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Sound Writing

Subsection 7.4.2 Capitalization

If English were a more consistent language, capitalization might not be such a pain. Unfortunately, it’s not, though there are some general guidelines that can help you to decide whether a word should be capitalized or not.
List 7.4.29. General Guidelines
  • Proper nouns should be capitalized.
    • Proper nouns are basically names, though they aren’t limited to humans.
    • Proper nouns name things ranging from people (Susan, Penelope) to coffee shops (Bluebeard Coffee) to cities (Tacoma).
    • Chances are, if it specifies a particular thing as opposed to that thing in general (Bluebeard Coffee vs. the coffeeshop), capitalize it!
      That said, there are many variables to consider and many exceptions. If you’re unsure about whether or not to capitalize races like “black” and “white,” on which there is no consensus, ask. (Also, see Chapter 6 where we discuss this issue further.)
  • Professional titles should be capitalized only when they precede the title-holder’s name.
    • Capitalize “president” in the sentence “President Barack Obama was elected in 2008.”
    • Do not capitalize “president” in the sentence “The 44th president of the United States was Barack Obama.”
  • But don’t capitalize occupational designators!
    • The city’s mayor Victoria Woodards
    • The movie’s director Christopher Nolan
  • What about “professor?”
    • Would it be “I asked professor Julie Nelson Christoph a question about capitalization” or “I asked Professor Julie Nelson Christoph a question about capitalization”?
    • There are different theories about “professor,” which makes it, and others like it, problematic. There is, of course, no clear answer. In this case, it would be better to ask.
  • Capitalize formal titles when the title is used to address someone.
    • “Hello, Admiral.”
    • “How was your day, Admiral?”
    • How arbitrary is this rule? Unfortunately, Google does not provide a gradient that will tell you how formal a given title is. It is relatively safe to assume that a title such as “Admiral” is formal enough to be capitalized, while a title such as “mister” is more ambiguous. The lack of a standard will likely cause some confusion at some point in your college career. Once again, do not be afraid to ask.
  • Capitalize family member’s kinship names (Mom, Father) when they preface a proper name or when they are used in place of the name.
    • “I gave a peach to Mother.”
    • “We returned the car to Uncle John.”
  • Do not capitalize kinship names when they follow a possessive pronoun, when they follow a proper name, or when they do not refer to a specific person.
    • “My mom bought me some shoes.”
    • “The Franco brothers are good actors (debatable).”
    • “Emperor penguins make good mothers/fathers.”
  • Capitalize nicknames.
    “I gave Scooby the sandwich.”
  • Capitalize geographical regions but do not capitalize the points of a compass.
    • “My friend lives in the Midwest.”
    • “We drove east for five hours.”
    • “The sunsets are especially beautiful on the West Coast.”
    • “The eastern coast of O’ahu has nice beaches.”
  • Do not capitalize the word “the” before proper nouns unless the word “the” is itself a part of the proper noun.
    • “I attend the University of Puget Sound.”
    • “In class, we read The Great Gatsby.”
  • Capitalize the first word in a complete quotation, or a quotation set off by a comma, even when the quotation begins in the middle of a sentence.
    But the Sound Writing handbook said, “The first word in a quotation should be capitalized!”
  • Do not capitalize the first word in a quotation that reads as part of the sentence (is not set off by a comma).
    I would have capitalized the first word in the quote, but the handbook said that I should “not capitalize the first word in a quotation that reads as part of the sentence.”
  • Capitalize specific course names, but do not capitalize academic subjects.
    “I enjoyed taking Multivariate Calculus, though I’m by no means a mathematics major.”
  • Do not capitalize the first item in a list after a colon.
    “To do: homework, cook dinner, sleep.”

Capitalizing Titles.

Knowing what to capitalize in titles can be incredibly confusing and frustrating. Different styles have their own policies, so consult the official style books for the style in which you’re writing. In general, when capitalizing, it is usually safe to capitalize:
It is usually safe not to capitalize:
It is also fairly painless to find a capitalization automator online, which will capitalize your title according to the stylesheet you choose. (Google search “Capitalize my title.”)