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Capitalization Rules in English

Here is a quick but fairly comprehensive primer on what needs to be capitalized when writing English. I'll go over sentence capitalization rules as well as some of the trickier rules surrounding article headlines and book titles.

I've also created a tool on this website that automatically capitalizes sentences so check that out if you want an app to automatically do the work for you.

Capitalization for Proper Nouns in Sentences

Proper nouns include the names of people and places like cities or countries. Here is an example of a sentence to demonstrate this.

Proper nouns also include days of the week and nationality. Here is an expanded example using these elements.

Other common things that are capitalized in English include job titles, religions, historical events and brand names like Nike or Coca Cola.

Also of note is that the first letter of a quote is capitalized when the quote itself forms a complete sentence. Here's an example of that.

Capitalization for Hyphenated Words

In regular usage, the capitalization of hyphenated words is fairly straightforward; if the first word of a sentence is a hyphenated word then capitalize the first letter of that hyphenated word like you would for any other sentence. Otherwise in sentences, hyphenated words aren't capitalized unless they're proper nouns.

For headlines, the rules areound hyphens are generally pretty simple as long as you remember not to capitalize the second word unless it's a proper noun.

Hyphenation for article headlines is where things require a bit more finesse if you are using a specific style.

For academics using APA style, simply capitalize both parts of the hyphenated word, like these examples: South-East or Part-Time.

For journalists using The Chicago Manual of Style for headlines, things aren't as straightforward.

For most news articles or blog posts sticking to title case or sentence case (explained below) would be better.

However if you need to use the Chicago Style for hyphenated words then here are some rules to clear things up.

  1. Always capitalize the first letter of a hyphenated word. Only capitalize the second element according to the following rules.
  2. If the second part of a hyphenated word is a number or simple fraction like the first part then capitalize then both as in Thirty-Three or Three-Quarters.
  3. If the first word is not a whole word on its own but merely a prefix (as in things like anti or pre) and the second part is a proper noun then both parts of the hyphenated word are capitalized. A good example of this is the hyphenated word "Pre-Columbian".

Capitalization Rules for Headlines

Here is a breakdown of the two common options for capitalizing headlines which are title case, and sentence case.

Using Title Case for Headlines

Title case is currently the most common method to use when capitalizing headlines. In title case, all words are capitalized except for three elements: articles, conjunctions, and prepositions.

Articles are words like: a, an, the.

Conjunctions are words like: and, but, or.

Prepositions are words like: in, on with.

Using Sentence Case for Headlines

Sentence case is a more casual style of headline usage and has become more popular through usage in the web as well as being adopted by many newspapers.

In sentence case the first letter of the first word is capitalized and nothing else is capitalized except for proper nouns such as places, historical events or etc. Here is an example of that.

It's been argued that minimizing capital usage in a headline makes it faster for a reader to scan and so modern adoption for this style is growing.

Capitalization for Book Titles

Book titles such as "To Kill a Mockingbird" or "Pride and Prejudice", like most headlines, use title case for their capitalization.

In other words these three elements - articles, conjunctions and prepositions are not capitalized unless one of them is the first word in the title.

The following example shows a conjunction and an article in a book title that should not be capitalized.

A Final Word about Capitalization and the Perils of English

The usage of capitalization in sentences is pretty clear as long as you know what proper nouns are.

For headlines the rules can be trickier but once you choose between title case and sentence case you should be able to soon figure things out without too many finicky exceptions rearing their ugly head.

Hopefully this helps you avoid some of the issues around capitalization.

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