Capital Punishment: When to use (and not use) capital letters

The other day I asked my nephew what the capital of France is. He replied ‘F’.

Yep, most of us know that capital letters are used for proper nouns and at the beginning of a sentence. But take a quick look at the intertubes and you’ll discover that the misuse of capital letters is now reaching epidemic proportions.

So here’s a handy capital letters checklist.

Use capital letters for:

The first letter of a sentence: It was there
Days of the week and months:  Monday, July
Personal pronoun: I
Proper names: Sarah, London, River Thames
Brand names: Microsoft, Sony
Countries: England, Australia
Languages: French, German
Job titles if the title comes before a name: Vice-President Jeff Atkins
Salutations: Dear Sir
Acronyms and abbreviations: BBC, UN
Holidays and festivals: Christmas, Easter
In titles of books and films: Confessions of a Shopaholic, Crime and Punishment
When you’re shouting: HOW HAS THIS HAPPENED?

In the US capital letters are used for every word in a heading apart from prepositions (to, over), conjunctions (and, but) and articles a and the: The Simple Power of a Killer Offer. Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself.

Capital letters should also be used in Page Titles and PPC ads.
Page Title with capital letters 


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But don’t use capital letters for:

The seasons: summer, winter
When a country appears as part of a well-known phrase: danish pastries, french windows, english muffins
Relatives: mum, dad, aunt (unless they’re my Mum, my Dad or my Aunt)
Compass points: Drive east on the A3, he lived on the north coast of France
Job titles if it comes after a name: David Cameron, the British prime minister, is due to meet with Barack Obama this afternoon

So how about online stuff? (For the record online is lower case and all one word.) Purists write Web and Internet with capital letters but web and internet are now widely used. So just pick one style and stick to it. The word website is lower case as is email. But the jury is still out on Ebooks and Enewsletters and you’ll see them written with upper and lower cases.

Agree or disagree with any of the above? Let us know in the comments.

  • Tim Jinkerson
    Posted at 14:00h, 28 June Reply

    What about having the capital as the second letter? eBook, eCommerce and so on?

    • Sarah Turner
      Posted at 14:21h, 28 June Reply

      Hey Tim
      It took a while for email, all lower case no hypen, to become standard (although The Times still uses e-mail). I imagine ebook and ecommerce will go the same way. I tend to use enewsletter now although last January (2009) I was still writing eNewsletter as you can see from this site!

  • Matt Hill
    Posted at 15:44h, 30 June Reply

    What about Earth? As in:

    “I live on planet Earth.”
    “What on Earth are you doing?”

    I’ve always been puzzled by those!

  • David Dix
    Posted at 00:14h, 20 July Reply

    Cameron is not, not ever, due to meet WITH Barack Obama. He may be due to MEET Barack Obama.
    Meet in English English is a transitive verb, which takes an object – in this case Barack Obama. The preposition “with” is not just redundant, it’s wrong. it’s ‘mercan. ‘mercans can do what they like to our language – they’ve done so much damage already a little more won’t hurt (“can i get a skinny decaff lar-tay to go??). But we should not follow them.

  • Ron
    Posted at 19:07h, 16 June Reply

    When I did a journalism diploma, I was taught not to use caps for titles. How come in some press I see some using caps before the name (as stated above) and others just keep to lower case, it’s so confusing. Some people in PR agencies I see also use caps in all job titles, even more confusing!!!

    • Sarah Turner
      Posted at 19:16h, 16 June Reply

      Yep, job titles should be lower case unless before the name – President Obama. But everybody LOVES their job titles in caps. I am fighting a losing battle on this one. So now I just ask what the client wants and I go with that. But if we’re being all properly correct job titles should be lower case.

  • Justin
    Posted at 11:04h, 21 November Reply

    I have to disagree with you about the “mum, dad, aunt” reference. Mum and dad should only carry a capital letter when you’re using those words to replace the person’s name. So:
    “I’m going to meet my dad later” but “I’m going to meet Dad later”
    And thus: “She’s my auntie” but ” That’s my Auntie Jane” yet “That’s my auntie; she’s called Jane.”

    @Matt Hill: I’ve often struggled with this but have made my peace with having a lower case ‘earth’ in the phrase “What on earth?” by reasoning that the earth referenced in the phrase could mean earth as in ‘soil’ and thus the ground. But still not happy about it

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