When to capitalize

Read the first 22 words of the Declaration of Independence as it was written in 1776.

Thomas Jefferson thinking about words to use in Declaration of Independence, with a modern-day child suggesting a word“When in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bonds which have connected them. . .”

Do you notice that Thomas Jefferson used six capital letters?

Now read the first 22 words of the Gettysburg Address, written 87 years later.

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to. . .”

Abraham Lincoln used  fewer capital letters than Jefferson,  one to start the sentence and one more for the word “Liberty.”

Now read the first 22 words of John Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, written 98 years after Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

“We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom—symbolizing an end as well as a beginning—signifying. . .”

Kennedy used one capital to start the sentence.

Over the centuries, the use of capital letters has decreased.  At the time of Jefferson, capitals were used to indicate the importance of a word or a phrase.  At the time of Lincoln, that was still true, although the use of capitals had greatly declined.  By the mid-20th century, rules for capitalization had become standardized, and Kennedy followed those rules.

What are the rules?

  • Capitals start sentences.
  • Capitals start names—people, documents, buildings, streets—anything we today consider proper nouns (or proper adjectives). But when the full name is not used, the generic word referring to the full name is not capitalized (George Washington University, but later, the university).
  • Capitals start Mom and Dad when those words are used as the names of people, but not when used generically.
  • Capitals start titles when the title precedes a name but not after a name (Senator Joan Smith but not Joan Smith, a senator).
  • Capitals start the word President when Americans refer to the US President, with or without the President’s name.
  • Capitals start a quoted sentence within another sentence (Anant said, “I finished my homework, Mom.”)
  • Capitals start months, days of the week and holiday names, including the word “Day” in New Year’s Day and Thanksgiving Day. But capitals do not start seasons or directions.
  • Capitals start regional names (the Midwest) but not generic areas (the southern part of the country).
  • Capitals start important words in legal documents (the Plaintiff) but those same words are not capitalized when writing about the law for a lay audience.
  • Capitals start titles of books, films and works of art.
  • Important words (not articles or prepositions) within a title are  capitalized. In works of research, however, some style books call for only the first word and proper nouns to be capitalized.
  • Newspapers used to capitalize almost all words in headlines, but now most newspapers capitalize only the first word of a headline and proper nouns.
  • Capitals used to start all lines of verse, but now capitalization is up to the author.
  • Some 21st century words use a capital within a word (iPad).  These words are referred to as “camels” because of their “hump.”


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