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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).

Capital letters…

There are certain times when you must use a capital letter:

  • to start a sentence
  • for a proper noun (e.g. the name of a person, place or event)
  • in acronyms (e.g. the ATO, ASAP, TV)

The rest of the time, lower case letters are not only suitable – they are correct and preferred.

It Is Very Annoying To Read A Sentence Where Every Word Starts With A Capital Letter Isn’t It? And it takes more time and effort to type, too! Despite what some marketers would have you think, these extra capital letters do not make your message clearer or more important, and they certainly won’t bring in more sales. In fact, many people will see all those extra capitals and consider it a tacky attempt to manipulate them and therefore are less likely to even read their message.

It also just looks like you don’t know much about grammar or appearing professional.

And I’m not just talking about using capitals for every word, either. For instance, I received an email stating:

The first of these will address issues in Web Writing. The other two will focus on Web Accessibility: a half day Overview workshop and a full day Techniques Workshop. These are excellent programs.

There is no reason for ‘web writing’, ‘web accessibility’ or ‘techniques workshop’ to start with capitals – they are not proper nouns and shouldn’t be treated a such. As for ‘overview’, I can’t imagine why someone thought it needed a capital letter!

I find misuse of capitals bad enough – but for someone advertising a writing course, I expect much better than this! I wonder if they addressed the issue of using capitals in web writing – online, capitals are considered as yelling so really should be avoided in your web and email writing.