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conquering capitalization

Capitalization can be tricky. For example, how do you handle the short words such as in, on, is, to, it? They're not all treated the same, even though they all have just two letters. What sets some apart from the others? Read on.



Can you spot the capitalization error in each sentence below?

  • Ace Goodspeed, President of Debate Club, introduced the officers.
  • “Call me before you leave,” said Hannah, “So I can be ready when you arrive.”
  • Mike Harris was once the Premier of Ontario.
  • Betsy is reading a novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
  • I’ll do the dishes tonight, mother.
  • Kit Carson became a legendary figure in the development of the American west.

These are the corrected sentences:

  • Ace Goodspeed, president of Debate Club, introduced the officers. 
  • “Call me before you leave,” said Hannah, “so I can be ready when you arrive.” 
  • Mike Harris was once the premier of Ontario.
  • Betsy is reading a novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.
  • I’ll do the dishes tonight, Mother.
  • Kit Carson became a legendary figure in the development of the American West.

(See below for rules that cover the situations above.)

Capitalization practices vary from place to place and institution to institution. This section addresses a few thorny aspects of capitalization, and even some of these guidelines could be countermanded by a stylebook that your company, academic institution or organization uses. Stylebooks promote consistency in the mechanics of communication throughout an organization.

Whether you’re working from a stylebook or not, the most important thing you can do is to be consistent in your approach to grammar, usage, punctuation, capitalization and spelling. The reasons should be obvious.

Titles of books, plays, movies, songs, poems, short stories, magazines, articles, pieces of art

Capitalize all words except:

  • Articles (a, an, the)
  • Prepositions (in, on, at, over, from, with and many more; some stylebooks do capitalize prepositions of more than four letters: under, through, around and others)
  • Conjunctions (and, or, nor and others)

EXCEPTIONS: DO capitalize the above if they happen to be the first or last word in the title.

The first thing to remember is that capitalization in a title is NOT determined primarily by the length of the words.

Here are some sample titles:

  • Gone with the Wind
  • Never Seek to Tell Thy Love (NOTE: in this case, to is part of the infinitive to tell, rather than a preposition; in either instance, keep it lower case)
  • She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways
  • The Portrait of a Lady
  • The Catcher in the Rye
  • Call It Sleep (NOTE: It is a two-letter word, like many prepositions, but it’s a pronoun, and pronouns are capped in titles.)
  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
  • The Man Without Qualities
  • The Sound and the Fury
  • Go Tell It on the Mountain
  • The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
  • Of Human Bondage
  • At the Mountains of Madness
  • Someplace to Be Flying
  • A Room with a View
  • Something Wicked This Way Comes
  • Lovely to Look At (at would normally be lowercased, but here it is the last word in the title)

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Formal titles 

Capitalize a formal title when it precedes the name:

  • Prime Minister Stephen Harper, but Stephen Harper, prime minister
  • President Barack Obama, but Barack Obama, president
  • Premier Gordon Campbell, but Gordon Campbell, premier
  • Governor David Paterson, but David Paterson, governor
  • Mayor David Miller, but David Miller, mayor
  • Captain Javier Lopez, but Javier Lopez, captain
    Also . . .
  • former prime minister Paul Martin
  • premiers Gordon Campbell and Dalton McGuinty
  • governors David Paterson and Jon Corzine

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Occupational titles and descriptions

Lowercase occupational titles and descriptions (except abbreviations such as CEO):

  • Philip Cross, chief of current economic analysis at Statistics Canada
  • Stephen Schork, editor of an influential newsletter
  • president and chief executive officer Samuel Morse
  • deputy CEO Basil Fawlty
  • my manager is a talented and compassionate (or ignorant and unfeeling) person. Manager is a generic term.

NOTE: Capitalization of titles is often determined by a stylebook, such as that used by a newspaper, magazine or other entity. If no stylebook applies to what you are writing, at least be consistent in what you capitalize.

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Mom, dad and other relatives

When your mom or dad’s name could be substituted, capitalize Mom (or Mother) or Dad (or Father):

  • I asked Mom (Alice) for advice about matters I would never mention to Dad (Clarence).
  • Could I borrow the car tonight, Dad (Clarence)?
  • I always consulted my mom on matters of the heart, whereas my dad was the best source for an infusion of cash. (substitution: my Alice? my Earl? No way.)
  • Similarly, cap names of relatives when they are used as names or used with names: Grandpa, Grandma, Uncle Tim, Aunt Josephine, Cousin Irene.


Other capitalization notes

  • Do not capitalize the seasons: spring, summer, fall (and autumn), winter.
  • Do not capitalize points of the compass: north, south, east, west.
  • Capitalize names of regions: Far North, Northern Canada, East Coast, Far East, Western Hemisphere, the West.
  • Do not capitalize academic subjects: algebra, history, film studies, social studies, except for languages (English, French, Italian).
  • Capitalize Internet; web is still capitalized by many but is increasingly lowercased.
  • Capitalize Crown when it refers to the state: Crown jewels; the Crown alleged.
  • Capitalize split quotes as you would if they were not split: “I’m not in the habit of making exceptions,” said the hotel desk clerk, “but I’m willing to do so for you.” (In other words, do not capitalize but.)