Capitalization is one of those pain-in-the-butt rules of punctuation that I loathe. In fact, to be perfectly honest, I hated the thought of writing a post on it, but this is one of those topics that I knew needed to be tackled. So rather than give you laundry list of a billion different types of instances that require capitalization, for the sake of your sanity and my own, I’m going to stick with the main ones that pop up in fiction (and some nonfiction). And throw in some examples of course!
General, Nobility, and Military Titles
General titles are only capitalized if they are used before names—unless the title is followed by a comma, in which case it remains lowercase. Titles are NOT capitalized if they come after a name or if they’re used in place of a name.
Example 1a: The president* is speaking later today.
Example 1b: The inauguration of President Obama took place on January 20, 2009.
Example 1c: The president, Barack Obama, was inaugurated on January 20.
*Note: Some writers choose to capitalize titles for those people high in government ranking out of respect, but this style is going by the wayside. Most modern style guides are in favor of lowercase with the only exception being Speaker, as in Speaker of the House.
Example 2a: The treasurer of the class, Katie Smith, raised her hand.
Example 2b: Treasurer Katie Smith took her place.
However, be aware that official titles are not the same thing as occupations. Occupations should not be capitalized before a full name.
- teacher John Smith
- author Edgar Allan Poe
- actress Sandra Bullock
Note: Sometimes style guides express different opinions. The occupations of professor and manager, for example, are sometimes accepted as titles rather than occupations. However, as a whole, most style guides are in favor of keeping things lowercase, including The Chicago Manual of Style.
When it comes to medieval terms, a lot of people mistakenly believe that words such as sir, my lady (alternative milady), my lord (alternative milord), and several other similar titles are always capitalized. However, as is the case with the other titles listed, they are generally only capitalized when used with a name.
Example 1a: King George depended on his loyal subjects.
Example 1b: The king’s favorite food was chocolate-covered strawberries.
Example 2a: Have you seen Sir Lancelot?
Example 2b: Have you seen him, my good sir?
One exception to this is when the generic elements (king, queen, prince, duke, duchess, etc.) are used with a specific location, thereby making the generic element a permanent extension of the person’s name.
Example: He received a letter from the Prince of Wales.
As with general titles, when used in formal or academic prose, military titles are only capitalized when they precede a person’s name.
Example 1a: General Michael Smith was recently promoted.
Example 1b: Michael Smith, the general of the unit, was recently promoted.
Degrees, Departments, and Courses
Academic degrees, as well as departments and courses, should be lowercased when they are used in general terms.
Example 1a: He received bachelor’s degree in liberal arts.
Example 1b: Mary studied mechanical engineering.
Example 1c: I took calculus and statistics my first semester in college.
Example 1d: Is Mike’s major psychology or philosophy?
The name of a specific degree can be capitalized, however, when it is used as part of a title, such as on a résumé or business card.
Example 2a (résumé format):
B.A. in Professional Writing
Minors in German, Psychology
Example 2b: I obtained my B.A. in professional writing and have minors in German and psychology.
As far as courses go, they should only be capitalized when the specific course title is being named.
Example 3a: I took Physics: Electricity and Magnetism during my sophomore year.
Example 3b: I took physics during my sophomore year.
Unnecessary capitalization of these items is definitely one of the most common mistakes I see, especially in bios, so this is a big one to watch out for.
Books and Other Works
As a general rule, for titles of books, magazines, journals, websites, short stories, and many other types of publications, the standard method is to capitalize the first and last words and all other major words. This includes nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjective, adverbs, and some conjunctions (except and, but, for, or, and nor).
The articles a, an, and the are always lowercased. Prepositions are also lowercased, regardless of length, except when they are used adverbially or adjectivally (Fess Up, Step Down, Off Switch, Come To). However, the word to is lowercased not only as a preposition in most cases but also as part of an infinitive (to Watch, to Surrender).
A couple of additional notes:
- Part of proper names that are lowercased in text, such as de or von, should be kept as lowercase in a title.
- The second part of a species name is always lowercased, even if it’s the last word in a title.
Seasons and Time of Day
The four seasons should be lowercased unless they are used as part of the issue title of a journal or magazine.
Example 1a: December marks the start of winter.
Example 1b: The Winter 2015 issue has been published.
Abbreviations for time of day are capitalized depending on whether or not periods are used to punctuation them:
Example 2a: He left at 6:41 p.m.
Example 2b: He left at 6:41 PM.
Deities and Concepts
Names of any deity, whether part of monotheistic or polytheistic religions, are capitalized. Religious events also follow suit (the Creation, the Exodus, the Second Coming).
Terms for divine dwelling places, divine places of punishment, and other such concepts (heaven, hell, limbo, nirvana) are usually lowercased. However, they are often capitalized when used in solely religious context.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, these are the main problematic areas of capitalization that I’ve come across. But if you’re looking for an extensive resource on this topic, The Chicago Manual of Style has a hefty section dedicated to it. You can also find most of the answers to the common questions they receive in the forums on their website, part of which you can view for free if you Google “CMOS” plus the topic at hand.