The basic rule when it comes to capitalisation is of course that we must use a capital letter to begin every sentence. However, it becomes more complex when using numbers, abbreviations, proper nouns, and so on. It is important to note that the interpretation of punctuation rules can vary, which is reflected in different reference styles and publication guidelines. The rules supplied in the following are based on Straus' Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation and Svartvik & Sager's Engelsk universitetsgrammatik.
The rules and generalisations included below do not contain everything that any writer might ever need to know, but should cover most of what writers of academic English need to know.
This section on capitalisation deals with the following topics:
- Names and titles
- Geographical names
- Words in titles of books, etc.
- Names of university courses
- Religious names, etc.
- Days, months, etc.
- Astronomical names
- Outlines, lists & legends
- The cardinal points
Names and titles
Names and words formed from names and people and their titles are capitalised in English:
(1) Dr Tomas Lind; Mr Tomas Lind; Tomas Lind, MA; Tomas Lind, MD; Tomas Lind, PhD; Mrs Anna Persson; Ms Anna Persson; Miss Anne Johansson; Sir Henry Thomas; Governor Jones; Auntie Jill and Uncle Ian; Professor Lindström; Major Barker; Alexander the Great (Note: the is not capitalised); the Elizabethan Age; a Christian civilisation; Buddhist philosophy
Titles are not capitalised when they refer to one person in a larger class:
(2) He is a professor at the university. (indicating one of many professors)
(3) She is a director in the company. (indicating one of many directors)
Geographical names and words derived from geographical names are capitalised in English.
(4) Paris, France, French cuisine, Bombay, India, Indian culture, Ghana, Afro-Americans, Montreal, Canada, Canadian students, Asia, Asian studies, the United States, the U.S. policy, the United Kingdom, British traditions
The word the is normally not capitalised when it is part of a geographical name, as some of the examples above illustrate.
Words in titles of books, etc.
When you write titles of books, magazines, articles, short stories, compositions, plays, movies, television shows, etc, all content words are typically capitalised, while an articles, a conjunction, or a preposition is not capitalised, unless it is the first word of the title:
(5) The Advanced Learner's Dictionary (a book)
(6) A Dictionary of Medical Terms (a book)
(7) An Act of Bravery (an article)
(8) Learning by Doing (an article)
(9) Metaphors in Discourse (an article)
(10) The Marriage of Figaro (an opera)
(11) The Times (a newspaper)
(12) Time (a magazine)
Names of university courses
We are supposed to capitalise names of particular university courses, but not the name of the discipline, unless it is a language:
(13) Lars is taking Chemistry III this term.
(14) Have you registered for Law L20?
(15) She is writing a paper for her world history course.
(16) Many universities require students to take courses in English literature.
In the last example, English is capitalised, because nationality words are capitalised in English, but literature is not capitalised, because it is not the name of a specific course.
Names of religions, religious bodies, and the words used to refer to people who belong to these religions are capitalised, and so are the corresponding adjectives and names of divinities:
(21) God (but gods if plural)
(22) the First Baptist Church
(24) St. John's Lutheran Church
Dates, months, etc.
Dates, months, days of the week, holidays, historic periods and events are normally capitalised, but not the names of the seasons:
(27) January, February, etc.
(28) Sunday, Monday, etc.
(29) New Year's Day
(32) Passover ('Jewish Easter')
(33) the Middle Ages
(34) the Civil War
(35) The warmest months are in the summer.
(36) Many allergies arise during spring.
(37) There is a dramatic difference between autumn (BrE)/fall (US) and winter months in some countries.
The word the in expressions such as the Middle Ages is normally not capitalised.
The names of the planets, stars, and constellations are capitalised:
(38) Jupiter Venus Gemini Mars Saturn Orion
However, we do not capitalise earth, moon, or sun.
Outlines, lists & legends
We capitalise the first word of every point of an outline, a list or the legend of a map.
Here is an example of what this could look like:
3 Material and method
3.1.1 On the use of corpora in linguistic research
3.1.2 Corpora used
3.2 Creating appropriate databases
3.2.1 Further reductions and divisions of my databases
184.108.40.206 Parsing errors
220.127.116.11 Direct modification
18.104.22.168 Negation and negative polarity
3.3 Linguistic intuition and informants
3.4 Concluding remarks
(adapted from Beijer, 2005)
The cardinal points
We should capitalise north, south, east, and west and words and componds derived/formed from them when referring to recognised specific regions or when these words are part of a proper noun, but not when north, south, east, and west and words or componds formed or derived from them are used to refer to directions:
(39) They holiday in [the South].
(40) [The Northeast] has severe storm warnings tonight.
(41) Professor James is an expert on [the Middle East].
(42) Mr. and Mrs. Jones go east every summer.
(43) Kiruna is north of Stockholm and Malmö is south of it.
(44) [Western Australia] and [South Australia] are west of [New South Wales].
(45) The language section is along the north end of the main library.
(46) When you come to the next corner, turn left and drive east for three kilometres