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Capital letters

to CAPITAL or not to capital, that is the question

Pardon changing the Bard’s words, but this is a question that needs asking much more often …

I suspect the increased use of SMS and chat shorthand is a major factor, but it seems that many people aren’t sure about when to use capital letters in their writing. So here is a quick summary of when to use a capital letter:

  • for the word I – this word must always be written as a capital letter, to do otherwise looks out of place and attracts attention to the lack of attention to detail. As part of an SMS message, I might accept it, but I leave websites where they repeatedly use a lower case i
  • to start a sentence – this helps make it clear it is a new sentence and this in turn makes it easier to understand the message and individual ideas
  • for all proper nouns – that is, any word that is the name of something specific for example Tash, Melbourne, Australia, Australians and Word Constructions. It does not include generic names such as mothers, business owners, writers, city or students.* Note that the word I is actually a proper noun so my first point is covered here but it was worth a separate point!
  • in acronyms – where just the first letter of each word is used to represent the name of something. For instance, the ATO represents the Australian Tax Office and ASAP represents as soon as possible. It doesn’t matter if the full title uses capitals or not, acronyms generally use capitals (sometimes a business may choose to brand themselves with a lower case acronym)
  • the start of speech, even if it is not the start of a sentence. For example, she said “We must pay attention to the use of capital letters.”
  • days of the week and names of months, as well as names of specific periods of history (e.g. the Second World War, the Depression)
  • titles of books, articles, movies and so on can be written in title case (e.g. Full Moon Rising) or just with a starting capital letter (e.g. Confessions of a supermom)

Capitals letters are sometimes also used within names (e.g. AvSuper, MacGregor), in scientific terminology (e.g. E. Coli, Eucalyptus, cyclone Tracy) and where two words have been abbreviated into one (e.g. eBooks, eLearning.)

There are variations in some of these rules, especially if you travel to another country but using these guidelines will avoid any major errors! Or call upon someone to check your writing for you – errors that requires conscious effort for you to find often are quite obvious to others, especially to someone like me who spots such things without trying.

Edited to add: I came across a fun poster with the basic capital letter uses, which is great for kids and anyone struggling to remember these rules.

Learn more writing tips from the Writing Well eBook

* The use of a generic noun as a proper noun requires a capital letter, too. So while mothers is written in lower case, a capital letter applies in the following sentence: Mary said “Hello Mother. How are you?” Likewise, you may write about a library (generic) or the Ashburton Library (specific).

106 Responses to Capital letters

  • leon says:

    Is it correct to use capitals for English, but not lesson or the other subjects in the following sentence: I went to my English lesson and then my maths lesson. Later on today, I will go to a science lesson.

    • Tash Hughes says:

      Hi Leon.

      Languages are always a capital letter, whetehr refering to a class or not.

      Generic subjects (maths, science, history, art) are written with a lower case letter. Specific titles of classes (Biology 101, Australian Hstory Overview) can be written with a capital letter.
      So your example is correct:)
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  • Deirdre says:

    Hi there!

    So I write as the customer support person for my company as the intermediary to the client and our company and vice versa.
    When writing an email should I place a capital letter:

    in the opening greetings

    Good Afternoon Mary

    Thank you for your correspondence…. etc

    and in the farewells…..

    Yours Sincerely,

    Martin Kelly

    • TashWord says:

      Hi Deidre,

      It doesn’t matter if it is a letter, friendly email or a business email, the same capital letter rules apply – proper nouns and the start of sentences need a capital letter and very little else.

      So “Good afternoon Mary, I hope you are well. Yours sincerely, Martin Kelly” is all you need.
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  • Phillip says:

    When did we stop using periods between letter of an acronym? As in NSW for N.S.W., ATO for A.T.O.

    • TashWord says:

      I’ve never really used full stops in acronyms or initialisms, Phillip. The Australian Government guidelines list the states as NSW, ACT and SA, and I couldn’t find otherwise historically in a quick search.

      So if there was a change, I’d say it was quite some time ago!

      PS Apologies for not replying sooner.
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  • ROGER COELHO says:


    I would like if I need to use cappital letters in the beggining of names of sciences , like “Medicine”, “Biology” , for example.


    • TashWord says:

      Hi Roger,
      if you’re just talking about biology or genetics, a capital letter is not needed. It’s only if you are using it as a proper noun such as the name of a subject (I am learning Biology 101 with Professor Sprout) that you need a capital.
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  • Joannah leys says:

    Do you need to capitalise ‘Federation’?

    • TashWord says:

      Hi Joannah,

      Good question 🙂

      If it is part of a name, for example Federation Park, Federation Star or the Widget Federation, then yes it needs a capital letter. Likewise if it is the first word in a sentence.

      As a common noun describing a process, however, no capital letter is required. “As a federation, Australia is run by a parliament” and “Prior to federation, Australia was a collection of 6 British colonies” are not capitalised for example.

      I hope that helps.

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