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Capitalization Rules in Writing

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  • 0:39 Why Capitalize?
  • 1:29 Proper Nouns
  • 3:06 Titles
  • 3:59 First Word in a Sentence
  • 4:25 The Pronoun 'I'
  • 4:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Janovsky

Angela has taught middle and high school English, Social Studies, and Science for seven years. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and has earned her teaching license.

Capitalization is a very important concept in standard grammar in the written form of the English language. Watch this video lesson to learn what capitalization is and when to use it.

What Is Capitalization?

There are many rules you must follow when writing in the English language. These rules generally fall under the category of grammar. One of the most important concepts in grammar deals with capitalization.

When you first learn the alphabet, you learn the lowercase form of each letter, as well as the capital form. Capitalization, then, is using the capital form of the first letter in a word, while all the other letters in the word remain lowercase. There are four main rules of capitalization you will learn in this lesson. First, let's discuss why capitalization is important.

Why Capitalize?

All the rules in standard grammar serve some sort of purpose that always relates to conveying a clear meaning. Capitalization's purpose is to help show the reader the importance of different words. For example, let's look at how capitalization can show importance with some nouns. Remember, a noun is a person, place or thing.

Look at these two phrases: 'The White House' and 'the white house.' Because the first phrase is capitalized, you as the reader know it is more important. Capitalized, it refers to the house the President of the United States lives in; lowercase, it refers to any house that is white. In this example, you can see how capitalization shows the reader the clear meaning of the words. Now that you know what capitalization is and its purpose, let's look at the rules for capitalization.

Proper Nouns

The first rule requires you to capitalize all proper nouns. Proper nouns are nouns that represent a specific person, place or thing. The opposite is a common noun, which includes all words for the general name of the person, place or thing.

For example, look at this sentence: 'I plan on going to a university.' The word 'university' is a common noun. University does not refer to any specific school, just any higher learning facility. On the other hand, look at this sentence: 'I plan on going to Harvard University.' Now university is a proper noun, since it points to a specific school.

'The White House' example we looked at earlier also follows this rule. When you capitalize this phrase, you are referring to the specific house the president lives in, not any house painted white. Some other proper nouns include political divisions, such as states and countries, or historical movements. Names of these words are considered proper nouns. Examples of historical movements include the Reformation or Renaissance because each is a significant period in history.

In addition, when a common noun is made into a proper noun, note that all parts of the name are capitalized. In the 'Harvard University' example, 'Harvard' is not the only word capitalized; 'university' is as well, since it is now a part of the name of that specific school. This rule can also be seen every day on the roads you travel to and from school or work. 'Main Street,' 'Pennsylvania Avenue' or 'Route 182' all have capitalized common nouns because they are now part of the name of the proper noun.

Titles

Beyond proper nouns, the second rule for capitalization involves titles. All titles of songs, books, magazines, movies, etc. need to be capitalized. In these titles, you must be sure to only capitalize the main nouns and not the smaller words. For example, look at the title of the book The Cat in the Hat. The words 'cat' and 'hat' are the main nouns in the title and so are capitalized, but the smaller words 'in' and 'the' are not.

Note that the first word is also 'the;' why is it capitalized while the second one is not? The first word of every title is always capitalized no matter if it is a main noun or not. Here is another example in the title of the novel A Tale of Two Cities. The word 'of' is not capitalized, but 'a' is because it is the first word in the title.

First Word in a Sentence

The next rule states to always capitalize the first word in every sentence. Sentences help to break up a writer's thoughts and help the reader to follow along. Each sentence needs to have a complete thought or the reader will get confused. Having an end mark, like a period, indicates to the reader that the idea is completed. Along with that, capitalizing the first word of the next sentence indicates to the reader a new thought is beginning.

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