When do I use capital letters?

Deciding when to use capitals in your writing can be a bit of a fraught issue. Do we use capitals for people’s job titles? What about book titles?

When do I use capital letters?

There are a couple of ways to go about deciding this, but my first rule of thumb is:

UsE cAPiTalS sPArInGLy oR tHeY CaN aNnOy tHe ReAdEr.

Of course, I don’t mean that you can’t use capitals at all; you can, but current Australian usage suggests we use as few as possible. The Style manual for authors, editors and printers devotes a whole chapter to specific uses of capitals in a wide range of publications from legislation, to scientific terminology and beyond.

I don’t have the space to do that here, but I can give you five key things to think about when deciding if you should or shouldn’t use capital letters.

1. Use capital leters at the start of a sentence

A capital letter is always used at the start of a sentence. Each sentence in this blog post will start with a capital letter and end with a termination mark (question mark, full stop or exclamation mark).

Sometimes though, you may need to start a sentence with the name of a person or organisation who uses lower case letters for their name, such as the band silverchair or the American poet e.e. cummings. If that’s the case, it’s best to rearrange your sentence so you maintain that convention and don’t give the person / group an unwelcome capital letter.

If you really can’t rearrange the sentence, then use a capital letter at the start of the sentence and be prepared to argue your case should anyone question your choice of a capital there.

Using a capital is also the best option when the person’s name at the start of your sentence usually takes a lower case letter and is in another language. For example,

  • de Pompadour would become De Pompadour.

2. Use capital letters with proper nouns

Proper nouns are the names of specific people, places and organisations. They always take capital letters (unless they are exceptions, like e.e. cumings, and silverchair, above). So, you would use capitals for anyone’s given and family names, for example,

  • Genna Hildebrand
  • Valentina Palermo
  • Peter Hoffman.

Place names also start with capital letters:

  • Melbourne
  • Sydney
  • Canberra

The names of organisations and entities usually take capital letters too:

  • the Red Cross
  • Metro Trains
  • the Parliament of Victoria.

3. Use capital letters with nationalities and distinct groups of people

The names of languages, religions and nationalities also take capital letters. So, you would say:

  • Turkish
  • Baptist
  • Australian.

4. Capitals and job titles

Official titles take capital letters. So, your business card might say: ‘Sales Manager’ or ‘Receptionist’. Other examples include,

  • the Vice Chancellor
  • the Attorney-General
  • The General Manager.

That said, if you are referring to a group of people who hold the same position and not a specific person, you would use lower case letters. For example,

  • Each department manager should speak to their sales reps and receptionists about the use of capitals in the workplace.

5. Capitals and publication titles

When it comes to titles of publications, there’s a single rule and a whole lot of  personal preference.

The general rule is that the titles of books, magazines, chapters or articles always begin with a capital letter.

After that, there are two choices: minimal or maximal capitalisation.

Minimal capitalisation uses capitals only for the first word of a title and for any proper nouns.

For example,

  • The cakes of victory
  • Crystal clear: water pollution in Australia
  • Zelda’s big adventure
  • Chapter three: when the chooks came home to roost.

Maximal capitalisation uses capitals for all the words in a title except the articles, prepositions and conjunctions (they’re the little words like ‘the’, ‘of’ and ‘and’). For example,

  • The Cakes of Victory
  • Crystal Clear: Water Pollution in Australia
  • Zelda’s Big Adventure
  • Chapter Three: When the Chooks Came Home to Roost.

Use of capitals: summary

Other than for the specific examples above, you can choose whether you use maximal or minimal capitalisation.

Just remember:

  • Too many capitals sounds like you’re SHOUTING at the reader, so go easy on those big letters.
  • Current Australian usage tends towards minimal capitalisation.
  • The Style Guide has many more examples and exceptions, so if you’re interested, it’s well worth checking it out.

I’ve also created a Cheat Sheet, which you can find here.

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