical eras, days, months, holidays, initials, and acronyms.
How do you capitalize job titles?
Job titles are capitalized when they’re part of a proper noun like a name but lowercased when they’re used generally. Notice the differences in this example: “The fourteenth prime minister of Australia was Prime Minister John Curtin.”