Capitalization Rules

Writers often refer to geographic locations, company names, temperature scales, and processes or apparatuses named after people: you must learn how to capitalize these items. There are ten fundamental rules for capitalization:

  1. Capitalize the names of major portions of your paper and all references to figures and tables. Note: Some journals and publications do not follow this rule, but most do.
    • Table 1
    • Appendix A
    • see Figure 4
  2. Capitalize the names of established regions, localities, and political divisions.
    • the French Republic
    • Lancaster County
    • the Arctic Circle
  3. Capitalize the names of highways, routes, bridges, buildings, monuments, parks, ships, automobiles, hotels, forts, dams, railroads, and major coal and mineral deposits.
    • the White House
    • Highway 13
    • Alton Railroad
  4. Capitalize the proper names of persons, places and their derivatives, and geographic names (continents, countries, states, cities, oceans, rivers, mountains, lakes, harbors, and valleys).
    • British
    • Rocky Mountains
    • Chicago
    • Howard Pickering
  5. Capitalize the names of historic events and documents, government units, political parties, business and fraternal organizations, clubs and societies, companies, and institutions.
    • the Civil War
    • Congress
    • Ministry of Energy
  6. Capitalize titles of rank when they are joined to a person’s name, and the names of stars and planets. Note: The names earth, sun, and moon are not normally capitalized, although they may be capitalized when used in connection with other bodies of the solar system.
    • Venus
    • Professor Walker
    • Milky Way
  7. Capitalize words named after geographic locations, the names of major historical or geological time frames, and most words derived from proper names.
    • Middle Jurassic Period
    • the Industrial Revolution
    • Petri dish
    • Coriolis force
    • Planck’s constant

    Note: The only way to be sure if a word derived from a person’s name should be capitalized is to look it up in the dictionary. For example, “Bunsen burner” (after Robert Bunsen) is capitalized, while “diesel engine” (after Rudolph Diesel) is not. Also, referring to specific geologic time frames, the Chicago Manual of Style says not to capitalize the words “era,” “period,” and “epoch,” but the American Association of Petroleum Geologists says that these words should be capitalized. I choose to capitalize them, as those who write in the geological sciences should by convention.

  8. Capitalize references to temperature scales, whether written out or abbreviated.
    1. 10 ºF
    2. Celsius degrees
  9. Capitalize references to major sections of a country or the world.
    1. the Near East
    2. the South
  10. Capitalize the names of specific courses, the names of languages, and the names of semesters.
    • Anatomy 200
    • Spring semester 2016
    • Russian

Common Capitalization Errors

Just as important as knowing when to capitalize is knowing when not to. Below, I set forth a few instances where capital letters are commonly used when they should not be. Please review this advice carefully, in that we all have made such capitalization errors. When in doubt, simply consult a print dictionary.

  1. Do not capitalize the names of the seasons, unless the seasons are personified, as in poetry (“Spring’s breath”):
    • spring
    • winter
  2. Do not capitalize the words north, south, east, and west when they refer to directions, in that their meaning becomes generalized rather than site-specific.
    • We traveled west.
    • The sun rises in the east.
  3. In general, do not capitalize commonly used words that have come to have specialized meaning, even though their origins are in words that are capitalized.
    • india ink
    • pasteurization
    • biblical
  4. Do not capitalize the names of elements. Note: This is a common capitalization error, and can often be found in published work. Confusion no doubt arises because the symbols for elements are capitalized.
    • oxygen
    • californium
    • nitrogen
  5. Do not capitalize words that are used so frequently and informally that they have come to have highly generalized meaning.
    • north pole
    • midwesterner
    • big bang theory
    • arctic climate