The English alphabet has 26 core letters, each having an UPPERCASE (capital letter, aka majuscule) form and a lowercase (small letter, aka miniscule) form. There are, of course, many additional characters we use to extend and support the alphabet. There are diphthongs and ligatures (Æ æ, Œ œ; fi, ffl, ij ), currency and trade symbols (£, $, €, ¥ ; ™, ©, @ ), and diacritical marks for including foreign words ( ü, é, ø, ñ, ç ).

Although the grammatical use of capital letters is not strictly punctuation, it is convenient to view it in this light for explanation. The capitalisation of words is grossly overused by many who often tend to use a capital letter for every significant noun:

“The Managers had a meeting with the Board where they discussed Regional Planning and the recent Wage Case before the Commission.”

This usage (called vanity capitals) is frowned on by grammarians and is typographically unsightly. There are a number of rules for the use of capital letters that are almost universal. Here are a few:

  1. Use a capital letter for the first word of every sentence and the start of all direct speech:
    • The first letter of a sentence should always be in uppercase.
    • Is this the way out? Probably.
    • The teacher said, “Make sure you begin your sentences with a capital letter.”
    • The Captain shouted, “One more pull and then belay!”
  2. All proper nouns (i.e. names and titles used for individual persons, places, events and organisations) use a capital letter:
    • The largest metropolis in Australia is Sydney.
    • The founder of Apple Inc. was the incomparable Steve Jobs.
    • The greatest landmark in Asia is the Great Wall of China.
    • Guests include His Excellency the Governor-General, Professor Jones, Father Benedict, Dr Davies and Mrs Smith.
    • Inaugurated in 1961, President John Kennedy became the youngest person in U.S. history to hold that office. He remained president until he was assassinated in 1963. [N.B. the word president only takes a capital where it is used as a specific title.]
    • The Commonwealth Games are not as big as either the Olympic Games or the World Cup.
    Note: Many personal names of foreign origin include prepositions like da, von and de that do not take a capital: Leonardo da Vinci; Ludwig van Beethoven; Charles de Gaulle. There are some exceptions to this, like Dick Van Dyke and Daphne Du Maurier. Exceptions also exist in English where some individuals style themselves with all lowercase: the poet/playwright e.e. cummings and singer k.d. lang are prominent examples.
  3. Family titles used as part of the name or instead of it, take a capital letter:
    • Uncle George; Cousin Pete; Auntie Bess; Grandad McKay.
    • His aunt came to dinner. I wonder where your cousins are? [No capitals here as the family title is not used as part of the name.]
    • Please meet Mum and Dad. [Instead of (say): please meet George and Mildred.]
    • Will your mum be at the concert? I know my dad will be.
  4. The days of the week and months of the year always take a capital, though not the seasons:
    • Lessons begin on Monday morning, the first day of spring.
    • The next meeting will be on the second Tuesday in November.
    • In the southern hemisphere, the winter months are June, July and August.
  5. Use them for the names of languages, nationalities or ethnic groups:
    • Now a dead language, Latin was once the lingua franca of the educated.
    • Languages on the South Asian Subcontinent include Tamil, Hindi and Urdu.
    • The Basques come from northern Spain, while Lapps come from Finland.
    • Jazz had its roots in the Black American communities of the South.
    Note: the names of academic disciplines do not take capitals unless they include the name of a language – history, geography, French literature.
  6. Where a word has a literal connection to a place, use a capital:
    • We will holiday in the Tibetan mountains.
    • The Dutch businessmen drove a hard bargain.
    • We love those long Aberdonian nights in summer.
      Note: where the name is part of a fixed phrase and is simply descriptive, then the use of capitals is optional french fries, danish pastries, english muffins. Also, commonly defined geographical regions may take a capital if the region has a distinctive identity, but do not if we are referring to a more general location:
      • Middle East; Southeast Asia; the Balkans; Scandinavia.
      • South Africa, but southern Africa; Northern Australia, but western Queensland.
      • British Isles; central Europe; Iberian Peninsula; Greek islands.
      • The Milky Way, but the universe; The Antarctica, but the south pole.
  7. Titles of books, music and other works of art mostly take a capital:
    • Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was one of The Beatles’ greatest hits. [Artistic titles are best set in italics, although they can be set off in single quotes.]
    • Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the great American literary works.
    • Among the great Dutch paintings of the seventeenth century was The Courtyard of a House in Delft by Pieter de Hoocht.
      Note: there is a particular protocol for titles that is overwhelmingly common throughout the English-speaking world. The first and last words of the title take a capital along with all nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. Most of the ‘little’ words (i.e. conjunctions, prepositions and articles) only take lowercase letters. Beware, however, as some publishers use lowercase lettering for their book titles and many libraries catalogue in the same way:
      • Style manual for authors, editors and printers – Sixth edition, (John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd).
      • The Mother Tongue: English and how it got that way – Bill Bryson (Perennial).
  8. Festivals, holy days and many religious terms are capitalised:
    • Australians celebrate Labour Day and the Queen’s Birthday. [This is not the same as the Labor Party, which uses the US spelling.]
    • Prominent events in the Christian calendar include Easter, Christmas and Hallowe’en.
    • During the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast as a religious observance.
    • The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah is celebrated by families lighting candles.
    • The Last Supper took place on the night before the Crucifixion.
    • “As for God, His way is perfect; the word of the Lord is flawless. He is a shield for all who take refuge in Him.” – Psalm 18:30
      Note: For most religions, the word for God (Allah, Yahweh, Vishnu, Buddha, etc.) and any pronouns that reference Him are always capitalised – but not when referring to pagan gods:
      • The Greek goddess of wisdom was Athena.
      • Neptune was the Roman god of the sea, while Thor was the Norse god of thunder.
      • The God of the Israelites – but the god of the Ammorites.
  9. Use a capital for all historical periods:
    • The Post Roman period in Britain is often called the Dark Ages or the Early Medieval period.
    • The latter part of the Stone Age is known as the Neolithic period.
    • The Renaissance of the 14th to 16th centuries began in Florence.
    • The Hundred Years War between France and England actually lasted for 117 years, nearly 10 times longer than the Napoleonic Wars.
    • The Ming Dynasty in China was founded by the emporer Zhu Yuanzhang and is characterised by the elaborate artwork of its craftsmen.
  10. Brand names and related products usually take a capital letter:
    • Car manufacturers include Toyota, Mercedes Benz, Ford and Ferrari.
    • The Microsoft Corporation produces the well-known software packages Word and Excel.
    • Apple Inc. is noted for its Macintosh computers, the ubiquitous iPod and the revolutionary iPad. [Note that some brands and products are styled with lowercase letters: iPhone, sass & bide, eBay.]
  11. Roman numerals are usually expressed in capital letters:
    • Pope Leo XIII was the last pope of the 19th century. [For elegant typography, Roman numerals can be set in SMALL CAPS: Pope Leo XIII.]
    • Multiply XIV by XXVI. [I bet you knew the answer was CCCXXXVI.]
    • 1666 gives us the unique Roman numeral MDCLXVI. [Every Roman numeral is used once in descending order – a must-know for trivia nights!]
    Note: when Roman numerals are used to number lists, use the lowercase form: i), ii), iii), iv), etc.
  12. The first-person singular pronoun is always written as a capital letter:
    • I bet I had you wondering what a first-person singular pronoun was!
    • You can say I’m wrong, but I don’t care!
    • You know I’d mow the lawn, dear, but I’ll be late home from the office.

Back to top …