It can be difficult to understand when we should begin a word with a capital letter in English, since the texts we read often seem to be following different rules or systems.
There are basically two types of rule governing capitalization. There are rules which are broadly accepted as features of the language, and other rules which admit variation according to the house style of the particular publisher or journal.
Let us look first at some of the basic rules which nearly always hold good:
- For personal names, titles and proper names: Tony Blair, Field Marshal Montgomery, London, Bayswater, the Thames, Essex.
- For points of the compass in geographical names with recognised status, such as East Africa, North Korea (but not for unofficial descriptions like northern England).
- For days and months, and for important days or festivals: Monday, January, Christmas Day, Easter, Whitsun. However, we do not use capitals for seasons: summer, winter.
- For political parties or their representatives: Conservative, Democrat, Scottish Nationalist.
- As a matter of protocol, when referring to the monarch, we write Her Majesty, and we call her son HRH the Prince of Wales.
- In street names: 221 Baker Street.
- For some wars: the First World War, the Wars of the Roses.
- For the names of God: the Holy Trinity, God, Jehovah, Our Lord, Allah.
- For religious affiliation: Muslim, Catholic, Baptist, Orthodox, Jewish, and for religions and related institutions: the Roman Catholic Church, Christianity, Islam.
Other rules may vary according to house style – in general, the more conservative the house style, the more likely the publication is to require capitalisation in the following cases:
- For adjectives derived from proper names, such as Homeric, Darwinian, Marxist. However, if the connection between the person and the adjective is felt to be remote or conventional, this is not usually done: quixotic, chauvinistic, roman numerals, etc.
- For historical eras: the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Jurassic era. But not archaological or geological eras: neolithic, palaeolithic.
One particularly complicated area is that of titles. In book titles, all the content words usually begin with a capital letter: Great Expectations, The Name of the Rose. When citing a book title, it is usual to follow this convention. The same holds for the names of poems, songs or paintings: The Charge of the Light Brigade, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, The Haywain. On the other hand, although this rule is easy to understand, it is inconvenient when we are citing works with long titles, and so we find an increasing tendency for the titles of academic articles to use lower case throughout (except the first letter and any proper names). So journal articles are often referred to as follows: ‘Some lesser known problems in Tacitus’, or ‘Does memorizing lead to better learning?’