Capitalization is one of the most basic grammatical lessons, typically taught in grade school, but it can still pose a problem in our writing. Most of us know to capitalize names and places, but past there, it can get tricky. Let’s take a look at some of the most common capitalization mistakes writers make, as well as learn tricks to avoid making these mistakes in the future.  

Official Titles and Offices

More advanced English speakers typically struggle the most with knowing whether to capitalize titles such as president, captain, mother, governor, aunt, doctor, etc. For these types of situations, you need to look to see if the title is being used before a specific person or just as a general reference to the occupation itself. A person’s title should be capitalized when it precedes his or her name, or if the title is being used instead of his or her name. Here’s some examples of the right way to capitalize titles:

President Obama gave an address this evening in Washington D.C.

Captain Jones served for ten years before retiring.

I went to see Doctor Smith after lunch, but he was in a meeting.

Mother went to the store and bought me a birthday cake.

Aunt Julie bought a golden retriever named Champion yesterday.

All the above examples use official titles that refer to a specific person. Because of this, it is correct to capitalize all the titles used. Now, here are some examples of similar situations where you should not capitalize these titles:

There have been many presidents throughout American history.

Barack Obama, current president of the United States, has served two terms.

My goal is to become a captain within the next year.

I am currently studying to become a doctor.

My mother loves baking, even though she has little time for it.

When the baby is born, I will be an aunt.

Okay, so the example sentences listed above use the same titles, but they should not be capitalized. Notice that in these sentences, the titles are being used generally, referring to an occupation or position, and do not specify a particular individual. In these situations, you will likely not capitalize the titles.

 

Books, Movies, and Other Titles of Works

When it comes to titles of works, such as books, movies, and the like, we sometimes struggle with what to capitalize. Is it To Kill a Mockingbird or to Kill a Mockingbird? Is it Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone or Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone?

In titles of works, you always want to capitalize the first word, regardless of whether or not it is a preposition. So, it is To Kill a Mockingbird, not to Kill a Mockingbird. As for prepositions in titles, this is a more controversial topic, but most agree that shorter prepositions should always be lowercase, while some longer prepositions may be capitalized. Also, conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) and articles (a, an, the) should not be capitalized in titles. For example, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone but Walking Through the Jungle (“through” is a longer preposition and most agree is an acceptable word to capitalize). Some people are tempted to lowercase any short word, such as “is,” “was,” and “be,” but these are all verbs and should be capitalized. For example, the 2015 book I Was Here properly capitalizes “was.” Just remember that articles, conjunctions, and prepositions are the words you will typically lowercase.

Random Items

Now, here’s a list of some extras that are important to know for proper capitalization:

  • When incorporating a direct quote in your writing, the first word of that direct quote should be capitalized. For example, “The first sentence of Pride and Prejudice reads, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’” However, when only parts of a quote are used, you do not need to capitalize the first word of the quote unless the quoted material was originally capitalized. For example, “Jane Austen wrote of the centrality of an advantageous marriage during the 18th century which she claimed was ‘a truth universally acknowledged’ by society.”   
  • Do not capitalize directions or general geographic references. For example, you would write, “The river was cold,” not “The River was cold,” unless you spoke of a specific river, like “The Columbia River was cold.” Additionally, directions (north, east, south, and west) are typically not capitalized unless used in a specific title or event, such as the East India Company or South Carolina.
  • Seasons, such as winter and summer, are also not capitalized. The exception is again specific titles. For example, you would write, “The spring is lovely,” but “I am playing baseball this Spring 2016 Season.”

Conclusion

Capitalization for the most part is simplistic, even with these more detailed rules we just covered thrown in the mix. Almost all of these technicalities had one common factor: if specific, capitalize. This is an excellent trick to follow when debating whether or not to capitalize a word. For the most part, specific events, terms, titles, etc. should be capitalized, whereas more general references and words can be left lowercase. For additional help and explanation, see The Chicago Manual of Style or OWL Purdue.