Capitalizing Words Correctly

by My Web Writers

Every writer knows how basic capitalization works. But sometimes, knowing when to cap a word is tricky! Generally speaking, the rules of using capital letters have not changed:

  • Begin all sentences with a capital letter.
  • Capitalize the pronoun “I.”
  • Capitalize proper nouns like Indiana, Mrs. Bansemer, the Red Cross, the Japanese tsunami, Microsoft Word, and Mother Nature.
  • Capitalize titles only when they come before a name such as Professor Starbuck, Mother Theresa, former Justice O’Connor, and Ambassador Jet Li.
  • Capitalize the names of organizations and brands: Major League Baseball, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Pittsburgh Penguins, Ritz crackers, Xerox paper, and Kleenex tissues.

These capitalization rules make sense. But sometimes, determining when to capitalize a word raises questions. For example, do you capitalize the “i” in Internet?

Do you capitalize “Internet”?
Yes, when you are referring to the global system of linked computer networks, you capitalize the “i” in “Internet,” but leave “internet” lowercased when you are referring to local networks that may not even be connected to the Internet. Accordingly, capitalize the World Wide Web. Note that Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Eleventh Edition) still caps “Web site,” but Microsoft has disregarded that spelling and just uses “website.” Consequently, we see a variation of spellings with “web,” like webcast, webcam, and web page (which isn’t even in the Webster’s Dictionary!).

What about capping the words for family members, like mother, father, sister, and brother? No, unless you are referring to them directly, which usually means there is not a pronoun or modifier in front of them.

  • Mother and Father will be arriving on the noon flight from Atlanta.
  • But, my mother and father are only staying two nights.

Also, capitalize the expressions “O” for “oh” and “OK” for “okay.”

Trickier yet is when you are capitalizing words in titles and headings!
For most headings and titles, always capitalize nouns, verbs, and the first and last words, no matter their length. According to the Gregg Reference Manual (Tenth Edition), you should capitalize all words with four or more letters. That includes four-lettered pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, and subordinating conjunctions (for example, Living With a Chocoholic Roommate). Also, capitalize the first word following a dash or colon in a title (Capitalizing Questions: When Are Certain Words Capped? or To Cap or Not to Cap—That Is the Question). But, you don’t need to cap the following words in headings and titles:

  • a, an, and, at
  • but, by
  • for
  • if, in
  • of, off, on, or, out
  • nor
  • the, to
  • up

Note that “not” is not on this list. For example, the word “not” is capitalized in the title of this article: “Three Reasons to Not Come to Work.” Capitalize “per” in a title; for example, “Number of Spectators Per Claim.” Also, capitalize each word in a hyphenated title, except articles, prepositions, and short conjunctions.

Some grammarians are still old school about not capping words like “with,” “that,” and “about.” Even the AP style varies from the Chicago Manual of Style. And maybe you’ve noticed how newspaper article headings and often web page headings now capitalize only the first letter in a heading and proper nouns. Is this a new rule of some kind? It’s definitely a trend, and if this is your company or client’s preferred style, then you wouldn’t cap the first letter of a word following a colon or dash, either. In fact, the APA (American Psychological Association) says that their Level 3 headings should be indented, boldfaced, with a capitalized first letter, lowercased letters for the remaining words, and to end with a period. Perhaps this new style preference is due to technology allowing writers to easily use boldface font. So be sure to check with your company or client’s style guide to make sure you have it right. For further reading, check out the following Web sites:


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